The Problem(s) with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film


The Oscars are not, and never have been, any kind of indicator of genuine quality. Well, they are, but not to the extent that they would have the rest of the world believe. It is probably true that if a film is nominated for eleven Oscars, it will be a film worth seeing, but the lack of an Oscar nomination or win does not indicate anything about the film other than the fact that it didn’t win any Oscars. In fact, a majority of the best films ever made either didn’t win the big prizes or didn’t win any prizes whatsoever.

It speaks volumes that the #1 film on the IMDb top 250, The Shawshank Redemption, didn’t win a single Oscar and the list (which is most definitely not above reproach itself) is filled to the brim with films that either lost best picture to a film of lesser or comparable quality, or were simply ignored altogether. Examples include Pulp Fiction, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Dark Knight, all of the Star Wars films, 12 Angry Men, Seven Samurai, The Matrix, City of God, Se7en, Fight Club, Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, Downfall, Amelie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Das Boot… really, I could go on forever. As was pointed out by, I think, Steven Spielberg at a recent Academy Awards ceremony, the list of films not to win the big award is arguably more illustrious than the list of winners.

This is to be expected, though. There are hundreds of films released every year and the Academy cannot be expected to get it right every time, just so long as their choice isn’t overly egregious (such as a Shakespeare in Love or Crash) I think we can afford to cut them some slack. The real problem, though, is the incredibly narrow scope of the films that they choose. All of them, aside from the silent ones, have been, on the whole, English language. Precious few have had leads who were anything other than Caucasian and even fewer have come from anywhere other than either the UK or the USA.

dolce vitaNow, what you might have noticed from the above list of great films is the number of them that were not in the English language. Films not in the English language have made up a substantial portion of the greatest films of all time. Think La Dolce Vita, think Bicycle Thieves, The Four-Hundred Blows, and Seven Samurai. It is not a stretch to say that foreign films have been some of the best ever, and foreign film-makers have made some of the best, if not the best, films ever made. Yet, they are noticeably absent from the nominations for best picture come awards season.

In fact, there have only been, in the 80-odd year history of the Academy Awards, eleven non-English language films that have been nominated for best picture. First was The Grand Illusion in 1938, then Z in 1969, followed by The Emigrants, Cries and Whispers, Il Postino, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Letters From Iwo Jima, and, at the last ceremony, Amour. It almost goes without saying that none of these films won the big prize, and none of them were in serious contention either.

It says something fairly damning about the Academy and it’s narrow minded approach to rewarding the best films that, of the hundreds of foreign language films that should have been in contention for the prize of “Best Film of the Year,” only eleven foreign language films have even been nominated. Again, none have won. It’s almost as if, when assessing which films are deserving of recognition, they limit their consideration to British, American, Australian or Canadian productions. Sure, they often dole out the minor technical awards to foreign films, but, in terms of the big prizes, if the actors aren’t speaking English, they don’t want to know.

iwo jimaThe problem in the scope of their vision is best exemplified by the nomination of Letters From Iwo Jima, which was directed by Clint Eastwood. It came out in the same year and was in nominated in the same year as two of the greatest films of the last decade (and, indeed, ever) The Lives of Others and Pan’s Labyrinth. I, for one, think Iwo Jima is one of the best war films ever made and possibly Clint Eastwood’s best film, but it is in no tangible way better than either The Lives of Others or Pan’s Labyrinth, both of which sit comfortably in the IMDb top 250 (at #85 and #116 respectively). No, the only real reason for Iwo Jima being so honoured when neither of the other two were was that it was directed by someone the Academy knew and liked. More importantly, though, it was directed by an American, so the Academy could just about stretch their imaginations wide enough to allow it in.

In order to try and recognise foreign language films, the Academy introduced the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar in 1956 after years of honorary awards being handed out to films as venerated as Bicycle Thieves and Rashomon, and other great foreign language films being nominated in other categories. Now, given their prior reluctance to recognise world cinema, this step can only be regarded as positive, but it does raise a serious problem in the classification of these awards: the entire category, by virtue of the “foreign language” caveat, can be seen as less prestigious than the main prize, which has no such limitations.

It’s almost segregationist, this setting aside as separate all films not in English. The message it sends is that these films aren’t as good as proper, English language films, so we need to put them away in the corner reserved for weird foreigners. It’s patronising and it minimises their brilliance to tuck them away like that and prevent them from competing with the rest on the same footing. The fact is that some of these films wipe the floor with anything produced in English speaking jurisdictions and to deny them the recognition they deserve by setting them aside is little more than an insult. It’s better than ignoring them altogether, but it simply strikes me as a poor remedy to the problem of the previous mentioned narrow mind-set of the Academy voters.

There are further and, arguably more egregious problems, with the practical application of the award. You see, some bright spark had the brilliant idea that each country would be limited to one submission for consideration in the category. So, instead of the voters simply watching the films, then voting for the ones they liked the best, they instead left it up to the country’s to choose for themselves.

diving bellThis creates the very obvious problem that, when several films potentially worthy of the win are produced by the same country in the same year, only one can be submitted. The most obvious example of this was in 2008, when France produced three films that deserved a place on the list of nominees. Firstly there was The Diving bell and the Butterfly, the beautifully moving, brilliantly shot biopic of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Vogue editor left trapped inside his own body after a stroke. The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director for Julian Schnabel. The next was the stirring biopic of Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose, which netted Marion Cotillard Best Actress (a rarity for a foreign language performance). The last of the films, and the one chosen, was Persepolis, a critically acclaimed animation about life in Iran at the time of the 1979 revolution.

As it was, Persepolis was passed over for the nomination and France had no nominees that year, despite putting out arguably the strongest batch of films. There are other examples, including the recent choice of Rust and Bone and The Intouchables. Both, again, were French, and neither, again, received the nomination, despite being stronger than most of the other nominees, although not, as it happened, the eventual winner, Amour. The same thing happened to Talk to Her, which won for best screenplay, and numerous other films which might not have won, but should have been given the chance. Another prominent example, perhaps amongst the most glaring of omissions, is Das Boot, which was nominated for six other awards, but not best foreign language films. I don’t know why it wasn’t submitted, but it just wasn’t. I have no problem with the idea of submissions, as they bring specific attention to films that might otherwise be passed over, but to, one, insist upon submission and, two, limit a film-making powerhouse like France to the same numbers afforded to a minor film-making nation like Azerbaijan (no offence to Azerbaijanis) is simply ridiculous.

ranThe second problem this throws up is that the selection process is not always based on the artistic merits of the film, but is rather open to influence by political considerations. The most obvious example of this is the famously snubbed-for-no-good-reason Japanese epic from master-director Akira Kurosawa, Ran. Kurosawa, the by the time of the film’s 1985 release, was in his 70s, had terrible eyesight (the film was only completed using his storyboard paintings, done years previously) and his wife had died during production of the film, so he understandably skipped the premiere. This pissed off the Japanese film industry (it was by far the most expensive Japanese production at the time), so they chose not to submit the film, which would have been a shoe-in. It was only a campaign organised by Sidney Lumet that got Kurosawa a director nomination (the only of his long a brilliant career, another indictment of the Academy’s treatment of foreign films).

The next problem with the way the system has been implemented is the person, or lack thereof, to whom the award is given. Technically speaking the award for Best Foreign Language film is given to the country of origin. The director only collects it on the behalf of that country. So, Federico Fellini never won an Oscar, despite his films winning the award four times, and neither have any number of great directors whose films have won the award (such as Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, the previously mentioned Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio de Sica, Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck, and Michael Haneke.)

This seems incredibly unfair to me. At the very least it should got to the producers, like the Best Picture Oscar. As it is, however, I feel that it should go to the director, like the Oscar for Best Animated Film (about which a whole other article could be written). Even if it went to the producer, it would fit with the general ethos of the awards that plaudits should go to people and not larger bodies. This is why the award for best picture stopped going to the studio and instead started being given to the people responsible for the work.

If there’s one thing to be taken away from this essay, it’s that the Academy need to stop seeing foreign language films as secondary to English language films. As it is, they’re treated like a footnote, an extra tacked on to bestow some cursory congratulation for the best in world cinema. The same could be said of animation (as I hinted earlier), which is similarly condescended to with the Best Animated Feature award despite numerous winners of that prize (like Spirited Away, Up and Wall-E) being, quite simply, the best theatrical release of their respective years. In short, these categories are symptomatic of the general arrogance and narrow-mindedness of the Academy, and, were they not the only currently viable way of recognising such works, I would suggest that they should be done away with.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. This category is almost impossible to predict and there are too many entires that are lost because of the other categories being dominated by US/UK productions. Very honest discussing that everyone should read.

  2. Noel Dunnington

    I can understand that Americans are sore about having some of their favourite genres of film done far better by foreign filmmakers. But good and mature filmmakers also take on board what others have done better than they and try to improve their work. Cinema as both an art form and a business could do with far more Paul Verhoevens and Guillermo Del Toros than Paul Andersons or Stephen Sommerses. A good hard look at the catalogues of these directors makes it patently obvious to anyone with a brain why.

  3. Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman, Ozu, Fassbinder, Ray… what else is there to say.

  4. Buffalo

    As a Swede, almost every movie is foreign, even if I don’t need subtitles to appreciate movies in English (funny thing is that I sometimes read them anyway).

    The first thing I’ll like to say might provoke some Americans but read on to the end and you will perfectly understand what I mean.

    Of course most foreign language movies are better than the AVERAGE American ones. Why? Because only the VERY best foreign movies will be released in the US. But if you compare those with the best American movies, there is really no difference, of course. In my Top 20 of all time, eleven (11) are American movies, so this speaks for itself.

    It’s the other way around in Sweden, of course. So out of approx 75 Swedish movies, maybe only one (1) will be released in the US, so of course that one is really good.

    Anyway, you raise a very good point and I hope that the academy will listen and embrace a better diversity in their list of nominated movies.

  5. Adam Che

    Academy, or not academy, I would argue that us, the people have more power in this than we give ourselves credit for. Some might say that only the truly great foreign films will ever find huge crossover appeal and that most other foreign fare will be mediocre drivel, much like domestic films. True and not true. True that you will likely only ever hear about the good films from other countries, because those are going to be the ones that people will recommend via word of mouth. But also not true! Most foreign films that get domestic releases in America specifically pander to the desire to see exoticism. Did you know “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was not at all a successful film in China? Because the Chinese have seen plenty of films just like it already. Contrast this with a more recent blockbuster, “If You Are the One” a romantic comedy about a 40-some year old man who goes on blind dates. Very modern, very metropolitan, very pop culture oriented. Hardly the exoticism that most people expect to see from a Chinese film. And also a very good film, might I add. It is time that we, the consumers, start to explore foreign titles beyond what that we can find in Netflix. In a time and age where we can easily download fan made subtitles, no one should complain.

  6. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani

    Fascinating article that raises some interesting and crucial points. As someone who enjoys foreign language films, I definitely think they deserve more credit and attention than they currently get. Your argument is persuasive, convincing and most of all, important.

  7. Will, it could be worse. The general public could be voting for films like Pirates of the Caribbean for best picture. But, yeah the Oscar situation is a problem that won’t go away anytime soon. I also feel that animated features get frequently snubbed alongside foreign films.

  8. It says a lot to the Oscars’ credit that it’s as internationally inclusive as it is for a national awards ceremony, as opposed to most that restrict it to rewarding films from their own country. It was made in Hollywood and intended for Hollywood films, exclusively for films released theatrically in the US, not a “best in the world” award. And of course not every film you love is going to find attention, nor will you love every film showered with Oscars, but that’s just part and parcel of the evaluative process. Oscar wins or nominations don’t make any particular film or performance or technical achievement better or worse than any other, and if your taste is especially one that’s far removed from the middlebrow consensus the Academy tends to lean towards (though still decidedly more obscure and cultured than that of mainstream audience sensibilities), there’s no reason to expect or be disappointing by the lack of alignment with your preferences.

    It would be cool if films like Tabu and Holy Motors could find the same attention and fanbases that stuff like Argo or Silver Linings Playbook did last year, but all thing’s considered it’s pretty cool that Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour have demonstrated some open-mindedness and inspiration in being open to the same possibilities.

  9. I agree with your argument for foreign films, however I can’t get on board with your brief paragraph about the IMDB Top 250. The Academy Awards are supposed to be decided by a discerning industry professional (thats the idea anyway) rather than teenagers on their mothers computer (basically what the IMDB 250 is). Some terrible films have very high scores on IMDB, it’s probably the worst site to use for film ‘reviews’.

    • While its true that some bad films are in the top 250, I’d say that most are worthy of their high rating. A high position doesn’t equal a good film, but it’s a good general barometer for any film not prone to fanboy-ism.

  10. Lloyd Tarvin

    Well, the Academy is largely American and almost entirely speaks English as their first language if not entirely so of course they will be focused on more domestic films. Plus, America is the 2nd most prolific country in movie making (behind India, but Bollywood isn’t exactly known for having a large amount of high quality thought provoking works) so it only makes sense it will be skewed towards American films. Also, a lot of foreign films that don’t have some performance or better known director in its favor go largely unnoticed and then we realize a while later how great the movie was.

    • Skewed,yes, but of the hundreds of best picture nominees down the years, only eleven have been in a language other than English. That’s more than just a skew.

  11. When reading this article the movie in my mind is the Hong Kong film “The Infernal Affairs” (2002). Hollywood adapted it into “The Departed” (2006), which won four Oscars, but this adapted, American version of the film is much worse than the original one. The original one did not even get a nomination in the Foreign Film category.

  12. Ultimately, the Academy is an American institution, so of course they’re going to value American work above foreign offerings. That said, the idea that a year’s worth of foreign films can somehow be adequately represented/condensed down to 5 nominations is a joke.

  13. Fascinating article, and Buffalo raises a really interesting point in the comments. I hope that with the rise of online sharing and the subsequent possibility of films that have been largely ignored by the Academy gaining a growing and devoted following elsewhere, the Oscars themselves are becoming less important to film audiences when it comes to foreign language films.

  14. Jessica Koroll

    I often find myself not giving a lot of consideration to the academy’s decisions specifically for the reasons that you listed at the beginning of your article. For this reason, I wasn’t actually aware of how the foreign film category selected its films. This was a very eye opening article and I think you did well to give this issue some attention.

  15. Susan Florence

    Nine non-English speaking films were nominated for best picture. 4 won.

  16. Dangles

    I recently asked a forum if the Academy’s treatment of non-English films was xenophobic and I thought his response was pretty good:

    “I know very little about the Oscars awarding process, so does “Best Picture” necessarily have to be an American / English speaking production? If so then yes this is quite clearly xenophobic. Or rather, if so then the xenophobia is institutionalised. If for example, foreign films were technically allowed to be considered for “Best Picture” but in reality hardly ever were, then the xenophobia would be less institutionalised, but still present. Either way the outcome is much the same. Saying “but it’s an Anglo centric awards ceremony” is just playing with semantics. No, the KKK don’t hate black people, they just prefer whites. To say that an awards show should only consider English speaking films for the title of “Best Picture” (as opposed to “Best American Picture” or “Best Picture in the English Language”), simply because said awards show is made by and for English speaking people, is actually in itself a xenophobic statement. It’s an attitude which is unfortunately common all over the English speaking world.

    In Spain they have the Goya awards, which is an awards show specifically for Spanish films. As you can imagine, it usually ends up being the same 5 movies being nominated for everything and the same people getting on and off the stage the whole time, and so it’s even more boring than the Oscars. At least with this system though it is accepted that the “Best Picture” category is only the “Best Picture (made in Spain)”. To include foreign films in their own category, but then reserve “Best Picture (in the world)” for only a Spanish production would obviously, rightly be considered xenophobic, as it should be anywhere else”.

  17. Donna Cianciosi

    I still don’t understand how Das Boot wasn’t nominated for Best Film, let alone Best International Film. But you are correct in this ridiculous rule to limit powerful European industries such as Germany, France and Italy to one film.

  18. Hitchcock, to your point, had an uphill climb getting anywhere with the Academy. Of his substantive body of work, only one won best picture (Rebecca, one of his lesser works), and he never won best director.

  19. The same arguments could be applied to music or literary awards. It is no news that Western ideology and appreciation standards rule these things.

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