Foreign Films Surge With Oscar Interest

Slowly but surely, the Oscars are starting to reflect the best in international film, rather than simply celebrating the most impressive achievements in American (and occasionally English, Irish and Australian) production. 

That’s a good thing for world cinema — to be recognized at last by the historically Hollywood-centric awards show — but a tricky transition, as the Academy reinvents what the Oscars represent. 

For the past 50 years, the org  has largely relegated non-English-language cinematic achievements to the “international feature” corner.

But a recent push by Academy leadership to expand its membership in every conceivable direction — seeking diversity at home, gender parity where possible and greater representation of industry talent around the globe — has significantly boosted international participation. Today, roughly 20% of the organization’s nearly 10,000 members live abroad. 

These overseas members are the new wild card in the voting process, embracing achievements that are no more “foreign” to them — as non-English films were once labeled — than your average Hollywood film. Just look at the admirable showing for India among this year’s nominations: The country’s Oscar-qualified official submission, “The Last Film Show” (a charming, “Cinema Paradiso”-esque homage to cinema), didn’t make the cut after being included in the shortlist, but popular hit “RRR” earned a song nom (for “Naatu Naatu”), Sundance-winning “All That Breathes” will compete for doc feature and “The Elephant Whisperers” is up for doc short.

Turn the clock back to the 1950s and ’60s, and international films were regularly represented at the Oscars — and not limited to the newly created “foreign-language film” category either. During that two-decade span, 31 non-English-language scripts were nominated, and in 1969, Costa-Gavras’ “Z” cracked the best picture race. 

But the Oscars grew more insular again in the 1980s, favoring English-language epics including
“Amadeus” and “The Last Emp-eror” to “Ran.” A few years later, art-house heavyweight Miramax successfully managed to campaign movies such as “Il Postino” and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Red” beyond the foreign-language race.

The game-changer arrived nearly two decades before “Parasite” in the form of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a box-office sensation that earned noms in 10 categories, including best picture. Still, until “Parasite,” such noms rarely translated into wins — as if the Academy were giving foreign films a place at the table, but never the prize.

This year, “All Quiet on the Western Front” became the 12th non-English, non-American film to land a best picture nomination (not counting U.S.-originating productions such as “Babel,” “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Minari”). The primarily German-made Netflix release outperformed the company’s aggressive push for Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Spanish-language “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.” 

“Bardo” earned just one nom, for cinematography, whereas “All Quiet” scored nine, ranging from production design to adapted screenplay. Clearly, the Academy sees the film’s technical merits on par with Hollywood movies. But that doesn’t make the Oscars a proper international prize.

From Italy to Israel to Japan, nearly every other country’s film industry limits their awards to domestic contenders, whereas AMPAS requires only a U.S. theatrical run to qualify. Non-American films have always been welcome in the best picture race (few think of “The Artist” as a French movie, but it was), and it’s worth observing that no fewer than 50 of the 301 films that qualified for best picture in 2022 were made in languages other than English.

“Slumdog Millionaire” (nearly a third of which was in Hindi), “Parasite” (a South Korean thriller) and “CODA” (a remake of a French film performed largely in American Sign Language) suggest the unwritten prerequisite that it be in English has dissolved. By giving the appearance of being open to all films — and nominating international talents on occasion — the Academy positions itself as a global awards show, despite its America-centric, English-language bias. The odds may be stacked in Hollywood’s favor, but it’s encouraging to see international films represented beyond that one imperfect category. And it can’t hurt with ratings, letting other countries think they stand a chance. 

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