Field of Foreign-Language Oscar Contenders Begins to Come Into Focus

Perennial contenders France, Sweden, Japan, Israel, Germany and Denmark have already made their picks, but Italy, Spain, Argentina, Russia and China remain undecided with one week remaining until the submission deadline
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes
'Force Majeure'

A year after a record 76 countries entered the race for the best foreign-language film Oscar, and with this year's Oct. 1 deadline for countries to name their official submission nearing, 2014's field of international Oscar hopefuls is starting to come into focus.

More than 50 nations have already made their selections, including perennial contenders France, Sweden, Japan, Israel, Germany and Denmark. Among the major film-producing countries that have yet to announce a pick, but surely will, are Italy, Spain, Argentina, Russia and China. (To be considered, a film must have screened in its home country for seven consecutive days between Oct. 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014.)

In January several hundred L.A.-based Academy members will select six submissions for a shortlist; then the Academy's Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee will add three more submissions, addressing any glaring oversights, and the full shortlist of nine films will be made public. Then two specially-invited committees — one on each coast — will view the nine films and vote to determine which five will be nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar.

Bertrand Bonnello's Saint Laurent, a biopic of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent that premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, was tapped by France on Monday over Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color, the lesbian love story that won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes and remained Oscar-eligible in this category this year, despite exhausting its eligibility in other categories last year, because of its late French release date. Saint Laurent premiered at this year's Cannes and could extend France's category-record of 39 nominations, 12 of which have resulted in wins.

(Even without Blue in competition, the 2014 field of submissions will include multiple LGBT-themed films, among them Brazil's The Way He Looks and Portugal's What Now?.)

Sweden will be represented by Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure, a dramedy about a Swedish family in crisis that was awarded Cannes' Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. It was chosen over Roy Andersson's A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion winner. Sweden has produced 14 nominees (more than any country except France, Italy and Spain), but none since As It Is in Heaven 10 years ago, and no winners since Fanny and Alexander 31 years ago. (All three of its winners were Ingmar Bergman films.) Ostlund's Involuntary (2009) was also submitted but did not even make the shortlist; the last Swedish film that was shortlisted was Simple Simon (2010).

The Japanese are trying to right their ship after an unfortunate season last year, during which Japan submitted The Great Passage instead of the internationally-acclaimed Like Father, Like Son, and wound up not even making it onto the shortlist. This year the nation — which has accumulated 12 noms and four wins, the most recent instance of each being Departures six years ago — went with female director Mipo Oh's The Light Shines Only There, a drama about an unemployed man who begins a love affair with the sister of a friend.

Israel awarded its Ophir Award — and therefore, automatically its Oscar submission — to Gett: The Trail of Viviane Amsalem, a Rabbinical courtroom drama about the Israeli divorce process from the the sibling team of Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz. The film, an official selection of the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, is the final installment of a trilogy that is not unlike Richard Linklater's Before films. The last two Israeli entries failed to make the shortlist, but four of the five before them were nominated (the country has landed 10 total noms).

Germany, which has had more success in this category than any other country since 1990, when West Germany and East Germany reunified — namely, eight nominations and two wins — placed its chips on Dominik Graf's big-budget Beloved Sisters, an epic period piece about the 18th century German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller and his complicated love life.

And Denmark, which has been red-hot in this category over the last few years — winning four years ago for Susanne Bier's A Better World and earning noms in each of the last two years, for Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair and Thomas Vinterberg's The Huntentered Nils Malmros' Sorrow and Joy, an autobiographical film about a horrendous family tragedy.

Several of this year's strongest contenders come from countries that don't necessarily have Oscar histories as distinguished as the aforementioned examples, but that seem to be on the rise.

Poland, which has produced nine nominees — including two over the past decade, Katyn (2007) and In Darkness (2011) — but no winners, singled out Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, a drama about a young nun who learns she is Jewish. In 2013 it won the FIPRESCI award at Toronto and best film at the London Film Festival, and it has been nominated for the People's Choice Award for best European film at the European Film Awards, which will be presented in December. Pawlikowski is best known to international audiences for his film My Summer of Love (2004), which put Emily Blunt on the map.

Hungary, which submitted Kornel Mundruczco's horror-thriller White God, Cannes' Un Certain Regard Prize prize winner, has been responsible for eight nominees — but none since the fall of Communism more than a quarter-century ago (although it did land a spot on the shortlist last year, for the first time since, with The Notebook) — and one win, 33 years ago, for Mephisto. White God is a lot like Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), only with dogs, which are intended as a metaphor for minorities across Europe, which the filmmaker feels are being ostracized as nationalistic parties rise to power.

Belgium, which has scored seven noms — including two in the last three years, with Bullhead (2011) and The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013) — but never has won, entered Two Days, One Night, the latest neorealist work from the brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Starring Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, a Frenchwoman, the gutwrenching, High Noon (1952)-like drama has been among the most widely acclaimed films on this year's festival circuit. The Dardennes' three previous films that Belgium submitted for Oscar consideration — Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005) — did not even make the shortlist, but that seems likely to change this time around.

Canada, too, has produced seven nominees — including three in the last four years, Incendies (2010), Monsieur Lazhar (2011) and War Witch (2012) — plus one winner, The Barbarian Invasions (2003), and seems poised to add to at least one of those tallies this year with Xavier Dolan's Mommy, a Jury Prize winner at Cannes. The film stars Anne Dorval in an acclaimed performance as the widowed mother of a problem child, and is the second Dolan-directed film that Canada has submitted in the last five years; I Killed My Mother (2009) did not make the shortlist.

The Netherlands also has accumulated seven noms and three wins, but the Dutch have hit a dry-spell over the past decade — during which only Black Book (2006) and Winter in Wartime (2009) even made the shortlist — which they hope to snap with Paula van der Oest's drama Accused. Based on the true story of a veteran nurse accused of terrible crimes against her patients by a young and possibly overzealous district attorney, it is the second van der Oest film submitted by Holland after Zus & Zo (2001), which was nominated.

Norway, the source of five nominations — most recently Kon-Tiki (2012) — but no wins, has gone with 1001 Grams, the latest light, humanist comedy from Bent Hamer, whose prior films Kitchen Stories (2003) and O'Horten (2008) were also submitted but were not shortlisted. The film, which had its world premiere at Toronto earlier this month, centers around two scientists falling in love while at a conference abroad.

Mexico has never won in this category, but it has produced eight nominations, including two over the past eight years, Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and Biutiful (2010). That tally could grow with the Mexicans' latest selection, Sebastian del Amo's Cantinflas, a biopic about the titular comedic entertainer who was known as "Mexico's Chaplin" and is best remembered for his Golden Globe-winning work in Around the World in 80 Days. But the pic, which stars Oscar Jaenada as the title character and The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli as producer Mike Todd, has greatly divided even Mexicans, and has to be regarded as a long-shot.

But Turkey and Venezuela, two countries that have never even landed a nomination, despite submitting films regularly for years, could make history this go-around.

Turkish hopes rest on Nuri Bilge Ceylan's three-plus-hour epic Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. The Anatolia-set drama about the gap between the rich and the poor in present-day Turkey is the third Ceylan-directed film submitted by the nation; Distant (2003) did not make the shortlist but Three Monkeys (2008) did and remains the only Turkish film ever to earn that distinction.

The Venezuelans, for their part, have never even been shortlisted, but are counting on Alberto Arvelo's The Liberator, a biopic of 18th century Latin-American leader Simon Bolivar, to reverse their fortunes. Carlos' Edgar Ramirez stars in an epic drama that features a powerful score by LA Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Over the coming days, the remainder of the race will come into focus. Italy will likely choose or Alice Rohrwacher's Cannes Grand Prix winner The Wonders and Paolo Virzi’s low-budget phenomenon The Human Capital. Argentina will probably go with Damian Sziffron's widely-embraced comedy Wild Tales, which is comprised of six shorts and might also contend for a best original screenplay Oscar nom. Russia could go with Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, which won the best screenplay prize at Cannes, but the reworking of the Book of Job doesn't paint an entirely flattering portrait of its homeland, which is notoriously sensitive about criticism, so a different choice is likely. And China, which has produced only two nominees over the years, is expected to go with Zhang Yimou's Coming Home.

And then the wait for the shortlist will begin!

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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