Last Sunday the 80th annual Academy Awards was broadcast to some of the lowest viewer ratings in recent years. The winners seemed predictable, save a handful of smaller technical categories. The gala’s emcee (the usually witty Jon Stewart) had his moments but overall brought more yawns than laughs and above all the festivities just seemed to be more of the same with very few memorable moments.
A lot of factors may have played into the Oscar’s fairly mediocre outcome. Two months ago people were unsure if there would even be a ceremony after this year’s writers strike debacle halted previous award shows such as the Golden Globes. The high caliber of performances and films released in 2007 should have made the race all the more interesting but unfortunately so much had been written and hyped about the nominees that most major categories had been unanimously called by those covering the industry (exception might be made for the Best Supporting Actress win by Tilda Swinton, who herself seemed to be a bit jarred when her name was called).
Still the one thing that was most striking about the fairly uneventful evening was how much of a presence and force there was from International talents. If there was one particular sign of the times to take from the Oscars it was that now more than global cinema is beginning to best Hollywood, and rightfully so.
In the acting arena two Brits, a Spaniard and a Parisian took the four major prizes. Many of the technical awards went to those whose foreign tongues kept their acceptance speeches short and endearingly awkward. Even both music categories were swept by those from overseas–Dario Marianelli’s moving score for “Atonement” and the Irish/Czech duo from the little movie that could, “Once.”
Now to be fair the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always had somewhat of a global eye when it comes to gathering the nominees but more often than not there is a limit to its scope. Take for example the Best Foreign Language Film category, which this year had baffling results thanks to shameless disregard for a number of masterpieces. Now while I have yet to see this year’s victor, the Austrian Holocaust piece, The Counterfeiters, it’s hard to imagine it being a more powerful piece of cinema than Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.
Here was a film coming out of what is now being called Romania’s own New Wave of filmmaking, that not only tackled the controversial issue of abortion but more impressively portrayed the way of life during a dark time for one of Europe’s most overlooked and forgotten countries. Set in the final years of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign, the film is not only a scathing look at the Romania’s former ban on birth control and abortion (a decree that caused a wave of underground, dangerous illegal abortions and subsequently a rise in overpopulated orphanages that plagued the country many years after the fall of communism) but also a portrait of how everyday life was under this regime.
Still despite picking up the top prize at Cannes earlier this year, along with countless other important film festival awards it was ignored by the Academy.
In past years I can think of a number of examples of foreign language films that were not only better than most films being released in Hollywood but were for the most part overlooked all together. Take last year’s Oscar gala. While the Academy finally bestowed some love for Martin Scorsese, they picked one of his more mediocre films. In fact of last year’s Best Picture nominees–The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, and Babel–none of the films were truly as masterful, in my humble opinion, as some of the international fodder that came out.
Take The Lives of Others for example, which took the Best Foreign Language Film statue last year. This film (truly one of the best of last year) combined themes of the sly conspiracy political thrillers from the 1970s with a historical portrait of the paranoid and restricted life in East Berlin under the GDRs regime. The film was so well received that it is even garnering an American remake to be helmed by either Sidney Pollack or Anthony Minghella (it should be noted that The Departed was itself a pseudo-remake of a far superior thriller, Infernal Affairs, from Hong Kong).
Then there was Water, Deepa Mehta sobering end to her element trilogy that focused on India’s British colonial period in the 1930s and the commonplace of women being married off young and the questionable treatment of widows. The film was not so much a scathing look at India’s cultural roots but rather a portrait of what life was like in this part of the world, again a common theme among foreign films that truly sets them apart from the mainstream.
In past years there have been rare moments where international pictures blew the competition away or was able to leak into the bigger prizes usually reserved for Hollywood films. Take Bernardo Bertolucci’s biopic of the last monarch of China, The Last Emperor sweeping the awards in 1988 (technically not a foreign language film, but most definitely not something mainstream Hollywood would put out). Everyone remembers Roberto Benigni taking Best Actor and Foreign Film for Life Is Beautiful. Or how about Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar snatching up the well-deserved Best Screenplay prize and a Directing nom for his film Talk To Her, which was not only snubbed from contention in the Best Foreign Language film category but was one of the year’s best and remains to this day one of the finest films to be released in the new millennium.
This year was a great one for film, no question about it but what is most interesting and promising about the Oscar outcome is that perhaps Hollywood is beginning to open its eyes to an entire world of filmmaking. Every year hundreds of great films slip by the publics eye or are completely ignored because they are subtitled. What’s fascinating about many of these films is that they are often capsules of times not familiar to us, and worlds that are radically different to what we know. While Hollywood still has a ways to go until they truly honor the finest films from a global standpoint, 2007 was proof that perhaps they’re making strides in the right direction.