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The Oscar Race for Foreign Film is More Exciting Than Best Picture

The Oscar Race for Foreign Film is More Exciting Than Best Picture

READ MORE: Tom Hardy and Alicia Vikander Deserve Oscars — But Not For These Roles

Editor’s note: Our For Your Consideration column looks
at films and events related to awards season that we find exciting and
different. For detailed analysis of every Oscar category, check out our 
Oscar pages.

The conversations surrounding the Oscar race for best picture have consumed media reports for months, and even while several movies vie for the top spot, it’s still a narrow field. A world in which “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” are the only movies getting noticed is a small one indeed.

Of course, many other films receive exposure in other categories this year, but none of them stand out in terms of sheer variety more than foreign language. But with so few of these films released in theaters in advance of the nominations, most audiences may not realize their qualifications. That’s about to change.

As the #OscarsSoWhite discussion continues to dominate headlines, the five movies nominated for best foreign language film provide the closest thing to diversity among this year’s nominees: With South America, Europe and the Middle East all represented, it’s the only section of this year’s Oscars where one can find filmmakers of color and another who’s a woman. Setting aside that contrast, the category also stands out because every one of this year’s nominees is a flat-out great cinematic achievement unlike anything else in this year’s race. 

Let’s start with the obvious frontrunner, Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” a bracing revisionist approach to the Holocaust drama that takes the form of a subjective psychological thriller. Aside from being my favorite movie released in 2015, “Son of Saul” manages to approach a moment in history often sterilized by sentimentalism by providing a provocative alternative: Shot almost exclusively in closeup, the movie tracks the concentration camp prisoner with a real-time approach that takes the movie outside of its grave context to give it renewed immediacy. It still winds up at a place of profound bleakness, but gives viewers the sense of urgency associated with Holocaust trauma too often taken for granted. While “The Revenant” gets so much traction for its director’s commitment to facing extreme filmmaking challenges, “Son of Saul” is far more daring in terms of trying something different.

Then again, the nominee that truly passes “The Revenant” test for perseverance amid inhospitable conditions is “Embrace of the Serpent.” The third feature from Colombian director Ciro Guerra, which opens in limited theatrical release this week, is a stunning black-and-white tale of Amazonian isolation stretched across multiple eras. Based on a pair of voyages by European explorers at different periods of the 20th century, Guerra’s enigmatic story finds the same wandering Amazonian guide shepherding along white men eager to explore their world and instead getting lost in its cosmic mysteries.

By turns eerie and wondrous, “Embrace of the Serpent” excels at conveying a sense of loss for the deeply spiritual cultures at its center. However, Guerra develops a phenomenal, otherworldly quality around the terror of the jungle, mainly as it’s misunderstood by the naive men wandering through it. Building toward a wordless finale in which enlightenment goes hand in hand with inexplicable splendor — partly thanks to Amazonian drugs, and partly thanks to its time-spanning existential implications — “Embrace of the Serpent” plays out like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” stuffed into “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It leaves one with the startling sensation that we’re all strangers in a strange land, no matter where the jungle lies.

But the jungle isn’t the only merciless setting among the foreign language contenders. In the Jordanian action-adventure tale “Theeb,” director Abu Nowar follows the conundrum facing the titular young nomadic boy in 1916 — incidentally, the same period in which much of “Embrace of the Serpent” takes place — when he and his brother are hired by a British soldier for a journey across the desert that leads them straight into a band of killer mercenaries. The ensuing showdown plays out in western terms before shifting into a fascinating two-hander, which finds Theeb trading values with one of his enemies as the young boy gathers his wits to take control of the situation.

While nine-year-old “Room” star Jacob Tremblay has received plenty of acclaim for his strikingly convincing turn as a child thrust into perilous circumstances, newcomer Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat delivers the more breathtaking accomplishment. The desert limits the character’s understanding of the world, but his ability to wield a gun and challenge authority speaks volumes about the boy’s mature relationship to his surroundings. Al-Hwietat conveys that sophistication with a face that tells the whole story in every scene.

The subtlest movie of the foreign language contenders also involves two different worlds clashing under dire circumstances. Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s followup to his tense “Captain Phillips” alternative “A Hijacking” similarly boils down its setting with a blunt title: “A War” spends its first half focused on a group of Danish soldiers facing off against the Taliban in Afghanistan at the behest of their trenchant general Claus (Pilou Asbæk). But when the team comes home, Claus’ seemingly brave tactics on the battleground are perceived as war crimes, as the movie settles into an intriguing courtroom drama. Lindholm’s ability to probe human behavior in search of moral ambiguities once again yields a narrative rich with implications about the darker aspects of modern day warfare.

Still, there’s no movie in this year’s race more topical than “Mustang,” Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s beguiling look at five girls trapped at home by their legal guardians and forced into arranged marriages — until they decide to act out. Often compared to “The Virgin Suicides,” Ergüven’s lively drama trades the earlier movie’s mopey atmosphere for one of rebellious energy, as a mounting feminist rage seeps into the group and leads them to take control of their conditions. A tale of defiance under pressing circumstances, it certainly gives “The Revenant” a run for its money as the survival story of the year.

READ MORE: 2016 Oscar Predictions

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