The OTHER Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film

The Other Oscars Best Foreign Language Film

While the nominees (and perceived snubs) in acting and directing will get the most digital ink in Academy Awards coverage, we at CraveOnline would like your attention for some of the “smaller” categories. Funny enough, our selected categories to comb through have had the most rule changes, the most committees, and nowadays, the most tweets of “who was that dude with the hair?” and “who was that homeless girl?”

The Other Oscars – The First Category: Best Foreign Language Film

You keep hearing that the film world is changing. Overseas box office potential alone can greenlight a film (looking at you Pacific Rim and Pacific Rim 2). However, like all things commercial and manufactured, many times, it doesn’t take just one country to make a movie anymore.

On the first “Other Oscars” entry we’re going to look at the history of the Best Foreign-Language Film, it’s current ideation and possible proposed changes.

Firstly, although you see and listen to the speech of the director accepting the award for Best Foreign Language film, technically it’s never been the director that wins. It’s the country. So, while you saw Michael Haneke accept an award for Amour last year, it’s actually a film committee in Austria that received it. Best Foreign Language Film is ultimately like the national medals chart of the Olympics, except the individual Olympians get to keep their medal.

This category has been as such since 1947, so technically Italy has won the most foreign-language Oscars (but if you are an auteur idolizer, Federico Fellini has directed the most foreign film winners, with four; he’s followed close behind by Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman with three competitive wins and tied by another Italian, Vittoro de Sica, if the initial special mentions are taken into account).

However from 1947 to 1955, Best Foreign Language Film was a singular mention award of merit and, contrary to how we like our nations pitted against each other, it was not a competitive duel. 1953 was the only year where no mention of foreign merit was awarded! Which, in retrospect, is a little nuts, as two of the most heralded French and Japanese films of all time were released in 1953 – Wages of Fear and Tokyo Story.

In 1956 the award shifted to how we now know it: five films in competition, voted on by the Academy. However, here are some ways in which the nomination and voting process is different from the non-foreign categories; it’s a strict maze of rules that Vincent Maraval, founder of French distributor The Wild Bunch, described as being “unique, specific and make no sense whatsoever”:

  • The film doesn’t have to have a US distribution in that calendar year. Two of the films nominated this year, Omar and The Missing Picture, have not been released in North America yet. However, …

  • Films have to be released within their native country prior to September 30. Which is why the most discussed and seen (in the USA) foreign-language film of this year, Blue is the Warmest Color, wasn’t eligible for submission from France. Although it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013, it wasn’t released in France until October 9, 2013. All categories for American-produced films have a native theater-screening deadline of December 31. So while the actresses, director/screenwriter for that film were all eligible this year for other awards, the film was not (and could be submitted next year).

  • 30 people determine the final nominees. Each country, usually via a national film center, or national agencies (such as The Film Federation of India, Bulgaria’s National Film Center, etc) submits one film to represent their country. This year a record 76 countries submitted a film. These films are screened to a few hundred Los Angeles Academy members, who then, through voting, whittle down their favorite films to six. Then, an executive committee rescues three films to make a nine-film shortlist. Those nine films are reduced to five nominations over a week of screenings for only 30 pre-selected Academy members to vote on.


And that process is how a critical darling, but nasty little film like 2010’s Dogtooth can get to the final ballot, while the larger categories are a little less adventuresome.

  • As of 2006, the submitted film doesn’t have to be in the native language of the submitted country. This is how last year’s winner Amour won for Austria; despite being shot in France, in the French language and largely made by a French crew, director Michael Haneke being from Austria and having an Austrian producer and film editor made it just Austrian enough for submission.

  • However, the artistic control of a countries’ makers is closely monitored: In the history of the award, an overseeing body has ruled out two films (Taiwan’s Lust, Caution and Uruguay’s A Place in the World) a nomination after deeming that the submitting country was not involved enough in the artistry of the film.

  • Once nominated, an Academy member can only vote if they’ve seen all five nominated films. Somehow, this isn’t a requirement of all categories.

Once again, though, there are ideas for changes. As the Academy makes additional rules to save a film like Dogtooth, and thereby giving it a larger global audience through a nomination, the very basis of the award being awarded to a country is largely behind the times.

As even American films are largely made through acquiring foreign distribution and foreign funds prior to being filmed – filmmaking – much like production of most things in our physical world is no longer made within the confines of one border. Additionally, if a director is deemed the architect of a film, why is it the country that is awarded?

And lastly, although potential nominees would balloon way beyond an already record number of submitted foreign language films, some countries have larger filmmaking communities represented at numerous international film festivals. Couldn’t there be an international festival committee that, like the three saved films from an executive branch, add an additional ten festival-plucked award worthy films that might have been produced by a country that has already submitted?

At the French Consulate in Beverly Hills, during AFI Film Festival this year, I spoke with Asgar Farhadi, director of (the Oscar winning) A Separation about some of these problems.

“I think the foreign film category at the Oscars is an important section and it matters to the whole world,” Farhadi told me, through a translator. “But this system where each country can only introduce one film is a very archaic method. Maybe that should be reviewed… There are a lot of films that didn’t have that possibility because they didn’t have US distribution, and were made by filmmakers who are less known outside of their country.”

Farhadi answered the questions after taking numerous pictures with gushing film students who were invited to the festival to compete in their short film programming. It was he, the director, who they recognized and admired: an Iranian filmmaker, at the French consulate, promoting a French film that was submitted by Iran to the Academy.

It was a perfect snapshot of all that is archaic about the award (awarding an agency of a country instead of a filmmaker, assigning one country where numerous creative agencies of numerous countries might have all made the film) and, also, everything that is right: Farhadi would not have had the multi-national adorers had the Academy not aided in boosting A Separation with a win. Additionally, international film might not have been elevated beyond the 1950s arthouses of New York and Los Angeles without the Academy creating a competitive category. The fact that there are, perhaps, problems with the awarding process, speaks more to how globally recognized filmmakers have become.

That itself is worth more than a special mention.

The nominees for Best Foreign Language Film from 2013 are:

Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium; to be released on home video March 11, 2014; the Oscars will be awarded on March 2, 2014): A couple, who play in a bluegrass band together, are unable to assist each other with the grief that comes with the cancer diagnosis of their young daughter. Director Felix Van Groeningen talks to Interview Magazine about the film here.

The Great Beauty (Italy; currently in theaters): A man, who’s lived extravagantly through the nightclub lifestyle in Rome for decades, takes a look back on his 65th birthday. Director Paolo Sorrentino talked to Film Comment about the film here.

The Hunt (Denmark; currently available on home video): In Thomas Vinterberg’s film, a schoolteacher who is trying to get custody of his son, is the victim of a small lie that leads to child molestation charges. Actor Mads Mikkelsen, who won Best Actor at Cannes 2012 for this role, talked to CraveOnline’s own Fred Topel about the film (here).

The Missing Picture (Cambodia; to be released in select cities on March 19): Clay figurines, archival footage and narration are used to recreate the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979). Director Rithy Panh spoke to The New York Times about his Cannes Un Certain Regard-winning film, here.

Omar (Palestine; to be released in select cities on February 21): This film follows a baker by day, Palestinian freedom fighter by night who is captured and imprisoned by Israeli’s following a murder. Director Hany Abu-Assad spoke about Omar to Indiewire, here.

Please come back weekly for a new entry in “The Other Oscars.” Since the Academy receives a lot of grief for those they’ve snubbed or left empty-handed, please peruse the below slideshow of 10 of the best, or most important Best Foreign Language Film winners.