Will a foreign-language film ever win an Oscar for best picture? The odds looked a bit more favorable when, in 2009, the Academy opted to increase its top category to 10 nominees — a tactic that was clearly aimed at better accommodating the Christopher Nolan movies of the world, but also one that, some of us dared to hope, might have the happy side effect of allowing a subtitled offering to slip into the running.
Since that overhaul (during which the Academy has gone from 10 best picture nominees to a more flexible “between five and 10”), exactly one offshore production, Michael Haneke’s French-language “Amour,” has benefited from the expansion. Progress of a sort, perhaps, especially considering that before “Amour,” the Academy had seen fit to nominate only eight such films for its top prize (roughly one per decade).
Yet it’s still disappointingly paltry, given the rich bounty of first-rate imports we’ve seen in the past few years: I’m thinking mainly, though not exclusively, of Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” and “Poetry,” Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love,” Claire Denis’ “White Material” and “35 Shots of Rum,” Marco Bellocchio’s “Vincere,” Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” the Dardenne brothers’ “The Kid With a Bike,” Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”
I’m aware I’ve just rattled off a list of movies that far too many Academy members could scarcely be bothered to sit through, let alone vote for. I’m also aware that for critics to expect voters to adopt a more adventurous, less U.S.-centric approach to film appreciation has been, and perhaps always will be, a futile endeavor — especially in the context of an awards race that exists to glorify and profit from the American movie industry, and thus has a vested interest in confining its choices to the popular, the accessible and the familiar.
No such mandate, of course, binds the critics’ groups that hand out awards at year’s end. The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. has been especially favorable to foreign fare in recent years, handing its top prize to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Letters From Iwo Jima” (a U.S. production filmed in Japanese) and “Amour.” The New York Film Critics Circle has had four such winners to its name — “Z,” “Cries and Whispers,” “Day for Night” and “Amarcord” — though in the past 40 years it’s honored strictly English-lingo fare.
And no organization has a better track record in this department than the National Society of Film Critics, which has bestowed its top honor on no fewer than 12 imports in its nearly 50-year existence: “Persona,” “Shame,” “Z,” “Claire’s Knee,” “Day for Night,” “Scenes From a Marriage,” “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” “Ran,” “Yi yi,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Waltz With Bashir” and “Amour.” (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the L.A. and national groups.)
All this is meant to be diagnostic rather than prescriptive. Upping the number of nominees is one thing, but without any clear (which is to say, commercial) incentives to diversify its lineup, Oscar voters will likely retain their tunnel vision in a category that might as well be called “best English-language live-action narrative feature” rather than “best picture.”
Still, in the spirit of year-end optimism, wouldn’t it be grand if the Academy looked past its reflexive xenophobia and tossed a best picture nomination in the direction of the Dardennes’ “Two Days, One Night,” Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep,” Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan,” Anthony Chen’s “Ilo Ilo” or Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are the Best!” — all of which can easily stand alongside this year’s finest studio and specialty-division offerings. I’d throw in a mention for Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language,” but the Academy might have to go up to 30 nominees for that to come to pass.