clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What If the Oscars Nominated a Foreign Film for Best Picture Every Year?

‘Parasite’ is a front-runner at this year’s Academy Awards. If other foreign language movies had been given equal respect, history could look much different. (Sorry, Ben Affleck and ‘Argo.’)

Ringer illustration

In April 1970, Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, a selection that resonated with the chaotic cultural context of its release. As the uneasy libertinism of the 1960s bled into the ’70s, a downbeat movie about scuzzy hustlers struggling in a hard-luck world was undeniably a movie of the moment, offering a less sentimental and elegiac variation on buddy-picture tropes than fellow nominee Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not to mention a more modern, sophisticated artistic vision than the stodgy British costume drama Anne of the Thousand Days or the obscenely overproduced studio musical Hello, Dolly!

The only other Best Picture nominee with its finger on the pulse that year was Greek director Costa-Gavras’s Z, a political thriller that riffed on the real-life killing of an anti-war politican (the Greek anti-fascist Grigoris Lambrakis) via the use of cutting-edge cinematic language. Coming at the end of a decade defined by televised assassination, the film’s docudrama aesthetic (with whipcrack editing and cinematography by Jean-Luc Godard’s legendary cameraman, Raoul Coutard) was imbued with both a sense of familiarity and the shock of the new. Roger Ebert called Z the best film of the year, and from the moment it came out, its triumph in the foreign-language categories of major awards bodies was a foregone conclusion. But at the Golden Globes, the film’s producers refused their award to protest the movie’s exclusion from the Best Picture category—a move that looked prescient a few weeks later, when Z became the first non-English-language movie to be nominated for the Academy’s top prize (not counting Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion [1938], which was cited when the award was still called “Outstanding Production”).

At first, it seemed like Z’s breakthrough might be a genuine paradigm shifter, with Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1972) and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973) subsequently garnering Best Picture nominees. Both movies were generous and adventurous selections in line with the much-romanticized vibe that the ’70s were a more enlightened time for American moviemakers, studios, and audiences. But it’s been slim pickings since then, with only six legitimately foreign-language productions similarly honored: Il Postino (1995); Life is Beautiful (1998); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); Amour (2012); Roma (2018); and, this year, Parasite, which has more going for it than any of its predecessors (with the possible exceptions of Lee’s martial arts epic and Cuaron’s nostalgic chamber drama). Parasite is the rare foreign-language film that has critical consensus, solid box-office numbers, festival laurels (including a Palme d’Or at Cannes), a serrated stylistic and thematic edge, and the kind of universal topicality that skilfully engineered, backward-looking competitors like Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood and 1917 can’t claim.

It’d be awesome to see Parasite win Best Picture, even if perusing The Hollywood Reporter’s annual “Brutally Honest Oscar Voter Ballot” is less than inspiring on that count. “I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films,” carped one unnamed respondent, who also revealed via comments on Tarantino’s movie that he or she was in “L.A. in the 1960s”—presumably not haunting an art house showing Antonioni. The idea that English-language movies are more “regular” than subtitled ones would be worth dunking on if it weren’t also so sadly indicative—or, sorry, “brutally honest”—about a parochial Hollywood mindset already effectively mocked by Bong when he referred to the Oscars as a “local” film festival. (Bong’s whole awards-season posture has been couched in a kind of wry humor,and although it’s tough to accept an Oscar ironically, it’s better to just delight in the images of him enjoying himself rather than pretend he’s some kind of anti-establishment renegade).

Nevertheless, the possibility of a Parasite victory, however remote, got me thinking about what the last decade might have looked like if the categorical depreciation of foreign-language cinema at the Oscars were to be retrospectively legislated out of existence. In December, The Ringer invited me to craft a list of the 25 best foreign-language films of the 2010s, an exercise designed mostly to alert readers to titles whose obscurity is relative—like how, relative to, say, The Avengers, everything is obscure—but which also made me think about the fun of pitting certain titles head-to-head with Hollywood’s heavy hitters.

I decided to set up a what-if scenario imagining that the Academy had been forced to include one non-English language nominee in the Best Picture category in the past 10 years—a title that would compete independent of AMPAS’s wack mandate to have countries submit their own candidate. (Over at Vox, Alissa Wilkinson writes terrifically about the consequences of a broken nomination system). So for each year since 2010, I’ve picked a foreign film to replace an actual nominee in the interest of quality control; in those years when a foreign film actually made the cut for Best Picture, I’ve proposed a second one for maximum irregularity. I’ve also made the case as to whether my pick would have been better than the actual winner.


The winner: The Hurt Locker
The nominees: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
The pick: Mother

I love when things end up working out symmetrically: In a better world, Bong would have gotten awards-season traction exactly a decade ago for his ferocious and unsettling Mother, a film about a 60-something widow (the amazing Kim Hye-ja) whose moral compass becomes demagnetized after her son is accused of murder. In an attempt to clear his name, she runs the gamut from anguished vigilante to sociopathic predator. With all due respect to Parasite, which is a great, entertaining, and flawlessly well-acted movie, its characters have a bit of a cipher-like quality, maybe because there are so many main roles; the few qualms I have with the film have to do with Bong losing sight of their individual quirks in the homestretch. Mother, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem—it’s so claustrophobically concentrated on the motives of its anti-heroine that it’s more of a character study than a thriller. I love Kim’s acting, which splits the difference between doddering vulnerability, cunning resourcefulness, and a disconnect that’s genuinely frightening in context. In the end, Mother is about somebody looking for ways to repress reality at all costs.

In terms of our game, I’ll take away Up in the Air’s nomination in order to stay on brand, but really, Mother could easily replace any of these titles outside of Tarantino, Bigelow, or the Coens. And speaking of staying on brand, I’m going to say A Serious Man gets my alternate Oscar, with Bong as a very honorable runner-up.


The winner: The King’s Speech
The nominees: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone
The pick: Dogtooth

Dogtooth may not actually be the best non-English language movie of its year—that distinction goes to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which made my best-of-the-decade list. But I’m trying to be realistic, and for better or worse, the aggressive aesthetic and shock value of Yorgos Lanthimos’s sophomore feature—a pent-up allegory about parents who have kept their adult children dangerously sequestered from the outside world—is the sort of thing that breaks through national barriers. There’d also be a nice sense of continuity, as Lanthimos’s shift to English-language filmmaking with The Lobster (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2017) and especially The Favourite (a Best Actress prize for Olivia Colman) has made him something of an Academy darling—a tonal and stylistic outlier within acceptable boundaries. Whatever one thinks of Dogtooth’s mordant humor—with sick absurdist gags ranging from a cat being impaled on scissors to sisters competing to chloroform themselves to blunt-force amateur dentistry—its mix of minimalism and provocation made it the buzziest Greek film in decades, and it’d be a perverse pleasure to slot it into the Best Picture category in lieu of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, which (a) somehow won the award despite sucking a lot, and (b) is actually less enjoyable than Cats. (The Social Network can have the big prize, though.)


The winner: The Artist
The nominees: The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
The pick: A Separation

This is a tricky year, in that The Artist—a movie by a French director, featuring French stars, and financed in French—was not considered foreign-language film because its silent-movie-style intertitles were in English, a minor scandale that prompted a lot of chin-stroking debate about the spirit and letter of the law. In any case, Michel Hazanavicius’s mildly charming pastiche was still one of the more surprising Best Picture choices of its era, and better than roughly half of its mixed-bag competition. Let’s get rid of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close—a film that I’m sure you’ve all forgotten existed—and insert Asghar Farhadi’s thoughtful, probing divorce drama A Separation, which scored a satisfying (and politically vital) win for Best Foreign Language Film as the first Iranian production to garner the award. Between his film’s contemporary sociological acuity and the eloquence of his acceptance speech, Farhadi was transformed almost overnight into an ambassador of global film culture (that his work has provided diminishing returns since doesn’t take away from his achievement). A Separation’s excellence notwithstanding, however, I still can’t take it over Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life or even Moneyball (2011 was a good year for Brad Pitt).


The winner: Argo
The nominees: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty
The pick: No

After winning the Palme d’Or twice in four years at Cannes, Michael Haneke—the austere Austrian who may have been the most influential international filmmaker of the early 21st century—took his turn in the American spotlight for Amour, a characteristically dour drama about an elderly couple coping with one partner’s descent into paralysis and suicidal despair. In contrast to the director’s chilly thrillers (including the notorious exploitation-movie send-up/critique Funny Games), Amour was shot with a palpable sense of empathy for its characters, played by two brilliant actors with monumental legacies: Emmanuelle Riva, a face of the French New Wave famous for Hiroshima mon amour, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, the star of Z. Such craft and pedigree proved no match however, for the directorial vision of … [checks notes] … Ben Affleck. Amour can stay; I’m throwing out Beasts of the Southern Wild and trading it for Pablo Larraín’s No, a better period piece/political-thriller comedy than Argo. While Affleck’s movie greatly fictionalized the rescue of American hostages in Iran under the guise of a film shoot, Larraín hews close to the facts about the behind-the-scenes machination of the 1988 plebiscite around removing the ruthless Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Shooting on murky, I-Love-the-’80s video, Larraín depicts the battle for hearts and minds as a matter of commercial-break aesthetics. Gael García Bernal’s adman is more idealistic than Mad Men’s hucksters, but equally adept at the hard sell. It’s a trenchant funny movie, and a companion piece of sorts to the bipartisan, back-room dealings in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which gets my support for Best Picture.


The winner: 12 Years a Slave
The nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street
The pick: A Touch of Sin

The transformation of Jia Zhangke from his country’s most acclaimed outlaw auteur to a government-approved mainstream filmmaker would seem to be a case of a director compromising his vision, but while A Touch of Sin got past China’s censors, it was hardly innocuous. Its quartet of stories about characters struggling to make ends meet in the shadow of late capitalism are infused with a palpable sense of murderous anger, filled with violent outbursts patterned after the glory days of Martin Scorsese. It’s interesting, in fact, to compare Jia’s epic with Marty’s contemporaneous The Wolf of Wall Street, which addresses the same themes of top-down corporate cruelty and displaced rage in a different social and cultural context, and whose cynical, despairing ending (“sell me this pen”) directly echoes A Touch of Sins haunting, confrontational final coda (given the time of production, the latter may be more of a weird parallel than an overt homage; in any case, Scorsese is on the record saying Jia rules). A Touch of Sin is a great film, and I’m going to give it Dallas Buyers Club’s spot (Philomena can stay to justify all the jokes in The Trip to Italy), as well as Best Picture over 12 Years a Slave.


The winner: Birdman, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
The nominees: American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
The pick: Phoenix

Germany didn’t even submit Christian Petzold’s devastating Hitchcockian masterpiece for Oscar consideration. For me, it proceeds directly to the winner’s circle, easily beating the experimental stunt-filmmaking of Alejandro González Iñnáritu’s Birdman, a satire that could’ve used a sense of humor about itself. As for which “regular” movie gets cut out, take your pick: Both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are prime examples of prestige-season movies whose pop-cultural expiration date is the morning after the Oscar ceremony ends. Can you tell me anything about either of these movies? Do you remember a single shot? A single line? OK, I’ll admit that I remember The Imitation Game ending with the deathless title card “today we call them computers,” but otherwise it’s just a complete blank.


The winner: Spotlight
The nominees: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room
The pick: The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s sublime venture into wuxia-style storytelling is one of the most beautifully shot, designed, and edited features of the decade—less of a calculated crowd-pleaser than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and as such enshrined as an arthouse outlier rather than a global box-office phenomenon. It’d make an odd but compelling double bill with Mad Max: Fury Road in that both are gorgeously stylized, palpably handcrafted action movies striving for achievement on a physical and a metaphysical plane; they can tie for Best Picture and we can lose The Revenant, with its ostentatious long takes, CGI grizzly bear, and transparent For Your Consideration aspirations. Let Leo keep his Oscar, though; the best thing about his acting in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is that he’s no longer trying to win anything, which paradoxically makes him award-worthy.


The winner: Moonlight
The nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester By the Sea
The pick: Elle

I’m torn here on two fronts: between Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant, insidious Elle and Maren Ade’s uproarious, emotionally generous Toni Erdmann for the nomination slot (which I’m going to take away from Hidden Figures) and then between either of those two terrific movies and Moonlight, whose place in the 21st-century canon is well established. Toni Erdmann actually got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, losing unjustly to Farhadi’s absorbing but slightly gimmicky drama The Salesman; in this case, spreading the wealth away from a former winner to an ascendant comic genius—a master of slapstick awkwardness and modern alienation in the mold of Elaine May— would have been a good call. Also, if the great Isabelle Huppert had just won Best Actress over Emma Stone—a contest that was shaping up as basically a photo finish after Huppert triumphed at the Golden Globes—Elle could have gotten its due, both as a showcase for a phenomenally complex lead performance and as a reminder that nobody fucks with audiences as gleefully as Verhoeven, who was reinvented in his eighth decade as a discretely charming, Bunuel-style master. So OK: Elle goes up for Best Picture and even gets announced as the winner before Moonlight is revealed as the real choice—we have to keep that moment,and Barry Jenkins’s film has cast a long enough shadow in such a short period of time that taking away its Oscar seems wrong.


The winner: The Shape of Water
The nominees: Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
The pick: BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Robin Campillo’s detailed, humane depiction of the AIDS epidemic in early ’90s France and the wave of activism around it is imbued with a terrific life force—its title refers simultaneously to the pounding tempo of dance music and the rhythm of the human heart. For dramatizing the history and efforts of ACT UP—and for delivering a multitiered social portrait and melodrama that evades clichés without sacrificing audience reach—Campillo won six César awards and a major prize at Cannes, but didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. Suffice it to say it’s better than anything that was picked that year. I’m going to swap BPM in for Darkest Hour, and note that it’s better than The Shape of Water before handing the statuette to Phantom Thread.


The winner: Green Book
The nominees: Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, A Star Is Born, Vice
The pick: Burning

The Ringer has already covered the excellence of Lee Chang-dong’s simmering mystery, which was not only the best movie of 2018—yes, somehow better than Green Book!—but may be destined to be remembered as one of the most perceptive movies about its era (the blink-and-miss-it appearance of Donald Trump on a television set broadcasting a few miles from the North Korean border cinches the connection). As for what movie can go, it’d actually be pretty funny to get rid of Green Book instead of Bohemian Rhapsody, but Green Book at least has Viggo Mortensen eating an entire pizza in one bite (and Mahershala Ali doing everything he can to redeem a dishonestly written role) and BoRhap features nothing of enduring value, so it bites the dust.


The winner: ?
The nominees: 1917, Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Parasite
The pick: Pain and Glory

I already wrote about Antonio Banderas’s sublime, career-best work as Pedro Almodóvar’s physically and psychically bruised alter ego in Pain and Glory; he’s amazing, and he elevates the movie into something special, too. Bye-bye to Jojo Rabbit, while Best Picture goes to Parasite by a couple of inches over The Irishman.