The Oscars sometimes measures the worth of real artistic achievement, but attending the ceremony always provides a close-up glimpse into how they can mess with even the smartest artists’ heads. While this year was no different, it also offered evidence of a deeper frustration with the system.
Standing in the lobby of the Dolby Theater as the show ended, I watched tux-laden stars trudge across the crowded room. A few giddy figures celebrated the Best Picture win for “Green Book,” but every other face in this slo-mo exit march emanated with disappointment for the missed opportunity to award “Roma” — a most unorthodox Best Picture nominee, and one that came within spitting distance of making history as the first non-English winner of the category.
I spotted a high-profile Spanish-language actor in the crowd. “It’s sad,” he said. “The support was there, but at the end of the day, the thinking must be that it’s a foreign film. So they wanted an American film.” He sighed. “But still, give it to ‘The Favourite’ or something! Why this P.C. bullshit?”
That was “Green Book,” of course, the middlebrow crowdpleaser about a white man driving a black man through America’s racist 1960s-era Deep South. The movie apparently pleased a wider contingency, but its vanilla approach to race relations, filtered through a white man’s eyes on both sides of the camera, registered as a repudiation of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” in which an indigenous Mexican woman is the centerpiece of an intimate ode to the country’s domestic workers. The boundaries of traditional Oscar bait remained intact.
Still, the night was not a total loss in that regard. “Hey,” the actor said, “at least Alfonso got three Oscars.”
Cuarón’s trio of victories for cinematography, foreign-language film, and director did provide him plenty of opportunities to celebrate. The “Roma” win made him the first director to win as his own director of photography, and it was the first directing prize for a non-English movie.
Netflix spent a fortune to push “Roma” to Oscar heavyweight status, and while plenty of industrial factors worked against it — an anti-Netflix bias from those who disparaged its minimal theatrical support, the demographics of a diversifying Academy still dominated by white people — the commodification of an art film has its limits. Netflix’s unprecedented international reach pushed against the stigma that relegates non-English movies to smaller categories. Ultimately, however, “Green Book” beating “Roma” provided a microcosmic look at the contradictory forces of globalization: Even Netflix has a long way to go to resolve that tension.
The night before the big bash, I spent the evening at Soho House in West Hollywood with a foreign-language Oscar nominee who would lose 24 hours later. Talal Derki, the Syrian director based in Berlin, risked his life to make Best Documentary contender “Of Fathers and Sons,” one of the most extraordinary movies in the Oscar race this year. Derki pretended he was a war photographer sympathetic to religious extremism and embedded himself with a jihadist sniper, capturing the man’s affection for his children as he prepares them for a terrorist training camp. “I don’t go for easy films,” he said.
That was an understatement: “Of Fathers and Sons” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year and rave reviews, but ended that festival without distribution. One producer said Netflix showed no interest in the project. The streaming platform may have taken great strides to transform “Roma” into Oscar bait, but the prospects of an intimate portrait of Middle Eastern terrorists — a brilliant cinematic gamble — carried too much risk.
Truly daring filmmaking achievements remain marginalized as ever. “Of Fathers and Sons” ultimately landed with Kino Lorber, the boutique New York-based distributor that specializes in foreign-language films. Long before Netflix caught the Oscar bug, Kino pushed a range of daring works into the race, stretching back to Yorgos Lanthimos’ dystopian family thriller “Dogtooth” in 2009; the company had landed seven nominations for foreign films in nine years.
However, Kino had a tough time booking Derki’s film in New York theaters; like Netflix, the company was reticent to take the risk. The movie eventually screened at the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, where it grossed $12,000. Even I missed it until this past week, and was so astonished I immediately concluded it would have cracked my top 10 list in December. After its Oscar nomination, the movie spiked on iTunes.
At Soho House, Kino Lorber CEO Richard Lorber took in the big picture, including Netflix’s estimated $25 million campaign for “Roma,” and whether any of its potential wins would indicate a broadening of the potential for foreign-language movies. “What would be a turning point would be if they spent 10 percent of their Oscar budget to buy 25 foreign films,” he said. “They could buy them from me. They aren’t. I have other films that are as good or maybe even better, but they’re not in the foreign-language business. They made a global crusade with ‘Roma.’”
He shrugged. “Look, I do business with Netflix, they’re great for me, and I respect what they’re about,” he said. “But the fact that they promoted this beautiful Mexican film on steroids distorts the reality of what audiences expect from Netflix, and what Netflix will do to actually support world cinema.”
The limitations of Netflix only tell a part of the story. Within the bubble of the Oscar universe, there have been considerable efforts to expand the reach of foreign-language movies. Some 700 Academy volunteers coordinate the screenings of foreign-language submissions, reducing the field from 87 to nine shortlisted titles to the eventual five nominees. The Academy’s associate director Meredith Shea also oversees an effort to make voters aware they can vote for those movies in other categories. This year, in addition to “Roma” winning three prizes, the Polish drama “Cold War” landed nominations for cinematography and director Pawel Pawlikowski, while the visionary Swedish fantasy “Border” (a major snub from this year’s shortlist) scored a Makeup and Hairstyling nomination.
At an Academy-hosted cocktail for the foreign-language nominees on Friday, Barry Jenkins surfaced to present a nomination certificate to contender Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese director whose “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was an inspired choice: Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” epitomize the potential to push beyond traditional boundaries of American cinema, channeling filmmakers ranging from France’s Claire Denis to Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai into a fresh representation of African-American identity.
Jenkins, who just returned from Japan to promote “If Beale Street Could Talk,” spoke about discovering Kore-eda’s “Still Walking” at the Mar Del Plata Film Festival. “I felt exposed to a culture that felt completely alien to me,” he said at the mic.
His girlfriend, filmmaker Lulu Wang, hovered nearby. Just over a month earlier, her breakout feature “The Farewell” premiered at Sundance to rave reviews and landed distribution with A24, which is targeting a summer release. Wang’s movie stems from her own experiences visiting her ailing grandmother in China, with Awkwafina in the lead role. Although half the movie is in Mandarin, “The Farewell” played in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition; it tracks an Asian-American experience and stands a chance of avoiding the ghettoization of foreign-language identity. “Hopefully, with ‘Roma’ breaking through, we won’t have this whole issue around subtitles anymore,” she said.
Nobody addressed that conundrum more than Cuarón himself. When presented with his own nomination certificate from Ava DuVernay, he struck a note he would repeat throughout the weekend, talking about the relevance of foreign-language films during his childhood in Mexico. “Films like ‘The Godfather,’ films like ‘Raging Bull,’ films like ‘Jaws,’” he said. “All those ‘foreign-language films’ that we watched when we were kids.” He raised his eyebrows as the point sunk in. “Claude Chabrol once said when asked about the New Wave that there are no waves, there’s only the ocean,” he said. “And I think that all of these films that are nominated show that the human experience is all part of the same ocean. The particular beach of this film was Mexico.”
Pawlikowski, whose “Cold War” made similar strides by cracking major categories, acknowledged that challenge when he took the stage. “It’s great that it’s traveled this far,” he said. “I mean, black-and-white film in Polish, subtitles, with gaps in the story, that ends in suicide. My god!” He sounded tired. “I’m thrilled it’s about to be over, this whole Oscar business,” he said. “It’s more difficult than making films. I’ve spent four or five months doing it and you have all this money, all this fuss, all these adverts. It’s kind of crazy.”
When German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck accepted his certificate for “Never Look Away,” he thanked distributor Sony Pictures Classics, but tacked on a refrain. “You brought us that first Academy Award,” he said, referring to his 2006 win for “The Lives of Others,” and “even if this one will go to Alfonso, we’re still happy, because it’s going to a good person.”
Sony Pictures Classics, which also distributed Lebanese nominee “Capernaum,” has excelled at the foreign-language Oscar game for a generation. But with “Roma” absorbing the spotlight, company co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard had less to celebrate. As Cuarón addressed the adoring crowd, Bernard muttered under his breath and grabbed a handful of chips from the buffet.
The next day, at an outdoor brunch prior to the Independent Spirit Awards on Venice Beach, he clarified his consternation. “What happens if ‘Roma’ wins?” he said. “I don’t think it’ll change anything unless you’ve got somebody that wants to put the resources behind another movie to the extent that they did.” He dismissed the idea that it might catalyze a broader appetite for foreign-language cinema. “I wish,” he said. “I’m looking at the numbers at the box office in the theaters.”
But couldn’t “Roma,” which has found a global audience, expand beyond those narrow parameters for success? “I don’t think so,” Bernard said. “They’re only monetized by subscriptions. Every movie has a different agenda for their spending. Some studios want recognition for their stars. Indie companies like us use it to monetize the campaign to get that kind of publicity. So there’s no pattern. It’s what each individual is up to, and money is king. The guy who spends the most usually wins. It’s how much you want to spend, what your agenda is, and whether it makes it profitable or not. Certainly Netflix’s spend is a profit spend. I don’t think it’s good or bad. It just what it is.”
Inside the tent at the Spirit Awards, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos held court at the table for “Roma,” which would eventually win the Best International Film prize at the ceremony. He was overheard talking about the streaming platform competition coming this fall. “Disney, Warner Brothers, they’re in the same boat as us,” he said, but declined to elaborate. Host Aubrey Plaza came onstage and turned the internationalization of the film industry into a punchline, with John Waters taking over the feed and showing the image of the beach outside. “China, I see you … destroying what used to be arthouse cinema!”
During a commercial break, Focus Features CEO Peter Kujalski rejected the notion that “Roma” only cracked so many categories because of Netflix’s deep pockets. “I don’t buy it,” he said. “If you spend a ton of money on a shitty movie, it wouldn’t go so well.”
Results the next day were mixed — “Roma” won the reverence of the Academy, but “Green Book” allowed familiarity to dominate. Even my Lyft driver to the ceremony, a middle-aged white woman, singled out “Green Book” as the popular favorite. “A lot of people don’t know what happened back then,” she said. “I’m old enough to know.” I mentioned that Mahershala Ali was a frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor. “Is that the black guy?” she asked.
On the way into the ceremony, I ran into Diego Luna, currently landing raves for his performance in Netflix’s “Narcos,” which unfolds in a mix of English and Spanish. He recently took a breather from promoting the show to attend Ambulante, the Mexican documentary festival he co-founded with Gael García Bernal, but bemoaned the lack of governmental support for the project. I suggested he might want to talk to Netflix. “Maybe!” he said, and laughed. “It’s all about Netflix now.”
At the bar, Paul Schrader — nominated for Best Original Screenplay for “First Reformed” — looked even more ostracized than the foreigners in the room. (With “First Reformed,” he channeled the traditions of transcendental cinema that had inspired him in his youth, none of which stems from the United States.) “I realized when I sat down that I didn’t want to be here,” he said, recalling that when he attended the ceremony for “Taxi Driver,” he walked out halfway through.
After the documentary category was announced and climbing saga “Free Solo” nabbed the prize, “Of Fathers and Sons” director Derki wandered to the bar as well. “I’m disappointed,” he said. “I had hoped it would be ‘RGB,’ because it would mean something, or maybe ‘Minding the Gap,’” but he had given up on his own prospects a long time ago. “At the end of the day, this is just a thing on your CV,” he said, but Derki himself had grown weary of producing work on the margins. He signed with UTA and had plans to direct an English-language narrative feature. “I don’t want to make war films now,” he said. “I want to do something more about us, about being human.”
After Cuarón scored a few wins, Sarandos came out as well and asserted that the platform had seen a growth of interest in foreign-language films. He pushed back on the idea that Cuarón’s A-list director status had anything to do with it. “It’s because of quality,” he said. “We just don’t always know who these filmmakers are.” A few minutes later, “Green Book” won Best Original Screenplay, and the mood shifted. Netflix awards consultant Lisa Taback held tight to a poker face but said, “If I really knew everything, I’d be worried right now.”
Inside the show, as ABC cut to a final commercial break before the announcement of Best Picture, I spotted sales agent John Sloss on an aisle. An executive producer on “Green Book,” he contended with media backlash to the movie for months. “If we win,” he said, tapping his foot nervously, “don’t write something nasty!” A few minutes later, he was on the stage with the rest of the movie’s team. By the exit, Sarandos wore a sheepish grin. “We got four Oscars!” he exclaimed. “I call that good.” In the lobby, he embraced “Roma” star Yalitza Aparicio. “Tonight, we have fun,” he said. Schrader, who predicted his loss to “Green Book” weeks ago, wandered past. “You can’t compete with mediocrity,” he said, and chuckled.
While viewers at home may have been treated to a relatively concise ceremony filled with empowering speeches and at least one knockout musical number, inside the Dolby emotions were mixed. Willem Dafoe, nominated for Best Actor for “At Eternity’s Gate” and lost to Rami Malek, rolled his eyes. “Most of the time, it’s not about this stuff,” he said. “It comes and goes. And that helps to protect you.”
Upstairs at the Governors Ball, sentiments ranged from exuberance to outrage. One prominent African-American Academy member couldn’t contain his frustrations. “It’s terrible for all black people,” he said. “‘Green Book’ is a racist movie.” Spike Lee, whose fiery Best Adapted Screenplay speech was the night’s purest moment, sped past to get his Oscar engraved. Then he headed for the exit. “We’re gonna go to Vanity Fair!” he shouted, and he passed by a throng of event staff in a tight corridor, they erupted in applause. One waiter turned to his peer. “So, what’d Spike Lee win for?” he asked.
So it goes with the Oscar bubble. For all the talk of breaking boundaries and pushing movies to the center of the conversation, much of the world simply sees the Oscars as another awards show indistinguishable from rest. Lee’s status rises above whatever validation an Oscar might provide. For much that’s made beyond its purview, the exclusivity of televised prizes only tells one small piece of the larger story that is global cinema.
Photo by Carlos Somonte
Later that night, I was back at Soho House, where Netflix took over the entire top floor. Cuarón was in and out as he navigated the night’s dense party circuit. But the mezcal flowed freely, a deejay cranked up the Mexican tunes, and much of the “Roma” team — including its stars — took to the dance floor. Jenkins and Wang joined the fun, having skipped out on the Governors’ Ball. There was an authenticity to the room that nothing in the Dolby could replicate.
But the wounds of the evening still lingered. The losing nominee for another film waxed poetic on “Roma” and bemoaned its Best Picture snub. “It’s a fucking gorgeous movie,” he said. “If America and the Academy can’t get that right … is that pizza?” He scampered off, one more victim of the night’s more superficial pleasures.