Legend has it that Americans loathe subtitled movies, but surely no true movie fan would prove this stereotype. Every year, countries from around the world make submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars, and every year that’s an opportunity to discover new and exciting work from filmographies outside of the US.
Of course, hardcore film buffs would argue that the Cannes Film Festival and a lot of the other European festivals are better showcases for foreign movies, but every eye is on the Academy submission list anyway. From the 85 films submitted this year, we selected 10 frontrunners. Be sure to check them out.
10. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland)
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki has some of the qualities most adored by the Academy: it’s a crowd-pleasing, feel-good true story, it has an enthralling romantic subplot, subdued performances by most of the cast, and perfect craftsmanship by the director, writers and technical crew.
Done in black and white and thoroughly charming, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is an antiquated wonder that the Academy might find difficult to ignore. It tells the true story of Finnish boxer Olli Mäki when he had a shot at the Featherweight Championship in 1962. In a year full of boxing pics (Hands of Stone, Bleed for This), the Finnish one might be coming out on top.
9. The Age of Shadows (Jae-woon Kim, South Korea)
Though South Korea failed to select Chan-wook Park’s masterful return to form, The Handmaiden, as their Best Foreign Film entry, it still picked a valuable contender in Jee-won Kim’s The Age of Shadows. From the director of A Tale of Two Sisters comes a noir thriller that would put current American noir thrillers to shame, working brilliantly within the genre and portraying an important time in the country’s history.
It’s the 1920s, and the conflict is between a Korean-born Japanese police officer and resistance fighters against the Japanese occupation. It’s a tale of magnetic personalities and contrasting landscapes, an inevitably politic narrative that somehow manages to not take that too seriously, resulting in a gratifying and fascinating moviegoing experience.
8. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Even as it has been called a “smaller Asghar Farhadi movie”, there’s no denying that the Iranian director will always be a favorite when he’s up for a nomination. Here, he tells the story of a couple’s collapsing relationship, which happens at the same time they are rehearsing for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and their house is (literally) falling apart.
It’s a typically metaphorical tale that finds its strength in its universally approachable story and then proceeds to show, in the smallest and quietest moments, just how specific and unique it is. No, it’s not A Separation – not as sweeping, emotional and elegant as that -, but it’s still masterfully made.
7. Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)
A gripping character study with some amazingly original ideas, Chevalier is Athina Rachel Tsangari’s sophomore effort, and it demonstrates that Greek cinema has much more going for it than just Yorgos Lanthimos disturbing morality plays. In Chevalier, weird things turn into weirder things, and suddenly the spectator is hit with the realization that this almost surrealist piece is actually making sense.
It’s very precisely acted, directed and written, as most Greek modern films are, as disciplined in their storytelling as they are reckless in the way they navigate the characters’ and the spectators’ emotions. If Dogtooth marked when everyone took notice, Chevalier is the film that confirms Greek cinema as one of the most fascinating right now.
6. Neruda (Pablo Larraín, Chile)
Chilean wonder boy Pablo Larraín might just have two films nominated for Oscars this year: his American debut Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, and this Chilean drama, Neruda, about one of the greatest literary icons of the country. He deserves it – in Neruda, his incredible inventiveness and intelligence shines through every frame, as he turns a real story into a well-threaded and fascinating novelty.
Gael García Bernal, as per usual, is outstanding as a police inspector hunting down Neruda (a no less spectacular Luís Gnecco) after he becomes a fugitive in his own country. It’s a period piece with a vibrant modern heart and some impressive supporting performances.