Among the various categories to follow in the Oscar race this year, Best Foreign Language Film is at once the most exciting and uneventful. On the one hand, the caliber of submissions promises one of the most impressive lineups in recent memory. At the same time, the overwhelming adoration of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” suggests that the winner is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, this black-and-white epic has managed to transcend the usual foreign language “ghetto,” positioning itself as a major player in marquee categories like Best Picture and Best Director. As such, its slot in the upcoming Academy Award shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film seems all but secured. But what about the other eight films? Read on for my take on how this category could play out in the lead up to the shortlist announcement on December 17.
As already mentioned, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” is the closest thing to a lock in this typically unpredictable category. The film has everything going for it, with universal critics’ support and a powerful distributor in Netflix. After eight nominations throughout the history of Best Foreign Language Film, Mexico may finally get its first win. To accomplish this, Mexico may have to stave off a challenge from another country hoping to finally change their fortunes. Despite a thriving film industry, South Korea has never made it past the submissions stage. With their latest selection “Burning,” however, the Academy has a prime opportunity to rectify their egregious snubs. This mystery-drama from Lee Chang-dong has already picked up nods from the Critics Choice Awards and Independent Spirit Awards, in addition to a handful of prizes from major critics’ associations.
In a less competitive year, “Burning” could have been a serious threat to win it all. The same can be said for the heart-stirring pair of Japan’s “Shoplifters” and Lebanon’s “Capernaum.” After wowing the audiences at Cannes en route to the Palme d’Or and Jury Prize respectively, these contenders have been regular fixtures on the awards circuit so far. Meanwhile, another Cannes winner in the form of Belgium’s “Girl” has also made its presence felt with a Golden Globe nomination. However, the controversy surrounding its portrayal of its transgender protagonist could derail its chances.
With a daunting 89 films to choose from, sometimes the best way to stand out among the foreign language contenders is to have a recognizable director. In just the last decade, no less than three directors (Asghar Farhadi, Michael Haneke, Andrey Zvyagintsev) have garnered repeat nominations for their films. Hoping to emulate them this year are a quintet of filmmakers with noteworthy submissions in the race. Among them are a trio of recent winners from Europe. Poland should be bullish about their prospects with Paweł Pawlikowski, whose stunning “Cold War” was a winner with the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. Soon to be released in US theaters by Amazon Studios, critics have singled out Joanna Kulig’s “riveting performance” and its “gorgeously shot” black-and-white cinematography.
Of course, you can’t have a Foreign Language Oscar race without Sony Pictures Classics. In addition to “Capernaum,” the perennial heavyweight distributor is also shepherding two under-the-radar contenders in “Never Look Away” and “Sunset.” With their US theatrical releases delayed to 2019, buzz has been low for both of these period dramas. However, with Sony Classics behind them and the directors’ – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and László Nemes – proven appeal with the Academy, anything is possible. Likewise, you can’t discount Rithy Panh and Ciro Guerra, who are looking to secure their countries’ (Cambodia and Colombia) second ever nominations in this category with their entries “Graves Without a Name” and “Birds of Passage“.
Anyone familiar with this category will know that the shortlist is prone to surprises. Figuring out where those unexpected mentions will come from is always a challenge, especially considering the unique voting system used. A special executive committee essentially “saves” three worthy contenders and adds them to the general voters’ six favorites. The common thinking is that these slots are reserved for more outre works which may not find broad appeal. A perfect candidate for one of these slots would therefore be Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” a bizarre Swedish fantasy which will surely be divisive. One could also see the executive committee championing Rungano Nyoni’s brilliantly absurd “I Am Not a Witch” or the topical but challenging “Donbass” from Ukraine. Similarly, Paraguay’s quiet LGBT-themed drama “The Heiresses” would also fit the bill and add some welcome diversity.
The dark horse contenders aren’t always the austere arthouse curios, however. Indeed, many of the unexpected shortlist inclusions of the past are hardly surprising in hindsight. For example, Israel and Denmark are poised to make a showing due to their strong track records and well-received submissions in Ophir Raul Graizer’s “The Cakemaker” and Gustav Möller’s “The Guilty.” And with the category’s frequent Eurocentricity, pundits should also keep an eye on “Memoir of War” (France), “The Resistance Banker” (Netherlands), “Dogman” (Italy), “Woman at War” (Iceland) and “Never Leave Me” (Bosnia and Herzegovina).
Taking these factors into account, here are my predictions for the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist (in order of likelihood):
1. “Roma” (Mexico)
2. “Shoplifters” (Japan)
3. “Capernaum” (Lebanon)
4. “Cold War” (Poland)
5. “Burning” (South Korea)
6. “Never Look Away” (Germany)
7. “The Guilty” (Denmark)
8. “Girl” (Belgium)
9. “I Am Not a Witch” (United Kingdom)
Also watch out for: “Dogman” and “Woman at War”