Saudi Arabia – The Perfect Candidate
Dir. Haifaa al-Mansour
Two English-language features after her critically acclaimed debut Wadjda, prolific Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour returns to the kingdom for another searing examination of a male chauvinist society that restricts all aspects of women’s lives. Stakes are higher this time around as the heroine, Dr. Maryam (Mila Alzahrani), wants to become the first-ever female candidate in her town’s local election. She is up against a country were just recently women were granted the right to drive. Shrewd writing evidences the sexist absurdity Dr. Maryam must confront to defy the status quo and her own family’s traditional mentality. The Perfect Candidate premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will play Sundance next year.
Senegal – Atlantics
Dir. Mati Diop
Possession functions as a singular narrative device for French-Senegalese auteur Mati Diop to explore a teenager’s blossoming in the coastal city of Dakar just as her boyfriend disappears at sea. It’s a ghostly love story as dazzling as it is political relevant. Embellished further by haunting imagery courtesy of cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and an electronic score by Kuwait musician Fatima Al Qadiri, Atlantics is an undeniable stunner. Unfortunately, however, Academy voters aren’t known for audacious choices. As its flagship international title this year, Netflix has at least done as much as possible to put in front of people.
Spain – Pain and Glory
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
The Spanish master returns to the race from which he’s been shut out since winning for All About My Mother. Although Volver and Julieta were submitted for consideration, neither managed to get a nomination for the award then known as Best Foreign Language Film. With this semi-autobiographical tragicomedy starring his perennial male muse Antonio Banderas playing his proxy, Almodóvar has once again wowed the press and likely many voters. If it weren’t for Parasite, Pedro might be walking away with another statuette. Sony Pictures Classics, Almodóvar’s long-time American distributor, knows they have a strong card in their hands, and they’ve acted accordingly in terms of promotion.
Sweden – And Then We Danced
Dir. Levan Akin
Swedish-born director of Georgian descent Levan Akin decided to set his extraordinary LGBTQ drama in Tbilisi amongst the National Georgian Ensemble. Competitive dancer Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) finds himself simultaneously attracted and intimated by Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), another performer who oozes seductive confidence. Of course, toxic masculinity and homophobia in a traditional society plays a part in how open they can be with each other. In a case of cinema direclty mirroring real life, And Then We Danced caused controversy in conservative Georgia where protest took place in order to prevent screenings of the gay-themed movie. Thankfully Akin’s inspired dance-infused romance is representing Sweden.
United Kingdom – The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Dir. Chiwetel Ejiofor
Based on William Kamkwamba’s memoir, this Malawi-set inspirational tale of perseverance allowed Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)to prove himself both as the screenwriter who adapted the source material and as the leader behind the camera. In addition to directing, Ejiofor also plays a major part as William’s father, Trywell, who struggles to make a living from his land because of the weather conditions that afflict the African nation until his clever son (Maxwell Simba) uses his self-taught skills to build a wind turbine. The majority of the dialogue is in the Chichewa language, so the issue that disqualified Nigeria and Austria won’t apply here.
Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. Aguilar’s work has appeared in prestigious publications such as Los Angeles Times, The Wrap, Indiewire, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, MovieMaker Magazine, Remezcla, Filmmaker Magazine, Variety Latino, Slate, Bustle, Americas Quarterly, among others. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA).