Oscars Foreign-Language Film shortlist: ‘Son of Saul,’ ‘Labyrinth of Lies,’ ‘The Fencer,’ ‘Mustang,’ ‘Viva’ …

The academy just unveiled the nine films still in the running for the Best Foreign-Language Film at the Oscars. Over the last two months a screening committee, divided into groups, has been watching the 80 submissions and rating each from 6 to 10. Those ratings determined a top six which makes up two-thirds of the shortlist. The other three films were hand-selected by a 20-member executive committee. The five Oscar nominees will be determined by another committee who will screen the nine semi-finalists in early January.

Four of the five Golden Globe nominees — “The Brand New Testament” (Belgium), “The Fencer” (Finland), “Mustang” (France) and “Son of Saul” (Hungary) — number among these nine. The fifth Globe contender is “The Club” (Chile).

By comparison, the Critics’ Choice Awards previewed only two of these potential Oscar nominees (“The Mustang,” “Son of Saul”) as they opted for “The Assassin” (Taiwan), “Goodnight Mommy” (Austria) and “The Second Mother” (Brazil). 

Those films that did not reap bids from either precursor group but are in the running at the Oscars are: “Embrace of the Serpent” (Colombia), “Labyrinth of Lies” (Germany), “Theeb” (Jordan), “Viva” (Ireland) and “A War” (Denmark), 

Beside those films cited by the Globes and BFCA but left off this list, the most notable snub was Venice champ and European Film awards winner “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (Sweden). 

Below, our take on each of these films in terms of the Oscars.

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The Brand New Testament” (Belgium)
Belgium has never won the award despite seven bids, including in 2011 (“Bullhead”) and 2013 (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”). Considered by its director, Jaco Van Dormael to be “a comedy that mixes laughs, emotion and poetry,” “The Brand New Testament” brings levity to a race often bogged down by serious material taken very seriously. Its excellent ensemble cast, including screen legend and Oscar nominee Catherine Deneuve, a fantastic script and gorgeous cinematography as well as a Golden Globe nomination make this a strong competitor.

Embrace of the Serpent” (Colombia)
One of only two non-European films to make the shortlist, “Embrace of the Serpent” comes to the final stretch of the race with a slew of South American awards as well as the Art Cinema Award at Cannes under its belt. One look at our forum topic on the subject shows that many users have it at the top of their predictions.
 Colombia has yet to earn its first nomination.

The Fencer” (Finland)
Finland has only contended once (“The Man Without a Past” in 2002) but deserves to be back with “The Fencer,” an endearing and hopeful film about an Estonian fencer and newly established sports instructor at a local school set against the backdrop of Eastern European politics during the Second World War. This marks director Klaus Härö’s fourth film to be entered by Finland. An adorable cast of children is led by Estonian actor Märt Avandi who holds you in captivity for the film’s pleasantly short, but efficient runtime. After receiving a Golden Globe nomination, the film’s profile has been significantly raised. 

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Labyrinth of Lies” (Germany)

Sony Pictures Classics, which has a strong contender with Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” also has this Holocaust-themed film that exposes the conspiracy of prominent German institutions and government branches to cover up Nazi crimes. While the reunified Germany was a mainstay in the category in the first decade of this century with two wins from six nominations, it has yet to return to the big show since 2009 when “The White Ribbon” contended.

“Mustang” (France)

Never underestimate France: they are the most nominated country in category history (39) and second to Italy in wins (12). While many assumed it would submit Palme d’Or winning “Dheepan,” France entered this coming of age story about five girls in a remote Turkish village. Nominated for the Golden Globe as well as Best European Film and the European Discovery FIPRESCI Prize (which it won!) at the European Film Awards, “Mustang” is not only a safe bet for a nomination but stands a good chance at the win.

“Son of Saul” (Hungary)

In a field infamous for being unpredictable, it’s hard to ever call a hopeful a “lock for a nomination,” but most years don’t include a film like “Son of Saul.” There’s no way this isn’t nominated. Much has been said about how it’s a contender in other races like Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It would be a shock to not see it nominated.
 Hungary has won the award only once, for “Mephisto” in 1981, out of eight nominations, The last of those bids was back in 1988.

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Theeb” (Jordan)

This WWI drama that pairs a young Bedouin boy and a British officer won Naji Abu Nowar the Best Director prize at the Venice Film Festival award as well as honors from various festivals throughout the Middle East. Jordan entered the race for the first time in 2008 with “Captain Abu Raed,” the first feature film to be made in the country in 50 years.

Viva” (Ireland)
Set in Havana, Cuba, this gripping family drama tells the story of Jesus, a make-up artist for a drag act who dreams of being onstage and his estranged father, Angel. Ireland could reap its first-ever bid for this Spanish language film written by Mark O’Halloran and directed by Paddy Breathnach.

A War” (Denmark)

Many of our forum posters have pegged Denmark’s entry, set against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, as one of the top contenders for a nomination. Director Tobias Lindholm may be familiar to academy members for his co-writing credits on Denmark’s 2014 nominee “The Hunt.” Denmark, which has racked up three wins from 10 nominations has been on a streak as of late, with two nominations and a shortlist appearance in the last four years. 

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