Here’s the final entry in my annual assessment of movies that have a chance to pass the first stage of the Foreign Language Oscar race. We expect the shortlist to come out tomorrow and I’m expecting a number of the films I’ve profiled below, and here and here, will make the grade. I spoke with the directors of the films about their inspirations and expectations and I also checked in with the U.S. distributors about why they bought the movies. Below is a look at the final five titles that have generated serious buzz over the past several weeks of screenings, Q&As and consulate lunches (and there are also a handful of special mentions). The films are in no particular order:
Wild Tales (Argentina), U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
A runaway success at home in Argentina, Wild Tales is director Damián Szifrón’s third feature. It swept the Argentine Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards earlier this year and is now the highest-grossing local film of all time with over $18M in box office. And yet, Szifrón calls it “a non-voluntary film.” His previous movie, On Probation, was released back in 2005 and he spent some time working in television in between. Writing at the same time, he advanced on several projects but didn’t make any of them. “I enjoyed being a writer, creating without producing. And then the years were passing.” Although he tried not to pressure himself, he was nevertheless concerned. And then, suddenly, the stories that ultimately became Wild Tales, “just assaulted me.”
Wild Tales debuted in Cannes and reviews have been glowing. The portmanteau is made up of blackly-comic vignettes featuring some of Argentina’s best known actors like Ricardo Darin. Szifrón opted for working in the anthology format based on his taste for jazz. “I thought of jazz albums that have five or six songs. One may be 20 minutes, another seven minutes. They are all made with the same instruments, but at the same time are also different.” What links the stories is that they are all about “the pleasure of losing control… The pleasure of reacting towards injustice and aggression.” Szifrón believes all people suffer from a certain need to repress themselves. He offers a metaphor for the film: “I don’t like killing animals — hunting or fishing — but when there’s a mosquito that bothers me, I truly enjoy smashing it against the wall because he’s invading my territory.” The stories, Szifron says, are “cathartic. We are human beings and are connected by something that’s extremely more powerful than our culture or nationality. We are connected by our DNA. Art has power and the ability of connecting people from all over the world.”
The film’s success in Argentina and the other Latin American markets where it has been released has been record-breaking and the universality of it should see it do well when Sony Pictures Classics releases Stateside in February. SPC got involved thanks to producers Pedro and Augustin Almodovar who “always talked (Szifrón) up to us,” says Co-President Michael Barker. SPC saw the film as soon as it was finished and immediately made an offer. “We recognized the freshness of this guy and (the movie is) such an entertainment. One of the things about foreign language that we all get caught up in is the stereotype that great foreign language has to be about some serious political issues. Here is a movie that is light and bitter and fresh,” says Barker. The film also has the support of Warner Bros’ International. The company came aboard the project early, acquiring Argentine rights and ultimately taking Latin America. Szifrón credits WBI’s EVP of Europe & Latin America Distribution, Monique Esclavissat, with being the “godmother of this project.”
Of potentially advancing in the Oscar race, Szifrón says, “There’s nothing I can do now. I made my work and, as I always do, I gave my best. When, for example, you are a football player, the moment of truth is the game. The moment of truth already happened to make the film and show it to an audience. Now I am just proud that Argentina selected this film of course, but it’s not that I can do anything now.” Oscars or not, we can expect to see the WME-repped Szifrón around town where he’s got some projects percolating. “It’s a natural progress for me. I truly like American films, nine out of 10 of my favorites were made there.”
Mommy (Canada), U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
When a 20-year-old filmmaker bursts onto the scene winning awards in the Directors’ Fortnight Cannes sidebar, and then five years later takes the Jury Prize in the main competition, when does one stop referring to him as a wunderkind? Xavier Dolan, representing Canada in the Foreign Language race for the second time in those five years, is basically a veteran by now. The Montréal native is in the running with Mommy, a drama about a passionate widow struggling to make ends meet with her 15-year-old ADHD son in a fictional Canada where a new law allows distressed parents to abandon troubled children to the hospital system. Dolan got the inspiration several years ago from an article in Reader’s Digest about a mother having difficulties with her rambunctious son in a state that had just passed similar legislation. It was “basically a very heartbreaking story of their drive from home to hospital where she drops him.” Dolan thought it was so awful it would make a beautiful scene eventually. So, he jotted it down and “put it in the drawer with napkins and post-its” until the rest of the pieces fell into place, like discovering Antoine-Olivier Pilon to play the young man, reteaming with Anne Dorval and hearing an instrumental piece of music called Experience which inspired him to write the script. Howard Cohen, Co-President of Roadside Attractions which has U.S. on the film, says they picked it up “first and foremost because we loved it, we thought the filmmaking was breathtaking, beautiful, emotional and intimate all at the same time.” Roadside Co-President Eric d’Arbeloff adds, “Parenting is not for wimps. This film portrays that better than any we’ve seen.”
But getting the movie to Cannes was not quite so seamless. The three months before the festival were complicated by a health warning from Dolan’s doctor who said, “It’s three weeks now or it’s eight months if you don’t take the time to do nothing.” He and his team ultimately made it made it, but it was “an emotional rollercoaster for us on the other side of the mirror.” Dolan says winning the Jury Prize was “One of the most extraordinary moments of my life… One of those moments that sort of make you right in a way that you’ve been believing in your projects when people may have not. When I walked up those stairs, I thought ‘don’t trip and also remember that you’ve come a long way.’” Dolan is careful to point out that he’s not grandstanding. “I’m not saying ‘you’ve won an award everything suddenly makes sense.’ Rather, in this historically important place and event and among such a select group of refined people… When I was a kid, I never thought I would belong to any group.”
Since first ascending a stage in Cannes in 2009, Dolan says he’s “evolved based on the mistakes I’ve made, and I’ve made many. I read every review. Some are very educational, some less educational… Some wallow in the worst diagnosis of your person… Some things stand out.” D’Arbeloff says of Dolan, “We’ve loved all his movies, but the combination of intimacy and ambition is what brought Mommy to another level.”
Dolan, repped by CAA, is embarking on his first U.S.-based film, The Death And Life Of John F Donovan, with Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Jessica Chastain and Kit Harrington. The director was in LA when I spoke with him, working on prep and doing promotion for Mommy. Of repping Canada he says, “It’s very important, it’s a huge honor. It’s not the most original thing to say, but it’s the simple truth. We’ll see how it goes, Team Québec has done well so you don’t want to be the stain on that résumé.” If he is the proverbial stain, he says he won’t be sitting in a room alone wondering what’s next. “I have work. I have this amazing body of actors with whom I’m about to work, and they’re so inspiring. I don’t feel like (Mommy) deserves anything, but I feel like people have been moved and I’m harboring hope we’ll make it there.”
Timbuktu (Mauritania), U.S. Disrtibutor: Cohen Media Group
Well-known to festival goers and art-house aficionados, Abderrahmane Sissako’s credits include 2006’s Bamako and 2002’s Waiting For Happiness. With Timbuktu he’s reaching a couple of new milestones. This is his first time representing Mauritania at the Oscars — and it’s also the first-ever entry from the African country. The film was considered a frontrunner for the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year. Although it left the Riviera without that one, it did pick up the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury along with stunning reviews. The drama was inspired by the 2012 death by stoning of a man and a woman in a small town in Mali. Sissako, whose family emigrated to Mali when he was a child, says that because the incident happened with little notice, he felt compelled to make Timbuktu — even if the film doesn’t focus on it. In his directors notes, Sissako writes, “I am a filmmaker from one of those far-off countries, countries that do not have the financial means to regularly release many films. Filmmakers who can go 10 years without making a film. So when we do make one, it must have a meaning, a universal message, it must alert and concern all of humanity. I want to tell the stories that are not told or are not told enough. And then a triggering event occurs, one which creates the pretext, the dramatic spark. “It was something terrible and took on a dimension that really pushed me and to go fast into the project,” he tells me from his home in Paris. The director then set Timbuktu against the backdrop of the jihadist occupation of northern Mali in 2012 where things like music and football were banned.
President of Cohen Media Group Daniel Battsek, who is releasing Timbuktu in late January, believes, “For every one person who sees Timbuktu they will get five or six other people to see it. The subject matter is so current and fascinating. But I don’t want to overstress the political because it’s a piece of art as opposed to a diatribe.”
Sissako tells me Mauritania never had an Oscar entry before because he believes, “Everything has its moment.” The film connects with audiences and he “very sincerely” feels that being part of the shortlist “is something very important and strong for a film, and when it’s strong for a film, it’s for everyone behind it.” That includes not only the country, but the entire African continent Sissako says. “Africa is rarely present and not with movies that have real potential.” Should Timbuktu advance, the whole continent, he says, will be watching the Oscars.
White God (Hungary), U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
White God helmer Kornel Mundruczo is a familiar fixture on the international film festival circuit, but he takes time between movies. His previous film, Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project, was a Cannes competition title in 2010. Fast-forward to 2014 and he appeared in the Un Certain Regard selection, winning its main prize with White God. Mundruczo tells me the lag was because he was “quite lost for years. It’s such a project for me to find a theme (that meshes with) what I’m thinking in a contemporary cinematic language.” During those lost years, the director worked on theater piece Disgrace, based on the South African Nobel Prize-winning post-Apartheid novel that deals with themes of integration and exclusion. “The situation totally crashed my soul,” Mundruczo says. His decision to shoot White God, about a dog abandoned by its owner in Budapest who then rises up against society, was a way “to talk about this shame somehow.”
There were 258 dogs used for the film about Hagen, the canine who is abandoned when the government demands a tax on mixed-breeds. As his young human companion Lili searches for him, Hagen joins with other so-called “unfit” mixed-breeds to bite back against their oppressors. Mundruczo says the most difficult process of the film was finding a trainer to get behind the idea. “Most trainers said, ‘It’s impossible, you can’t do this movie.’” But then he met Teresa Ann Miller who found Luke and Body to both play Hagen — they went on to win the Palme Dog in Cannes.
Magnolia’s Eamonn Bowles calls the movie “Homeward Bound meets Mean Streets.” Magnolia acquired the film out of Cannes and Bowles says the press that followed regarding the dogs meant that for some LA screenings, people went in “expecting it to be more vicious than it was. It wasn’t that disturbing. It’s incredibly sympathetic to the animals. They all came from shelters and were all placed with homes… People who love dogs will love the film.” Mundruczo adds, “Violence against animals is “the most evil thing in my eyes. They are born to love humans.” In the film, “the dogs have more morals than the humans and it was important for us to tell it.”
His experience in Cannes was enlightening and “quite paradoxical.” He felt he was “reflecting a totally Hungarian situation” in the parable, but when the festival selected it, “the movie started growing and growing and I realized maybe Hungary is not so far and this fear of the unknown is quite common in Europe, with the same world lack of solidarity.” The film’s next festival appearance will be in Sundance’s Spotlight section and it will then open in March in the U.S. Representing Hungary in the Oscar race is bewildering, “I don’t know if it’s a serious game or if it’s a David Lynch movie,” laughs Mundruczo. “To be frank it means a lot, especially for Hungary. Istvan Szabo won (in 1981) and there have been none since then.” As a European auteur, Mundruczo says he’s “quite safe, but it’s still a limited market. The Oscars mean a new market and a new audience for me to talk with.” On potentially working in Hollywood, he says, “Why not? If I love the theme (of a film) and wanted to sing my song of course it’s not something I am against. But I can’t do a product like in a factory. That would be senseless. I believe in cinema and always cinema is something that comes from soul.”
Saint Laurent (France), U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Bertrand Bonello’s biopic of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent was one of two competing projects that launched in France this year. The first came out back in January, but it was Saint Laurent which scored a berth at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to be named France’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar out of a pretty rich field. Bonello is known for such films as 2011’s somewhat controversial brothel-set House Of Tolerance and 2001’s The Pornographer. Saint Laurent took him in a different direction. The film, which covers the icon’s peak from 1967 to 1976, did not originate with him. Producers Eric and Nicolas Altmayer instead proposed he direct, and Bonello, who usually writes by himself, worked with A Prophet’s Thomas Bidegain. The experience was liberating, he says. “This is a character I would have had a hard time inventing, and if I had, people would have said he was too much. So, I was able to let myself go.”
When he accepted the job, the other film was not yet announced, but it moved quickly into production and to the finish line. When I ask Bonello if the situation was destabilizing, he says it came down to wondering, “Can the market absorb two films?” The impact of both projects ultimately meant that the economy around them changed, Bonello says. “Both were done with a little less money.” He hasn’t seen the other film.
Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics, which acquired the film, says, “You can see Bonello is becoming a master from film to film.” Indeed, he was on SPC’s radar after House Of Tolerance and the company was already interested in Saint Laurent from the screenplay stage. “But we kind of backed off because of the other movie,” Barker tells me. Then, as the film progressed, “We would see (star) Gaspard Ulliel and it would blow you away. When we saw the promo we decided to make a pre-emptive offer before anyone saw the film.” The movie that showed in Cannes was still not totally finished — it traveled to the Riviera straight from the editing room, and Bonello has made some tweaks since. Barker calls it “ravishing” with multitudes of texture. “It’s kind of an artistic work, but it’s also an entertainment and there’s opulence and amazing performances.” Jérémie Renier plays Saint Laurent’s business and romantic partner Pierre Bergé and Blue Is The Warmest Color’s Léa Seydoux is muse Loulou de la Falaise. SPC will release later this year, but the New York Film Festival (with the fashion industry in tow) and AFI screenings got a lot of people talking. A lunch at the French consul’s house in Beverly Hills was packed with Academy members. Of repping France, Bonello says he was very surprised and flattered when he got the call. It’s “a bit abstract for me… We are 83 entries, so if we find ourselves (nominated), I think I will be very moved.”
Cantinflas (Mexico), Concrete Night (Finland), Silence In Dreamland (Ecuador), Sea Fog (Korea), Norte, The End Of History (Philippines)