The Academy has made its first cull of the foreign-language category — from 80 down to nine — and though critical favorites “The Assassin” and “The Second Mother” didn’t make the cut, the shortlisted group displays remarkable range. Especially noteworthy is that three of the films are told in languages other than the primary language of the country that submitted: “The Fencer,” “Mustang” and “Viva.” Five nominees will be announced on Jan. 14 for the Academy Awards, which take place Feb. 28 at the Dolby Theatre.
“The Brand New Testament”
One of Europe’s most inventive directors (his “Toto the Hero” was a template for “Amelie”), Jaco van Dormael is back in form with this playful riff on religion, which imagines God as a Homer Simpson-like schlub thrown into crisis after his daughter hacks his computer and spills his secrets.
“Embrace of The Serpent”
Arguably the most foreign of the selections, Ciro Guerra’s hypnotizing B&W art film plunges auds into the heart of the Amazon, preserving the jungle’s mystery and exoticism as outsiders go on a holy grail-like search for a mythic plant. It’s a visionary experience, albeit one voters could find challenging.
With much the same rigor he brought to “A Hijacking,” director Tobias Lindholm divides his latest current-events study between intense Afghan battlefields and a war-crime trial back home. With echoes of “The Hurt Locker,” this serious-minded drama stands a shot for its relatively austere take on the toll of combat.
From “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” to “Dead Poets Society,” the Acad has a soft spot for inspirational teacher movies. Those made abroad add cultural context to the formula — in this case, an Estonian resistance fighter’s Soviet-evading reinvention as a gym instructor marks Klaus Haro’s fourth entry
to the Oscars.
Deniz Gamze Erguven’s rousing coming-of-ager offers a partly veiled critique of Turkey, as when five sisters have their possessions confiscated: computers, telephones, a T-shirt featuring a Gezi Park slogan, even Delacroix’s Lady Liberty painting — all things controlled or censored in the country today.
“Labyrinth of Lies”
One of two short-listed pics looking at the horrors of Auschwitz, Giulio Ricciarelli’s compelling procedural approaches the subject with the cushion of time, focusing on the small but dedicated group of German lawyers who held Nazi officers accountable in court. It could also make a strong double-bill with “Spotlight.”
Only the second film to be submitted for Oscar consideration by the kingdom of Jordan, Naji Abu Nowar’s desert-set adventure tale features white outsiders, a la “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Man Who Would Be King,” but offers a indigenous perspective, viewed through the eyes of a Bedouin youth.
Without question one of the year’s breakthrough cinematic discoveries, Laszlo Nemes made his debut in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, earning the jury’s Grand Prix for a film with the courage to confront the Holocaust head-on — literally, revealing the human effect of Auschwitz on a conflicted prisoner’s face.
Like last year’s winner, “Ida,” Paddy Breathnach’s project debuted at the Telluride film festival, a proven Oscar launching pad. In all other respects, this Cuba-set, music-driven entry couldn’t be more different, as “Viva” charts the emergence of a drag diva as he struggles to reconcile with his macho