Every so often, there's a breakout hit in the Oscars' Best Foreign Language Film category — a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Amelie or Amour that's widely seen and discussed among the public.
This is not one of those years.
Though the Polish film Ida has done far better than anyone involved had expected it, it hasn't yet risen to the level of prominence or viewership of American Sniper or The Theory of Everything or Birdman; the other four nominees are relatively obscure stateside. But that shouldn't be the case. In a stunningly monochromatic year at the Oscars, one whose acting nominees are, to a one, white and in which female writers and directors were ignored, the foreign language category provides Oscar its only hint of diversity. It's worth catching up on the films in play to get ahead in your Oscar pool and to, potentially, find one of Oscar's gems hidden in plain sight.
This film, directed by the Polish auteur Pawel Pawlikowski (who'd previously been best-known for work in English, including My Summer of Love), tells the story of a novice nun who discovers that her family had been Jews. She'd been left at a convent in the hope that she might survive the Holocaust; in possession of this knowledge, she sets out to discover more about her heritage with a depressive, alcoholic aunt. It's an austere film, shot in chilly black-and-white (it's also nominated for Best Cinematography), with a stripped-down eighty-minute running time that leaves little room for extraneous dialogue and much for ambiguity. Ida is currently streaming on Amazon.
This Argentinian anthology pulls together six unrelated short stories of vengeance; when it played at the Cannes Film Festival, one critic wrote, "Each episode is a variation on the 'I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore' theme, with put-upon souls reaching their limits of tolerance in gleefully destructive ways." The film comes by its baroque expressiveness honestly: It's produced by melodrama director Pedro Almodóvar and his brother Agustin. It's set to be released Feb. 20 in the U.S.
A movie that depicts the casual indignities of life in modern Russia isn't the sort one would expect to have been funded by the Russian government. But Leviathan, a retelling of the Book of Job that hinges on a small-town mayor's corruption, was paid for in part by Vladimir Putin's Ministry of Culture. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has outright denied that his movie has anything to say about the state of modern Russia, but many argue the proof of his dissent is in the film itself. Leviathan is currently playing in limited release.
This movie is Estonia's first nominee for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and tells the story of the war in Georgia in the early 1990s, following the story of an older man who's refused to flee the war in order to harvest his tangerine crop. Tangerines played at multiple U.S. film festivals in 2014; no word on plans for a wide release.
It's another first: Timbuktu got the country of Mauritania its first nomination in this category. The story is, like every other nominee save Wild Tales, concerned with sweeping political changes and their impact on the individual: It looks at the effects of the brief occupation of Timbuktu by the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine. It's scheduled to be released in the U.S. Jan. 28.