by Augusto Miró Quesada
What makes a film great? What makes it “worthy” of recognition? Is it the actors starring in the movie? Is it the money thrown at it? Perhaps the country it was made in? I believe that great films come from all corners of the world in all shapes and sizes; that it’s the artists’ passion and soul which then translates into greatness. But we are sadly prone to overlook great films simply because they don’t fit a biased criteria from a narrow-minded past.
Elements like language, color, and resolution are the first factors that come up when dismissing a movie, and this sentiment often extends to the professional critic world. Prestigious award ceremonies like the Oscars have had their fair share of criticism for dismissing or “snubbing” films that do not reflect their “standards”, and this has taken far too long to change.
For many years, I was engulfed by the beast that is Hollywood cinema, with their flashy effects, epic scope, and blockbuster thrills. I thought nothing could come close to their quality, and I often reserved the title of “great” for them. Yet, as I grew up and my tastes continued to expand, I found different ways in which artists from all over the world told great stories. As director Bon Joon Ho put it, “once you overcome the one inch tall subtitles you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Personally, it often bothers me how Hollywood films have a superiority complex, enabled by the Oscars. There have been many examples of films made outside mainstream America that despite great artist value, get left out of the awards due to their different look and feel, and never get the attention they deserve. With some luck, and a lot of “for your consideration money,” a few are thrown into the “Best Foreign Film” category, unworthy of even competing with American productions. It is only until recently that they have recontextualized these standards to fit a more inclusive worldview, and this has exposed the common moviegoer to films they wouldn’t normally watch.
I experienced this most recently with a beautiful film called Minari. I watched it a couple weeks ago in the theater, and it impressed me due to its poignant yet accurate depiction of Korean immigrants in America. The production was a Korean-American hybrid, with it being a foreign language film, yet being made in America. This reinforces the notion that due to the globalized world that we live in nowadays, people from all places come together for all kinds of projects. The story mainly revolves around a father who moves his family to rural Arkansas to provide them with a better, healthier quality of life. In time, he faces both marital and agricultural challenges that get in the way of him reaching his American dream. This film combined the difficult reality of moving to America in the 80s with the family humor that comes from childlike innocence. The film’s exploration of family dynamics and facing the unknown greatly resonated with me, and the gentle directing made me think I was watching a thought-provoking documentary. Tied to this, the performances were strong and relevant to the times, all guided by a compelling script.
Yet, the main reason I highlighted this film is because it is the latest of many foreign language films to touch my heart in a meaningful way. Coming from a multi-cultural background, I find joy when I see beautiful passion projects outside being made outside the Hollywood mainstream. This way, when they get some recognition, it makes me feel like everyone’s voice is being taken into consideration. Minari is riding this wave of past foreign language film pioneers who have shifted the Oscars perception of quality. As such, Minarihas been nominated for best original script, best actor, best supporting actress, best directing, and most importantly, best picture; finally “worthy” to compete with high budget, Hollywood productions.
Even though I’d strongly recommend Minari and will hope for its success at the upcoming Oscars, it’s not the only gem that has broken the foreign/hybrid film stigma. I can’t talk about these indie films starting to get a seating in the best picture race without acknowledging past pioneers.
Parasiteis undoubtedly the first film that comes into my mind when discussing foreign language films in the best picture race, as it was the first film made outside the U.S to ever win best picture. The way this film interweaves comedy, drama, horror, and action never seizes to amaze. Its masterful directing guides an already solid premise. It taps into universal concepts like home invasion and class warfare. I love this movie and I still remember feeling artistically refreshed after watching it in the theater. It was a kind of story not seen nor explored in popular media, and it enriched my knowledge and appreciation for the Asian film industry.
In the same vein, the Japanese film Shoplifters, who achieved a best picture nomination in the foreign film category at the 2019 Oscars, had previously raised my awareness of this booming industry. Like Parasite, it told an alternative narrative about dealing with poverty, yet, I still remember it because of its comedic and tender handling of family moments. The slice of life look into the lower class and its controlled pacing served as the backbone of the whole piece, and it further enhanced my appreciation for these calm yet relevant narratives.
As for my personal favorite pioneer, I still believe Roma should’ve been the first foreign film to take the best picture prize back at the 2019 Oscars. It managed to sneak both into the best foreign film and best picture categories, and even won best foreign film, best directing, and best cinematography. When I talk about what makes a movie great, Roma serves as my first example. This film managed to capture the essence of growing up in Latin America better than any other film I’d seen before. Even though I wasn’t raised in Mexico, the film drew similarities between the characters’ lives and my own in a scarily accurate way. Its unapologetic visual aesthetic and rhythm, its casting of previously inexperienced actors, and its themes expressed through settings all stem from Alfonso Cuaron’s creative vision. It was a movie than can never be created in a conference room, and one that truly deserves recognition.
Of course, there’s countless other masterpieces that had a hand in reshaping this stigma, with El Laberinto del Fauno, La Vida es Bella, and City of God being just a few on my list. Yet, what films like these all have in common is that they’re made without the constrains of Hollywood. They tell the stories they want to tell, not caring if it appeals to a large demographic, or if it fills up theatres. These are passionate, soulful, and true. Even hybrid films like Minariare capable to attain these sensibilities, and if anything, it goes to show that now more than ever, global collaborations only strengthen the worldview and voice of a movie. So, what makes a film great? For all these reasons, I believe that great films are the ones made from passion and hard work, those unconcerned with a monetary agenda and instead focused on conveying their worldview in an unapologetic, truthful, and compelling way. Personally, I will continue to advocate for foreign language productions, as their kind often manages to reaffirm and even strengthen my stance on “great.” They enrich my understanding of the world and manage to convey different points of view that I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. What people and award shows need to start realizing is that Hollywood does not have a monopoly on “great,” and the need for a Best Foreign Film category given our current times is quite frankly insulting and demeaning to the beautiful films made outside the immediate mainstream every year. As opposed to pandering to “inclusion” simply to check off a box, the industry as a whole should start embracing the valuable worldviews brought to the table by foreign films. These have been recontextualizing “great” for many years, and they will only continue to do so for many years to come.