Shocked that Departures beat out presumed favorites Waltz With Bashir and The Class for the foreign-film category? It's just the latest example of the bizarre rules that govern that Oscar niche. Can it be fixed?
Departures eluded most Oscar pools. Awards-obsessed street urchin Tom O'Neil, the Los Angeles Times Oscar expert, managed the correct final answer after a tipster told him that The Class wasn't even one of the original nominees—and that Bashir might not have been, either. So how did they make it through?
Outrage over a snub of Romania's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days prompted the creation of an oversight committee made up of 20 Academy members last year, with the ability to ram three of their own nominees in, regardless of what all the general votes have indicated. The committee's unpopular picks, as O'Neil divined, were automatically disadvantaged, which helps explain why the idea hasn't seemed to work. So forget the committee approach! There are three bigger problems that need to be addressed—and cleverer solutions to them:
1. The voters: Despite the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to override bad nominations (an idea the Emmys adopted recently, then did away with), the Foreign Language Film category is still set up in a way that encourages bad picks. In order to vote, members must have seen all five films, and they need to have gone to special Academy screenings to have done so. While that seems like a fair rule, it's one that isn't applied to, say, the acting categories (when people can and do vote for performances they haven't seen). Thus the pool of Foreign Language Film voters tends to shrink to elderly, conservative voters with enough time to attend all five theatrical screenings. The Academy provides DVDs for members who miss the Best Song screenings—why not do the same here?
2. The eligibility: Each country can submit only one film, which means that some countries will sacrifice their strongest work for a more conventional choice, as Spain did in 2002 when it notoriously snubbed Pedro Almodóvar's Talk To Her. It's time to reward countries with flourishing film industries by allowing them to submit more films.
3. The new international film climate: Movies nowadays draw their financing from a full range of sources—but if those deep pockets come from different countries, none can have enough say to submit the result as their own. The Motorcycle Diaries was one of 2004's most acclaimed foreign films, but due to its eclectic, globe-spanning financiers, the rules disqualified it for a Foreign Language Film Oscar.
It doesn't matter how many oversight committees are put in place—until the whole voting system receives a radical overhaul, too many worthy films will never get a chance at nabbing the award given to such notable luminaries as Roberto Benigni, Renee Zellweger, and Crash. This injustice cannot stand!