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Is the Foreign Film Oscar Corrupt and Pointless?

Sony Pictures Classics/Photofest

The Academy Awards brings a media frenzy each year, but also a great deal of dismissive sneering. Who cares? The good movies are all at the festivals, and the ones critics love never win anyway. No category provokes more disdain than the Best Foreign Language Film, not because of the films themselves, but because of the problems with the category: The Academy’s rules mean that some movies don’t qualify simply because they’ve been banned in their home countries; the selection process has become increasingly politicized; and the Academy itself tends to have terrible taste. (Just think back to 2009, when Departures beat Waltz with Bashir and The Class.)

But despite the humbugging and the eye-rolling, the Foreign Film Oscar still matters. An Oscar nomination means money—not just in American markets, but also abroad. “It’s such big news in our home country that it changes the prospects of the film at home completely,” says Luc Déry, who produced Oscar nominees Incendies (2010) and Monsieur Lazhar (2011). “People want to see the movie because they want to root for it.” An Oscar nod also helps sell movies in smaller countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East that the studios initially passed over. Monsieur Lazhar, for instance, debuted in 25 countries before its Oscar nod and ended up in almost 50 afterwards. Directors also find financing easy to come by for future projects, because no one will turn down an Oscar nominee.

It’s not necessarily the Oscars themselves that are important, but the media coverage the show generates. “If you have a film nominated for foreign language film, you can be sure the next day it’s front page news in every country,” said Brigitte Hubmann of Telefilm Canada, the group that chairs the Canadian selection committee. “It’s like the Olympics. You can’t pay for that.”

This year, a record 83 countries submitted movies for consideration this year, topping last year’s record-breaking 76. Once the submissions are whittled down to the final five, the road to the awards show is tense and fraught, with each country jostling and marketing its candidate. Even the Los Angeles-based consulates and embassies get involved. As Edward Arentz of Music Box Films, an American distributor of independent and foreign films, put it: “It’s not a horse race, but a dog show.”

To give you a dog in the fight, or—er—show, we’re taking a look at each film nominated in the Best Foreign Film category and offering an assessment of each of the nominees: Ida, an unflinching exploration of the legacy of the Holocaust in Poland; Leviathan, a bleak meditation on Russian corruption; Wild Tales, a black comedy from Argentina on the frustrations of modern life; Timbuktu, Mauritania’s first-ever entry, a look at daily life under a jihadist regime; and Tangerines, Estonia’s surprise nominee about a farmer caught in the Georgian War. (And in case you missed it, here’s an interview with the directors of The Gett—not a nominee, but Israel's critically-acclaimed official submission this year.)  

Here’s the first installment, David Thomson's review of Ida. More to come.

*Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Tangerines is about a fisherman in the Balkan Wars. It is a farmer in the Georgian War. 

For more Oscar coverage, click here.