ScreenAnarchy Takes an In-Depth Look at Foreign Language Oscar Submissions

Festivals Editor; Los Angeles, California (@RylandAldrich)
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ScreenAnarchy Takes an In-Depth Look at Foreign Language Oscar Submissions

This year, 63 countries submitted films to the Academy for award consideration as Best Foreign Language Film . Very few of these have played in US as of yet and some with only limited qualifying runs in their home countries. A nation's Academy submission is often wrought with as much controversy as the selection of the eventual Oscar winner. Whether each film truly represents the best a country has to offer in a given year is another conversation - but the list at least offers an interesting snapshot of what's going on in cinema around the world (albeit over half of the submissions are from Europe).

We've always been pretty globally focused here at ScreenAnarchy and with writers the world-round, we thought it would be a fun idea to take a closer look at some of the higher profile titles from ScreenAnarchy writers who have actually seen each picture. We've got almost a third of the list briefly reviewed for you now and you can view the full list of 63 films here.


"From my point of view this is a detective film, but the detective is outside the film. The detective is the audience." So spoke Iranian director Asghar Farhadi at the New York Film Festival, and his estimation of where A Separation stands generically rings exceedingly true. "Courtroom drama" or "legal thriller" don't cut it--partly because the central conflict never reaches a courtroom per se, but mostly because of the ingenious way the film doles out its clues to viewers. Beginning with some very simple domestic ingredients (without a lot of rancor, a wife moves back in with her mother, thus complicating the care of her Alzheimer's-afflicted father-in-law), the script proceeds to work wonders -- making sure that even minor errors in judgment swirl and compound in such a way that the ripple effects are devastating. While I don't want to disparage the other contenders--especially since I haven't seen so many of them--I can't help but think that A Separation has a good chance of being nominated and possibly winning; I'm basing that assessment both on its multiple wins at Berlin and the fact that the Academy tends to like thinking-person thrillers/dark dramas in this category. - Peter Gutierrez

At age 99, the master filmmaker Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Naked Island, Children of Hiroshima) returns with Postcard, a searing anti-war film. Tomoko (Shinobu Ohtake) loses her husband in WWII, then, urged by the in-laws, remarries her much younger brother-in-law, only to be widowed again. Without hope or want, she barely ekes out a living in abject poverty. Matsuyama (Etsushi Toyokawa), a bunkmate of her deceased first husband shows up with a postcard that he promised to deliver to Tomoko, four years too late. Matsuyama is wracked with guilt as one of only six survivors in his battalion. With all the misery befallen on them and the guilt weighing down their existence, Shindo explores whether they can start over. Even with the heavy subject matter, Postcard borders on being a light, absurd comedy, thanks to its brisk editing, small scale and heartfelt, warm portrayals of ordinary people. It's a great film that shows the resilience of the human spirit. With its hopeful ending, I think the film has a fair shot at being one of the nominees. - Dustin Chang

Marlon Rivera's The Woman in the Septic Tank is a comedic take on the recent successes of Filipino films in international film festivals. The sparse plot follows a troop of filmmakers on their way to making their first feature film with hopes it will win for the Philippines its first Oscar. Although there are portions of the film that are entertaining beyond the national borders, the movie's humor is still heavily reliant on the inner workings of Philippine independent cinema, and this might be too foreign to the Academy, whose members are more impressed with sprawling universal stories. - Oggs Cruz


Ágnes Hranitzky and Béla Tarr, the co-directors of The Turin Horse, have collaborated before, including on the masterful Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), so it's not as if we don't know what to expect from them--usually it's a film that's unlike anything else... except perhaps their own work. Inspired by an incident from the life of Nietzsche that involves empathy and, just possibly, incipient madness, The Turin Horse plows similar thematic ground. What happens, you ask? Bearded, grim, and partly disabled, our ostensible protagonist lives on a modest farm with his adult daughter, who boils the potatoes they eat and who helps him remove his boots. If the weather improves he may head into town. Hours and days pass. There are additional rounds of boot removal and potato consumption. The gusts outside continue until they enter an existential mode à la Victor Sjöström's The Wind (1928). So when the horse doesn't want to budge, is it just being mulish (if you'll pardon the expression)... or is it actually prescient in some way? At once a commentary on our insularity from world-ending events, and a suggestion that such insularity renders the end-of-days no big deal, The Turin Horse certainly explores the audience's patience - but does so with utter majesty. The formal level of accomplishment is undeniable, and Tarr's international rep might give the film an outside shot at being nominated, but I'm guessing the film will be too much of a head-scratcher to progress much further with Academy voters. - Peter Gutierrez

Best known for his darker fare, Denmark's Ole Christian Bornedal tries his hand at comedy with Superclasico. Of course, this being Bornedal, the comedy revolves around a man carting his son to Argentina to try and reclaim the love of his estranged wife before she divorces him to marry a young football star. A total crowd-pleaser with just enough depth and international star power to make an impression, this should make the final nomination list. - Todd Brown

LE HAVRE - Finland
Le Havre is a little pleasant gem of a movie and a feel-good experience. It's the kind of filmmaking that you rarely see any more, and for this reason the old school nature of a plot that actually tackles a serious subject matter does not come off as contrived or silly. A man named Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), whose occupation is shoe shining in the extremely quaint port town of Le Havre, comes across African refugee Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) after his wife is taken ill and confined to a hospital bed. Marcel takes pity on the boy and hides him from the law, in particular a caricature of a paranoid and stubborn detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). With the powerful and reputable Aki Kaurismaki in the director's chair for Le Havre, it would not be all that surprising if it did win the Oscar for best foreign feature, or at least be a serious contender and nominee. - Kwenton Bellette

BULLHEAD - Belgium
Three times over the last 11 years, the Dardenne Brothers have had a film selected as Belgium's entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. So it's particularly notable that this year's Belgian entrance is not the universally-praised Dardennes film The Kid with a Bike, but instead a rural crime drama set in the bovine hormone trade underworld by first-timer Michael R. Roskam. Bullhead really is worth all the praise. From its taut plot to the career-making performance by Matthias Schoenaerts, this movie deserves to be seen on North American shores. All that being said, it stands a pretty slim chance of nabbing a nom stacked up against the field's veteran competition. For Roskam, just being included on the list is already a win. - Ryland Aldrich
Reviews by James | Todd

This is Spanish auteur Agusti Villaronga's Goya-award-winning film about post-Spanish Civil War life in Catalonia. A young boy attempts to make sense of the post-war life in the part of Spain most hated by the Fascists, and his own impending adulthood, while investigating a killing that may have been committed by his father. A somewhat narratively predictable, but gorgeously shot and moving film, as befits Villaronga. It could very likely be nominated, given Villaronga's prestige and the subject matter. - Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg

Happy, Happy is a Norwegian dark comedy from the first time director Anne Sewitsky. Punctuated with saccharine Motown songs sung by all-Norwegian male vocal ensemble, it tells the story of Kaja (played by droll Agnes Kittelsen), a housewife with the always-sunny disposition in rural Norway. When a sophisticated couple with an adopted African boy moves in next door from the city, Kaja's life unravels. The film shares many of the same traits with American indie comedies -- class dynamics, hidden prejudices, sexual confusion, etc., in a family setting. Unfortunately, I don't see anything really special about this film other than Kittelsen's performance. - Dustin Chang

ALOIS NEBEL - Czech Republic
Adapted from the graphic novels of the same name by Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99, Alois Nebel is a Lynchian sort of affair, a dark land of suppressed urges and dark histories. Created using a rotoscope technique similar to the one used in Waking Life, the goal of director Tomáš Luňák here was to bring the images from page to screen as directly as possible and he totally succeeds. The film looks like comic panels come to striking life. - Todd Brown

Athina Rachel Tsangari and Giorgos Lanthimos are the team which brought you last year's nominee Dogtooth and they now return, albeit with the producer and director switched places, with Attenberg: a nice, gentle and at times pretty funny drama. Winning you over by way of sheer acting power (Ariane Labed would certainly be a worthwhile nominee for best actress) and a simple script with quirky yet believable characters, the film tells the story of a very withdrawn girl who learns to make contact with the outside world. While impressive, this one is probably not flashy enough for the Academy. - Ard Vijn

VOLCANO - Iceland
Depressing as all hell, but gorgeous and empathic, Volcano follows a retired man who has slacked on his domestic duties for 40 years and has to care for his wife when she suffers a paralytic stroke. A wonderful plot runs parallel of grandfather-grandson bonding over the repair of a leaky boat. Kind of like Gran Torino without the immigrant neighbors or the Christ-fixation, yet in a way this film could only come from Scandinavia. Director Runar Runarsson continues his minimalistic look at characters during certain milestones in their life. His short film The Last Farm was nominated for an Oscar in 2006 and one of his other shorts 2 Birds has gathered insane amounts of awards all over the world. With that and the fact that Volcano is already an awards darling, this film could have a decently good shot at actually nabbing a nomination. - Kurt Halfyard & Swarez

PINA - Germany
A documentary on the work of famed choreographer Pina Bausch, Wim Wenders's Pina employs the functions of 3D filmmaking to establish both space and depth in the art of dance. It is both a visually stunning and joyfully intelligent piece of work, which is not really surprising considering that Wenders is no stranger to films that seamlessly weave together eye-candy and intellect. The Academy is no stranger to Wenders, nominating his Buena Vista Social Club as one of the best documentaries in 1999. However, a documentary has never won the Best Foreign Language Film, so Pina's real chances for Oscar gold depends on both Wenders' reputation or the fact that Germany is one of the Academy's favorite countries to bestow their coveted prize. - Oggs Cruz

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's sixth feature and winner of the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a police procedural in which the mandated ponder life's mysteries while the inclined search for death's sepulcher. A beautiful, slow-moving picture with political and philosophically contemplative progression, highlighted by bits of wonderfully unexpected humor; Ceylan continues to build cinematic momentum furthering the delicate craft shown in Three Monkeys and Climates. - Aaron Krasnov

TILT - Bulgaria
A coming-of-age story set at the end of Bulgaria's communist period, the Chouchkov Brothers' Tilt is a stylish, brash bit of storytelling. Blending elements of youth rebellion films with a story of forbidden love and setting it all in an era where conformity was a requirement, Tilt proved a huge commercial and critical hit at home. The content is probably too familiar for the film to travel very far, but keep an eye on these guys. - Todd Brown


Director Jose Padilha's Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is the follow-up to his 2008 Berlin Film Festival-winner and international hit Elite Squad. When Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura) orders an attack on the high-security Bangu 1 Prison, he gets accused of the cold-blooded execution of prisoners by human rights advocate Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos). As events unfold, new enemies start to emerge from within - a powerful group of corrupt policemen. I think this is an extraordinary film that boasts an intriguing story, gripping narration, convincing performances and well-staged action. Sadly, I don't fancy the chances of it winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar, because it is just not the type of film that the Academy is particularly fond of (though I really wouldn't mind being proven wrong in this case). - Hugo Ozman
Trailer | Clip
Reviews by Hugo | Ryland | Ross

Silent House is a dull and minimal hand-held horror exercise told in first person. The plot consists of a girl named Laura (Florencia Colucci) and her father opting to renew a cottage that has recently been put on the market. The night they spend there quickly descends into madness as an unknown killer stalks Laura throughout the silent and pitch black house. But things are not what they seem and there is a tawdry twist in this tale. Other than a TV series, this is director Gustavo Hernandez's second effort. It has no chance of winning an Oscar with its done-to-death plot; the original true story it was based on took place in the 40s, a much creepier setting than the tried-and-true modern day. - Kwenton Bellette

MISS BALA - Mexico
Mexico's bitter pill, the harrowing tale of a young, aspiring beauty queen devoured by the drug trade. Skillfully directed by Gerardo Naranjo who utilizes lengthy takes and sparse edits to drop the viewer into the violent sleaze, hopelessly at the mercy of the corruption and violence. Miss Bala and its captivating lead Stephanie Sigman exude despair, followed by the decree that this is happening just across the border. - Aaron Krasnov

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huffy08October 31, 2011 10:16 PM

Foreign Language is always a really weird category because the people who decide the nominees usually choose pretty well but the actual members that vote always go for the most straightforward pick. The last couple of years have had some amazing nominations and every year the weakest of the bunch have taken the prize. I've heard a theory that mostly older (aka stodgy, old-fashion tastes) members vote on this category since a lot of the younger ones don't have time to catch all of the nominees. Sounds far-fetched but it would explain how any group of people could pick Departures over Revanche and Waltz with Bashir. I actually made some green betting on In a Better World guessing that despite being the favorite Biutiful would be too much for voters.
Anyways, I've only seen Bullhead and Elite Squad 2 but I would love for the former to get recognized. It would be nice for Tarr to get some credit since he's supposedly retiring but I doubt that will happen. I think that Kaurismaki has a decent shot of winning, which would be awesome.

Niels MatthijsNovember 1, 2011 12:50 AM

I was actually quite disappointed with Bullhead, especially considering the films that have been coming out of Flanders there past couple of years. Cannibal would've been a better pick, though I guess that's not really Oscar-material.

NicolaiNovember 1, 2011 9:08 AM

'... Denmark's Ole Christian Bornedal tries his hand at comedy with Superclasico.'

That isn't the Ole you're looking for... (Madsen)

Ard VijnNovember 1, 2011 9:55 AM

If Kaneto'd be better known with Academy members he would win for being 99 years old. Now THERE is an amazing filmmaker worth recognizing. "Kureneko" and "Onibaba" are awesome, and have been that for the past five decades!

Jon PaisNovember 1, 2011 2:46 PM

I was lucky enough to catch Asghar Farhadi's A Separation at the Jeonju film festival. It features outstanding performances, highly accomplished camerawork and an excellent script that keeps you guessing right up till the very end. As Peter says, this is a very thought-provoking film, and it succeeds so well in part because it refrains from passing judgement on any of the characters. It also happens to be one of the few Iranian films I've seen that I felt was thoroughly comprehensible to a Western viewer. It impressed me enough to check out a couple of the director's earlier films, and to conclude that Farhadi must be one of the most gifted directors working in Iran today. I had to settle for watching Wenders' marvelous Pina on DVD. Those expecting a biography of the artist or an explanation of modern dance will be sorely disappointed, but for the rest of us, this document of a brilliant choreographer is truly a feast for the senses.

Dustin ChangNovember 1, 2011 2:46 PM

As you and I know, Shindo's not going to win. It will be Kaurismaki's Le Havre: a safe, multi-culti crowd pleaser.

If anything, Shindo should've been nominated last year for Haru's Journey, which is infinitely better than any recent Japanese film I've seen.

CashBaileyNovember 3, 2011 7:13 AM

I thought the first hour of THE SILENT HOUSE was superb. But once the 'twist' kicks in it all falls apart pretty quickly.

Shelagh M. Rowan-LeggJanuary 18, 2012 1:43 PM

So Bullhead, Pina, Superclasico, and A Separation have made it through to the next round. Final list announced next week.