Oscars: Why Not World’s Best Picture?

la-strada-everett-collection
Everett Collection

When the Oscars modified the best picture category in 2009 and instituted an annual list of up to 10 nominees, the intention may have been to ensure that critically acclaimed blockbusters like the Oscar-overlooked “The Dark Knight” would bulk up the viewing audiences for the telecast. It may have helped the blockbuster “Avatar” make the cut that year, but in the following years it appears to have boosted the fortunes of smaller films such as “Winter’s Bone” and, even more excitingly, foreign-language films like “Amour.”

The marginalization of foreign-language cinema in the best picture category is one of Oscar’s unspoken shortcomings: It’s like the so-called World Series in baseball. The truth is, with very few exceptions, only American teams play the Oscar game. Key exception: “The Artist” became the first foreign film to win best picture. So it can happen here. Just not 98% of the time.

Over the decades, no matter how monumental the contributions of foreign-language directors who changed the vocabulary of cinema, helmers like Fellini, Resnais, Bergman, Godard, et al. were lucky to get their foreign-language film recognitions and the occasional writing or directing nod.

One of the films most often cited on the “how did that win best picture?” lists is Michael Anderson’s 1956 epic “Around the World in 80 Days,” a picture clearly higher on the “sciences” side of the Academy than the “arts” side. Meanwhile, over in Europe, monumental talents were cooking up revolutionary films that broke ground and entertained audiences at the same time, and they weren’t anywhere near the race. None of those films are more famous than Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” of the same year (pictured), which did benefit from the Academy rules change that had recently added a category for foreign-language film and which Fellini’s masterpiece handily won.

Still, Fellini couldn’t edge past one of King Vidor’s lesser efforts, “War and Peace,” to grab a director nom and wound up losing, ironically, to one of the rare foreign-language films to win the screenplay Oscar, Albert Lamorisse’s “The Red Balloon,” which was perhaps the foreign-lingo world’s equivalent of “Around the World.”

And there’s the Oscar lesson, proven year after year: You might win with a dark vision, but in general, keep it light and keep it in English.

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  1. Praetor says:

    The oscars don’t celebrate world cinema, they celebrate American cinema, foreign movies are just occasional guests.

    If it was really the “world championship” of movies, there probablt wouldn’t be a lot of American nominees, probably none in the acting acting categories.

  2. Completely agree with you here Steven. La Strada is one of my all time favourites. Interestingly King Vidor’s War & Peace was on TV over the holidays and whilst I found it entertaining and enjoyable it certainly doesn’t compare to La Strada in terms of artistry. It lacks that burning anguish of humanity that was captured so magnificently in La Strada and that actually imbues Tolstoy’s novel.

    That is not to say Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and the like didn’t perform well in their roles, or that King Vidor directed the film poorly, far from it, it was outstanding technically, the sheer scale of the battles was spectacular, the contrast between the lavish opulence in the beginning and the end after the ravages of war worked well.

    Fellini was able to draw something special out from his ensemble; Anthony Quinn and most notably Giulietta Masina, that magically ethereal quality that lends itself to no age but makes a film timeless in the emotional response it triggers from the audience. There’s something about that odd little woman with the clown face and the brutish strongman that resonates with us. In that way La Strada and Tolstoy’s novel of War & Peace would be perhaps a better comparison than King Vidor’s film.

    I’ve long noted that winning an Oscar for Best Picture doesn’t necessarily make it the BEST film…

  3. It is alright this way; even though La Strada is one of the greatest films around – I was grief-stricken with its ending scene

  4. Sam says:

    There are too many films that get passed over already

  5. Because then enough American studio movies wouldn’t win and they’d lose more promotional value, which is the point of the Oscars. Plus, too many people b*tch about subtitles.

  6. Andrew C. says:

    The big movies and its directors don’t need an Oscar for the worlds best picture

    they’re simply best for their contribution to world cinema.

  7. Dmknyc says:

    Now that live events are prized by advertisers because of the social media factor, they should change it back to 5. I don’t think the films sneaking in are making a difference. Beasts, Amour, A Serious Man, Extremely Loud…not exactly getting the kids to watch or setting the box office on fire are they

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  9. Ken from Toronto says:

    In order to appease all the ticked off viewers who saw THE DARK KNIGHT’s omission from the Best Pic list an egregious oversight, the Academy (questionably, I think) then expanded the final field from 5 flicks to up to 10…which means such undeserving noms for THE BLIND SIDE and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD to name 2. The shortlist is supposed to represent the BEST of the best; the Academy has cheapened itself by trying to be all things to all viewers. And one more thing: Michael Todd’s AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS remains a wonderful, droll, exciting extravaganza; it clearly was the BEST picture back in 1956. Thank You.

    • Tom says:

      “Around the World in 80 Days” has an undeservedly bad reputation nowadays – it’s a very fun film. But there were still a good 20-30 better films made in 1956 (and that’s just based on what I’ve seen) – both within the American studio system and around the world.

    • Smooth says:

      Opinion, thankfully everyone has one.

    • pretto says:

      Don’t kid yourself. The Blind Side and Beasts would still have been nominated in a five-film -field. Sad but true. Unworthy nominees have always made the list of five. At least under the new rules, there are fewer egregious examples of great films being left out of the race.

  10. Paul Lane says:

    Jealousy. Or Seven Samurai and Empire Strikes Back would each have 1 for BP.

  11. cadavra says:

    And THE ARTIST wasn’t really a foreign film in many people’s minds, given that it was filmed and set in Hollywood, had a mostly American cast, and was (so to speak) in English.

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