Here’s Your Crash Course To This Year’s Documentary, Animated, And Foreign Language Oscar Categories

The full list of nominations for the 88th Academy Awards won’t be announced until January 14. We can busy ourselves until then by catching up on all the great films from 2015 we may have missed, but even so, that leaves a huge pool of eligible films to sort through. (Not to mention the innumerable standouts worthy of attention, but without the public profile or studio backing to mount a serious Oscar campaign.) What with the impending holidays and the looming terror of gift-buying, protracted periods of family time, and the depressive episodes inevitably provoked by a lack of daylight, staying abreast of the best of the best can be a real test.

Luckily, in a few select categories, the Oscars give awards junkies the vaguest idea of where to start. In the weeks preceding the official nominations announcement, some categories unveil “shortlists,” groups of films in consideration from which five will be selected as contenders for the top prize. In the Animated, Foreign, and now the Documentary races, the lineup of pictures in contention for the nominations have been made public knowledge. So sit back and let us separate the wheat from the chaff, making the most educated guesses possible on which chosen few will break out, and which might be worth a look either way.


There are 16 films that have been submitted for perusal by Academy members in this historically eclectic category. Due to the sheer scarcity of animated features, some off-the-beaten-path entries typically sneak into the nominations every year, though their claiming victory is rare. In 2014’s ceremony, the Irish fantasy Song Of The Sea and Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (their first feature not directed by godhead Hayao Miyazaki in a dog’s age) both squeaked away with a nomination, but couldn’t get the golden man. The statuette usually ends up going to a major studio’s racehorse; take a look at Pixar’s run of domination during the late 2000s, or the recent back-to-back Disney wins for Frozen in 2013 and Big Hero 6 last year.

Disney animation took the year off, but they’ll come roaring back in 2016 with both Zootopia and the much-anticipated Pacific Islander princess movie Moana. This year, however, all eyes are on another one-two punch: In 2015, Pixar blessed audiences with both the transcendent Inside Out and the perfectly-fine-but-not-Inside Out-good The Good Dinosaur. If there’s a lock anywhere in this category, it’s for Inside Out, which felt like an earnest return to the Pixar we know and love after the somewhat lackluster Cars 2Brave, and Monsters University. (Both Cars 2 and Monsters University got shut out entirely, no nomination or nuthin’.) The Good Dinosaur could power through to a nomination of its own by virtue of its estimable technical achievements and the brand-name studio identification, though it’s hardly a sure thing.

What should be a sure thing is Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion puppet masterpiece Anomalisa, which would probably be a contender for Best Picture honors if not for the Academy’s ghettoization of animated films. (The marionette cunnilingus may have also been a dealbreaker for some.) The emotionally profound film has drawn pristine reviews across the board and Kaufman’s no stranger to the Academy, having already earned two nominations and one win for his screenplay work on live-action pictures. Though the exploration of loneliness, connection, and reality wouldn’t exactly be a typical nominee, it’s simply too good to ignore.

Which leaves three more slots. The grating, inescapable Minions doesn’t deserve to be spoken in the same breath as some of the films at hand, and yet its staggering pop-culture presence along with the 1.000 batting average of Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 could push it through. These spots would be much better spent on the likes of When Marnie Was There, quite possibly Studio Ghibli’s last animated effort for some time in the wake of their restructuring due to Miyazaki’s retirement, or Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, an anthology from a crackerjack team of the world’s top animators adapting the ubiquitous book of prose poems. Shaun The Sheep Movie was a pleasure as well, and its identification with the larger Wallace & Gromit brand could be a boon unto it.

The full list:

The Boy And The Beast
Boy And The World
The Good Dinosaur
Hotel Transylvania 2
Inside Out
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet
The Laws Of The Universe – Part 0
Moomins On The Riviera
The Peanuts Movie
Regular Show: The Movie
Shaun The Sheep Movie
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water
When Marnie Was There


The Documentary Feature category has tended to privilege projects that fall to one extreme of the emotional spectrum or the other. In 2013, the feel-good 20 Feet From Stardom won over voters with its mix of solid-gold Motown soul tunes and recognition for long-overlooked background singers. It was a fun, uncomplicated documentary that left toes a-tappin’ and spirits high, and that goodwill gave it leverage over more experimental endeavors such as Cutie and the Boxer and Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing Indonesian genocide film The Act Of Killing. Then last year, things shifted to the other mode when Laura Poitras’ disturbing, urgent Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour took home the gold. Like a paranoid cyberthriller made frighteningly real, the film watched itself make history as it permeated the cocoon of secrecy surrounding the most wanted man on the planet.

For a film to stand a chance of snagging a nomination, it must either warm up or wake up the viewers. This year’s crop has no shortage of somberly important issue-driven docs and a light sprinkling of uplifting inspiration-porn. The only real oddball in the bunch also happens to be one of the best, and unfortunately doesn’t have the rosiest of prospects when it comes to securing the nomination. Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog meditates on loss and death by chronicling Anderson’s relationship with her pet pooch, bringing them through post-9/11 New York and the great beyond. It’s a singular film, but may be a touch too outré for the Academy tastes.

After his astonishing The Act of Killing swept festivals and garnered a nomination in 2013, director Joshua Oppenheimer turned around and performed the same miracle again with his companion piece The Look of Silence. Returning to Indonesia, the filmmaker turned his camera on some of the former members of the paramilitary death squads that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists in the ’60s. In confronting them with their crimes, he plumbs the blackest corners of the human heart and documents humanity’s capacity for evil with shocking clarity. The nomination is all but assured, but a victory, while less certain, would be only fair.

A pair of tragic bio-docs tinged with the torment of celebrity could croon their respective ways into Academy hearts. Asif Kapadia’s heartrending Amy cobbles together archival footage to show neo-soul songstress Amy Winehouse’s life crumbling in slow motion, and Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? properly eulogized the legendary Nina Simone through moving means. Both films could hit that Academy sweet spot, though it’s somewhat more likely that voters will feel they’re too similar for double inclusion on the slate and go one way or the other.

Then come the issue films. It’s a showdown for sadness supremacy between the ravages of the international drug trade, college campus rape epidemics, ruthless colonialism, and Scientology. Cartel LandThe Hunting GroundWe Come As Friends and Going Clear all enjoyed the most media exposure while backing up their own hype with generally well-reported investigations into some of the most hot-button issues of the day. Xenu only knows if the voting body has enough offended Scientologists to sink Going Clear‘s chances, but for my money, the best odds are on The Hunting Ground. College campuses have become a fertile seeding ground for controversy, and the process of becoming aware of the scandalizing untold rape figures is markedly of-the-moment.

The full list:

Best Of Enemies
Cartel Land
Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief
He Named Me Malala
Heart Of A Dog
The Hunting Ground
Listen To Me Marlon
The Look Of Silence
3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets
We Come As Friends
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Where To Invade Next
Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom


Speculating on tidy lists of 15 or 16 from the Documentary and Animated categories is relatively easy. Sifting through submissions from 81 countries is like trying to talk your way through the tower of Babel. For the first time ever, Paraguay has shown up to the party with a submission of their own, Arami Ullon’s documentary Cloudy Times, about her relationship with her aging mother. But even in this vast herd of possibilities, there are still those that break apart from the pack and make themselves seen.

Taiwan’s unspeakably elegant martial arts epic The Assassin has been blowing away audiences at festivals around the world since it premiered at Cannes in May, where it earned Hou Hsiao-Hsien the Best Director prize. Following in the wuxia tradition of martial arts films, the poetic and mostly silent film moves with a slow grace that complements Hou’s singular eye for natural beauty at every turn. It’s safe to assume that the same organization that recognized Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s formal and literal acrobatics will reserve some love for this beautiful film.

Another probable breakout is Portugal’s Miguel Gomes with his sprawling, six-hour and 20-minute retelling of Arabian Nights. The film had to be split up into three parts for exhibition, and only Volume 2 – The Desolate One was technically submitted for consideration, but it can really only be understood as a part of a titanically ambitious whole. Audiences at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival with the gluteal fortitude to sit through the entire thing spoke as if touched by a divine force, but then, the sheer enormity of the run time could be a barrier to acceptance from the Academy.

From reliable nominee producer France comes Mustang, an uncommonly confident debut film from Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who directed the tragicomic domestic fable of five Turkish sisters while pregnant. The New York Times‘ Critic’s Pick review described the film as “stunning” and the feminist bent has made it a favorite among those cinephiles seeking out more obscure pleasures, so an underdog push wouldn’t be out of the question.

But all of these films will have to compete with Hungary’s unforgettable Holocaust drama Son of Saul, from another first-timer with the directorial confidence of an artist twice their age, newcomer László Nemes. The film hooked many viewers for its relentless visual conceit, in which sequences of traumatizingly frank horrors are glimpsed only in peripherals or out of focus in the background while our protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) remains stuck in close-up. But movies don’t win the Grand Prix at Cannes for gimmickry; the eye-catching tactic is in service of a shattering narrative about the bonds between parents and children during times of great duress, trials of the human spirit, and the industry of inhumanity that was the Holocaust. At this point, it’s Nemes’ Oscar to lose.

The full list:

Afghanistan Utopia, Hassan Nazer
Albania Bota, Iris Elezi, Thomas Logoreci
Algeria Twilight of Shadows, Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina
Argentina The Clan, Pablo Trapero
Australia Arrows of the Thunder, Dragon Greg Sneddon
Austria Goodnight Mommy, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Bangladesh Jalal’s Story, Abu Shahed Emon
Belgium The Brand New Testament, Jaco Van Dormael
Bosnia and Herzegovina Our Everyday Story, Ines Tanović
Brazil The Second Mother, Anna Muylaert
Bulgaria The Judgment, Stephan Komandarev
Cambodia The Last Reel, Sotho Kulikar
Canada Félix and Meira, Maxime Giroux
Chile The Club, Pablo Larraín
China Go Away Mr Tumor, Han Yan
Colombia Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra
Costa Rica Imprisoned, Esteban Ramírez
Croatia The High Sun, Dalibor Matanić
Czech Republic Home Care, Slavek Horak
Denmark A War, Tobias Lindholm
Dominican Republic Sand Dollars, Laura Amelia Guzmán, Israel Cárdenas
Estonia 1944, Elmo Nüganen
Ethiopia Lamb, Yared Zeleke
Finland The Fencer, Klaus Härö
France Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Georgia Moira, Levan Tutberidze
Germany Labyrinth of Lies, Giulio Ricciarelli
Greece Xenia, Panos H Koutras
Guatemala Ixcanul, Jayro Bustamante
Hong Kong To the Fore, Dante Lam
Hungary Son of Saul, László Nemes
Iceland Rams, Grímur Hákonarson
India Court, Chaitanya Tamhane
Iran Muhammad: The Messenger of God, Majid Majidi
Iraq Memories on Stone, Shawkat Amin Korki
Ireland Viva, Paddy Breathnach
Israel Baba Joon, Yuval Delshad
Italy Don’t Be Bad, Claudio Caligari
Ivory Coast Run, Philippe Lacôte
Japan 100 Yen Love, Masaharu Take
Jordan Theeb, Naji Abu Nowar
Kazakhstan Stranger, Yermek Tursunov
Kosovo Babai, Visar Morina
Kyrgyzstan Heavenly Nomadic, Mirlan Abdykalykov
Latvia Modris, Juris Kursietis
Lebanon Void – Naji Bechara, Jad Beyrouthy, Zeina Makki, Tarek Korkomaz, Christelle Ighniades, Maria Abdel Karim, Salim Haber
Lithuania The Summer of Sangaile, Alanté Kavaïté
Luxembourg Baby (A)lone, Donato Rotunno
Macedonia Honey Night, Ivo Trajkov
Malaysia Men Who Save the World, Liew Seng Tat
Mexico 600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein
Montenegro You Carry Me, Ivona Juka
Morocco Aida, Driss Mrini
Nepal Talakjung vs Tulke, Basnet Nischal
Netherlands The Paradise Suite, Joost van Ginkel
Norway The Wave, Roar Uthaug
Pakistan Moor, Jami
Palestine The Wanted 18, Amer Shomali, Paul Cowan
Paraguay Cloudy Times, Arami Ullón
Peru NN, Héctor Gálvez
Philippines Heneral Luna, Jerrold Tarog
Poland 11 Minutes, Jerzy Skolimowski
Portugal Arabian Nights – Volume 2 The Desolate One, Miguel Gomes
Romania Aferim!, Radu Jude
Russia Sunstroke, Nikita Mikhalkov
Serbia Enclave, Goran Radovanović
Singapore 7 Letters – Royston Tan, Kelvin Tong, Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, Tan Pin Pin, Boo Junfeng, K Rajagopal
Slovakia Goat, Ivan Ostrochovský
Slovenia The Tree, Sonja Prosenc
South Africa The Two of Us, Ernest Nkosi
South Korea The Throne, Lee Joon-ik
Spain Flowers, Jon Garaño, Jose Mari Goenaga
Sweden A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Roy Andersson
Switzerland Iraqi Odyssey, Samir
Taiwan The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-hsien
Thailand How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), Josh Kim
Turkey Sivas, Kaan Müjdeci
United Kingdom Under Milk Wood, Kevin Allen
Uruguay A Moonless Night, Germán Tejeira
Venezuela Gone with the River, Mario Crespo
Vietnam Jackpot, Dustin Nguyen