A Brief Look at the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Feature Shortlist

by Sean Coates
Foreign Language Feature Shortlist

Two weeks ago, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled the shortlists for nine categories of the Academy Awards. This included Visual Effects, Make-Up and Hairstyling, Original Song and Score, the Shorts and Documentaries categories and of course, Best Foreign Language Feature.

Of the 87 submissions from across the world, only nine films were selected for the Best Foreign Language Feature shortlist. From this list, the five nominees will be announced on January 22nd.

This year, I’ve made a conscious effort to expand my cinema-going horizons and watch more films from all over the globe. So much so, I have seen six out of the nine films on the Best Foreign Language Feature shortlist.

Before we get into the shortlist, I want to mention two unlucky submissions I really loved, but did not make the cut.

Just Missed Out:

Woman At War (Iceland)


Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman At War was a charming and offbeat Icelandic drama-comedy about a middle-aged eco-warrior’s one-woman crusade to sabotage industrial manufacturing threatening the local environment. A very funny and surprisingly powerful film that is one of my favorites of 2018.

Image via ScreenDaily

Dogman (Italy)


No, this is not some obscure Italian superhero. Matteo Garrone’s Dogman is a crime drama centering around a gentle dog groomer/small-time drug dealer. He develops a very dangerous relationship with an aggressive former boxer; the thug of their dilapidated seaside town. Despite some questionable character decisions and moments that stretch believability, Dogman is an enthralling character piece that offers a unique analysis of abusive friendships and toxic masculinity.

Image via Variety

Now onto the shortlist:

What I Haven’t Seen:

Ayka (Kazakhstan)

This Russian-Kazakhstani drama stars Samal Yeslyamova as the titular Ayka, a role that earned her the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Ayka is a poor, unemployed woman living in the streets of Moscow, facing life or death decisions while struggling to raise a child.

Image via ScreenDaily

Never Look Away (Germany)

Florian Henckel von Donnersmark returns to this category after taking home the gold in 2006 for his debut feature, The Lives of Others. In his first film since 2010’s The Tourist, Donnersmark’s Never Look Away is inspired by the life of German artist, Gerhard Richter. The three-hour-long period drama follows an art student tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and GDR regime that flees to West Germany.

Image via Variety

Caphernaüm (Lebanon)

After receiving their first ever nomination last year for Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, Lebanon could very well earn consecutive nominations with the refugee drama, Caphernaüm. Director, Nadine Labaki became the first ever female Arabic filmmaker to win a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival, claiming the Jury prize for this film. Caphernaüm is a drama following a street-smart 12-year-old boy who sues his parents for the neglect and abuse they gave him. It received a 15-minute long-standing ovation when it screened at Cannes.

Image via Rolling Stone

What I Have Seen

The Guilty (Denmark)

Writer/Director Gustav Möller proves with his debut feature that it’s possible to make a truly intense and thrilling film with very limited resources. Set entirely within the confines of a call center and taking place in real time, The Guilty makes the most of its limitations. Anchored by a strong lead performance from Jakob Cedergren, a compelling script with many unexpected turns, claustrophobic close-up cinematography and really inventive sound design, The Guilty is one of the best thrillers of the year.

Jake Gyllenhaal is set to star in a pointless, more than likely shot-for-shot American remake (because Hollywood hates subtitles I guess), which you can almost guarantee won’t be as good as this. The Guilty is the most gripping cinema experience I had in 2018. That is surprising for a film that is essentially a man making a number of phone calls for 85 minutes.

image via The Verge

Birds of Passage (Colombia)

Another group of familiar faces in this category make the shortlist once again. After receiving a nomination in 2015 for their jungle trekking adventure film, Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego are back with their period crime drama, Birds of Passage. The film details the origins of the Colombian drug trade in the late 1960s and 1970s through the perspective of an indigenous Wayuu family. When greed and the desire for power begins to tear the family apart, a fratricidal war breaks out, threatening to destroy their ancestral traditions and culture.

Birds of Passage is a riveting family drama of Shakespearean proportions, filled with struggles for power, betrayal and a fight between following tradition or breaking it.

Image via MIFF

Burning (South Korea)

It’s unbelievable that Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning could be South Korea’s first ever nomination in the Best Foreign Film category. Considering the country has such a rich and strong film industry, it’s hard to fathom that not one of South Korea’s 30 submissions over the last four decades have been nominated, let alone shortlisted. However, it’s very likely that Burning will break that drought.

Garnering universal acclaim from critics and audiences on the festival circuit, Burning is a film that is difficult to categorize into just one genre. It’s part romance, part drama, part mystery thriller and an entirely compelling viewing experience that I advise you go into knowing as little as possible.

Image via Vogue

Shoplifters (Japan)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film was the king of the 2018 festival circuit, winning the preciously coveted Palme D’or for Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival. This Japanese festival darling follows a rag-tag family of small-time criminals that ‘rescue’ a little girl away from her neglectful and abusive parents.

Shoplifters is a beautifully humane film with lovable, yet morally questionable characters that examines the notion that you don’t have to be family to become ‘a family’. The film gives a very poignant and nuanced exploration of parenthood and belonging through the moral and ethical dilemma the characters invite upon themselves. A worthy Palme D’or winner that would absolutely make for a deserving Best Foreign Language Feature winner.

Image via The Irish Times

Cold War (Poland)

Oh Look! Another familiar face in this category. After Pawel Pawlikowski won Poland’s first Best Foreign Feature Oscar with his film Ida in 2013, he is back again with the musical period drama, Cold War. Inspired by the relationship of Pawlikowski’s parents, Cold War spans over 15 years chronicling the doomed romance of two mismatched lovers caught between East and West in war-torn 1950s Europe.

Everything about Cold War is so masterfully executed. The lead performances from Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are spectacular, the cinematography is immaculate, implementing black and white photography and the academy ratio to perfection. The music is fantastic and is used subtly to signify passage of time, while the elliptical story structure develops a feeling of longing and hopelessness for the lovers’ relationship.

Cold War is an excellently crafted film that is both beautiful and devastating; one of the absolute best films of 2018.

Image via Palace Films

Roma (Mexico)

Read My Full Review Here.

What more can I say about Roma that I or many other writers, critics, cinephiles and audiences haven’t already said? Alfonso Cuarón has created a bona fide masterpiece with this film. There is a reason it’s the undeniable favorite to take home this award and potentially Best Picture.

Roma is a very personal film told on a massive scale. It is a film that finds the beauty in the mundane and the ordinary. It sees the humanity in all people, no matter their background or how morally conflicted they are. It is a film that is so refreshingly unpretentious and honest with very raw and captivating performances, extraordinary cinematography and superb sound mixing.

As much as I feel this is a must see on a big screen, you have no excuse not to watch Roma now that it’s on Netflix. It’s my favorite film of the year and the red-hot favorite to win Best Foreign Language Feature, which would have Alfonso Cuarón claim his third Oscar.

Image via Slash Film

Predicted Nominees & Winner

Birds of Passage


Cold War

Roma (Win)


Admittedly with my predictions, I have a bias towards the films that I have seen. Roma is almost guaranteed to receive a nomination. It’s by far the favorite to win the award and will be very hard to beat. However, Cold War or Shoplifters are both potential dark horses for a surprise win.

The strong critical acclaim and festival buzz surrounding both Burning and Birds of Passage should be enough to earn them a nomination. The fact that Chang-Dong and Guerra & Gallego are established names in world cinema definitely boost their bids, but are long-shots to win. As much as The Guilty was a crowd pleaser at festivals, it seems unlikely to get a nomination as it is a debut feature and more of a thriller than drama, which the Academy tends to bypass.

Of the films I have not seen, Caphernaüm seems the most likely to get earn a nomination as it has won a number of audience awards at festivals. Ayka and Never Look Away have not received as much attention as the other shortlisted films, meaning they will probably get shut out of the nominations.

All will be revealed when the nominees for Best Foreign Language Feature and all other Oscar categories are announced on Tuesday, January 22nd.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is the clear favorite to take home the statue for Best Foreign Language Feature. Image via IndieWire

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on The 2019 Best Foreign Language Feature Shortlist? Which films do you think will earn nominations? Which film will win? Comment down below!

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Sam Simon January 5, 2019 - 1:53 pm

I haven’t seen many of these, but I did see Cold war… and I didn’t like it much, unfortunately…


theretrohaze December 30, 2018 - 10:13 pm

I would be happy if Roma or Burning get recognition! Both were amazing and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

Sean Coates December 30, 2018 - 11:29 pm

I think Roma is all but certain to nominated, if not. Although Burning is probably my least favourite of the shortlisted films I’ve seen, I still really liked it and I’d be happy to see it get nominated.

Sean Coates December 30, 2018 - 11:40 pm

*If not win.

theretrohaze December 30, 2018 - 11:50 pm

Yes, I think it would be great if either gets nominated. Roma is a sure one! Maybe even win.

Olaf Lesniak December 30, 2018 - 10:05 pm

I am not a Pawlikowski fan. Ida was okay and I disliked Cold War. Having his cinematography is astounding to look at.

By this point it’s pretty sure ROMA has this in the bank. I liked that one quite a lot so I wouldn’t mind it winning. I still have to catch up though.

Sean Coates December 30, 2018 - 11:42 pm

Shame you didn’t like Cold War. It was my 5th favourite film of the year.

Nick Kush December 30, 2018 - 9:32 pm

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