Oscars: THR's Film Critics Assess 14 International Hopefuls
From Australia to Uruguay, critical takes on this year's contenders
This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Director: Rolf de Heer (AUSTRALIA)
Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil co-wrote this eloquent drama with de Heer, starting the project while the actor was in prison and continuing while he was in a drug and alcohol rehab center for aboriginal people. While the story is fictionalized and its dialogue improvised (in English and the Yolngu language of the setting), its parallels to Gulpilil's troubled recent past enliven it with authenticity. -- DAVID ROONEY
Director: Pirjo Honkasalo (FINLAND)
Stunning to look at and chilling at its core, Concrete Night is a tale of innocence lost in a place where having retained innocence at all is something of a feat. A stark tale of two young men living on the margins of Helsinki boasts black-and-white photography that is as dramatic as the script is restrained, full of creeping shadows and distorted by cracked glass. -- JOHN DEFORE
Director: George Ovashvili (GEORGIA)
A master class in emotionally charged minimalism, Corn Island takes place on the far eastern fringes of modern Europe, but much of its texture seems rooted in a timeless hinterland of folklore. The top prize winner at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, this virtually wordless, artfully austere drama about survival in Georgia after the collapse of communism contains echoes of old masters like Bresson and Tarkovsky, Kaneto Shindo and Terrence Malick, with a hint of Shakespeare's storm-tossed island parable The Tempest, too. -- STEPHEN DALTON
Directors: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz (ISRAEL)
In the hands of sister-brother co-directors Ronit (who also co-stars) and Shlomi, this legal drama about a problematic divorce loophole in Israel that gives all the power to the husband is a densely rich drama told with stringent austerity but also humor and judicious empathy. -- LESLIE FELPERIN
Director: Sung-bo Shim (KOREA)
Based on the real-life incident of a Korean fishing boat crew casting the bodies of 25 Chinese illegal immigrants overboard after a botched smuggling operation, screenwriter-turned-director Shim's film offers a stirring survival-at-sea spectacle, though it too often veers into Titanic-like melodrama. -- CLARENCE TSUI
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski (POLAND)
The director of the estimable Last Resort and The Woman in the Fifth, U.K.-based Pawlikowski (shooting in his native Poland for the first time) deals with subjects that have been examined many times -- the Polish monoliths of Catholicism and communism, the fate of the Jews in World War II and the shame, guilt and silence surrounding that -- but in a delicate, quiet way, seen through the experience of a young woman about to take the veil. Beautifully shot in charcoal shades of gray in the boxy old Academy format that evokes the work of Danish master Carl Dreyer, this is a connoisseur's delight, a singular work in this day and age that offers abundant rewards for film lovers with refined tastes. -- TODD MCCARTHY
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev (RUSSIA)
On the surface, Zvyagintsev's fourth feature is about how a dispute over land in a remote Russian township becomes a stone that casts cataclysmic ripples through a family and community. But there are much greater monsters of the deep moving under the surface of this powerful, craftily allusive and elusive film. Simultaneously a modern essay on suffering, an open-ended thriller and a black social comedy, it is most importantly of all a thinly veiled political parable drenched in bitter irony that takes aim against the corrupt, corrosive regime of Vladimir Putin. -- L.F.
Director: Mipo Oh (JAPAN)
The ugliness of life on society's shadow edges is boldly observed in this grim portrait of self-loathing occasionally tempered by compassion. Taking a break from her cheery earlier work (The Sakai's Happiness and Here Comes the Bride, My Mom!), talented director Oh plunges viewers into a fierce character study about three young people dealing with the bleak realities of life in a desolate seaside town. -- DEBORAH YOUNG
Read more The Feinberg Forecast
Director: Alvaro Brechner (URUGUAY)
The story of an elderly Jewish man (Hector Noguera) who suspects an old German immigrant (Rolf Becker) of being a former Nazi, Mr. Kaplan probably represents Uruguay's best-ever shot at making the final-five shortlist for the foreign-language film Oscar. Writer-director Brechner's wry serio-comedy is a highly amusing crowd-pleaser that boasts two excellent lead performances. -- L.F.
Director: Philippe Muyl (CHINA)
French director Muyl's The Nightingale is a story about a benign retiree forging a solid bond with his petulant granddaughter. Resplendent with Sun Ming's lavish cinematography -- the rural landscapes of the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi are rendered in a remarkably lush, warm tone -- and an engaging performance from Li Baotian (Ju Dou) as the grandfather, The Nightingale is technically remarkable. Beyond its sociopolitical context, however, the film offers hardly anything inventive to the familiar generation-gap rite-of-passage dramedy. -- C.T.
Director: Bertrand Bonello (FRANCE)
This classily assembled but narratively diffuse film is one of two Yves Saint Laurent biopics from the past year, the other being Jalil Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent. Boasting a high-profile cast that includes Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising) in the title role, Louis Garrel (The Dreamers) and an underutilized Lea Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color) playing Saint Laurent muse Loulou de la Falaise, this well-appointed drama lacks a throughline or focus, coasting from party scenes full of drugs and alcohol to work-related minutiae, rarely managing to get inside the head of the self-destructive character the designer had become by the 1970s. -- BOYD VAN HOEIJ
Director: Zaza Urushadze (ESTONIA)
Although the subject of civil war within the former Soviet countries has been tackled in other movies, this retelling of the 1992 conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia is one of the most concise and affecting. Featuring a stellar performance by veteran Lembit Ulfsak, the film works because it focuses on just a few characters and yet crystallizes the entire tragic history of the region with aplomb. -- STEPHEN FARBER
Director: Kornel Mundruczo (HUNGARY)
Sympathy for the underdog takes on a literal meaning in this lightly dystopian thriller that won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes. On wet-nosed face value, White God is an urban adventure yarn about a teenage girl searching for her beloved dog. Under its furry skin, it's an angry allegory for political tensions in contemporary Europe. -- S.D.
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan (TURKEY)
This 3½-hour meditation on a dissolving marriage is both a windy Chekhovian epic and a take-no-prisoners art film that allows its principals -- Haluk Bilginer, Demet Akbag and Melisa Sozen -- enough dialogue for three movies. The visually sumptuous steppes of Cappadocia provide a stunning backdrop to a slowly unraveling domestic crisis. -- D.Y.