Foreign Films in Focus

Oscars: Auteur-Driven Films Dominate Foreign-Language Film Nominees

Courtesy of Films
From left: 'Shoplifters,' 'Never Look Away' and 'Roma'

For years, the finalists were mostly cookie-cutter historical dramas following people in strife or fighting oppression — but the 2019 crop reflects a new class of movies.

There was a time when, if you wanted to win an Oscar for best foreign-language film, the smart pick was a Holocaust melodrama or a feel-good affirmation movie about folks from distant lands doing worthy things in difficult times. Think Giuseppe Tornatore's 1989 Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso or Jan Sverak's 1996 winner Kolya — both of which combine very old men with very young kids in charmingly foreign yet comfortably familiar tales of rediscovering hope. Or the extended series of World War II dramas — from Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum in 1979 through Gabriele Salvatores' Mediterraneo in 1991 to 2007's The Counterfeiters from Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky — that told, retold and then told again the darkest chapter in European history. Or Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, winner of the 1998 Oscar, which manages to combine all the classic elements of a foreign-language winner, being a Holocaust story that somehow also manages to be uplifting and life-affirming.

But things have changed. The films up this year in the category stand out for their cinematic philosophy, not their Hallmark-greeting-card sentimentality.

The 2019 contenders include Paweł Pawlikowski's Cold War — a black-and-white drama tracing the history of a broken relationship across multiple countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain — shot in the boxy Academy aspect ratio. In Japanese contender Shoplifters, director Hirokazu Kore-eda uses a supremely subtle approach — always whispering, never shouting — to tell a story, about a ragtag family of petty thieves, that in another's hands could have turned into pure kitsch.

Capernaum, from Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, is another potentially sentimental tale — the squalor of Beirut seen through the eyes of a child — that is given a sharper edge thanks both to a never-wincing portrayal of the despair of true poverty and to Labaki's structurally picaresque approach.

And then there's this year's frontrunner, Alfonso Cuaron's autobiographical Mexican drama Roma — a two hour and 15-minute black-and-white feature that makes much use of slow lateral pans (instead of quick cutaways and reaction shots) and places at the center of its story not the Cuaron-as-a-child character but his nanny, a figure who would be stuck in the background in most tales of this sort.

In fact, this year's only foreign-language contender that fits the grand historic storytelling model is Never Look Away from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The thinly veiled biopic of Gerhard Richter, one of Germany's most popular contemporary painters, is a sweeping historical drama that breezes through three decades of European history —from the Nazis to the postwar division of East and West Germany — using the tried, some would say tired, tools of the genre: the soaring, string-heavy soundtrack, the 360-degree dolly shot and the filtering of history through a personal love story. A decade ago — around the time von Donnersmarck won the foreign-language film Oscar for The Lives of Others — those types of projects were considered foreign Oscar bait. No longer.

"It used to be the foreign-language Oscars were mainly about serious humanistic messages, but now filmmaking is to the fore," Pawlikowski told THR. "For the last 10 years, the foreign-language picks have been, from a filmmaking perspective, spot-on."

A look at recent winners — Sebastian Lelio's Chilean transgender drama A Fantastic Woman, Asghar Farhadi's Iranian family dramas The Salesman and A Separation, Laszlo Nemes' experimental Holocaust drama Son of Saul, or Amour from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke — shows how far the category has evolved from the cliche of comfort-food cinema.

Much of the credit for the shift has to go to the film Academy's foreign-language committee chair Mark Johnson, who created elaborate workarounds to hedge against his own branch's often embarrassing biases toward, as Johnson himself put it, "less challenging" films. Topping up the Academy's six official foreign-language choices with three additional selections voted by the Academy's Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee (for a total of nine on the annual shortlist) made room for the likes of Dogtooth in 2011, introducing Hollywood to the bizarre brilliance of The Favourite's Yorgos Lanthimos. Recent efforts to expand the Academy's ranks by bringing in a younger and more diverse membership — and, particularly important for the foreign-language category, a more international one — also has helped to move the category toward the cutting edge in global cinema. The expansion has further allowed the best international films to break out of the foreign-language "ghetto." Roma picked up 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, while Cold War nabbed three, including one for Pawlikowski as best director. Three of the five films nominated for best cinematography this year are foreign-language: Roma, Cold War and Never Look Away.

It seems the Academy is finally recognizing that, whatever language it's in, it's the movie, not the message, that counts.

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.