The Documentaries & Foreign Language Films That Never Deserved to be Snubbed
The Academy sure missed the boat with these omitted nominees.
The Academy Awards haven't always been able to recognize a worthy contender in their midst when they see one. Case in point: the dozens of actors, actresses, and directors who failed to secure nominations and the many films that were never nominated for Best Picture – despite all becoming legends in their own right. After examining each of those categories in our previous installments of "The Worst Oscars® Omissions", we now set our sights on the documentary features and foreign language films that did not get nominated their respective years, and to correct these unceremonious snubs, we pick who we consider to be the most worthy winner for each of the two categories.
Best Documentary Feature
The Beaches of Agnès (2008) – Agnès Varda
“I’m playing the part of a little old lady telling her life story,” relays Agnès Varda, first lady of the French New Wave in her intimate docu-biography with a twist. Naturally, it’s more than that. As prolific as ever, now more so in non-fiction (as witnessed by her belated Oscar nomination for 2017’s Faces, Places), Varda provides a typically playful, warm and wise adventure in storytelling, as honest, vibrant and ultimately life-affirming as some of her best work.
Watch Now: The Beaches of Agnès on Fandor.
Don't Look Back (1967) – D.A. Pennebaker
Ground Zero for the now-omnipresent music documentary. When D.A. Pennebaker trained his camera on Bob Dylan, following the young troubadour on and off stage on his controversial 1965 tour of Britain, he effectively created what became a cottage industry. The cinéma vérité, fly-on-the-wall style, possible for the first time because of new portable technology, revealed the young man behind the myth–and found him equally charming, cantankerous and as contradictory as his image.
Grizzly Man (2005) – Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog famously enjoys blurring the lines between fact and fiction, but arguably his best film in many a year is a relatively straightforward documentary that excavates the life and death of an amateur bear enthusiast in the Alaskan wilds. Only Herzog can take mundane yet beautiful found footage and pull from it his usual preoccupations of nature defined by “chaos, hostility and murder.”
Hoop Dreams (1994) – Steve James
An American epic, following two black inner-city teens and their aspirations to become professional basketball players. Steve James’ film, culled from over 250 hours of footage, transcended usual documentary ghettoization. It was voted Film of the Year by star TV critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and even ended up Oscar-nominated for its Editing. That it missed out on a Documentary nomination, then, was seen as a scandal. It still is.
Watch Now: Hoop Dreams on Fandor.
The Thin Blue Line (1988) – Errol Morris
One of the very few motion pictures, fiction or documentary, that can be said to have affected a criminal case, Errol Morris’s stunning investigation and re-enactment of a Texas murder and false conviction is as inventive and intellectually provocative as few films ever dare to be. Morris was regularly shut out by the Academy, a shameful oversight only rectified late in his career.
And the winner is…
Hoop Dreams’ snub helped interrogate the Academy’s highly flawed Documentary voting process—basically it was too long for many members to bother with. Yet its quality of observation and insight into an often ignored strata of American society makes it a hugely important social document. And the fact that its reputation continues when many previous non-fiction nominees, even winners, have been long forgotten, only confirms what a huge mistake was made.
Best Foreign-Language Film
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007) – Romania
Cristian Mungiu’s harrowing and utterly gripping state-of-the-nation treatise, disguised as a ticking clock abortion thriller, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and was considered a hot favorite for Oscar glory too. It is considered the vanguard of the ‘00s New Romanian Cinema, so when it didn’t even make the longlist, many critics–rightly–cried foul. It put an already dubious Academy selection process under the microscope, much as Mungiu did with his country’s oppression of women’s rights.
Beau travail (1999) – France
Each country submits one official nominee to represent its interests at the Oscars – and, outrageously, one of France’s best filmmakers has never been granted that accolade. This effectively means that Claire Denis has never even had the chance to be snubbed by the Academy. So let’s right that wrong; her brilliant, subversive Foreign Legion drama, with one of the all-time great final scenes (actor Denis Lavant on the dance floor), should be here. Vive la resistance!
In the Mood for Love (2000) – Hong Kong
An exquisite work of art often lauded as one of the best films of its decade, Wong Kar-Wai’s achingly understated almost-love affair between Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (whose spouses are cheating on them with each other) should have also ticked Academy boxes for its gorgeous design, camerawork and costumes. Hong Kong entries have only twice made the final cut for Foreign-Language nominations, and neither time for Wong; and so another modern master goes unjustly unrecognized.
Oldboy (2003) – South Korea
There’s a general perception among US audiences that foreign language films are slow, serious and, frankly, hard work (all that reading of subtitles, it’s like schoolwork). It’s nonsense, of course, but every now and then, the nomination of a visceral adrenaline rush of a movie, as stylish as any Hollywood action movie, wouldn’t hurt dismantle these prejudices. Though he’s probably South Korea’s most globally commercial director (along with Bong Joon-ho) Park Chan-wook has sadly never been officially submitted by his country; and so his highly influential, pitch-black thriller, missed the cut.
Watch Now: Oldboy on Fandor.
The World of Apu (1959) – India
Most of the great world cinema auteurs – Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman and more – eventually received Oscar nominations or victories, even if not for their best work. Sadly the same cannot be said for India’s most acclaimed filmmaker. The concluding part to Ray’s "Apu Trilogy", a series of humanist masterpieces charting a poor village boy’s journey through adulthood that helped enlighten world audiences about India, would have been a deserved reward long before his consolation Honorary Award in 1992.
And the winner is…
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
The embarrassment of 4 Months… premature termination from Oscar consideration (the same year that Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven, among other highly-acclaimed films, also missed out) lead to an overhaul of the foreign language nominating procedure to try to avoid such oversights happening again. It’s still not a perfect system, but the quality of recent winners – Amour, Ida, A Separation – is a clear improvement, in no small part thanks to Mungiu’s excellence.