Oscars' Foreign-Language Film Cheat Sheet: A Country-by-Country Guide
This story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The international entries hoping to make the Oscar shortlist are a typically diverse lot. So with 40 of this year's 63 hopefuls ready to screen at the Palm Springs Film Festival and the Academy preparing to narrow the feild, THR offers a rundown of every title.
Director: Bujar Alimani
A conjugal visit sparks unexpected love when two people visiting their respective jailbird spouses fall for each other. This slow-burning entry is defiantly art house and could struggle to win over Academy voters.
Director: Fernando Spiner
This gritty revenge thriller set in Argentina's gaucho culture can be seen as an homage to the bloody Westerns of Sam Peckinpah. It recently picked up eight Argentine Academy Awards, including one for best director.
Director: Karl Markovics
The directorial debut of Markovics, star of 2008 foreign-language Oscar winner The Counterfeiters, this minutely observed look at a young offender trying to rebuild his life on the outside offers no great shocks or gimmicks -- just solid acting, a strong script and pitch-perfect execution by an actor-turned-director to watch. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Less Raging Bull than The Sopranos: Flemish Edition, this gritty crime drama about a beefed-up cattleman who injects his cows and himself with growth hormone is, as THR called it, an "emotionally driven tale of revenge, redemption and fate." (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: Belvedere
Director: Ahmed Imamovic
This haunting black-and-white drama traces the lasting impact on the families of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys murdered in Srebrenica during the Yugoslav Wars. The title comes from the name of the refugee camp where families wait as their loved ones are exhumed from mass graves.
BRAZIL: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
Director: Jose Padilha
Padilha's sequel to his Berlin festival-winning drama is a slicker, smarter and darker look at crime and corruption in the Brazilian favelas. Action films don't typically make the foreign-language shortlist, but this has the street cred to prove the exception. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Viktor Chouchkov Jr.
A Romeo and Juliet-style love story set in the underground skater scene of Bulgaria, circa 1989, the film has become an unlikely box-office hit, earning north of $1.2 million locally. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
CANADA: Monsieur Lazhar
Director: Philippe Falardeau
A festival crowd-pleaser, Lazhar won honors in Locarno and Toronto, where it took the jury prize for best Canadian feature. THR said, "This nearly perfect gem begins as a tiny slice of life, but it sneaks up on you and packs a wallop by the time it reaches its conclusion." (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
CHILE: Violeta Went to Heaven
Director: Andres Wood
A biopic about the intense life of Chilean singer-songwriter Violeta Parra. Born into poverty, she became a voice for the oppressed with her highly political folk songs.
CHINA: The Flowers of War
Director: Zhang Yimou
Zhang shines a light on one of the darkest moments in Chinese history: the 1937 Rape of Nanking. Christian Bale's starring turn has helped Flowers become the highest-grossing film of the year in China, where it's taken in more than $70 million. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Golden Globes nominee)
COLOMBIA: The Colors of the Mountain
Director: Carlos Cesar Arbelaez
Mountain follows the story of three soccer-mad boys growing up in the remote mountains of Colombia who face constant danger resulting from the region's decades-old guerrilla war.
CROATIA: 72 Days
Director: Danilo Serbedzija
A dark comedy about a dysfunctional family living off the pension of their elderly aunt. Featuring Croatian star Rade Serbedzija of X-Men: First Class and Batman Begins.
Director: Ian Padron
This children's film is a classic fish-out-of-water story about little rich kid Mayito who befriends Carlos, a boy from one of Havana's more disadvantaged neighborhoods. A box-office hit at home, Habanastation offers outsiders an inside look at ordinary life in the Cuban capital.
CZECH REPUBLIC: Alois Nebel
Director: Tomas Lunak
A rare animated entry in the foreign-language race, the film set during the late-1980s mixes history with psychology in its tale of a lonely railway-station dispatcher working on the border when the Berlin Wall falls. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Ole Christian Madsen
When Christian's wife leaves him for a soccer superstar, he flies from Copenhagen to Buenos Aires to win her back. It's a refreshingly light entry from the country that gave us Lars von Trier and the more somber 2011 Oscar winner In a Better World. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Love Child
Director: Leticia Tonos
A father-daughter reunion has unexpected consequences in this charming drama. Inspired by the plot of a soap opera, Child is the first feature from the Dominican Republic made entirely by a woman.
Director: Khaled El-Hagar
This melodrama about the matriarch of a poor Egyptian family who takes to begging won the Golden Pyramid Award for best film at the Cairo International Film Festival.
ESTONIA: Letters to Angel
Director: Sulev Keedus
After being declared MIA in the Afghan war, a Soviet army deserter returns home to Estonia for his father's funeral and to try to reconcile with his estranged daughter.
FINLAND: Le Havre
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Another skewed fairy tale from Kaurismaki, who maintains the sardonic humor and touching humanity of his earlier work. In addition to four European Film Awards noms, including best film, Le Havre has won awards at Cannes, Munich and Chicago. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Cannes Film Festival winner)
FRANCE: Declaration of War
Director: Valerie Donzelli
A largely autobiographical story of two young, hip parents whose lives are torn apart when doctors tell them their baby has a potentially fatal brain tumor. Declaration discards the politics and social commentary of French entries in previous years for a small-scale look at a family's struggles. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Otar Iosseliani
A lighthearted look at an artist's struggle in communist Georgia. The plot -- a director whose work is banned at home emigrates to Paris -- runs parallel to director Iosseliani's, but the tone throughout is charming and wry with fun poked equally at Soviet society and the French film industry.
Director: Wim Wenders
Pina is close to a sure thing for a documentary nom but might be a long shot in the foreign-language film category. Along with being a technical marvel, Wenders' 3D tribute to the late, great dance choreographer Pina Bausch packs an emotional punch. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Another offbeat and idiosyncratic entry from Greece, directed by the producer of 2011 nominee Dogtooth. Taking her cue, and deliberately misspelled title, from famed nature documentarian David Attenborough, Tsangari examines the male and female species in a manner that is half Discovery Channel, half Godard. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
HONG KONG: A Simple Life
Director: Ann Hui
A dramatic change of pace for audiences used to the chop-socky of Hong Kong martial-arts actioners. The story focuses on a faithful maid who has served the same family for 60 years. The film took home four awards in Venice, including best actress for lead Deannie Yip. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Venice Film Festival)
HUNGARY: The Turin Horse
Director: Bela Tarr
A slow but entrancing story of a father, daughter and the beaten-down nag of the film's title. This black-and-white, nearly plotless feature is the ultimate dark horse in the Oscar race. But as the last film from avant-garde master Tarr, it could have an outside chance. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Berlin Film Festival winner)
Director: Runar Runarsson
When Hannes' wife has a stroke, he decides to care for her himself, in the process drawing on long-buried reserves of emotion and tenderness. Runarsson's debut feature was awarded the Golden Puffin at the Reykjavik International Film Fest.
INDIA: Abu, Son of Adam
Director: Salim Ahamed
Ahamed's directorial debut about a struggling Southern Indian family has been celebrated in its home territory, winning four of India's National Film Awards, including best film. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
INDONESIA: Under the Protection of Ka'Bah
Director: Hanny R. Saputra
This love story set in West Sumatra during the 1920s was criticized by local critics for straying to far from the novel by Indonesian novelist Hamka.
IRAN: A Separation
Director: Asghar Farhadi
A Separation is proof that even the harshest state censors can't stop a great filmmaker from telling a complex, politically powerful story. The clear front-runner in the foreign-language Oscar race, Separation cleaned up on the fest circuit and was named best foreign film by the National Board of Review. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Berlin Film Festival winner; Golden Globe nominee)
IRELAND: As If I Am Not There
Director: Juanita Wilson
Based on the book by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic, the film follows a young woman rounded up during the Balkan War and forced to "entertain" enemy soldiers.
Director: Joseph Cedar
Ceder delves deep into emotional and intellectual depths with his fourth feature, a tale of the academic rivalry between father and son, both scholars of the Talmud. Jewish audiences in particular might respond to this drama, though Cedar's style is deliberately mainstream, giving Footnote the potential for wider appeal. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Cannes Film Festival winner)
Director: Emanuele Crialese
An earnest look at illegal immigration from the director of Golden Door. A Sicilian fisherman runs into trouble with Italian authorities after he saves African refugees from drowning. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Venice Film Festival)
Director: Kaneto Shindo
The final feature from Shindo, Postcard is based on the 99-year-old director's experiences during World War II. It centers on a soldier entrusted to deliver a dead friend's answer to the postcard his wife sent him during the war. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
KAZAKHSTAN: Return to the "A"
Director: Egor Konchalovsky
Konchalovsky's entry marks what might be the first-ever father and son race for a foreign-language Oscar. Konchalovsky's father, Nikita Makholkov (Burnt by the Sun 2: The Citadel), is Russia's hopeful this year. Meanwhile, Konchalovsky's Return represents Kazakhstan and is that country's first 3D film.
LEBANON: Where Do We Go Now?
Director: Nadine Labaki
This festival crowd-pleaser puts a comic spin on sectarian violence in a plot that has the women of a remote village conspiring to keep their husbands from waging religious war with one another. Where Do We Go Now? won the audience award at the San Sebastian and Toronto film festivals.
LITHUANIA: Back to Your Arms
Director: Kristijonas Vidziunas
An earnest period drama set in 1961 West Berlin and centered on a meeting between a Lithuanian father and his American daughter. THR said, "It won't reach far beyond the festival circuit, but it's a touching small film." (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
MACEDONIA: Punk's Not Dead
Director: Vladimir Blazevski
The dark comedy about a punk band planning a reunion gig is Blazevski's first scripted feature in 18 years.
MEXICO: Miss Bala
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
An insider's view of Mexico's brutal drug wars, this action drama, co-produced by Fox International, is based on a real incident in which a local beauty pageant winner was caught with cartel members in 2008. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
MOROCCO: Omar Killed Me
Director: Roschdy Zem
Actor-turned-director Zem, the star of the Oscar-nominated Days of Glory, takes on the real-life case of a Moroccan immigrant to France accused of murder. Said THR, "A mesmerizing lead turn from Sami Bouajila, plus a still-newsworthy subject matter." (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
NETHERLANDS: Sonny Boy
Director: Maria Peters
An old-fashioned epic based on a true-life interracial love story between a black Surinam man and a white Dutch woman. THR called this a "traditional film very much in the Masterpiece Theatre mold." (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
NEW ZEALAND: The Orator
Director: Tusi Tamasese
Tamasese's feature debut is the first film shot in the Samoan language. The story focuses on Saili, who uses the power of his voice to overcome prejudice and physical disability to claim his rightful role as village chief. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Venice Film Festival)
NORWAY: Happy, Happy
Director: Anne Sewitsky
The helmer's feature debut, a funny twist on the bored-housewife-in-the-suburbs genre, took the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Diego and Daniel Vega
An Un Certain Regard jury prize winner in Cannes, "this wry tale of two lonely people has a quiet charm," THR said. (Cannes Film Festival winner)
PHILIPPINES: The Woman in the Septic Tank
Director: Marlon Rivera
Rivera pops the pretension of his country's art house film industry with this cheeky parody, set in the mode of the mockumentary. Full of jabs at Filipino directors and their gritty-poverty aesthetic so beloved on the international circuit, the film has the pace, style and laughs to appeal beyond the festival crowd.
POLAND: In Darkness
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Twenty years after her Oscar-nominated Europa, Europa, Holland returns to the Holocaust. This look at an anti-Semitic sewer worker who ends up saving more than a dozen Jews is dedicated to Jewish-Polish activist and author Marek Edelman. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
PORTUGAL: Jose and Pilar
Director: Miguel Goncalves Mendes
The final years in the life of Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago play more like fiction than documentary in this Oscar hopeful, which was backed by Pedro Almodovar and Fernando Meirelles. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Marian Crisan
More accessible than some of the Romanian new wave films of the recent past, Morgen is the tale of an illegal Turkish immigrant and his unlikely friendship with a supermarket security guard. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
RUSSIA: Burnt by the Sun 2: The Citadel
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Mikhalkov's follow-up to his 1995 Oscar winner enters the 2012 race saddled with more controversy than a Russian presidential vote count. Russia's Oscar committee called on Mikhalkov to withdraw the film after it was eviscerated by critics and bombed at the local box office. International critics have been kinder, but Burnt 2 still faces an uphill battle.
SERBIA: Montevideo: Taste of a Dream
Director: Dragan Bjelogrlic
A sports period piece about the Yugoslav soccer team's Cinderella-like run at the first World Cup in 1930, when they reached the semifinals. A box-office hit in Serbia, Montevideo already has spawned a sequel. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Eric Khoo
Arguably the most experimental of this year's foreign-language contenders, Khoo's feature is both an adaptation of five stories from seminal Japanese comic-book artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi and a biography of his life. Visually stunning and thematically disturbing, Tatsumi could be this year's Dogtooth as the bizarre outlier that makes it onto the Oscar shortlist. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Martin Sulik
This realistic look at life as a Roma in today's Central Europe took home four awards at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, including a special award for star Jan Mizigar. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
SOUTH AFRICA: Beauty
Director: Oliver Hermanus
A closeted married man lusts after his friend's son in this drama. A parable about the fragile nature of white Afrikaan machismo, Beauty does have graphic sex scenes that could turn off some Oscar voters.
SOUTH KOREA: The Front Line
Director: Jang Hun
Hun's period epic sees soldiers from North and South Korea struggling in the country's 1950s war for control of a strategically important piece of land. A local blockbuster, Front Line is a celebration of personal heroism with a clear antiwar theme, evoking films such as Letters From Iwo Jima and The Thin Red Line. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
SPAIN: Black Bread
Director: Agusti Villaronga
The first Catalan-language film to represent Spain in the Oscar race, this coming-of-age tale is set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and combines brutal period authenticity with supernatural touches familiar to fans of Oscar winner Pan's Labyrinth. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
Director: Pernilla August
The slow-burning emotion of August's debut has many comparing the actress-turned-director to Swedish master Ingmar Bergman. Noomi Rapace plays a woman forced to confront her dark past, including her alcoholic mother and violent father, in this adaptation of the novel by Susanna Alakoski.
SWITZERLAND: Summer Games
Director: Rolando Colla
A coming-of-age tale tracing the struggles of a tough teen who has his first brush with love on a family holiday in Tuscany. Young lead Armando Condolucci was hailed as a future star after Games premiered in Venice. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
TAIWAN: Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale
Director: Wei Te-Sheng
Action master John Woo co-produced this true-life war story about the rebellion of Taiwan's aboriginal peoples against Japanese colonizers in the 1930s. The foreign-language committee loves historical epics, but the 276-minute running time could test Academy members' endurance skills. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
THAILAND: Kon Khon
Director: Sarunyu Wongkrachang
The choice of Kon Khon as an Oscar contender was controversial in Thailand as director Wongkrachang is a well-known supporter of the country's "yellow shirt" democracy movement. But that could work in the film's favor with Oscar voters.
TURKEY: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The latest anti-drama from Turkish auteur Ceylan is a cerebral deconstruction of a conventional police story involving the search for a missing corpse in the hills of Anatolia. Ceylan has his fevered defenders, especially in Cannes, where Once Upon a Time won the Grand Jury Prize. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening; Cannes Film Festival winner)
UNITED KINGDOM: Patagonia
Director: Marc Evans
The foreign languages are Welsh and Spanish in this story of parallel pairs: a Welsh couple traveling to Argentina and an Argentine woman and her nephew en route to Wales. Matthew Rhys and pop singer Duffy star. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
URUGUAY: The Silent House
Director: Gustavo Hernandez
Uruguay's Oscar hope is straight-up horror with a classic setup: A young woman and her father spend the night in a remote farmhouse with a psychopath on the loose. The twist? Hernandez' low-budget feature is shot in one 78-minute take.
VENEZUELA: The Rumble of the Stones
Director: Alejandro Bellame Palacios
A single mother attempts to haul her family out of the slums in this social drama. The film has won a number of international awards, including best picture at the 2011 Festival del Cine Venezolano. (Palm Springs Film Festival screening)
VIETNAM: The Prince and the Pagoda Boy
Director: Luu Trong Ninh
An action drama set in the ninth century and focusing on a war between two brothers in the Le Dynasty, Vietnam's official Oscar contender was made to mark the millennial anniversary of the founding of the country's capital, Hanoi.