There are 87 titles vying for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award this year, in what continues to be a robust lineup of talent, with rich tales to tell from faraway lands. With a number of previous winners and nominees returning for another go-round, and some movies with a strong shot at nominations in other races, this has shaped up to be one of the richest rosters of Oscar contenders in recent memory. At this early stage, there appear to be some clear frontrunners, but as always, there are discoveries yet to be made, and the Foreign Language Committee faces the seriously daunting task of carving out a shortlist of nine films before the official nominations.
This year, however, new Committee heads Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, who replace the long-serving Mark Johnson, have sought to make it easier on members to screen the films. In a bid for greater participation, the incoming chiefs have made some tweaks that will allow members to attend and vote for movies whenever it’s convenient for them to make it to a screening, rather than using the specific color-coded group they had in the past. The minimum number of films required to vote has also been lowered. They nevertheless have their work cut out for them this year, with so much quality work to choose from.
Among the eligible filmmakers who’ve taken a statue in this category before are Son of Saul helmer László Nemes with Sunset (Hungary); The Lives of Others’ Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck with Never Look Away (Germany); and Ida’s Pawel Pawlikowski with Cold War (Poland). Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which many think will be the one to beat, puts the director in the Foreign Language field for the first time, although his 2002 breakout Y Tu Mamá También was nominated for an Original Screenplay Oscar at the 75th awards.
Cuarón, of course, went on to score a Best Director trophy for 2012’s Gravity, and shared the Editing prize with Mark Sanger. Roma is one of the titles that’s strongly expected to break out into other categories, potentially even Best Picture, after the very personal reflection on the filmmaker’s memories of growing up in Mexico City stunned the fall festival circuit and won the Golden Lion in Venice. Participant, which co-produced and financed Roma, has the wind at its back going into the next Oscars after A Fantastic Woman, which it also produced, scooped the statue last year.
A Netflix title, Roma began limited screenings in domestic theaters over the Thanksgiving frame, prior to its December 14 global streaming date. Such a move is unprecedented for the streamer, which up to now has released its awards caliber fare day-and-date on the online platform and in some cinemas. The company had a nominee last year in Ildiko Enyedi’s Hungarian drama On Body and Soul.
Also from a major platform and seeking possible recognition outside Foreign Language is Pawlikowski’s Cold War, which won the Best Director prize in Cannes last May. Ida in 2014 nabbed a Cinematography nomination, and Cold War, a 1950s-set romantic drama is eyeing the same for Lukasz Zal, who also shot Ida.
Cold War has already received a leading five nominations from the European Film Academy which hands out its awards on December 15. This is the same body that gave Ida its top prize before the film went on to win the Oscar, but missed out on the Golden Globe to that year’s Leviathan. Roma, much like last year’s A Fantastic Woman, is not eligible for these prizes.
Also scoring with the EFA are a handful of other movies that began their trajectories at Cannes. Along with Cold War, the Best Film category at the EFAs is populated by Sweden’s wild Border from Ali Abassi, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In), which won the Un Certain Regard prize this year; Italy’s Dogman from Matteo Garrone which was a Best Actor laureate in Cannes; and Belgium’s Girl by Lukas Dhont. The latter took the Camera d’Or for best first film, and also scored the Best Performance nod in the Un Certain Regard section for lead actor Victor Polster. A Netflix pick-up, it’s about a 15-year-old committed to becoming a professional ballerina, although she was born a boy.
Themes of fitting in, family and women’s stories are significant in the myriad tales told by foreign filmmakers this year. Along with Roma, whose protagonists are strong young women, Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses from Paraguay tells the story of a woman who breaks out of her shell after a harrowing family crisis.
High on lists is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. The Cannes Palme d’Or winner from Japan is about a dysfunctional band of outsiders united by fierce loyalty and a penchant for petty theft who take in a little girl they meet on the streets. Japan has not had a nomination in 10 years and Kore-eda is overdue.
Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) is another to watch. Hot in its Cannes debut, it focuses on a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents for bringing him into a world of such suffering. Likewise, female helmer Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch (UK), the winner of last year’s Outstanding Debut BAFTA, brings a female helmer to the fore with the story of a young girl accused of witchcraft.
Further notable titles to keep an eye on include Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (Ukraine); Ofir Raul Graizer’s The Cakemaker (Israel); Javier Fesser’s Champions (Spain); The Guilty by Gustav Moller (Denmark); Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (Korea); A.B. Shawky’s Yomeddine (Egypt); Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman At War (Iceland); Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz (Austria), Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (Romania) and Luis Ortega’s El Angel (Argentina).
Previous nominees who should not be counted out include Cambodia’s Rithy Panh with Graves Without a Name and Colombia’s Ciro Guerra who co-directed Birds of Passage with Cristina Gallego.
There are any number of other titles that will be discovered as we roll along. As per norm, the Phase 1 Committee’s top six choices, along with three titles agreed by the Foreign Language Executive Committee, advance to the shortlist, which will be revealed on December 17 this year. The Phase 2 Foreign Language Film Award Committee then views the pics that made the field of nine and votes by secret ballot to determine the race’s five nominees. Then the final voting for the Foreign Language Film award is restricted to active and life Academy members who have of course viewed all five movies.