On December 21, the list of 92 contenders got reduced down to 15. It's a near impossible task to reduce the field down to just 15 but this is the case every year. This year, the following films have advanced to the next round:
We correctly predicted 12/15 films. But all of the shortlisted 15 films were on our top 20 tracker. Usually, there's a few surprises who make it to the final 15, like last year with Plaza Catedral and Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. This year, The Academy played it safer.
The three films that we didn't predict were Last Film Show (India), Bardo (Mexico), and Boy From Heaven (Sweden). The three films that we thought would be shortlisted were Beautiful Beings (Iceland), Alcarras (Spain) and Klondike (Ukraine). Beautiful Beings and Alcarras met all the criteria to be shortlisted. They were amongst the highest reviewed movies of the year on Letterboxd, they're both playing in Palm Springs, and both countries have been recognized previously by The Academy. They must've fallen just short.
Palm Springs Film Festival continues its run to be the strongest predictor for the shortlisted 15 films. All 15 films are playing in the festival, along with 20 other films. Amongst Letterboxd top 15 reviewed films, 9 of them were shortlisted keeping up with the statistics as well.
High profile films continue to dominate the shortlisted list as well. As members of The Academy only need to meet a minimum viewing requirement to vote in the first round, debuting at Cannes Film Festival or Venice Film Festival, playing at all the North American film festival circuit, having Amazon and Netflix backing the film, having the money to spend on a campaign, it has proven to be essential.
It's very interesting to note that 13 of the 15 films debuted at either Cannes, Venice, or Toronto Film Festival this year:
Venice (3): Argentina, 1985 (Argentina), Saint Omer (France), Bardo (Mexico)
Cannes (9): Corsage (Austria), Close (Belgium), Return to Seoul (Cambodia), Holy Spider (Denmark), The Blue Caftan (Morocco), Joyland (Pakistan), EO (Poland), Decision to Leave (South Korea), Boy From Heaven (Sweden)
Toronto (1): All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany)
This shows that films need to debut early in the season in order to have a shot at getting shortlisted. And it makes the appearance of Last Film Show (India) and The Quiet Girl (Ireland) even more impressive that they made it to the final 15. Sadly, this makes it extremely hard for films like The Exam (Iraq), Harvest Moon (Mongolia), A Cup of Coffee and New Shoes On (Albania) and more to breakthrough in an already extremely competitive category.
The great part of advancing to the final 15 is that all members of The Academy who want to vote for the next round need to watch all 15 films. This levels the playing field now.
Ok, so let's take a look now at these incredible 15 films:
1. ARGENTINA, 1985 (ARGENTINA)
Based on real events, the film follows the events surrounding the trials that occurred in 1984-1985 against the civil-military dictators. Those individuals were responsible for the most bloody dictatorship in the history of the country. The film follows a group of lawyers led by prosecutors Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo. As the trial is scheduled to happen in five months, the film showcases and follows the events from September 1984 to the beginning of the trial in February 1985 to the end of the proceedings in September 1985.
Director Santiago Mitre does an excellent reenactment of what it took to bring Videla and other leaders of Argentina's military to justice after committing various atrocities against regular people. This movie represents explicitly how every single country needs to deal with dictatorship and how to deal with a corrupt army. The need to apply an exemplary conviction rate to all people that are guilty is absolutely necessary to restore peace. It’s an extraordinary film showing the difference that a small group of brave individuals can do for one’s country. In the end, we still all can have hope that things will get better, that fighting for justice is worth it in order to make a better world for us and for future generations.
2. CORSAGE (AUSTRIA)
Set back in 1877, Empress Elizabeth of Austria is about to celebrate her 40th birthday. Having been away from the public for quite some time, Elizabeth is nervous about how people will perceive her once she makes an appearance again.
Marie Kreutzer has directed an incredible, witty, funny, extremely smart film. She takes on a very difficult storyline and creates a film that takes you in from the first shot to the brilliant ending. There’s so much to process and to contemplate once it’s all over. The cinematography is breathtaking. The score is so riveting. The costumes, the production design. It all works. And the star of the film: Vicky Krieps. She is one of the best and most hard working actresses today. She always takes on a risky role and she always succeeds in it. Brilliant, funny and heartbreaking. She controls the screen with every gesture, her pain in her eyes as the society around her slowly destroys her piece by piece. Corsage delves head on into the society that we have created for ourselves. A society where we need to have the perfect body. The perfect skin. The perfect hair. A society where we need to stay eternally young. Wouldn’t it be so refreshing to just let loose and to stop caring? To just be our true selves. To get on a horse and to be free with nature. To remove our corsages. To show our flaws. To be human.
3. CLOSE (BELGIUM)
The film is about two kids Leo and Remi who are inseparable. It starts out during their summer holiday right before the new year of school begins. Leo and Remi spend every second together, playing games in the fields, riding their bikes together, practicing their musical instruments, and sleeping over at each others houses. They are best friends. When the school year begins Remi and Leo are thrust into a new environment where other school kids start questioning their friendship.
Dhont has created an emotional roller coaster of feelings. His two leads, Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele, are the stars of the show and it wouldn’t succeed without them. Every frame is shot with perfection. Every dialogue has a purpose. The music and the scenery, it all works. Dhont has created a portrait of grief. His film is a realistic, concise and often overwhelming glimpse into how our actions effect everyone around us.
Films like this are super important for anyone who’s struggling within themselves. With self acceptance. Being a kid in school is super difficult. Being a kid who’s struggling with their identity can be even harder. Most students who are “different” will be harassed in school either with bullying or verbal assaults. And the graveyard of the school playground is where it happens the most. As a child it can feel like this pain will never go away. That it’ll never get better. But it does. It really does. And we need to keep our loved ones as close to us as possible and remind them that this will all pass. And that the future will be bright. The most special people are the ones that are different.
4. RETURN TO SEOUL (CAMBODIA)
Return to Seoul is such a superb film on the adoptee experience and the challenges of having two completely different nationalities. The film is focused on Freddie, played brilliantly by Park Ji-Min, who was born in South Korea but was dropped off at an adoption agency when she was a baby. After a few years she was adopted by a family and taken to France.
Davy Chou has created a masterful film about the difficulties of having dual identities and the repercussions that comes with not really fitting in. It isn’t always so simple to figure out who you are or what you want. The film constantly jumps ahead into the future, and every time we see a new glimpse into Freddie’s life. Sometimes she’s a visitor. Sometimes she’s a resident. Sometimes she’s a friend or a daughter. Life doesn’t always go as planned. Nothing is certain in this life. Places change. People change. And tomorrow might be different. For Freddie, she doesn’t know what the future will hold for her, but for now, as she searches to feel complete and whole, she’ll continue her life as if something is missing. And it’s a part of the painful healing process of being adopted.
5. HOLY SPIDER (DENMARK)
Inspired by true events and set in Mashhad, the film starts out with a woman getting ready to work for the night. She’s all bruised and battered and it’s clear right away she’s a sex worker. As the night progresses, and after completing a few jobs, she is approached by a man on a motorcycle and then killed. Viciously. A journalist, Arezoo, arrives from Tehran to Mashhad to report more about the killings.
Ali Abbasi has created one of the most relevant and important films of the year, especially with what’s happening in Iran right now. Led by a haunting musical score and two incredible performances by Zar-Amir Ebrahimi and Mehdi Bajestani, this film succeeds on every level. It grabs you in from the second the film begins to the last second where we’re left feeling frustrated and heartbroken. This film is infuriating. People have no right to feel like they’re superior to anyone or that they have the right to question someone’s life. And their decisions. No life is worth more. It’s just so enraging how people can use religion and the term “cleansing” to confirm that their actions are ok. And that these lunatics will always have support. This film is dedicated to all those beautiful women who are forgotten. And to all those beautiful women that we have lost. The bodies that are just left there to rot. No recognition. Just forgotten by society. Your life did matter. May these victims forever rest in peace.
6. SAINT OMER (FRANCE)
The incredible director Alice Diop has created one of the most thought-provoking films about motherhood and the universal feeling women share about it. The film begins with Rama, a teacher and a writer. Her latest novel has been received extremely well and she’s now in the process of beginning her next book. She decides to head to Saint Omer to attend the trial of Laurence Coly. Laurence is accused of killing her 15 month daughter.
Anchored by a terrific and understated performance by Guslagie Malanda, Saint Omer is a slow, detailed, intriguing film where you’re not sure where the film is headed but when you do, you begin to appreciate its full brilliance. It’s a staggering slow-build meditation on motherhood, and the fears associated with it. It’s about the instant bond that’s created between mothers and children and how they’re intertwined with one another in an inextricable manner. It’s a film dedicated to mothers. But on top of that, this film demands empathy from the audience. It is recognizing that there is more to humans that can be summed up in any investigation. After hearing all the facts of the case, no judge and no jury will fully grasp the defendant and who they are as a person. The film begins to question how little we can ever truly know anyone. Let alone ourselves.
7. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (GERMANY)
All Quiet on the Western Front is a bleak, relentless, brutal depiction of World War I. It follows four best friends who enlist into the German army full of patriotism having no idea what’s ahead of them. The film is an ode to the horrors of war.
Not a lot of films are made from the German perspective, and even less are made that make you feel completely sympathetic to the young German men. But these men aren’t monsters. There is no right or wrong side. They’re soldiers following orders from deranged leaders. The film perfectly captures the agony of survival, the fear of death and the humanizing of soldiers who do not fully comprehend what they’re doing. They all just want to go back home. Felix Kammerer and the rest of the cast are magnificent. They’re friends. They’re soldiers. They’re fighting for their lives. Director Edward Berger has created a stunning technical achievement starting from its cinematography to its production design and that haunting score.
The film is terrifyingly realistic, emotionally exhausting, and incredibly difficult to watch. Every scene slowly builds more fear for these men and for us. It's an unnerving, engaging experience that never lets up and never lets you forget why we should never start a war. The only time that we can breathe throughout the entire film are the few tiny moments when it truly is quiet on the western front.
8. LAST FILM SHOW (INDIA)
This film a celebration of storytelling and cinema. And even more, it’s a film about chasing one’s passions and dreams. The film takes place in the tiny village of Chalala in the Gujarat region of India, close to the border with Pakistan. It’s about a young boy named Samay who lives close to the Chalala train station where his father sells hot chai tea to passengers during a stopover. After watching a movie in the theatre with his family, his passion for films begin. His father considers movies to be rotten, so Samay skips school to watch films in the local theatre during the day.
Director Pan Nalin has created a masterclass film filled with childlike curiosity for the love of cinema that we all share. The look in the eyes of Samay as he watches every film possible inside that room is one of the most breathtaking moments to see this year. And his determination to make his dreams come true. No matter what.
Cinema has no boundaries. Stories need to be told. And everyone has a unique story. And it all has to begin from somewhere. For Samay, it began one afternoon in a small movie theatre where he discovered what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. And for creators like Samay, we as the public get to watch works of art like Last Film Show.
9. THE QUIET GIRL (IRELAND)
The Quiet Girl, directed by Colm Bairead, is a subtle, gentle film about a young girl, named Cait, who is struggling at home and at school. Her parents neglect her. Her siblings ignore her. Her classmates mock her. There's a coldness in the house, and in the rural area where she lives. She doesn't belong. And as her mother is pregnant with another child and is close to childbirth, Cait is sent away from her family to spend the summer with her Uncle and Aunt in the countryside.
Led by a powerful performance by Catherine Clinch, in her debut role, the film is impeccable, stripped back film making, in a quiet gut-wrenching story. It's powerful when it lands. And there's a gentle serenity to it all. All a child wants is to belong to a loving and caring family. To feel safe. To feel protected. The quiet girl may not say much, but her last word spoken in the film is the most powerful one of all.
The Quiet Girl is the reason why we watch movies. We fall in love with them. And months later we still get teary eyed thinking about them. It’s impeccable filmmaking from start to finish. It’s a slow buildup to a perfect emotional ending that makes it one of the best films of the year.
10. BARDO (MEXICO)
Best known for Babel, The Revenant and Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest film is a dazzling, spectacularly beautiful looking film that’s deeply personal to him. The film begins with Silverio, a journalist and now documentary filmmaker. His latest film called False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths has been received with a ton of praise. He’s been living in Los Angeles for the past 20 years with his wife Lucia, and their children Lorenzo and Camila. He’s about to become the first Latin American to receive a prestigious American award for his outstanding work in journalism.
Bardo is a feast to watch. Every scene is gorgeously shot. Inarritu shoots virtually the entire film in extreme wide angle, allowing every little detail to be shown in every one of his fantastic locations. The cinematography, the score, the production designs, it’s all very impressive. Daniel Gimenez Cacho gives a wonderful performance as Silverio.
Bardo is a state of existence between life and death. Inarritu, like every immigrant, is torn between the guilt of leaving ones birthplace and the need to be accepted in ones new country. It’s a state of never really feeling like you belong somewhere. It’s like being stuck in purgatory. The film itself is a blend of dreams and memories, acknowledging that it’s difficult to separate the two, especially as one gets older. The film is a movie made by Inarritu, for Inarritu, making it difficult at times to connect with the story despite the movie's main message. Bardo, like the titles suggest, is maybe just a chronicle of uncertainties.
11. THE BLUE CAFTAN (MOROCCO)
Maryam Touzani’s second feature, The Blue Caftan, is the official submission for Morocco for International Feature. The film starts out with Halim and Mina running a caftan shop. The shop was started by Halim’s father, but the married couple has kept it running for decades. Creating caftans by hand is a dying industry as clients are shifting towards machine made Moroccan outfits. But despite that, Halim continues to create masterpieces for his clients, tediously working on them for hours.
Like Halim’s beautiful caftans hanging around their shop, Maryam Touzani has herself created a work of art. Her own masterpiece. Words can’t begin to describe how effectively and beautifully the film captures love, even if it isn’t conventional. Every shot is so up close and personal. The tenderness of their hands touching as they work, the closeups of the sewing, the glances between the couples. So much can be said in the silence and in the eyes. And not enough can be said about the performances from all three leads. Saleh Bakri and Lubna Azabal are astonishingly perfect. The Blue Caftan is a love story. It’s about two people who got married at a young age and lived life together as a couple. Although Halim suppressed who he was as a person, he never ever failed as a husband. Despite having his flaws and indiscretions, his respect and true dedication towards his wife is something that is rarely seen on screen and in real life. He’s a man who could never ever be his true self but he’s also a man who never ever regretted his decisions in life. He’s a man who spent his entire life working on caftans. A man who dedicated his entire life to his bride. And while his greatest work achievement is a blue caftan, his greatest achievement in life will always be his one true love.
12. JOYLAND (PAKISTAN)
Haider and Mumtaz are a married couple living with their brother, Saleem and his wife Nucchi, their four kids and their father. It’s a family of nine under one roof. Mumtaz is working in her dream job as a bridal make up artist while Haider stays at home taking care of all his nieces. Neither Haider or Saleem have had a boy yet and there’s pressure from their father to have one. Haider tells Mumtaz that he has an opportunity to work in an erotic dance theatre. The prospects of getting more money is lucrative to both but when they tell their family, Mumtaz is now forced to stay home to help with the household chores. As Haider begins to work as a back up dancer for Biba, who’s a trans woman, he is fixated with her immediately. This awakens something inside him. This will have an impact on everyone around him and will forever change their lives.
Director Saim Sadiq has created a masterpiece. His depiction of all its flawed characters is masterful and he’s been able to truly reflect the human experience. Joyland accurately portrays the repressive Muslim society including the LGBT community, women and elderly.
Joyland is an amusement park right in the center of Lahore. And it’s a spot where people are happy away from their worries and fears. And pain. We as humans worry so much about what everyone else is thinking about us. And whether or not they’re judging us for who we are as people. We need to be true to who we are and accept ourselves. We need to explore one self individually rather than be dictated by social norms. And love ourselves. And be free. We need to do what makes us whole and what makes us happy. Joyland needs to be a part of our daily lives and not just an escapism whenever we go to an amusement park. We are all normal people living our own lives and trying our best. It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.
13. EO (POLAND)
Acclaimed director Jerzy Skolimowski has created one of the most unique films of the year as it’s entirely focused on a donkey named EO. It shows how he is passed from owner to owner, from place to place. On his journey, he meets people who are loving towards him and unfortunately he meets those who aren’t.
At the start of the film, Eo is part of the circus where he performs daily in front of crowds with a girl, named Magda, who loves him dearly. Eo loves her just the same. When the circus is closed due to animal cruelty, Eo’s pain is shown when he’s separated from her. Eo is then moved to a new farm where he meets his new owners. And from there we get to experience the world through Eo’s eyes. And his remarkable journey.
Acclaimed director Jerzy Skolimowski gives an accurate portrayal of humans while emphasizing the innocence of animals, all with just 20 lines of dialogue. Looking into Eo’s eyes you just know what he’s telling us. He doesn’t need to speak to be able to talk to us. His expression says it all. We can judge the heart of a person by his treatment of animals. And this film is a beautiful way to shoot the world’s cruelty through the eyes of a donkey. And we as a society have definitely failed Eo.
14. DECISION TO LEAVE (SOUTH KOREA)
Director Chan-Wook Park, whose previous work includes Oldboy and The Handmaiden, has now created his latest stunning film Decision To Leave. It’s about a detective, Hae-Jun, played by Hae-Il Park, who is investigating a case about a man who falls to his death while rock-climbing a mountain. Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Or is his wife the main suspect? Hae-Jun begins to investigate if the man’s wife, Seo-Rae could’ve done it. But as his investigation picks up, his infatuation with her grows.
Led by a career best performance by Tang Wei, Decision To Leave is breathtakingly beautiful to watch. The premise of a detective falling for a suspect isn’t anything new, but its witty screenplay is at its best. At times it feels like there’s too much information happening at once that it’s hard to follow. The editing could’ve been tightened a little more to keep the focus on Hae-Jun and Seo-Rae, rather then focusing on unnecessary second-hand police cases. The central relationship is the reason why Decision To Leave is so compelling. And why it succeeds.
Love can be very complicated. It can be difficult to understand. It can lead us to do things that we normally wouldn’t do. And it can sometimes be the decision to leave.
15. BOY FROM HEAVEN (SWEDEN)
The film is about Adam, played brilliantly by Tawfeek Barhom, who lives in the small village in Manzala. His father is a fisherman and Adam helps him every morning. Adam also prays in his local mosque daily. One day he receives a letter stating that he’s been accepted to study at Al-Azhar University. And he goes there immediately. Adam quickly learns the ins and outs of the university. He makes friends with his bunkmate and he’s enjoying his time studying and praying. But when the Grand Imam dies suddenly his world changes instantly.
Director Saleh has created a film that is told with great control. At times it’s hard to understand exactly the politics that are happening in Adam’s world, but that’s the whole point. We are part of Adam’s mind as he struggles to figure out what everyone wants from him. One of the best things about film is getting a glimpse into a world we know nothing about and because of Saleh’s brave, bold film we feel like we’ve become a part of Al-Azhar.
The film is about a man’s wish to become an Islamic scholar. He doesn’t get that at Al-Azhar but he also learns that he doesn’t need to be in the beacon of the Islam world to be a man of God. This is what Adam discovers by the end of his time at the university. He can be the exact same person in his small town in Manzala, as he can in Cairo. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s who you want to be and Adam is a pure-hearted Man from Heaven.
Now, who do we think are the current favourites to be nominated for the Oscars? It's an impossible task picking 5 out of these 15 films. We've always felt like the two frontrunners are Close and All Quiet on the Western Front, with the latter poised to get several other nominations as well. We think Decision to Leave has enough momentum right now to be in the 3rd position. EO, Argentina 1985, Bardo, Corsage and Saint Omer have also been picking up awards and nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards and more. But we feel like a film like The Quiet Girl, Joyland or Return to Seoul has a chance as well. For right now, we'll pick the following 5 films: