As the unveiling of the Foreign Language Oscar shortlist approaches, it’s time for my annual look at the films that have a shot at making the cut. For the first time, we are splitting the preview into three parts — and listing the films in no particular order. But as with each year, I don’t envy the committees that have to whittle down a record number of submissions — 83 this time around — of some truly remarkable films. There’s an embarassment of riches out there and many agree there is no slam dunk frontrunner. And even if there were, the Foreign Language phase one committee and the executive committee who are the guardians of the shortlist, are hardly predictable — think: the exclusions of 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days; Wadjda and others in recent years. Some feel changes for selecting the eventual winner that came about last year have benefitted the category. Ed Arentz of Music Box Films says, “This is not a horse race where objectively the faster horse is going to win. This is a dog show. People have different criteria on beauty.”
While the entire Academy voting block can now weigh in on the winner without seeing the movies in a theater, the regulations for establishing the nine-strong shortlist remain the same. The phase one committee determines six of the candidates on that roster. The other three entries are determined by the Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee. Lastly, 30 higher-profile members choose the five nominees after viewing the shortlist finalists over the course of a long weekend.
For the profiles below and yet to come over the next day, I spoke with the directors of the films about their inspirations and expectations. In many cases, I also checked in with the U.S. distributor about what gave them the confidence to acquire. Here’s a look at the first four titles that have generated serious buzz over the past several weeks of screenings, Q&As and consulate lunches:
Force Majeure (Sweden), U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Sweden’s Oscar entry, Force Majeure, is one of those movies that poses a philosophical question that can lead to divisive discussion. Ruben Ostlund’s drama (some might say comedy) focuses on a seemingly perfect family vacationing in the French Alps when near-disaster strikes. At lunch on the mountainside, an avalanche barrels towards the terrace. While the mother instinctively grabs her two children to protect them, dad grabs his cell phone and runs off. No one is harmed in the incident, but the consequences of the father’s actions make for compelling aftermath.
Ostlund started out in the 1990s making skiing movies, shooting in winter while editing in summer. He later attended the Gothenburg Film School, and wanted to return to the slopes employing what he’d learned. But, he tells me, “It’s a hard environment to do a film. It’s such a kitschy world, everyone is dressed in neon colors and wearing goggles. It’s not easy to find an existential drama to take place there.” What led him to Force Majeure was seeing a clip of an avalanche falling on people eating at a restaurant. After that, “the key was a friend who said, ‘what about if the father runs away?’” Immediately, he says, “I understood that. It’s about the expectations of the role of a man and a woman.” One of the goals was also to make “the most spectacular avalanche scene in history” and juxtapose it with the everyday. “The scene has all the trivialities in life just next to the really dramatic moments. The last second before the snow descends, the line is, “Isn’t there any parmesan cheese?’”
Force Majeure debuted in Cannes where it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and sold to over 50 territories. Magnolia Pictures acquired it on the Riviera and gave it a limited release in October with NY grosses going up for three weeks straight. “It’s so funny, reviews will treat it like an absolutely sociological view of masculinity and others treat it like a comedy,” Magnolia President Eamonn Bowles tells me. “It is a real situation, that’s what’s so amazing. It balances all these things. It’s not a laughing matter in some respects, and yet it’s enormously funny while dealing with serious issues.”
Ostlund and I spoke before Force Majeure received a Golden Globe nomination, but reflecting on his chances with Oscar, he said he was relieved that Roy Andersson’s Venice Golden Lion winner A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence was not eligible for submission as Sweden’s Oscar pick. “He is my idol. I was brought up in the 70s. This year is my only chance probably when I can beat him, so I’m very happy.” With so much Hollywood exposure now, would the WME-repped helmer consider working there? “If I could bring the kind of content I am interested in, I definitely would be interested to make a movie in Hollywood… I have been sent some scripts that have an interesting set-up. But they have to be interesting from an existential and sociological (perspective). If that would be possible, then it would be great.” In the meantime, a retrospective of Ostlund’s work is gearing up to tour the U.S. courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Beloved Sisters (Germany), U.S. distributor: Music Box
German director Dominik Graf has for much of the past few years worked in television, where, he says, he hasn’t had to waste time “running after money.” The helmer of such features as 2002’s A Map Of The Heart and 1994’s The Invincibles, tells me, “We don’t have independent producers anymore in Germany. You have to find government money and it can take five years and then you get the money and think ‘Oh, now I have to do it.’” He always enjoyed making features, but police dramas became his major gig for a long stretch until Beloved Sisters, a period drama about two siblings who lived a sort of ménage-à-trois with poet, philosopher and playwright Friedrich Schiller.
“Everyone in Germany learns (Schiller’s) poems by heart and reads the dramas. He’s such a strong writer that even if you have trouble understanding the old German language, you discover somehow you have him in your soul, in your heart.” An aspect of Schiller that Graf was unfamiliar with was the lore of his relationship with both Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld in the late-18th century. When his producer enlightened him, “it moved me,” he says. The trio’s situation was all very hush-hush at the time, even if, Graf says, “people knew all about it.” Graf’s image of the man changed, but for him the main characters in what would be his film were the two von Lengefelds. Rather than make it a TV movie, Graf says it was clear to him that it had to be a feature. “It didn’t scare me.” The financing on this one didn’t take long either, “It happened pretty quickly. A year and a half after the script was written, we got most of it.”
Beloved Sisters began its career at the Berlin Film Festival last year and garnered glowing reviews. The original version runs 170-minutes with a second version offered for sale at 140-minutes. Ed Arentz of Music Box Films, which acquired the movie in Berlin, says he’s sticking with the longer version when the film releases on December 24 Stateside. “It struck me as something that has the depth and appeal of a novel and the 140-minute version felt a bit thin, it removed a few secondary characters who provided an interesting context of what was going on in the world at the time. It might be a little bit of an issue with exhibitors, but we’ve seen longer films. Art house audiences are not going to shun it.” For the busy Graf, who has already made three TV movies and two documentaries since finishing Beloved Sisters, representing Germany was “a surprise.” It’s “unfamiliar and strange to be put in a shop window,” he says, but, “I’m quite proud.”
Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem (Israel), U.S. Distributor: Music Box
Director siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz concluded their trilogy about Viviane Amsalem with this year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight entry, and now Golden Globe nominee, Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem. Ronit has starred in all three films which began with 2004’s To Take A Wife and followed up with 7 Days in 2008. She tells me the impetus was somewhat spiritual, “One day, I woke up and I wanted to tell the story of this woman.” Each of the films deals with the distressed Amsalem who is stuck in a conservative marriage. Gett is the story of her five-year fight to acquire a writ of divorce (the Gett of the title), which can only be handed out by a rabbinical court, while her husband refuses to grant his consent even though they have been separated for years. Ronit says, “I have seen so many women in Israel in such a tragic situation. In 2014 in Israel, you can’t get a divorce without the husband’s accord. You still need a valid reason, but because the man is the law, trying to find a valid reason is impossible.”
The film, which had strong reviews out of Cannes, has stirred lively debate in Israel. “Something exceptional has happened,” says Ronit. “We knew it would make a strong impression, but ooh la la!” Since the movie was released in September, she tells me, “There hasn’t been one single day without an article in the newspaper or online about it.” And, in February, there will be a conference of rabbinical groups who will screen the film and discuss possible changes. “For a law that was written 4,000 years ago, it’s kind of ‘wow!’”
I first read about getting a Gett in a New York Magazine article about 20 years ago, but the concept still remains unknown to many outside of Israel. Ronit says she couldn’t believe no one had ever done a feature about it. “I told Shlomi, we have to do it fast because there has to be someone else doing it… But it’s a big taboo, no one talks about the problems of Jewish women all over the world.” Ed Arentz of Music Box Films contends that although it has sparked serious discussion, it is not a film that is “crusading for social change.” It’s a “story where you have this very smug husband who thinks ‘I did everything right, I ticked the boxes.’ But what he’s neglecting is that he never provided the essential element: tenderness and affection, or actually seemed to care for his wife and how she felt.”
Shlomi Elkabetz, who has lived in New York, is currently in LA working on promoting the film and Ronit will join him shortly. She and I spoke the day after the Golden Globe nominations which she learned about just before boarding a flight from Paris back to Jerusalem. “I got on the plane just after shooting and I was very tired. I heard about the nomination and couldn’t calm down the whole flight.” The filmmaker thinks it is “inevitable” that she will work in the U.S. “I think the time has come to know this place that I don’t know and don’t have a handle on. I really want to create something in the U.S.” Working with Shlomi will also continue. “We are so in tune, it’s like high-level therapy.” Of the Oscar race, she says, “It demands so much work and presence and rigor. No one is prepared for such a thing.” Gett goes out in the U.S. on February 13.
Leviathan (Russia), U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Golden Globe nominee and Cannes Best Screenplay winner Leviathan may seem like an odd choice for Russia to put forward as its Foreign Language Oscar submission this year since it deals with corruption at the State level. But, it had a lot of backing from the film industry, director Andrey Zvyagintsev tells me. About a year and a half ago, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky publicly said that the State should have a specific cultural policy to reflect its interest. His words were “Let all the flowers bloom, but we will water only those we like or deem useful.” Zvyagintsev says it’s easier to obtain State financing for “patriotic” films, but “public debate on the subject and the quality of the scripts also helps.” Leviathan was the subject of “enormous public debate at the Ministry of Culture,” and a jury of film professionals ultimately unanimously gave it a grant. That, plus, its win in Cannes likely helped pave the way for its submission to the Academy.
Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker tells me that when he and Tom Bernard saw Leviathan in Cannes they had a deal done within six hours. The pair do not choose their acquisitions based on Oscar potential, but also realized, “We have to accept this will not be selected from Russia because every country has its own political reasons for what films they choose. Here was a situation where we thought it probably would — like last year with (India’s) The Lunchbox — not get selected (even though) it could have won.” Barker suspects that one reason Zvyagintsev doesn’t seem to have troubles at home is that “they deal with the film like it’s a thriller. Artistically, it’s really a fine movie.”
The story follows Kolya who is forced to fight his town’s corrupt mayor when told that his house is to be demolished. Zvyagintsev says he began work on Leviathan in 2004 when he first read a news story about Marvin Heemeyer, a Colorado man who had concocted a “killdozer” to take revenge after a zoning dispute. “It made a huge impression on me and started me working on the script. Along the way I found other sources of inspiration, works that stimulated me and affected the final story.” Those included Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which influenced social contract theory in 1651, and the biblical story of Job. “It doesn’t matter whether we live in a progressive or archaic society: the moment of truth when a person finds himself alone, fighting against the system for justice is inevitable. This story of Man versus State is universal and timeless,” Zvyagintsev says. Barker calls it a combination of Dostoyevksy and The Godfather. “It feels so urgent” and is “a page out of great classical movies that really work with the public. I’m, kind of overwhelmed by the drama. I have seen it many times and it is as good or better every time I see it.”
Zvyagintsev first became known to international audiences with 2003 Venice Golden Lion winner The Return. That film “opened doors for me; I couldn’t stop smiling for at least a year. I realized that I am who I am, that I exist. At the time I was already not a young man — I was 39 and had waited all my life for such a moment.” The Return represented Russia for the Foreign Language Oscar that year, so Zvyagintsev has been here before. But, he allows, “It doesn’t mean that I worry about all this any less. Some time ago at Sundance I was attending an official dinner of some sort and at my table was a young American director. Probably to make me feel more welcome, he started asking me who I am and where I am from. Among other things I mentioned that recently my film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He said something along the lines of ‘how wonderful’ and ‘congratulations.’ And then he asked me what I was doing in the U.S. I said, my film is nominated for the Golden Globe. He nearly jumped out of his seat and that was the first moment in our conversation when he became truly interested… Awards are given as a sign of recognition to the film and for me it is a great honor and huge responsibility. The fact that your film is nominated for the Golden Globe or Oscar over what may be national resistance, due to the current tense political situation, makes you a part of a bigger discussion in society.”
This time around, his experience in LA at Academy screenings and Q&As taught him, “how truly universal our story is. No matter where you live, what state ideology, if any, you have, and what kind of society you live in — Leviathan is something that you will be able to relate to. After one of the screenings, I was approached by a Mexican from LA who told me: ‘Put in tequila instead of vodka and change the cold of Russia to the heat of California and this can be a story about us’… Leviathan is a story about humanity and about fate.”
Stay tuned for more profiles to come…