The Oscars shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film will be announced later this week, revealing the nine titles that will vie for the ultimate five nomination slots. As with each year, there are dozens of distinct submissions from a host of countries — 92 this time around — with new voices and repeat filmmakers in the mix. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Phase One and Executive Committees, which weed out the lead crop, have been unpredictable in the past and we’ll know for certain what’s made the cut in short fashion.
In the meantime, below is my annual look inside the films which appear to be the strongest contenders. I spoke with the directors of each picture about their inspirations and more. The Golden Globes announced its nominations earlier this week and those movies are all here, as are others that have a shortlist shot and/or are worth bearing in mind once the dust settles. The titles below are in no particular order.
Frances McDormand's Oscar Theft Case Dropped Suddenly By Los Angeles D.A.
THE INSULT (Lebanon); Director: Ziad Doueiri; U.S. Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Franco-Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri had a strange journey with The Insult this year. The film won the Best Actor Volpi Cup for Kamel El Basha in Venice, but upon the director’s return, he was promptly detained, his passports confiscated and his presence required at a military tribunal. The focus of the inquest was his having shot part of his previous film, The Attack, in Israel. Lebanese citizens are banned from visiting the country. The incident, while quickly resolved, brought international attention to Doueiri and his film. But he says he hasn’t wanted to capitalize on that. In fact, at home a section of the Lebanese population boycotted The Insult without seeing it. Still, he says, “it can stand on its own.”
Doueiri says he has a hard time pinpointing exactly what led him to the story of an insult blown out of proportion that lands two men, one a Lebanese Christian, the other a Palestinian refugee, in court. “A year after I shot it, I’m still trying to figure out what made me do it. It was triggered by an incident that happened to me. I had an exchange with a worker in my street, threw a big insult at him, but it was just two people swearing at each other. A few days later, I thought what if an incident that started on such a banal thing gets bigger until it gets out of control.” He focused on the drama rather than “a social or political or religious message.” But, “It’s also your past talking at you. It came out of my past since the time I was aware of my surroundings living in this part of the world that is so conflictual.” Doueiri also spent 18 years living in the U.S. and says while the film is not autobiographical, “it sums up my belief about growing up in Beirut and going to the United States.”
There is a certain gratification to having The Insult selected as Lebanon’s Oscar entry, particularly after The Attack was banned in the Middle East. “To me, it’s already a winner… I’m happy I didn’t fall through the cracks.”
THE SQUARE (Sweden); Director: Ruben Ostlund; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Ruben Ostlund’s art-world satire The Square won the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year and ever since he’s been leading “primal screams of joy,” most recently this past weekend at the European Film Awards where his movie swept the prizes. The movie was inspired by true events in his home town of Gothenburg where kids were being robbed in the center of town. “In order to break the bystander effect and remind us of our role as human beings we came up with this idea of this symbolic place that was The Square.” The seed was there before he made 2014’s Force Majeure and he returned to it afterwards. “It took a long time to write because there were so many layers that I wanted to include… I wanted to do something that highlights something in our time of the struggle to take responsibility and be good human beings.”
The film stars Danish actor Claes Bang, along with Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West. Moss’ role was initially not planned for an English-speaking actress but when Ostlund met with her, “she was so good that I really, really had to put her in the film.” This film, like others of Ostlund’s oeuvre has “provoked” people, the director says. “For me one of the most important things is to bring attention to a certain topic that is important and interesting. How do we look on our role as fellow human beings? How do we look on life and responsibility and deal with these issues in our time? We are in a time where we feel very confused.”
Ostlund next moves on to Triangle Of Sadness, a project set in the world of fashion and beauty whose title is only coincidentally related to The Square. “My wife and I joke that it’s the second part of a trilogy and the third part will be Octagon Of Confusion, a film that will never be finished.”
Triangle Of Sadness will be largely in English, so Ostlund jokes, “Tell the Foreign Language committee this is the last chance they will have to nominate me.” When Force Majeure did not advance to the nominations in 2015, Ostlund released a YouTube video of himself and producer Erik Hemmendorff reacting as the nominations were read out. Should he make the shortlist this year, I wondered if he would tape himself again watching the nominations. “I’m glad you asked. We’re going to shoot us, but we’re also inviting Elisabeth and Dominic and Terry and Claes so we can all record while watching and I promise you I will cut together the best sequel in YouTube history.”
FOXTROT (Israel); Director: Samuel Maoz; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
One of the big festival hits to come out of the fall circuit is Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot. The Israeli pic is about a couple who learn their soldier son has died in the line of duty, and it flashes back to the son’s experience of military service in the days leading up to his death. The Venice Grand Jury Prize winner created some controversy in Israel for its depiction of military service. Maoz says, “Before the film was released, the Culture Minister attacked it without seeing it. But she certainly helped to stimulate the public debate that I wanted to evoke. She created a weird situation. Half of the population is basically her opponents and that raised their curiosity and they went to see it.”
Maoz, whose credits also include 2009’s Lebanon, says debate is “the goal of the story and any artistic creation. My job is not to reflect reality, it should make it bigger, distort it because we want to stimulate the people to talk about it.”
Foxtrot has been compared to Lebanon, Maoz says, with poeple saying it seems “like a moral complex correlation” of that film “because the post-trauma is more complex than the trauma itself.” But he says neither film are really movies about war. “It’s extreme so as to explode the human soul or conscious, to try to understand why we behave the way we do. I don’t judge my characters. I try to understand them. That’s what makes Foxtrot more social than political.” He is currently developing an English-language project about a mother and daughter set in a world of corrupt men. “It’s a universal, commercial drama with black humor but also a statement about basic human values,” he tells me before adding, “I’m done with the army.”
BPM (France); Director: Robin Campillo; U.S. Distributor: The Orchard
Robin Campillo’s BPM was shockingly left off of the Golden Globes nominations for Best Foreign Language Film on Monday, but has a solid shot at Oscar’s shortlist. The drama about Act-Up Paris won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has also received top honors from the New York and Los Angeles critics groups. Campillo also edited and wrote the movie that marries his early activism with cinema: “The two great affairs of my life found each other,” he says. The film is set in the early 1990s, as Act-Up multiplies its efforts to fight general indifference despite the fact that AIDS already has ravaged lives for nearly a decade. In the story, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newcomer to the group, finds his world shaken by radical militant Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Campillo himself joined Act-Up in 1992.
Campillo allows that it’s difficult to explain the impact of the times on his own life. “It’s true that for me cinema and the epidemic went together.” But at the time of his own 90s experiences, he was shocked to find that film wasn’t a tool being used to discuss what was happening. “It was a fight between the two” for Campillo, and BPM ultimately “resolves 25 years of my life.”
Of spending time in the U.S. with the film, Campillo notes that Act-Up Paris was inspired by Act-Up New York so, “the fact that it comes back to the U.S. where the activism started, there is something very important historically and humanly. The film goes back to the source. It’s surprising and enjoyable to talk to people who thank me for the film and I want to thank them. That’s what is carrying me the most… The film is being seen and received by people about whom the film speaks.”
ZAMA (Argentina); Director: Lucrecia Martel; U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel took an extended break from directing before making Zama, her drama that’s based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto. It centers on Don Diego de Zama, a 17th century Spanish officer in Asunción who’s waiting for his transfer to Buenos Aires. Of her own wait between films she says, “Seen from an industry point of view, 10 years would seem like a very large gap. But I do not measure my time in relation to cinema. Perhaps one should ask why a film director should be prolific. Is making a lot of films a virtue? I’m not sure.”
This is Martel’s first film with a male protagonist but she says she “never made the decision to make films about women” with her previous work. “When I am writing about character I do not think of it as male or female, I rather think of it as an exceptional organism, whose nature is unstable, and its desire overflows any legal system. That description is valid for anyone.” She does feel an affinity with the lead character in Zama, although she says she never felt like a victim of waiting. Rather, “We share an inclination to do exactly what we are not supposed to.”
Tying Zama to her other films (like The Headless Woman, The Holy Girl and La Cienega) is that “they narrate problems of people in the margins of power. People whose destiny rely heavily on others. People that we could find anywhere. They are not heroes, they are not good, they are not bad, they are ordinary people, who guard what they have and fear losing it. I think there is something a little mystical in my films, and that in general it manifests in the absurd, in the nonsense.”
THE DIVINE ORDER (Switzerland); Director: Petra Volpe; U.S. Distributor: Kino Lorber
Petra Volpe’s The Divine Order won the Audience Narrative Award, the Nora Ephron Prize for Volpe, and Best Actress in an International Narrative Feature Film for Marie Leuenberger at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. It was an early entry to the Foreign Oscar race, and while a period piece, is wholly of today. The film centers on a young housewife and mother living in a quaint village with her husband and their two sons. The Swiss countryside is untouched by the major social upheavals the movement of 1968 has brought about and Nora is a quiet person who is liked by everybody — until she starts to publicly fight for women’s suffrage. Women only got the vote in Switzerland in 1971.
Volpe has always focused on women’s equality in her work. When she was a teenager, she tells me, “I became a raging little feminist. I was never scared of this term.” She chose to tackle the period topic because “it’s a kind of funny curiosity of Switzerland. But it’s clear how outrageous it is, and we didn’t learn about it in school… It’s important to look back and look in the mirror.” Today, with so many women coming forward about mistreatment, Volpe says, “it’s become very timely. It’s almost like we planned it, but I wouldn’t have wanted to plan it.” She continues, “We’ve reached a certain level of equality and a certain amount of change in society towards equal rights. But it’s also clear we can’t sit back and say the struggle is over.”
It’s not all struggle though. Volpe says she and her team have been having a lot of fun in LA, trying not to get too stressed about the Oscar race. At the same time, “Everyone in Switzerland is completely frantic,” she laughs. She’ll next be making a prison drama in the U.S.
LOVELESS (Russia); Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Cannes Jury Prize winner Loveless is the director’s third time repping his country after 2003’s The Return and 2014’s Oscar nominee Leviathan. The film revolves around a couple going through a vicious divorce marked by resentment, frustration and recriminations. But when their 12-year-old son disappears after witnessing one of their fights, the pair must come together. It received a Golden Globe nomination on Monday.
Zvyagintsev’s films have been seen as criticizing the Russian government and yet he continues to find support from the local Oscar committee. His producer Alexander Rodnyansky tells me that’s because the film professionals, even though they might have widely different political beliefs, “still recognize Andrey for what he is: One of the best film directors in contemporary Russia.”
Zvyagintsev says that on his recent tour of the U.S. he was surprised by the way people “accepted our film as their own. They didn’t see it as a film about Russia, but saw in Loveless things that they recognize from their own everyday life. They recognized that this ordinary Russian family served as a metaphor for the dysfunctional society and that through the story of this family we were able to talk about universal issues: selfishness, separation, inequality and the general state of lovelessness that we all can relate to and that we see in society around us every day.”
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Chile); Director: Sebastian Lelio; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman stars Daniela Vega as Marina, a young transgender waitress and singer who is forced to confront suspicion and contempt after the death of her older lover. It won prizes in Berlin earlier this year and picked up a Golden Globe nomination on Monday.
Lelio met Vega initially so she could consult on the film, but ultimately he realized that “the script started to absorb elements coming from Daniela… and at some point I just realized she was Marina, she was the one.” He says the film “operates in different directions — it’s trans-genre about a transgender woman whose own identity oscillates all the time. It’s a romantic film that becomes a ghost film, a character study, a thriller, a musical. It was so easy for anyone to get lost, and my feeling is that so many people are getting it and connecting at an emotional level.”
The film is certainly timely. Lelio says, “I felt that in a certain way this idea of the problem of people that are more or less ‘legitimate’ than others — who defines what is love and who can draw the line to say this is not legitimate and this is legitimate? — that problem is very contemporary because we are going through the crisis of empathy.”
Lelio is currently remaking his 2013 drama Gloria in English and starring Julianne Moore. His first English-language picture, Disobedience, debuts in April starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.
FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER (Cambodia); Director: Angelina Jolie; U.S. Distributor: Netflix
On Monday, Angelina Jolie scored her second nomination in the Golden Globes Foreign Language category with First They Killed My Father, the drama about author and human rights activist Loung Ung’s life under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge. Jolie holds dual U.S./Cambodian citizenship, and shot the film in Khmer. She says she didn’t see it so much as a challenge, but “something that was essential to the expression and soul of the film. This is their history, and their language. I’m thrilled the film has been able to reach audiences around the world but it was made first and foremost for and with people in Cambodia.”
I asked her if, given the subject matter, it was difficult to shoot in the country and she told me the biggest consideration “was that we were shooting in some cases on the very land where people had been killed, with a cast and crew made up of survivors and children of survivors. Taking the time to discuss scenes, to prepare people for what was going to happen and to hear their views, and making time and space for people to pray together, was so important. These discussions shaped our days on set and made the experience moving and meaningful.”
The film has also been hailed as a technical achievement for the local industry. Says Jolie, “It was clear we would be building an infrastructure while making the film. While it is not necessarily easy, it unifies the crew in a very unique way. What we didn’t have we made. I’ve never had the experience of a crew as invested and so willing to learn from each other and work together to find a solution.” Are there other Cambodian films in her future? “My focus now will be continuing to support other filmmakers in Cambodia telling Cambodian stories. I will of course continue to find ways to participate however I can,” she says.
TOM OF FINLAND (Finland); Director: Dome Karukoski; U.S. Distributor: Kino Lorber
Dome Karukoski took some time out from making Fox Searchlight’s Tolkien to chat recently about Tom Of Finland, the Oscar entry from Finland this year about Touko Laaksonen, the renowned artist and gay icon. Karukoski began developing the biopic in late 2011 and was able to secure rights to use Laaksonen’s artwork in 2013. In the intervening years, he had been examining “how the story would unfold and the biggest turning point was when we got the art and to have the discussions and hear the stories about his craziest and wildest moments.” Using the archives including letters and photographs turned up a “life that was quite cinematic.” But the idea wasn’t to do a film about the art per se. “We had numerous responses of ‘I know the history of the art, I want to know the story of the person.’ So we focused on that and how he was an artist doing something so forbidden but achieved his goals. It became a story of freedom of speech.”
Tom Of Finland is important for other reasons, Karukoski says, “I spoke with Amnesty Finland which has done research that found the most bullied kids are LGBT but it’s not discussed. I have a track-record that can generate a wider audience in Finland and I think it’s vital that a film like Tom can get a wider audience and allows for mainstreaming the subject matter.” The film won a FIPRESCI at the Goteborg Festival this year and screened in Tribeca.
RACER AND THE JAILBIRD (Belgium); Director: Michael R Roskam; U.S. Distributor:
Michael R Roskam’s breakout film, Bullhead, was nominated for an Oscar in 2012. Swiftly after that he made The Drop for Fox Searchlight, diving head-first into the U.S. business and setting aside the script for Racer And The Jailbird. But he wanted to get back to the project before losing touch with it. “I was still very attached to it and felt if I don’t do it now, I might not do it.” The dark romantic thriller stars Bullhead’s Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Set at a racing circuit where gangster Gino meets Benedicte, a wealthy and fearless racing driver, the two fight for their love against fate, but also against reason and their own weaknesses. Roskam says he intends to work with Schoenaerts as much as possible, “It will be fun both being in our 80s to make movies for ourselves or youngsters. I can imagine him playing a Grand Torino Clint Eastwood character.”
For Racer, Roskam teamed up with Jacques Audiard’s frequent collaborator, screenwriter Thomas Bidegain who had scripted the Schoeaerts-starrer Rust And Bone. “Any help of a great mind was welcome,” he says. Thematically, Roskam says he likes to explore “themes of impotence and powerlessness between what you want and don’t want. Destiny will always be present in my work. I assume I will keep evolving thematically in subjects, but as I evolve as a human being my work will always reflect a part of my life.” Will he continue to work between home country and the States? “I’d like to be this kind of transatlantic film director like NATO.”
IN THE FADE (Germany); Director: Fatih Akin; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
German filmmaker Fatih Akin is a Cannes regular, and this year debuted In The Fade to much Riviera praise and a Best Actress prize for star Diane Kruger. She plays a woman whose life collapses after the death of her husband and son in a bomb attack. The police arrest two suspects, a young neo-Nazi couple, but Katja wants justice. This is Kruger’s first German-language role and Akin tells me, “Once I had the idea to cast her it was like fixed. I couldn’t change it anymore. Sometimes you are like a chef. You cook a dish and you need something very extraordinary.”
While the story is contemporary and timely for today, Akin first wrote a draft of it in 1992. “Can you imagine?” he marvels. “As a teenager back then, I could have been a target just because of the way I look, because my parents are Turkish. That really bothered me.” Sadly, he says today, “Nothing has changed since then. It seems that many of us haven’t done the homework or reflection since then.”
Akin repped Germany 10 years ago, but did not advance to the shortlist. He calls it a “bit like a computer game to reach different levels.” Earlier this week, he scored a Golden Globe nomination.
A CIAMBRA (Italy); Director: Jonas Carpignano; U.S. Distributor: Sundance Selects
Italian-American director Jonas Carpignano says of the experience with his second film, “Every moment I think I’m able to grasp it, something surreal happens and I lose myself again.” That’s in part because Martin Scorsese is an executive producer. Carpignano’s first film, Mediterranea, was widely acclaimed in 2015 and A Ciambra played Directors’ Fortnight this year. It’s part of the emerging filmmakers fund spearheaded by Scorsese, his Sikelia producing partner Emma Koskoff and RT Features’ Rodrigo Teixeira and stars Pio Amato and Koudous Seihon. In a small Romani community in Italy, 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.
Carpignano shot the movie in Calabria which is part of the story. “The film is very much borne out of a reality that only exists in Calabria and other places where gypsies are settled communities. This story maps out the hierarchy of the day to day activities. I didn’t do research that involved gypsies in general, though. This was about trying to nail the day to day of this community.”
Carpignano is passionate about “the changing fabric of Italy” which he says is important to acknowledge. “Now is a good time for other voices to contribute other perspectives.” He intends to continue making movies in Italy where he’s “pretty grounded,” but he’s not against working in Hollywood. He’s been taking meetings, but “it’s the soft sell, not the hard sell yet. It’s more about getting to know people.”
ON BODY AND SOUL (Hungary); Director: Ildiko Enyedi; U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Ildiko Enyedi’s Hungarian drama On Body And Soul is a love story set in a Budapest slaughterhouse. It centers on a man and woman who discover they share the same dream every night and try to recreate it in broad daylight. The idea, says Enyedi started from a feeling. “It was early spring and you could feel spring in the air, but it wasn’t otherwise out yet and in those moments in our climate you really feel very strongly that something is coming. Your heart wants to burst and you walk down the street and see people walking by with very blank faces, but you know that very well that they feel the same.” Within two days she had the concept and the characters and in less than a month wrote the first draft.
Enyedi won the Camera d’Or in Cannes for 1989’s My Twentieth Century and this film, which took Berlin’s Golden Bear this year, marks her return to the world stage. A period of difficulty for the Hungarian industry was partly responsible, and after what she terms “some bad choices,” Enyedi did some work for HBO Europe “and it was really like a healing process, wonderful work, very fulfilling and somehow it calmed me and afterwards could make this film.”
She says On Body And Soul has “a tiny bit of me in it. I am not so easy with friendships and social life but on set you have to communicate, you have to open up, you have to have a very, very intensive shared experience with a bunch of people.”
THELMA (Norway); Director: Joachim Trier; U.S. Distributor: The Orchard
Joachim Trier returned to his native Norway for his follow-up to 2015’s English/French language Louder Than Bombs. He tells me he “wanted to do something liberating in the realm of genre.” The film is a supernatural thriller about a young student in Oslo. When she is drawn to another woman, she is overwhelmed by emotions she does not dare acknowledge — and frightening and inexplicable powers are forcing themselves into the open.
The idea was to play with “nightmarish images but still keeping a strong center around a character and a liberation story around a young woman.” There are 200 CGI shots in the film which was a new experience in film, despite Trier having done CGI on commercials. “Someone said when they read the script and were trying to figure out financing that we were trying to do a Hollywood level CGI film on a Norwegian budget,” he laughs.
The story itself came from themes Trier was curious to explore “about loss of control and suppression of passion.” What’s important for him is that “personal filmmaking does not mean convoluted or closed off from audiences. It’s just the process needs to mirror your sensitivity. It can be broader or not, but personal filmmaking is being allowed to take a risk.”
Special Mention: Spoor (Poland), director: Agnieszka Holland; A Taxi Driver (Korea), director: Jang Hun; Wajib (Palestine), director: Annemarie Jacir; White Sun (Nepal), director: Deepak Rauniyar; Happy End (Austria), director: Michael Haneke.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.