The Academy started with a record 83 submissions for the Foreign Language Oscar this year, whittling that down to a shortlist of nine in December. Today we are left with five nominees: Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales (Argentina); Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines (Estonia) Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (Mauritania); Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland); and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (Russia). And, as is the case every year, there is a major surprise in the bunch. There’s also an interesting twist thanks to another major category.
Of the four shortlisted foreign language films which were omitted from the nominees today, the biggest shock is Force Majeure. Ruben Ostlund’s Swedish comedy/drama that poses existential questions about manhood in an Alpine ski resort was the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner in Cannes and was understood to have played well with the Academy. It also had a Golden Globe nomination and has been one of the most warmly received foreign films of the year, with good box office and great word of mouth. I sense the team surrounding the film is feeling like it was left out of the running by an actual act of force majeure today.
The film appeared to have a higher profile than Estonia’s Tangerines, which did make the cut. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe, but has not taken any major festival prizes. It’s set in 1992 during the war in the Estonian village of Abkhazia where one man stays behind to tend his crop of the titular fruit and takes in wounded soldiers from opposite sides of the conflict. This is Estonia’s first Oscar nomination.
The other four nominees were highly anticipated. Before moving on to those, there was a twist of fate worth noting for one of the movies that didn’t even make the shortlist in December. At the time, there was consternation that the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night was not in the nine-strong field. It had been praised in Cannes and brought Marion Cotillard the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Actress prize. The Sundance Selects title didn’t magically reappear in the Foreign Language race today, but star Cotillard did nab her second Best Actress Oscar nomination. Perhaps that will provide some salve to the Belgian frères many consider among the greatest living filmmakers.
Back in the Foreign Language race, Golden Globe winner Leviathan also has a Cannes Best Screenplay award under its belt as well as a BAFTA nomination. As modern-day corruption in Russia meets the Book of Job, the film is the story of a man who is forced to fight his town’s corrupt mayor when told that his house is to be demolished. Sony Pictures Classics released it in December in the U.S. The last Russian film nominated was Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 in 2007 — his 1994 Burnt By The Sun is the only Russian movie ever to win.
Sony Classics sealed a deal on the movie within six hours of Co-Presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker seeing it in Cannes. Bernard suggests Leviathan may get a leg up in this race from the constant headlines about Russia these days. “Russia happens to be very prominent in the news and issues that are going on in Ukraine and with the economy. That is also going to get people interested in watching the film.”
Pawlikowski’s lauded black and white 60s-set Polish drama Ida, which Music Box released Stateside, doubled up on nominations today with a mention in the Foreign Film and the Cinematography races. That’s a repeat of Ida‘s standing with BAFTA whose noms were announced last week. Ida, about a novitiate nun who goes on a journey of discovery after learning she is Jewish, won Best Picture at the European Film Awards, but was overtaken by Leviathan last Sunday at the Globes. The EFAs have a strong track record of predicting the Oscar winner, but the Globes have also been spot on in the past four years. Before that, not so much. A Polish film has never won the Oscar, although several have been nominated; the last one was Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness in 2011.
The nod for Wild Tales was also expected, although its inclusion points to a sort of loosening of the category’s rigid ways of yore. A runaway success at home, it swept the Argentine Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards in 2014 and is the highest-grossing local film of all time. This is Sony Pictures Classics’ second horse in the race along with Leviathan (in fact, the company had its best ever nominations day today with 18 total). Wild Tales releases domestically in February. The film has an interesting pedigree having been produced by Pedro and Augustin Almodovar and championed by Warner Bros’ International EVP of Europe & Latin America Distribution, Monique Esclavissat. Argentina has won two Foreign Language Oscars before, most recently for Juan José Campanella’s 2009 thriller The Secret In Their Eyes.
Bernard calls the nod today “a tribute to the new system.” A few years ago, voting rules were tweaked so that the final five titles to advance in this category are chosen by a sort of blue ribbon panel of 30 higher-profile members after they have viewed each of the shortlist titles over the course of a long weekend. The entire membership votes on the winner. While this race once skewed to traditional filmmaking, Bernard believes the Academy is now ready to embrace fresh and contemporary voices like Szifron’s.
Meanwhile, although Timbuktu director Sissako is well-known to festival goers and art-house aficionados through films like 2006’s Bamako and 2002’s Waiting For Happiness, this movie’s nomination puts it in true newcomer territory. Timbuktu is not only the first nomination for Mauritania, it’s the first time a film has ever been submitted from the African nation. Inspired by the 2012 death by stoning of a man and a woman in a small town in Mali, Timbuktu was a favorite in Cannes and has had positively glowing reviews since. Sissako said today that he was “overwhelmed by an indescribable feeling, it is an honor for me and a great sign for Mauritania and Africa. It is the acknowledgement of work accomplished through the passion and commitment of women and men of different countries, united to defend our universal values of love, peace, and justice. I am extremely touched that the Academy in the United States of America has opened the way for Timbuktu to receive the greatest recognition in world cinema, I thank all those who made this possible from the bottom of my heart.” Last month, the director told me that if the film were to advance to the nominations, the entire African continent would be watching the Oscars. Cohen Media Group is releasing later this month.