Oscars: This Year’s Foreign-Language Shortlist Wins Over the Cinephile Crowd

With critical darlings like 'Burning,' 'Roma' and 'Shoplifters' in the mix, this year's shortlist is unusually controversy-free.

Burning Korean Film
Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

A collective sigh by critics greeted Monday’s announcement of the nine films shortlisted for this year’s foreign-language film Oscar. For once, though, it was a sigh of relief rather than exasperation, with few complaints arising over the chosen titles, which were broadly acclaimed.

Controversy over prominent omissions is practically an annual tradition. Last year, critics castigated the Academy for leaving out France’s celebrated AIDS drama “120 Beats Per Minute,” while the year before that, they lambasted the snubbing of Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” (which went on to nab a nomination for Isabelle Huppert). From “Gomorrah” to “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” to “Two Days, One Night,” the roll call of recent critics’ darlings to fall at this first hurdle is a distinguished one.

The Academy addressed the outcry that followed the sidelining of 2007 Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” by appointing a more discerning executive committee to “save” overlooked films and add them to the shortlist after the branch’s initial vote. While that has led to some riskier picks – we surely have the committee to thank for making Yorgos Lanthimos’ savage “Dogtooth” an Oscar nominee – pleasing everybody remains a near-impossible task when almost 90% of the submissions must be eliminated to reach a nine-film list. (Why nine, as opposed to 10 or 15 or any other number? Who knows?)

Yet with this year’s shortlist, the Academy has arguably come closer than ever before to reaching that elusive goal. The year’s buzziest festival favorites are mostly accounted for, with Cannes hogging the attention: Six of the nine, including Japan’s Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters,” premiered on the Croisette. (So much for the idea, widely advanced by journalists in the spring, that the French fest was having an off year.)

Of course, the toast of Venice, Alfonso Cuarón’s Golden Lion winner “Roma,” is there, too, and as long as it continues to be viewed as a heavyweight best picture contender, it remains handily the one to beat in this race. Sundance gets a look in as well with Denmark’s nail-biting one-location thriller “The Guilty,” which established itself as a crowd-pleaser in Park City and won the first of multiple audience awards on the festival circuit. With a Jake Gyllenhaal-led U.S. remake already under way, it’s only appropriate for the Academy to give the original its due.

It’s pleasing, if not terribly surprising, to see the branch stumping for the tender, socially conscious empathy of “Shoplifters,” the sleek, easily translatable tension of “The Guilty” and the intimate but epic formal sweep of “Roma,” which is shaping up to be the year’s most lauded film in any language. Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeous mid-century romantic tragedy “Cold War,” the second black-and-white contender on the shortlist, was treated as a dead cert for the list until a surprise Golden Globe snub earlier this month; but the HFPA’s oversight perhaps prompted voters not to take the film for granted.

These were easy calls, as was the emotional spin cycle of Lebanon’s “Capernaum,” which was declared a likely Oscar front-runner minutes after its Cannes premiere. Following a resourceful, impoverished child through the rough slums of Beirut, Nadine Labaki’s survival melodrama is more critically divisive than most of its competitors: Some find it overwrought, others a sob-inducing knockout. But there was always enough passion behind the film to ensure it a spot.

If these inclusions were a given, not everyone was sure the Academy would see what scores of critics do in Lee Chang-dong’s eerie, exquisite “Burning,” which could land South Korea its first-ever nomination. This languid, elliptical Murakami adaptation probes dark human desires and insecurities in ways that propelled it to the top of festival critics’ polls, though some reviewers were left cold. That Cate Blanchett’s Cannes jury shut the film out of its awards – while handing honors to “Shoplifters,” “Capernaum,” “Cold War” and “Ayka,” all on the Oscar shortlist – seemed a potential preview of its fate with industry award bodies, yet here it is. If “Burning” is, as most suspect, one of the executive committee’s saves, they’ve put their power to exemplary use.

Yet the committee’s job isn’t merely to act as a safety net for big-name favorites, but to give a leg up to outstanding lower-profile works that might fall outside the general branch’s comfort zone. That likely explains the presence of Kazakhstan’s “Ayka,” the one major surprise on the shortlist, and a welcome one: the hardscrabble docu-style realism of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Moscow-set character study, a far more rough-and-ready enterprise than “Roma,” adds further stylistic range and texture to the selection.

The same, albeit to very different effect, goes for Colombia’s “Birds of Passage,” a headily stylized fusion of mainstream gangster film tropes and striking indigenous symbology from directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. The pair’s previous collaboration, the equally beguiling and culturally distinct “Embrace of the Serpent,” landed a surprise nomination in 2015; if, as seems likely, they were executive committee picks both times, they exemplify the fresher, bolder aesthetics to which this once-fusty category has opened itself.

Gallego and Labaki are the only female directors on the shortlist, an improvable stat that isn’t proportionate to the number of women among the submissions. That disappointment is countered somewhat by the pleasing geographical diversity of the selection, which is notably less Eurocentric than usual: Three films from East and Central Asia, two from Latin America and one from the Middle East make for a rangy list, though Africa, as usual, gets short shrift.

There were hopes that the United Kingdom’s entry, Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s surreal African satire “I Am Not a Witch,” would boost the global flavor of the list, though it’s one of only a few films conspicuous by its absence. Many were expecting Belgium’s much-garlanded transgender coming-of-age drama “Girl” to place on the shortlist, though with controversy mounting over the film’s cis-gender casting and directorial perspective, the Academy may well have dodged a bullet.

Sweden’s dark contemporary fairy tale “Border,” Iceland’s rousing feminist dramedy “Woman at War” (also lined up for remake treatment, with Jodie Foster) and Israeli audience favorite “The Cakemaker” all had champions and could easily have showed up in place of, say, Germany’s “Never Look Away.” A respectably received, old-school melodrama from former Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, that film has less critical fervor behind it than some of its competitors, but always seemed likely to please more conservative voters.

Consider this shortlist a snapshot of an Academy branch in transition, then – with a newer, more adventurous contingent of cinephiles clearly taking hold.