Western Europe Looks for Oscar Glory

With wins for Mexico, Chile and Iran in the past three years — and South Korea dominating conversation in the international film Oscar race this year — the Academy has been taking some time off from its usual Europhilia in the category. This year, however, a number of standout contenders look to ensure the Continent a significant presence in the short list at least.

France, Italy and Spain top the all-time record chart for most nominations in the category: from that trio of neighboring countries, Spain looks likeliest to score again. The Spanish selection committee has fallen in and out of love with the country’s most recognized auteur, Pedro Almodovar, over the years — notoriously failing to submit “Talk to Her” in 2002 — but once the glowing Cannes raves for his semi-autobiographical “Pain and Glory” started rolling in, it seemed clear they’d be unable to resist the sentimental reunion of Almodovar and Antonio Banderas. Academy voters might be similarly persuaded, particularly with Banderas also gathering lead actor buzz for a career-best performance as a pain-raddled filmmaker taking stock of his life and loves.

France, seeking its first Oscar win since 1992’s “Indochine,” attracted Twitter ire from fans of Celine Sciamma’s lesbian romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” when it opted to enter Ladj Ly’s debut “Les Miserables” instead, but the choice was a potentially canny one. Picked up for the U.S. by Amazon Studios, this urgent, simmering Cannes Jury Prize winner — not an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, though referencing its social rage — is France’s first submission from a black filmmaker. A study of inequality and discontent in Paris’ underprivileged housing projects, its topical portrayal of police violence and its consequences should resonate with American viewers. Italy, the country with the most wins in the category’s history, likewise surprised many with its selection: instead of swoon-worthy Venice phenomenon “Martin Eden,” it submitted veteran auteur Marco Bellocchio’s stolid mafioso biopic “The Traitor.” Reviews at Cannes were mostly lukewarm. Instead, look to another of the Academy’s most frequently favored countries to score: Sweden’s “And Then We Danced,” from Swedish-Georgian filmmaker Levan Akin, has been lighting up the festival circuit since Cannes with its tender romance between two male ballet dancers in Tbilisi. An unusual Swedish entry in that it’s set entirely outside the country, it’s been embraced by critics and audiences alike.

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Other European entries to watch out for include the Netherlands’ “Instinct,” an incendiary sexual psychodrama from actress-turned-director Halina Reijn, with a powerhouse Carice van Houten performance, that won the Variety Award in Locarno. Germany’s Berlinale prize winner “System Crasher” is a fierce, energetic study of a problem child in the welfare system, while Denmark’s entry, May el-Toukhy’s Sundance audience award winner “Queen of Hearts,” has been a festival talking point for its provocative portrayal of a middle-age woman’s affair with her teenage stepson. Icelandic entry “A White, White Day,” a Cannes-premiered tale of infidelity and revenge, is another cool-blooded conversation piece, while Norway’s lushly lensed “Out Stealing Horses,” a time-hopping, Stellan Skarsgard-starring memory piece, is a masculinity-in-crisis drama with a warmer touch.

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