Heading into the foreign-language Oscar race last year, the tea leaves were skewing all over the map—literally—with a record number of submissions and no clear front-runner. The situation began to clarify once the nominating committee whittled down the field from 76 to nine potential candidates, and then more so when the final five nominees were selected. This year looks no different, only there are a record 83 submissions, including first-time entries from Kosovo, Malta, Mauritania and Panama.
An overwhelming number of the most talked-about films debuted in Cannes, while others started their careers at the Berlin, Telluride and Toronto fests. There is no front-runner just yet, though a number of those Cannes titles are expected to find favor with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
And yet, the Academy is hardly predictable when it comes to the foreign-language race. As is seemingly the case every year, the nominating committee has made some curious choices. Two years ago, it confounded watchers when French smash hit The Intouchables made the shortlist but not the final five. Still, that year it was an almost foregone conclusion that Michael Haneke’s Amour would scoop the trophy come kudocast time, which it did. Last year, the committee left Asghar Farhadi’s The Past and Saudi Arabia’s first entry, Wadjda, off the shortlist, then knocked Wong Kar-Wai out of contention when it announced the five nominees. When those final five came into focus, it looked like a two-horse race between Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. Italy won out, returning the Oscar to the Boot for the first time in 15 years.
The rules for selecting the foreign-language winner changed last year when the entire Academy voting block was allowed to weigh in on the nominees without seeing them in theaters. But the regulations for establishing the shortlist remain the same. A phase one committee determines six of the nine films 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 finalists over the course of a long weekend.
One emerging favorite is Cannes title Force Majeure out of Sweden. The Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner is about a father who saves himself, rather than his family, during an avalanche in the French Alps. Magnolia released the pic in the U.S. in October, and there’s a touring retrospective of director Ruben Östlund’s work heading to various U.S. cities, upping the awards campaign. Academy screenings in Los Angeles have been positive.
On the flipside, the winner of the top prize in Un Certain Regard, White God, though massively buzzed about, “may need a committee save,” I’m told. Kornel Mundruczo’s cautionary tale is about Hagen, a sweet dog-turned-vicious killer. The movie has been much admired, but for dog-lovers it can be tough to watch. (Reassuringly, the canines that portrayed Hagen won the Palm Dog in Cannes.) Magnolia has domestic rights.
Hailing from the main Cannes competition is the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night. One of the Belgian duo’s more accessible films, it features a stirring turn by Marion Cotillard as a factory worker who has one weekend to get her colleagues to give up their bonuses in order to save her job. Cotillard’s performance has been hailed, and she’s certainly no stranger to Oscar, having won one in 2008 for La Vie en Rose. But the Dardenne brothers, though revered in the Continent, never have had a film advance past the submission stage.
Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan moved up to the big leagues this year with his first film in the Cannes competition. Improbably, Mommy is the 25-year-old’s fifth feature film, about a passionate widowed single mom struggling to make ends meet with her 15-year-old ADHD son. It marked Dolan’s first shot at a Palme d’Or. He didn’t win that trophy, but did take the Jury Prize. Mommy is with Roadside Attractions in the U.S.
I hear that though screenings have gone well for Cannes Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, some say a committee save is not out of the question for the three-hour-plus Chekhovian drama set in an Anatolia hotel. If respected art house director Nuri Bilge Ceylan makes it to the shortlist, it will be his second time. If he advances past that, it will be a first. Adopt Films has the Turkish film in the U.S. and will release it in late December.
Yet another possibility out of Cannes is the French entry Saint Laurent. This one seemed an odd choice to be its submission, but then France rarely sticks with conventional wisdom when it comes to this race. Directed by Bertrand Bonello, the biopic of the famed designer is one of two that came out this year. It recently screened at the AFI Fest, and I hear there was a big Academy turnout at the French consulate lunch in honor of the film. Sony Pictures Classics is pushing the strongly reviewed film.
Two other Cannes films repped by SPC also are contenders: Russia’s Leviathan and Argentina’s Relatos Salvajes. The former, billed as a modern-day retelling of the biblical story of Job, also is a scathing attack on the corruption of Russia’s ruling elite. It will be interesting to see how writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film factors into voters’ decisions. On the one hand, the U.S. and Russia have a frosty relationship these days; on the other, there’s the matter of a proposal inside the Duma to limit Hollywood imports.
Relatos Salvajes is a massive hit at home in Argentina. The black comedy—directed by Damián Szifron and produced by Pedro Almodovar—is released by Warner Bros. in its local market, where it broke boxoffice records at its August debut and has received a staggering 21 nominations for Argentina’s film awards. The movie also played both Telluride and AFI fests. Boxoffice rarely translates to Oscar in this race, but this is one to keep a keen eye on.
One of the strongest candidates to emerge in the past several weeks from off the Croisette is Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. The black-and-white Polish pic has played very well with Academy members. The story follows a young girl in 1960s Poland who is about to take her vows as a nun when she discovers she actually is Jewish. The film just scored five major European Film Award nominations, including best film, director, two best actress nods for its co-leads, and best screenplay. The EFAs in the past few years have lauded the eventual Oscar winner and serve as something of a bellwether for awards season. Force Majeure, Leviathan and Winter Sleep also have top EFA noms.
Mexico’s Cantinflas, which did not debut in a festival, is the No. 3 local grosser of the year there. The biopic of famed comedian Mario Moreno, also known as the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico, hails from director Sebastian del Amo and stars Óscar Jaenada opposite Michael Imperioli. Pantelion released the pic in the U.S. on August 29.
Korean entry Haemoo was well received in its home market, opening at $7.5 million in August. Shim Sung-ho’s tragic, ocean-set drama is based on the true story of a 2001 incident in which 25 Korean-Chinese stowaways suffocated on a Korean fishing boat. It played the Toronto and AFI fests.
Other mentions worthy of Oscar buzz include Silence in Dreamland (Ecuador); Beloved Sisters (Germany); Charlie’s Country (Australia); Tangerines (Estonia); Gett, The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem (Israel); Human Capital (Italy); The Dead Lands (New Zealand); and 1001 Grams (Norway).