Change is afoot in the Oscars’ foreign-language race this year, and not only because the title of the category was switched to Best International Feature Film. For the first time, all eligible Academy members will be able to vote for the final five nominees. They will choose from a shortlist that has been upped to 10 from the traditional nine, seven of which will now be selected by the committee currently viewing all entries, along with three “saves” selected by the executive committee.
There has been controversy, though, about the name switch from Best Foreign Language Film, because the rules of eligibility haven’t changed. When the list of official submissions was released in early October, it included 93 films, which were then pared down by the expulsion of Austria’s Joy and Nigeria’s Lionheart, because they have predominantly English-language dialogue tracks.
So, we now have 91 features vying for the coveted statue in another hotly contested year that includes some titles making a lot of change (in the monetary sense) along with veteran filmmakers and, as the category often fosters, some promising newcomers.
Among the front-runners this year is Korea’s Parasite from Bong Joon-ho, a two-time representative for the country. The winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes last May, Parasite has been an outsized success at the box office around the world. But Korea has never received a nomination at the Oscars despite having one of the richest and most sophisticated home-grown industries. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning last year was only the first to be advanced to the shortlist. But Parasite’s success could potentially mean it’ll score nominations outside of International Feature too.
The same goes for Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory. This is the Spanish maestro’s seventh time representing his native land. He received his first Oscar nomination in this field with 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. He won with 1999’s All About My Mother and made the shortlist with 2006’s Volver. He also won an Original Screenplay Oscar for Talk to Her in 2003, for which he was likewise in the Best Director race, even though the movie was not Spain’s Foreign Language submission.
Flying the flag for Italy for the third time since 1967, Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor has strong buzz. The mafia drama tells the story of an informant in Sicily in the 1980s and it comes from the country that has scored the most wins in this category.
From a veteran filmmaker who has never repped his country, Norway, Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses is another one to watch, as is Corneliu Porumboiu’s crime comedy The Whistlers from Romania. He has been the submission from Romania before, though the country has never won.
France has a real contender in Jury Prize winner Les Misérables from Ladj Ly. Ly, like Hungary’s Oscar winner László Nemes before him, was a laureate at Cannes and also a rare first-time feature filmmaker to be in competition there. Les Misérables is a contemporary and timely look at strife between the police and the denizens of the Parisian suburb where Victor Hugo’s classic novel was partly set.
Senegal’s Mati Diop made history in Cannes this year with her debut feature Atlantics, becoming the first black woman to be selected in Competition. Atlantics is a supernatural romantic drama that won the Grand Prize at the festival.
Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore feature Beanpole is another to keep an eye on. The Russian film follows two young women as they search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives among the post-siege ruins of World War II-devastated Leningrad. It was presented in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, where Balagov won Best Director.
A contender that narrowly avoided being edged out, Papicha from Mounia Meddour received dispensation from the Academy when its local September release was cancelled by the Algerian government. The 1990s-set story, which debuted in Un Certain Regard, focuses on a university student who refuses to let the tragic events of the Algerian Civil War keep her from experiencing a normal life. As the social climate becomes more conservative, she rejects the new bans set by the radicals and decides to fight for her freedom and independence by putting on a fashion show.
As with other years, films selected by a country are not always in that nation’s official language. Such is the case with César Diaz’s Our Mothers, a Spanish-language drama set in Guatemala that won the Camera d’Or in Cannes, and Sweden’s And Then We Danced. The latter is from director Levan Akin who is Swedish by birth but with Georgian ancestry. The LBGTQ-themed drama has been rapturously praised, and also recently made headlines when demonstrators in Tbilisi protested the movie.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is repping the UK with his directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which is based on a true story and chronicles the efforts of a 13-year-old boy in Malawi as he develops a method to bring water to his famine-struck village.
Hailing from other festivals, Alejandro Landes’ war drama Monos debuted in Sundance and marks the director’s first time repping Colombia, which has never won an Oscar but has advanced recently to a nomination and a shortlist slot. Saudi Arabia’s The Perfect Candidate comes from Haifaa Al-Mansour, who made history in 2012 with Wadjda when she became the first filmmaker to have a movie submitted from the Kingdom. She is also the first female Saudi helmer. Both titles debuted in Venice.
Others to watch include Barnabás Tóth’s post-WWII drama Those Who Remained from Hungary (which has a solid record at the Oscars) and Iceland’s A White, White Day from Hlynur Pálmason.
Turning back to box office champs, there are two animated Asian titles in this mix. China’s Ne Zha was a mega-hit this summer grossing over $700 million in its home market. China recently submitted another major money maker, 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, but while that was a propaganda-fueled title that didn’t move the needle elsewhere, Ne Zha has been praised for demonstrating an advancement in style and storytelling.
A country known for its rich animation, Japan has entered Weathering With You. At $155M and counting, this is writer-director Makoto Shinkai’s follow-up to another fantasy romance, 2016’s blockbuster Your Name. Japan boasts several nominations but has won the Oscar only once in this category.
The International Feature Film shortlist is due to be announced December 16. After that, the final five nominees will be decided by all eligible Academy members. This is contrary to the past several years, when a small, specially curated group of heavyweight filmmakers and actors gathered to watch the semifinalists together over the course of a weekend. AMPAS has endeavored to become a more global organization, and thanks to a new streaming platform making access to the films easier than ever, voters around the world can see their voices count.