11 Foreign Language Films That Have Contended For Best Picture At The Oscars

11 Foreign Language Films That Have Contended For Best Picture At The Oscars

The Oscars recognize the best in the film industry, as long as it's in English. Would this Academy Awards recognize a film in a foreign language as Best Picture for the very first time?


Last year, director Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director at the Golden Globes for Roma. However, controversy is still in the air so he was questioned why choosing Netflix to stream his film when it could mean the end of independent cinema. He answered by asking the reporter how he’d think a movie like his, in Spanish and Mixteco, in black and white, and with no huge celebrity casted, would do in American cinema. The truth is that, though Cuarón is an influential filmmaker that has proved his talent creating wonderful films in both independent and commercial movies, the film industry measures success with box office entries. 

Still, the success of a film like Roma is surprising. Not for its quality, but because we’re still used to award and applaud a very specific type of cinema, one that is easy to grasp and understand and that fit into commercial format and standards. 

To understand this phenomenon better, we bring you a list of foreign films that should have won the most prestigious award in filmmaking, the coveted Oscar for Best Picture. 

The Grand Illusion (1938) - Dir. Jean Renoir

This movie about a group of French POW's plotting to escape during WWI was the very first movie in a foreign language to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Renoir’s highly acclaimed film, considered "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1" by the Nazis, lost to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Z (1969) - Dir. Costa-Gavras

Portraying the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek politician for the democratic stand, this Algerian-French picture received international acclaim, including two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Becoming the very first film to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Picture, it only took home the award for Foreign Picture.

The Emigrants (1972) - Dir. Jan Troell

Becoming the first Swedish film to make it to the Oscars, Troell’s picture about a group of Swedes who emigrated to Minnesota in the mid-nineteenth Century got a lot of recognition in the US. Unfortunately, it lost to Francis Ford Coppola's masterpieceThe Godfather (1972).

Cries and Whispers (1973) - Dir. Ingmar Bergman

Despite being considered one of the best filmmakers in history, Bergman’s work never managed to get Hollywood's coveted statuettes for neither Best Picture nor Best Director. Cries and Whispers, a film about a nineteenth-century wealthy woman who’s dying of cancer, was his first and only film to be nominated for Best Picture competing with films like American Graffiti (1973 by Coppola),The Exorcist (William Friedkin), and finally losing toThe Sting (1973) by George Roy Hill.

Il Postino: The Postman (1995) - Dir. Massimo Troisi and Michael Radford

Considered a masterpiece of Italian cinema, this heartwarming story about the relationship between a postman and the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was nominated in five categories, receiving only one for Best Music thanks to the work of the amazing Luis Bacalov. The film lost Best Picture and Best Director to Braveheart (1995) which, let’s be honest, it’s a very bad film with tons of mistakes.

Life is Beautiful (1998) - Dir. Roberto Benigni

This one is probably the most acclaimed movie in a foreign language by the Academy. With the charismatic Benigni directing and leading this heartfelt story of a father protecting his son from the horrible images of being prisoners at a Nazi concentration camp, La Vita É Bella (Life Is Beautiful) won three out of seven nominations including Best Actor, Best Music, and Best Foreign Film. It lost Best Picture to Titanic.

Chrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) - Dir. Ang Lee

With two awards for Best Director (Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012) respectively), Ang Lee’s first film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars was this story set in seventeenth-Century China about the difficult relationship between two martial arts experts. The movie won three out of ten nominations, losing the big one to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).

Amour (2012) - Dir. Michael Haneke

In a very unfair defeat in the category for Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence won with her rather dull performance in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Amour is the last foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Through a superb and immortal performance by Emmanuelle Riva, the film tells the love story of an elder couple that struggles with the passing of time. This French masterpiece was nominated in five categories, losing against Ben Affleck's Argo and only winning Best Foreign Film.

The Artist (2011) - Dir. Michel Hazanavicius

We need to talk about theThe Artist, which is the only exception in this list that has received the coveted statuette for Best Picture. Though the film is a French production and it has some intertitles in French, Hazanavicus celebrated film is not in a foreign language. The film tells the story of an actor that struggles with the the transition of silent film into talkies, so there's no dialogue in the whole story. Also, the very few lines that are delivered on screen happen to be in English. 

Roma (2018) - Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

Roma ran for best picture in 2019. However, Cuarón's celebrated film didn't break the foreign language curse. This homage to the director’s childhood and to the woman who raised him has delighted many, either for its photography, script, or for the amazing performance by the marvelous Yalitza Aparicio

Parasite (2019) - Dir. Bong Joon-ho

The South Korean thriller has surprised the entire world. It was premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or. It was nominated in six categories to the 2020 Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Foreign Film. It won the Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, too, so the expectations for it to conquer more awards at the following ceremonies are high. 

Some of the best filmmakers in history have made films in foreign languages. Still, though recognized in other categories at the Academy Awards, not a single movie in a foreign language has ever won the prestigious Oscar for Best Picture. After ninety years of history, would the Academy Awards finally give that recognition to a film that's not in English? Only time will tell.

Here are other stories related to the Oscars you might like:
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