On Oscar night the winner of the award for Best Foreign Language film probably won’t get much publicity – it seldom does.
Yet compared to only a few years ago the category is no longer a byword among Oscar voters for baffling obscurity.
And this year one of the films shortlisted is already lined up for a Hollywood remake.
Here’s a look at this year’s nominees:
LAND OF MINE
Language: German with some Danish and English
Denmark’s track record in this category: 11 nominations including 3 wins
Director: Martin Zandvleet
Story: Immediately after World War Two on Denmark’s west coast, a group of teenage German soldiers are to clear some of the two million landmines which Germany deployed on beaches and along the shoreline to deter an Allied invasion. They are supervised by the Danish Sergeant Rasmussen who at first seems filled with violence.
Will it win? Voted Best Danish Film at last year’s Danish film awards. It’s well acted both by Roland Moller as the sergeant and by the young actors who play the Germans. When early on Rasmussen delivers a savage beating for no clear reason, we guess that the story will see him humanised by his contact with the soldiers he appears to despise. A couple of incidents late in the film seem there only for dramatic convenience and don’t convince. The scenes of defusing mines are impressively tense and hard to watch.
A MAN CALLED OVE
Sweden’s Track Record: 14 nominations including three wins (all for Ingmar Bergman)
Director: Hannes Holm
Story: Ove is a cranky old widower living alone. He expends a lot of energy trying to police the behaviour of his neighbours, who treat him warily. Ove’s not pleased when the house opposite is taken by a new family: he finds it hard to accept the warm-hearted Parvaneh (who’s Iranian) and her Swedish husband. Yet a relationship builds and in flashback we encounter the younger Ove, a man more open to life’s possibilities who marries the beautiful Sonja.
Will it win? The film is attractively shot and Rolf Lassgard makes Ove sympathetic as an old man without totally sentimentalising him. Some of the humour is a bit clunky and the process of discovering Ove’s latent nice guy within runs along predictable lines. But in the extensive flashbacks Filip Berg and Ida Engvoll make an attractive and likeable young couple which gives the film an unexpected sweetness.
Iran’s track record: 2 nominations including a win for the same director in 2011
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Story: Emad and Rana are middle-class inhabitants of Tehran: he teaches but their joint passion is acting. After a tip-off from a fellow actor they find a new apartment. It seems a good move until they discover more about the previous occupant who left one room locked. As they work on a production of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, the couple’s relationship becomes more tense. There is a violent incident and Emad becomes obsessed with revenge.
Will it win? It may be that no film can overtake the German nominee this year. But Farhadi has written a superbly tense and unsettling screenplay whose mastery of dread Alfred Hitchcock would have relished. The couple are superbly played by Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini. Previous winner Farhadi has indicated he will refuse to attend the Oscar ceremony in protest at President Trump trying to restrict Iranians entering the USA: could this create a sympathy vote for him? The most memorable of this year’s films.
Language: Nivhaal (The film was shot on location on Vanuatu.)
Australia’s Track Record: First nomination in this category
Directors: Martin Butler and Bentley Dean
Story: On a Pacific island, Dain and Wawa live in a primitive village where life is virtually untouched by the modern world. The spirited young Selin watches as her sister Wawa is betrothed to a man outside the village – but Wawa wants to be with Dain. The lovers run away. Selin follows as the villagers set off to find her sister – and tragedy looms.
Will it win? The least mainstream of this year’s nominees is exactly the kind of film the Academy hoped would benefit from reforming the voting system. It’s a well-shot and mainly well-acted story filmed on a South Pacific island far from the usual movie-world support systems. The story, with its echo of Romeo and Juliet, is engrossing and in its early stages charming. Locations are attractive without resembling an ad for upmarket beach holidays. It won’t take the Oscar but it’s worth catching.
Language: German, English and Romanian
Germany’s track Record: 18 nominations (including one for East Germany) and a total of 3 wins
Director: Maren Ade
Story: Winfried (who adopts the name Toni) has a distant relationship with his daughter Ines, a business consultant working in Bucharest. He decides to leave Germany to pay her a visit, not wholly to her pleasure. Ines is climbing in her career and finds some of her eccentric father’s activities a pain. But she tries to tolerate him and passes him off to colleagues as her life coach. A late scene suggests they have re-established some kind of family intimacy, but the question is left open.
Will it win? The film got a lot of attention at last year’s Cannes Festival – often along the lines of ‘Amazing – a German comedy!’. The fact that large sections are in English won’t harm its chances and it’s built up a head of steam which may well grab it the Oscar. The simple description comedy underplays the story’s ambiguities and some audiences will be surprised that certain scenes are far from comic. The film’s half an hour too long. A Hollywood remake has been announced, to star Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig. Could that incline Academy voters to back the original?
The Academy Awards are held on 26 February.