Foreign-language films stormed the big Oscar categories this year. How come?

Film Critic

The first happy surprise of the Academy Award nominations arrived with the first category unveiled Tuesday morning, when Marina de Tavira, a 44-year-old veteran of the Mexican stage and screen, received a supporting actress nod for “Roma.”

De Tavira’s nomination was a telling one. It wasn’t just the quality of the performance that made the news so welcome, although it certainly bears mentioning: As Sofía, the soon-to-be-divorced wife and mother who commands the house but not the dramatic focus of Alfonso Cuarón’s luminous film, De Tavira has the tricky task of piecing together an emotionally complex character within the margins of a panorama. Given how few non-English-language performances tend to land on Oscar’s radar, it took a discerning eye for voters from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to single out her fiercely compassionate work. (A tide of critical adulation for “Roma” and a well-run Netflix campaign didn’t hurt.)

With De Tavira’s name already announced, it was altogether less surprising — though no less welcome — to see Yalitza Aparicio earn a lead actress nomination for “Roma”: If a star was born this year, it was surely when the 24-year-old Oaxacan schoolteacher made her screen debut. All of which speaks to the industry’s widespread admiration for “Roma,” a deliberately paced black-and-white drama featuring Spanish and Mixtec dialogue.


It’s tempting to attribute the many nods for “Roma” to the support it got from Netflix, the entertainment powerhouse hungry for its first best picture nomination. But “Roma” was just one of many foreign-language films to figure prominently in the academy’s main categories this year, a trend that may just as well stem from its recent and ongoing push to diversify its ranks. The academy invited nearly 1,000 new members to join last year, hailing from 59 countries.

While Cuarón received a director nomination as expected, for example, he was joined by Pawel Pawlikowski for another black-and-white picture, the moody Polish romance “Cold War.” (Pawlikowski previously directed “Ida,” which won the Oscar for foreign-language film in 2015.)

These nods make 2019 the first time two entirely non-English-language films have earned directing nominations since 1976, when Ingmar Bergman (“Face to Face”) and Lina Wertmüller (“Seven Beauties”) made the cut.

And 2019 marks the first time that three of the five cinematography nominations have gone to non-English-language pictures: “Roma” (shot by Cuarón) and “Cold War” (shot by Lukasz Zal) were both recognized for their distinct monochrome palettes, while the veteran American cinematographer Caleb Deschanel earned his sixth nomination for his ravishing color photography on “Never Look Away,” an absorbing historical drama from Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”).

Not to be forgotten in the animated feature category was “Mirai,” a gorgeously intimate tale of family ties from Japanese writer-director Mamoru Hosoda that will face off with big-studio releases like “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”


Meanwhile, Ali Abbasi’s troll tale “Border,” an uncategorizable Swedish crowd-pleaser that probably narrowly missed the academy’s foreign-language shortlist, nonetheless eked out a makeup and hairstyling nomination for its remarkable prosthetic work.

And “Roma,” “Cold War” and “Never Look Away” all drew more traditional nominations for foreign-language film, a category rounded out by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s marvelous Palme d’Or winner, “Shoplifters” (Japan), and Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” (Lebanon), an emotionally raw, formally unruly tale of child poverty on the streets of Beirut.

It’s worth noting that the 2018-19 awards season kicked off with a fracas over the introduction, and subsequent retraction, of an Oscar category for popular film. All this fuss over big box-office hits — three of which, “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born,” received best picture nominations — made it all the more gratifying that the academy opted to look equally hard in the other direction, beyond the parameters of the American movie industry, and recognize excellence in world cinema in its major categories.

These results may be an unexpected but welcome consequence of the academy’s moves to refresh its voting pool. Or maybe it’s just a long-delayed return to form — a throwback to the glory days of the 1960s and ’70s, when Bergman and Fellini were household names (both received multiple Oscar nominations for writing and directing over the years), and international cinema as a whole commanded greater cultural currency in this country. It’s worth recalling that in 1976, the year of Bergman and Wertmüller, no fewer than three non-English-language performances received acting nominations: Marie-Christine Barrault for “Cousin, Cousine,” Liv Ullman for “Face to Face” and Giancarlo Giannini for “Seven Beauties.”

Despite the academy’s noted love affair with French actresses over the years — Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Riva and past winner Marion Cotillard are some of its most inspired recent nominees — it has rarely afforded international films so generous a showcase. And this year’s nominations for Aparicio and De Tavira, richly deserved as they were, likely benefited from a surge of across-the-board support for “Roma,” a critical favorite from an industry darling who already has one directing Oscar (for 2013’s “Gravity”) under his belt.


If the academy did better than expected on this front, it could have done better still. In a less competitive year for lead actress, Joanna Kulig’s captivating performance in “Cold War” might have made the cut. My own highly improbable wish list included writing and directing nominations for Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel (whose “Zama” was submitted for foreign-language film the previous year), plus acting nominations for Sakura Ando (“Shoplifters”) and all three central actors — Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun — in the South Korean drama “Burning.”

Ah yes, “Burning.” Regular readers of The Times’ movie pages of late may have guessed that I would get to this subject eventually. Lee Chang-dong’s masterpiece of dread-soaked romantic paranoia, adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, was the best new movie I saw in 2018, in any language.

I was not alone in this sentiment. In recent months, “Burning” has been recognized as one of the year’s finest achievements by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics, and also by critics’ polls in Sight & Sound and Film Comment. It recently became the first Korean movie ever shortlisted for the foreign-language film Oscar, which meant it stood a decent chance at becoming the first one ever nominated.

As of Tuesday morning, alas, that ridiculous hurdle has yet to be cleared. As an admirer of most of this year’s foreign-language film nominees, I can’t be too cranky about the lack of love for “Burning,” a leisurely paced, hypnotically unsettling drama that refuses to let you get your tonal, thematic and dramatic bearings for 2½ hours. Nor can I fault the academy for essentially repeating the decision of the jury at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where more overtly humanist crowd-pleasers like “Shoplifters” and “Capernaum” earned major prizes but where “Burning” went away empty-handed.

I can, however, voice my ongoing disappointment that one of the world’s most vibrant and industrious national cinemas continues to come up short in the annual crapshoot that is the foreign-language film race. There are admittedly a few reasons for that: The academy’s antiquated one-film-per-country system places unfortunate, often politically motivated constraints on what does and doesn’t get submitted, and South Korea hasn’t always put its best foot forward.


The trouble is that many other countries haven’t either — and they’ve managed to get nominated anyway. In a recent piece for the Wrap (titled “Do the Oscars Have an Asia Problem in the Foreign-Language Film Race?”), Steve Pond shrewdly pointed out the dim track record for East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian movies of late. No South Asian picture has been nominated since 2001’s “Lagaan.” Cambodia managed a rare mention for Rithy Panh’s 2013 documentary “The Missing Picture.” Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” is the first East Asian title to receive a nomination in this category since another Japanese title, the middling “Departures,” won the Oscar 10 years ago.

If I were an academy member, my vote for foreign-language film this year would go to “Shoplifters.” That said, “Roma” clearly has the trophy in the bag, and its supporters are holding out for more. And why shouldn’t they? More than any other international favorite that has also contended for Oscar’s top prize — more than “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” more than “Amour,” more even than “Cries and Whispers” or “Grand Illusion” — “Roma” seems to have a legitimate claim on the best picture Oscar.

And if so, more power to it. In nine decades, the academy has never recognized a non-English-language feature (or, for that matter, an animated film or documentary) as the year’s finest. Perhaps it will take a cinematic bridge like “Roma” — a giant among art films, a social-realist blockbuster, a Netflix theatrical event — to reverse that trend. In a year of tentative progress toward a genuinely world-class slate of winners and nominees, Cuarón’s movie issues a bold challenge to the academy: That one of its last borders should finally be opened.