The promisingly international future of the Academy Awards
In the 90-year history of the Academy Awards, 554 movies have been nominated for Best Picture. Among that number have been timeless classics (Casablanca, The Godfather, Schindler's List) and a whole lot of best-forgotten duds (Crash, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Green Book). What's truly incredible, though, is that only 11 foreign-language movies have even been nominated to compete for Best Picture since 1929 — and none have ever won.
That last point may or may not change this year. Parasite's momentum has been meteoric; a class satire by South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, the film won the Cannes Film Festival's highest honor ("the Bong d'Or") this past spring, topped over 45 critic and website year-end lists, and to date has grossed over $24 million in the United States, with a higher per-venue average than Avengers: Endgame. On Monday, it earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture — although prognosticators still chalk it up as something of a dark horse against Golden Globes-winners Once Upon A Time ... in Hollywood and 1917. Whether or not Parasite makes history next month, though, its half-dozen nominations alone make it evident that the Oscars are increasingly looking abroad for the year's best films.
For anyone who watches foreign films with any regularity, this shift in perspective is long overdue. Despite the U.S. being a movie-making powerhouse and the home of Hollywood, it is arrogant, ignorant, and incorrect to think the best films year after year are American. Awards ceremonies might partially be to blame, though, for having relegated movies from abroad to a separate "foreign film" or "foreign-language film" sidebar that doesn't have nearly the same prestige as "best picture." At the Golden Globes, for example, a film that isn't told primarily in English can't even compete for Best Picture (Parasite included). The Oscars this year finally rebranded their antiquated "Best Foreign-Language Film" category as "Best International Film," but didn't change the foreign-language requirement in the process, thus controversially disqualifying Nigeria's English-language entry Lionheart (Nigeria's official language is English).
But at the Academy Awards, foreign and foreign-language films can compete across all categories. And, while historically they have only been nominated intermittently, movies from abroad have increasingly become an anticipated part of the mix. Parasite's six nominations alone are telling, but this year also saw actor Antonio Banderas nab a nomination for Lead Actor for his wonderful performance in Pain & Glory, a movie from Spain and in Spanish. Perhaps most surprising, though, is this year's Documentary Feature category, where four out of the five nominees are foreign movies (Syria's The Cave; Brazil's The Edge of Democracy; Syria's co-production For Sama; and Macedonia's Honeyland). Additionally, a record-breaking 93 different countries submitted films to be considered by the Academy for Best International Film; globally, cinema is proving itself to be robust and hungrier than ever for American awards.
2019 is not an anomaly, either. The turn toward recognizing international cinema has been a decades-in-the-making shift by the Academy; of the 11 total foreign-language films to ever compete for Best Picture, more than half of those nominations have come since 2000, notes The Washington Post, and two have been in the past two years. Part of that is likely due to the changing makeup of the Academy's voting body; since 2016, hundreds of international film industry professionals have been invited to join the AMPAS. The results have been immediate: Last year was the first time since 1976 that two foreign-language films (Mexico's Roma and Poland's Cold War) competed against each other in the Best Director category.
The Academy, still, is slow to change — again, there hasn't actually been a Best Picture winner from abroad. But many of the filmmakers the Academy is awarding are. Mexican directors Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón won or were nominated for five Oscars in six years (The Revenant and Birdman; The Shape of Water; and Gravity and Roma respectively). The trio's outsized success at the Academy Awards has been credited to skills they picked up by starting their careers in Mexico, where projects often faced institutional roadblocks; as Slate puts it, "[t]his inventiveness carried over when the directors finally had more resources at their disposal [in the U.S.]." It remains true that English-language films still tend to fare better than subtitled films with mainstream audiences; notably even Bong, who has dismissed the Oscars as being "very local," has made movies in English, and will be translating Parasite into a television series for HBO.
Meanwhile, homegrown American filmmaking feels increasingly stagnant. Beyond Parasite, it can be hard to work up excitement about the other 2019 Best Picture nominees. A handful of the movies are truly terrible; even 1917, the Golden Globe winner that I quite liked, is a fairly generic war story beyond its one-shot gimmick. Major studios that have the ability to fund expensive Oscar pushes like to play it safe with guaranteed blockbusters; earlier this month, for example, Warner Bros. signed a deal with a company purporting to have artificial intelligence that can decide which scripts the studio should greenlight, The Hollywood Reporter writes. It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that as the Academy Awards trend more international, American filmmaking trends toward being less adventurous.
The Oscars don't typically make me optimistic; there is plenty to still criticize about the awards, which once again shut out women directors and nominated only one actor of color. But Parasite's impressive number of nominations, at a time when the Academy is increasingly noticing films and filmmakers from abroad, is a sign of good things to come. "Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films," Bong told the Hollywood Foreign Press Association at the Golden Globes earlier this month. And maybe, within a few short years, it'll even be the Academy Awards that does some of the introducing.
Correction: There were two films produced in 2019 titled The Cave. This piece previously misidentified one of the Academy Awards' Best Documentary Feature nominees as being from Thailand. The film nominated in that category is from Syria.
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