Oscars: Early Festivals spring potential Foreign Language hopefuls

Cannes Xavier

As we venture into the heart – and heat – of summer, the upcoming awards season may not be the most prominent thing on our minds. But with the recent conclusion of the influential Cannes Film Festival, the cards are already being put in place for one category in particular – Best Foreign Language Film. With an early October submission deadline, countries will be faced with tough decisions over the next few months. And in many cases, festival awards can prove to be the deciding factor.

This piece will therefore highlight some of the hot titles from the four major stops on the 2016 festival circuit so far (Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca and Cannes), all of which have premiered country submissions and nominees in recent years.


Between Sea and Land
Between Sea and Land

Kicking off the 2016 festival circuit during the height of the previous Oscar race, the Sundance Film Festival offered a preview of some of the indies and foreign films which will be heavily discussed later in the fall. In the context of the Best Foreign Language Film, this annual Park City gathering has been particularly kind to eventual Latin American submissions in recent years. As such, Carlos del Castillo’s Between Sea and Land could continue that trend for Colombia, after winning a Special Jury Prize for Acting as well as the World Cinema Audience Award. This swamp-set drama centers around a disabled man and has been compared to another Sundance fave The Sessions.

Finding similar films to Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure won’t be quite as easy though. This Polish horror musical about mermaid sisters who sing in a nightclub and are caught in a love triangle was hailed as one of the boldest films of the festival, duly winning a Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design.

A nightclub also provides the setting for potential Belgian candidate Belgica, Felix Van Groenigen’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown. If selected, this Best Directing award winner will have the support of Netflix, who acquired the film and have already made it available for streaming. And last but not least, Israel should have a valid option in Sand Storm, the Grand Jury Prize winner from debut director Elite Zexler.


Junction 48
Junction 48

Following hot off the heels of Sundance is the Berlin Film Festival, where a number of Foreign Oscar nominees (including beloved winner A Separation) made their first appearances. This year, several high pedigree contenders emerged from the competition slate. These include a pair of former Oscar nominees in Danis Tanović and Thomas Vinterberg. Their films The Commune (Denmark) and Death in Sarajevo (Bosnia) won the Grand Prix and Best Actress prizes respectively. Both directors are familiar faces to the Foreign Oscar race and are therefore ones to watch. Similarly, Filipino director Lav Diaz could score another Oscar bid for his 8-hour historical drama A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize for “a film that opens new perspectives on cinematic art”.

Among the other award winners are various promising directors seeking their first Oscar submission. From Tunisia there is Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi, a double winner for Best Actor and Best First Feature. From Poland there is United States of Love, which won Best Script for its writer-director Tomasz Wasilewski. Out of the Panorama section, the critics loved Swiss film Aloys, awarding the FIPRESCI Prize to its director Tobias Nölle. And finally, the Audience pick from the Panorama section was Junction 48, an Israeli film directed by Udi Aloni and written by Tamer Nafar and the esteemed Oren Moverman.

Perfect Strangers
Perfect Strangers


Heading back across the pond for the Tribeca Film Festival, Junction 48 further staked its claim to be Israel’s selection. This politically minded love story between two Palestinian hip hop artists won over the jury to take the top prize for Best Narrative Feature. And the film wasn’t the only one to build momentum, as Perfect Strangers took the Best Screenplay award just a few days after topping Italy’s prestigious David di Donatello Awards.

Rounding up the possible contenders out of Tribeca’s international competition slate were Argentina’s The Tenth Man (Best Actor) and El clásico (Best Cinematography), a co-production between Norway and Iraq.


The Salesman
The Salesman

When it comes to world cinema however, the most coveted Oscar buzz comes out of the Cannes Film Festival, where simply being selected to screen in competition adds immediate prestige. Once again, the world’s most highly regarded auteurs were in attendance to showcase their new films. And from most accounts it was a strong slate, as evidenced by the announcement of a Best Director tie between Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper and Cristian Mungiu for Graduation, seemingly a safe bet for Romania’s pick this year. Meanwhile, Brillante Mendoza once again got some love from the Cannes jury, as his latest film Ma’Rosa walked away with a surprise Best Actress prize for its star Jaclyn Jose. Mendoza has never been heralded by the Philippine Oscar selection committee, but his fans are optimistic that this could finally be his year.

Another surprise winner came when Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman achieved the rare feat of winning two awards – Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Shahab Hosseini. But the jury saved its biggest stunner for one of the biggest awards, when they gave the Grand Prix to Xavier Dolan for It’s Only the End of the World. The melodrama was roundly panned in the press, but its starry cast (Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux) could make it a sensible choice for Canada.

Other likely submissions emerged outside of the official Palme d’Or awards, including Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (Germany), the big critics’ fave which appropriately won the FIPRESCI prize. And from the Un Certain Regard section, the top prize went to Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki.

As we now look ahead to the fall festivals for more Foreign Oscar contenders, it’s entirely possible that this year’s winner has already played one of the above festivals. Indeed, Son of Saul was the Cannes darling and the first announced submission last year and it went all the way. The race is on.

Check out the OFFICIAL Oscar Predictions for Best Foreign Language Film!

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.


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