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2019 Oscars: The State of the Foreign Language Film Oscar race

The Foreign Language Film Oscar is fully underway with the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals already providing us with a wealth of contenders and plenty to talk about. I chatted with AwardsWatch’s foreign correspondent Mina Takla on what the state of the race is right now.

EA: We’re at the halfway point of the year and we just got the first official submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar race with Belarus submitting CRYSTAL SWAN. The film just debuted at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Any thoughts on its potential?

MT: To me, it seems that we will be seeing some sort of shift in the FLF race this year – I think several countries will try to focus on female-led stories or films directed by female filmmakers to be more in tune with the current state of Hollywood where female voices are pushing for deserved attention. When I took a look at the Belarus submission, it was interesting to see this is clearly a female-led story set predominantly in the US so I think the submission committee saw some potential for it to be relatable for US voters. But I think this year’s FLF race will be extremely tough, so I doubt the film makes a dent.

EA: This is only the third submission ever for Belarus and its first in 22 years. That tells me they think they have something special so I’m going to pay attention to that at least. You’re right about more female-fronted films in the FLF race, as well as female-directed films.

MT: I have been hearing also some great things about WOMAN AT WAR from Iceland. Sadly, you and I both missed that one in Cannes.

EA: You’re right about more female-fronted films in the FLF race, as well as female-directed films.

MT: But I have been expecting it to be the Icelandic submission and to potentially go far. The film is having its release in France this weekend and it fits the female-led narrative we’re talking about. I think we will see this shift more clearly as September approaches.

EA: Yes, that’s another film I’m keeping my eye on.

MT: Yes I hope to catch it on a screener soon.

EA: You were at Berlin earlier this year, and we were both at Cannes. What was your takeaway from Berlin for major contenders?

MT: Berlin was fascinating. I expect we will see at least four major contenders from it. They are:

THE HEIRESSES from Paraguay – this is yet another female-led and LGBTQ film that earned two prizes in Berlin and was beloved by US critics. I personally really liked it and it has one of the most affecting endings I’ve seen this year. I think it has some really good potential.

U – JULY 22 (review) from Norway: one of my top 5 films of Berlin (THE HEIRESSES was 6th). I adored this film and it’s a great example of bravura filmmaking. Its director previously figured in the FLF race, and made the cut, with THE KING’S CHOICE. In U, he addresses one of Norway’s most brutal mass shootings in a single take. Impressive stuff.

EA: THE HEIRESSES (review) would be coming right off the heels of A FANTASTIC WOMAN, which was also a female-led and LGBTQ film.

MT: Yes. However, THE HEIRESSES is slightly less accessible. It’s a bit of a slow-burner and a highbrow film. It may not be a slam-dunk for typical voters plus it deals with its issues in subtle ways.

MUSEO, Mexico

MUSEO (review) from Mexico: my second favorite film of the festival. It’s a tailor-made film for the FLF committee. They love films with social critiques that deliver them in entertaining ways. It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking that links the biggest museum heist in Mexico to the decaying national identity of the country today

EA: Mexico has a lot of potential submissions this year though, including ROMA from Alfonso Cuarón, which seems a higher profile film.

MT: If I were in the Mexican committee, I would submit ROMA in other categories and leave MUSEO for FLF. Sadly I think that’s just a pipe dream for me as I think ROMA will take its place. Having not seen ROMA, I just think MUSEO is 100% FLF committee material.

EA: Considering Netflix finally broke through with major categories this last season, this would be another for it to conquer after ON BODY AND SOUL. If the FLF committee lets it.

MT: Another film from Berlin would be MUG (review) from Poland. This is my #1 favorite film of Berlinale.

EA: True, but like MUSEO, there’s a higher profile film that’s likely ahead of it.

MT: MUG, which won the Grand Prize, is the LOVELESS of the year for me. It is very similar to the harsh social critiques in LOVELESS but it’s a lot more comedic and bitter. And it comes from a brilliant female filmmaker whose films were sent before to represent Poland. Sadly, it’s 90% going to be COLD WAR, which I wasn’t a big fan of, as you can see in my review. However, most people loved it, and it has a shot at the final five at the FLF race this year. These are the 4 biggies of Berlinale.

EA: COLD WAR is definitely a top tier contender and I can’t imagine it won’t be Poland’s entry.

MT: Other contenders may also include the absolutely wonderful IN THE AISLES (review) from Germany. It left me left absolutely shattered.

EA: Yes, IN THE AISLES is another to look out for. That’s the film with Sandra Hüller from TONI ERDMANN.

IN THE AISLES, Germany

MT: It’s a 100% accessible film. It deals with the daily lives of German workers in supermarkets and is a film that’s a bit reminiscent of SHOPLIFTERS; it starts off as something and ends up being something completely different. It’s a film that tricks you into thinking you’re going to be seeing a breezy, nice film but ends up as something completely unexpected. If Germany submits it, watch out. It’s going to do very well with average voters. It may be this year’s A MAN CALLED OVE.

EA: With average voters yes, but the FLF committees can be a feisty group.

MT: The way the committee works is that you need popular votes to then be supported by committee saves. That’s how THE INSULT and IN THE FADE made it. These films had fireworks of emotion, big plate-smashing scenes and a lot of drama. Highbrows weren’t as high on them, but average voters loved them. If you’re popular with average voters then nothing can stop you. That’s why I’m counting on films like IN THE AISLES to eventually make it if submitted.

EA: It’s funny how we can pretty much always identify which films the committee saves, isn’t it?

MT: Yes! Last year, FELICITE, ON BODY AND SOUL and THE WOUND were probably the saved three.

EA: Let’s look at Cannes this year, where we both saw a handful of films that could be very real contenders depending on if their country submits them. Kore-eda’s SHOPLIFTERS (review) won the Palme, but will Japan submit it? They’ve done shockingly poor here for some time now.

MT: I think SHOPLIFTERS may risk a shocking snub. Shocking to those who loved the film and saw it won the Palme, but I’ve been seeing some friction between Kore-eda and the Japanese government. So I do think Japan may – once again – drop the ball and go for the Kawase. Or, they can do like Russia and be smart and forget politics for a second, and go for it just like Russia did last year with LOVELESS.

EA: They used to be one of the biggest winners and nominees but they haven’t been nominated since 2008’s DEPARTURES, which was a surprise submission and ultimately, winner.

MT: Yes, but their committee makes some very strange choices almost every year. If submitted, the film can absolutely be among the final five but I don’t think it ends up winning.

EA: You bring up a good point about director-government relationships. That can often hobble a film from even being considered.

MT: Indeed. That’s why we got WOLF WARRIORS 2 last year from China!

EA: Which was just crazy.

MT: Censorship and government restrictions on content can kill FLF chances for films.

EA: I wonder if China would submit ASH IS PUREST WHITE, which debuted at Cannes. It’s a huge, expensive film.

MT: I don’t think so – I doubt China will figure into the race anytime soon. Cohen Media Group, an expert campaigner bought it – but I have such doubts.

EA: China hasn’t been very successful here and they haven’t been nominated since 2002.

One thing was obvious though: France did NOT do well in Cannes this year. A film I saw in 2017 at the Venice Film Festival that I think it getting in is CUSTODY. I think they’ll surprise everyone and pick that film over ALL their Cannes entries this year. CUSTODY has several factors going for it – it won at Venice (2017) and was very warmly received, it has a #metoo narrative and a very compelling story

EA: It’s got a good festival pedigree: played TIFF last year, that Silver Lion at Venice.

CUSTODY, France

MT: And it’s a film that speaks about male violence in heartbreaking ways. The last 30 minutes of the film are absolutely harrowing. At the time the film was released, few made this #metoo connection. But now that the campaign is in full speed, and with the film’s final section clearly alluding to male violence over women and children, it’s a slam-dunk.

EA: Do you think we’re stacking the deck with so many films with female or #metoo storylines? Last year we thought that three LGBTQ films could make it in and only one did.

MT: Kino Lorber did well with THE WOUND, too.

EA: Did well, yes, but just short of a nomination

MT: I think it depends with how you approach it. The thing about CUSTODY is that it never screams “important!” It does so in a way that’s natural and weaved in the story organically. So you come out of it angry and affected but also hopeful. It’s a film that balances its issues so well – and does so in more subtle ways than films like THE INSULT, BPM or IN THE FADE, which will have a wider appeal, I think.

EA: CUSTODY seems like a solid choice from France considering they don’t have much else that’s easy to grab onto. SORRY, ANGEL or CLIMAX don’t seem likely.

MT: Yes it’s an off year for them. Germany also – TRANSIT was a disappointment for some, including me, in Berlin (review). I think we’re going to see unexpected choices from those two this year.

EA: They also have STYX.

MT: STYX did very well there – I didn’t see it but been hearing it’s beloved by many.

By the way and since we’re talking about Europe I would love to give a shout out to an Italian film that will not be the FLF selection but I thought was a brilliant debut and that’s BOYS CRY (review). This is a film that is absolutely brilliant, a gangster film like no other. It’s a debut feature by two friends who immediately got their next deal right after the premiere. It’s a very well paced, heart stopping film about loyalty, love and what poverty does to you. I saw it in a sold out show at the festival and it remains one of my favorites of the year. But it has no chance.

EA: Italy; talk about a country with tons of possibilities.

MT: It’s going to be DOGMAN I think and not HAPPY AS LAZZARO, which is too sad because LAZZARO (review) is 100% superior to DOGMAN.

EA: Cannes brought two strong Italian films in LAZZARO and DOGMAN, both winners there. Italy is one of the most successful countries for FLF with 31 nominations and 14 wins. They play smart and they play to win.

MT: Just take a look at the recent Italian Film Awards nominations – they basically snubbed LAZZARO and just loved DOGMAN and picked it across the board.

EA: DOGMAN seems the more likely.

LAZZARO, Italy

MT: So LAZZARO fans, brace yourselves for a disappointment! DOGMAN as a brilliant central performance but it’s a film that doesn’t take huge risks.

EA: Yes, DOGMAN and LAZZARO are opposite ends of the spectrum in that regard.

LAZZARO is another foreign language film that Netflix picked up; we’ll see this year how serious they are about getting a nomination here if one of their films is selected.

MT: Yes, ON BODY AND SOUL was a good sign for them last year. But I just think DOGMAN has this one almost locked up as the Italian entry.

Generally Netflix is untested in FLF. Don’t forget their major snub of 2017: Angelina Jolie’s FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER, a film I was so sure would make it.

EA: LAZZARO was my favorite film at Cannes, I would love to see it selected but I’m prepared for it not to be. At least it will get a huge audience via Netflix.

MT: LAZZARO and SHOPLIFTERS (plus YOMEDDINE) were my three favorites. So we share two films we both loved!

I would also love to give a shout out to the probable Moroccan entry that no one seems to be talking about and won the Screenplay Award at UCR: SOFIA. I saw it after the festival on a screener and this, again, is a #metoo slam dunk that’s very reminiscent of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS.

So AwardsWatchers, don’t sleep on that one! It can surprise too.

EA: Yes, I have SOFIA on my list of potential contenders.

A handful of UCR and Critics Week films could find their way to the Oscars. I’m hoping that Sweden chooses BORDER (review) as their selection.

MT: Of these, I would say Sweden’s BORDER and Belgium’s GIRL can make it.

EA: Although it seems very unlikely. But, they have Neon behind it (BORDER) and they broke through big time this last Oscar season.

MT: Neon was a great sign, I think.

GIRL, Belgium

EA: GIRL (review) was another favorite of mine. And it won more prizes than any film at Cannes. Netflix has that as well.

MT: Also let’s give a huge shout out to a Directors Fortnight film that is a major possibility – Colombia’s BIRDS OF PASSAGE (review).

I adored this film and the filmmaker is a previous nominee for EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT. Watch out for this one guys.

EA: Absolutely! A major contender.

MT: GIRL is pretty good too. Yes.

I am very curious to see which Middle Eastern film that Cohen Media group will pick up. I want to highlight their incredible track record in the past 4 years – four consecutive Oscar FLF nominations with TIMBUKTU, MUSTANG, THE SALESMAN and THE INSULT. This year they picked up GIRLS OF THE SUN and ASH IS PUREST WHITE (review) but both are doubtful.

EA: Oh for sure. No one should be sleeping on the Middle East this season. It’s full of contenders.

MT: So I’m keeping an eye to see if they’ll get YOMEDDINE (review) or any other Mena film. And I still highly believe YOMEDDINE can also surprise like TIMBUKTU.

EA: I think Nadine Labaki’s CAPHARNAUM from Lebanon, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, would be a huge hit with the Academy.

MT: Yes, these 2 films + SOFIA are three great bets. But CAPHARNAUM is the best bet among those three.

EA: It seems like the film that would be most widely embraced.

MT: Indeed – I think with Sony Pictures Classics behind it, it may take the whole thing.

EA: I agree.

CAPHARNAUM, Lebanon

MT: It’s going to be a ROMA vs CAPHARNAUM battle until the very end I think. Critics will support ROMA and the industry will probably be split.

Some interesting trivia for AwardsWatchers: If CAPHARNAUM ends up winning the Oscar, it will become the first Arab film to ever win an Oscar in over 60 years, the first film directed by a Middle Eastern female filmmaker to ever win an Oscar and the first Lebanese film to win as well.

EA: I love that we’re calling the final two battle for FLF in July. How very AwardsWatch!

MT: We own up to our predictions! Last year, we called 6/9 films right and we did that in October. We had the 7th film as an ALT. So I’d say we did pretty well last year.

EA: Yeah, we did very well last year; I tip my hat to you.

MT: Thank you! One thing to remember though is that the new voting rule change means highbrow FLF films like ZAMA for instance no longer have a chance to win. Even if they are committee saves, and that’s a big if, they will not be able to make it with the wider membership. That’s why ROMA and CAPHARNAUM stand a great chance because they’re films that will appeal. The latter especially, while not adored by all critics will be very popular with industry voters.

EA: Interestingly though, I don’t think those trivia hurdles you mention will impact CAPHARNAUM in the same way that films in non-FLF categories do. With the entire body able to vote on the FLF winner now, and with over 2000 new members in the last three years (including a huge contingent of international voters) those hurdles probably won’t matter.

MT: Remember though: IN THE FADE was one of only two FLF Globe winners in 8 years to win the Globe and not earn an Oscar nom (the being ELLE). Pretty amazing isn’t it?

EA: That snub was both shocking and expected, if that makes sense.

Which is what makes me so interested in seeing Netflix’s performance. That automatically gives a film the upper hand just by virtue of being seen.

MT: Netflix will be a very interesting player this year. I just hope they don’t throw their weight on docs only. They need to show they can juggle FLF and docs together. This year is their big test. In the same Hollywood Reporter or Variety issue you’d see full-page spreads for ICARUS and a shy, half or 1/4 page for ON BODY AND SOUL.

EA: Icarus had a giant billboard at LAX last year, couldn’t help but see it all the time if you traveled. They have $8 billion dollars; I think they can throw some money at both. Doc and FLF shouldn’t be that difficult for them.

MT: Yes it was incredibly timely. I always thought it would end up winning. I had little hope for FACES PLACES, which I adored but sadly…

EA: Before we close, are there any other films from Cannes or Berlin, or possibly those that haven’t debuted yet, you want us to keep an eye on? I’d love to see South Korea submit BURNING but I’m not counting on it. Or Russia with LETO (review) and its house-arrested director.

MT: Yes, I think we should keep an eye on several countries. ROMA is heading to Venice/TIFF and will be a lock. Israel may surprise us with an entry just like last year’s wonderful FOXTROT. Russia is interesting – I do think we should watch out for whatever they send to Venice because I’m going out on a limb and saying they will not submit LETO or the Dovlatov. Another country to keep an eye on is Brazil. They may send something that clicks.

I think we need to keep an eye on whatever Middle Eastern film Cohen Media Group ends up buying in Venice/TIFF. Just know it, folks, that whatever they buy, you should have that on your predictions. These guys are brilliant at what they do and their track record is spot-on.

EA: Cohen Media is a major player in FLF, it’s true.

MT: Interestingly, SPC doesn’t have a second acquisition of yet. At this time last year they had two. I wonder if they will buy a Venice breakout. Watch out for that too.

That’s mostly it for now, but I will be taking a close look at the Venice lineup in two weeks. Can you believe we’re almost there? Award season is starting mid July and it’s very exciting! For us FLF watchers though, award season started back in Berlin!

Berlin had a killer FLF year last year with FELICITE, THE WOUND and the winner A FANTASTIC WOMAN.

With the FLF race, awards season is all year long!

EA: It’s AwardsWatch; it’s always all year long!

MT: Indeed!

EA: Thanks for chatting with me today, Mina. Your knowledge and festival presence is always a blessing and I look forward to many more FLF chats this season as the festivals roll out through summer and fall.

MT: I hope this chat is helpful for all AwardsWatchers. And I look forward to catching up soon on the developments in the FLF race. Thanks so much Erik for having me as part of the superb AW team.

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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