Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Best Picture? What a Foreign Concept!

Over the last eleven year’s TIFF has slowly become a major when it comes to Academy Award winners. Two of the last three Best Picture winners (Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech) were also winners of TIFF’s prestigious People’s Choice Award. 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, did not win the People’s Choice Award, but it screened at the festival the same year as Slumdog Millionaire. If you look closely at the Best Picture nominees over an eleven year span you will noticed that eighteen of the sixty-five nominated films screened at TIFF. This number increases drastically when you start factoring in all the other Academy Award categories.

One less publicized area where TIFF seems to have an outstanding track record is in the Best Foreign Language film category. In the past eleven years, every winner of this category has screened at TIFF. Despite its track record with foreign language films, TIFF has been unsuccessful in changing people’s perceptions of the Best Picture with respects to foreign language films winning. This year’s People’s Choice winner was Where Do We Go Now? The weeks leading up to TIFF, and especially during, people were speculating which films would win the award and thus become a front-runner for the Best Picture award. Many of the film titles being thrown around featured several well known actors/actresses. Then something strange happened, a Lebanese film was announced as the People’s Choice winner and the mood shifted immediately. No longer were the media outlets talking Best Picture buzz, but almost lackadaisically referred to the film as having a shot in the Foreign category.

The fact that a foreign language film immediately gets discredited from the Best Picture debate is still rather shocking in this day and age. Even more disturbing is that a foreign language film still has not won the Best Picture award. The last two foreign language films to even get nominated in the Best Picture category were Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 and Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006. Both of those films lost to Gladiator and The Departed respectively.

Of course some will point to the fact that foreign language films have their own specific category; others will simply state that not every film can be nominated for Best Picture. However, these are probably the same people who will turn around and champion the merits of Pixar films such as Up or Toy Story 3 winning the Best Picture award instead of being relegated to the Best Animated category. The sad thing is that animated films, while good in their own right, still stand a better chance of snagging a Best Picture award than a foreign language film.

What is it about foreign language films that keep Academy voters away? Maybe the lack of Best Picture support is merely a reflection of the current film going culture. At the end of the day people want to cheer for stars they know. Critics and bloggers now post list of possible award hopefuls well before the actual film is released. Their views are often based simply on the film’s synopsis, director and cast. Clint Eastwood making a film on J. Edgar Hoover with Leonardo DiCapro immediately gets thrown in the Oscar discussion just based on the idea. Whether the film is actually good or not is the last thing considered. Foreign language films on the other hand are usually judged by the strength of their story.

It is a shame that with all the technology we have today, foreign language films are still viewed with a bit of distain. Although access to foreign language films has increased, it seems many are still not willing to look at them as serious Best Picture contenders. No matter how much people love a film like Amélie, at the end of the day films like A Beautiful Mind will most likely walk away with the Best Picture praise.


  1. The whole idea of awards is dumb... not like a movie's BESTNESS can be measured.

    Unless you measure something quantitative, like how much money it made... which they may as well start doing, since the awards given never make much sense anyways.

    Still, they're better than the Grammies.

  2. I agree with you that it is a shame. But I think part of the problem is that people think of the Oscars as the only award out there instead of recognizing what it is--the award of the American academy, and when possible they want to see one of their own movies win, or at least a film in their own (dominant) language. Other awards bodies do the same thing. Look at the Cesar awards from France, where films that are in French tend to win and other films are in their foreign language category. So really the fault is with the viewers for mistaking the Oscars as something universal, when it is really the film industry of one particular country. Still, I too wish that they'd expand their horizons a bit.

  3. For someone that wants to become a filmmaker, I would rather win a Cesar, a BAFTA, a NY film critics prize, or any of the prizes from the Berlin, Venice, and Cannes Film Festivals than an Oscar.

  4. Out of curiosity, did you or anyone you knew at TIFF predict 'Where Do We Go Now' winning the Audience Award or any other festival award?

  5. @NeverTooEarlyMP – Very true, our expectations as viewers may be out of whack. At the end of the day all awards end up supporting their own country instead of supporting others. However, the Oscars are the awards that seem to have the most universal appeal, probably because of its history and star power. More people seem to seek out a film based its Academy Award win rather than its win at other awards.

    @thevoid – Berlin, Venice, and Cannes would be my choices as well. If I wanted to have my film seen by a broader audience though, I would have to go Oscar. The Hurt Locker got a huge bump in viewers the minute it got nominated. At the end of the day all any filmmakers wants their films to be seen by as many people as possible.

    @Rich - I knew Where Do We Go Now? had a good shot at the People's Choice award but figured The Artist would win. I heard great things about the film from Ryan McNeil's (The wife, as well as several ladies I spoke to while in line for 11 Flowers. Those women in particular could not stop raving about it.

  6. Great article, and a more than fair point.

    At the risk of being controversial, I still think foreign films still fare slightly better than animated films. Eight legitimately "foreign" films have been nominated for Best Picture, and you can make various arguments about the grey areas with films like Slumdog Millionaire, etc. I'd consider films like District 9 to be legitimately foreign, for example.

    In contrast, with the exception of Beauty and the Beast, Pixar's spot in the Best picture nominees only evolved in recent years with the ten pictures rule. I would be very surprised if Pixar's future output (better than Cars 2, hopefully) retains a deserved spot after the recent "first preferences" changes.

    Of course, it's not to argue that animated films suffer more than foreign films, but to illustrate just how safe a generic the Best Picture race is, that anything that isn't "prestige English-language live-action cinema" might as well be an after thought.

  7. @Darren - You make some very good points. The numbers do show that foreign films have a slight edge over animation in regards to nominations. I also agree with you that both have an uphill battle against the token prestige film that gets nominated almost every year.

  8. I was hoping that Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon would win over Gladiator, but it didn't. Notice that even though it and Letters from Iwo Jima were foreign language movies that got nominated they were directed by two men that knew Hollywood very well? Slumdog Millionaire also had the same kind of director.

    Other recent movies like Amelie and The Lives of Others didn't have that connection to the Academy and did not even get nominated for Best Picture.

    The recent creation of the Best Animated Film award was pretty much an admission that like foreign films and documentaries they don't stand a chance of winning and so they were given their own "secondary" category where they could get some recognition.


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