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Oscar Foreign-Language Entries Break Barriers

This year’s record long list for the Academy’s foreign-language film race is good news for an award that, however much the Academy attempts to tinker with it, can only be an imperfectly selective sampling of what world cinema has to offer. But the larger the playing field is to begin with, the more opportunities voters have to throw us a curveball — even reducing 92 movies to just five nominees is a cruel game. Whether or not the final choices reflect it, this may be the most pleasingly diverse selection the Academy has ever had to work with in this category.

Femme Might
Eight years after Kathryn Bigelow’s historic win for “The Hurt Locker,” Hollywood’s systemic sexism is still sorely felt at Oscar time. But the outlook is far brighter in the foreign-language race, where 26 of this year’s 92 submissions have female directors, ranging from established critical darlings like Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel (“Zama”) to up-and-coming talents like Haitian-American Guetty Felin (behind Haiti’s first-ever entry “Ayiti Mon Amour”), from Hollywood-dabbling crossover veterans like Poland’s Agnieszka Holland (“Spoor”) to bona fide Hollywood royalty in Angelina Jolie, whose “First They Killed My Father” got the nod from Cambodia.

Granted, it’s far from equal representation, but if 28% of the current best picture field was female-helmed, we’d be calling it an industry revolution. Competition may be stiff, but if no women make it onto the December shortlist, eyebrows will be raised. Look for challenging formalist Martel and Hungary’s Ildiko Enyedi, director of the beguiling, Berlinale Golden Bear-winning dream romance “On Body and Soul,” to potentially benefit from the grace of the executive committee — the smaller, discerning body that rounds out the choices of the larger voting branch.

Banner LGBT Year
With “Moonlight” our reigning best picture winner and Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” with Armie Hammer looking to make a run at succeeding it, the Academy’s spotty record of recognizing gay-themed cinema may be improving. That could further be demonstrated in this year’s foreign-language race, where a number of LGBT-oriented titles are vying for attention. In a field shorter than usual on slam-dunk contenders, France’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” could be the prohibitive favorite: a rich, sensual, impassioned study of early AIDS activism and gay awakening in Paris, it took the Grand Prix at Cannes and has been winning hearts on the festival circuit. A dark horse to watch, meanwhile, is South Africa’s “The Wound,” which impressed many at Sundance with its troubling tale of emerging gay sexuality and tribal adolescent initiation. Finland, meanwhile, has decided to test the Academy’s kinkier side by entering “Tom of Finland,” a slick biopic of the legendary eponymous erotic artist.

“This may be the most pleasingly diverse selection the Academy has ever had to work with.”

And while the stress is too often on the “G” in LGBT cinema when it comes to awards attention, Chile has a notable contender in “A Fantastic Woman,” Sebastian Lelio’s vibrant study of a transgender woman facing the emotional aftermath of her lover’s death. Sony Classics, ever a dominant force in this category, has high hopes for the film, while there’s outside talk of a history-making lead actress campaign for revelatory trans star Daniela Vega. A longer shot, meanwhile, is Taiwan’s “Small Talk,” filmmaker Huang Hui-chen’s documentary about her own fraught relationship with her lesbian priestess mother.

All in all, we could be looking at the biggest victory for queer cinema in this race since Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” in 1999.

Fresh Voices
One of the reasons for the Academy’s contentious one-film-per-country system is to avoid certain major filmmaking nations dominating the race. But that doesn’t protect the category from an overwhelming Eurocentric bias. In the 61 years this has been a competitive category, a non-European country has taken the award on only 10 occasions. So it’s heartening to see several smaller, previously unrepresented national cinemas, all from developing countries, joining the mix for the first time this year.

Syria, for example, has drawn headlines by entering the documentary “Little Gandhi,” about slain peace activist Ghiyath Matar; with such international visions on the country as “Last Men in Aleppo” and “City of Ghosts” looking to feature in the documentary race, it’s a timely entry in many ways. Haiti, as discussed above, has joined the fold, as has Honduras, with historical biopic “Morazan,” and Laos, with Mattie Do’s festival-traveled horror film “Dearest Sister.”

Finally, we look to Africa, a continent eternally under-represented in this category — Nigeria, for example, may have a bustling film industry, but has never entered a film.

Now it’s making one of its strongest showings in years. Kenya rejoins the race after a five-year absence, and two first-timers — Mozambique (last year’s Locarno-premiered “The Train of Salt and Sugar”) and Senegal (“Felicite,” a vibrant, music-propelled character study that took the Grand Prix in Berlin). The latter may be one to watch with the executive committee, as well as South Africa’s “The Wound.”

Which way the race will go is anyone’s guess at this point, but the Academy has never had less of an excuse to fall back on the familiar.

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