Oscars 2019: Complete pro and con analysis of all 9 Best Foreign Language contenders

The 30th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival came to a close this week after offering screenings of 226 films from 78 countries in 12 days. Though films from the U.S. and other English-speaking nations were well represented in the screening lineup, Palm Springs is primarily known as an international festival with the spotlight on foreign language films. Scheduled as it is in the height of Oscar voting season, the festival has taken on a huge role in raising the profile of potential nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In fact, all nine of this year’s short-listed films screened during the festival, giving festival-goers the rare opportunity to sample all of the Oscar contenders in one place.

At the closing one of the nine shortlisted films, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film “Shoplifters” (Japan), got a big boost when it was selected as the festival’s Best Foreign Language Film by the festival jury of international film critics. The Best Actor award went to Marcello Fonte, who plays a dog groomer who is tied up with a vicious gangster in Italy’s entry “Dogman.” And the Festival Award for Best Actress went to Joanna Kulig for her acclaimed performance as a nightclub singer in Pawel Pawlikowski’s major Oscar contender “Cold War.”

But the Academy Award finalists are in the hands of Oscar voters, not critics, so I found it useful during the festival’s 12 days to dive into the crowds and ask festival-goers what films they saw and, in particular, what they liked. I also eavesdropped in the lobby after several screenings of the shortlisted films to get the audience’s immediate reactions as well. Granted, these reactions are anecdotal, but the demographic of audiences here may not be too far removed from Oscar voters, and what these audiences told me could be useful in making your final picks.

Let’s analyze the pros and cons of the final nine contenders for Oscars 2019, ranked from best to worst by their current Gold Derby odds:

1. ROMA (Mexico); Current Gold Derby odds 16/5

Alfonso Cuarón‘s memory piece about his childhood in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City is unprecedented in several ways, not the least of which is that it’s one of the front-runners for the biggest Oscar of all, Best Picture of the Year. No foreign-language film has ever won the big prize, but that stat may be about to change. Interestingly, the focus in “Roma” is not on the young Cuarón character but on his family’s housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who, after the family’s patriarch walks out on his wife and kids, steps up to look after the family as well.

PROs: “Roma” has already received Best Picture of the Year awards from 14 critics groups and festivals, with likely more to come. This is an unprecedented number of Best Picture wins for a foreign language film, and anticipated Oscar nominations in such other categories as directing, writing and cinematography may only demonstrate further a depth of support within other Academy branches. Plus there’s the Netflix factor, with Academy voters around the world being able to watch it with just the click of a mouse. “Roma” is definitely the movie to beat for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

CONs: But it can be beaten. Take, for example, the last time a foreign language film got as many as six nominations — Guillermo del Toro‘s 2006 “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which won three Oscars, and, like “Roma” was heavily favored to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. However, it lost that award to an upstart German film, “The Lives of Others,” directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. And guess who’s also back in the race this year, looking for a second “sure winner” to slay. (We’ll get to Donnersmarck in a moment.)

2. COLD WAR (Poland); Current Gold Derby odds 39/10

Based on talking to Palm Springs festival-goers, the likely alternative to “Roma” is director Pawlikowski’s “Cold War.” The tight taut 88-minute film packs a major punch in its brief running time in a romantic tale of a music director (Tomasz Kot) who finds a major singing talent (Kulig), and the couple begins a torrid romance from the late 1940s to the 1960s against the background of the Cold War raging between the East and West.

PROs: A number of critics groups that voted “Roma” for their Best Picture award gave their Foreign Film prize to “Cold War.” Could the Academy follow suit? Like “Roma,” “Cold War” has possible nominations looming for its writing, directing and black-and-white cinematography, indicating support in other branches. Also like “Roma,” “Cold War” is being released by a streaming company (in this case, Amazon Studios) whose deep pockets have funded numerous full-page ads in trade publications supporting “Cold War,” keeping it in the forefront of industry voters’ minds. And unlike Cuarón, Pawlikowski has won this category before with his 2014 film “Ida.”

CONs: Unlike “Roma,” however, “Cold War” is not yet available for viewing on Amazon Prime, thus forcing potential Academy voters to seek it out via screenings or screeners. And while it is said by many to be the alternative to “Roma” for voters in this category, the question remains: “Why would you even be looking for an alternative to ‘Roma’?”

3. SHOPLIFTERS (Japan); Current Gold Derby odds 9/2

The big winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s “Shoplifters,” is the story of three generations of a Japanese family living at the poverty line who supplement their income by craftily pocketing needed goods from local stores. What’s remarkable about Kore-eda’s script is that, despite the family’s criminality, the audience roots for them to succeed because we want to see this family make it. Audiences walk out of “Shoplifters” feeling great, and that goes a long way in garnering Oscar votes.

PROs: “Shoplifters” has been coming on strong with several critics groups giving it their Best Foreign Film prize, including, just this week, the juried Palm Springs Film Festival Best Foreign Film award, besting both “Cold War” and “Roma.” And remember that the Palme d’Or win for “Shoplifters” bested four of its short-listed rivals in that contest, including “Cold War.”

CONs: If “Shoplifters” manages to make it to the final five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, that will likely be its sole nomination. Despite its current solid showing at the box office, without significant support from other branches, “Shoplifters” is going to have an uphill climb to claim the Oscar this February.

4. CAPERNAUM (Lebanon); Current Gold Derby odds 5/1

Nadine Labaki‘s film “Capernaum” (which means “chaos”) won this year’s Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and became a sensation as it made the rounds of various film festivals this fall. It has an irresistible premise — 12 year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who has been neglected by his parents, decides to sue them in court for bringing him into this world. Using the court scenes as a base, Labaki then flashes back to demonstrate why Zain has a case — after his beloved 11 year-old sister is sold into marriage to a brute, Zain runs away, winding up having to take care of an infant in order to survive. From there, life for Zain becomes extremely complicated.

PROs: “Capernaum” has built up a load of good will during its festival runs, leaving audiences satisfied (its final shot is a heartwarmer). With its distributor Sony Pictures Classics, which knows the Oscar ropes, behind its campaign, its high profile amidst the other contenders gives the film a great shot to make the final five nominees. From that point, it’s all up to Sony, but at least it knows it has the goods to possibly win.

CONs: “Capernaum’s” box-office, while good, is not nearly as strong as the three films above it, and at this point, the film’s Oscar chances lie entirely on actually being seen.

5. BURNING (South Korea); Current Gold Derby odds 15/2

South Korea’s “Burning” stands out from its other Oscar shortlist rivals in that it is a genre piece — a mystery drama that at first doesn’t look like a mystery. Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is doing odd jobs when he runs into childhood friend Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who asks him to mind her cat while she travels to Nairobi. When she finally returns from Africa, she brings along a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun), who eventually confesses that he partakes in a very disturbing hobby. And the mystery begins.

PROs: Much of the “Burning” campaign has focused on Steven Yeun, widely familiar to American audiences as the beloved Glenn on the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” Yeun has already garnered wins for Best Supporting Actor from several critics groups, which the campaign is using to raise the profile of the film so as to make the final five.

CONs: “Burning” is not exactly a slog, but it does take its time telling its story, and antsy Academy voters may turn off the film before its disturbing conclusion.

6. NEVER LOOK AWAY (Germany); Current Gold Derby odds 18/1

If many of the Academy short-listed films are small in scope, Germany’s “Never Look Away” definitely is not. Although the film is ostensibly a portrait of an artist inspired by the life of painter Gerhard Richter, “Never Look Away” is epic in scope, the events in which even include the World War II bombing of Dresden and its aftermath. Its ace-in-the-hole, however, is Oscar-winning director von Donnersmarck, who, after a disastrous side-trip to Hollywood to make the Johnny Depp/Angeline Jolie starrer “The Tourist,” is back in fighting form with “Never Look Away.”

PROs: “Never Look Away” looks nothing like its other contenders in this category, which gives a weight that several of its smaller competitors lack. Sony Pictures Classics is running this Oscar campaign for this film (along with “Capernaum”), and they’ve been around the block many times in knowing how to win an Oscar. And never underestimate World War II as a subject matter — this is true for documentaries as well as in this category. Just sayin’.

CONs: “Never Look Away’s” run-time is 188 minutes. That’s three hours and 8 minutes, people! Yes, it flew by, at least for me, but I dug the film. If you’re not into it, however, its length might be a real turn-off.

7. THE GUILTY (Denmark); Current Gold Derby odds 35/1

“The Guilty” also has a premise that sets it apart from its other competitors in this category. If “Never Look Away” is epic in scope, “The Guilty” is tiny in its setting — a phone-bank where emergency dispatchers field calls from distressed citizens. Police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been demoted to desk work pending his involvement in a questionable shooting and blows off most of the distress calls that come his way. But one call from a woman who claims that she has been abducted by a man grabs his attention, and he does everything he can to encourage the woman to try to escape. When Asger begins to realize what really happened, however, the news is shattering. The rights to “The Guilty” for an American remake have already been snapped up by Jake Gyllenhaal.

PROs: I have to confess that I’m a sucker for one-person shows, such as Ryan Reynolds in “Buried” and particularly the 2013 Tom Hardy film “Locke.” So I fell for “The Guilty,” and other festival-goers did too. When I routinely asked folks in line what film they enjoyed the most, “The Guilty,” along with “Shoplifters” and “Never Look Away” came up most often.

CONs: “The Guilty” has already had brief runs in the U.S. this fall, and rarely has the Academy chosen a winner from among films that have closed months ago.

8. AYKA (Kazakhstan); Current Gold Derby odds 100/1

“Ayka” was the most surprising inclusion on the Academy Foreign-Language short-list among Oscar-watchers. Though having made a big splash at this year’s Cannes Film Festival when “Ayka” star Samal Yeslyamova swept in to take the prestigious Best Actress prize, the Sergey Dvortsevoy-directed film from Kazakhstan has kept a pretty low profile on the festival circuit. The tale of a young mother who abandons her newborn to find any job that can provide her enough income to pay off a vicious loan shark might seem to be a turnoff on paper, but the determined performance by Yeslyamova keeps you watching.

PROs: Yeslyamova’s performance is the one great reason to include “Ayka” on the short-list. Whether it’s enough to rank the film among the five nominees is up to the Academy.

CONs: “Ayka” has yet to land a U.S. distribution deal, so that lack of availability to see the film is a huge drawback to its Oscar chances.

9. BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Colombia); Current Gold Derby odds 100/1

“Birds of Passage,” co-directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, is very different in tone and setting from the team’s previous Oscar nominated film, the black-and-white “Embrace of the Serpent.” The magical realism of that film is merely realism here, as “Birds of Passage” details the rise of a Wayúu family crime syndicate in the early 1970s that overturns Colombian traditions in pursuit of the almighty drug-dealing buck.

PROs: Once you’re Oscar-nominated in this category, you’re always a threat to get nominated again.

CONs: That being said, given the uplifting tone of several of its better-known rivals, “Birds of Passage” may have to raise its profile quickly in order to be considered for the big prize.

PREDICT the Oscar nominations now; change them until January 22

Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own 2019 Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominations are announced on January 22.

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