Quick: Name last year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film. Nothing leaping to mind right away? Okay, then name any one of five films nominated in that category. Drawing a blank? Don't feel bad. You're not alone. Odds are, even the list of answers won't look all that familiar with the possible exception of Jaques Audiard's elegiac prison drama, "A Prophet."
For years, foreign film buffs and indie film producers have grumbled that the best foreign films rarely place among the five nominees for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Instead, more often than not, through a byzantine selection process, the members of the foreign film committee seem to studiously avoid selecting a field of contenders that includes films U.S. audiences actually went to see.
This year was no different. As The New York Times' A. O. Scott pointed out in a fascinating piece about why foreign films have gone missing from Stateside theaters, the Academy neglected to recognize many of 2010's most critically and commercially acclaimed films, including this year's Golden Globe winner, "Carlos" by visionary French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Scott goes on to discuss the many deserving films the Academy has overlooked due to an inefficient and outdated system of whittling the vastness that is global cinema into a manageable field of eligible titles.
Among the Academy's most glaring omissions from this year's list of foreign film nominees -- and one Scott fails to mention -- is that not one of the films based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy made the cut. Mind you, we know the Oscars is not a popularity contest -- at least not explicitly. But it seems a gross oversight to ignore a tectonic cultural event of this magnitude. Put another way: Americans have become among the most notoriously subtitle-allergic moviegoers on the planet. But these three pitch-black Swedish language films managed to break through that resistance among the first foreign films to break through that resistance in a long time and collectively grossed nearly $24 million at the box office. That kind of deep impact isn't possible without effective storytelling. That's got to be worth at least a shout-out on Oscar night.
Setting Millennium aside for a moment, the foreign film category has been a battleground in recent years. Small distributors have been lobbying to loosen the requirement stipulating that each eligible film must receive a theatrical U.S. release. In the age of instant streaming and Video on Demand, this stipulation has lost its relevance if not its usefulness. Then there's the notoriously contentious (and, some say, arbitrary) allotment of only one Oscar-eligible film per country. That has meant that many deserving films from countries with thriving film industries -- like France, Korea, Germany, and Mexico -- were never even in the running for a nomination.
As a result, this Oscar watcher has spent too many Oscar broadcasts without any real rooting interest in the foreign film category and wondering why the best subtitled films seem to be missing from the proceedings. Here are a few that immediately leap to mind: Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding"; Guillaume Canet's adaptation of Harlan Coben's novel Tell No One; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Sugar"; Olivier Assayas' "The Summer Hours"; and Matteo Garrone's riveting Mafia saga, "Gomorrah," based on journalist Roberto Saviano's 2006 bestseller, which prompted the Sicilian mob to order a hit on him.
Is any of this striking a nerve with you foreign-film buffs? Have you found that many of your favorite subtitled films are MIA on Oscar night? If you had to nominate the five foreign films from the past decade that most deserved a shot at the award, what would they be?
Photos: © Music Box Films (Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) and ©A.M.P.A.S.® (Oscar statuette)