Despite best picture expansion, none is non-English

Cynics say the Academy’s decision to add five best picture slots to the Oscar ballot was all about ratings, and while it’s encouraging to see such populist choices as “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “District 9″ and “Up” receiving recognition, the ballot still manages to snub the vast majority of the filmmaking world.

Yes, Hollywood produces more than its share of fine films (as do its English-speaking cohorts in the U.K., Ireland and Australia), but to honor these to the exclusion of anything with subtitles seems absurd.

Where in this lineup is German-language Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The White Ribbon”? Or what about “Summer Hours,” which earned top 2009 foreign-language honors from both the Los Angeles and New York film critics (coming in second only to “The Hurt Locker” in the Village Voice’s annual pundit poll)? Shouldn’t the Academy have at least considered Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman,” which landed just four slots behind “The Hurt Locker” on Film Comment’s recent best of the decade list?

It’s easy to explain the snubs by saying that these films didn’t have enough exposure, but it’s harder to know what to do about it (assuming the Academy has the will to take on the chore). In any case, with double the slots now available, it seems more of a crime than ever that the nominations don’t stem from a comprehensive review of all worthy contenders.

Overseas oversights are nothing new. In its 82-year history, the Acad has nominated only eight foreign-language films for best pic (including one, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” directed by local favorite Clint Eastwood). So, what will it take for the Oscars to become a truly global best picture race?

Opening the marquee category made room for an animated film, which shows progress of one kind (“Up” is only the second toon to earn that honor, after 1991′s “Beauty and the Beast”). But a closer look at “Up’s” campaign claim of being “the best-reviewed film of the year” reveals even more exceptional foreign films overlooked by Oscar: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s tender “Still Walking” and Roy Andersson’s enigmatic “You, the Living” both outscored “Up” on Rotten Tomatoes, while “35 Shots of Rum” and “Tulpan” bested the beloved Pixar entry on Metacritic.

Granted, critics and the Academy don’t necessarily agree (even critics and critics don’t always line up, as demonstrated by the Broadcast Film Critics’ equally Anglo-centric best picture ballot). And many voters must think having a foreign-language category covers their obligations in that department, the way documentaries and animation have traditionally been kept in their respective corners.

But the real reason probably has more to do with the challenging market for foreign films in this country. After all, when a phenomenon such as “Life Is Beautiful” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” comes along, the Academy seems to have nothing against subtitles (in the case of 1972′s “The Emigrants,” it nominated an English-dubbed version). But how can it be expected to get behind movies Acad members haven’t even seen? Sony Pictures Classics gave “The White Ribbon” a limited release, starting Dec. 30, and IFC’s summer run for “Summer Hours” did a mere fraction of the business that propelled Miramax’s “Il postino” into the best picture conversation back in 1996.

Then there’s the question of campaigns. Buying ads, hosting screenings and sending out DVDs all cost money, and not since the heyday of Weinstein-era Miramax marketing has any distributor spent enough to realistically put such specialty titles in the race.

Ideally, we will see more non-English-lingo films nominated in the future. Working with just five slots, the director’s category has granted no fewer than 28 nominations to foreign-language helmers, recognizing such legends as Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Kieslowski and Almodovar. Had there been 10 best picture slots in any of those years, it seems safe to assume these auteurs’ films would have also made the cut.

So maybe it’s just a little premature to judge. Looking at 2009′s foreign-language category, only “The White Ribbon” was even eligible for the best picture (the other four haven’t opened yet), and in keeping with director Michael Haneke’s style, “Ribbon” is just the sort of austere art film that engenders appreciation more than passionate support. If the Acad members had the good sense to give one of its 10 best picture slots to Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” back in 1938, it seems fair to assume they recognize a quality foreign film when they see it. The trick remains getting them to see it in the first place.

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