The 7 best bets for the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

With 92 submissions for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar who knows where to look? Here are the 7 most likely to win

Published December 11, 2017 6:59PM (EST)

Tom of Finland; First They Killed My Father; A Fantastic Woman (Protagonist Pictures/Netflix/Sony Pictures Classics[)
Tom of Finland; First They Killed My Father; A Fantastic Woman (Protagonist Pictures/Netflix/Sony Pictures Classics[)

The shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar will be released this month. This year has been the most competitive ever with 92 submissions. Six countries — Haiti, Honduras, Laos, Mozambique, Senegal, and Syria — each submitted a film for the first time.

While it’s always “an honor to be nominated,” in this particular Oscar category, a nomination can create visibility for a country’s national cinema. Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, of “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” fame, had a career boost after the surprise nomination of his 2009 film “Dogtooth.”

The process has been controversial over the years with disqualifications, ineligibilities, and boycotts. Each country has its own selection process. Most countries use juries or committees, but for more than 25 years, Israel’s submission is the winner of the Ophir Award for Best Film. Israel is the country that has the most nominations —10 — without ever winning. That statistic is likely to change this year, as Israel’s entry, “Foxtrot,” is considered by Oscar prognosticators to take home this year’s prize.

Once films are submitted, they are screened for four committees of voters who select a shortlist of six films. A recently formed executive committee adds three “titles of merit” to the list, generating the 9 semi-finalists in mid-December. That shortlist gets whittled down to the five nominees in January.

It’s a tricky category to guess what will get nominated. Crowd-pleasing fare usually does better than edgier films, but “exotic” entries often get nominated. “Name” directors, like Angelina Jolie, who helmed this year’s Cambodian entry, “First They Killed My Father,” often score shortlist/finalist berths. Likewise, support from Hollywood heavyweights can be influential. Martin Scorsese executive produced Jonas Carpignano’s Italian entry, “I Ciamba.” However, these films can also be notably snubbed.

There are also very exact regulations for campaigning. These are established to create fairness and transparency. They involve rules for screenings and Q&As before and after nominations are made. There are limits to receptions and refreshments, the number of weekly mailings and emails (which include format and content restrictions), what websites, advertisements, and screeners may or may not include, and more.

Campaigning for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar often involves countries needing to find money (up to $40,000 by some estimates) for screenings, dinners, and advertising to get the film on voters’ radar.

While this year’s bumper crop of talent has “name” filmmakers, such as Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel, getting her first chance at an Oscar nomination with the critical favorite, “Zama,” there are also filmmakers like Ecuador’s Ana Cristina Barragán, who was nominated for her feature debut, “Alba.”

Here are seven stories from the frontrunners of subtitled cinema:

1. “The Square” (Sweden) Ruben Ostlünd made quite an impression on the Academy with his famous viral meltdown after his 2014 film “Force Majeure” failed to secure one of the five nominations after making the shortlist. The video was dubbed “The Worst Man Cry Ever,” while some saw it as a hilarious publicity stunt. Ostlünd described it as “a way of dealing with our disappointment. We had fun discussions about making it.”

With Ostlünd is in the running again for his Cannes Palm d’Or winning film, “The Square” — a savage satire on the art world, inequality/privilege, and toxic masculinity — all eyes will be on his reaction.

“Of course, we should try to film ourselves again if shortlisted,” the writer/director said cheekily. “But we should have [actors] Claes Bang, Elizabeth Moss, and Dominic West and myself all in front of our computers and then cut something together — do a sequel to that video.”

“The Square” is a stinging commentary on art, money, disruption and distraction, manners, trust, and caring. The film features a hilarious condom tug-of-war. The challenging content may alienate voters, and the enfant terrible Ostlünd struggles with that. But he defends his work, “I use provocation to raise questions. That’s my style. Those are the directors I look up to. Those films change me as a person, so those are the films I want to make.”

He continued, “I hope [members] will see and relate to my film. It is hard to be satiric because our time is so satirized now it’s crazy. The film is trying to reflect on things in our society — we are lost when it comes to humanistic ideas. We don’t know how to live up to them now. We need to be more self-critical.”

Ostlünd hopes Academy members understand his film, and it will be an advantage for “The Square” if they “get it.” But the writer/director says he hopes that “the American’s sense of dramaturgy” will get his film nominated. “We lost out on the nomination last time. We love the ‘Cinderella’ story, so we want to see us rise from the bottom to the top. And I promise I will do primal scream of happiness on stage if I win the Oscar. I don’t want to miss out on that!”

2. “First They Killed My Father” (Cambodia) Director and humanitarian Angelina Jolie used her star power and Cambodian citizenship to bring Loung Ung’s memoir vividly to the screen. The story, an inspiring account of a child’s survival under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, is given sensorial treatment in Jolie’s heartrending film. Viewers can smell the corpses, taste the beetles and gruel, feel the aching feet from the long marches, and hold their breath during a tense sequences set in a mine field.

Jolie qualified for the Foreign Language Film Oscar as the director of “First They Killed My Father” because she has been a Cambodian citizen since 2005. (In contrast, Jolie was ineligible for the Foreign Language Film Oscar for directing the 2011 Bosnian war film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” because she wasn’t a citizen of the country).

Jolie’s dual citizenship is unique in the category, and important to her. “I made the film with Cambodian people. It’s not that I made the film as a dual citizen. I was the one dual citizen. The majority of everyone else [working on the film] was born there. We made this with a Cambodian crew, and Rithy Pahn [Oscar nominated himself for “The Missing Picture” in 2013] was my producing partner. He is a great Cambodian director. I am small and humble next to him as a director representing Cambodia. It was very much a partnership.”

She continued, “It means so much to me to have Cambodia be a part of my life — to become a citizen and be allowed to and make the film. For the country to select the film [for the Oscar] — considering what the film is about — is acknowledging Cambodian history and what that means within the country. That is so important.”

But Jolie’s celebrity can act as a double-edged sword. She admitted, “The idea of bringing celebrity to this makes it more difficult, but I see the positive is that more people will watch the movie. The negative is that people don’t see the movie as it’s intended to be seen.”

Nevertheless, Jolie is demure when it comes to the awards. “One of the reasons I make films in foreign languages is because I love and respect people from other cultures. A people’s history should be shot in their own language, if possible, historically, and in the actual voice[s] of the people.”

She concludes, “I’m so happy to be in this category with filmmakers that I am also rooting for. It’s about being a part of it — that is the great thing. I don’t like being in competition with people I admire so much. My focus isn’t to win, but to represent Cambodia and be a part of global cinema.”

3. “In the Fade” (Germany) Fatih Akin’s intense, exceptional drama is one of the favorites in this year’s Oscar race. When German citizen Katja’s (Diane Kruger) Kurdish husband and son are killed in a hate crime, she wants justice. Kruger deservedly won the Best Actress award at Cannes earlier this year, and that has bolstered this topical drama about racism.

Akin said his film “hit nerves of xenophobia and racism all over the world, not just in Germany. I was in an angry state with all the racism in Germany and I had to respond. I responded with what I can do best.  There is a need for such a film.”

Nine jury members selected “In the Fade” as Germany’s Oscar submission. This pleased Akin, who observed, “I’m happy to live in a country where you can point out certain issues and you don’t get banned or criticized or attacked for that, as is the case in other countries. My film is part of [German] culture, reflecting the ghosts of the past and the ghosts of today.”

As for the campaigning, he believes that Kruger’s win at Cannes made “In the Fade” a must-see film. That positive attention has helped its Oscar chances. But when asked about being a frontrunner, Akin describes the experience as “Like playing a computer game. You just try to get to the next level.”

4. “BPM” (France) Also a big winner in Cannes — it took four top prizes — director/co-writer Robin Campillo’s French drama about members of Paris’ ACT UP is expected to make the shortlist and go on to the top five.

Campillo is pleasantly surprised by all the awards attention his film has received. “I couldn’t imagine the film would be a success in France or be the French nominee for Oscars. The film can be problematic — it’s long, it’s heavy, it’s erotic — but it has touched so many people. I think it has good chances, but I can see people being reluctant. What’s important to me is that this film about ACT UP is going back to the United States, because ACT UP New York and San Francisco inspired it.”

Campillo believes awards are important because they allow filmmakers to access money and tell stories about minorities. But he doesn’t expect them. “If things happen that’s good, but if they don’t that’s not a problem for me.”

In France, “BPM,” has been a big success, which also pleasantly surprises Campillo. “25 years ago, the members of ACT UP Paris were considered outcasts. So it’s weird to see that we’re recognized by French society now. But at the same time, there’s an important [focus] in the world about resistance. With Trump as a President, Americans think Macron is better — and he is better on some points — but he’s not doing so well. There’s a feeling now that we need to get back to action and resistance. People are interested in that, and the people who chose this film to represent France are very aware of that. There’s a nostalgia for the resistance from 25 years ago.”
As for campaigning, Campillo has met people, done interviews and attended dinners. He describes the process as “being like an electoral campaign,” stating that, “It’s frustrating, because you meet people and don’t have time to connect with them.”
But if his film gets nominated or even wins, he hopes that it will help him realize his next dream as a filmmaker. “I would like to work with American actors. The [award] would be a key to opening that door.”

5. “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile) Sebastiá Lelio’s film, about a trans woman (trans actress Daniela Vega), grappling with the aftermath of the death of her boyfriend, won three big prizes at Berlin. It started generating Oscar buzz after screenings in Telluride this year. Lelio’s earlier film, “Gloria” was Chile’s submission in 2013. Chile has only once been in the top five nominees, with “No” in 2012. “Woman” looks likely to make the shortlist and become a finalist. 

However, Juan de Dios Larrain, the producer of “A Fantastic Woman,” admits it’s hard to read the Academy tea leaves, “I’ve been doing these campaigns for years, and have been through this process many times in the past, with ‘Gloria,’ ‘The Club,’ ‘No,’ and ‘Neruda.’ I work hard to get it, but I want to keep my feet on the ground and be realistic. I create a conversation around the film. There are great movies and talent surrounding us — “The Square,” for example — so being part of that is amazing.”

“A Fantastic Woman” had a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles in November, not only to raise awareness for the film but also to support Daniela Vega as a Best Actress contender.

De Dios Larrain describes this new-to-him strategy as “a warm up situation. In previous years, we have not had qualifying runs. With this, we get a sense from the audience. We’ll see how it goes.”

Director Lelio has a slightly different point of view. He said, “Films are not horses that you turn into a competition. There is something slightly unnatural about the process. My job is to make films resonate and touch people. The greatest award for a filmmaker is to have a film that is seen and appreciated, and loved.”

The response from audiences who have seen “A Fantastic Woman” has been positive and encouraging. Still Lelio is cautious. He said, “I was surprised to see how much the world changes since the film was written and made. Trump got elected. Brexit happened. European countries are turning right wing. The whole world started to move backwards, and this film was moving to look forward. So I was surprised to see what a strong zeitgeist the film suddenly had. But I am not a politician, and I don’t operate by calculating benefits. I am following my intuition and what moves me. It has been amazing and sadly, surprising, to see how timely the film is. What I’m interested in is timelessness.”

Nevertheless, if “A Fantastic Woman” ends up a frontrunner, Lelio will be there to promote it. He said, “I will follow the film wherever it goes.”

6. “The Divine Order” (Switzerland) Petra Volpe’s crowd-pleaser has a good shot at the shortlist. Her film depicts a handful of women in a small village in 1971 Switzerland who become empowered by feminism and helped secure women the right to vote. The film received three award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and earned three Swiss Film Prizes as well as audience awards at numerous other film festivals.

It was the awards, the film’s impressive box office in Switzerland — Volpe calls it “our ‘Wonder Woman,’” — plus sales to 25 countries, that prompted the Swiss jury to submit “The Divine Order” for the Oscar.

The filmmaker thinks, “It’s cool they chose our movie, especially since it presents a shameful chapter in our history — that women didn’t get the right to vote [until 1971]. But it’s an extremely timely film, and in America, it hits close to home. We used humor to seduce people to watch a feminist film about gender equality, and we got a lot of attention for that.”

Moreover, Volpe’s campaigning has involved lengthy post-screening Q&As, which speak to the film’s urgency. “Courageous women are standing up against oppression and an unjust system. The time is right for a radical change in the culture, not just in the film industry,” she indicated. “Our culture is deeply infused with sexism and this is a moment in time where this change can actually happen.”

She continued, to address the opportunity for women to make movies in this era where the male-run Hollywood system is in crisis, “Women are raising their voices and organizing women’s groups in America and Europe and you can see the efforts of that. I am happy about this. It’s finally starting to have the possibility for women to make films like our male peers. But there is still a long way to go especially in Hollywood.”

Perhaps an Oscar nomination, if not the award itself, will change that.

7. Perhaps the longshot among the frontrunners is “Tom of Finland” (Finland). Dome Karukoski hopes that his film — a sensitive portrait of Touko Laaksonen, the titular gay artist of homoerotic images — will resonate with American voters. “Touko had a passion, and fought to achieve his goal.” Karukoski indicated.

His film has been an art house box office success, which helps its visibility; moreover, academy members can see it on theatrical release if they miss the dedicated award screenings. The filmmaker acknowledges that sending hundreds of DVD screeners to academy members is prohibitive for a small country like Finland.

Karukoski is also realistic that even if his film makes the shortlist or even the Top 5, it can be tricky for a younger filmmaker to compete with an old master (like 2-time Austrian Oscar-nominee Michael Haneke, who is representing his country this year with “Happy End”). As a member of the European Film Academy, Karukosi acknowledged, “You are always in the position to prove your voice. It’s a process. It’s part of the path filmmakers go through. That’s one advantage [being known], but it has to come down to the film.

He provides insight from his own experiences as a film juror, and his father, [actor George Dickerson] who was a member of the Academy, “My father and I went to some Oscar screenings [together], and it was magical. The members discussed and debated the film — they know the craft so well. It is a privilege to have them discuss it. But at the same time, I noticed that when I sit in jury, I over-discuss it. I loved this film and I want to vote for it, whatever the reasons. The jury convenes and you discuss and you vote for another film and you don’t know why. Over-discussion amplifies, and there’s too much noise. Trust your gut feeling that it is a good film. I remember my father having that debate. I have to follow my gut.”

Given the idiosyncrasies of the process, however, Karukoski admitted, “It is impossible to guess” what will be selected. Still, the filmmaker avers, “I don’t know how you can [deliberately] make a film that would be an Oscar contender.”

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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