The Long Week Closes: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on the Foreign-Language Oscar Category January 28, 2017

This week’s recommended reading is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s essay about what’s wrong with the Oscars’ Foreign-Language Film rules. As I was reading, I couldn’t help nodding in agreement. Most of the article covers basic, common sense ideas*, though I still greatly appreciate that Vishnevetsky is gathering these thoughts on a platform as widely read as the A.V. Club.

Some critics and journalists want to hold the Academy’s feet to the fire for requiring government-sanctioned organizations to choose which film gets submitted, which in effect disqualifies pretty much any politically uncooperative director (Jafar Panahi, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Lou Ye, the Jia Zhangke of 10-15 years ago). This is the wrong thing to get hung up on. The more galling injustice is that each country is allowed to submit only one film to the committee per year. As Vishnevetsky notes, it’s very common for one country to produce more than one great film per year.

The reason they allow only one submission per country is because the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Committee is required to watch every single film that gets submitted.** And since 89 films were submitted for this year’s award, you can see why allowing more than one would be too overwhelming.

The frustrating thing about the Foreign-Language category is that, unlike with democracy or capitalism, which you could reasonably argue are the best systems we can have given the circumstances, the same can’t be said of this category’s rules, as much as the committee insists otherwise. As Richard Brody mentioned a few years ago, the rules are easily fixable. Do away with the “one film per country” policy. In fact, get rid of the submission policy entirely. Make every film that opens for a one-week run in the U.S. eligible.***

Will this improve the group of nominees? Not necessarily. Even if the Academy creates a small, ostensibly discerning committee to select the nominees, there’s no guarantee that they’ll choose wisely. But the important thing is to open up eligibility to more than just one film per country, which is the fairer way to handle this.

*But as you’d expect from Vishnevetsky, there is still much in the article that goes beyond received wisdom. Some of my favorite new-to-me observations were that South Korea has never been nominated while Denmark has somehow been nominated almost every year this decade.

**Does the Committee actually watch from beginning to end every film that gets submitted? Who knows? Personally, I have my doubts.

***To be perfectly clear, I want multiple films from the same country to be eligible, but not nominated. A country like France, for example, should never take up more than one nomination slot since there is so much exciting cinema being made around the world. It should never be difficult to find five worthy nominees that represent five (or more) different countries.

This week’s rundown begins with a section on this year’s Sundance coverage. And coverage is down compared to previous years.

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Golden Exits (Perry)

Sundance 2017
Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits (United States)
Dee Rees’ Mudbound (United States)
Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (United States)
Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person (United States)
Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner (United States)
Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross’ My Happy Family (Georgia)

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The Salesman (Farhadi)

New Releases
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Iran)
Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (China)
Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Germany/Australia/Canada/France)

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Ordinary People (Redford)

Cinema of the Past
Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (United States • 1980)
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (United States • 1976)

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