The Years of Others

November 29, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

At this time of the year, I am frequently asked about "locks" on my end-of-December Top 10 list. This year, because there have been no four-star movies (at least to date), the question is being asked more frequently. One title I often mention in answer to this query is The Lives of Others. It's one of a few films that has had a lasting impact on me this year. However, when I mention this movie, I occasionally get this response: "I agree it's good, but it's a 2006 movie not a 2007 movie."

Is it? I suppose it all comes down to how you define a movie's release date.

If you live in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, or Finland, it is unquestionably a 2006 motion picture. If you live anywhere else, you likely didn't see it until 2007. Or, to put it another way, if you live in North America, the only way you saw The Lives of Others during 2006 was if you left the continent or saw it as part of a film festival or for a special screening.

The U.S. and Canadian theatrical release of the film began on February 9, 2007 in a few venues then gradually expanded over the next weeks. Following the Oscars, The Lives of Others even made it into a few multiplexes. I saw it a few weeks before it opened, in January.

My rule of thumb for determining the year of a film when it comes to Top 10 lists and other, similar chronologically-related content is as follows: The "year of a film" is either the year in which it received its first U.S. theatrical release or the year in which I see it theatrically, whichever comes last.

Even if I had seen The Lives of Others during the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, it still would have been on my 2007 list, because that's the year when it opened theatrically in this country. For a slightly different example, consider the upcoming There Will Be Blood. It opens in late December in a small number of theaters (New York and Los Angeles) then goes wider on January 4. Because of schedule conflicts, there's a chance I won't be able to see it until early January. That could be a case of a 2007 film that ends up on my 2008 list.

Why the confusion about The Lives of Others? It has to do with the Oscars. After all, the film won the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film award. Everyone therefore assumes it was released in 2006. However, the rules are different when it comes to movies where the characters don't speak English. The country of origin submits them for consideration and it's irrelevant whether they have or have not opened in the United States. Based on the Academy's standard Best Picture guidelines, The Lives of Others wouldn't have been eligible in the BIG categories this year but would be next year. (Academic question to which I don't know the answer: Can a film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film one year be eligible as a Best Picture candidate the next?)

AMPAS should change the rules associated with Foreign Language Film contenders. Let their nomination criteria be the same as for the contenders in the Best Picture field, with one addition - at least 51% of the dialogue must be non-English. Giving foreign language and documentary features special treatment may have been sensible many years ago, but that's no longer the case. Great films are sometimes neglected because of the bizarre Foreign Language Film nomination process. For example, Lust, Caution - which is by any sensible definition a "Foreign Language Film" - is ineligible because of a technicality. 14 years ago, Krzystof Kieslowski's Red was not eligible for similar reasons. Most critics believe the film would have won handily, and Kieslowski was a surprise nominee in the Best Director category.

Fix the process and it will at least eliminate some of the confusion. My years, on the other hand, will take care of themselves.