One of the highlights of last year’s Oscars was the Iranian film The Salesman’s win in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Director Asghar Farhadi (who had previously won the Foreign Language Oscar in 2012, for A Separation) issued a statement a month before the ceremony declining his invitation to the Oscars in protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order that sought to ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, from entering the United States. This resonance shone a new spotlight on the Foreign Language category (an award that, plenty of American Oscars viewers would probably admit, they use as an annual bathroom break), as did Farhadi’s eloquent acceptance speech, which was read by his countrywoman Anousheh Ansari. “Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions,” she read. “They create empathy between us and others, an empathy which we need today more than ever.”
The Best Foreign Language Oscar is almost always more interesting (and fraught with geopolitical drama) than most viewers give it credit for. And, if you’ve seen enough of the films, it can be one of the most fun and unpredictable races to follow. (It’s also unique in that the award technically goes not to the director or producer but to the country from which it’s nominated.) This year’s crop of nominees includes two films from countries that have never won before, two from countries whose governments have openly criticized the filmmakers, and, perhaps most crucially for your Oscar preparations, two that you can stream right now. Here’s what you need to know.
The Insult (director Ziad Doueiri)
Nominated Country: Lebanon
Number of Foreign Language Oscars Won by Country: zero (This is Lebanon’s first nomination.)
What’s the story?
A Palestinian Muslim refugee named Yasser and right-wing Christian mechanic Tony get into a neighborly argument: Tony smashes in a drainpipe that Yasser has installed against his wishes, and Yasser, in turn, calls Tony “a fucking prick.” These slights, though, take on profound social significance when the argument becomes violent and the two find themselves facing off in a courtroom—soon, they become opposing avatars for a country still divided and embittered by the memory of a bloody civil war. The Insult is human-scaled, gripping, and well-acted, but Doueiri’s script (which he cowrote with his ex-wife) is occasionally plagued by unnecessary melodrama and didacticism.
Is the country’s government in any way angry about this film? Let’s say they’re … not thrilled with Doueiri in general. In September, after returning from the Venice Film Festival (where Kamel El Basha had won the Best Actor Volpi Cup for his performance in The Insult), Doueiri was detained and ultimately arrested. The charge was ostensibly for shooting his 2012 film The Attack in Israel, a country Lebanese citizens are not legally allowed to visit. Last month, however, Doueiri (who began his film career in the U.S., working as a camera assistant on Reservoir Dogs) told Deadline that he believed the true reason for his arrest was that Lebanon’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement was unhappy about The Insult’s provocative content. A judge quickly threw out the charges, and The Insult had a strong theatrical run in Lebanon. But a victory for the film would certainly be a controversial first Oscar win for its country.
Can I stream it anywhere? No, but it’s playing in select cities.
What are its chances of winning? It’s a long shot. Even though the “humanist drama about fraught religious differences” is just the sort of movie the Academy loves to honor, Doueiri has some stiff competition. The director also works in a very similar vein as last year’s winner Asghar Farhadi (himself an expert of personal quibbles blown up to operatic extremes), but The Insult isn’t nearly as strong as The Salesman or Farhadi’s previous winner, A Separation.
The Square (dir. Ruben Östlund)
Nominated Country: Sweden
Number of Foreign Language Oscars Won by Country: three
What’s the story?
Ruben Östlund’s squirmy, bleakly comic art-world satire The Square has had a mixed fate on the international circuit. In an upset, it snagged the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, but—perhaps partially as a reaction to its Cannes hype—its release in the U.S. this fall received a frosty reception from critics. Glenn Kenny, writing for RogerEbert.com, gave it just 1.5 out of four stars, while The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called it “complacent, craven, and clueless.” Ouch. I like The Square quite a bit more than most critics did, though, and although the overall narrative structure is a little meandering, it’s anchored by some unforgettable set pieces that match the blunt force of Östlund’s excellent previous film, Force Majeure. Watch The Square once and you’ll never look at chimpanzees, or museum patron dinners, or, uh, used condoms, the same way again.
Is the country’s government in any way angry about this film? I mean, it’s Sweden. They’re not stressed about it. (The Swedish Film Institute funded much of Östlund’s budget, with the Danish Film Institute chipping in a bit, too.)
What are its chances? Our own K. Austin Collins, in his review, called The Square a “meh satire” but predicted it would probably win an Oscar. I’m not so sure it’s in the bag! The Palme d’Or is certainly a strong credential, as is Elisabeth Moss’s madcap supporting role—never underestimate the power of a familiar face for Oscar voters—but The Square’s critical momentum has stalled since its winning festival run. I wouldn’t be mad if it won, but some critics would, and I say let’s just spare ourselves the indignant think pieces.
Loveless (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Nominated Country: Russia
Number of Foreign Language Oscars Won by Country: four, technically. (One for Russia; three for the Soviet Union.)
What’s the story?
The title doesn’t lie. Loveless is a relentlessly dispiriting tale of divorce, negligent parenting, and general darkness of the soul. Moscow residents Zhenya and Boris are in the middle of a spiteful separation when their 12-year-old son goes missing; both of them have been too self-involved to realize he hasn’t been to school for days. The Russian police force doesn’t put much effort into its search, leading the estranged parents to seek the help of a volunteer vigilante group that takes missing persons cases into their own hands. Suffice to say this is harrowing material, but Zvyagintsev is skilled enough to craft something extraordinary. I saw Loveless months ago, and I still haven’t been able to shake it.
Is the country’s government in any way angry about this film? Funny you should ask! The Russian government was quite unhappy with Zvyagintsev’s previous movie, the brutal allegorical epic Leviathan (which was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, and won that year’s Foreign Language Golden Globe). Much like Loveless, Leviathan depicted the contemporary Russian state as being bleakly at odds with the welfare of its people; it was critically adored in the West but generated great controversy at home. “Strange, but among the movie’s characters there is not a single positive one,” Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, said of Leviathan, accusing Zvyagintsev of portraying a Western-approved vision of Putin’s Russia because he did not like his countrymen so much as he liked “fame, red carpets, and statuettes.”
Can I stream it anywhere? No, but it was released in select cities on Friday.
What are its chances? I think Loveless is far and away the strongest nominee in the bunch—it’s the movie that should win, especially if it’s considered a kind of cumulative Oscar for this and Leviathan. Given the international political climate, this would be an odd year for a Russian film to win this category, but a Russian film that depicts the Russian state in a corrupted, unsparing light that the Russian government itself kind of hates? That might stand a chance.
On Body and Soul (dir. Ildikó Enyedi)
Nominated Country: Hungary
Number of Foreign Language Oscars Won by Country: two
Veteran Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s first feature film in 18 years is a kind of fairy tale that takes place in a Budapest slaughterhouse. Two disconnected workers—a lonely older man and a young, blonde woman who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum—find out that they are able to interact with each other in their dreams, in which they both appear as deer. The two try to spark up a friendship, or perhaps even a romance, but they find it’s easier to talk to each other in dreams than in reality.
Look, I’ll be blunt: I don’t like this movie. The tone is an artless clash, with Enyedi ham-handedly contrasting the twee vibe of the characters’ dreamworld with the brutal (and I mean PETA-recruiting-level brutal) goings on at the hamburger factory. Something also happens in the penultimate sequence of this movie that infuriated me, although I guess I will refrain from telling you what it is, in case you want to check out Slaughterhouse: Science of Sleep for yourself.
Is the country’s government in any way angry about this film? There doesn’t seem to be any hard feelings, especially given the international brass it’s been winning (the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival, the European Film Award for Best Actress).
Can I stream it anywhere? On Body and Soul is currently streaming on Netflix.
What are its chances? Blessedly, this one isn’t a top contender, though it’s a shame its nomination didn’t go to a better film, like France’s surprisingly snubbed AIDS activism drama BPM (Beats Per Minute).
A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Lelio)
Nominated Country: Chile
Number of Foreign Language Oscars Won by Country: zero
What’s the story?
The titular mujer is Marina, a trans woman who moonlights as a nightclub singer but pays the bills waiting tables. At the beginning of Lelio’s sad, sweet film, Marina’s lover Orlando dies suddenly, and his cruel ex-wife and son deny her the dignity of grieving as a part of the family. Orlando’s kin are depicted as such bigoted monsters that A Fantastic Woman sometimes feels like a black-and-white moral tale, but Daniela Vega brings a steely inscrutability to Marina that makes her far more complex than a stereotypical victim.
Is the country’s government in any way angry about this film? It does not seem so, no.
Can I stream it anywhere? No, but it’s playing in select cities.
What are its chances? Vega is presenting at the Oscars, which gives me an inkling that A Fantastic Woman will be our winner. I’m not accusing the Academy of opening the envelopes early (although has anyone seen Faye Dunaway lately?), but Vega’s presence among the general English-language presenters signals that this movie is an easy sell to Oscar voters who may not have been keeping up with the minutia of the race. (It’ll also be a handy way for the Academy to pat itself on the back for honoring a movie about a trans woman, even if it didn’t go so far as to nominate Vega for Best Actress, which would have made her the first trans actor or actress in history to receive such an honor.)
A Fantastic Woman isn’t the strongest film of the bunch, but it’s certainly not the worst, and it would mark Chile’s first win in this category. No matter what happens, though, we will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that the Academy didn’t do the most Hollywood thing possible, which would have been giving the Best Foreign Language Oscar to Angelina Jolie.