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A more worldly Oscar

With so many nominations for work from abroad, the foreign language award seems outdated.

February 07, 2007

FOREIGN FILMMAKING talent is represented in record numbers at this year's Academy Awards. A majority of the top Oscar categories include at least one nominee from a film that's largely in a language other than English. And three films written and directed by Mexicans garnered 16 nominations -- including three for best screenplay.

At the same time, it's becoming difficult to tell what constitutes a "foreign" film. One of the nominees for best picture is "Letters from Iwo Jima," which is largely in Japanese. The film was backed by two U.S. studios, however, and its producers include Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg.

So why, we wonder, does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still need a separate category for the best foreign language film produced outside the United States? Is that the academy's way of saying that such films as "Pan's Labyrinth," a drama about Fascist Spain by Mexico's Guillermo del Toro, needn't be considered for the top prize?

Foreign films might have needed special treatment years ago, when it was hard for many of them to find a U.S. distributor. This year, however, all nine semi-finalists in the foreign language category (only five of which were ultimately nominated) had distribution deals that put them into U.S. multiplexes.

The boundaries between the U.S. movie industry and the rest of the world are leaky to the point of irrelevance, as reflected by the proliferation of foreign actors, directors, screenwriters and designers on the Oscar ballot.

But even if we lived in an age of tidy, self-contained national film industries, Hollywood should still be cosmopolitan in bestowing its ultimate honor. Protectionist France may want to reserve its top Cesar for the best of French cinema, but this isn't France. Hollywood is the global capital of entertainment, and the Oscars should celebrate the greatest contributions to the cinematic arts, no matter the work's language or national origin. To its credit, prior to this year, seven foreign language films have been nominated for the best picture award, dating back to the 1938 classic, "Grand Illusion."

The question is, how many other deserving nominees didn't make the best picture category because voters assumed the makers of those films would be content with the foreign language nomination?

And it's worth noting that none of the nominated foreign language films made outside of the U.S. have ever won the best picture award. In other words, the best movie made every year since silent films gave way to talkies has been made -- how fortuitous for us! -- in the English language.

First awarded 50 years ago, the foreign language Oscar seems to perpetuate a restriction more than a distinction. The nominating system -- which limits candidates to one per country and discriminates against films with production teams from multiple countries -- is out of step with the multinational nature of filmmaking today. It's time for the academy to stop paying attention to where films are from and honor instead the best work that hits this country's theaters, regardless of its lineage.

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