Come mid-week of December, the Academy Foreign Language Film Committee will unveil the shortlist of who will proceed in getting a chance to be nominated at the 88th Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The two-month long screening started last October 19 with India’s “Court” opening this year and will end on December 14 with Latvia’s “Modris.” This year, 80 countries are eligible to be nominated after Afghanistan’s disqualification since the announcement.
As always, the process is as follows: after all the screenings are made by the foreign language film committee, the list will be trimmed down to nine: six of those were the top vote getters from popularity vote. The other three will be chosen by a special selected committee that will save three more from the rest of the film that finished seventh down to the last. From this list is where the final five nominees will be announced alongside all the other categories on Oscar nomination morning come January.
This year offers a really eclectic group of submissions ranging from Cannes favorites, past Oscar nominees in this category, and some popular picks. And while the shortlist can still surprise us every now and then with its inclusions (Estonia’s “Tangerines” last year came out of nowhere) and exclusions (remember when Spain’s “Blancanieves” was a shoo-in here?), here are 18 films you should watch out for.
After last year’s nomination for “Relatos Salvajes“, Argentina aims a back to back nomination in this category. This year, they’ve submitted the Venice entry “El Clan” which won its director Pablo Trapero the Silver Lion. Based on the Puccio family of Argentina, the film hasn’t only been a hit with critics, but a box office performer as well. That’s a strong combo that helps the film’s chances for a Top 9 mention.
Every now and then, the Academy decides to pick up a quirky comedy in its top nine selection. The past few years we’ve seen Sweden’s “Simple Simon” and Denmark’s “Superclasico” making the shortlist. This year, Jaco van Dormael’s Belgian fill fits the bill. The film revolves around God living in a Brussels apartment tormenting the people. It got good word when it premiered at the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and stars Oscar nominee Catherine Deneuve to boot.
One of the most buzzed contenders this year is Brazil’s “The Second Mother” helmed by female director Anna Muylaert. Not only is this one of the more popular films of the year,but its US distributor Oscilloscope Films is campaigning the hell out of it. After all, this is picking up awards left and right starting from that acting win in Sundance up to its Audience Award in Berlin. This is the type of a crowd-pleasing film that can easily get in a popular vote.
After giving its country their first ever nomination three years ago with No, Chile submitted another Pablo Larrain film in contention this year. In “El Club“, four retired Catholic priests in a small Chilean town share a house where they reveal and open their secrets and sins. This drama seems like one that can appeal to the Academy voting crowd, so this Berlin entry stands a good chance of moving on to the next round.
Hoping for their breakthrough nomination this year is Colombia who has submitted 22 times in the past but to no avail. This year, they went with arthouse raved film “Embrace of the Serpent” which has been sweeping a lot of wins from different festivals around the world from India to Cannes and Odessa to Lima. The movie, about two scientists looking for a rare plant, was also nominated just last week at the Independent Film Spirit Awards.
Denmark is one of those countries that perform well enough in this category. 12 overall nominations including a back to back win in 1987 and 1988 for “Babette’s Feast” and “Pelle, the Conqueror” is a rare achievement for any country in this category. Just in the past five years alone, four of those finished in the top 9, three got nominated, and they won their third one in 2010. This year, they went with “A War“, about a Danish military team in Afghanistan captured by the Talibans. If that’s not baity, then you don’t probably know what that means.
Ethiopia is still fairly new to the Oscar race, as their first submission was only in 2010. That said, don’t underestimate this small gem, as it has narrative written all over it being the first Ethiopian film to ever participate at the Cannes Film Festival. It also screened at Toronto earlier this year, and had critics calling it “endearing.” Working that popular crowd votes, I see.
Gaining quick momentum right now is France’s entry “Mustang.” Never mind its Turkish contribution, as it wasn’t disqualified (which makes it an acceptable French submission by the committee). But “Mustang” has been on an upward trajectory since its Toronto screening back in September. The story of five orphaned sisters growing up in a conservative society, the film is the perfect combination of a critically backed movie that has a wide voters appeal, and I can see it challenging the frontrunners to a win if it continues to increase its buzz.
The first of the two Sony Pictures Classic entry this year is Germany’s “Labyrinth of Lies.” Germany whose last trip to the Oscars was still back in 2009 for “The White Ribbon” can see themselves in contention again for this drama film that received lots of raves at this year’s TIFF. When a young prosecutor opened a case again to bring justice to the people involved,it also opened a lot of secrets during the whole process. This type of crime drama has brought lots of nominations and even wins to some of the other countries before, so it’s likely that this German entry can be another addition to the list.
Like Ethiopia, Guatemala is another country that’s fairly to the whole Oscar process. 21 years after their first submission in 1994, they’re in contention again with “Ixcanul.” Winning the Alfred Bauer Prize at this year’s Berlinale, the movie which was written and directed by Jayro Bustamante tells the story of an underage woman whose unwanted pregnancy affected her own planned destiny is the type of small scale stories that might appeal to the voters.
Probably the frontrunner in this category, if asked to pick one, is the Cannes breakout movie of the year. Son of Saul, director Laszlo Nemes’ debut feature, set in the Holocaust period is one that’s likely to sweep the Foreign Language Film winners for the year. It also helps that it’s being backed by one of the most competent distributors this year, Sony Pictures Classics. With how far the film has been out front, you know SPC would have screwed this up if it fails to win this Oscar come February.
24 years since their only nomination in this category for “Children of Nature“, Iceland is likely looking at their overdue follow up nom. The winner of this year’s Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, this dark comedy about two brothers who haven’t spoken to each in each other in 40 years perfectly hits all targets of critically acclaimed movie, appealing to Academy demographic, and one that also boasts of competent and decent production. If the voters are sick of Holocaust already, this can be their go-to alternate.
“Court” is a controversial choice for India this year. Don’t fret though, as it’s positive controversy. Seems like this is the film that everyone in India roots for to be submitted, and they actually did. The film speaks a lot about their own system, and that is some sort of a catnip in this category. India’s last nomination was still way back in 2001 for “Lagaan“, and this is the closest they’ve come to nomination #4.
Aside from Holocaust, another appealing subject for Oscar to consider you in this category is a film that features a child in its subject. Just in the last ten years alone, there was that win for “Tsotsi” and nominations for “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Tsotsi.” In “Theeb“, not only is the kid the central figure of the story, but it also was set in the midst of World War I. Kids and wars is an uber combo that they probably might not resist. Its director also picked up the Best Director plum at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Norway’s “The Wave” probably sounds like that middlebrow American disaster film, but I think that’s what adds to its appeal and chances. It’s a story of the triumph of the human spirit set in a small Norwegian town that will be devastated by a 250 feet tsunami. It’s also based on a distinct tsunami incident that happened in Norway almost 80 years ago. With competent visual effects and production, as well as an easy story to follow, this can be a crowd pleaser as it was a success story.
Surprisingly enough, Romania hasn’t been in an Oscar race though they’ve came close with a Top 9 mention for Cannes winner “Beyond the Hills.” This year, they’re targeting to get that elusive first nod with Silver Bear Best Director Radu Jude’s “Aferim!“ which gives an interesting take on history in terms of prejudices, beliefs, and nationalities. That sounded more like a beauty pageant travel, but I can see this film appealing with the voters both because of its theme and its production.
If not Belgium, then maybe Sweden can score another comedy in the top 9 shortlist, thanks to Roy Andersson’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” After all, they came close already in entering the top nine but missing the actual nod in 2008 (for “Everlasting Moments“), 2010 (for “Simple Simon“) and last year (for “Force Majeure“) that this might be the vehicle to that 15th nomination. It’s not hard to see it getting nominated as it won Best Film in Venice and has received overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Third time might be the charm for acclaimed auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien after his two earlier films (1989’s “A City of Sadness” and 1998’s “Flowers of Shanghai” both failed to make the cut during those respective years. That said, his comeback film “The Assassin” is one of Cannes’ success stories this year, and with HHH himself even winning the plum for Best Directing. This is a critically backed film reaping best of the years mentions, and while there’s still a chance it can get snubbed altogether, we can count on the committee to probably save it for a Top 9 placement.
Right now, I feel comfortable in thinking that “Son of Saul“, “Mustang“, and “Rams” are the three strongest contenders. But then again, it’s difficult to pin down what they will really go for. And which country will benefit from the surprise out of nowhere mention? I’d probably ranked these eighteen films as such:
01. “Son of Saul” (Hungary)
02. “Mustang” (France)
03. “Rams” (Iceland)
LIKELY GOOD CHANCES:
04. “A War” (Denmark)
05. “The Second Mother” (Brazil)
06. “The Clan” (Argentina)
07. “The Wave” (Norway)
08. “The Club” (Chile)
IN THE MIX:
09. “The Brand New Testament” (Belgium)
10. “The Assassin” (Taiwan)
11. “Labyrinth of Lies” (Germany)
12. “Ixcanul (Volcano)” (Guatemala)
13. “Theeb” (Jordan)
14. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (Sweden)
DON’T BE SURPRISED IF THEY WERE SNUBBED:
15. “Court” (India)
16. “Lamb” (Ethiopia)
17. “Aferim!” (Romania)
18. “Embrace of the Serpent” (Colombia)
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