Foreign Language Oscar Nominees

Brief reviews and an inside look at one of the toughest categories to predict at this year’s Oscars.  
This year’s Oscar nominees for foreign language film run the gamut of satire in Sweden to a small squabble leading to a national dispute in Lebanon. These films also allow insight into the issues, policies and customs of the rest of the world, and at times act as a reminder of the virtues and foibles of human nature.

What follows are mini-reviews of the five nominated films, how you can see them now, and who will win and should win the Oscar.

A Fantastic Woman (Chile) ***

A strong performance by Daniela Vega highlights this story of an elderly man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who leaves his wife for a younger woman. The twist in director Sebastian Lelio’s film is that the woman he chooses to be with, Marina (Vega), used to be a man. But that’s not the awkward part. The awkward part is that Orlando dies early in the film, leaving Marina to deal with his grief-stricken family that both resents her and doesn’t know what to make of her. It’s a bold story that’s wonderfully compelling, but you also sense Lelio is holding back at times, oddly restrained in not allowing Marina to feel the full brunt of social scorn. Perhaps being a little less sympathetic to Marina would’ve made for better drama, which might’ve made a better movie. Availability: In art house theaters now.

Loveless (Russia) ***1/2

This is the most raw and gut wrenching of the five nominees. Married Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) despise one another and are about to be divorced. Worse, neither wants custody of their 12 year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), and the poor boy knows it. When Alexey disappears more unbearable truths come to the fore, all wonderfully acted by Rozin and Spivak. Everything about the film is raw and unsanitized, from the relationship of the protagonists to the frequent nudity to the unfeeling way the police go about the investigation. It’s darn good drama each step of the way. Availability: In art house theaters now.

On Body and Soul (Hungary) **

It has the best conceit of the five nominees, yet is the worst film of the bunch. At a slaughterhouse in Budapest, the older financial director Endre (Geza Morcsanyi), who’s all but given up on life, discovers he has the same dreams every night as the new, young and pretty quality control manager Maria (Alexandra Borbely). What a great idea for a movie! What do you do when you realize you have the same dreams as someone else? Director Ildiko Enyedi inexplicably makes the story one of separate personal discovery for the protagonists rather than a joint one, and the result is a meandering drama that does little with its premise. Disappointing. Availability: On Netflix streaming now.

The Insult (Lebanon) ****

Lebanese Christian Tony (Adel Karam) intentionally spills water from his second floor balcony on Palestinian Jew Yasser (Kamel El Basha), who’s working on the street below him. Yasser then says something that can’t be repeated in print to Tony. Tony demands an apology. Doesn’t get it. The seemingly insignificant tiff escalates into a wonderfully written and acted national dispute in which neither man is entirely right or wrong. The only thing entirely right about the film is how well director Ziad Doueiri tells the story. It’s the most thought-provoking, well-acted, and all-around terrific film of the group. Availability: In art house theaters now.

The Square (Sweden) **1/2

Winner of the prestigious Palm d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, director Ruben Ostlund’s (“Force Majeure”) latest is a strange movie that’s endlessly befuddling and fascinating. Set in the world of Swedish contemporary art, and centered on the curator (Claes Bang) of a prominent Stockholm art museum, it’s a seriocomic look at the sometimes unintended consequences of our actions. It also looks at art – what it is, and what it isn’t – and prompts our subjectivity to draw its own conclusion about the movie, much as it would any form of art. I’m not sure if it works as well as it aspires to work, but it is undeniably intriguing. Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West co-star. Availability: On home video.

Predicted winner: A Fantastic Woman.
Should win: The Insult.

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