The Best Foreign Language Film race has again set a new record, with entries this year hailing from 92 countries. Amongst the contenders are a host of high-profile helmers—and one Netflix-backed picture directed by a bonafide global celebrity.
The Phase One and Executive Committees can be unpredictable. Last year’s shortlist created an uproar when it shockingly omitted Paul Verhoeven’s French film Elle. The thriller won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film with Isabelle Huppert snagging Best Actress. She was also nominated for an Oscar.
Still, for some time last year it looked as though Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was the Oscar nominee to beat. And then came Donald Trump’s travel ban. That thrust Iranian filmmaker, and previous Oscar winner, Asghar Farhadi onto the world stage. He refused to attend the ceremony even if given special dispensation. His film The Salesman became a symbol against the ban, and against Trump, and ultimately took the Oscar home.
So, predictions can sometimes be futile. But that doesn’t mean sizing up the field of frontrunners and films worthy of consideration is. Here we go.
Berlin Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul is the entry from Hungary (whose Son of Saul was the 2015 laureate). The Ildikó Enyedi-directed love story is set in a Budapest slaughterhouse and centers on a man and woman who discover they share the same dream every night, and try to recreate it during the day. Its other prizes include the Ecumenical Jury nod and FIPRESCI in Berlin and the Sydney Film Prize. It’s up for four European Film Awards.
Also out of Berlin, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman could see the Chilean director step up after his 2013 pic Gloria didn’t make the cut. The film stars Daniela Vega as Marina, a waitress and singer, and Francisco Reyes as Orlando, an older man, who are in love and planning for the future. After Orlando suddenly falls ill and dies, Marina is forced to confront his family and society, and to fight again to show them who she is: complex, strong, forthright, fantastic.
Winning the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, Spoor hails from Polish Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik. It follows an elderly woman who lives alone in a valley where mysterious crimes are committed. The wintery whodunnit does not have U.S. distribution.
After unleashing a “worst man-cry” when he failed to score a nomination with 2014’s Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund should have plenty to smile about this year. His Palme d’Or winner, The Square, leads the nominations at the European Film Awards. Starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, it’s a satirical drama set in the art world. On being selected as Sweden’s rep Östlund says, “I really hope it’s less painful this time round.” Sweden had a Foreign Language Oscar nomination last year with Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove.
Also out of Cannes this year is Russia’s submission by Andrey Zvyagintsev, Loveless. The Jury Prize winner puts the director back in the running for the third time. Most recently, his 2014 drama Leviathan was nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe. A family drama, it’s also critical of Russian society—much as was the case with Leviathan. It revolves around a couple going through a vicious divorce and impatient to turn the page. But when their son disappears after witnessing one of their fights, the pair must come together. Loveless too has racked up a series of prizes and was recently nominated for multiple European Film Awards.
Robin Campillo was on the Croisette this year with BPM, his first time in Cannes as director. He’d previously been to the festival as the writer and editor of 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class. BPM won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for its early ’90s tale of an activist group fighting general indifference to the AIDS epidemic. France has been nominated numerous times for the FL Oscar, most recently with 2015’s Mustang. But it hasn’t taken the prize since 1992’s Indochine.
Yet another Cannes winner is Germany’s entry, In the Fade, from helmer Fatih Akin. Star Diane Kruger won the Best Actress prize in the Palais last May for the terrorism drama, which is her first German-language role. Kruger plays a woman whose life collapses after the death of her husband and son in a bomb attack. Akin previously repped Germany in the Oscar race with 2007’s The Edge of Heaven, which did not make the shortlist.
Hailing from the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes, A Ciambra is Italy’s submission. Jonas Carpignano’s drama is set in a small Romani community where 14-year-old Pio is in a hurry to grow up. When he sets out to prove his worth to his brother, a series of events will forever change the way he sees the world. The movie benefited from the emerging filmmakers fund spearheaded by Martin Scorsese. Italy is the most successful country when it comes to the FL Oscar, taking 11 official and three honorary prizes.
Amongst the Venice titles to be vying for a shortlist slot is Ziad Doueiri’s Lebanese production The Insult. This one took the Best Actor Volpi Cup on the Lido. But upon entering Lebanon after the fest, the French-Lebanese director made headlines when he was detained at the Beirut airport with both of his passports confiscated. He was later released without charge by a military tribunal. The incident was related to Doueiri’s 2012 film The Attack, which he shot partly in Israel. Lebanese citizens are banned from visiting the country. The Insult revolves around a minor argument that erupts between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee, and eventually escalates into an intense legal battle that becomes a matter of public opinion. Doueiri’s acclaimed 1998 drama West Beirut was also Lebanon’s Oscar submission and The Insult has a lot of heat.
One of the favorites of the Venice crowd was Israel’s Foxtrot by Lebanon helmer Samuel Maoz. Covering provocative subject matter in the dance with death, grieving and fate, the film created some controversy in Israel for its depiction of military service there. It opens as an Israeli couple opens their door to army officials who tell them their soldier son has been killed. Much of the film deals with the young soldier as he mans an isolated checkpoint.
Joachim Trier’s Thelma is Norway’s official submission. The supernatural thriller has played a series of fests including Toronto, New York and London. The pic centers on a young student in Oslo, overwhelmed by emotions she doesn’t dare acknowledge when she finds herself drawn to another woman, and as frightening and inexplicable powers force themselves into the open.
From Finland, the entry is Tom of Finland, the critically-acclaimed pic from well-regarded Finnish director Dome Karukoski about the life and work of local artist Touko Laaksonen. Karukoski is one to keep an eye on as he was recently hired to direct the Keanu Reeves/Isla Fisher starrer The Starling. Fest play on the biopic of the trailblazing figure in post-World War II erotic art has included Tribeca, while at home it’s been a box office and critical success.
Another one to keep an eye on is certainly Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, the entry from Cambodia. The Netflix film, directed and co-written by Jolie, is about author and human rights activist Loung Ung’s life under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge. It premiered in Telluride and then went on to Toronto where it won strong praise. The story is told through Ung’s eyes, from the age of five, when the Khmer Rouge came to power.
First They Killed My Father’s selection as the foreign language entry marks the first time such a high-profile American director has been the representative of another country in another tongue. It is also the 6th submission ever from Cambodia, where it was released September 8 in local theaters.
While there isn’t a clear line on the nationalities or places of birth of directors of the roughly 1,800 films entered in the Foreign Language category since 1956, one other U.S.-born helmer stands out: Rama Burshtein was behind the 2012 Israeli submission, Fill the Void. Since the 57th Oscars in 1984, the rules for the category have stipulated that a submitting country “must certify that creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film”. Jolie has dual U.S./Cambodian citizenship.
Other titles worth keeping in mind among the dozens of worthy films include Belgium’s dark romantic thriller Racer and the Jailbird by Michaël R. Roskam whose Bullhead was nominated in 2012; and Argentina’s Zama, a period drama by Lucrecia Martel. Both those premiered in Venice.
And then there’s Korea’s historical drama A Taxi Driver from Jang Hoon. It’s the highest-grossing local film of the year. But no film on the list of 92 submissions has made more than China’s entry Wolf Warrior 2. In fact, the combined box office of all the movies wouldn’t even get close to its $854 million at home. China typically goes more arthouse, but this year submitted a movie that has more in common with big U.S. action titles. It’s unlikely to advance in the race, but it’s worth a mention.