By Rod Bastanmehr
As the music dies down and the crowd’s rapid applause settles, the two presenters who stand comfortably on stage finally open the envelope.
Five films. Five deserving nominees for Best Picture, but only one of them will nab the coveted golden statue.
And while it may be an honor indeed just to be nominated, the four films that do not win are left in cinematic dust.
Every year, the Best Picture race at the Academy Awards has five diverse films up for the chance to seize the prize.
And after 79 years, the 80th annual Academy Awards proves to be no different — the Best Picture race is ranging through a spectrum as broad as the stage it will be awarded on.
The vast diversity in nominees is impossible to ignore, but there is one thing that connects them: They’re all American-made. And when it comes to the Oscars, the lack of proper foreign film recognition has taken the “honor” out of simply being nominated.
“The Oscars are rather unsure of exactly what their goal is,” said Dave Karger, a contributor at Entertainment Weekly. “It’s stated that it’s to award the outstanding achievements in film for that given year. But as of late, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it’s more of an American back-patting than anything else.”
Karger’s sentiments are anything but radical — over the years, an outstanding number of worthy films have been nominated in the Foreign Film race.
Due to Academy technicalities, however, it is possible that the only films more deserving were the ones not nominated.
“Over the decades, no category has given the Oscars more trouble than [the Best Foreign Language Film],” said Mark Harris, of the Entertainment Weekly column “The Final Cut.” “It’s easily the category that has the least viewership, and the most rules about submission. It’s rather unfortunate, considering how many of the best films of the year come from other countries. It may hurt to say it, but America isn’t the end-all be-all for film recognition.”
In 1997, “Life Is Beautiful” won Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor while snagging nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
While this anomaly was a notable shift in Academy acknowledgement, it only blurred the line further between what the Oscars are supposed to be recognizing — film as a whole, or film within the American boundaries.
But beyond the categorical confusion of whether or not a foreign language film should be nominated for multiple categories or if it should be considered for an entirely different set of awards, the controversy lies in the way foreign language films get chosen and by whom.
“4 Months” won the highest honor at the Cannes Films Festival, the Palme d’Or, and nabbed Best Foreign Language Film from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. “Persepolis” took home the Cannes Jury Prize and a bevy of critics’ trophies for Best Animated Film — so neither film came from under the radar.
When Oscar nominations came around, these two films were a given — or at least one would think. But neither of these supposed front-runners is up for the title of Best Foreign Language Film.
This news has caused a major stir in Hollywood, questioning the validity of the Oscar race as a whole.
“It’s shocking that our committee didn’t include those movies,” said Mark Johnson, a producer and the chairman of the foreign language branch of the Academy. “I was extremely disappointed. I believe that the Academy membership as a whole would have nominated them, and the fact that our committee didn’t recognize their merit — maybe I shouldn’t say this, but frankly, it’s embarrassing.”
Johnson has urged the committee and the Academy to rethink its foreign film electoral process. For the 2007 awards, the Academy rewrote its procedures to address the controversy: Instead of picking five nominees, the committee selects nine films, and 30 more active and diverse Academy members narrow it down.
The radical redesign seemed to work last year. “The Lives of Others” of Germany, “Days of Glory” of Algeria and “Pan’s Labyrinth” of Mexico were all successfully nominated sans controversy. However, Harris hesitates to interpret this as progress.
“2007 may have just been a year in which the subject matter of some terrific movies happened to fall under the heading ‘Things Old Movie People Like’ – stories about the horrors of war and Communism,” Harris said.
While the voters are a major problem in the consideration of films to the Best Foreign Language Film race, another part of the problem involves the technicalities of what given countries can do. Unlike the Academy Award for Best Picture, which officially awards winning films’ producers, the Foreign Language Film Award is given to a submitting country as a whole.
As a result, since a given director can only submit one film for consideration at the Academy Awards, the country in question, which serves as a pseudo-director, can only submit one film.
“This isn’t restricting just winners — this is restricting possible nominees,” Karger said. “The inability to submit a film prohibits it from even having a chance to be nominated. You’re basically gambling on what film has the possibility of being chosen for the chance to win. It’s just not the right way for things to be.”
This year, France’s submission of “Persepolis” prohibited the equally deserving “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” from being considered.
Yet Julian Schnabel, the film’s director, nabbed a Best Director nomination. This marks one of the first times in Oscar history that a potential director could win for directing a non-Oscar nominated film.
The value in these nominations may be worth more than the possibility of the golden statue on a mantel. In terms of boosting a film’s ability to find an audience, the Best Foreign Language Film may be the most important award the Academy gives.
“‘4 Months,’ a truly tough sell, needed the words ‘Oscar Nominee’ atop its ads and deserved them,” Harris said. “This snub seriously hurts its chances of being seen widely.”
Of course, controversy is anything but new news for the Oscars. But for once, the controversy seems valid, and worth acknowledging.
And the Academy — at least one key member — seems just as upset as its harshest critics. “We have to make some radical changes,” Johnson said, “and I hope that the Board of Governors supports that.”
And since proper acknowledgment of films is the issue, acknowledging the problem may be a good first step.