Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Academy’s decision last week on the nine films it will advance to Oscar voting in the Best Foreign Language Film category is how few surprises there are. In contrast to recent years, the field largely reflected films the prognosticators saw coming.
But that doesn’t mean the ever-present whiff of controversy was missing, or that some folks’ favorites weren’t overlooked. In what was one of the richest rosters in recent memory, the Phase 1 Foreign Language Committee and the Executive Committee certainly had a tall task to whittle the submissions down from 87 to nine. Ahead of the unveiling, Exec Committee Co-Chair Diane Weyermann said, “I think there is a very strong feeling among the committee and the people participating in Phase 1 that this year is exceptionally strong and it’s going to be difficult.”
The Foreign Language Committee decided on six titles for the shortlist while the Executive Committee chose films to fit three further slots, which Co-Chair Larry Karaszewski said last month are earmarked for those that may have been “sort of forgotten”.
There’s been no forgetting Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The Oscar-winning director’s personal black-and-white reflection on his childhood in Mexico City and the women who surrounded him growing up has been riding a critical wave since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and won the Golden Lion there. The Spanish-language drama, which recently debuted on Netflix, also has a significant theatrical component which Cuarón says he believes is bigger “than if we went a conventional route”.
Roma has three Golden Globe nominations and prizes from myriad critics bodies, and is expected to spread out across other main races at the Oscars. His last Spanish-language movie, Y Tu Mamá También, had its European premiere in Venice where it won for its script, later scoring Cuarón’s first Oscar nom in the Original Screenplay category, but was not submitted to the FL race. A Mexican entry has been nominated before, but never won the gold.
Cuarón has a thank-you credit on Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida, and here finds himself on the same shortlist with the Polish helmer’s latest, Cold War. Also a black-and-white film, the time- and country-spanning music-laced romance drama from Amazon was shockingly omitted from the Golden Globes nominations earlier this month. It is often cited as the major threat to Roma and won five European Film Awards, as well as the top Foreign Language laurel from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and the New York Film Critics Online. Upon its Cannes debut, it scooped Best Director.
Also out of Cannes, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters was considered a lock for a shortlist slot, and delivered. The family drama, which explores the meaning of the ties that bind, also has a Golden Globe nom. Magnolia released it domestically after the film hit box office milestones in both Japan and China. Kore-eda previously repped Japan (which has won the Oscar once, and has three Honorary Awards) with 2004’s Nobody Knows, but it did not advance.
Another Asian title on the FL shortlist is Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which was recently named runner-up to Roma in the LA Film Critics Association’s Best Picture category. Unbelievably, this is the first time that Korea has ever made the shortlist since it began entering pictures back in the early 1960s. That’s despite Korea having one of the most vibrant and developed local industries in the world as well as very sophisticated audiences. The movie is loosely based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, and follows an alienated young man whose already difficult life is complicated by the appearance of two people, one a spirited woman who offers romantic possibility, and the other a wealthy young man with a mysterious hobby.
Likewise a first for Danish helmer Gustav Möller, his taut debut feature The Guilty gives the filmmaker his first shortlist slot. A breakout Audience Award winner at Sundance in early 2018 (and the subject of an upcoming remake with Jake Gyllenhaal), the story of a police officer assigned to an emergency call center takes place in two adjacent rooms as a mystery unfolds over the phone, allowing the viewer to conjure their own images of what’s happening off-screen. “Some of the best moments in the film are not dialogue, but just the main character and the audience listening to footsteps or whispers, [which] can be much more vivid,” Möller says. “In every good film, there is something being kept from the audience that gets filled in just outside of frame.”
Another well-received title that was expected to factor on the FL shortlist, and made the cut, is Nadine Labaki’s Cannes Jury Prize laureate Capernaum from Lebanon. It was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics on the Riviera and is also in the Golden Globe race. Labaki has repped Lebanon twice before for the Oscars, more than any other filmmaker from the country that scored its first nomination last year.
A social drama, Capernaum follows an abused and neglected 12-year-old boy who has had to grow up much too fast, serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime. In flashbacks, Labaki reveals the terrible deprivation that sends him on his tragic destiny, as he struggles to make sense of a world that has rejected him from the day he was born, and sues his own parents for the very act of bringing him into a world of such suffering.
Joining Labaki as the only other female filmmaker on the shortlist is Cristina Gallego who co-directed sprawling epic Birds of Passage with previous Oscar nominee Ciro Guerra. Tracing the origins of the Colombian drug trade as it slowly corrupts a native Wayúu family, Birds of Passage opened the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes in May, later screening in Telluride, Toronto and London. Guerra’s last film, Embrace of the Serpent, was produced by Gallego and was Colombia’s first to gain any traction with the Academy, receiving a nomination in 2015.
The Lives of Others Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns to German-language filmmaking and to the Academy’s shortlist with Never Look Away. The acclaimed big canvas Venice premiere has a Globe nomination and follows a painter who, with the love of his life, escapes post-war East Germany for the West, but remains tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and begins to create works that mirror his own fate and the traumas of a generation. Von Donnersmarck, who is one of only three German directors to have won this category, says the film hangs on the question, “What is the origin of human creativity?”
Now for the surprises. One pic to make it that we hadn’t heard much about, outside its Cannes Best Actress win, is Kazakhstan’s Ayka from Tulpan director Sergei Dvortsevoy. Set in wintry Moscow, the film centers on a migrant who has just given birth to, and abandoned, a child she can’t afford to keep. Now undocumented and in debt, she also must avoid corrupt police officers and countrymen. Ayka has not had a huge profile on the fest circuit since Cannes, although it is slotted for Palm Springs in January. Kazakhstan has one previous nomination and one other appearance on the shortlist under its belt.
Among the titles that fell short of the shortlist, there are two particular standouts: Golden Globe nominee and Cannes Camera d’Or winner Girl by Belgium’s Lukas Dhont and Sweden’s audacious Border from director Ali Abbasi.
Girl has faced backlash from some critics regarding the casting of a cisgender actor in a trans role (after last year’s Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman broke ground for the trans community). The Netflix release tells the story of Lara, a 15-year-old born in the body of a boy, who dreams of being a ballerina. It’s inspired by the life of Nora Monsecour who worked closely with Dhont, and it won the Un Certain Regard prize for lead actor Victor Polster. “I want to listen to different opinions about my film,” the director says. “I learn from that… Representation and the future of representation is important. But I don’t think a director should only be limited to making films that only pertain to his or her identity.”
Border made the Makeup and Hairstyling shortlist, but not FL. The trippy, quasi-political treatise on “the other”, which includes one of the most unusual sex scenes ever filmed, is the story of a customs officer with an uncanny knack for sniffing out guilt. Border was the top Un Certain Regard prize winner in Cannes and has a Directors to Watch nod from Palm Springs. Both of these omitted helmers, as well as many others that haven’t advanced this year, appear to have bright futures ahead.