The Foreign Language Oscar race consistently serves up a cornucopia of interesting auteur fare from around the world. And with every year’s increasing embarrassment of riches, it’s more difficult to predict how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Phase One and Executive Committees will weed out the lead crop. While certain films look like obvious choices for the shortlist, there are generally some pretty off-the-wall omissions. We’ll know for sure what’s made the cut when the nine-strong shortlist comes out at the end of the week. In the meantime, below is a look inside what I think are the films with the strongest chances, and conversations with each of the directors behind them. There’s a Top 10, followed by a handful more who could switch in. The titles in each of the sections, however, are in no particular order.

THE TOP 10

THE ASSASSIN (Taiwan); Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien; U.S. distributor: Well Go USA
AssassinVoted the best movie of 2015 by Sight & Sound magazine, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin scored the veteran helmer his first directing prize at May’s Cannes Film Festival; and picked up a Critics’ Choice nom yesterday. Taiwan’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar is the story of a young girl abducted from her village and trained as an expert martial artist. After 13 years of exile, she returns to her home province with orders to kill her former love. This is Hou’s first Wuxi film. Long fascinated by vignettes about the Tang Dynasty, he tells me he was inspired to do a story about the ethics of killing which has “strong contemporary relevance.” The guiding principal in laying out the fight scenes was for it to be “realistic,” especially since his actors were largely untrained in swordplay. Hou has been praised for the use of shadow and lingering shots to create a world that’s at once lyrical and haunting. He says, “Once you start using these long takes and focus on details, there emerges a quietude in a martial art film.” But, he adds, “There is a tension brewing underneath the façade, a boiling point when action emerges. I want it to be very quick, like a jump cut arriving at this point of release.” This is the third time he has repped Taiwan in the Oscar race and says it’s important for Asian cinema to travel. “China is doing very well. We still have to deal with government censorship, but it’s emerging and it’s possible for me to imagine a scenario where China builds a major industry.”

THE CLUB (Chile); Director: Pablo Larrain; U.S. distributor: Music Box Films
el clubPablo Larrain’s El Club won the Grand Jury Prize in Berlin, the Best Picture nod at Fantastic Fest and picked up a Golden Globe nomination last week. But when we spoke last month, he was trying “not to be over optimistic” about his Oscar shortlist chances. And that’s from the only Chilean director ever to score a nomination (2012’s No). The Club centers on a quartet of priests exiled to a beach town whose dark and darkly comic existence is disrupted by a violent incident and a new arrival. Larrain says the idea for the film was sparked by a newspaper article about a house in Germany that belongs to a big South American congregation where a Chilean priest was sent after being accused of sexual abuse. “The house looked like it was out of a Swiss chocolate commercial. It was incredible this man was there, so it was like ‘who else was there and does it exist in Chile?’ ” Larrain was raised Catholic and “met all kinds of priests, nice honorable men and priests who are today in jail and others who are gone nobody knows where they are.” Never a victim himself, he nevertheless remembers “being a kid and during confession the priest was so close you could almost smell what he had for lunch and his sweet cheap perfume from the Duty Free.” Although El Club “looks like a movie about criticism of the church, I’m not pointing my finger… I never pretend to make a movie that I am the one who is deciding what it’s about. I intend to make a movie that the audience will decide morally what it’s about.”

RAMS (Iceland); Director: Grimur Hákonarson; U.S. distributor: Cohen Media Group
Rams 3Director Grímur Hákonarson says his main intention was to “tell an honest story about sheep farmers in Iceland.” There is great passion for sheep in his home country. “If an animal were to be put on our flag, it would be a sheep.” That comes across in the tale of two estranged brothers who must join forces to save their flocks. The film is inspired by a true story that Hákonarson’s father told him and which he believes is “universal and about the importance of human relationships in crisis or difficult times. And that’s relevant to today.” The film could not have been made without the cooperation of the people in the valley that appears in the film. “I was really lucky, there are only 50 people who live in the valley and most have a task in Rams. They didn’t come with dollars in their eyes; they see Rams as an opportunity to put the valley on the map.” Rams won the Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes and has picked up several other awards. Since Cannes, Hákonarson laughs, “I’ve been traveling a lot, shaking hands, mingling, making speeches. That’s not the protocol when I went to film school to study to be a director. I feel like an ambassador for the sheep and my country.” He’s been getting offers of English-language movies but feels the “logical step” is to do another Icelandic film before possibly making the leap.

MUSTANG (France); Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven; U.S. distributor: Cohen Media Group
mustangOne of the most successful countries at the Oscars, France has had a rough go of it in the past five years with only The Intouchables making the shortlist. Will Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang be next? Its selection beat out stiff competition like Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan (his A Prophet was the last French film nominated in this category back in 2009). Mustang, which picked up a Golden Globe nod last week and has an Indie Spirit and Critics’ Choice nom, first bolted out of the gate at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes where it won the Label Europa Cinemas prize. The film follows five teenage sisters in Turkey whose summer at the beach with their male classmates turns into a scandal with unintended consequences. Despite that, their bond helps them as they find new ways of rebelling and chasing freedom. This is Ergüven’s first feature, but almost didn’t get made. “I was trying to articulate what it is to be a woman, and in Turkey,” she said. “I wrote a treatment in 2011 but I was too close to the reality. I almost buried it.” A long period working on another project in LA didn’t amount to much and she decided to revisit Mustang, co-writing with Alice Winocour. But three weeks before shooting was to begin, her producer withdrew all support. “It was a week after I found out I was pregnant — it was brutal.” Producer Charles Gillibert rescued the situation and shooting picked up four weeks after originally planned. “Ultimately, it was much better for the film.” Reactions, she says, have been “beautiful in the U.S… People have fallen into my arms crying.”

LABYRINTH OF LIES (Germany); Director: Giulio Ricciarelli; U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Labyrinth Of LiesGiulio Ricciarelli’s German entry has something in common with Sony Pictures Classics’ other major foreign pic this season. Both Labyrinth Of Lies and Son Of Saul are by first-time filmmakers, share the Holocaust as subject matter, and tell stories that were previously little known. Lies, which debuted in Toronto 2014, is based on a true story about the young public prosecutor who at the end of the 1950s embarked on a search for the truth behind the events of Auschwitz and exposed a conspiracy of prominent institutions and government branches to cover up Nazi war crimes. SPC’s Michael Barker calls it “a Holocaust story you’ve never seen before. This feels totally new. It’s done as a thriller that recalls The Lives Of Others.” Ricciarelli says he “could have never imagined doing anything historical or a complex theme about the Holocaust, but I found it so compelling and untold that I astonished myself.” And he wanted audiences to connect. “The whole concept of the film is to make it an audience film — that was the goal. I want to make films that are entertaining and an exciting experience. But at same time, I would hope for the story being told to be deep and worthwhile.”

THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (Belgium); Director: Jaco van Dormael
brand new testamentGod is alive and living in Brussels with his wife and daughter. He’s also kind of a jerk. That’s the basic premise of Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament, a satirical comedy that played Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, won Best Comedy Feature at Fantastic Fest, and has a Golden Globe nomination. Van Dormael has represented Belgium before in this race, with 1991’s Toto Le Héros and 1996’s The Eighth Day. But before Testament, he says it was 2009’s Mr Nobody that was “my favorite film. That’s the one I said ‘I can’t do better.’ So you never know why people (or awards bodies) react the way they do. It’s like throwing a bottle in the sea so I’m happy when I get a postcard back.” The idea for this bottle came in his first collaboration with a co-writer, Thomas Gunzig. “We sat around the garden and one summer afternoon it just came to us. It might be inspired by Woody Allen’s quote, ‘If God exists, he better have a good excuse.’ ” Van Dormael had a Catholic upbringing but wasn’t a believer and found “comic things in the Bible – a book written by men for men.” So, they thought, what if God had a wife and a rebellious teenage daughter? She vies to create a new testament and in order to unchain the faithful from her dad, sneaks into his office and sends the entire world a list of their exact death dates, setting off a series of events that includes Catherine Deneuve bedding a gorilla. The film “poses questions and we don’t have the answers. Whether you are a believer or not, it’s a strange experience to be alive. It’s great to be on this earth” but life is episodic, Van Dormael says. In the film, “People have a response” and “can see where they are on the path.”

A WAR (Denmark); Director: Tobias Lindholm; U.S distributor: Magnolia Pictures
a warR and A Hijacking director Tobias Lindholm’s contemporary drama about life and decisions on and off the battlefield debuted in the Horizons section of Venice in September, wowing the Lido in the process with a 15-minute standing ovation. The story follows an officer put on trial upon his return from a tour of duty in Afghanistan where he was forced to make an impossible decision to save his men. Lindholm, who is also the writer of Borgen, Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-nominated The Hunt and Paul Greengrass’ upcoming The Tunnels, says the inspiration for A War came because Denmark’s first involvement in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan “defined my generation.” Looking for a story to tell, he came across an interview with a Danish officer on his third tour in Afghanistan, who said he wasn’t afraid of getting killed. But he was afraid of being prosecuted when he got back home “because of the constantly changing and complex rules of engagement.” That gave birth to the full idea. The first part of the film segues from the battlefield back to the officer’s home in Denmark where his wife is managing a household with three kids. Lindholm also has three kids, so that was the familiar part to write: “I know how my wife struggles when I’m away and how I struggle when she is away; adding that the other parent is away at war instead of on business or pleasure just makes everything so dramatic.” The drama moves to the courtroom in the second half of the film. Star Pilou Absaek, Lindholm’s go-to actor, has been widely praised for his work throughout. Lindholm calls Absaek a “brother” and says, “I think I’m the only person in the world who hopes they’re going to kill him quite fast in Game Of Thrones — so I can get him back.” The pair shared a very emotional experience in Venice with two of the soldiers from the film. The applause “just kept going and growing into this thing where my wife needed to leave because she was too emotional. So in many ways, it was the perfect ending even though it was the opening of the journey.”

THE SECOND MOTHER (Brazil); Director: Anna Muylaert; U.S. distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
The Second MotherBrazilian director Anna Muylaert first hatched the idea for The Second Mother when she became a mother for the first time about 20 years ago. “I realized how the job of the mother is not valued in our society, despite being one of, if not the most important of all. When I chose the character of the nanny, all the social issues came together. Then I realized it was a too complex subject to be my first film and decided to do something simpler before and time flew.” It flew right to Sundance this year where The Second Mother won the Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema section. That was followed by a pair of awards in the Berlin Panorama (and a fresh Critics’ Choice nom) for the story of a live-in nanny whose estranged daughter arrives and shakes up the rules of the house. Muylaert says it’s important to portray women in contemporary Brazil because it is “a young country still ruled by old and anachronistic rules that urge to be upgraded… It’s a very sexist country and we are too strong to keep on being treated like second class citizens.” What’s more, Brazil doesn’t typically send a female-helmed film to the Oscars. Muylaert’s selection as the representative this year, she says, is already helping women to believe in their voice.

IXCANUL (Guatemala); Director: Jayro Bustamante; U.S. distributor: Kino Lorber
IxcanulGuatemala’s second-ever entry to the Foreign Language race hails from first-time feature helmer Jayro Bustamante who won the Alfred Bauer prize in Berlin last February. The film centers on a Mayan teenager who lives and works with her parents on a coffee plantation at the foothills of an active volcano. She dreams of going to the big city, but as an indigenous woman she is not permitted — and she has an arranged wedding waiting for her. When a snake bite forces her to go out into the modern world, her life is saved at a steep price. Bustamante has been traveling non-stop with the film, recently stopping in Guatemala “to change suitcases” when I caught up with him. The director spent 17 years living in Paris and for a long time wanted to make a movie in Guatemala, so he created his own company there with his mother acting as legal representative. “She really invested herself and one day called me and said ‘we have to do this story.’ ” Taking a loan to put up some of the financing, Bustamante also got the support of the volcano community. The country, Bustamante says, “doesn’t support the industry. Everyone does it like me, they ask their parents for help and from within their entourage.” Now, Bustamante is taking his own initiative again, designing a bus to bring various types of cinema to the Mayan community. Outside Guatemala, he’s been happy to be “forced to spend time in LA. At the beginning I didn’t like it and now I start to understand and appreciate it.” He’s receiving offers and seeing agents. “It’s still a system I don’t understand very well, but I don’t think it’s the devil for a filmmaker.”

SON OF SAUL (Hungary); Director: Laszlo Nemes; U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Son of SaulThe first time I caught up with Son Of Saul director Laszlo Nemes was before his Cannes breakout had even screened. At the time, I pegged him as a Deadline Director to Watch given the pre-buzz I’d heard, and the fact that he was the only first-time feature director to have a movie in the main Competition. His intense Holocaust drama is about a Sonderkommando prisoner at Auschwitz forced to assist the Nazis by feeding the crematoria the endless stream of bodies from the gas chambers. Set over a day and a half, the film closely follows Saul (Géza Rohrig) as he discovers among the dead a barely alive boy he believes is his young son. Failing to save the boy from being murdered, he becomes obsessed with finding a rabbi to give him a proper burial. Son Of Saul went on to win the Cannes Grand Jury Prize and was quickly snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics. SPC’s Michael Barker tells me he and partner Tom Bernard believed that historically the genre tends to bring out an older audience. But at the New York Film Festival, for example, “the crowd was almost entirely young and at AFI it was couples in their 20s and 30s all from different backgrounds. Word has gotten out about Laszlo and Géza and that this is a young movie. The Austin Fantastic Film Festival begged us for the movie and we were kind of like ‘are you sure?’ That’s a fanbase that loves Guillermo del Toro.”

Nemes told me in May the film was personal, but he wanted his take on the subject matter to stand out. “I was very disappointed by the usual approach of the so-called Holocaust movies that I saw. I wanted to bring the story to the level of one person and scale it in a very narrow way.” Last week, as he was about to board a plane to Chicago, he received word of the film’s Golden Globe nomination (it also now has a Critics’ Choice nom). “The film has had this long journey and it’s very exciting, like we are in a fairy tale,” he says. If he had to pick one reaction amongst the many he’s received during the post-Cannes voyage Son Of Saul has taken, he says it’s been from people “thanking me because it gave a voice to an emotion they could never communicate. The greatest gift is to have this kind of power – that film can give voice to an emotion that exists but can’t be communicated.”

THE ALTERNATES

GOODNIGHT MOMMY (Austria); Directors: Serverin Fiala, Veronika Franz; U.S. distributor: Radius-TWC
goodnight mommy posterHorror and the Foreign Language Oscar race don’t necessarily go together like rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong, but as witness to how seriously the Academy is taking Austria’s Goodnight Mommy, it screened the film for members on Halloween. Directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz had a strange meeting themselves: they first got to know one another when he babysat her kids as a teenager. Because he didn’t get to see many films in the countryside where he grew up, Franz paid Fiala in VHS tapes that they watched together and learned they had the same cinematic tastes; from Cassavetes to Friday The 13th. The pair worked on documentary Kern together and “somehow got the idea for Goodnight Mommy,” the story of 9-year-old twin brothers whose mother returns from cosmetic surgery, fully bandaged and unrecognizable, making them think this might not be mom. Goodnight Mommy premiered in Venice 2014 and recently made the National Board of Review’s Top 5 list for 2015. It too has a Critics’ Choice nomination.

THE CLAN (Argentina); Director: Pablo Trapero; U.S distributor: Fox
EL_CLAN_Eng_Poster_r8.pdfThis is Argentine helmer Pablo Trapero’s third time as the Oscar submission from his home country, but stands apart from previous films as a record-setting box office smash at home with nearly $20M to date. The drama about the real-life kidnapping, murderous Puccio family of the 1980s won Trapero the Silver Lion for directing in Venice and could follow in the footsteps of last year’s Argentine Oscar nominee Wild Tales. Both are produced by the Almodovar brothers. Trapero says he first had the idea for the story back in 2007, recalling the case from when he was a 13-year-old boy. “It was big, scary news because the headline was that it was a family that kidnapped their friends at home and killed them.” But, at the end of the day, “It’s a universal tale about a father and son relationship.” It’s also like being on a rollercoaster. “Once you’re there you start to feel a lot of contradictions,” Trapero says. “You want to see what’s going on and then you get scared but you’re already on the ride and you can’t get off so you have to go to the end. That was the intention and I’m happy to say I’ve seen that reaction in different places.”

THE WAVE (Norway); Director: Roar Uthaug; U.S. distributor: Magnolia Pictures
the waveNorwegian helmer Roar Uthaug’s disaster pic has been anything but. A smash box office hit at home, it also helped the director score Tomb Raider as his first English-language gig. The Wave is based on a scarily plausible premise: There are more than 300 unstable mountainsides in Norway — one of the largest is Åkerneset, a system of expanding cracks 800 meters long. It is accepted fact that one day it will fall, and when it does, the resulting rockslide will create an 80-meter high tsunami that will hit the local community of Geiranger after just 10 minutes. At the center of the film, a geologist and his family race to survive the oncoming catastrophe. The project came to Uthaug when a longtime collaborator brought him an article about nearby disasters in the 1930s and the crack that keeps expanding. The production took place in the actual town with extras who lived in the area. “Some came up after being on set for three nights screaming for their lives and said it was the experience of a lifetime,” he tells me. The technical aspects wowed audiences in Toronto where Magnolia picked it up.

THEEB (Jordan); Director: Naji Abu Nowar; U.S. distributor: Film Movement
TheebThis is only the second film ever submitted to the Oscars by Jordan, but it has gaggles of supporters from both in and outside the Middle East. Director Naji Abu Nowar says, “What’s been really touching for me is that the Middle East is having a pretty bad year and going through such a terrible period so one of the nice things is that people in Jordan were proud of us.” Set during World War I, the Western coming-of-age tale centers on a young Bedouin boy who embarks on a dangerous journey to guide a British officer across the desert. After not finding love from funding bodies, Abu Nowar said, “F*** it, we don’t need anyone’s permission. I don’t even like the majority of films they support and the audience in the Middle East doesn’t go to see the films they sponsor. So, we said ‘Let’s just go do it and be like Roger Corman.’” With that commitment ultimately came state funds for post-production and reaction has included the directing prize in Venice’s Horizons section last year. There, he attended the screening with some of the Bedouin actors. “Even if I’m lucky enough to make another film, I don’t think I’ll ever have the same experience. It’s a special honor I’m not sure can be topped.”

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Colombia), Director: Ciro Guerra; U.S Distributor: Oscilloscope
Embrace Of The SerpentThe winner of the Directors’ Fortnight C.I.C.A.E. Award and an Indie Spirit nominee, Ciro Guerra is three-for-three at repping Colombia as the Foreign Language Oscar submission. Embrace Of The Serpent tells parallel stories of treks through the Amazon set in different time periods which share a common character and the search for a healing plant. The story is based on the journals of real explorers and is, Guerra says, “an encounter of wisdom and knowledge in the context of destruction.” He’s referring to the ravages of colonialism, and says the subject matter “really asked me a big question: Are we just destined to kill each other forever or is there a way through science and knowledge to understand each other?” Did he find an answer? “At the beginning of the process, I had a lot of burden in my soul and a lot of questions on my mind. Afterwards, I felt I lost a lot of weight emotionally. It was humbling.” Guerra also relied on indigenous actors despite some initial trepidation. “I worried about working with indigenous people because they have no familiarity with TV or cinema. But they have strong oral tradition which means they know how to listen for real — and it’s hard to find an actor who does that.” Guerra found the elder Karamakate, Antonio Bolivar, after seeing him in some historical footage. “When I knocked on his door and he answered, I knew the film was going to be made. He was there.”

VIVA (Ireland); Director: Paddy Breathnach; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
viva_fI Went Down helmer Paddy Breathnach rocked the Telluride Film Festival at his world premiere of Viva in September. The Spanish-language crowd pleaser is set in Cuba and tells the story of an 18-year-old named Jesus who works at a Havana drag club but dreams of being on the stage himself — which causes conflict with his father. Benicio Del Toro came aboard the film as executive producer in Telluride and Magnolia Pictures later acquired. This is the fourth ever submission from Ireland. Breathnach remarks, “When you come from a small place you need to be out and about working in the world as well. We’ve always traveled. We’re vagabonds in a certain sense.” He first traveled to Cuba in 1996 and happened upon a drag show. “I started talking to two women in the audience and when the performance started a guy sang this passionate romantic song and one of the women started crying. I asked why and she said it was her brother and that the only time he was happy was when he was doing this.” The helmer visited the country a few more times until he learned the story of a family who had built a theater in the back of house for their son to perform. “It struck me as interesting as a relationship between a father and son and how the father building the theater might have been his way to show his acceptance.” Breathnach shot on a $400K budget and enlisted a lot of local help. Cuba has “huge reservoirs of talented people who are not getting a chance to show their talents so they took this as an opportunity.”

FELIX & MEIRA (Canada); Director: Maxime Giroux; U.S. Distributor: Oscilloscope
Felix & MeiraSet in the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal, Félix & Meira focuses on a Hasidic woman who feels trapped by the ultra-Orthodox system. She meets Félix, an atheist, and a slow-bloom relationship begins. Originally, the film played at festivals in 2014 and released in Canada, France and the States this year. Helmer Maxime Giroux says, “It’s a little like it never really stopped.” How it started was because he lived for a time in a Hasidic neighborhood and “didn’t know anything about” the culture. “I was curious and also had some negative views of this community and I wanted to destroy that. Every time I think I’m right, there’s always another side and I’m always a little bit wrong. I wanted to prove I was wrong; the community is more complex and beautiful than I thought.”

THE JUDGMENT (Bulgaria); Director: Stephan Komadarev
judgment posterHelmer Stephan Komandarev’s timely story of a former military commander and widower who smuggles illegal immigrants from Syria across the border along The Judgment Mountain, started percolating 10 years ago when he first spent time in the area between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Returning in 2009, “I heard all the shocking stories about this special place” involving Communist era refugees who tried to escape to Greece or Turkey to the West by crossing the same border. “And many of them were killed. Today, thousands of migrants from Syria also try to cross the same border, but in the opposite direction — to the European Union. And again many of them die on the road. Somehow history repeats itself in a strange way.” He didn’t expect today’s European refugee crisis “would increase in such terrifying proportions,” but is careful to point out this is only one of the themes of the film which centers father-son relations. Having spent five years as a child psychologist, he says, “I know that big part of our identity is created in these relations in the family.” Komandarev is the only Bulgarian filmmaker ever to make the shortlist (with The World Is Big And Salvation Lurks Around The Corner in 2009). That gave him “a lot of inspiration and self-confidence for making The Judgment… To be nominated or to win an Oscar would be a great moment for me. But mainly this can be a sign that it is really very important and worthy to support and to invest in Bulgarian cinema.”

Special Mentions:
The Fencer (Finland); Dir: Klaus Haro
Aferim! (Romania); Dir: Radu Jude