Oscar Deadline Approaches: What Could be Canada's Best Foreign Language Film Contender?

Possible Canuck Oscar contenders are A Bag of Marbles, Hochelaga, Maligutit, Old Stone
and Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
The submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film race are trickling in! Canada announces its contender on Monday, September 25 and whatever film we send joins a growing field that already includes some formidable frontrunners. Cannes winners The Square (Sweden), Loveless (Russia) and 120 Beats Per Minute (France) are leading the pack, but don’t count out Berlin winner On Body and Soul (Hungary) and fall festival breakouts like Razzia (Morocco), A Fantastic Woman (Chile), and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father (Cambodia). Other submissions include Happy End (Austria), Racer and the Jailbird (Belgium), and The Fixer (Romania). With these and other submissions in place, what are the films that Canada might consider?

There seem to be fewer Canadian releases than in recent years with the exceptions of commercially successful sequels like Bon Cop Bad Cop 2 and De père en flic 2 and the co-pro Maudie. But with a few festival holdovers from last year in the running and some potential late-breakers, here’s a quick look at Canuck contenders. All submissions must open by September 30 with October 2 as the deadline to submit.

Un sac de billes (A Bag of Marbles)

Dir: Christian Duguay (The Art of War)
Festivals: a handful of minor international fests
Awards: none

Synopsis: The true story of two young Jewish brothers in German occupied France who, with a mind-boggling mix of mischievousness, courage and ingenuity, will be forced to fend for themselves in order to survive the enemy invasion and try bring their family back together.

Pros: Ricky Gervais was right on the money when he told Kate Winslet that she needed to do a Holocaust movie if she wanted to win an Oscar. Stories about World War II and its aftermath traditionally play well with the Academy, particularly in the foreign category with recent winners Son of Saul, Ida, and The Counterfeiters taking home hardware. This well-reviewed co-production between Canada, France, and the Czech Republic features international stars like Elsa Zylberstein and Christian Clavier.

Cons: Did Marbles even open in Toronto? Despite fair notices, the film has no profile and little to gain now that it’s moving out of theatres and onto DVD. Director Christian Duguay’s body of work is mostly commercial stuff shot in Canada on the cheap and he doesn’t have the auteur pedigree commonly associate with the foreign race.

Dir. Mathieu Denis (Corbo) and Simon Lavoie (The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches)
Select Festivals: TIFF, Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Berlin, Sydney, Karlovy Kary
Awards: Best Canadian Feature (TIFF), Canada’s Top Ten, 3 Canadian Screen Award nominations including Best Film, Prix Iris winner (production design), 4 Prix Iris nominations incl Best Film, Grand Prize for Avant Garde and Genre Cinema (Buenos Aires)

Synopsis: A group of young people in Québec resolve to form a revolutionary cell together in the aftermath of student protests.
Pros: This radical piece of rebellious and politically charged filmmaking is a true work of art. Graves weaves a dexterously plotted tale of the Quebec student protests (colloquially known as Maple Spring) and blends drama and archival footage with onscreen excerpts of political manifestos and shape-shifting aspect ratios that convey different ways of seeing the world. People who love this film really love it, and the sheer scope, passion, and originality of the work makes it an easy choice for anyone eager to recognize a risky work of art.

Cons: Films like Graves are love-it-or-hate-it. At three hours, it’s a very demanding film that isn’t for all tastes. The style might be seen as self-indulgent by some.

Dir. Johnny Ma (debut)
Select Festivals: Berlin, TIFF, AFI, Hong Kong, Stockholm
Select Awards: Best Canadian First Feature (TIFF), Canada’s Top Ten, 5 Canadian Screen Award nominations including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Stockholm FF), FIPRESCI Prize (Pacific Meridian FF)

Synopsis: A psychological thriller about a taxi driver battling bureaucracy and legal manipulation in China.

Pros: Johnny Ma’s debut feature is a knockout. This dark, violent, and brooding tale puts a taxi driver (Gang Chen) down a philosophical rabbit hole when he weighs the value of another man’s life. The film recalls the finest Hong Kong action films as Ma crafts a compelling and suspenseful story of a bureaucratic abyss and the lives it leaves dangling precariously like leaves in the wind.

Cons: This Hong Kong-set film might not seem “Canadian” enough, but that didn’t stop us from sending Incendies or War Witch to the Oscars. The main downside could be that Old Stone already had an American theatrical run last November, so while its December theatrical run in Canada technically meets eligibility, it could either be compromised or be perceived to have maxed out its potential if it left theatres before the Academy voted on last year’s Oscars.

Dir. Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), Natar Ungalaaq
Select festivals: TIFF, Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Palm Springs, Sydney, Seattle, imagineNATIVE
Select awards: Canada’s Top Ten, 2 Canadian Screen Award nominations including Best Film, Best Indigenous Language Production (imagineNATIVE)

Synopsis: Inspired by the John Ford film The Searchers, an Inuit woman and her daughter are kidnapped by three Inuit men, while her husband and son are away. The Inuit husband sets out on a journey to find his family and punish the perpetrators.

Pros: The angle of remaking a classic Hollywood western from an Inuit perspective is a novelty that could draw interest from American and international voters. It’s also the film’s strength, since Kunuk offers a visionary take on the film that rewrites the stereotypes and racism on which the western genre resides. Plus, Kunuk has ample street cred thanks to the success of Atanarjuat and this rare Inuit production lets Canada showcase its history and diversity to an Academy acutely aware of the need to revamp representation both behind the camera and in front of it.

Cons: It’s really slow. Maliglutit is half the length of Atanarjuat and it feels twice as long. The film hasn’t had much success branching into festivals outside of Canada, either, which indicates that programmers and industry peers might not be as forgiving of the film’s pace as Canadians are. Reception of the film was more politely enthusiastic than rapturous.

Dir. François Girard (The Red Violin)
Festivals: TIFF
Awards: None

Synopsis: Mohawk archaeologist Baptiste Asigny engages in a search for his ancestors following a tragic terrain slump in the Percival Molson Stadium.

Pros: Girard’s sweeping production spans centuries of Canadian history from pre-contact days to present as it considers all the people who’ve walked this land. The intricate narrative focuses on the site of the McGill University football stadium where it’s believe Jacques Cartier first made contacts with the Iroquois in the village of Hochelaga. The film is an obviously fitting choice for the “Canada 150 submission” since it offers a politically-correct take on our nation’s history and all the legacies both positive and negative it entails. Production values are also outstanding, so Hochelaga might impress the voters from below-the-line branches of the Academy as well. The film’s random opening on a single screen in Medicine Hat, Alberta today indicates a fast track for eligibility, while a cushy sneak peek in Montreal before TIFF indicates Telefilm’s effort to get people excited about this film.

Cons: The film was somewhat lost in Toronto amongst showier titles. Of the few reviews that surfaced, both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were positive but noted that Hochelaga’s commercial potential in the States might be limited, which could make a case against submitting it just as much as there’s an argument for submitting it to help gain some notice. The film hasn’t had much of a chance to prove itself, which could make it a relatively low-key contender if Canucks aren’t invested in it. At the same time, we could help build momentum for Hochelaga as it enters the race and screens more widely across Canada.


Although Graves is my personal favourite in this race, Hochelaga seems to be the most viable contender to secure a nomination thanks to its artistry, accessibility, and relevancy. (But don’t be too surprised if it’s Maliglutit, either.)