Every September countries submit their entries for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. Complaints about the rules and processes for this at times frustrating award inevitably follow. This year, one of the many selections to raise eyebrows was France’s “Les Miserables.” The contemporary-minded film got the selection committee’s nod over the period drama “Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire,” which made splashes at Cannes and Telluride. The omission highlights one of the principal criticisms of the category since inception: the one-country/one-film rule. The idea is that this limitation forces markets with an embarrassment of riches into arbitrary decisions. Indeed, as our list below may suggest, at least one country with a particularly vibrant film culture often suffers due to this.
Thus it is that with the upcoming release of the aforementioned, quiet costume drama by Celine Sciamma, we take a look at some of the most noteworthy omissions by country selection committees. You may recall that the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category, as it was previously known, began in 1947, during the 20th Academy Awards. This list considers only movies from 1956, when the award became competitive, to the present—films that could have in theory been submitted as their country’s official Oscar selection, but were not, for one reason or another.
“Autumn Sonata,” Sweden (1978)
Though it won Best Foreign Language Film at the Globes and from the National Board of Review, Ingrid Bergman’s final film appearance was overlooked by Sweden. The film, directed by Ingmar Bergman and also starring Swedish great Liv Ullman, tells the story of an estranged mother (Bergman) and daughter (Ullman) who try in vain to reconcile. Featuring the typical themes of familial neurosis and distancing that pervade Ingmar’s work, “Autumn Sonata” is a quiet but representative exemplar of the master director’s life work. Alas, the Guldbagge Awards jury, which determines its country’s nominee, decided not to enter any film for 1978, even though the Academy nominates Bergman’s performance and the screenplay, which shows it would have had some support in the Academy. Meanwhile, Bergman would have to wait until 1984’s “Fanny and Alexander” to see one of his films win the Oscar for the third and final time.
“The Lunchbox,” India (2013)
After the crowd-pleasing, old-fashioned love story “The Lunchbox” took film festivals by storm, many assumed it was a lock to take the Film Federation of India’s heart and an official submission. Sound familiar? “The Lunchbox” told the story of a middle-aged man and an older woman who improbably begin a quiet relationship over a mistakenly delivered eponymous box. By the end of it, you are left with a satisfying sense of happiness at the ability of caring films to lift a person away from the sadness of everyday life. Alas, perhaps a desire to rebel against what was viewed as the fait accompli took the Federation in the direction of the obscure drama “The Good Road,” which did not even make the Academy shortlist and which left India still waiting for that much-sought-out first Oscar win.
“Red Dawn,” Mexico (1990)
Though Mexico finally broke through in this category with last year’s “Roma,” it was not always smooth sailing for the country’s Oscar history. The controversial film “Red Dawn” (“Rojo Amanecer”) tells a brutally violent account of the government massacre of protesting students in Mexico City in 1968 and stars future Oscar nominee Demian Bichir, but was overlooked for the historical and non-controversial story “Cabeza de Vaca,” about the Spanish explorer of what eventually became Florida. Not only is Jorge Fons’ “Red Dawn” objectively better, it is impossible not to suspect that the Mexican Academy of Arts and Film Sciences felt that selecting the overtly political movie would incur the ire of the still-governing regime by the same political party that had orchestrated the massacre in the first place. The questionable choice led to Mexico’s film not even receiving a nomination, a streak that would not end until the year 2000 when Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu burst onto the scene with “Amores Perros.”
“Aquarius,” Brazil (2016)
Politics have undoubtedly played a role in more than one questionable Oscar submission for International Feature. A more recent example is the predictable but still upsetting snub of Brazil’s profound “Aquarius,” on the heels of the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The movie, a hit at Cannes and other film festivals, tells the story of an aging woman who has suffered in life but refuses to be pushed out by a greedy corporation bent on destroying her apartment building (called Aquarius) to build a fancy modern conglomerate. Clearly a commentary of the increasing inequality and the overall decay of Brazilian society, the film, and its actors, could not escape the controversy. A protest by the movie’s stars against what they called a dictatorial overthrow of Rousseff surely led the Brazilian Ministry of Culture to overlook it for the Oscars in favor of the unknown movie “Little Secret,” thus ending Brazil’s best chance at their first Academy Award in nearly 20 years.
“Dheepan,” France (2015)
Although France’s National Center of Cinematography this year went for biting political commentary over escapism, it was only four short years ago that it made the opposite choice. In 2015, the committee ruffled some feathers when it selected Turkish language “Mustang,” a film about four sisters living in a Turkish villa and oppressed by repressive societal and familial mores. The selection came at the expense of the thriller/crime drama “Dheepan,” about a Tamil tiger who immigrates to France escaping violence at home only to find himself in the cauldron of ethnic and class strife in the suburbs of Paris. If the overlooked “Dheepan” sounds a lot like this year’s “Les Miserables,” that is probably no accident. Still, in a true testament to the staying power of French cinema at the Academy Awards, it is the only country to submit an entry every single year of eligibility, and to be nominated over half the time. Even the softer “Mustang” received a nod (France’s most recent), though the ultimate prize when to Hungary’s “Son of Saul.”
“Bad Education,” Spain (2004)
Though France arguably lays claim to one of the greatest film industries in the world, contemporary Spanish cinema will not remain far behind as long as it has two geniuses at work. The pair, Alejandro Amenabar and Pedro Almodovar, squared off this very year as their films “While at War” and “Pain and Glory,” competed for the final nod from the Spanish Academy of Arts and Cinematographic Sciences. Ultimately, it is Almodovar’s beautiful autobiographical picture that came out on top, and that hopes to upset Korea’s “Parasite” at the Oscar, but that was not always the case.
Fifteen years ago, the duo had a couple of submissions to Spain’s committee, which faced the difficult choice between Amenabar and Almodovar’s “Bad Education,” a movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal that pushed all limits in terms of the exploration of transsexuality that has underlined Almodovar’s work, and which represents one of Almodovar’s darkest features to date. But it was ultimately Amenabar’s film, “The Sea Inside,” that carried the day—and the Oscar, too! Starring Javier Bardem in a career-launching turn as a quadriplegic on a 30 year campaign for the right to die, “The Sea Inside” was perhaps the better choice (certainly, receiving Spain’s fourth and final Oscar did not hurt), but “Bad Education” is still one of the best pictures ever to not be short-listed for this prize.
“Jules et Jim,” France (1962)
Frankly, one could fill this entire column with French snubs for the Oscars. “La femme Nikita” was not submitted? Or “Blue is the Warmest Color?” Really!? France’s cinema is arguably second to no other in history, so it is not surprising that their own vast library provides the impetus for this column and a fifth of its submissions. Such is the richness of French film that this entry, undoubtedly one of the best films of all times never to be submitted by its country for the Academy Award, is another one of those films that fell to an eventual Oscar winner. Francois Traffaut’s signature New Wave, starring Jeanne Moreau as a charming temptress that ensnares the titular characters, “Jules et Jim,” is an all-time classic of French cinema, considered to have one of the best soundtracks of all time. The movie’s emotional punch is buoyed in no small part by its daring representation of a love triangle between two straight friends, one of many ways in which Traffaut and his cohorts pushed the envelope of the seventh art. Yet it would be “Sundays and Cybele,” another story about a tragic friendship, that would land the committee’s spot—and the Academy’s, too.
“Das Boot,” West Germany (1984)
Before director Wolfgang Petersen was making action films about perfect storms and presidential planes, he made what is considered one of the best German films of all time. “Das Boot,” a smart war thriller about a U-Boat crew in World War II, exhibits not only stunning technological achievements and intricacies, but a humanistic portrayal of the effects of war and the devastating nature of conflict on the individuals who fight it. Was it politics? A desire to compete with the darker moods of the brethren in Eastern Germany? Was it too kind to German World War II soldiers, less than forty years after the collapse of the Third Reich? Whatever it was, West Germany decided to send Werner Herzog’s much more forgettable “Fitzcarraldo,” about an entrepreneur living in Andean South America, to the Academy Awards. No matter, “Das Boot” went to the Oscars anyway, netting an impressive six nominations (still the most by any German film today), including nods to Petersen for directing and writing, while Herzog’s film (his second and last submission) would not even make the final five.
“Il Postino,” Italy (1995)
If there is one country that could give France a run for its money when it comes to great cinema, it is undoubtedly their southern neighbor, Italy. Winner of the first two competitive Oscars in this race and a record total fourteen, Italy nevertheless failed badly in 1995 when it refused to send Michael Radford’s “Il Postino” as the official submission. The film, which tells of an uneducated poet (the amazing Massimo Troisi) on a small Italian island who befriends the exiled Pablo Neruda, is one of the most emotionally effective films in the Italian-pantheon, and that is saying much. Indeed, the film eventually received Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay, and won an Oscar for Best Original Score. Still, it was Giuseppe Tornatore’s much more forgettable “The Star Maker” that took the spot and even landed a nomination. What happened? One can only guess, but it seems a good supposition that Italy’s selection committee would have preferred a film by a native son director—one who had just won Italy its then-eleventh Academy Award, for “Cinema Paradiso,” at that. No matter, as with so many other entries on this list, it was the snubbed movie and not the official selection that lives on in memory.
“Seven Samurai,” Japan (1957).
Oscar lovers know that a favorite sport is to rag on the Academy for questionable choices. “How Green Was My Valley” over “Citizen Kane?” How dare they? But what about Japan’s colossal gaffe, in overseeing Akira Kurasawa’s masterpiece, “Seven Samurai,” in its first year of eligibility, in favor of, what?, the “Harp of Burma“? As we all know, “Seven Samurai” created a new film genre—the “assembled team” story—together with impressive new filming techniques (buttressed by two lens cameras) at the hands of the brilliant director. Though the film was originally released in Japan in 1954, it was eligible for the 1957 Academy Awards, the first in which the Best Foreign Language Film was determined competitively. At that ceremony, what is considered one of the best movies of all time landed only two measly nominations (for costumes and art direction), but was passed over everywhere else, including the foreign language category. Thus, Japan would have to wait almost 40 years to win its first competitive Oscar in this race (following three honorary trophies), while Kurasawa’s film lived and lives on.