The Cannes film festival wrapped this weekend (previous posts) and the most recent Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, The Secret in Their Eyes is still in the midst of a successful US run. That Oscar winning Argentinian film came to us from director Juan Jose Campanella. It's his second film to be honored by the Academy (Son of the Bride was nominated ten years back). The Academy voters obviously like Campanella and in some ways he's a Hollywood guy. When he's not directing Argentinian Oscar hopefuls he spends time making US television with episodes of Law & Order, House and 30 Rock under his belt.
So let's talk foreign-language auteurs. Who does Oscar love most?
[The film titles discussed in this article will link to Netflix pages -- if available -- should you be curious to see the films]
Best Director winners Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) and Milos Forman
(Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
(Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Please Note: Filmmakers like Ang Lee (Taiwan), Milos Forman (Czech) and Louis Malle (France) have won multiple notices for their foreign language work with the Academy but I'm restricting this list to those directors who worked primarily in their native tongue throughout their careers. The three aforementioned men all had their biggest Oscar successes from English language films.
OSCAR'S TEN FAVORITE FOREIGN AUTEURS
The ranking that follows are somewhat arbitrary since we're
dealing with different kinds of attention paid.
dealing with different kinds of attention paid.
Honorable Mention: Ettore Scola (Italy), Bo Widerberg (Sweden), Carlos Saura (Spain) and Zhang Yimou (China) each helmed 3 Foreign Film Nominees over the years... the latter two for submissions from two different countries. Denys Arcand (Canada) and Nikita Mikhalkov (Russia) have each directed 3 Nominees one of which won the prize (The Barbarian Invasions and Burnt By The Sun, respectively). Mikhalkov, who also acts in his pictures, recently completed the sequel to his Oscar winner called Burnt by the Sun 2, but reviews have been brutal so we aren't banking on seeing it in the Oscar lineup next year. Finally, Jose Luis Garci (Spain) directed 4 nominated films, winning once for Volver a Empezar.
let's make this a top dozen
12 István Szabó (Hungary) 1938 - still working
4 Foreign Film Nominees (1 win)
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 5 nominations, 1 win
Like Spain's Garci, the last of the honorable mentions, Szabó directed 4 Foreign Film Nominees, winning once. But in the case of Szabó, it's a more surprising achievement. Unlike Spain, Hungary has rarely won much favor with Oscar. In fact, after Szabó's last nomination, Hungarian films have been completely ignored by the Academy.
In a remarkable hot streak in the Eighties, Szabo had four (!) Best Foreign Film nominations: Bizalom (1980), Mephisto (1981 winner), Colonel Redl (1985) and Hanussen (1988). The latter three all starred Klaus Maria Brandauer who became a fixture in international cinema after the success of Mephisto. It helps to speak several languages and be brilliant -- just ask Christoph Waltz (Yes, there are earlier incarnations of all success stories). Brandauer might have even won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his sterling work in Out of Africa (1985) had voters not been feeling sentimental for that Cocoon fella. Oscar was SO sentimental in the 80s.
But where were we? Ah yes. Szabo moved over to English language cinema (directing Annette Bening to a nomination for Being Julia) but he hasn't yet equalled those early Hungarian successes.
11 Mario Monicelli (Italy) 1915 - still living
2 nominations (writing) | 4 Foreign Film Nominees
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 6 nominations, 0 wins
He's best known for kicking off the commedia all'italiana movement in cinema and for the classic Big Deal on Madonna Street but Oscar's love for him stretches over six movies (His two screenplay nominations weren't even from his foreign film nominees). Monicelli turns 95 (!) this summer. He hasn't directed a feature film since 2006 but you may have seen him as an actor in the Diane Lane vehicle Under the Tuscan Sun (2003).
THE TOP TEN
10 René Clément (France) 1913-1996
1 Foreign Film Nominee | 2 Honorary Foreign Film Wins (before category existed)
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 4 nominations and 2 honorary statues
The Academy gave out 8 special foreign language film Oscars before they decided they needed to give foreign films their own category and René Clément won the prize twice during those years. In those days Oscar only had eyes for France, Italy and Japan. The Walls of Malapaga (1949) was his first win and he won again shortly thereafter for his internationally renowned classic Forbidden Games (1952). Games even won a second Oscar nomination for story two years later once it finally hit American screens (this is before they changed the rules to prevent films from competing in more than one year). That film was in some ways the perfect embodiment of Oscar's foreign type before Oscar even knew it had one: young children as protagonists + World War II.
The Academy created the foreign language film category as we know it in 1956 and Clément's was there again as a shortlister for the Emile Zola adaptation Gervaise (1956).Though that film was his last foreign film nominee, he continued to make movies for another two decades including such well regarded films as Purple Noon (1960) and Paris Brûle-t-il? (1966) which received two Oscar nominations in other categories.
09 Luis Buñuel (Spain) 1900-1983
2 nominations (writing) | 3 Foreign Film Nominees (1 win)
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 5 nominations, 1 win
Oscar arrived at the Buñuel party conspicuously late. They even ignored Belle de Jour (1967) one of the best films ever, despite awards attention elsewhere. Sometimes they are well behind the curve. Notice how long it took Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) and Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) to win attention. In some ways it's surprising that AMPAS got there at all with Buñuel given the director's penchant for sexuality and surrealism. Oscar somewhat prefers the chaste and the literal as you know.
Tristana and the years of critical acclaim preceding it, opened their hearts to his work at the dawn of the '70s. His follow up, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), was a double nominee. Its win in the Foreign Film category has to count as one of the best but most unusual choices in the category's entire history. But then Oscar was at his most adventurous in the early 70s. Oscar and Buñuel had one last fling with That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). It was also Buñuel's last affair with the cinema. The father of cinematic surrealism was in his late 70s at the time and died in 1983.
08 Andrzej Wajda (Poland) 1926 - still working
1 Honorary Oscar | 4 Foreign Film Nominees
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 4 nominations, 0 wins and 1 honorary statue
Poland's most influential filmmaker was most revered by awards bodies in the latter half of the 70s and early 80s. He won 3 Foreign Film Oscar nominations in that period: Promised Land (1975), The Maids of Wilko (1979... retitled The Young Girls of Wilko) and Man of Iron (1981). To prove that it wasn't a temporary love, Oscar handed him an honorary statue for "five decades of extraordinary film direction" in March of 2000. He won a fourth foreign film nomination recently for Katyn (2007). His lauded filmography also includes Ashes and Diamond (1958) and the French biopic Danton (1983) starring Gerard Depardieu which received awards attention elsewhere but strangely no Oscar heat.
07 Jan Troell (Sweden) 1931- still working
2 nominations (directing, writing) | 3 Foreign Film Nominees | 1 Best Picture Nominee
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 7 nominations, 0 wins
He's often forgotten in discussions of Scandinavian cinema (at least here in the US) since Ingmar Bergman casts such a long shadow. But Oscar was quite fond of him up until recently. His high water mark with the Academy was Utvandrarna (The Emigrants) -- strangely not on DVD -- one of only five pictures to ever achieve both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture nominations. Given Oscar history it's a bit odd that the Academy didn't jump on his latest picture Everlasting Moments (2008) and even with Max von Sydow in the lead role, Hamsun (1996) didn't win attention either.
06 Pedro Almodovar (Spain) 1949- still working
2 nominations (directing, writing) | 1 Oscar (writing) | 2 Foreign Film Nominees (1 win)
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 5 nominations, 2 wins
Spain's most famous living filmmaker has a fascinating Oscar history. The Academy embraced his international breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but then ignored the next ten years of his career. His Oscar comeback was the mature and wondrous All About My Mother (1999) which took the top prize, despite content that would normally scare them away. Given his global fame and AMPAS's familiarity with his mad melodramedic skill, you'd think he'd have more nominated films to his credit. Part of the problem is that the Spanish Academy, which makes Spain's choice about Foreign Film representation, hasn't always been gaga for Pedro's work. Famously they passed over Talk to Her (2002) in its year so Oscar handed that recent masterpiece a screenplay Oscar and a directing nomination instead. It's no small stretch of the imagination to say that it would've beat the German winner Nowhere in Africa that year to become Pedro's second winner in the category. Volver (2006) was weirdly snubbed in the Foreign category but managed the even more high profile Best Actress nomination and became Pedro's biggest stateside hit if you don't adjust for inflation.
05 Francois Truffaut (France) 1932-1984
3 nominations (writing, directing) | 3 Foreign Film Nominees (1 win)
all Oscar categories: His films have earned 8 nominations, 1 win
This icon started his career as an obsessive cinephile and provoactive critic at the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. His feature debut, The 400 Blows (1959) kicked off the French New Wave and proved to be one of the most influential and acclaimed films ever made. That film won him the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival at only 27 years of age. It also netted him his first Oscar nomination and more would follow. His classics include seminal features like Jules et Jim (1962) as well as Oscar-recognized favorites like Stolen Kisses (1968), Day for Night (1973 -winner), The Story of Adele H (1975) and The Last Metro (1980).
Film buffs will note that he also acted, even receiving a BAFTA nomination for appearing in his admirer Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Here's Spielberg talking about working with him.
04 Akira Kurosawa (Japan) 1910-1998
1 Honorary Oscar | 1 nomination (directing) | 3 Foreign Film Nominees (1 win) | 1 Honorary Foreign Film Win (before category existed)
all Oscar categories: His films have earned 12 nominations, 2 wins and 2 honorary statues
Japan's most famous filmmaker spent over sixty years working in the cinema and his legacy is enormous. The Oscars don't paint a full enough portrait of his cinematic impact. Only two of his films won the Foreign Oscar: the game changing Rashomon (1951) which people have been riffing on ever since, making it one of the true must-sees for cultural literacy, and Dersu Uzala (1975) which actually won the prize for Russia rather than Japan. His other nominated films were Dodes'ka-Den (1970) and Kagemusha (1980). I can't recall the circumstances which led his King Lear style epic Ran (1985) to ineligibility in the foreign film category but the Academy compensated with a well deserved Best Director nomination for that classic.
Still, despite what would be more than plentiful Oscar attention for most filmmakers, this portrait feels incomplete. Major classics like The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) or The Seven Samurai (1954) had to make due with technical nods or none at all. They sure did owe him that honorary Oscar they gave him in 1990 "For cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world."
The Top ThreeOscar's most beloved trinity of foreign language film auteurs (in terms of this list's criteria) had the good golden fortune to be doing incredible work during the decades when US movie culture was most enamored of foreign fare. That is, at least since the silent film era, before sound came crashing into cinema toppling it like the tower of Babel.
03 Vittorio de Sica (Italy) 1901-1974
1 nomination (acting) | 3 Foreign Film Nominees (2 wins) | 2 Honorary Foreign Film Wins (before there was a category)
all Oscar categories: His (directorial) filmography has earned 10 nominations, 3 wins and 2 honorary statues
The Bicycle Thief and The Garden of the Fitzi-Continis... the titles alone sound mythic somehow, having amassed so much cultural heft over the years. Those two Oscar winning classics aren't true bookends of de Sica's acclaimed filmography but since one is from the 40s and one from the 70s they work as such. This Italian neorealist and prolific writer/actor/director was celebrated often and seemingly continuously from Shoe-Shine (1947's honorary winner) through his supporting actor nomination for A Farewell to Arms (1957) and onward until the Fitzi-Continis. His swansong The Voyage (1974) didn't win awards but it was a fitting goodbye, since it allowed him to reteam him with his frequent muse Sophia Loren.
I was a bit surprised to see his name above Kurosawa's in this listing given their name recognition value these days but he's a truly giant figure from world cinema history, popularizing neorealism in the late 40s and delivering multiple classics. He was also one of the principle authors of Sophia Loren's legend having directed her in both her Oscar winning role in Two Women (1961) and in celebrated films like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1964's foreign Oscar winner) and Marriage, Italian Style (1964). He also directed American screen giants like Montgomery Clift in Indiscretions of an American Wife and Shirley Maclaine in Woman Times Seven (she was Golden Globe nominated for that multiple role performance).
02 Ingmar Bergman (Sweden) 1918-2007
9 nominations (directing, writing, producing) | Irving Thalberg Award | 3 Foreign Film Winners | 1 Best Picture Nominee
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 21 nominations, 7 wins and a Thalberg
This legendary Swede's body of work is so deep and impressive (not to mention deeply immersed in the human condition) that listing his numerous Oscar successes wouldn't even acknowledge what some would argue is his greatest achievement (Persona, 1966). That black and white masterwork in which a mute actress (Bergman's muse and lover Liv Ullmann) and her nurse (Bibi Andersson) become pyschologically fused has influenced much work since, including two of the greatest films from other world class auteurs (David Lynch's Mulholland Dr and Robert Altman's Three Women). Woody Allen never did his own Persona riff but he is arguably the most famous of Bergman's many auteur fans.
Bergman's filmography is essentially one treasure after another so we'll have to ignore the bulk of it for brevity's sake and point you to his Oscar films in case you haven't seen them. Program a mini festival at home. All three of his foreign film nominees won: The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Fanny And Alexander (1982). [Trivia Note: Sweden has never won the foreign prize outside of Bergman's work]
In addition to his foreign film winners Bergman's other gold successes include Wild Strawberries (1957) Face to Face (1976) and Autumn Sonata (1978). The Academy fell deepest into a hypnotic Bergman trance in the early 70s when they gave him the Thalberg award and then followed up that honor with multiple nominations, including Best Picture, for his great and disturbing female grief drama Cries and Whispers (1972).
01 Federico Fellini (Italy) 1920-1993
12 nominations (directing, writing, producing) | 1 Honorary Oscar | 4 Foreign Film Winners |
all Oscar categories: His filmography has earned 23 nominations, 7 wins and 1 honorary statue
Last year's adaptation of Nine, itself adapted from a stage musical adapted from Federico Fellini's 8½ (1963) wasn't well received enough to spark a mini-Fellini revival in the media but the media was once quite enamored of all moving parts of Fellini's cinematic circus. That press conference scene in Nine was no exaggeration or joke. In fact, the word "paparazzi" sprung to life because of one of his best loved movies La Dolce Vita (1960) in which a male photographer's name is Paparazzo. Fellini's celebrity was vast and his actors were also sensations. His male muse Marcello Mastroianni never won an Oscar but he holds the record of most nominations for non-English language performances, three in total).
Though their sensibilities are vastly different, Fellini shares with Bergman, his only real rival for Oscar's foreigner crown, a prolific career and one with consistent inspiration and awards pull. Even before he won notices for his directing he was winning screenplay nominations for films he didn't helm.
Fellini's Academy Award winners: La Strada (1956), Nights of Cabiria (1957), 8½ (1963), Amarcord (1974) Other Oscar-honored Fellinis: I Vitelloni (1953), La Dolce Vita (1960), Satyricon (1969), Fellini's Casanova (1970).
How familiar are you with the films mentioned?
I have a decent grasp of the Fellinis, Bunuels and Kurosawas. I'm nearly a completist with the Almodóvars (duh). But I need to get down to serious business on the Bergman's (small percentage despite my love. What's that about?) and I'm almost completely ignorant on the de Sicas and the Troells. So many I haven't seen.
How about you?