Phase I voting for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film race closes on Tuesday, which means it’s time for our annual preview of the movies that have shaped up as the strongest contenders, and most interesting prospects, for the shortlist. That group of nine titles will be revealed on December 17, whittled down from a field of 87 total submissions this year. While that’s not a record number of entries, this is one of the richest rosters to be put forth in recent memory, and the Phase I Committee and the Executive Committee have their work cut out for them.
Most would agree that there is a frontrunner for the ultimate gold this year in Alfonso Cuaron’s deservingly lauded Roma, but that doesn’t mean an upset couldn’t happen — and it shouldn’t discount other movies from around the world that have struck a chord with audiences, festival juries and cinema bodies.
The Phase I voting group advances six titles to the shortlist while the Executive Committee selects three further films. From those nine movies, the ultimate five nominees will be revealed on January 22. Rules were tweaked this year to make participating in the FL voting more accommodating, and those passionate folks who take an interest in this race are all the luckier for it, particularly with the wide-ranging quality and diversity of stories on offer.
In keeping with my annual practice, I’ve spoken with directors of the films profiled below to learn more about their inspirations and how they navigate awards season. We’ll know for sure who has made the shortlist cut in this often unpredictable category next Monday.
In alphabetical order by director:
BORDER (Sweden); Director: Ali Abbasi; U.S. Distributor: Neon
The result is a trip. It centers on a customs officer with an uncanny knack for sniffing out guilt. But when she develops a strange attraction to the suspect she’s investigating, the case’s revelations call into question her entire existence. The winner of the Un Certain Regard top prize in Cannes and a Directors to Watch nod from Palm Springs, it also includes a sex-scene that’s among the most unusual ever filmed.Some of the most interesting reactions Abbasi has had to the film have been about politics. He says Border is not a movie about the immigration crisis, yet, “The political aspect is that you get an awakening from people that would never otherwise think about those subjects as a metaphor. Maybe it’s very banal, but it really moved me the idea that I have this little niche of getting to some people.”
Abbasi says he’s realized he’s “very good at finding humanity in places where you don’t think you’ll find it. I’m good at looking at monsters and seeing a human being.” He’d be keen to learn to navigate Hollywood, but isn’t in a hurry. Still, he has a “really big emotional attachment” to Hulk. “If Marvel said tomorrow, ‘Come and do a Hulk movie,’ I would do it and only that.” Otherwise, “There’s some really good stuff on the horizon and people know who I am, so my door is open.”
THE WALDHEIM WALTZ (Austria); Director: Ruth Beckermann; U.S. Distributor: Menemsha Films
Although the allegations against Waldheim were denied by the Austrian political class at the time, Beckermann says, “Today, there are not many people who would defend him. The attitude of Austria towards its past has changed completely. That’s why this affair was so important, maybe the most important event in post-war Austria and the beginning of civil society.”
ROMA (Mexico); Director: Alfonso Cuaron; U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Cuaron says the reaction has been “interesting and very unexpected. It’s beautiful how people from different places are responding emotionally to the film” which is “connecting to a moment of time in which empathy is so important.” A story of the people who leave everything behind to take care of other households shines a spotlight on the so-called “invisibles,” says Cuaron. “We’re living in a moment in history when they are becoming so present in the life of the visible” and that gives him hope in humanity. “You can see it with the whole rhetoric in the U.S. on the border and the wall and this kidnapping of children, because that is what it is, putting kids in detention centers. But at the same time, you see an amazing public opinion with people who are in shock and embracing and trying to help. The film has never been by design, it just connected into that.”Cuaron and Netflix are collaborating, and going grassroots to a degree, to make sure the movie is seen throughout Mexico after a disagreement arose with the country’s leading cinema chain over the streamer’s collapsed theatrical window. “The amazing thing is we have almost 100 independent theaters in Mexico and it keeps growing.” Roma will further reach deep into communities via ambulant cinemas while Netflix is helping to update theaters with better conditions. The knock-on effect, Cuaron says, is that people are getting to know independent cinemas. “The theatrical experience has become very gentrified, there’s a lack of diversity. I’m so excited about these indie theaters.”
He is also excited to be in the FL discussion with a “great company of filmmakers I fully admire.” Cuaron believes the Academy has opened up in the past several years, becoming “more adventurous and open. They’ve done a remarkable job.” He adds, “In many ways, I hope when they see Roma they don’t see it as a Foreign Language film in the sense that I hope they see it as a film about the human experience… When we were considering our options in terms of distribution, Netflix was pretty much the only company that didn’t even stop in the filters of nationality, language and black and white — they were just talking to the core of what the film is about. So far, I have to tell you, I’m very happy with the irony that I think I’m getting a greater theatrical run than if we went a conventional route.”
Will Cuaron continue to tell Mexican stories? For now, he says, “My kids are based in Europe and something very painful was the distance (while shooting Roma). These are the last few years I’m going to be able to enjoy my kids, but after that most definitely. I cannot help it. Maybe there’s a way of also doing some more overtly Mexican thing outside my own country. Humanity is a diaspora.”
GIRL (Belgium); Director: Lukas Dhont; U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Casting, Dhont explains, “was complicated.” The process took 18 months during which Dhont says, “We really searched for someone trans and would have loved to find someone, but at that age in our country we didn’t and so Victor for us was the best option to play this character.” There was an open casting call of over 500 young people and, Dhont notes, “The moment that Victor stepped into the room, he had an instant connection. Nora also felt connected. When he started dancing, we said ‘This is the person we need.’ Nora felt the same way.”The film started as a dialogue between Dhont and Monsecour. Initially, he considered making a documentary about her struggle to become a classically trained dancer in a ballet school in Antwerp, but she didn’t feel comfortable being filmed. “The idea of making it a fiction and using the film to process what was going on in her life felt better, so that’s what we did. I’m really happy it became a fiction because it becomes a document for her to process a certain moment in her life and it became a document for me and for the audience.”
For Dhont, the ballet world is the perfect setting for such a story. “It’s a very binary gender specified world with fairy tale roles for men and women in which this character is trying to find her way and not finding her place. It’s a great metaphor for our society.”
WOMAN AT WAR (Iceland); Director: Benedikt Erlingsson; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia
Erlingsson describes Halla as someone who resembles both Greek goddess Artemis and children’s character Pippi Longstocking. She also desperately wants to be a mother, but had begun to age out of eligibility. “I know many who have hit obstacles because of age. Being accepted as a parent in all these countries with different rules is like a Kafka situation for many people. The urge is really primitive to make use of your life and help something more than yourself.”
DOGMAN (Italy); Director: Matteo Garrone; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia
Getting to the movie was a process that began 12 years ago, but it evolved because Garrone “was changing.” He feels lucky not to have made Dogman back then, “I feel much more mature now. I have a 10-year-old son so the relationship with Marcello and his daughter I know very well because I live that relationship every day.” And for the record, the age-old adage of never working with kids and animals does not apply here. “I love to work with dogs, they always do something unexpected.”
Garrone starts shooting the big-budget Pinocchio soon, and says he’s been waiting to do so for 45 years. “The first storyboard I made was about Pinocchio when I was five-years-old. I’m very, very happy to have this new son in my family.”
THE CAKEMAKER (Israel); Director: Ofir Raul Graizer; U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Graizer is a self-professed foodie who has worked in restaurants since his teens and more recently has been teaching cooking classes in Berlin. He published a Middle Eastern cookbook this year. “I have a lot of love for food and the philosophy of food, but it’s very much connected to authentic, cheap, simple, homemade food. I try to show that in the movie. The idea behind it is that the food brings a context of family and tradition and an almost ancient connection.”The Cakemaker debuted at Karlovy Vary in 2017 and was released in the U.S. this summer. Was Graizer ever discouraged along the long road to completion? “The rational voice in my head would tell me do something else. But if I would think rationally, I wouldn’t do anything. I just had to make this film. This is the only thing I want to do with my life, the only thing that makes me happy.”
Graizer next has three projects he’s developing, including two scripts for American films. “I’m throwing my hands in all directions hoping that soon the door will be open and I can make another movie as soon as possible,” he says.
I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS (Romania); Director: Radu Jude
Of comparisons made to Godard, Jude says the filmmaker believed “cinema was somehow mystical and not rational. It can be in tune with the trends of the world without even being aware of it.” When Jude was discussing the project four years ago, people said, “Well there’s no need to make this film because it’s such a closed and finished affair.” But he didn’t feel it was very clear “and all of a sudden it’s the opposite somehow. I’m shocked how much things have changed in four years for us in Europe.”
SHOPLIFTERS (Japan); Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia
Magnolia released Shoplifters in U.S. theaters in late November, after the movie had already set box office records for the director in Japan and China. The film sees a dysfunctional band of outsiders united by fierce loyalty, a penchant for petty theft and playful grifting. After one of their shoplifting sessions, Osamu and his son come across a little girl in the freezing cold. At first reluctant to shelter her, Osamu’s wife agrees after learning of the hardships she faces.Although the family is poor, barely making enough money to survive through petty crime, they seem to live happily together until their young son is arrested, exposing secrets that upend their tenuous existence and test their quietly radical belief that it is love — not blood — that defines a family.
The film, Kore-eda has previously told Deadline, comes with “a wider point of view — exploring not just the individuals of the family, but the family within the society. The relationship of the family and the society, and the friction that arises because of that.”
Kore-eda previously repped his home country with 2004’s Nobody Knows which did not make the shortlist, and Japan bypassed Cannes Jury Prize winner Like Father, Like Son which many believed should have been that year’s submission.
CAPERNAUM (Lebanon); Director: Nadine Labaki; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Capernaum is a social drama that follows 12-year-old Zain (played by real-life Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea), an abused and neglected child 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 Zain 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.Labaki recently told Deadline that the children who inspired her “are really paying a very high price for our conflicts, and our wars, and our systems, and our stupid decisions and governments. I felt the need to talk about the problem, and I was thinking, ‘If those children could talk, or could express themselves, what would they say? What would they tell us, this society that ignores them?’”
Sony Pictures Classics acquired the movie in a $1.3M deal in May during Cannes where Labaki noted, “I’ve seen situations that are beyond neglect. Things that are unbearable to see, so I just needed to talk about it. It was a life-changing experience for me and for all the crew, for everybody that worked on the film. Because it’s not a film. We were filming reality.”
BURNING (South Korea); Director: Lee Chang-dong; U.S. Distributor: Well Go USA
The film centers on an alienated young man, Jongsu, whose difficult life is complicated by the appearance of two people: Haemi, a spirited woman who offers romantic possibility, and Ben, a wealthy and sophisticated young man she returns from a trip with. When Jongsu learns of Ben’s mysterious hobby and Haemi suddenly disappears, his confusion and obsessions begin to mount, culminating in a stunning finale.Lee says, “When I read the story I was fascinated by the ambiguity and its ending. I thought I could expand this mystery into a much larger mystery that contains multiple layers that would ultimately provide grounds to discuss the ambiguity and the mystery of the lives we currently lead and the world we currently live in.”
A scheduling change lead to The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun starring in his first lead role for a homegrown title. “When we first planned the project another actor was cast for the role and we were scheduled to begin production in 2016,” explains Lee. “But we had a delay in negotiating the copyright for the piece and so the project was postponed for a year. The original actor we had in mind had other commitments and while we were searching for another actor, the screenwriter strongly recommended Steven… When he came to talk about the film, he showed a great understanding of the young man in the story” who suffers from an “emptiness” that Lee says Yuen grasped because he had “spent a long time as a struggling actor and then he suddenly acquired a lot of fame and power and that actually brought on an existential crisis. While listening to Steven talking about that I realized he not only understood Ben in a logical sense, he understood him very viscerally.”
On why Korea has never advanced at the Oscars, Lee suggests, “I think more than anything else it’s perhaps due to the Academy members not having a lot of awareness of Korean films, and just not receiving the exposure to them. In everything, opening the door for the first time is the most difficult part and so I’m not incredibly optimistic for this year, but I also think that the possibility isn’t that far off.”
THE GUILTY (Denmark); Director: Gustav Moller; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia
Moller’s also done some TV work and is now writing another film with his Guilty co-screenwriter, Emil Nygaard Albertsen. “What I want to do is to make the films that I want to watch and in the best-case scenario they also feel like something I haven’t seen before.” Ideally that’s a mix of being provocative and entertaining. “If I only do something super challenging then I know I cut away a large part of the audience and it becomes an elitist work. My heroes are the ones who can do both.”
SUNSET (Hungary); Director: Laszlo Nemes; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Even before Saul, Nemes says he knew he wanted to make a film about a woman during this period. In a way, it’s a personal story given his grandmother was his link to the past. She was “the only one who lived through the entire century and experienced it in the flesh, all the totalitarian regimes and persecution and tyranny. She had access that created this sort of fascination of the beginning of the century and how it evolved through the eyes of a young woman who cannot really have a full understanding of what is going on. History in the making is not understandable at the time.”The film plays out with an almost dreamlike quality as Iris attempts to navigate a complicated and limited labyrinth. Says Nemes, “We were always trying to make believe that it’s not only what you see, but much larger and an entire world that’s living with layers of the city that are always in movement.”
For now, Nemes is in between films but has some “very exciting new perspectives opening” with the next step likely an English-language project.
EL ANGEL (Argentina); Director: Luis Ortega; U.S. Distributor: The Orchard
Ortega says he’s been on the indie path by himself since he was 19 and El Angel is “the first time I had real producers and I could get what I wanted on screen.” One of things he’s most grateful to the brothers for is, “They let me put a kid in who never acted, had no classes. It was so brave on their part to let me prepare him.” The filmmaker wanted to “follow this magnetic character” because there are lots of kids “doing so many crazy things; it’s so hard to understand what’s going on” in the world. “I thought the most honest way to approach this was without trying to find an answer because that would simplify it, that would be like a psychology book.”He does philosophize, however, “When you’re a little kid, you’re not so sure grown-ups or God aren’t controlling something and you’re just a puppet in the board game. In the attempt to find truth when you’re a kid, you can do some crazy things you can’t take back… The fact that this kid was so beautiful shocked the whole society. To this day nobody really believes this little young beautiful kid from a middle class family would do such terrible things.” The movie, says Ortega, was “a really good excuse to get inside the criminal child and how a kid could do something without knowing what he was doing.”
He calls cinema “my only savior and way of communicating.” Of his own inspirations, Ortega says, “I know it’s a difficult moment for movies, but I grew up Rumble Fish, Bad Boys, Outsiders… where these kids were so brave, noble, good looking and stylized and now everything is trashy and f***ed up and really nasty. Before there was a little more truth in the way of youth. I wanted to go back to those films I loved as a kid.”
COLD WAR (Poland); Director: Pawel Pawlikowski; U.S. Distributor: Amazon
Pawlikowski has said the inspiration for the two leads was his late parents’ own turbulent past. And yet, “making the film, I had to forget that it has anything to do with them in order to be free and inventive,” he tells me. “The more you know something, the less sense it makes. I had the usual problems of making a film that works on many levels. They were just the starting point and then I really put them aside to worry about how to mold this narrative and music so it becomes an organic whole. The least of my problems was my parents,” he laughs. He does however allow there was “a great moment of pleasure and satisfaction to give them this kind of gift as a dedication.”The story has been with Pawlikowski in “many different shapes” for a long time, but when he came up with the idea of setting it within the world of a folk ensemble, “that became the device through which the heroes meet and the context in which they fall in love. Then the music gave me license to make it a big deal and really play with it.”
As with his Oscar-winning Ida, Pawlikowski shot in black-and-white, although the camera works differently. “Ida was told in static images. Here, it’s much more dynamic, it has more bite to it. The camera moves when it needs to, not because I want to move the camera, but what’s organic to the sequence. We composed much more depth. The story is much more epic, the backgrounds keep changing, the world around them is really important and immediately recognizable.”
Having moved around, spending several years in London, Pawlikowski who has been in Poland for the past six years says the different perspectives have “made me look at things kind of against the grain or against accepted ways of looking at them. In England, there is an obsession with class. I try to look beyond in a more timeless way. It’s the same in Poland. Stories speak to me, but I don’t get caught up in the historical obsessiveness of trying to explain.”
YOMEDDINE (Egypt); Director: AB Shawky; U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
The film tells the story of a Coptic leper and his orphaned apprentice who leave the leper colony and embark on a journey to search for what is left of their families. Shawky had previously made a documentary short about the leper colony. Hearing tales of how families would abandon their children there and never return, he was inspired to make a feature.After Cannes, Shawky says he often got questions as to why Yomeddine isn’t a depressing film. “I always found it interesting or funny that people would be bothered it wasn’t depressing.” But he didn’t get that in LA. “I was happy to see people (there) didn’t have that comment. Sometimes people want to go into a movie and see poverty porn or a pity party, but that’s not what I was trying to do. The main character doesn’t want the pity. That usually comes from the outside, it’s not the reality of their lives. They are independent and want to live with dignity.”
Also in LA, Shawky learned the expression “water bottle tour” but says he’s going to take time before he makes a decision on his next project. There can be “an impatience to make the next film right away or go to Hollywood and make a big film with the first thing that gets thrown at you. I want to be careful about that not because of a lot of cautionary tales, but I spent five years making this one.” The next “should be something I really love.”
NEVER LOOK AWAY (Germany); Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The filmmaker says the project hangs on the question, “What is the origin of human creativity? I really sometimes feel like when you write something yourself it’s not you who chooses the subject, it chooses you.” However, he says, “I always aim to make a film such that the joy of filmmaking is to create a certain period of time in which nothing bothers me, nothing is irritating to me, I feel it’s a universe I can take full ownership of. If that’s not the case, it’s just sad. The film has to please at least one person when it’s done,” he laughs.Ultimately, the movie clocks in at a little over three hours, which came as something of a surprise to von Donnersmarck. “I got a sense that it was going to be a little longer, but did I know it would be almost as long as Schindler’s List or The Godfather: Part II? No. At the same time, I’ve never seen a film that I liked that I felt was too long, and I’ve never seen a film that I didn’t like that was short enough.”
Von Donnersmarck has his own relationship with the world of art as part of MoMA’s international council of art collectors. “These people inspired me to look into art very deeply. I was looking for a long time to make a movie about the creative process and how is it possible for people take the events of their lives and turn it into something so beautiful as art.”
Having been down the awards season path before, von Donnersmarck notes the consideration is a great means to get a film seen, “but one thing that’s really important to remember, whether it’s going well or not so well, is that films are not like 100 meter sprinters where you can objectively measure one against another… It takes a lot longer than one season to know what you really have or if you’ve created something that speaks to the human soul.”
SPECIAL MENTION: Birds Of Passage (Colombia), dirs.: Cristina Gallego/Ciro Guerra; Jirga (Australia), dir: Benjamin Gilmour; The Wedding Ring (Niger), dir: Rahmatou Keïta; Donbass (Ukraine), dir: Sergei Loznitsa; The Heiresses (Paraguay), dir: Marcelo Martinessi; Graves Without A Name (Cambodia), dir: Rithy Panh