Awards Speculation: Festivals Ignite the Foreign Language Oscar Race

Swedish director Ruben Ostlund poses on stage after he was awarded with the Palme d'Or for the film 'The Square' on May 28, 2017 during the closing ceremony of the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. / AFP PHOTO / Alberto PIZZOLI

While the Cannes Film Festival is often hit or miss when it comes to launching major Oscar contenders, there’s one category where it has become a reliable launchpad. Each year the long road to the Foreign Language Oscar effectively begins at this glitzy event, where no less than 4 of this decade’s winners were first unspooled for audiences. Indeed, with the category’s 3-phase process to determining the nominees (country submission, shortlist, nomination), the buzz for Best Foreign Language Film starts at festivals like Cannes and even earlier.

Over the next few months, countries will be announcing their official submissions and several films have already made strong cases for their selection. Here’s a look at some of those foreign language contenders that have already snatched up festival awards and distribution deals for North American release.


Pop Aye

Though more commonly known as a cradle for American independent films, the Sundance Film Festival has also premiered some notable films through its World Cinema Competition section over the years. Recent prizewinners in this programme include “Sand Storm”, “The Second Mother” and “Difret”, all of which went on to be submitted for the Foreign Language Oscar. This year, potential additions to this list include Audience Winner “I Dream in Another Language” (Mexico) and Kirsten Tan’s “Pop Aye“, a co-production between Singapore and Thailand. The latter won the fest’s Screenwriting Award, telling the story of a roadtrip involving a man and an elephant named Popeye. “Pop Aye” will soon be seen in theaters, having been picked up by Kino Lorber for a June 28 release.

Also securing distribution at the fest were “My Happy Family” (Georgia) and “The Wound” (South Africa), acquired by Netflix and Kino Lorber respectively. Directed by John Trengrove, “The Wound” could certainly be one to watch, with its LGBT theme drawing comparisons to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”.


A Fantastic Woman

While foreign films usually opt for its higher profile European counterpart (Cannes), the Berlin Film Festival has also produced its fair share of Oscar contenders in the past. Among them are “The Milk of Sorrow” and “A Separation”, which capitalized on their Golden Bear victories to garner an Oscar nom and win respectively. If selected by Hungary, “On Body and Soul” could join their ranks, having wowed both the Golden Bear and FIPRESCI juries. From this year’s slate of winners, there are several other strong candidates for submission. These include previously nominated directors Agnieska Holland and Aki Kaurismaki, with their latest films “Spoor” (Poland) and “The Other Side of Hope” (Finland) winning the Alfred Bauer and Best Director prizes. Meanwhile, Germany and Romania also have valid options in Georg Friedrich’s Best Actor winner “Bright Nights” and Călin Peter Netzer’s “Ana, mon amour“.

The most promising Oscar hopeful from Berlin however is Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman“, a winner for Best Script. This Chilean drama will be handled by Sony Pictures Classics, who may also mount a historic Best Actress campaign for its lauded transgender protagonist Daniela Vega. The film follows Vega as Marina, a waitress forced to confront an antagonistic society after the sudden death of her much older boyfriend.


Son of Sofia

Situated between Berlin and Cannes, the Tribeca Film Festival rarely attracts the caliber of world premieres that eventually make it to Oscar glory. However, this mainstay New York event has become a significant stop for contenders making the rounds on the festival circuit. Films like “The Broken Circle Breakdown”, “War Witch” were big winners at Tribeca ahead of successful Oscar campaigns that resulted in nominations. Hoping to continue that tradition are Switzerland’s “The Divine Order” and Slovakia’s “Ice Mother“, winners of Best Actress and Best Screenplay respectively. Meanwhile a world premiere did capture the top prize for Best International Feature, with Elina Psykou’s “Son of Sofia” providing a solid option for the Greek Oscar submission.


120 Beats per Minute

As aforementioned, the big kahuna of the festival circuit will likely be Cannes yet again. Indeed, simply being selected to screen at this venerable hub of world cinema is an honor. Of course, the ultimate aim is to win one of the coveted jury awards. And this feat was achieved by the following films now primed for Oscar contention:

In the Un Certain Regard section, Cannes favorite Michel Franco picked up hist 3rd straight laurel at the fest, with a Jury Prize for “April’s Daughter“. The film stars Emma Suarez as a woman trying to reconnect with her pregnant teen daughter.

From the main competition, the top 3 prizewinners could certainly go on to Oscar glory. The Jury Prize went to the “Loveless“, a typically bleak portrait of Russian society from Andrey Zvyagintsev. Much like his controversial Oscar-nominated “Leviathan” however, Zvyagintsev will first have to contend with local politics before distributor Sony Classics can work their campaign magic. Similarly, the French submission will be keenly anticipated, as “120 Beats per Minute” could potentially deliver their first Oscar win since 1992. This emotional depiction of the 1990s AIDS epidemic was the consensus pick for the Palme d’Or before settling for the Grand Jury Prize.

That top prize instead went to Swedish film “The Square“, directed by Ruben Östlund. After falling agonizingly short of a nomination for “Force Majeure”, this art world satire will be his third chance at bat. And with a US distributor (Magnolia) behind him and a cast of recognizable faces like Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, Östlund could go all the way.

Outside of these award winners, Sony Classics also snatched up Michael Haneke’s “Happy End“. Starring Isabelle Huppert, this film could be chosen by either Austria, France or Germany for Oscar consideration.

And be sure to check the Oscar Predictions to see where some of these films rank!