The Academy Awards are still several months away, but Oscar commentary is a year-round gig and besides, they’ve just announced the films that are going to be in contention for the Best Foreign Language Film category. Since the award was created in 1956, it has become one of the more impressive categories, especially for viewers who haven’t been convinced that the best film every single year just happens to be in English (seriously – no foreign language film has ever won Best Picture). 87 movies from around the world have qualified for consideration, to be eventually whittled down to five nominations, but even now there are several significant front-runners to keep an eye out for.
Girl is Belgium’s entry in the category, a festival darling that premiered at Cannes and took home the Camera d’Or for best first feature film. As well as the Queer Palm, and an Un Certain Regard Jury Award for Best Performance (awarded to the film’s young star, Victor Polster). It’s the story of a young transgender girl who is struggling with her rapidly changing body as she studies ballet at an elite dance academy.
She has an overwhelming sense that her body is betraying her more and more every day, and her determination to continue training as a ballerina while preparing for sex reassignment surgery is inspiring. Girl won over a lot of audiences at Cannes and seems prepped to be an indie hit for first time director Lukas Dhont.
9. El Angel
In El Angel, Luis Ortega creates a bold, stylish take on a cat burglar turned cold-blooded murderer. Based on a true crime story from 1970s Buenos Aires in Argentina’s 2018 submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Carlitos is an angelic looking teenager with blond ringlets and piercing blue eyes, whose predilection for petty theft takes on a more dangerous edge when he meets his partner in crime Ramon.
It’s a slick production with vibrant visuals and a great soundtrack that has been compared frequently to early works by Tarantino and Scorsese. El Angel may end up being a little too hip for the Academy, but is certainly garnering attention in all of the relevant circles.
Shoplifters, with its liberal nod to Dickensian makeshift family units, seems designed to have wide appeal in an off-beat kind of way. It revolves around a group of people in Japan, who have banded together and engage in small scale theft as a way to survive on the fringes of society. But their bond is both tested and strengthened when they make the decision to take in a young girl that they find abandoned in the freezing cold.
Shoplifters was a huge hit in Japan and it ended up winning the prestigious Palme d’Or for best picture at Cannes. Its eccentricities blend well with the ultimately uplifting and deeply human story, and it seems likely to have a big old heartwarming impact on audiences worldwide as it goes into wider release.
7. Never Look Away
Never Look Away is an epic endeavor, that rewards audiences who are willing to brave its over three-hour runtime. While the story focuses on a young German painter using art as a way to process the trauma from his experiences during the Nazi regime and the early Cold War era, it expands in scope to address a nation dealing with the trauma of its past.
Never Look Away features probably three of the best German actors in the game today: Sebastian Koch, Tom Schilling, and Paula Beer, all contributing incredible performances that bring to life different experiences of living in Germany during this time. It premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and received an extended standing ovation when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, so it would be unwise to count Never Look Away out of the running.
6. The Wild Pear Tree
A young Turkish man returns home to his village after graduating college with dreams of becoming a writer, but struggles to find the money to get his experimental novel published. Especially after it becomes clear that his father is in serious debt. This sets into place the eternal conflict of father against son, youth against age.
Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a tad indulgent with the film, given its over 3 hour runtime, but fans are unlikely to mind, instead soaking in the carefully developed visual set pieces and extended dialogues. It may end up being a bit too avant garde for the Academy, but Ceylan has proven himself as an auteur with a unique style and whose work is consistently worthy of note.
Border is something of a surprise pick, included on this list because of the intense fascination it seems to engender in audiences rather than it being obvious Oscar bait. It’s been described as a dark, modern day fairy tale with elements of Nordic mythology, revolving around a strange woman who has the ability to sense what people are thinking, a skill that she puts to good use as a border agent.
Then she meets a man who looks like her and seems to have similar abilities, and everything begins to change from there. Sweden’s official foreign language film entry was a popular favorite at Cannes, winning the Un Certain Regard award, and has wooed viewers at every festival it’s played at since then. Border may be a bit bizarre, but in the best possible way.
It’s an actual shame that there is no award at the Oscars which honors best performance by a toddler, because Capernaum would have that one in the bag as we speak. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki uses mostly non-professional actors to address the Syrian refugee crisis through the eyes of a child who has decided to sue his parents for giving him life without being able to take adequate care of him.
All of the children in the film come from a similar background to their characters, and Labaki is empathetic and takes great care in telling their stories. Audiences were mixed on where this film falls on the line between poignant and saccharine, but it has an undeniable emotional impact on viewers that will serve it well heading into Oscar season.
Who’s not on board for a slow burn mystery thriller from South Korea starring Steven Yeun aka Glenn from The Walking Dead? Burning tells the story of a young man who reunites with a childhood friend, who he briefly has a sexual relationship with before she goes off to Africa on vacation. Only to have her return with a mysterious man (Yeun) in tow.
This highly tense journey to figure out exactly who this guy is and what he wants has been getting nothing but great reviews. It would be refreshing to see a contemporary Asian drama get some love at the Oscars, which historically has seemed mostly interested in rewarding exotic period pieces. Burning is in a great position to get an Oscar nomination but, perhaps more importantly, break through into wider mainstream success.
2. Cold War
Cold War is Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest offering, his first film since the Oscar-winning Ida back in 2014. It’s a stunning black and white production, using the Cold War in 1950s Poland as the backdrop for a tempestuous relationship between a musician tasked with assembling a troupe of singers and dancers who will perform traditional folk songs to promote Polish culture, and the young performer who becomes one of the stars of the production.
Their relationship is never easy, and is an exercise in emotional repression that only sporadically gives way to the passion lingering just under the surface. Both leads are exemplary in their roles, and Pawlikowski has perfectly captured the stark humanity of people struggling to survive in an oppressive environment.
Roma is the closest to a sure thing at this year’s Oscars, and the only question remaining is whether it will stay in the Best Foreign Language Film category, or if it will take a swing at Best Picture. This is arguably Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron’s most intimate and autobiographical film to date.
He tells the story of a working class family living in 1970s Mexico City, and its understated but deeply emotional nature has been charming audiences since its premiere at Venice. A lot of punters have this one being nominated for, if not winning outright, a number of Academy Awards, and its status as a frontrunner in the Best Foreign Language Film contest is undeniable.
Here are all 87 submissions:
Afghanistan – Rona Azim’s Mother (Jamshid Mahmoudid)
Algeria – Until the End of Time (Yasmine Chouikh)
Argentina – El Ángel (Luis Ortega)
Armenia – Spitak (Alexander Kott)
Australia – Jirga (Benjamin Gilmour)
Austria – The Waldheim Waltz (Ruth Beckermann)
Bangladesh – No Bed of Roses (Mostofa Sarwar Farooki)
Belarus – Crystal Swan (Darya Zhuk)
Belgium – Girl (Lukas Dhont)
Bolivia – The Goalkeeper (Rodrigo “Gory” Patiño)
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Never Leave Me (Aida Begić)
Brazil – The Great Mystical Circus (Carlos Diegues)
Bulgaria – Omnipresent (Ilian Djevelekov)
Cambodia – Graves without a Name (Rithy Panh)
Canada – Family Ties (Sophie Dupuis)
Chile – …And Suddenly the Dawn (Silvio Caiozzi)
China – Hidden Man (Jiang Wen)
Colombia – Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra)
Costa Rica – Medea (Alexandra Latishev)
Croatia – The Eighth Commissioner (Ivan Salaj)
Czech Republic – Winter Flies (Olmo Omerzu)
Denmark – The Guilty (Gustav Möller)
Dominican Republic – Cocote (Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias)
Ecuador – A Son of Man (Jamaicanoproblem, Pablo Agüero)
Egypt – Yomeddine (A.B. Shawky)
Estonia – Take It or Leave It (Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo)
Finland – Euthanizer (Teemu Nikki)
France – Memoir of War (Emmanuel Finkiel)
Georgia – Namme (Zaza Khalvashi)
Germany – Never Look Away (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
Greece – Polyxeni (Dora Masklavanou)
Hong Kong – Operation Red Sea (Dante Lam)
Hungary – Sunset (László Nemes)
Iceland – Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson)
India – Village Rockstars (Rima Das)
Indonesia – Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Mouly Surya)
Iran – No Date, No Signature (Vahid Jalilvand)
Iraq – The Journey (Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji)
Israel – The Cakemaker (Ofir Raul Graizer)
Italy – Dogman (Matteo Garrone)
Japan – Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Kazakhstan – Ayka (Sergey Dvortsevoy)
Kenya – Supa Modo (Likarion Wainaina)
Kosovo – The Marriage (Blerta Zeqiri)
Latvia – To Be Continued (Ivars Seleckis)
Lebanon – Capernaum (Nadine Labaki)
Lithuania – Wonderful Losers: A Different World (Arunas Matelis)
Luxembourg – Gutland (Govinda Van Maele)
Macedonia – Secret Ingredient (Gjorce Stavreski)
Malawi – The Road to Sunrise (Shemu Joyah)
Mexico – Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
Montenegro – Iskra (Gojko Berkuljan)
Morocco – Burnout (Nour-Eddine Lakhmari)
Nepal – Panchayat (Shivam Adhikari)
Netherlands – The Resistance Banker (Joram Lürsen)
New Zealand – Yellow Is Forbidden (Pietra Brettkelly)
Niger – The Wedding Ring (Rahmatou Keïta)
Norway – What Will People Say (Iram Haq)
Pakistan – Cake (Asim Abbasi)
Palestine – Ghost Hunting (Raed Andoni)
Panama – Ruben Blades Is Not My Name (Abner Benaim)
Paraguay – The Heiresses (Marcelo Martinessi)
Peru – Eternity (Oscar Catacora)
Philippines – Signal Rock (Chito S. Roño)
Poland – Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski)
Portugal – Pilgrimage (João Botelho)
Romania – I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Radu Jude)
Russia – Sobibor (Konstantin Khabensky)
Serbia – Offenders (Dejan Zecevic)
Singapore – Buffalo Boys (Mike Wiluan)
Slovakia – The Interpreter (Martin Šulík)
Slovenia – Ivan (Janez Burger)
South Africa – Sew the Winter to My Skin (Jahmil X.T. Qubeka)
South Korea – Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
Spain – Champions (Javier Fesser)
Sweden – Border (Ali Abbasi)
Switzerland – Eldorado (Markus Imhoof)
Taiwan – The Great Buddha (Hsin-Yao Huang)
Thailand – Malila The Farewell Flower (Anucha Boonyawatana)
Tunisia – Beauty and the Dogs (Kaouther Ben Hania)
Turkey – The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Ukraine – Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa)
United Kingdom – I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni)
Uruguay – Twelve-Year Night (Álvaro Brechner)
Venezuela – The Family (Gustavo Rondón Córdova)
Vietnam – The Tailor (Buu Loc Tran, Kay Nguyen)
Yemen – 10 Days Before the Wedding (Amr Gamal)