UPDATED with filmmaker reactions: Unlike the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film shortlist, which offered up snubs galore when it was revealed in December, today’s Foreign Language Oscar nominees are pretty much in keeping with expectations. However, like last year’s nominees, this batch comes with a number of firsts. Chief among them is Tanna: The film from directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean is the first to score a nomination for Australia, which has submitted 10 titles since 1996.
The movie also is the first feature from the directors and the first shot in the nation of Vanuatu. It stars non-actors who had never even watched a film, and it was shot with no electricity — everything was solar-powered, including the editing bay.
Set on the titular volcanic South Pacific island, Tanna is a story of star-crossed lovers that’s been compared to Romeo and Juliet. Wawa, being readied for the ceremony that will recognize her as a grown woman, is in love with the handsome grandson of the tribal chief. When, as part of an effort to prevent a war, Wawa is betrothed to a man from another tribe, she must choose between loyalty to her clan and her own heart. Dean and Butler spent several months in the city of Yakel crafting the screenplay with Master and Commander and Happy Feet scribe John Collee.
The film played Venice two years ago, picking up prizes in Critics’ Week, and was released in North America by Lightyear Entertainment in September, grossing nearly $6,000.
Elsewhere in the race, Swedish box office smash A Man Called Ove (Music Box, $3.37M U.S. gross) is veteran helmer Hannes Holm’s first time at the fair — and the pic scored two noms today, also taking one for Makeup & Hairstyling. The story centers on a grumpy yet lovable man who finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door. Prior to the shortlist announcement, Holm told me, “The best stories are a mix with everything: comedy, despair, tragedy, loneliness, happiness — as life.”
Today, Holm called me to say that he didn’t really watch the nominations, “You are talking to a born underdog so I was in another room and I heard screaming like when Sweden scores in world cup ice hockey. I ran to the next room like I was 10-years-old.” The general reaction in Sweden has been “enormous,” he says. “My iPhone is getting all these text messages all the time. I’m just waiting for the IRS to call me and say I don’t have to pay taxes!”
Land of Mine is a German co-production with Denmark, and the two countries share something of a common track record with the Academy during the past 10 years. Each has won one Oscar in the period, while Denmark has seen its entries nominated another five times and Germany has three other noms.
When bittersweet comedy Toni Erdmann debuted at Cannes last year, it received arguably the best reviews of any film at the festival. But it walked away from the main competition empty-handed prize-wise (save for the FIPRESCI). It since has made up for that in spades, sweeping the European Film Awards and last week taking the Best Foreign Film prize in Palm Springs. It was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day and is currently screening in five cities with $262K to date. SPC will expand.
Land of Mine, conversely, has yet to release domestically; SPC has it dated for February 17. Set after World War II as German POWs are forced to remove land mines from Danish beaches, it also was a big EFA winner. That included a cinematography prize for Zandvliet’s wife Camilla Hjelm. His daughter also acts in the movie. Describing what perhaps sets the film apart, the director told me in December, “We’re very much there when we shoot; it never becomes a production. We watch and learn and listen.”
Finally, marking a return to the category is Iran’s Asghar Farhadi with suspense drama The Salesman (Amazon/Cohen Media Group). The psychology of revenge runs through the film in which the central couple also is starring in a production of Death of a Salesman. Truly a foreign-language director, Farhadi’s previous film was partly in French and his next will be in Spanish and English. But when he makes movies in his native Farsi, such as The Salesman, “I feel like I make them more with my heart,” he told me recently.
Farhadi won the Oscar for 2011’s A Separation, which also was nominated for screenplay. Speaking today from Tehran, Farhadi tells me he is “extremely pleased to have been nominated twice for A Separation and now for The Salesman,” but, he adds with a laugh, “I think it will be a long time before I’ll be nominated for anything again.” Turning more serious, he says he’s very happy with “what has happened for myself and for my country.”
Were Farhadi to score again with Oscar, he would join a very elite club of two-time Foreign Language winners. The Salesman previously won the best screenplay prize in Cannes, along with a best actor award for lead Shahab Hosseini.
All worthy candidates, the four shortlisted films that did not advance today were Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World by Xavier Dolan, Norway’s The King’s Choice from Erik Poppe, Russia’s Paradise by Andrei Konchalovsky and Switzerland’s My Life as a Zucchini by Claude Barras. The latter certainly is taking solace in a Best Animated Feature Film nomination.