With a record-breaking 93 submissions, two controversial disqualifications (auf wiedersehn, Austria and… well, goodbye, Nigeria) and a well-meant but mealy-mouthed, cosmetic name change, the torturous process of finding 2019’s best international film at the 92nd Oscar ceremony is off to an even more confusing start than usual. Commentators dub Academy Awards campaigns “races” — if so, international film (formerly best foreign language film) is a nearly 100-strong Grand National in which half the horses seem to be facing the wrong way, two or three have an early advantage so marked one must suspect steroids, and a couple turn out, on closer inspection, to be zebras. Forever the object of eyerolls from observers attuned to the arbitrary oddness of the selection procedure, even before we get down to the shortlist of nine, then the five nominees, and finally the single winner, it is truly the messiest, and therefore most fascinating, of Oscar categories.
It almost prompts the question “why bother?” But imperfect though the system is, the potential payout makes the chance worth taking, even if it feels more like a crap shoot than a genuine contest. Sonja Heinen, managing director of European Film Promotion (EFP), a network representing film institutes from 37 European countries, calls the Oscars “still one of the important marketing tools… The short list already helps tremendously to sell films internationally and a nomination makes worldwide distribution deals more or less a safe bet.” An actual win, she goes on to say, “helps with the national markets, since many distributors release the [winning] films again.” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey agrees: “The international film oscar has long been a significant and strange lever for festivals and distributors. It’s significant because festivals want to launch the films that score nominations and wins, and distributors often buy international films for the box office bump an Oscar win brings. But,” he qualifies, “it’s still a strange way to make sense of the dozens of first rate ‘international’ films that never get Oscar love. Where’s Edward Yang’s Oscar?”
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The unevenness of the playing field is evident from the outset, with countries that differ vastly in the size of their film industries all given just one bite at the cherry. France, with a relatively thriving national industry (and the best track record in terms of international film Oscar nominations) is always spoiled for choice. So a hotly buzzed title like Céline Sciamma’s wonderful Cannes Queer Palm and best screenplay-winning “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” can cede the French slot to Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables,” and though one’s personal preference might be for the reverse, it’s hard to make the case that the selection of Ly’s provocative and topical film over Sciamma’s exquisite period romance was made in bad faith [Gallic shrug].
Similarly, it’s sort of nonsense that any long list of the year’s best international titles can not feature Nadav Lapid’s electrifying Berlin Golden Bear-winning “Synonyms” — for a category predicated on nationality and language, a film so deeply involved with both should by rights be the poster child. But brilliant as it is, you can understand Israeli selectors balking — and, given their eventual choice of “Incitement,” a dark portrait of political radicalization, not necessarily because they are controversy-shy. More than being a victim of its ambivalence toward Israeli identity, “Synonyms” may simply have been regarded as too challenging, too elliptical, too “arty” for a category in which handsomely mounted, historically inclined/socially aware straight-up dramas tend to hold sway.
There are a few nations that march to their own drummer. China’s selection of hugely successful animated fantasy “Ne Zha” certainly does not kowtow to any accepted wisdom about this category. Reminiscent of their 2017 choice of blockbuster sequel “Wolf Warrior 2” — still the Middle Kingdom’s all-time ka-ching-er — it feels more like a flex about box office clout than a realistic Oscar hopeful. Genre moneymakers on this scale never feature in the final lineup, and there has never been a single nomination for an animated feature. It’s especially puzzling, given that the critically adored, Berlin double-silver-winning “So Long My Son,” a superb historical drama about the cruel legacy of the one-child policy, looks like sheer Academy catnip, and could’ve had a real chance of landing China’s first nomination since 2002’s “Hero.”
China gonna China. But for most of the rest of the world, it’s not just the peccadillos of the submitting countries that define the decision-making process. There is also self-censorship at work as the selectors factor in their impressions of Academy politics too, and thus sometimes perhaps sacrifice the best film for the film with the best chance. If the movie is to survive the mysterious lottery that whittles 93 down to 9/5/1, it perhaps pays to be Academy-friendly, i.e. a little risk-averse.
Italy’s choice of Marco Bellocchio’s undeniably entertaining ’80s-set mafia biopic “The Traitor” over Pietro Marcello’s more formally daring, cinematically intoxicating “Martin Eden” is perhaps another example of a national committee choosing the familiar over the adventurous. And who’s to say such pragmatism won’t pay off? By contrast, world cinema titans Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne might have been handily expected to represent Belgium for the fifth time with “Young Ahmed,” which, though tepidly received in Cannes, did net the two-time Palme d’Or winners the best director prize. The Belgian selectors’ decision to instead put forward Camera d’Or-winning “Our Mothers,” which not only has no well-known names behind it, but feels distinctly un-Belgian, being set in Guatemala with dialogue in Spanish, is the sort of noble risk that is rarely rewarded in this category.
But that might be shifting. Since 2006, eligibility has no longer been contingent on the dialogue being in one of the submitting nation’s official languages. That revision has made itself felt recently, culminating in 2019’s longlist which includes the aforementioned Belgian/Guatemalan entry, as well as Luxembourg offering up “Tel Aviv on Fire” with dialogue in Hebrew and Arabic, and Sweden submitting “And Then We Danced,” which is in Georgian and set in Georgia. It is a minor but optimistic reflection of how, in a more connected world, cinema is interacting across national borders, becoming a bigger, more fluid and more complex entity than before.
It’s a shift that Heinan has noticed: “Quite frankly, the competition [for European titles in a category that the region traditionally dominates] is getting bigger and bigger, and this opening up to world cinema is probably long overdue.” But then, the past few years have also seen an uptick in the number of European (and other non-English-language) titles receiving nominations in categories outside international film. “We’ve seen an increase of European films in other Oscar categories that is simply wonderful,” says Heinan, namechecking “Cold War” and “Never Look Away” as European examples. But of course, Mexico’s “Roma” performed very strongly outside the international film silo last year, while several of this year’s early category frontrunners are also being talked up as contenders in the wider Oscar ecosystem. South Korea’s “Parasite” is being touted for possible director, screenplay or even best picture nods, while Spain’s “Pain and Glory” is likely to land star Antonio Banderas in the best actor conversation.
Macedonia’s stunning submission “Honeyland” could parlay its Sundance raves into a feature documentary slot, where it might well meet up with the wrenching Aleppo-set “For Sama.” The latter might have been a more inspired choice for the U.K.’s international submission than the solid but predictable “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” but then again, perhaps a foolhardy one, given that only one documentary has ever scored an international film nod (Cambodia’s “The Missing Picture” in 2013). And perhaps aware of the category’s aversion to animation, the offbeat delight “I Lost My Body” did not even campaign to be France’s Oscar submission, preferring instead to take a clear run at the animated feature category.
Films of non-U.S. provenance infiltrating categories other than international film can only be a good thing, if the Academy Awards want to retain their global prestige in an ever more global world. But as this happens more frequently, what happens to the best international film category? Does it gradually lose relevance until it’s just a vestigial remnant of a distant, more rigidly delineated past? Maybe, but for the time being, and certainly for the next three months (roughly a decade in Oscar campaign years) as it raises the profile and the bottom line of the lucky few, the haphazard international film Oscar remains, to echo Bailey’s choice adjectives, strange but undeniably significant.