By Jenny Boulden
My jaw dropped a few times on Oscar nomination morning. We always know there will be snubs, just a matter of who and which ones, but this year was different. What most surprised me was the inclusion of films and names that had been all or mostly off my Oscar-watching radar all season. Namely, all the foreign nominees showing up in categories outside of foreign film.
As an American living far from either coast, despite my best efforts to seek them out, I don’t see or hear a lot about foreign films before they become available to stream in my home. During the race, in film journalism and the Oscar blogs I read, the foreign film category often gets treated as an afterthought. Few people have the resources to know much about the 80+ films submitted each year from across the globe, so it’s hard to come across more analysis than names of the top contenders and maybe their trailers. We treat them as their own thing, separate from the acres of words written about all the English-language Oscar hopefuls.
Because of my geography I’ve made peace with the fact that every year there are always a number of reportedly brilliant arthouse and foreign films that show up on critics’ top 10 lists that I’ve often never heard of, let alone seen. I expect to see them there. Where I hadn’t expected to find them was spread throughout the Oscar nominations this year. While I think it’s a wonderful thing, and about time we start highlighting the best of world cinema on equal footing with English-speaking films, I fell into the trap of assuming the voters would once again relegate the foreign works to “their category,” failed to realize today’s Academy voters might consider them competitive in all the categories. I don’t think I was the only one.
It happens sometimes, of course. There was the fabulous year Pan’s Labyrinth got six nominations, the year of City of God came out of nowhere to earn four, Amour’s five nominations in 2013, and of course Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s record-breaking 10 noms in 2001. We get a foreign-speaking nominee every so often in the acting races (Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Hupert, Emmanualle Riva), and they show up in the less Hollywood-dependent doc and the shorts categories with regularity. There’s often a foreign and/or arthouse nominee in animated with the big studios. Often, these have made a big enough splash in the precursors that I’ve seen them coming. But it’s also taken me aback before, so I scolded myself for my ethnocentrism again this year. Then I started wondering if this was another anomalous year, or if things might be changing for good.
Going in, we knew Roma would have a strong showing, its Netflix roots notwithstanding. It’s been dubbed a masterpiece of artistry, has been on every awards list. It was made by a celebrated auteur who is a household name among film fans, at least, one of Best Director’s Three Amigos. Its 10 nominations, though, tied for the lead with the British-made The Favourite. That showing surpassed most prognosticators predictions for a black-and-white foreign art film about a quiet maid in 1970s Mexico, made by the threatening new studio on the block, Netflix. It had been expected to do well in the noms, but maybe not quite that well. I don’t know that I’d seen anyone predict more than eight nominations.
But this goes beyond Roma. Cold War, the black-and-white entry from Poland, was a film I’d heard praised in passing and in scanning some top 10 lists. I am sure I have missed some high-profile discussions of it, and I’m enough outside the film industry that I don’t see many For Your Consideration ads, so I don’t know what kind of campaign it had. But where I didn’t see it showing up was in the precursors like the DGA, or in anyone’s predictions beyond the foreign film category. Yet Cold War got not only an expected foreign film nomination, but Cinematography and Best Director for Pawel Pawlikowski.
I’m embarrassed to say I did not realize The Lives of Others director, Florian Henkel von Donnersmark, had a new film out, and did not recognize it by name when Never Look Away was announced in Foreign. But when that same film showed up in Cinematography, I did a double-take. What was going on?
Then I didn’t recognize one of the Best Makeup nominees, Border, so I took a look: Swedish. In Documentary Feature, two films with the biggest heat, Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Three Identical Strangers, had to make room for Fathers and Sons, a documentary about radical Islam made by a celebrated Syrian filmmaker living in exile in Germany.
Even with Roma, acting nominations for Yalitza Aparicio and Marina Tavira seemed a longshot–they had been largely missing from some key precursors. Neither are well-known names. It seemed unlikely someone who had been a non-actor until Roma could make it into Best Actress, blowing past Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Emily Blunt, Rosamund Pike and Viola Davis and the much more nominated first-timer, Elsie Fisher. Aparicio’s biggest precursor was a Critics’ Choice nomination. Marina De Tavira, who unlike Aparicio was already a working actor in Mexico, I’d seen on prediction wish lists only. According to IMDb, she has two nominations for her role as the mother in Roma: one from the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, and one for the Academy Awards. How does that happen? Roma momentum (Romentum?), of course. But is something else at play?
The Brits and Canadians have always been a strong faction at the Oscars, and remain so, but this year they are joined by I suspect (**but have not confirmed**) more international filmmaking colleagues than at any previous awards. The majority of the Cinematography and Best Director nominees are foreign-born; three for foreign-language films in Cinematography, two for foreign-language films in Director. Did anyone predict Alfonso Cuaron, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Pawel Pawlikowski would all make the cut? By my cursory accounting of the list, almost every category has either a foreign-speaking or international nominee (I think Visual Effects, Adapted Screenplay, Song, and Costume are the exceptions).
That’s excellent inclusivity, but why now?
Here in America, we tend to focus on the films everyone’s talking about, the ones in those big shiny lights at the theater. But in the meantime, the Academy is no longer so Hollywood-centric. For all the articles on the Academy’s recent diversity pushes to include more women and people of color, and younger voters (and each group could themselves be more open to stories from international voices), often overlooked is a more widespread diversity: the spreading globalism of the Academy itself.
The L.A. Times reported that members from 57 countries were invited in 2017, and from 59 countries in 2018. That first year of the diversity initiative 283 of the invitees were international. In 2018, the new internationals invited numbered 460, nearly half of the new members. Oscar campaigners have been frustrated at this globalism, they report, as it makes getting FYC swag distributed across the globe significantly more expensive and logistically complex.
It stands to reason if the more global voting body is going to affect the nominations this much, it also has to have an effect on the winners. Where the old Academy was firmly entrenched in celebrating the familiar English-speaking films, that’s no longer true of a nice chunk of its membership. I have to think that for a voter in Germany or Brazil or Japan, a film like Roma being in a foreign language is not a mark against it at all. Nor is Netflix. International filmmakers keenly understand the challenges of U.S. theatrical distribution; will they not be the first to embrace studios like Netflix and Amazon that give their films an instant, global audience?
I always say that the Oscar race gets at least a 50 percent reset after the nominations are announced. Many races will go the way the rest of Oscar season has, often from sheer momentum or a towering performance that dominates the season. But after all the campaigning and nominating and prognosticating has been winnowed down to five names on a ballot, the season begins anew. I think it’s even more so when the categories contain some fresh names, or omit big ones. All previous contenders and ballots cast become irrelevant. In Supporting Actress, for instance, Regina King has won all season for her work in the lovely If Beale Street Could Talk, but missed SAG. Now, for the first time all season, she’s competing against Marina de Tavira, who’s in one of the Academy’s favorite films of the year. That changes the calculus considerably, even before taking the influence of global current affairs and border controversies into the mix.
We’ve seen a lot of talk about the popular film category and how clearly the Academy is embracing populist, big-office movies again. It’s interesting that even the biggest of them, Black Panther, is set in Africa and is full of themes of globalism, as the Wakandans debate their role in embracing or rejecting the world beyond their insular, protective dome. There’s a wider world, out there; should we participate in it?
That question may point to one of the most interesting competitions on Oscar night: the tension between the acclaimed American blockbusters with the big Hollywood budgets, big marketing, big screens and the big multiplexes, and the emergence of accessible worldwide distribution channels and growing appreciation for the countless smaller films that come from the great big world beyond our borders. Perhaps it’s time to turn our minds, and our predictions, outward.
Like the Disneyland song goes, it’s a small Academy, after all.