What does Wong Kar Wai have to do to get an Oscar nomination? The veteran Hong Kong filmmaker was shut out of the Foreign Language Oscar category today after reaching the shortlist for the first time with The Grandmaster. His only other shot at an Oscar came in 2000 when his haunting period love story, In The Mood For Love, was the submission from his home country. It did not advance. To be fair, Grandmaster did pick up two nods today, one for Phillipe Le Sourd’s cinematography and one for William Chang Suk Ping’s costume design. But the Academy chose to forgo the Martin Scorsese-endorsed film in a race in which it was widely expected to figure.
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Indeed, people I talked to today were very surprised. When I recently spoke with Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co has the movie in several countries, I wondered if The Grandmaster‘s box office could be an issue since it was the highest-grossing film of all the contenders, and since commercial movies aren’t normally the ones the Academy sidles up to in this category. It’s familiar territory for Weinstein who was on the shortlist with French juggernaut The Intouchables last year. That film did not make the jump to a nomination and Weinstein told me in December that it had been a victim of its own success. One watcher today suggested Grandmaster may have suffered a similar fate. There was also a spot of controversy over the Chinese version being cut down for the U.S. – although the U.S. version is the same as the one submitted by Hong Kong. Weinstein told me last month that the adjustments were made to avoid confusion over some cultural elements and that Wong did them himself, rather than Weinstein and exec producer Megan Ellison as had been suggested. “People think it was us,” Weinstein said, adding, “As presumptuous as I can be, I’m not presumptuous enough to tell Kar Wai” what to do.
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Looking at the films that did get nominated, the make-up of the Foreign Language category is pretty spot-on in terms of expectations. The one finalist that might surprise is Rithy Panh’s documentary The Missing Picture. The autobiographical story — told entirely with clay figures — documents the Cambodian director’s experiences growing up under the Khmer Rouge. It won the top prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section last year, but has not had quite as high a profile as the other nominees and shortlisted pics. Strand Releasing has it in the U.S. where it has played several festivals. One exec says, “It’s nominations like that that give you hope for Academy voters.”
Also making the cut is Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar. The Palestinian film brings the director back to the party for a second time. That’s especially notable because Palestine has made Foreign Language submissions only six times and the two times a movie by Abu-Assad was chosen, it’s gone on to a nomination. In fact, Abu-Assad is the only director in the final five to have ever scored a nomination before. (He told me today that he decided to sleep through the nominations but his girlfriend secretly got up and watched them on mute before waking him with the good news. “I’m surprised and happy,” he said, sounding shocked.) Omar, about young Palestinian baker (Adam Bakri) whose loyalty to family and country are complicated by his love for a beautiful young student, mixes elements of Shakespearean tragedy with suspense thriller and international intrigue. Adopt Films, which is thrilled with its first nomination since the company was created 2.5 years ago, has the movie in the U.S. and will open it February 21.
The titles that had been on most people’s lips and which made it to the next stage are Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt out of Denmark; Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty from Italy; and Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown by Felix van Groeningen. Each has their own particularity and their own level of momentum. Hunt, which has been around since it won the Best Actor prize for Mads Mikkelsen in Cannes in 2012, also just scooped a Best Actor nod at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. It’s got six Bodil nominations at home where it was the second-highest-grossing film of 2013. Mikkelsen plays a man whose life is shattered when an untruthful remark throws his small community into a collective state of hysteria. In the U.S., it was released by Magnolia in July. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe but lost to its Oscar competitor Great Beauty. That film has a slew of other prizes under its belt including European Film Awards for Best Film, Director and Actor (Toni Servillo). The story of an aging writer recollecting his lost youth that’s a sort of love letter to Rome was released by Janus Films in the U.S. in November.
Finally, Broken Circle Breakdown, a Berlin debut in 2013, was just handed the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Foreign Language film at Palm Springs. Van Groeningen’s movie is the story of a couple that is deeply in love, but when unexpected tragedy befalls their new family, they are severely tested. And, it’s all set to a backdrop of American Bluegrass music. Tribeca Film released it in November in the U.S. The director told me today he went jogging instead of watching the nominations live stream. When he got home, he took a shower before looking at his emails and understanding his film had grabbed one of the five slots. “It took some time to sink in; I didn’t do anything for five minutes, then I cried for about 20 seconds, then I drove to Brussels for a press conference because Belgium is going kind of crazy right now,” he said.