Lost in Translation: Second-Guessing the Academy's Foreign Language Picks

  • Publish Date: April 16, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 13 user comments

It's no secret: The Academy makes some strange choices

ImageHe's got a secret

Finally arriving in American theaters this weekend, The Secret in Their Eyes 76 (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) is an exhilarating (or perplexing, depending on the reviewer) blend of mystery, suspense, romance, politics, and even a bit of comedy. The Argentinean film is also the most recent Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. But Secret is not the best-reviewed foreign film of the past year. In fact, it's not even the most acclaimed release of the five nominees who competed for this year's Oscar. As we shall see in a moment, this year is not an aberration; the Academy and film critics rarely agree on the year's best film import.

First, some data. Here is how the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film has compared to other key releases over the past decade. Note that the comparisons only involve other nominees or other films that were officially submitted for Oscar consideration; for reasons that we shall get to in a minute, many worthy foreign films do not even qualify to be nominated.

Comparison of Oscar-Winning Foreign Language Films, 1999-2009
Rankings 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999
Winner's Metascore rank
among all SUBMITTED films
7th 12th 7th 2nd 11th 10th 15th 11th 2nd 1st 1st
Winner's Metascore rank
among all NOMINATED films
4th* 5th 2nd* 2nd 3rd 2nd* 2nd* 3rd 1st 1st 1st
Winner's user score rank
among all NOMINATED films
n/a 4th 2nd* 1st 4th 2nd* 4th* 1st 5th 3rd 1st
Winner's U.S. box office rank
among all NOMINATED films
n/a 3rd 2nd 2nd 1st 3rd 1st 2nd 2nd 1st 1st

* At least one nominee that year did not receive scores due to a very limited or no American theatrical release.
Note that the years listed are the years that films were released in their home countries and submitted for consideration, although due to Academy deadlines, the original release doesn't exactly correspond to a calendar year. The actual Oscars were then awarded the following year. For example, "2009" refers to films that qualified during 2009 and were recognized at the 2010 awards ceremony. Also note that not all submitted films have Metascores, since many were never released theatrically in the United States. The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good). User scores represent an average of scores assigned by Metacritic.com site visitors on a scale from 0 (bad) to 10 (good).

As you can see, you have to go back to the year 2000 to find an Oscar-winning foreign film that was also the best-reviewed movie out of all films submitted to the Academy for consideration. In fact, in five of the past eight years, at least 10 of the submitted films have received better reviews than the eventual winner. Even if you focus only on the nominated films, the last time that the Oscar winner scored higher with critics than its fellow nominees was in 2001.

So if the Academy voters aren't selecting the most critically-acclaimed films, what exactly are they picking? The most accessible films? That doesn't appear to be the case, either. As you can see above, the Academy's selections rarely coincide with Metacritic user preferences. And, more surprisingly -- given that an Oscar victory presumably provides some sort of box office bump -- the Oscar-winning foreign film more often than not performs more poorly in U.S. theaters than at least one other nominee. Apparently, the only people who agree with Academy voters are ... Academy voters.

Perhaps the Academy is aiming for geographic diversity. There is only one country to repeat as a winner over the past decade: Germany, winning for films released in 2002 and 2006. Another reason might be that the winning selections reflect the tastes of people with a lot of time on their hands. After all, those Academy members who do vote on foreign-language films have their work cut out for them: not only must they see up to five dozen films, but they must do so in a theater, since the Academy does not allow voters to view foreign films at home on DVD (as it does for Best Picture). But you can't just blame the voters; thanks to the Academy's arcane rules, many would-be contenders are never even submitted.

It's an honor merely to qualify

As we hinted earlier, many worthy foreign-language films don't even meet the Academy's qualification requirements, and thus cannot even receive a nomination. The much-discussed and much-disliked eligibility rules require films to be non-American in origin, and spoken mostly in a language other than English. Those basic requirements are the easy ones (though at least one foreign film has still been disqualified for having too much English dialogue, and an American film like the Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima cannot get a nomination). But it gets more difficult from there.

If too many of the film's crew members aren't residents of the submitting country? Disqualified. (It happened to Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in 2007.) If the film is in a foreign language, but not the language commonly spoken in the submitting country? Disqualified. (It happened to Michael Haneke's French-language but Austria-submitted Cache in 2005, but that bizarre rule has since been eliminated.) If the film aired first (even if in a different version) on TV or the internet? Disqualified.

The most onerous rule of all, though, is the requirement that there can be only one submission per country per year. If there should happen to be, say, two phenomenal French movies in one calendar year (hey, it could happen), only one of them can even be eligible to be nominated. And which film gets submitted by each country? One that is selected according to each country's own rules in a process that is frequently marred by politics, criticism and controversy. Heck, even the definition of "country" has come under fire. (Hong Kong? It qualifies. Puerto Rico? Yes, even though it's hardly non-American. Palestine? Nope -- most of the time.)

Here are some notable foreign-language films from the past decade that, for one reason or another, were not submitted to the Academy for consideration.

Recent Notable Foreign Language Films Not Submitted for Oscar Consideration
Film U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
Yi Yi: A One and a Two 2000 92 8.2 bar $1.1 million
35 Shots of Rum 2009 92 5.9  
Werckmeister Harmonies 2001 92 6.9  
Moolaadé 2004 91 7.0  
Beau Travail 2000 91 7.5  
The Best of Youth 2005 89 9.2  
Still Walking 2009 89 9.1  
Y tu mamá también 2002 88 7.8 bar 13.8
Time Out 2002 88 7.2  
Maria Full of Grace 2004 87 8.3 bar 6.5
Talk to Her 2002 86 8.4 bar 9.3
The Wind Will Carry Us 2000 86 8.2  
To Be and To Have 2003 86 9.4 bar 0.8
I'm Going Home 2002 86 7.0  
Ten 2003 86 8.3  
The Beaches of Agnes 2009 86 6.5  
Russian Ark 2002 86 7.1 bar 3.0
Under the Sand 2001 86 8.7 bar 1.5
Tell No One 2008 82 7.7 bar 6.2
Kung Fu Hustle 2005 78 8.9 bar 17.1
Monsoon Wedding 2002 77 7.9 bar 13.9
A Very Long Engagement 2004 76 8.0 bar 6.5
The Motorcycle Diaries 2004 75 7.7 bar 16.8
Jet Li's Fearless 2006 70 8.6 bar 24.6

Box office grosses are in millions of dollars and reflect domestic receipts only. Omitted grosses were under $500,000. Source for box office figures: Box Office Mojo.

What the Academy picked, and what was overlooked

Now, let's look at the films that were indeed submitted for consideration over the past decade. What films earned nominations, what films won, and which acclaimed movies did the Academy completely overlook?

In each table below, the Oscar winner is highlighted in gold.

2009 Foreign Language Film Submissions (82nd Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1A Prophet 201090 9.0 bar $1.7 million
2Ajami 2010829.5 bar 0.5
3The White Ribbon 2009828.4 bar 2.1
4The Secret in Their Eyes 201076n/a n/a
The Milk of Sorrow n/an/an/an/a
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
Police, Adjective2009815.3  
Mother [2009]2009798.8 
Afghan Star20097810.0 
Other notable films among the official submissions:
Terribly Happy2010748.3 

Box office grosses are in millions of dollars and reflect domestic receipts only. Source for box office figures: Box Office Mojo.

Note that the list of last year's acclaimed foreign films that were not even submitted for Oscar consideration includes 35 Shots of Rum 92, Still Walking 89, Summer Hours 84 and The Headless Woman 80, all of which scored higher with critics than winner The Secret in Their Eyes 76.

2008 Foreign Language Film Submissions (81st Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1The Class 2008926.9 bar 3.8
2Waltz with Bashir 200891 8.0 bar 2.3
3Revanche 2009848.4 0.2
4The Baader Meinhof Complex 2009767.9 bar 0.5
5Departures 2009687.7 bar 1.5
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
Tulpan2009886.0 
Gomorrah2009875.7 bar 1.6
Everlasting Moments2009808.2 
O'Horten2009787.2 
The Song of Sparrows200974n/a 
Three Monkeys2009739.0 
Tony Manero2009725.6  
2007 Foreign Language Film Submissions (80th Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1Katyn2009818.7 0.1
2The Counterfeiters 2008788.1 bar 5.5
3Mongol 2008747.6 bar 5.7
4122009726.50.1
Beaufort n/an/an/a0.1
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days2008977.9 
Persepolis2007908.1 
The Edge of Heaven2008858.7 
Taxidermia2009838.5 
Silent Light2009797.5 
Other notable films among the official submissions:
Jar City2008758.0 
The Orphanage2007748.5 bar 7.2
Exiled2007736.6 
I Served the King of England2008728.4 
2006 Foreign Language Film Submissions (79th Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1Pan's Labyrinth 2006988.3 bar 37.6
2The Lives of Others 200689 9.0 bar 11.3
3Days of Glory 2006827.7 bar 0.3
4After the Wedding 2007788.5 bar 1.5
5Water 2006776.7 bar 5.5
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
[None.]
Other notable films among the official submissions:
Volver2006848.8 bar 12.9
Ten Canoes2007827.4 
Reprise2008797.0 
2005 Foreign Language Film Submissions (78th Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1Sophie Scholl – The Final Days 2006769.2 bar 0.7
2Paradise Now 2005718.4 bar 1.5
3Tsotsi 200670 8.0 bar 2.9
4Joyeux Noël 2006708.7 bar 1.1
5Don't Tell 200652 8.0 0
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
L'Enfant (The Child)2006878.4bar 0.7
Fateless2006878.4 
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu2006848.1 
Cache (Hidden) * 2005836.0 bar 3.6
C.R.A.Z.Y.2007819.5 
The Italian2007747.6 
The Cave of the Yellow Dog2006738.3 
Buffalo Boy2005728.2 

* Cache was later disqualified because it was in a language not native to the submitting country.

2004 Foreign Language Film Submissions (77th Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1Downfall 2005828.6 bar 5.5
2The Sea Inside 2004748.8 bar 2.1
3The Chorus 200556 9.2 bar 3.6
As It Is in Heaven n/an/an/a0
Yesterday n/an/an/an/a
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
House of Flying Daggers2004897.7 bar 11.1
Nobody Knows2005889.0 bar 0.7
Turtles Can Fly2005859.4 
The Five Obstructions2004796.4 
Up and Down2005787.0 
Far Side of the Moon2005769.0 
Machuca2005769.7 
The Keys to the House2004747.5 
Other notable films among the official submissions:
Memory of a Killer2005738.3 
Kontroll2005729.1 
Lost Embrace2005707.5 
2003 Foreign Language Film Submissions (76th Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1The Twilight Samurai 200482 9.0 bar 0.6
2The Barbarian Invasions 2003717.5 bar 8.5
3Zelary2004668.1 bar 0.3
4Evil 2006618.10
Twin Sisters n/an/an/a0
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring2004858.1 bar 2.4
Distant2004846.9  
Osama2004837.2bar 1.3
The Return2004828.1 
Goodbye Dragon Inn2004825.3  
The Story of the Weeping Camel2004819.1 bar 1.8
Infernal Affairs2004759.4 
Kitchen Stories2004758.3 
A Talking Picture2004755.7  
Divine Intervention2003747.0 
I'm Not Scared2004738.4 
Last Life in the Universe2004738.0 
Carandiru2004717.7 
2002 Foreign Language Film Submissions (75th Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1Hero 200484 7.0 bar 53.7
2The Man Without a Past 2003848.1 bar 0.9
3Nowhere in Africa 2003728.8 bar 6.2
4The Crime of Father Amaro 200260 8.0 bar 5.7
5Zus & Zo 200350 6.0 0
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
The Son2003867.5 
Lilya 4-Ever2003829.3 
City of God2003798.7 bar 7.6
Hukkle2003798.8 
Oasis2004798.2 
Open Hearts2003778.8 
The Clay Bird20047510.0 
Broken Wings2004758.0 
2001 Foreign Language Film Submissions (74th Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1No Man's Land 2001848.5 bar 1.0
2Lagaan 2002849.1 bar 0.9
3Elling 2002709.5 bar 0.3
4Amélie 2001698.6 bar 33.2
5Son of the Bride 2002689.5 bar 0.6
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
The Fast Runner2002917.8 bar 3.8
Other notable films among the official submissions:
Late Marriage2002827.2 bar 1.7
The Piano Teacher2002797.8 bar 1.0
Baran2001799.3 
Italian for Beginners2002779.8 bar 4.5
Perfume de Violetas20047410.0 
Behind the Sun2001737.6 
Our Lady of the Assassins2001738.2 bar 0.5
The Son's Room2002739.2bar 1.0
2000 Foreign Language Film Submissions (73rd Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 200093 7.0 bar 128.1*
2Amores Perros 2001839.3 bar 5.4
3The Taste of Others 2001786.8 bar 0.9
4Divided We Fall 2001699.7 bar 1.3
5Everybody Famous! 200160n/a 0.1
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
[None.]
Other notable films among the official submissions:
In the Mood for Love2001858.7 bar 2.7
Chunhyang2000798.8 bar 0.8
A Time for Drunken Horses20007810.0 bar 0.6
Songs from the Second Floor2002747.3 
The Vertical Ray of the Sun2001729.3 

* Bar graph for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon domestic gross not to scale due to space limitations.

1999 Foreign Language Film Submissions (72nd Academy Awards)
The Nominees U.S. Release Metascore User Score U.S. Box Office Gross
1All About My Mother 1999879.6 bar 8.3
2Himalaya [aka Caravan]2001738.9 bar 2.5
3East-West 200061 9.0 bar 2.3
4Under the Sun 200160 8.8 bar 0.3
5Solomon and Gaenor 200058 8.30.2
Submitted films that weren't nominated but scored higher than the winner:
[None.]
Other notable films among the official submissions:
Set Me Free2000809.2 
Rosetta1999769.0 
Aimee & Jaguar2000729.7 bar 0.9
Earth [1999]1999719.2 

Is it all Greek to you?

How do you feel about the Academy's foreign language picks over the past decade? Are there foreign films that you enjoyed that you feel should have been recognized by the Academy? Let us know in the comments section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (13)

  • ld pierce  

    much info here about Metacritic and foreign limited release films. http://www.tiny.cc/dfwforeign2010

  • J. Leal  

    I think it is only a matter of time that Lucrecia Martel will helm a third Oscar winning film for Argentina. Produced by Almodovar, her very personal movies are very well regarded among critics: La Cienaga, Holy Girl, Headless woman. I would also mention The aura by Fabian Bielinsky and Bolivia by Adrian Caetano.

  • Nick  

    The winner definitely should have been A Prophet or The White Ribbon. Painted Fire, Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, The Host, Memories of Murder and Oldboy are some other overlooked masterpieces.

  • J. Leal  

    It is very premature to compare The Secret In Their Eyes' score with the other movies. The Oscar winner only have 19 critics counted, while movies like A prophet have 29. On top of that, the crowd pleasing nature of the film gained the movie the disdain of a few critics who associate "foreign" with art house. Some of these critics suspiciously low scores really hurt the total percentage even though the most influential media has gave it rave reviews.

  • Jack  

    Just wanted to mention Nine Queens and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Two worthy films that were omitted by both the Oscars and your article.

  • Christopher  

    I am too. City of God was not only one of the best foreign films of the past decade, it may have been one of the best overall.

  • Joe  

    Insightful article.
    Like a lot of people, I was perplexed by this year's Oscar winner. (Charming crime procedural, but really...?)
    BUT I was shocked that City of God wasn't even nominated.

  • Matt Cronin  

    Great Article. I've been shocked by the Academy's choices the last two years in the Foreign Language Best Picture category. I hope they can step it up next year.

  • Chad S.  

    My new obsession is Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. Quebec, the French-speaking part of Canada, I think, is eligible to submit films for Oscar consideration, and "Brand Upon the Brain" definitely deserved a nod. Maddin's neo-silent films are audience friendly(if the moviegoer can get pass his/her prejudice against early cinema) because their absurdist, and not at all pretentious. Spike Jonze fans might like "The Saddest Music in the World".

  • aaaaaaaa  

    Kung Fu Hustle and Fearless are true masterpieces. Shaolin Soccer and District B-13 should be on the "notables" too.

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