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Oscars Preview: Best Foreign Language Film Race

While most Oscar categories arrive at their nominees in a relatively straightforward way, some are slightly more complicated. Which brings us to Best Foreign Language Film (FLF), which is an outright minefield. We’re already on what is basically Stage 3 of the FLF nominating process. Let’s do a quick recap of how we got here.

First came the submissions. Every country can submit only a single film to contend for the FLF Oscar. Having one film per country prevents any situation where the final five nominees might be, for example, three French films and two Italian films. Other English-speaking countries can submit a film as long as it isn’t in English, but American films aren’t eligible regardless of what language they’re in. (For example, Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima was in Japanese, but it was made by a Hollywood studio, so it was ineligible.)

How any country chooses which film to submit is up to them. Some, like Israel, just automatically submit whatever wins their Best Picture equivalent. Other countries have increasingly political selection processes. Such as Kenya’s decision to not submit Rafiki. Which premiered to rave reviews at Cannes, and would have been the obvious choice had it not been banned in its own country. It goes without saying that there are innumerable instances of countries not exactly making the best selections. But I digress.

Roma
ROMA (Mexico)

In October, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the official list of 87 films that would compete for 2018 FLF Oscar. While that was a slightly smaller number than the previous year’s record of 92 submissions, it’s still obviously a lot of films. Too many, in fact, for most voters to watch. That brings us to Stage 2.

Because the Academy wants all FLF submissions to have a fair shake – and clearly most Academy voters can’t get through 87 of them in just a few months – a special committee watches all of the films and rates them. While we don’t know who is on this committee, we can safely assume they’re older, mostly retired voters, who have the time to devote to such a project.

The six highest-rated films according to the committee move on to the FLF shortlist. And then a separate Executive Committee (whose makeup is, again, unknown) selects an additional three. The primary job of this Executive Committee is to “save” any consensus great films that the main committee failed to select. In other words, the Executive Committee is making sure that the year’s biggest critical darlings don’t inexplicably get left off the shortlist by a bunch of (presumably) retired old white men whose tastes might not exactly be cutting edge.

Never Look Away
Never Look Away (Germany)

All in all, the first two stages represent an extremely convoluted winnowing procedure rife with problems that don’t really have any obvious or viable solutions. But now here we are, Stage 3! The shortlist was revealed last month and the nine films on it will be (theoretically) watched and voted on by the whole Academy to discern the eventual five nominees.

Here are the nine films we’re down to from the 87 we started with:

Ayka (Kazakhstan)

Birds of Passage (Columbia)

Burning (South Korea)

Capernaum (Lebanon)

Cold War (Poland)

The Guilty (Denmark)

Never Look Away (Germany)

ROMA (Mexico)

Shoplifters (Japan)

That’s a pretty great list! Virtually every film that pundits were hoping for is there, with the possible exceptions of Sweden’s Border and Belgium’s Girl. Honestly, this might be the best FLF shortlist we’ve ever had. So what will actually get nominated? I’m so glad you asked.

Birds of Passage
Birds of Passage (Columbia)

Those nine films can basically be separated into three groups—the well-regarded films, the extremely well-regarded films, and the unknown. The four films that have been fairly well-regarded are Birds of Passage, The Guilty, Capernaum, and Never Look Away, which have MetaCritic scores of 86, 83, 74, and 69, respectively.

And then there are the four films that have been met with near-universal acclaim and lauded as masterpieces all year: ROMA, Shoplifters, Cold War, and Burning. The MetaCritic scores for those four are 96, 93, 91, and 90, respectively. They’ve all made numerous appearances on top ten lists from major critics and publications.

Finally there’s Ayka, the film few people know much about. It’s the only one of the nine films that doesn’t have U.S. distribution and, although it was in the main competition at Cannes last spring, it hasn’t been reviewed enough to even have a MetaCritic score. (Also, in the interests of full disclosure, it’s the only one I haven’t seen.)

So which five films will impress Academy voters enough to attain actual nominations? Let’s start with the easiest Yes and the easiest No. Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA is the safest bet to move on in the history of the FLF shortlist. It’s almost unanimously regarded as the single best film of the year and is a probable Best Picture nominee. So it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t receive a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. On the other hand, Ayka is the only film without a marketing campaign, tangible word of mouth, or critical support, so it’s likely facing a battle it can’t hope to win.

Ayka
Ayka (Kazakhstan)

From there, we have seven films fighting for four spots. The first thing to understand is that the five most acclaimed films on the shortlist aren’t always the five nominees. Just last year, the Israeli masterpiece Foxtrot had the highest MetaCritic score of the nine shortlisted films, and was the early favorite to actually win the Oscar, but it failed to get nominated. A similar fate befell 2014’s Force Majeure.

It’s difficult to say why those two didn’t connect with voters. Yes, they’re serious, complicated films that ask a lot of the viewer. But so are films like 2017’s The Square, 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, and 2014’s Leviathan, all of which moved on to nominations.

In other words, despite the fact that Shoplifters, Cold War, and Burning have been loudly acclaimed as among the year’s best films, we can’t assume voters will see it that way. Of these, Cold War is the safest. Its director, Pawel Pawlikowski, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar just four years ago with his previous film, the lovely Ida, and Cold War features many of the same attributes; both are gorgeous period pieces set in 1960s Poland, sumptuously shot in black and white and with a viewer-friendly runtime of under 90 minutes. It should have no problem getting in.

A major factor in what gets nominated and what doesn’t is how these films will play when voters watch them at home, bingeing them along with dozens of other films they need to see before voting.

Capernaum
Capernaum (Lebanon)

That’s why Capernaum, the story of a 12-year-old boy living on the streets of Beirut who then sues his parents for neglect, is our next cut. It received a long standing ovation at Cannes, and that makes perfect sense if you imagine seeing it with a rapturous film festival crowd. But in your living room (as I watched it a few days ago), Capernaum mostly just plays like tragedy porn. It might not be the biggest downer of the bunch, but it’s certainly the most relentless. I don’t know how many voters will even watch the whole thing.

The opposite of that is The Guilty, a brisk 85-minute thriller that has a great premise and delivers on it quickly. The whole movie takes place in one room, in real time, as a police dispatcher handles an emergency call and tries to both diffuse—and figure out—the situation happening on the other end of the phone. The Guilty has been consistently winning festival audience awards, and it should play similarly well for the Academy. It’s our third likely nominee.

The Guilty
The Guilty (Denmark)

Although Ciro Guerra’s previous film, the evocative Embrace of the Serpent, was an Oscar nominee three years ago, I don’t see him repeating that with Birds of Passage. A decades-spanning family crime saga set inside the Columbia drug trade, Birds of Passage is a very good film, starkly shot and operatically tragic. But without an especially memorable story, approach, or style, it’s probably the film that least distinguishes itself from the pack. It’s the “Oh yeah, I liked that one” film of the bunch, and that won’t be enough against competition this strong.

As we seem to learn anew every year, a majority of the Academy is still made up of old white men, and their horse in this race is sure to be Never Look Away. This pseudo-biopic of the great painter Gerhard Richter is a three-hour epic romance, that successfully weaves Nazis eugenics and the creation of the Berlin Wall into a story about modern art. It’s also by a former Oscar winner—Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won the 2006 Foreign Language Film Oscar for the excellent The Lives of Others—and it even bolsters a beautiful young German woman who is quite frequently naked.

After attending the Toronto premiere last fall I called it a modern-day Doctor Zhivago. And no less than William Friedkin recently took to Twitter to call it “a masterpiece” and “one of the finest films I’ve ever seen.” The movie has some flaws (most notably the lead actress is barely given anything to do other than take off her clothes), but it’ll play like gangbusters to older voters, who will think they’re seeing the second coming of David Lean. It’s locking up that fourth spot.

Shoplifters
Shoplifters (Japan)

Picking between Burning and Shoplifters for the final spot is a tragic thing to have to do, and I can see it going either way. Both are a bit longer, slower, and less showy than most of the competition. And they require rapt attention to really see and appreciate what they’re doing (which is partially why I think both are on the bubble).

The powerful and heartbreaking Shoplifters won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. That doesn’t always help films get Oscar nominations, and despite his incredible reputation as a master of world cinema, director Hirokazu Kore-eda may be largely unknown to Academy members. Because of that, voters might not begin the film with the frame of mind that Kore-eda needs and deserves.

That could also be true of Burning director Lee Chang-Dong, but his stunning film has two huge things going for it that voters will likely respond to. First is a recognizable star in one of the lead roles, Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead, who turned in arguably the year’s best villain performance (and has some Oscar buzz himself). And second is an incredibly tense and visually potent climax, which stays with you long after the credits roll. That should be enough.

Burning
Burning (South Korea)

So here it is, the final ranking of the nine films on the FLF shortlist, in order of how likely they are to receive an Oscar nomination (with the first five being the official predictions):

  1. ROMA
  2. Cold War
  3. The Guilty
  4. Never Look Away
  5. Burning

—————————————

  1. Shoplifters
  2. Birds of Passage
  3. Capernaum
  4. Ayka

Check back soon for a similar breakdown of the Documentary Shortlist!

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