They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Early Look at Foreign Language Film Race
By J. Don Birnam
November 1, 2017

Don't interrupt our dinner.

Every year, more and more countries make a submission to be considered for a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Just last year, at the 89th Academy Awards, a record number, over 80, put in movies for evaluation, many for the first time ever. And at this year’s landmark 90th, already the record has been broken (the deadline was the end of September). This time, they got 92 countries, with six countries, including Haiti, Honduras, and surprisingly, Syria, making submissions for the first time.

And just as more and more countries make submissions, more and more rules changes and obscurities make this a frustratingly confounding category at the Oscars. Already the committee made some noise a few years back when, in the face of increasingly embarrassing omissions from the nominees list year in year out, a new method arose by which a special committee would “save” three films to form the list of nine finalists. Now, with the new president of the Academy, John Bailey, at the helm, it was only a matter of time before new changes came (Bailey is a longtime member of that branch). Essentially, the idea is to make it easier to watch the list of 92, by dividing it up into four lists and assigning volunteer members across all branches to watch them in special screenings set up throughout Los Angeles. The “committee saves three” method is still in place.

This year I’ve gotten a head start on this category by seeing almost a dozen of the submissions at various festivals. TIFF in particular always showcases a broad swath of foreign movies in their large library, and one could see over 12 of the eventual submissions in Toronto alone.

One thing you can immediately surmise if you watch the Oscars long enough is that there is a strong and persistent European bias in this category. It’s not just that Italy, France, and Germany have essentially combined to win more Oscars here than all other countries together, it’s that the nominations themselves reflect the “bias” of Academy members. I don’t mean bias in a negative way, but simply to remind us that they reflect the reality of their own experiences. Older white males are probably going to identify more something within the stories told by other such directors. Thus, most years three of the five nominees at least go to European countries, and I do not see a change in this trend coming soon.

In any case, here is a small recap of the movies I have seen (in alphabetical order by country) with a 1-10 rating of its chances of an appearance in the final five at this point. My one big hole right now is Israel’s Foxtrot, which I hear is a shoo-in. Right now I can neither confirm nor deny.

Austria: Haneke and Huppert Are Back With “Happy End”

Michael Haneke won his country an Oscar for the devastating Amour, and he is back with a slightly less dark and a bit more comedic light sequel called Happy End, which features last year’s dark horse Best Actress nominee Isabelle Huppert. In the movie, a well-to-do French family has to deal with an aging, suicidal patriarch, a ball-busting business leader mother (Huppert) and the business's problems, as well as the family’s younger members and their various shenanigans. These are all pretty snobby, dislikable, but funny people, elitists who are out of touch but think themselves with liberal. The movie does not have “gravitas” or “weight” (although it is an amusing and critical analysis of today’s well-to-do upper class folk. Still, given the combination of star power, the lighthearted nature of the serious subject, and the fact that no doubt many Academy members will identify with some of the characters (though perhaps will resent the unkind portrayal) it would be silly to dismiss the chances of this movie altogether.

Nomination Chances: 6

Cambodia: Angelina Star Power Could Boost “First They Killed My Father”

Angelina Jolie made her best movie to date, the Cambodian production First They Killed My Father. Yes, an American director like Jolie can helm a movie that eventually lands in this category, because all the elements are met. First, the movie is entirely in a foreign language. Second, the movie’s production team is substantially foreign, and the film was made predominately in that matter. Jolie herself is a citizen of Cambodia, from whence she adopted two sons. So as bizarre and perhaps even unfair as it may seem, Cambodia has a chance with Jolie’s star power behind it.

But is the movie good enough and deserving? Thankfully, yes, such that a nomination would not feel like cronyism. The movie is a harrowing but also muted look at the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge through the eyes of a young girl. The film has little dialogue but packs a powerful punch with its emotional and visceral analysis and its incredibly important and compelling story. Featuring a strong performance by the young female lead and an emotional conclusion, I certainly would not mind seeing this movie make the finalists.

Nomination Chances: 8

Chile: “A Fantastic Woman” Brings Transgender Story to The Forefront
A number of countries each year feature LGBT-themed stories, though none that I can recall in recent memory has carried the day. Indeed, a few are even nominated in this space that have gay or lesbian themes at the forefront. This year, however, it may be harder for the volunteer nominators to ignore the topic, as a surprisingly large number of countries are submitting films with these ideas (and also, by the way, with female directors).

In any case, Chile has submitted a heartwarming, well-made, and beautiful movie about a transgender woman who has to deal with the hateful and transphobic attacks of her lover’s family after he passes away and she is left with little legal protection. Played by a Chilean trans actress, the star in A Fantastic Woman portrays a very real portrait of the lives of transgender individuals today, with all of its ups and downs. At the heart of the story is a simple but real performance, groundbreaking in its own right, which could be enough to lift the otherwise not-familiar story to a nomination.

Nomination Chances: 6

Denmark: “You Disappear” Fades From Memory

In Denmark’s submission, a woman deals with the fallout of her husband being accused of embezzling money from the school he has long-served. It turns out that the man has a degenerative brain tumor that causes him to lose touch with reality and act in bizarre ways. The story is about the wife dealing with this difficult reality and having to confront what is truth and what is fiction. There is a twist in there but the story overall proceeds quietly and morosely, never quite gripping you despite the subject matter, perhaps because it is anchored around a wooden legal proceeding. This one is not going to be a nominee.

Nomination Chances: 1

Finland: “Tom of Finland” Is Too Conventional

The Finnish artist known as Tom of Finland may have done more to change the gay rights movements than any legal activist that you have ever heard of. Creating drawings of hyper sexualized, hyper masculine men sometimes in very erotic positions, he gave a generation something to hope and look up to. The story of his life is pretty well told in Finland’s submission Tom of Finland, but the movie is actually a very conventional one-two-three biography. It is a somewhat surprising turn of events given the unconventional subject matter. I would recommend the movie as an interesting historical chapter but I would be surprised if this had any traction with voters.

Nomination Chances: 2

France: “BPM” Has Weight Behind It

But hey, if you want yet another LGBT-themed movie look no further than France’s powerful Cannes movie, BPM (Beats Per Minute), about a Parisian chapter of the AIDS-activist group ACT Up! In the early 1990s. The movie is part documentary in its style, part real story. Gay characters suffering from HIV is not exactly novel, but this movie is the most daring of all the LGBT-themed movies this year, and that includes Best Picture contender Call Me By Your Name, in depicting intimacy, and emotion. I was not completely particular to the third act of the film, but it is an undeniably powerful story, and to the extent one can ever predict this wacky category, a stop in the final 9 seems guaranteed.

Nomination Chances: 8

Lebanon: “The Insult” Is Highly Topical

A Lebanese Christian man and a Palestinian refugee get into a petty dispute that morphs into epic proportions after a small spat over a broken drainpipe. The feud escalates into a monster of national proportions, told mostly through a courtroom battle that is much more scandalous than You Disappear’s. That is the story of the topical The Insult, which exposes Western audiences to some of the deep religious tensions in the Middle East and at the same time showcases facets of life in these countries that most Western audiences are likely oblivious to. The story is a moral conundrum story with a somewhat satisfactory conclusion, one that forces us to ask what the purpose of some of our deep-seeded hatred and prejudices is.

The movie itself is good if not great, but the topic would lift it in some voters’ minds.

Nomination Chances: 6

Norway: “Thelma” Seems Too Genre

It is funny how different regions seem to have different genres blowing up at the moment. Norway, along with Denmark and as you will see below, Poland, have movies that are basically soft thrillers, almost horror movies. None really work if you ask me. Contrast that to the movies in Lebanon and Palestine, which are inherently political and topical.

In any case, in Norway’s Thelma a young girl discovers she has telepathic powers, deals with being bullied for her traditional Christian beliefs born out of growing up in rural Norway, and tackles her lesbian love affair with another girl in her college. The convoluted threads do not make it interesting or gripping, and neither the fictional plot nor the political points provide much to make this movie that interesting. Though some people have loved it, I will say, which makes me slightly confused about its chances.

Nomination Chances: 3

Palestine: “Wajib” Could Be A Surprise Contender

In Palestine’s submission Wajib, the territory’s tenth, a son who has left Palestine for Europe travels around Nazareth with his father personally handing out wedding invitations for the sister’s nuptials. Along the way, the son and father deal with their conflicting views of the world, of life, and of Palestine specifically, while finding new ground in their unending personal didsputes.

The movie fits comfortably in that burgeoning new genre of liberal introspection, of critical analysis of the assumptions that progressive people make about themselves. It is a sincere and well-crafted and interesting movie, the third by Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir. She has yet to be nominated, and I am not sure of this one’s chances, but they appear as good as any.

Nomination Chances: 7

Poland: “Spoor” Is Too Genre-y, Too

You can forget about Poland’s submission Spoor, about a woman who is a devoted animal rights-activist (and naturist) as she deals with mysterious deaths surrounding her idyllic life in rural Poland. The story is a murder mystery, at times with supernatural insinuations that make it noir and moody like the submission of other countries outlined herein. But not only does it not carry weight as an issues movie, it simply does not convince as a suspense or drama either. You will not see this one anywhere near the finalists.

Nomination Chances: 1

Russia: “Loveless” Feels Like a Contender

Russia, after much speculation about the politics, has gone ahead and submitted the film by its most famous and accomplished director, Andrey Zvyagnitsev, who also directed 2014’s nominee Leviathan. Loveless, the name of his latest, may as well be his adjective for Mother Russia herself. The movie is about a divorcing couple dealing with the sudden disappearance of their son, and features one of the most emotionally devastating scenes I have seen in a movie this year.

More broadly, the movie is an allegory for everything that is wrong with Russia as a nation today, from an emotional, personal perspective. It is subtly but decisively and effectively critical of the path the country is on, without every deviating ever for a second from the fictionalized tale. It is, to many, a miracle that the Russian government went ahead and submitted this highly critical film.

It is very depressing but very good, and I hope it makes it to the final five.

Nomination Chances: 9

Sweden: “The Square” May Mean Nod For Former Miss

Last but not least is my personal favorite of the ones I have seen so far this year, Sweden’s The Square, by the director of the shortlisted Force Majeure (and one other Swedish submission), the movie won the prestigious Palme D’Or at Cannes, which pretty much guarantees it a spot at least in the final nine.

The movie centers around an uber-modern museum director whose nice liberal elite world is upended when his cellphone is stolen in Stockholm and he takes matters into his own hands, with amusing consequences. Like Haneke’s Amour, this movie fits in that 2016-2017 genre of films about privileged people who are supposedly smart and admirable but who are in reality craven and ridiculous. It is a satire, critical, and entertaining. It has very strange moments meant as allegories, but it all sort of combines together to produce an amusing and thoughtful narrative about modern society and how we perceive ourselves. Boasting of two Americans in the cast, Dominic West and Elizabeth Moss, that could also help with the nominating committee. I will be surprised if this does not make some cut.

Nomination Chances: 9

Up Next: A State of the Race Analysis with our First Trackers of the Season