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24 Frames per Second
Oscar's foreign films
Jefferson Market to screen some of the winning foreign-lingo movies in February
Now that Oscar season is upon us, Jefferson Market Branch is devoting its Monday night film series in February to Academy Award-winning foreign-language films.
Every year, one of the most controversial categories at the Oscars is Best Foreign Language Film. Among cinephiles, there is often consternation and confusion over which films were included, which were excluded, and how the nominees were chosen in the first place. The three movies in the Jefferson Market series are not among the more contentious winners, however.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which will be shown February 1 at 6pm, was Taiwanese director Ang Lee's hugely successful blend of romance and martial arts action that was also nominated for Best Picture in 2000; Vittorio De Sica’s elegiac 1971 winner The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which will be shown February 8 at 6pm, was the last great work of an Italian master; and 1972 honoree The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, to be screened February 22 at 6pm, was a similarly late-career triumph for prankish Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel.
The foreign-language Oscar was initially given as an Honorary Award in 1947 to De Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece Shoeshine. Several more honorary awards were given until 1956, when Best Foreign Language Film became a regular competitive category. That year, Federico Fellini’s La Strada won the Oscar for Italy. Until 1960, when the award went to Swedish entry The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman’s first of three Oscar winners), all of the foreign-language honorees were from three countries: Italy, France, and Japan. In the following years, the field continued to be dominated by European and to a lesser extent Asian entries, but winning countries also came to include Algeria, Ivory Coast, Argentina, Canada, and South Africa.
The controversy over the award arises partly from the procedure by which nominees are chosen. Countries are allowed to submit one film per year for consideration, and a special committee narrows down the field and eventually names the five nominees. That committee is known for marching to its own drum, eschewing the highly praised likes of Italy’s 2008 submission Gomorrah, or Romania’s 2007 submission 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, to cite two recent examples. Voting for the final award is restricted to Academy members who are certified to have seen all five nominees, which greatly narrows the field of voters and means, for instance, that an unheralded movie like last year’s winner Departures (from Japan) can prevail over a better known nominee like Israel’s entry Waltz with Bashir.
Winner or loser, a number of the Oscar-nominated foreign-language films are available to borrow from New York Public Library. Check the Academy Awards database against NYPL holdings, and make your own decisions about what should have won in any given year. Or just use the list of honored titles as a starting point to enjoy some of the riches of international cinema.