By Ryan O’Toole
At the Dolby Theatre on February 9th, 2020, Jane Fonda was on stage to present 2019’s Best Picture winner at the 92nd Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and read the name of the winner to herself before announcing it to the world. If you watch the clip of this moment, she pauses just before announcing the winner, as if she knew how monumental and historic a moment it would be when she read off the name on the envelope. She looks up and says with a smile on her face, “Parasite.” The theatre erupts in applause. This was Bong Joon-ho’s fourth Oscar win of the night, the first time someone has won four Oscars in one year since Walt Disney in 1953. “Parasite” dominated the night, which has never really been seen before with a foreign-language film at the Oscars — although “The Artist,” which won Best Picture in 2012, is entirely a French production. But because it was a silent film and not spoken in a “foreign language,” people have discounted its position as a foreign language Best Picture winner. Earlier in his awards campaign, Bong Joon-ho described the Oscars as a “local ceremony,” pointing out how the Academy usually only looks at Hollywood to award the “best” movies of the year. But with “Parasite’s” win, did this represent a change in the Oscars moving forward? Was this a watershed moment that will usher in a new, international diversity, or was this just a flash in the pan?
To better understand foreign films’ place with the Academy, we must first understand the past relationship between the two. The sad fact is that many of the world’s best movies are often ignored by the Oscars. This is true for many American films, but it is especially true for foreign films. Wong Kar-Wai, Yasujirô Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami, Jean-Luc Godard, and Robert Bresson have never had any of their movies nominated for a single Oscar. Even recently, in the same year that “Parasite” triumphed, the only other film with as much critical praise as “Parasite” was Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which failed to receive a single nomination. Foreign films have a more challenging time getting an Oscar campaign off the ground and gaining the attention of the mostly American voting body of the Academy, which makes it harder to get into the conversation. As a result, so many all time-classics from around the world are not even nominated.
For a majority of foreign films that are fortunate enough to get nominated, their place at the Oscars has been relegated to one category: Best International Feature Film (previously known as Best Foreign Language Film). After all, the Oscars are considered “Hollywood’s biggest night,” not “Cinema’s biggest night.” While at first glance, this category appears to celebrate more foreign films and champion diversity, most of the time, it suppresses it. As shown with “Parasite,” there’s no limitation to the nominations and wins foreign films can receive; they can compete for all of the other awards but are usually not in contention. Much like the other novelty categories such as Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature, foreign films are primarily held to “their own category.” For a vast majority of the Academy’s history, some of the world’s best directors and films have competed solely in Best International Feature, while maybe scoring a rare additional nomination for Director, Screenplay, Acting or a below the line nomination but never reaching the same deserved heights as their American counterparts.
Some of the categories that get the most crossover with foreign films are the other categories mentioned above: Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature. Over the past decade, some of the best documentaries have been international, like “Cartel Land,” “Faces Places,” “The Act of Killing,” and “Collective,” and they have gotten their recognition at the Academy Awards. Although none have triumphed in the past decade, the category has become increasingly international. In the same year of “Parasite’s” Oscar triumph, four of the five Best Documentary nominees were from abroad (“The Cave,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “For Sama,” and “Honeyland“), with the ultimate winner being “American Factory,” the only American produced film in the category. To be fair, the film is about a Chinese company taking over an American factory. It contains large portions of its runtime spoken in Mandarin and is expressly about international themes. And in Best Animated Feature, Hayao Miyazaki was the second winner of the new category in 2002 for “Spirited Away.” Best Animated Feature was created in 2001 and has had a shorter history than the other categories, but still has nominated a large number of foreign films over the years. Miyazaki and his studio, the legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, have been nominated with “The Wind Rises,” “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” And while Ghibli might not have gotten the recognition it deserves by winning most of these awards, the animation category is usually populated with films from all over the world, a trend which we may see continue again this year with either “Flee,” “Belle” or “The Summit Of The Gods” getting nominated.
Another category with a lot of foreign crossover is in the acting branches — although maybe it’s still not enough because there are four times as many chances to get nominations here. Weirdly, the most winning language outside of English in the acting categories is sign language, with five wins — Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda,” Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” John Mills in “Ryan’s Daughter,” Marlee Matlin in “Children of a Lesser God,” and Holly Hunter in “The Piano.” Some films whose sole nomination is in acting are Isabelle Huppert in “Elle,” Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night,” and Penélope Cruz in “Volver,” among others. The most recent foreign language acting win was last year when Yuh-jung Youn won for “Minari,” despite that film existing in a murky territory as to the nature of its foreign film status. It’s an American production set in America, with much of the dialogue being in another language, in this case, Korean. Historically, this is true for many “foreign language” wins with Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds,” Penélope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” and Benicio Del Toro in “Traffic” as recent winners that are speaking foreign languages in American productions. The most recent wholly foreign acting winner came in 2007, with Marion Cotillard winning for her incredible performance in “La Vie en Rose.”
And as far as directors crossing over into other categories like Picture, Director, and Screenplay, often it takes being a canonical film legend to get the deserved recognition. After being nominated for Best International Feature a couple of times, Pedro Almodóvar was finally able to transcend that category with “Talk to Her” in 2002, getting nominated for Best Director and winning for Best Original Screenplay. Legends of the screen, Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, and Michael Haneke have all had their films nominated for Best Picture. But by far, the most international category remains and has always been Best Director.
Best Director has done the best at nominating foreign directors outside of the United States. Historically, cinematic legends such as Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, and Krzysztof Kieślowski have all been nominated in this category despite being overlooked in Best Picture. Over the last ten winners for Best Director, only one was American: Damien Chazelle for “La La Land.” Michael Hazanavicius is French, Ang Lee is from Taiwan, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo Del Toro are all Mexican, Bong Joon-ho is Korean, and Chloé Zhao is Chinese. Although not all of these films are foreign-language films — only Cuarón’s “Roma,” Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” and arguably Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” are foreign films — this recent generation of winners is highlighting the ever-growing global diversity of the Oscars. The industry is finding worldwide talent, and the Oscars are finally recognizing them.
But where does this leave us for the future of the Oscars? Will the next foreign masterpiece be a “Parasite” or a “Portrait of a Lady on Fire?” It seems unlikely that we will see another movie any time soon with as much passion behind it as “Parasite.” Has it opened the door for others to walk through and contend for a win in Best Picture? Let’s not forget that movies such as “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Roma” came very close to winning the top prize in their respective years. However, unsatisfyingly, the answer is maybe. Following “Parasite’s” dominant evening, Denmark’s “Another Round” was the most recognized foreign film, winning Best International Feature and nominated for Best Director, which was more in line with traditional Academy history than the future that “Parasite” promised. Had it gone the other way, we could’ve seen Thomas Vinterberg’s film also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.
This year, a handful of movies are looking to make a splash outside of Best International Feature. Rysuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” has the highest-profile, having been nominated across the board at many Critics groups and winning Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics, New York Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, putting it on a small list of films which have repeated these same three wins. It seems to be picking up a lot of steam and could sneak in with a Best Picture, Best Director, and/or Best Adapted Screenplay nomination to complement its assumed Best International Feature nomination. It’s currently the frontrunner to win that Oscar, but it might still have more considerable success outside of that single category.
Another film looking for outside Oscar nominations is “Parallel Mothers,” Pedro Almodóvar’s political melodrama about two new mothers. The film is not competing in Best International Feature because Spain chose not to submit it this year. However, Almodóvar has found larger success at the Oscars before, particularly with his lead performances. Penélope Cruz was nominated for “Volver” and Antonio Banderas for “Pain and Glory.” Similar to those, “Parallel Mothers‘” best chance at a nomination would be for Penélope Cruz to be recognized in Best Actress. She has won so far at the National Society of Film Critics the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at last year’s Venice Film Festival at the start of the awards season. Still, after missing a nomination at SAG and missing the BAFTA longlists, a nomination for her is currently up in the air.
Perhaps the most likely film to cross over into other categories is “Flee,” an international animated documentary about an Afghan refugee recounting his harrowing journey to flee from his country. The film is likely to get nominated in Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and Best International Feature, which would be history-making as no film has ever been nominated in all three categories.
Outside of these three movies, it’s hard to see other films making a splash outside of Best International Feature. Asghar Farhadi has had two of his films win Best International Feature, and many felt his latest, “A Hero,” would be the one to put him in the conversation for Best Director, but such events never occurred. “The Worst Person in the World” features one of the best performances of the year with Best Actress Cannes winner Renate Reinsve’s radiant star-making turn as a woman in her twenties trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to do with her life. But Reinsve and Joachim Trier’s film at large hasn’t really been able to create the necessary buzz to contend outside of the designated International category, almost as if there’s only enough space for a couple of international films to be in the conversation each year.
After yesterday’s PGA, DGA, WGA and ACE nominations, none of them mentioned a single foreign language film in their lists. The BAFTAs also failed to mention a single foreign language film in their “Best Film” longlist prior to their final nominations on February 3rd. Needless to say, it’s looking bleak that we’ll see a foreign language film nominated for Best Picture this year. In a perfect world, these films would compete on even playing ground with the rest of the field, but if there’s one thing the Oscars are not, it’s perfect.
What categories outside of Best International Feature do you think this year’s foreign films will be nominated for at the 94th Academy Awards? Do you think we’ll see another foreign-language Best Picture winner any time soon? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Letterboxd at @rtoole