There are 81 films vying for the Foreign Language Oscar this year, two fewer than last year’s record 83 but no less rich with subjects and auteurs from around the world. Each year the Foreign Language Film Award Committee faces an increasing embarrassment of riches, which it has to whittle down to just nine films for the shortlist, then five for the nominations.
And sometimes the committee embarrasses itself, as when it previously shut out such lauded movies as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days (OK, that was in 2008 and some rules have changed, but it’s a hard one to live down); The Intouchables in 2012 or even last year’s Force Majeure. Who will be the snubbees this year? It’s really anybody’s guess, but with such a strong group of films there will inevitably be some.
What we can take a look at is how the field is shaping up in terms of the films with lots of buzz and strong chances to advance when the shortlist is unveiled in December. The Phase One committee determines six of the candidates on that roster. The other three entries are determined by the Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee. Lastly, 30 higher-profile Academy members choose the five nominees after viewing the shortlist finalists. Then the entire Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voting block weighs in for the winner.
Festivals are usually a very strong predictor of what will jump out later on down the line. Last year was heavily weighted towards May Cannes premieres. Four made the shortlist and three ultimately were nominated. While the 2015 submissions include a cornucopia of movies that strolled a Riviera red carpet earlier this year—including one potential frontrunner—there also are key titles that began their careers in February in Berlin and, notably, Venice in September.
The Berlinale has been a strong supplier of awards season fare in the past few years, spawning such favorites as A Royal Affair and The Broken Circle Breakdown. The 2015 vintage was notable for Pablo Larrain’s El Club (Music Box), among others. The Chilean movie about a quartet of exiled priests won the Grand Jury Prize. Larrain’s subject, although difficult, is especially timely and told through a darkly comic lens. It should not be confused with El Clan (Fox International Productions), the Argentine drama that won the directing prize in Venice and also is a strong entry in this field. A box office smash at home, it could follow in the footsteps of last year’s nominated Wild Tales. This one is based on the true story of the criminal Puccio family of the 1980s. To make matters more confusing with El Club, El Clan also is directed by a Pablo, Trapero in this case. Both screened at the AFI Film Festival.
Other notables out of Berlin include The Second Mother from Brazil’s Anna Muylaert. The story of a mother and daughter’s difficult reunion won the Panorama Audience Award. Oscilloscope is releasing domestically. Ixcanul (Kino Lorber), from Guatemala’s Jayro Bustamante, is set on the side of a volcano with an arranged marriage as the backdrop. The film won the Alfred Bauer Prize in Berlin and got a lot of positive buzz from Academy types when it played Telluride.
Later in the year, Cannes offered a group of smart, often stinging artistic splashes. Son of Saul, a first time feature by Hungary’s László Nemes (a Deadline Director to Watch), wowed the Croisette from its early press screenings and ultimately moved the jury to hand it the Grand Prize. Nemes’ Holocaust drama follows an Auschwitz prisoner and member of the Sonnerkommando who must burn the bodies of the dead. When he discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son, he attempts to find a rabbi to arrange a clandestine burial. Sony Pictures Classics is handling.
Also off of the Riviera, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (Well Go) scored the veteran Taiwanese helmer his first directing prize. The story of a young girl exiled from her village, who trains as an expert martial artist, is Hou’s first Wuxi film. The director uses shadow and lingering shots with actors untrained in swordplay to create a world that’s at once lyrical and haunting.
From Directors’ Fortnight, Iceland’s Rams (Cohen Media Group) might hook the Academy. The dramedy from Grímur Hákonarson is the story of two estranged brothers who run separate sheep farms. When a scourge threatens their respective flocks, they put down the staffs and come together to save the animals. Also out of the Fortnight, Colombia’s Embrace of the Serpent (Oscilloscope) by Ciro Guerra employed a real life Shaman to star in the epic journey through the Amazon that also screened at AFI.
Later in the festival circuit, in Venice, came A War by Tobias Lindholm. The Danish helmer has been through the Oscar circus on the periphery before, having scripted longtime collaborator Thomas Vinterberg’s nominated The Hunt. A drama about life and decisions on and off the battlefield, the film wowed the Horizons section when it premiered to a 15-minute standing ovation. Magnolia is releasing the film, another AFI presentation. Austria’s arthouse horror/thriller Goodnight Mommy (Radius) by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz is looking to break any genre bias. It ran in Horizons and has heat on it. Jordan’s Theeb (Film Movement) and Italy’s Don’t Be Bad also are being buzzed.
Among other titles making waves is Bulgaria’s The Judgment which is set against the country’s Syrian migrant crisis near its Greek and Turkish borders. In the movie, a former military commander and widower smuggles illegal immigrants from Syria across the border along a a 800M cliff called The Judgment. However, as he faces one last trip, his son learns about a terrible sin from his father’s past. Director Stephan Komandarev has had first-hand knowledge of the migrant crisis having made three documentary films over the past 13 years in the region where The Judgment take place. There’s also Norway’s The Wave, a disaster drama that could impress the Academy with its technical prowess. Magnolia has U.S. on this one. Also intriguing, the Cuba-set, Spanish-language Viva, which is Ireland’s entry, was a real crowd pleaser in Telluride. Canada’s Felix and Meira was very well received when it screened in Los Angeles; Oscilloscope is releasing. Also of note: the Israeli Film Academy’s Best Picture winner Baba Joon; Czech Republic’s Home Care; and Korean box office hit The Throne.
The only newcomer this year is Paraguay with director Arami Ullón’s Cloudy Times. There’s precedent here: Mauritania’s Timbuktu made history last year when it was the first entry from that country and its first ever nomination.