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Old Masters and New Talents Compete in a Stacked Foreign-Language Oscar Race

Germany's "Toni Erdmann" looks like the one to beat, but 84 other titles promise to make this year's contest an interesting one.

Pedro Almodovar Filming Julieta
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

There was a time, not that long ago, when the foreign language category was one of the most consistent embarrassments of the Academy Awards — an award that, despite its vast international remit, frequently went to films with little critical or popular consensus behind them. Remember “Departures?” “Character?” “Mediterraneo?” “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears?” No? Exactly. It’s the nature of the Oscars that certain winners fade away with time; in this case, however, many of the winning films, whatever their individual charms, had pretty faint profiles to begin with.

In the last five years, however, something strange has happened to this beleaguered award: Once the envelope has been opened on Oscar night, precious few have complained about the name inside. “A Separation,” “Amour,” “The Great Beauty,” “Ida,” “Son of Saul” — you may have had other favorites, but there’s little arguing with these as major successes of recent world cinema, all boasting independent acclaim, awardage and festival cachet that comfortably preceded the Academy’s approval.

The process behind the final selection may still be riddled with flaws: Why trust national committees, some of them politically motivated, to enter films in the first place? In this age of globalization, why must the category treat cinema on such nationalistic terms anyway? Can nothing be done to save outstanding films that fall foul of the submission process? Yet with this recent run of satisfactory outcomes, the category is inching toward credibility. Thanks to the Academy’s attentive tweaking of the voting system, notably the inception of a more discerning executive committee, fewer great films are slipping through the cracks. And when even a film as daringly off-the-wall as Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” can snag a nomination, nothing feels out of bounds.

All of which makes the upcoming foreign-language race especially hard to narrow down. 85 films are angling for attention on the official submissions list released by the Academy, and it’s positively stacked with international festival sensations and critical darlings. Most competing countries chose the “right” film, at least according to cinephile consensus; where they didn’t, as with Brazil’s disastrous political bungle that saw such remarkable films as “Aquarius” and “Neon Bull” exit the fray, vocal outrage ensued.

As it is, the longlist is heavy on auteur names that should already be familiar to the Academy, some of them former Oscar honorees themselves: Pedro Almodovar (“Julieta”), Asghar Farhadi (“The Salesman”), Danis Tanovic (“Death in Sarajevo”) and the recently departed Andrzej Wajda (“Afterimage”). Veterans Paul Verhoeven (“Elle”) and Andrei Konchalovsky (“Paradise”), both of whom have crossed over to Hollywood in the past, are in the running with European productions; Chilean genius Pablo Larrain, who just made a dazzling (and Oscar-buzzed) English-lingo debut with “Jackie,” is running a parallel race in his native language with “Neruda.” The field has its share of hot new talents as well, from British-Iranian first-timer Babak Anvari (“Under the Shadow”) to Venezuela’s Lorenzo Vigas, winner of last year’s Venice Golden Lion for “From Afar.” As the voters whittle down the submissions to a shortlist of nine, and finally a field of five, we’ll see how reliant they are on familiar directorial brands, and how open they are to the shock of the new.

However the other slots shake out, it’d be a galling upset if Germany’s entry, Maren Ade’s bittersweet father-daughter comedy “Toni Erdmann,” isn’t there to the very end. George Miller’s jury may have controversially snubbed it (and yes, the oft-abused term “snub” feels apt here) at Cannes, but Ade’s film was the uncontested breakout hit of the festival, earning a near-unanimous spate of rave reviews and landing a distribution deal with Sony Classics — the company, it should be noted, that has steered seven of the last 10 winners in this category. The near three-hour length and absurdist digressions of “Erdmann” won’t be to every voter’s taste, but its rich emotional payoff can’t be denied. Expect Ade to start racking up critics’ awards in December, to go with the FIPRESCI Film of the Year gong she collected last month — an auspicious honor that has recently gone to such Academy-approved titles as “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Boyhood” and “Amour.” Right now, the odds favor Ade becoming the fourth woman in history to lift this statuette.

The voting faction that deems “Erdmann” too outré, however, could make a formidable contender out of another Sony Classics acquisition, Denmark’s “Land of Mine” — a taut, classical post-WWII drama that made waves at last year’s Toronto fest and has been laying low ever since. It’s no secret that this particular chapter of history is perennially close to voters’ hearts in this category, as reigning champ “Son of Saul” can attest, and Martin Zandvliet’s tale of young German POWs left to dig up landmines in the war’s immediate aftermath has the blend of muscularity and poignancy to go far in this race.

Expectations are also high for Sony’s remaining two entries in the race, both of them sleek Cannes competition players. Despite its name appeal, I have concerns over how wholeheartedly the Academy will embrace the thorny gender politics and raven-black humor of France’s entry “Elle,” a breathtaking twist on the rape-revenge genre that could place Dutch native Verhoeven back in this category for the first time since 1973’s “Turkish Delight.” (However it fares, its presence in the race lends a boost to Sony’s best actress campaign for the extraordinary, never-nominated Isabelle Huppert.) As for Almodovar’s warm, wistful Alice Munro adaptation “Julieta,” it’s anyone’s guess. The film is certainly tender and artful enough to impress voters, but they surprisingly bypassed the master the last time he was in contention, with 2006’s “Volver.”

If they loved you before, in other words, there’s no guarantee they’ll love you again. After winning for “A Separation,” Iran’s Asghar Farhadi failed even to make the January shortlist for his French-language follow-up “The Past”; the Cannes-garlanded “The Salesman,” with its tight, Arthur Miller-referencing suspense plotting, may or may not revive his fortunes. It’s a less innovative entry from the region than the aforementioned “Under the Shadow,” Babak Anvari’s brilliant, politically loaded horror film set in the final throes of the Iran-Iraq War; the surprise, however, is that the film was submitted by co-producers the United Kingdom. (Not everyone in Brexit-era Britain, thankfully, is afflicted with parochial island mentality.) It’s a very dark horse that’ll be reliant on the grace of the executive committee, though even they’ve been shy of outright genre fare in the past.

In any event, the likeliest entry from the Middle East might just be Palestine’s festival audience favorite “The Idol,” a fact-based story of a young singer’s journey from a Gaza refugee camp to the stage of “Arab Idol”; director Hany Abu-Assad scored in this category with both “Paradise Now” and “Omar.” It has some competition in the crowdpleaser from “Barakah Meets Barakah,” pitched as the first Saudi romantic comedy, Mahmoud Sabbagh’s debut was enthusiastically received at Toronto.

The topicality of the international migrant crisis makes Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary “Fire at Sea” a savvy choice of submission for Italy, as well as a highly deserving one. Rosi’s observational, hands-off approach yields emotionally wrenching rewards as his camera considers both the residents and new arrivals at the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which has become a point of passage for thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees seeking a better life. Meryl Streep’s jury at Berlin was suitably wowed, handing it the Golden Bear. Though only two docs have previously scored nominations in this category, I have a hunch the executive committee will push for this to be the third.

I’d also keep an eye on South Korea’s “The Age of Shadows,” an elegantly old-school, lavishly mounted period spy thriller from genre expert Kim Jee-woon that played like gangbusters at Venice and should satisfy the “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” contingent. And I’ve had an inkling for some time about Finland’s more modestly retro “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki,” a lovely 1960s-set boxing biopic that was a popular winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes. It could well beguile voters with its aching underdog narrative and gorgeous monochrome craft.

A nomination for Chile’s “Neruda” — no sure thing given its challenging, acrobatic liberties with biopic convention, though it’d be welcome — could put Larrain in an unusual position if he also scores a directing bid for “Jackie.” (Only Sweden’s Jan Troell previously pulled off the double for separate films, in the 1972 race.) In Gael Garcia Bernal, “Neruda” shares a star with Mexico’s entry “Desierto,” another film Oscar trivia buffs will be rooting for — since Jonas Cuaron, son of recent Oscar winner Alfonso, directed this politically charged chase thriller about Mexican immigrants hunted by an American sniper. (“[It] probably isn’t going to make Donald Trump’s top-10 list,” Justin Chang wrote last year.)

There’s hardly space to list the other contenders of note: Greece’s “Chevalier,” a wicked comedy about male insecurities made from the wry female perspective of director Athina Rachel Tsangari; Georgia’s “House of Others,” a critically beloved, dream-like story of families ravaged by civil war; lyrical Icelandic coming-of-age tale “Sparrows,” which won top honors at San Sebastian last year; Russia’s “Paradise,” a robust, Konchalovsky-directed Holocaust drama that could tick a lot of boxes for certain voters; Cristi Puiu’s sprawling, tangled family-reunion drama “Sieranevada,” which could land a severely belated first nomination for the Romanian New Wave movement; Switzerland’s animated entry “My Life as a Zucchini,” a winsome stop-motion study of childhood abandonment and companionship; or even Canada’s “It’s Only the End of the World,” the fractious, hugely contentious new effort from enfant terrible Xavier Dolan. Critics largely sneered at Cannes; George Miller’s jury, on the other hand, gave it the Grand Prix.

Who the Academy will side with is just one of many question marks in this year’s eclectic contest.