Very often, the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film feel like, well, their own little countries. Occasionally, you'll see a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Life Is Beautiful break into the main categories, but for the most part, the foreign films stand alone.
They also have a reputation for being esoteric, story-free art films that are hard to understand or, worse, boring. But that's not really true. The Oscars rarely nominate American art films, and the same is true when it comes to the foreign nominees, which tend to have pretty strong, traditional stories.
Suffice to say, it's almost always worth the effort to track these movies down. Here's my ranking of this year's five foreign nominees, along with information on how to watch.
1) Mustang: a French film about young women and religious oppression
Mustang is one of my favorite films of 2015 (though, alas, I didn't see it until 2016, so I couldn't put it on my year-end list). The movie embraces a wide variety of tones, shifting between comedy and horror and drama; by the end, it's a thriller about whether its lead character will escape the life she had the misfortune of being born into.
At the heart of Mustang are five sisters whose parents died when they were very young. Since then, they've been cared for by their uncle and grandmother. When the girls get in trouble for playing in the ocean with boys (and perhaps sexually exciting them in the process), they are locked away — forbidden from attending school and forced to adapt to the more conservative ways of their village and unspecified religion's traditions. (The film is set in a time that might best be described as "ambiguously modern.")
What happens next is reminiscent of a fairy tale — the sisters are kind of like locked-away princesses, after all — but is far more about attempts to write off women in conservative movements. A few of the story beats don't quite work, including a late-film revelation about the uncle, but the overall effect is one of intense emotional catharsis. That Mustang was made by a first-time director (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) is all the more impressive.
Where to watch: Mustang is only playing in a handful of theaters right now, but is coming to DVD in May.
2) Embrace of the Serpent: a hypnotic journey down the Amazon River
Embrace of the Serpent, directed by Colombia's Ciro Guerra, has all the qualities of a particularly vivid dream. Its storytelling makes logical sense if you really sit down and think about it, but while you're watching the film, you'll feel as if you're slipping further and further into a long string of beautiful, hypnotic images.
Embrace of the Serpent is centered on an Amazonian named Karamakate; he's the last of his tribe, and the film sends him on two separate trips down the Amazon, decades apart. But it freely cuts between those two trips, making them (and the two different, white explorers he travels with, who are both based on historical figures) seem like part of one, long continuum, rather than separate events. Embrace of the Serpent is one part adventure film, one part reverie for lost traditions and old ways of life, and one part horror story about colonialism. It's like few other films ever made.
You can read much more about it in my full review.
Where to watch: Embrace of the Serpent is currently in theaters and has proved surprisingly successful in limited release, meaning there's a good chance it will arrive in your city eventually. Check its current release schedule here.
3) Son of Saul: a remarkably filmed Holocaust drama
In general, the Academy has always rewarded films set during World War II, and that's especially true for those concerning the Holocaust. As one of the most significant events of the 20th Century, it makes for a powerful, tragic background for films both terrific (Schindler's List) and... less so (the aforementioned Life Is Beautiful). But none of those films have been quite like Son of Saul.
Hungarian director László Nemes films almost the entire movie in a closeup, on star Géza Röhrig's face. As his camera remains pinned to the actor (almost as if he's wearing a GoPro, or something similar), the horrors of the Holocaust blur out in the background. Thematically, this makes sense — Saul is one of the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners of the death camps who helped the Nazis push their fellow prisoners toward the gas chambers, and then removed the dead bodies. Thus, he would almost certainly try to blur out the horrors he's borne witness to.
The film's focus on Saul's attempts to bury the body of a young boy killed in said gas chambers remain a tad too ambiguous to wholly work. (Saul's reasons for wanting to do this either hinge on an extreme coincidence or betray a psychological state the film does little to explore.) But the overall effect of the film is that it forces you to reconsider an event that's often explored onscreen, which may be why it's considered the odds-on favorite to win.
Where to watch: Son of Saul is still in theaters.
4) A War: Denmark digs deep into the Afghanistan War
There's a certain remove to A War, a certain detachment you'll have to get past if you're going to enjoy its sobering look at a conflict that's lasted nearly 15 years at this point. The movie follows a seemingly normal family man who becomes a war criminal, as it attempts to both exonerate and convict him; it features a surprising amount of moral complexity, even as it sometimes bites off more than it can chew.
This will come as no surprise to fans of the superb Danish political drama Borgen. A War's director, Tobias Lindholm, was one of the main writers on that series, and his embrace of the idea that political issues are more complicated than black-and-white positioning is only trumped by his embrace of the idea that people are more complicated than even that. A War's eventual evolution into a courtroom drama may throw some, but the film is always looking for emotional truth.
You can read more about it in my review here.
Where to watch: A War is currently in theaters.
5) Theeb: a young boy travels into the desert
Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb is Jordan's first-ever nominee in the foreign category. With its sweeping desert vistas (reminiscent of Oscar sensation Lawrence of Arabia) and storytelling that's heavily inspired by American Westerns, it's possibly the most conventional of this year's five nominees. But it's also the sort of story that benefits from the viewpoint of another country and culture.
Theeb is a young boy who accompanies his older brother into the desert. His brother is following an Englishman, who needs a guide to a well. The Englishman has ulterior motives, of course; the story takes place during World War I, and the well is located right next to a railway that's crucial to the success of the Ottoman Empire, which the British are fighting against.
But Theeb ceases to be a straightforward adventure story around its halfway mark, when a specific event divides the film in two. (I won't spoil it here.) By the end, it's an often moving tale of growing up, the commonalities we all share as human beings, and the limits of those commonalities in helping us see eye-to-eye. Theeb has its flaws, but it proves Nowar has a great film in him.
Where to watch: Theeb is available for digital rental and download.