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The Conversation: Finding Foreigners

Though there are many issues regarding the problematic process in deciding the roster of nominees for the annual onslaught known as the Academy Awards, the selecting of the nominations for Best Foreign Language film remains an easy target to critique. With specific guidelines regarding theatrical release to qualify and only one sole entry allowed for each ‘competing’ country, by the time a list of titles is announced for Academy voters, who’s to say every voter gets a chance to sample even half the selections? This year, 81 countries provided submissions (which is actually a lower number from the past two years, with 2014 holding the record of 83 entries), and much like other categories, titles arriving with a higher degree of critical buzz are likely to reach a broader range of voters.

This year’s offering includes an exciting range of titles, and at least twenty of these are worthy of the distinction an Oscar nomination can offer. As usual, many of these either premiered at the Berlin or Cannes Film Festival earlier this year or saw a premiere somewhere in 2014. Curiously, none of the top prize winners from these festivals were their respective country’s offerings. For obvious reasons, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, which won Berlin, is not recognized by Iran, while South Korea chose to overlook Hong Sang-soo’s Locarno prize winner Right Now, Wrong Then. Venezuela’s From Afar, which was the surprise winner at Venice, may pop up in next year’s submission list. More interesting is France’s decision to submit Mustang over Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winning Dheepan (in 2013, Kechiche’s Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color also was robbed of this distinction due to theatrical release parameters, with France offering Gilles Bourdos’ painterly Renoir instead). Co-written by Alice Winocour, Mustang is the directorial debut of actress Deniz Gamze Erguven and portrays five Turkish sisters as they’re bamboozled into the crushing fates of women in a rigid patriarchal culture in ‘and then there were none’ fashion and manages to feel as refreshing as Audiard’s immigrant narrative is familiar.

Several filmmakers on the list arrive with their directorial debuts, with Laszlo Nemes’ galvanizing Son of Saul at the top of the heap. Premiering at Cannes, where it took home the Jury Prize, it is an unforgettably hellish portrait of a WWII concentration camp. Other items from newer filmmakers with a bit of extra buzz include Jayro Bustamente’s Ixcanul, the Guatemalan entry from the Berlin line-up, and Erguven’s aforementioned Mustang. Deserving of more acclaim are Gabriel Ripstein’s excellent 600 Miles from Mexico, this year’s Un Certain Regard winner Rams from Iceland, India’s Court directed by Chaitanya Tamhane and the Sundance premiered The Second Mother from Brazil’s Anna Muylaert. From the Dominican Republic, Sand Dollars features a unique portrayal from Geraldine Chaplin which should merit some attention, while Germany’s Labyrinth of Lies, released by Sony Pictures Classics, seems like the type of material voters would be attracted to. Norway continues to showcase their special effects abilities, following the 2013 entry of Kon-Tiki with this year’s The Wave, a disaster movie that tries to meld the corniness of something like San Andreas with the emotional core of The Impossible.

A host of major auteurs appear in the initial list of submissions, with standouts being Hou Hsiao-Hsien The Assassin (winner of the Best Director Award at Cannes), Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on Branch Reflecting on Existence (the 2014 Golden Lion winner at Venice), Jaco Von Dormael’s wonderfully strange The Brand New Testament, Radu Jude’s superb Aferim! (Best Director at Berlin), and Pablo Larrain’s refreshing black comedy The Club (Jury Prize at Berlin). From Denmark, Tobias Lindholm’s discussion worthy A War continues his fascination with men in desperate situations resulting in complex moral quandaries, while Iran’s Majid Majidi presents a sprawling historical effort, Muhammad: The Messenger of God for consideration.

Of note is Portugal’s offering of the second chapter of Miguel Gomes’ ambitious Arabian Nights trilogy, a piece greeted with contention following the project’s rejection in the main competition at Cannes. Arguably, it’s the strongest segment of the three films, but it will be curious to see if Volume 2: The Desolate One gets any traction with voters. Other items of note are Pablo Trapero’s true crime saga The Clan, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Sunstrokes, and Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes. While Skolimowski’s latest plays out like a tedious afterthought from the 2000s (further hobbled by some distracting English language acting from Richard Dormer), when films dealing with interconnected narratives reigned supreme, the grand finale of 11 Minutes, on the other hand, is a beautiful spectacle that’s not to be missed. However, a stronger entry from Poland would have been Malgorzata Szumowska’s Body (which tied for Best Director with Jude at Berlin).

But even if Szumowska’s name was not ushered forth, several other women directors get a chance at an Oscar nomination this year, with items from Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Dominican Republic, France, Lithuania, Lebanon, and Slovenia.

Tending to gravitate towards the dark and disturbing, my wish list for this year’s nominations seems unlikely, but I’d be overjoyed to see items like The Brand New Testament, Rams, 600 Miles, A War, The Assassin, Arabian Nights, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Second Mother, Court, or Mustang get attention. But since there’s only room for five, my personal endorsement goes towards:

Goodnight Mommy – Directed by Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala (Austria)
The Club – Directed by Pablo Larrain (Chile)
Embrace of the Serpent – Directed by Ciro Guerra (Colombia)
Son of Saul – Directed by Laszlo Nemes (Hungary)
Aferim! – Directed by Radu Jude (Romania)

Though it’s a long shot, it would be great to see Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala’s chilly horror film Goodnight Mommy take a nomination. Likewise, it seems unlikely voters will gravitate towards Pablo Larrain’s strange portrait of disgraced Catholic priests or Radu Jude’s beautiful black and white Aferim!, an exploration of Romania’s troubled history involving gypsy slaves. As it took home the top prize from the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and continues to garner positive buzz on the festival circuit, Colombia’s Ciro Guerra might snag a deserving nod with Embrace of the Serpent, a mystical examination of the Amazon presented through the experiences of a native and two white scientists. And of our top picks, it seems simply unfathomable that something like Son of Saul wouldn’t make the final cut.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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