Add this to your list of things to feel horrendous about: last year, there were 8,117 feature films distributed in some form the world over. 305 of them were declared eligible for the Oscars, the so-called ‘highest achievement in film.’ That’s less than 4% of the total. And the majority of that <4% was in the English language. Think of all of the brilliant, groundbreaking, would-be future classic works of art denied the right to compete for this achievement! It’s the same scenario every year, that nearly a century of hearing mostly English-speaking voices on the screen has conditioned a global audience to tolerate dubbing and subtitling into other languages, and an English-speaking audience to reject the inverse. So we ought to be glad that The Academy permits non-English-language works to compete in their own, secluded, protected category, right?
Eh, maybe. It’s not really The Academy’s fault that their U.S.-centric purview excludes so many foreign titles, since the distributors know that the appetite among the American public just isn’t there for anything with the vaguest whiff of international shores these days. And yet the Academy seems to do its very best to narrow the field down further, with archaic eligibility requirements in the main categories, and a silly selection process in the Best Foreign Language Film category. And if one can excuse the decision to limit the number of submissions to the race in this category to one film per country, given its capacity to afford greater opportunities for countries with smaller film industries, one can hardly excuse the process by which the eventual nominees, and the winner, have been chosen in years gone past. Nominations are secured in Foreign Language Film (FLF) as follows:
- The Phase I Foreign Language Film Award Committee views all of the eligible submitted titles, and votes for their favourite six.
- The Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee views all of the remaining eligible titles, and votes for their favourite three.
- The Phase II Foreign Language Film Award Committee views the nine shortlisted titles with screenings in Los Angeles, New York and London, and votes for their favourite five.
- Those five become the official nominees. All Academy members who have viewed all five are permitted to vote for their favourite. The film with the most votes wins, naturally.
It sounds like a sensible-enough process, but then this is The Academy, and since when did sense ever play a part in any of their processes? Up until 2006, there were simply two steps in the voting process, with a committee (like the Phase I Committee above) picking their favourite five titles, and then members who have viewed all five voting for the winner. And that yielded a virtually incessant stream of plain, conservative, old-fashioned-in-the-wrong-way nominees, and equally banal winners. The Executive Committee was established with the purpose of introducing more diverse fare into the race, though between all other voters and the selection committees of each individual country, this remains one of Oscar’s least adventurous categories.
It can also be among the hardest to predict, but given what we know so far, what I’ve gleaned from observing their tastes and voting patterns over the years, and what I bloody well feel like, I feel adequately informed in making some sketchy predictions this far out. Consider this a tentative top ten, a few helpful hints, a spot of advice from Agony Aunty Paddy, whose rightness is never wrong!
1. Neruda (Chile)
Prepare thyselves for the year of Pablo Larraín! Jackie looks set to assault Oscar’s 18 main categories with ever-fuller force as the year progresses, or rather rots toward a 2017 that promises to be even more ignominious. And, with it, Larraín’s non-biopic of Jackie Kennedy may well take his non-biopic of Pablo Neruda to further Oscar glory. This is the kind of conventional yet strikingly original work at which Larraín has spent his career-to-date developing, and its resultant cross-demographic appeal means that it holds the potential to appeal to all kinds of voters – the main reason that I also expect Jackie to perform so well. Indeed, appeal it already has, with critics at several festivals through the year praising the film very highly. At the absolute least, one could posit that many Academy voters will give their vote to Larraín in light of the incredible year he’s having: two acclaimed new films, and last year’s The Club, also well-received, enjoying its U.S. theatrical distribution this year. He’s bound to turn up somewhere, and Foreign Language Film could easily be the place.
2. Land of Mine (Denmark)
It’s back to Europe, as it so often is in this category, whose mandate to spotlight international cinema often defaults to a notably restricted view on quite what ‘international’ means. Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine may not be on the tip of every pundit’s tongue just yet, but there are good reasons for that: it lacks the acclaim of other titles in the race, it received its premiere all the way back at TIFF 2015, and it’s not the kind of edgy fare to which they often gravitate. But not so the Academy, who also couldn’t care less about a film’s critical performance nor its date of initial release at some cheap, silly festival! This is the kind of artistically modest, emotionally-driven stuff I was writing about earlier; compare Land of Mine to any number of winners from this category pre-2011 and you’ll likely rate its chances of nomination a lot higher than you previously had. It’s a WWII film fs, how could it miss?
3. Toni Erdmann (Germany)
Maren Ade’s magnificent quasi-comedy bewildered and beguiled viewers upon premiering In Competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May; reportedly, George Miller’s jury wasn’t keen on any of the comp’s comedies, with Miller himself apparently holding particular disdain for Ade’s entry, which stood arguably the best chance ever at securing the Palme d’Or for a female director, without doing do in a tie. Anyway, buzz has remained very high for Toni Erdmann in the six months since, and most everyone involved in predicting the Oscars has considered its chances high. Given the artistic timidity and the general obscurity of voters’ usual picks in this category, it’s reasonable to suggest that, should they rank among the few who haven’t fallen for this film, the Executive Committee might provide it the push it needs to secure a nomination. Following that, it’s equally reasonable to suggest that it’d go on to a win, what with every winner since 2011 having gone into the race as the frontrunner.
4. Elle (France)
Oh, the debates I’ve had with myself about Elle. It’s a fantastic film, no doubt, but will The Academy dig it? You’ve surely heard of Academy members walking out of screenings, but have you ever heard of them walking out before the first scene has even finished? Shit, what about before a diegetic image has even come up on the screen? Both very real possibilities with Paul Verhoeven’s marvellous rape (non-)revenge comedy-drama-thriller. And yet it has everyone talking… I wonder why? Remember in 2009 when stories of walkouts emerged about Dogtooth, but it scored the nomination in the end regardless? Unquestionably the work of the more forward-thinking Executive Committee, but will their votes be occupied by other films this year, such as Toni Erdmann, the only other eligible film with a greater weight of critical support behind it? Hence Elle’s conservative placement on this list, though don’t be surprised if it fails even to make the nine-strong shortlist.
5. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Finland)
A black-and-white feelgood film that won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, and whose charms have been registered by numerous critics on the festival circuit since. This, like Neruda, has the advantage of appealing both to the traditionalists within The Academy and to the more adventurous voters on the Executive Committee; its visibility is considerably lower than Neruda’s though, which explains its lower position on this list. However, as voters here will view all eligible titles, and will hopefully shun all such considerations from their process, thereby allowing The Happiest Day a fair shot at a nomination.
6. The Salesman (Iran)
The flipside of Toni Erdmann’s Cannes reception – The Salesman was regarded as not among writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s finest works upon premiering In Competition there, though soon went on to claim two top awards from the Official Jury. Farhadi was the runaway winner five years ago with A Separation, but was shut out of even the shortlist three years ago with his follow-up, The Past. Did voters lose interest in a recent winner, whose standards had declined a tad in the ensuing years? Has their interest been reignited? Could either be enough to consider The Salesman either definitively in or out of the running? Certainly not, not in such an unpredictable category. My hunch says that this is just one too many high-profile films for a category that normally includes a few lesser-known options, though this acting / writing / directing showcase remains right up The Academy’s street.
7. Julieta (Spain)
Despite his reputation as one of global cinema’s most distinctive and popular directors, and one of its most awards-friendly, Pedro Almodóvar isn’t quite the Academy darling many assume him to be. His last nominated film was 10 years ago, his last personal nomination 14, and his last film to be selected for the Foreign Language Film nomination (one of only two in his career thus far) a whole 17 years back. Julieta may have been dismissed by some as ‘minor Almodóvar’ (it’s remarkable how many good writers use such a meaningless phrase), but it’s not, and that’s that. It’s definitely awards-friendly, but is Almodóvar Academy-friendly anymore? Will they appreciate the diversion from overt provocation, or was it that that they so appreciated in the first place? Don’t count Pedro out, but recent evidence does imply that it’s become more difficult for him to make the cut.
8. Barakah Meets Barakah (Saudi Arabia)
Not your average international rom-com, not least in that it has enjoyed that most elusive of qualities to such films: success! For a spot of variety, this lightweight class comedy from Saudi Arabia, that may hope to win over a politically-liberal voter base within The Academy, would make a handsome choice, and a realistic prediction for those looking for greater genre and geographical diversity in the mix. And that’s a big reason for Barakah Meets Barakah’s inclusion here, since the Foreign Language Film nominees are rarely all sourced from the same region, nor bear consistently similar tones nor topics. A broader outlook can be expected, if only slightly broader.
9. My Life as a Courgette (Switzerland)
Kk, I’m reaching a bit here. The best film I’ve seen all year is not, not, NOT your average Oscar nominee in just about any manner, but then was Waltz with Bashir? Despite being a landmark film in animation, and a great documentary, the only ‘ghetto’ category Ari Folman’s 2008 film conquered was this one, Foreign Language Film, so I’m only reaching a wee bit in putting My Life as a Courgette (or My Life as a Zucchini for U.S. readers) in my top ten. It’s barely longer than an hour, entirely fictional, animated in stop-motion, lacking in graphic sex and violence, and focused mainly on kids, and so basically nothing at all like Waltz with Bashir, but it’s even better, and the critics know so too. My feeling is that voters will watch Courgette’s lengthier, live-action competition and disregard it much too quickly, but my hope is that they do nothing of the sort.
10. Tanna (Australia)
Martin Butler and Bentley Dean’s Australian film, based on the real-life romance between a young Vanuatuan couple on the island of Tanna (viewers of the BBC’s Planet Earth II will have heard tell of it) and the resulting marriage dispute in the local community, harbours many attractive elements to voters: an old-fashioned narrative, with a screenplay co-written by Oscar nominee John Collee; a genuinely foreign flavour, though one not excessively strange to their conventional sensibilities, and the kind of positive critical reactions that suggest likely Academy approval. And remember, neither the eventual five-strong nominees nor the nine-strong shortlist will be packed with familiar titles and familiar titles alone. To me (and remember, I predicted Embrace of the Serpent and Theeb last year even before the shortlist announcement, so…), Tanna looks like a viable alternative to the high-profile frontrunners.
Speaking of those high-profile frontrunners, many of them hold such a position for a reason: they actually do stand a chance. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Death in Sarajevo from former winner Danis Tanović, Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World from terrible ‘enfant terrible’ and passif extraordinaire Xavier Dolan, Czech Republic’s Lost in Munich from Petr Zelenka, Romania’s Sieranevada from Cristi Puiu, South Korea’s The Age of Shadows from Kim Jee Woon, Sweden’s A Man Called Ove from Hannes Holm, and Venezuela’s From Afar from Lorenzo Vigas all featured in consideration for my list. Greece’s Chevalier, directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari would fit in very nicely as a nominee, and would mark the third consecutive winner of the Best Film award at the London Film Festival to claim such a nom (after Ida and Leviathan). I’m not so sure about Italy’s Berlin Golden Bear winner Fire at Sea, directed by Gianfranco Rosi, since it’s a documentary, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for a doc to turn up here. Also not sold on the Filipino entry, Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa, and totally bummed that they didn’t pick one from my lovely Lav Diaz (I mean, he had two they could have chosen this year. TWO!), nor Mexico’s Desierto from Jonás Cuarón. Very hopeful for the British choice, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow because it’s fantastic, but how often does a horror film claim a major Oscar nomination?
But then one must also consider the low-profile underdogs, since one or two of them invariably shows up, at least in the shortlist for this category. Austria’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe from Maria Schrader, China’s Xuan Zang from Huo Jian Qi, Colombia’s Alias Maria from José Luis Rugeles Gracia, Egypt’s Clash from Mohamed Diab (look out for this one), Iceland’s Sparrows from Rúnar Rúnarsson, Israel’s Sand Storm from Elite Zexer, Norway’s The King’s Choice from Erik Poppe, Palestine’s The Idol from Hany Abu-Assad (much as I’m loathe to criticize Palestine’s most celebrated cinema talent, under no circumstances does he deserve a third Oscar nomination), Poland’s Afterimage from recently-deceased master filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, Russia’s Paradise from Andrei Konchalovsky, Singapore’s Apprentice from Boo Jun Feng, and Vietnam’s Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass from Victor Vu are all contenders too, many of them likelier picks than those in the above paragraph.
And then there are the remainder of the 85 films officially submitted and accepted by The Academy, any one of which could conceivably pick up a nomination and proceed to win the whole thing. Never underestimate the Foreign Language Film race’s ability to throw the almightiest curveballs at even the most reliable of predictors. But never me. Obviously never me.
Ah yes, me. My Twitter, currently sporting a black-on-black colour scheme in mourning for America, is @screenonscreen, but better still is my blog, as colourful as ever so as to offer depressed readers the chance to escape a never-more-crushing reality and enjoy a spot of reading some idiot’s thoughts on some pictures they saw on a sheet of pixels all Blu-Tacked together and some sounds they heard some people shout through megaphone at the sides of some big rooms where lonely middle-aged men consume popped corn and expose their genitals to receptive subjects such as myself. You can find such a blog at screenonscreen.blogspot.co.uk, or by requesting a comprehensive list of dangerous and/or banned websites from your local police force, or even an uncomprehensive list. ICYMI, Aunty Paddy already rambled through our Animated Feature options here.
All the best, America. I still
sort-of love you. Until next time, if you can cling to the ledge a bit longer.