The 10 Best Foreign Language Performances Nominated for Oscars

La Vie en Rose

One of the most devastating performances of the last year was Isabelle Huppert’s daring turn in Elle, by Paul Verhoeven. The French actress, already considered one of the greatest alive, delivered a career-defining performance as the victim of sexual assault who plots to get revenge on her assailant. She’s considered a frontrunner in the Best Actress race, going up against America’s favorites like Amy Adams, Natalie Portman and Emma Stone.

As of 2016, the Academy has nominated 33 actors and actresses for performances spoken in different languages. The first one came in 1960, when Melina Mercouri scored a nod for Greek romance Never on Sundays. One year later, Sophia Loren would be the first performer to win for a foreign-language turn, for her work in Two Women. Since then, only six other non-English performances were awarded with the prize, and one of them was Robert De Niro for The Godfather Part II, so that hardly counts.

Here are the 10 best foreign language performances nominated for Oscars.


10. Sophia Loren in Two Women (1960)

Two Women (1961)

Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realistic masterpiece Two Women made Sophia Loren into the first Oscar winner for a foreign language performance, and while that historical feat would not be possible without a U.S.-distributor that heavily campaigned for her, it’s undeniable that the Italian diva is amazing in the role. Here’s she’s a woman running away from the horror of WWII with her young daughter, and she conveys the emotional despair of a war-stricken country like no other performer.

Loren has always been fiery and expressive, but her talents were rarely used as brilliantly as here, where she gets to display her full range. She’s not one for understatement, but De Sica’s powerful realism clashes beautifully with Loren’s melodramatic flair. It’s no wonder it resonated with Academy voters.


9. Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace (2004)

Maria Full of Grace

Hollywood did not know how to take advantage of Catalina Sandino Moreno’s talent. Stuck in undeserving roles, she never quite reached the heights of her debut performance in Maria Full of Grace, a touching little drama directed and written by Joshua Marston. As a pregnant Colombian teenager acting as a drug mule to make money, she dominated the screen and finds her way into the spectator’s heart and mind seamlessly.

A talent like that should be given better roles than she did after her Oscar nomination. It’s amazing how Moreno relates to the camera and expresses her character’s most intimate feelings in a observable way. She might have found a good place for her in TV, since she’s amazing in The Affair, but we miss her on the big screen.


8. Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls (2000)


When asked why he was a writer, Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas responded: “Revenge”. Javier Bardem became a superstar after his portrayal of Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, and for good reason. Devoid of his usual quiet sensitivity or understated lunacy, Bardem embodies Arenas as a rightfully furious whirlwind of a man, who took life for all its experiences, good and bad, and made it into art.

Schnabel is naturally fascinated by his subjects, but Bardem’s magnetic quality in this role makes it easier for the spectator to share that fascination. He’s hypnotizing onscreen, delivering an intense performance that still never ceases to be believable and relatable. We think Arenas would consider himself properly vindicated.


7. Liv Ullmann in Face to Face (1976)

face to face

Though it may not be Liv Ullmann’s greatest acting achievement (that is a very difficult call to make), Face to Face might be her most “awardable” one. It’s a very complicated role, as she plays a psychiatrist having to deal with a mental breakdown of her own, to the point where she stops functioning socially, professionally and emotionally. It’s a cruel joke turned into a poignant drama by Ingmar Bergman, who gives his muse a role she can really sink her teeth into.

Ullmann relishes in the opportunity, creating a solid performance that seeks to build up the character from the little details that make up her foundation. Ullmann understands she’s in a dark and difficult film to watch, and is not moved to make it easier for the spectator, while simultaneously finding a kind of touching humanity in her character.


6. Anouk Aimée in A Man and a Woman (1965)

A Man and a Woman

Claude Lelouch exquisite romantic drama A Man and a Woman deserves to be rediscovered and reevaluated as a major influence on the genre and a wonderful cinematic experience. It takes a pretty straightforward story of a meeting between two widowers and it transforms into a mature and sensitive feat of storytelling, full of meaningful silences and important musings on little details of life.

Anouk Aimée’s performance is a fundamental part of it, as she navigates this difficult movie in the way it deserves, articulating a multidimensional performance and expressing the many different moving parts of her character’s identity and actions. It’s curious that she, too, plays against Jean-Louis Trintignant here, which only goes to show that he makes for a worthy sparring partner to these two great actresses.