From Afghanistan to Vietnam, there’s a world of foreign-language contenders all hoping to grab a spot on the Oscar ballot next to Hungary's acknowledged front-runner, the searing Holocaust drama 'Son of Saul.'
With 81 films competing for just five nominations, the foreign-language film category is arguably the most competitive in the Oscar race. This year's cosmopolitan field runs the gambit from mainstream crowdpleasers to niche arthouse, from horror to comedy to drama to documentary to (in one case) animation.
DIRECTED BY Hassan Nazer
This drama sidesteps the obvious theme of the ongoing Afghanistan War in favor of an intimate story of a woman whose husband is paralyzed but still wants a child.
DIRECTED BY Iris Elezi, Thomas Logoreci
The Bota cafe is on the edge of a vast marshland in the middle of nowhere. This delicate directorial debut evokes the spirit of a new Europe haunted by its past.
DIRECTED BY Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina
Lakhdar-Hamina examines the Algerian War from a fresh angle, that of a French Army loyalist determined to break a rebellious, pro-Algerian solider by forcing him to torture a local freedom fighter.
DIRECTED BY Pablo Trapero
Based on the true story of Argentina's Puccio crime family, who kidnapped four people in Buenos Aires in the 1980s, Trapero's drama was a favorite in Venice and is hoping to be Argentina's third Oscar winner (following The Official Story in 1985 and 2009's The Secret in Their Eyes).
DIRECTED BY Greg Sneddon
Set in Bhutan in the 1970s, Australia's hopeful is the story of a brother who learns archery from his strict grandfather and a sister who longs to break free of the traditional role assigned to her.
DIRECTED BY Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Mommy returns home to her twin boys after a major face-lift, her face swathed in bandages, and her boys begin to suspect she is not their real mother. A rare horror title in the foreign-language race.
DIRECTED BY Abu Shahed Emon
A different sort of coming-of-age tale, Jalal's Story follows the titular character's transformation from innocent — rescued from a river like Moses — to urban gangster.
DIRECTED BY Jaco Van Dormael
Van Dormael's latest drama, which imagines God as a cranky retiree living in Brussels, is wacky, sacrilegious and very, very funny. It will rely on the subject matter and the performance by Catherine Deneuve as a female apostle to attract Academy attention.
DIRECTED BY Ines Tanovic
Balkan cinema too often is overburdened by politics and the region's recent past, so this domestic tale, about a middle-class Serbian family and their ordinary heartbreaking struggles, is a breath of fresh air.
DIRECTED BY Anna Muylaert
The Brazilian entry, written and directed by Muylaert, is making waves worldwide for touching on subjects such as social barriers and sexism. Earlier this year, the feature film won a special jury award for best actress at the Sundance Film Festival for its two stars, Regina Case and Camila Mardila, and also took home the Panorama audience award at the Berlin Film Festival. Muylaert spoke to THR about the origins of her drama, which focuses on a live-in housekeeper (Case) who works for a middle-class family in Sao Paulo, and her estranged daughter (Mardila), who comes to the big city and moves in.
How did the idea come to you?
Two decades ago, when I had my son, I stopped working to be a full-time mother without a nanny. I knew that raising a child is very important, and I started to reflect that this job isn't recognized properly. The idea changed a couple of times in the years following the social changes in Brazil. [In 2013, a new law was passed to protect housekeepers' rights.]
What is the struggle like, being a female director working on the international stage?
I didn't think about this in the beginning, but besides the fact that we have the two women in the main lead roles, we have a lot of women working behind the cameras, too. I started to feel a bit bullied after the movie got recognition internationally. It's like people were wondering how I got there and that "I must have gotten there with the help of a man." And that is not true.
Written by Paula Zulian
DIRECTED BY Stephan Komandarev
A desperate father agrees to smuggle Syrian refugees over the border in this incredibly timely drama looking to be Bulgaria's first-ever Oscar nominee.
DIRECTED BY Kulikar Sotho
Cambodia's entry boasts a plot involving a lost film buried beneath the Killing Fields that reveals, Rashomon-like, different versions of the truth.
DIRECTED BY Maxime Giroux
A young Hasidic woman, stifled by her cloistered upbringing, meets an older, lonely atheist to form the oddest of odd couples in this unusual, delightful romantic drama.
DIRECTED BY Pablo Larrain
A brutal but also morosely comic portrait of bad priests exiled to a distant monastery, only to find they cannot escape the sins of their past, the latest from the Chilean director (Oscar-nominated for No in 2013) won the Grand Jury Silver Bear when it debuted in Berlin.
DIRECTED BY Han Yan
In a surprise move, China submitted this hit rom-com, based on a best-selling webcomic, after Jean-Jacques Annaud's French co-production Wolf Totem was disqualified to represent the country for the Oscars. It's a long shot but at least is representative of the fare that dominates the world's second-largest film market.
DIRECTED BY Ciro Guerra
This Amazonian drama tells two stories, set in 1909 and 1940, tracing the life of a shaman, and last survivor of his tribe, and his encounters with two scientists searching for the sacred yakruna plant.
DIRECTED BY Esteban Ramirez
A young girl gets involved with a prison inmate in this coming-of-age drama from Ramirez, whose 2004 debut, Caribe, also represented Costa Rica at the Oscars.
DIRECTED BY Dalibor Matanic
Three love stories play out over three decades in two neighboring Balkan villages — one Serbian, one Croatian — in this drama about the scars of history, which won the Jury prize in Cannes.
DIRECTED BY Slavek Horak
A bittersweet dramedy in the best Czech tradition (think early Milos Forman) in which a selfless 50-something caregiver, through a budding friendship with the daughter of one her patients, becomes aware of her own needs.
DIRECTED BY Tobias Lindholm
Lindholm's latest might prove his international breakthrough, especially if the Academy shortlists the Afghanistan War drama. A two-hander, it looks at a war-zone decision made by a Danish commander in Afghanistan and the personal repercussions back home.
DIRECTED BY Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas
Geraldine Chaplin plays a woman who falls in love with a young beauty (Yanet Mojica), unaware that the girl is using her body as currency in exchange for a ticket to a better life.
DIRECTED BY Elmo Nuganen
Tiny Estonia scored its first-ever Oscar nomination in 2015 with Zaza Urushadze's Tangerines. Its 2016 hopeful is more traditional foreign-language fare: a drama about Estonian soldiers forced to choose sides between Russia and Germany during World War II.
DIRECTED BY Yared Zeleke
The first Ethiopian film to play Cannes, Lamb follows a boy whose bond with his pet sheep faces the ticking clock of the holidays, when lamb is on the menu.
DIRECTED BY Klaus Haro
The inspirational true story of a man who flees the Soviet secret police in Leningrad and lands in Estonia to find his calling teaching fencing to schoolkids. When his squad wants to travel to Leningrad for a tournament, he is forced to put either his safety or his pupils first.
DIRECTED BY Deniz Gamze Erguven
Like the wild horses of the title, five Turkish sisters fight for their independence against a repressive society. A surprise choice for France, Mustang comes with strong word-of-mouth and a string of awards, including Cannes' Label Europa Cinema honor.
DIRECTED BY Levan Tutberidze
Mamuka is released from prison and tries to rescue his family from poverty in this kitchen-sink drama from Georgia that premiered in San Sebastian.
DIRECTED BY Giulio Ricciarelli
Premiering in September at the Toronto Film Festival, where Sony Pictures Classics acquired North American rights, the drama from first-time feature director Ricciarelli follows a public prosecutor (Homeland's Alexander Fehling) in 1950s Germany who defied government pressure and public opinion to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. The Munich-based 50-year-old talked to THR about making a film about a mostly forgotten period of German history.
Did you feel it was easier or more challenging to make a film about a true story and historical events?
In a way it's both. It is a very big challenge, especially with the theme, because you have to be accurate. Historians read every draft, they saw a couple of rough cuts. We knew we had a very great responsibility, historically. It's really hard to make a cinematic experience out of a historical film because a lot of times history doesn't follow a classical dramatic structure. So you have to kind of find that dramatic arc. At the same time, you don't want to go against history. You don't want to lie. You don't want to stretch the truth.
What kind of reception and reaction did the film get in Germany?
Today, Germany is really ready to make and receive these films. There was a very positive reaction in the press, and it did very good box office for this kind of film. There was no backlash in the sense of, "Oh, you shouldn't do a movie about that time."
Ever been to the Oscars?
No, I have not been. You have to be invited, and I was never invited. We'll see. I'm really very happy about the way the film travels and the way people react to it, and I try not to think about it too much.
Written by Georg Szalai
DIRECTED BY Panos H. Koutras
A typically oddball entry from Greece, this dramedy manages to mash giant talking rabbits with the Eurovision Song Contest into a tale of brotherly love and accepting outsiders.
DIRECTED BY Jayro Bustamante
Only the second-ever submission from Guatemala (after The Silence of Neto in 1994), this one follows 17-year-old Maria, a Mayan living at the foot of an active volcano who dreams of escaping to the U.S.
DIRECTED BY Dante Lam
Applying Hong Kong-style action to a pro-cycling race, Dante Lam's sports movie might be a reach for traditional Academy voters, but the biking drama is at least a welcome respite from by-the-numbers auteur fare.
DIRECTED BY Laszlo Nemes
This debut feature — about one man's hellish journey through a Nazi concentration camp — has received raves ever since it debuted in Cannes, both for its dramatic storyline and for its groundbreaking subjective visual style. It's perhaps the only foreign-language entry considered a lock for an Oscar nom.
DIRECTED BY Grimur Hakonarson
A common love of sheep brings together two estranged brothers in this rural dramedy, which scooped the Un Certain Regard honor in Cannes.
DIRECTED BY Chaitanya Tamhane
A courtroom drama that takes India's justice system to task, Tamhane's feature debut won best film (and best debut feature) in Venice's Horizons sidebar and has been piling up the honors ever since.
DIRECTED BY Majid Majidi
Arguably the most controversial title in the race. The biggest-budget production to ever come out of Iran, this Islamic epic already has been branded blasphemous despite being careful not to directly depict the prophet (the film is shot from his POV as a child).
DIRECTED BY Shawkat Amin Korki
A movie about a movie: In this case, the (fictional) struggle to make a film about Saddam Hussein's very real massacre of Iraqi Kurds in 1988. The mix of political gravitas and absurdist humor could win over Academy voters.
DIRECTED BY Yuval Delshad
A Farsi-language entry from Israel is surprising enough, but documentarian Delshad's fiction debut goes beyond novelty to dig into the distinctive immigrant experience of Iranians living in Israel.
DIRECTED BY Yuval Delshad
A Farsi-language entry from Israel is surprising enough, but documentarian Delshad's fiction debut goes beyond novelty to dig into the distinctive immigrant experience of Iranians living in Israel.
DIRECTED BY Claudio Caligari
A regular foreign-language nominee and recent winner with The Great Beauty in 2014, Italy throws the Academy a curveball with this low-key drama about two friends and party animals living the life of excess.
DIRECTED BY Philippe Lacote
A metaphoric tear through the turbulent history of Ivory Coast, reflected in the ever-shifting identity of the title character Run. After assassinating the country's prime minister, he escapes, and his life is retold in a series of elliptical flashbacks.
DIRECTED BY Masaharu Take
A surprisingly indie selection from Japan, which has a history of going with safer films, 100 Yen Love is the story of a 30-something female slacker who takes up boxing. The title comes from the 100 yen shop (dollar store) where Ichiko (Sakura Ando) takes a job. The script by Shin Adachi won the inaugural Yusaku Matsuda Screenplay Award in 2012, giving the project momentum and helping director Masaharu Take get financing and a cast together.
Can you remember your first impression when you read the script?
It was the first really interesting script I’d read for a long while. I thought straightaway that this would make a good film. We met in a coffee shop, and I read it in about two hours while he waited.
What grabbed you?
I was looking for a script with a really engaging main character, and Ichiko was definitely that. More than an interesting story, I wanted the main character to draw you in and [make you] wonder what they were going to do. As I was reading it, I found myself wondering what she would do next, though I never thought she was going to start boxing.
I heard 700 people auditioned for Ichiko. Is that true, even though you’d set your heart on Sakura Ando?
Seven hundred people applied; we auditioned the ones we wanted to try out. Ando-san didn’t apply at first, but her mother saw an article about it and recommended she try out. I think that was fate.
How did you approach the film’s rape scene?
It’s the hardest thing Ichiko faces, and it was the most difficult scene to present, though I think both Ando and the actor who played her co-worker made it work. I thought we’d got it right, though not everyone will accept it.
Written by Gavin J. Blair
DIRECTED BY Naji Abu Nowar
An Arab adventure pic that won best director honors in Venice's Horizons sidebar last year and has won over local audiences with its depiction, both intimate and epic, of a Bedouin community caught up in the chaos of World War I.
DIRECTED BY Ermek Tursunov
A Kazakh Into the Wild, Tursunov's sixth feature follows a young nomad who escapes the horrors of WWII and Stalinist deportation by retreating into a cave. The director's Kelin made the shortlist in 2010.
DIRECTED BY Visar Morina
Only the second-ever submission from Kosovo, this unsentimental coming-of-age tale follows a tough 10-year-old who escapes war at home to a not-much-better life in Germany.
DIRECTED BY Mirlan Abdykalykov
A visually stunning ethnographic drama about horse herders on the steppes, this is the filmmaker's feature debut.
DIRECTED BY Juris Kursietis
A slacker teen without a father figure enters into a downward spiral in this tough-love family drama, which picked up an honorable mention in San Sebastian last year for director Kursietis.
DIRECTED BY Tarek Korkomaz, Zeina Makki, Jad Beyrouthy, Christelle Ighniades, Salim Habr, Maria Abdel Karim, Naji Bechara
Seven first-timers joined forces for this feature about six Lebanese women united by their search for their sons, brothers, husbands or lovers, all of whom have been missing since the country's civil war.
DIRECTED BY Alante Kavaite
A 17-year-old fascinated by planes but afraid of flying falls in love with another girl who gives her the courage to take flight. It won the best director honor in Sundance's World Cinema sidebar.
DIRECTED BY Donato Rotunno
A little bit of teen nastiness in the heart of European luxury, this coming-of-age psychodrama follows two 13-year-olds who are exposed to violence, drugs and porn on a daily basis.
DIRECTED BY Ivo Trajkov
Both a familial and a political drama, Trajkov's feature unspools over a single night in which a senior government minister and his wife mark their 10th wedding anniversary. Macedonia has only once received an Oscar nomination, in 1994 for Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain.
DIRECTED BY Liew Seng Tat
An ultralight — and for many U.S. viewers potentially highly offensive — comedy that loads up the racist and homophobic gags in a paper-thin plot about a haunted house in the jungle.
DIRECTED BY Gabriel Ripstein
Mexican film-maker Ripstein has spent much of his life around the movie business — his father is veteran director Arturo Ripstein. But nothing prepared the freshman helmer for that first day, when lead actor Tim Roth walked on to the set. "It was very intimidating," recalls Ripstein. "He's got a powerful energy, and when he arrived that first day, everyone was saying, 'Holy shit, it's Tim Roth.' "
But once the two got to talking about the day's shoot, the nervousness subsided. "He has also directed a film [The War Zone], so his director's eye was very helpful," says Ripstein. "His input on certain shots definitely made a difference."
In 600 Miles — a fictional story inspired by the Fast and Furious scandal, a disgraced ATF gunrunning operation that allowed for the sale of some 2,000 firearms to criminals with ties to Mexican drug gangs — Roth plays an ATF agent who is kidnapped by a young arms trafficker (Kristyan Ferrer).
Most of the scenes in the road movie unfold within the confines of an SUV driven by Ferrer's character and were supposed to feature a more fluid dialogue between the two leads, but in real life, Roth speaks very little Spanish, and Ferrer has a limited grasp of English. So Ripstein worked the language barrier into the script: "And I think it works because when Tim's character doesn't understand what's being said, it raises the level of tension."
It seems to have worked: 600 Miles won best first feature at the Berlin Film Festival and was subsequently selected as Mexico's foreign-language Oscar submission.
Written by John Hecht
DIRECTED BY Ivona Juka
An emotionally powerful ensemble drama, Juka's confident feature debut intertwines the stories of three woman of different generations living in the Croatian capital Zagreb.
DIRECTED BY Driss Mrini
When a Jewish music teacher living in France is diagnosed with cancer, she returns to Morocco to reconnect with her roots and deal with her past. The theme of Jewish-Muslim biculturalism may be a novelty that catches the Academy's eye.
DIRECTED BY Nischal Basnet
An aristocrat turned village laborer takes advantage of the chaos of a revolution to get revenge on those who wronged him and his family. Nepal has one Oscar nomination to its credit: 1999's Himalaya.
DIRECTED BY Joost van Ginkel
Six people, all immigrants, find themselves in Amsterdam in Van Ginkel's reflection on evil and human resilience in 21st century Europe.
DIRECTED BY Roar Uthaug
A freak tsunami in a Norwegian fjord threatens a village — and one family in particular — in this fast-paced disaster thriller from Cold Prey director Uthaug. Genre films have a tendency to be long shots in the foreign-language category, but Academy voters could find themselves carried away.
DIRECTED BY Jami
The death of a family's matriarch forces her widower and son to confront the corruption in society and their own complicity with it in this drama hoping to be Pakistan's first-ever Oscar nominee.
DIRECTED BY Paul Cowan, Amer Shomali
A rare documentary in the foreign-language race, this Canadian-Palestinian film follows a small dairy collective east of Bethlehem that, during the first Intifada, is deemed by security forces to be a threat to Israel's national security.
DIRECTED BY Arami Ullon
This documentary essay about director Ullon's relationship with her aging mother who suffers from Parkinson's premiered at the Karlovy Vary festival last year.
DIRECTED BY Hector Galvez
A nuanced addition to the school of South American cinema exploring the region's violent past, NN literally digs up the evidence of Peru's brutal military killings of the 1980s and '90s via a plot involving a forensic pathologist tasked with identifying a body from a mass grave
DIRECTED BY Jerrold Tarog
A classic of the foreign-language race: the historical biopic. The story of Gen. Antonio Luna, leader of the Philippine revolution, was a box-office hit at home. Heneral Luna's $13 million budget is huge for a Filipino feature.
DIRECTED BY Jerzy Skolimowski
Poland is looking to repeat its inaugural Oscar success this year (it won for Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida) with this ensemble drama featuring a cross section of contemporary urbanites who find their lives transformed in 11 fateful minutes.
DIRECTED BY Miguel Gomes
The second of Gomes' trilogy, inspired by the classic Arabian Nights fables but set in modern-day Portugal and told in a series of vignettes. Critically praised after its Cannes debut, this could be the feature that breaks Portugal's losing streak of 31 submissions to date with not a single Oscar nom.
DIRECTED BY Radu Jude
Winner of the best director Silver Bear in Berlin, Jude's period drama is set in the 19th century in the region now known as Romania. It follows a policeman hired to capture a gypsy slave who has run away after having slept with his owner's wife.
DIRECTED BY Nikita Mikhalkov
After the surprise selection of Andrey Zvyagintsev's Putin-critical Leviathan last year, Russia returns to type with this Soviet-era epic from serial Oscar contender Mikhalkov. The 70-year-old Putin supporter still is Russia's only Oscar winner (for 1994's Burnt by the Sun).
DIRECTED BY Goran Radovanovic
Radovanovic's drama turns Yugoslav Wars cliches on their head, focusing on a Serb community living in a U.N.-protected enclave in Muslim-majority Kosovo. The legacy of ethnic cleansing is told via the relationship between a Serbian youth and an Albanian shepherd boy.
DIRECTED BY Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, K Rajagopal, Tan Pin Pin, Royston Tan, Kelvin Tong
An omnibus feature compiled from short films by seven directors, made to commemorate their city-state's 50th birthday. A long shot to become Singapore's first Oscar nominee.
DIRECTED BY Ivan Ostrochovsky
The "Goat" of the film's title is a former Olympic boxer who comes out of retirement to raise money as a means of convincing his partner not to abort their child.
DIRECTED BY Sonja Prosenc
An unconventional family tale from first-time director Prosenc, The Tree examines the ties that bind in a nonlinear, almost biblical portrayal of the relationship between a widowed mother and her two sons.
DIRECTED BY Ernest Nkosi
Two siblings fight together to escape the township slum where they were born in this affecting drama, aiming to be South Africa's second Oscar winner, following 2006's Tsotsi.
DIRECTED BY Lee Joon-ik
An old-school period epic from Lee Joon-ik (The King and the Clown), this biopic of 18th century leader Prince Sado, whose own father condemned him to death, has earned nearly $50 million back home.
DIRECTED BY Jon Garano, Jose Mari Goenaga
The first Basque-language film ever to represent Spain in the Oscar race, this romantic drama centers on Ane, a 40-something single woman who begins to receive a bouquet of flowers, every week at the same time, but without a note.
DIRECTED BY Roy Andersson
The conclusion to Andersson's quirky, sardonic trilogy on the quiet absurdity of modern life is hardly typical Oscar fare, but the Swedish master has been slowly growing his international fan base and this collection of stylish, often very funny skits could be this season's dark horse.
DIRECTED BY Samir
An ambitious, three-hour, 3D documentary by the Iraqi-born, Swiss-based filmmaker Samir, this explores the impact of Iraqi history on his family.
DIRECTED BY Hou Hsiao-hsien
Four months after its award-winning world premiere at Cannes, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin finally lands in North America. Based on a short story by ninth century Chinese writer Pei Ying, the film revolves around an assassin (Shu Qi) struggling to kill her tyrannous warlord cousin (Chang Chen). The veteran Taiwanese director opened up to THR about the necessity for Taiwanese filmmakers to engage with mainland China (which financed The Assassin):
"It doesn’t work if a Taiwanese filmmaker is making films aimed at just Taiwan," says Hou. "It’s just too small a market. When the mainland Chinese market hadn’t risen yet, we had Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. It’s quite a remote notion to aim for international prominence — how many filmmakers could really achieve that? But of course you need to abide with their rules while you’re there — send in your screenplays for censorship, that kind of thing. … There are always restrictions everywhere. Unless you have a very powerful topic you need to address, why would you want to clash with these restrictions?"
"If you’re determined about not having your films censored, you shouldn’t touch political issues. There are a lot of things you could make a film about. Can we not move people with something else?"
Written by Clarence Tsui
DIRECTED BY Josh Kim
Based on short stories from acclaimed Thai writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, this social-realist drama is a coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old boy who tries to prevent his gay older brother from being drafted into the military.
DIRECTED BY Kaan Mujdeci
The story of a boy and his dog, with a brutal twist, Turkey's entry was a hit with critics in Venice last year, where it won the Special Jury Prize.
DIRECTED BY Kevin Allen
Two versions of Under Milk Wood — one English, one Welsh — were shot back-to-back with Welsh stars Rhys Ifans and Charlotte Church. The film is based on Dylan Thomas' radio play of the same name, which was first adapted in a 1972 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
DIRECTED BY German Tejeira
Three lonely strangers, lost in a small town in the Uruguayan countryside, find one another on New Year's Eve in this winner of last year's best international feature honor in Zurich.
DIRECTED BY Mario Crespo
Shot entirely in the indigenous Warao language of Venezuela's aboriginal people, of which only around 28,000 survive, the drama follows a Warao who decides to leave his tribe to pursue a better life.
DIRECTED BY Dustin Nguyen
The heartwarming true story of a winning lottery ticket and how it changes the life of both the winner and the ticket seller. Directed by, and starring, former 21 Jump Street star Dustin Nguyen.