The field of contenders for a slot on the Foreign Language Oscar shortlist is rich this year, filled with films hailing from confirmed directors and the work of names less familiar Stateside. There are a record 71 qualifiers in total. The Academy will announce its shortlist of 9 on Friday before whittling that down to 5 come nomination day January 10. Below (in alphabetical order by title) are profiles of 15 films that have made some of the biggest waves this year.
U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Michael Haneke’s tale of an aging couple facing the end of life is a love story that has touched countless viewers, critics and awards bodies since it debuted in Cannes, winning the director his second Palme d’Or after 2009’s The White Ribbon. Amour was recently voted best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association with star Emmanuelle Riva tying for best actress. Her partner in the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant, had renounced film acting 16 years ago, but Haneke’s longtime producer Margaret Menegoz tells me, “After Jean-Louis saw (Haneke’s) Caché, he told me if a director like someone who did that film ever asked him to take on a movie role, he would return.” And so he did. Haneke first spoke to Menegoz about the project years ago, “But we also had White Ribbon in mind which was planned as a TV miniseries. I really wanted to do a shorter version for the cinema… and I found it was better to do that first because it took a lot of physical stamina. Amour was a small film where all the actors would be in the same room, so I said, ‘Even when we’re 100 we can still do it’.” After White Ribbon, Haneke started and stopped on Amour, says Menegoz, before shooting in February and March of 2011. This year, Sony Pictures Classics acquired it ahead of its Cannes debut. Although it’s been suggested to her that Amour is the film to beat in the foreign race, Menegoz says, “We were almost certain for White Ribbon. You never know.”
U.S. distributor: Adopt Films
Barbara won Christian Petzold the directing Silver Bear in Berlin this year. Producer Florian Koerner von Gustorf began working with the director in 1993 when he produced Petzold’s graduate film and laughs, “We started on small budgets that became bigger.” Barbara is set in 1980 East Berlin and stars Nina Hoss as a doctor banished to a small country hospital far from freedom in the west. “Christian wanted to show East Germany 10 years before the wall came down, but this is more of a love story than a political story… What he’s figured out as a director is it’s good to tell a different story than the one people focus on.” After its Berlin bow, Barbara won the top prize at the German Film Awards. It opens in the U.S. on December 21 via Adopt Films whose Jeff Lipsky tells me, “I always had an obsessive determination to open a movie on December 21 because in L.A. or N.Y., when Christmas or New Year’s land on a Tuesday, you’re dealing with two consecutive 5-day moviegoing periods and you have the potential for box office gold. Once we saw all four films (we acquired in Berlin) we felt strongly that the most obvious audience-friendly movie was Barbara.” Koerner von Gurstoff says, “I’m curious how this all will end. It would be so cool just to be nominated and give an incredible push to Christian’s career, but of course everyone who is nominated wants to win, so why should I think different?”
Beyond The Hills (Romania)
U.S. distributor: Sundance Selects
There was an outcry from many critics and pundits when in 2008 Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days was left off the foreign language shortlist. This year, the director’s Beyond The Hills won a double best actress prize in Cannes and brought Mungiu the screenwriting honor. The movie is a love story between two friends who grew up together in an orphanage and were later separated. When one ends up in an Orthodox monastery, bound to remain by her love of God – and by the clerics – her friend tries to free her. Vincent Maraval of Wild Bunch, which has accompanied Mungiu on all of his work since 4 Months, tells me the story, based on true events, spoke to Mungiu “because it’s a theme that’s central to his oeuvre. People don’t share their pain, there’s no compassion. So, like in 4 Months where one friend fights for the other to have an abortion, here someone asks for help and no one listens.” For Maraval, this film “is more accessible than 4 Months. It’s more accomplished and more comfortable for the spectator.” Still, Maraval, despite having been to the Oscars several times over for films Wild Bunch has been involved with, is careful not to go overboard in his hopes this year. “With 4 Months everyone said it would be in and it wasn’t. But when Pan’s Labyrinth (which Wild Bunch handled) was on the list, we were surprised because it wasn’t the habitual thing. We’re in control of so little. It depends on the mood in the room.”
U.S. distributor: Cohen Media Group
A re-telling of Snow White set in the 1920s, Blancanieves is a sort of dark fantasia replete with bullfighting dwarves. In the mid-80s, director Pablo Berger, who studied at NYU in the 90s, tells me he saw Eric von Stroheim’s Greed with a live orchestra and decided he would one day make a silent film. A few years later, he found a photo of dwarf toreadors and “that was the flame” that sparked his decision to update Snow White. He first presented the idea to producers in 2005, “But when the first page of the script says ‘This is a silent black and white film from beginning to end,’ most producers thought I was joking or they didn’t read it.” Although Berger says he was “upset” when he first heard word of last year’s silent black and white groundbreaker, The Artist, because he’d already been toiling on his film for seven years, he later changed his tune. Blancanieves was financed before The Artist’s surge, but Berger says the success of that film allowed him to sell distributors on his own movie. Berger says if he makes the foreign language shortlist on Friday, “It will be like a gift, the 21st is my birthday.”
Caesar Must Die (Italy)
U.S. distributor: Adopt Films
Brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani started directing in the 1950s and went on to acclaim with such films as 1977 Palme d’Or winner Padre Padrone. Thirty-five years later, their Caesar Must Die won the Golden Bear in Berlin and Italy’s David di Donatello for best film, among other kudos. The film sees inmates at Rome’s Rebibbia Prison put on a performance of Julius Caesar. It was inspired by the brothers seeing a prison production of Dante’s Inferno. Jeff Lipsky of Adopt Films which acquired the movie in Berlin, says “Watching this film for me and (partner Tim Grady), it seemed like these octogenarians were experiencing a reinvigoration of their artistry. It was as if they had been reborn.” After appearing in myriad festivals, Caesar Must Die will open in Stateside in February. The Tavianis travelled to the NY Film Festival in October and charmed an audience during a Q&A in Italian. Lipsky says, “They are the personification of the Super Mario brothers – energetic, sharp as a tack and they get the business. The film was shot digitally and they did a marvelous job making the transition. The only challenge with them is that they don’t speak English which requires translation, but the translation of their humor is easy. Then again, I sometimes wonder if they really do speak English and are just trying to keep people off guard.”
The Deep (Iceland)
U.S. Distributor: Focus World
Director Baltasar Kormakur has been making a name for himself in Hollywood, turning his own Reykjavik-Rotterdam into the Mark Wahlberg-starrer Contraband and directing the upcoming Wahlberg-Denzel Washington-starrer 2 Guns. But he made The Deep back in his native Iceland. The true story of the sole survivor of a 1984 fishing boat accident premiered in Toronto and was later acquired by Focus Features for its alternative distribution initiative Focus World. Producer and longtime Kormakur collaborator Agnes Johansen tells me the director was inspired to make the film after the economic meltdown of 2008 when people were “really depressed and worried and feeling ashamed. He wanted to shy away from that” and demonstrate “who are the real heroes of this country.” Kormakur was 18 in 1984, but Johansen says, “People don’t forget. The story is always there.” Committing it to film was another thing. The crew shot in the Atlantic, something Johansen calls “a very dangerous ride.” The fishing vessel that the production purchased to sink “had a mind of its own” and went down twice before it was supposed to. The film has been well-received at home with a special screening for the families of the men who died in the accident. “It’s a delicate subject and we were very much aware of that throughout the whole process. It’s a thin line and we were quite excited to know whether people would accept it,” Johansen says.
The Hypnotist (Sweden)
The Hypnotist marks Lasse Hallstrom‘s first Swedish effort since 1985’s Oscar-nominated My Life As A Dog. Based on the book by Lars Kepler, it tells the story of a disgraced hypnotist called upon to help elicit details of a horrifying murder from the locked mind of a young man. Hallstrom’s wife Lena Olin stars along with veteran Mikael Persbrandt. Hallstrom tells me he went back to Sweden for a mix of reasons. “It was a great part for Lena and I hadn’t really spent any time in Stockholm in 24 years. Plus, I had never done a thriller.” He also wanted to “man up a little bit,” sensing there’s been a label attached to him that he makes only “nice, sweet, cute” movies. Of returning to Swedish, he says, “it was strange how speaking your first language at work relaxes your body and lets you exercise different muscles.” Hallstrom shot from January to July this year and then went straight to the upcoming romance Safe Haven. He says he doesn’t have any specific new projects in mind, but does intend to show Harvey Weinstein a fresh cut of The Hypnotist as he’s been quietly working to shave 10 minutes and make it “more audience-friendly for Americans.” He also has “a real desire to go back now and then and make Swedish movies.” No more thrillers, he says, “But I’d love to try a musical so I’m asking agents and producers for consideration.”
In The Shadow (Czech Republic)
In The Shadow has emerged as a surprise breakout during its recent screenings. Directed by David Ondříček, whose credits include the award-winning 2000 comedy Loners, the film noir is set in 1950s Czechoslovakia. When a burglary becomes a political affair, a detective takes matters into his own hands and struggles against the Communist police. Ivan Trojan and The Lives Of Others’ Sebastian Koch star. Israeli producer Ehud Bleiberg tells me it was Karlovy Vary Film Festival exec director Kryštof Mucha who first introduced him to the project. “He sent me the screenplay and the plot was related to what I grew up around in the early 50s about the public trial of Jews.” (The film’s time period coincides with the Slánský trial when 14 Communist leaders, 11 of them Jews, were convicted of participating in a conspiracy and most were executed.) The film is a Czech-Slovak-Polish-Israeli co-production and was released in the Czech Republic in August. Bleiberg says he didn’t want to show it to U.S. distribs before it was selected as the Oscar entry. But he’s not worried, “I believe and I trust in the committee members that they really go to see the films and I have to believe they mark it regardless of who is the distributor.” Bleiberg didn’t make it as far as the committee back in 2007 when a film he produced, The Band’s Visit, was notoriously disqualified. “They said it had too much English. It was a stupid decision, but what can I do?”
The Intouchables (France)
U.S. distributor: The Weinstein Co.
When I first met directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano in Cannes of 2011, it was six months before Intouchables would be released in France. I recently asked Toledano if the pair knew at the time what awaited them. “We knew it was a movie we liked. We didn’t know so many other people would like it!” The film went on to become France’s top grosser for 2011 and the number 2 French film of all time. It also broke records across Europe and surpassed Amélie as the top grossing French language film ever outside France. The story of an unlikely friendship between a quadriplegic millionaire and his other-side-of-the-tracks caretaker made a star out of Omar Sy in the latter role. Nakache and Toledano had already worked with Sy and built Intouchables, based on a true story, around him. Financing was not hard to mount with Gaumont coming on board enthusiastically. But Toledano says one company, which he won’t name, has reason to kick itself after saying it was “impossible to do a comedy with a handicapped person.” The Weinstein Co. acquired the film in July of 2011 and Toledano credits Weinstein with helping spur French reaction. “The French press didn’t stop saying that Harvey bought it, so it gave us extra promotion.” The directors are eager to return to the U.S. for the Golden Globes for which they are nominated, but they’re not wide-eyed about doing a movie there. “We are of course crazy about American actors, but we’re also crazy about our freedom and final cut… But we wouldn’t say never.”
U.S. distributor: The Weinstein Co.
When I caught up with Kon-Tiki directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg they were driving down the 405 on their way to LAX, heading back home to Norway after doing a round of promotion. They told me, “It’s been great, the response is fantastic. Americans are so nice to us!” The film has only opened in Norway so far (to record breaking numbers) and picked up a Golden Globe nod last week. The pair say they grew up with the story of Thor Heyerdahl and his seafaring adventure aboard the Kon-Tiki when he and five other sailors set out to cross 4,300 miles of ocean in 1947. TWC picked up the film in November after its AFI screening. The directors say, “It’s great Harvey came on board and will be distributing it. It’s been several of those moments during production and from the first moment when (producer) Jeremy Thomas called us and asked if we were interested.” Thomas calls the film a “long passion project” telling me, “For 16 years, I tried to make it this and that way… I took some wrong turns and then ended up with these good directors.” Rønning and Sandberg have made movies together since they were ten. “We did our own Star Wars, Radiers, Back To The Future. We were hugely influenced by all of those movies. But, we have a European sensibility as well and a Scandinavian take on how we see movies and want to make them with that sensibility.” While the directors are receiving offers in Hollywood, they’re looking forward to what happens during awards season. If they end up on the Oscar shortlist, the guys say, “We will pop the champagne.”
U.S. distributor: Music Box Films
Cate Shortland’s Lore is Australia’s entry for the foreign language Oscar, qualifying as such because it’s in German. Based on a novella by Rachel Seiffert, the story is set in 1945 Germany at the end of the war, where Lore must escort her siblings across the country to find their grandmother after their Nazi parents are taken into custody by the Allies. Along the way, they are exposed to the reality and consequences of their parents’ actions. Music Box’s Ed Arentz says he was taken with the subject matter that explores “the psychological burden of the children of Nazis who step out of this cocoon thinking there was a great victory at hand but who wake up to a world where Germany is destroyed and hated.” Lore debuted at the Sydney Film Festival and has gone on to win prizes in Stockholm, Locarno, Hamburg and the Hamptons. Whether the subject matter will be a tough sell to audiences when it is officially released “remains to be seen,” says Arentz, but ultimately it’s a story of “abandonment and betrayal.” It has also scored accolades for newcomer Saskia Rosendahl who plays the title character.
U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Pablo Larraín’s No won the top Directors’ Fortnight prize upon its debut in Cannes where Sony Pictures Classics acquired it, saying “This movie is a masterfully engaging and energetic drama about politics and power, a tonic for the brain that is also a major entertainment.” The film has since appeared in festivals in London, Telluride, New York and Toronto and has been selected as a Spotlight title for Sundance. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the executive who engineered an advertising campaign that toppled Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 referendum. Larraín was already a hit on the festival circuit via his 2008 serial killer movie Tony Manero which was produced by his shingle Fabula Productions. Paris-based Funny Balloons collaborated on that film and co-financed the follow-up, Santiago 73, Post Mortem. The company’s Peter Danner says, “So, naturally we continued on No. It was a bigger budget and a heavier film. Risky is maybe not the word, but it was a very particular way to treat a subject even in a South American film.” Danner believes, “There are movies that distinguish themselves and we think we are the Latin American movie that jumps out of the water the most.” Larrain has been busy on his HBO Latin America series Profugos and “needs to breathe a bit” once that’s over, according to Danner. “We’re waiting for the U.S. release of No, but we think he has the potential to cross over.” Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King exec produced No.
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
U.S. distributor: Magnolia Pictures
In A Royal Affair, director Nikolaj Arcel tells a story that is famous in Denmark, but largely unknown outside the country. In the late 18th century, mentally disturbed King Christian VII was strongly influenced by the radical-thinking and progressive Johann Friedrich Struensee, who became his personal physician and also embarked on a love affair with Queen Caroline Mathilde. The film premiered in Berlin and scored a best actor Silver Bear for newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as well as the screenplay prize. Last week it was nominated for a Golden Globe. Arcel, who moved to L.A. in August, tells me he chose to make the film because “When you know about a story from when you’re a little kid, it’s in your DNA. It appealed to both sides of me, a political side and a very romantic, melodramatic side.” He says he was turned down several times during the five years he tried to get the movie made, but “I was probably very stubborn.” He also credits line producer Kristina Kornum with being the savior who helped it get done. “We were at a point where we almost had a budget and then it was going to be much more expensive so the company basically shut us down. And then this line producer, who is not supposed to be a boss in any way, gets up and starts writing (options) on the wall. She was so passionate, she convinced the money guys.” Casting Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee was much easier. “He was waiting for the right (Danish) project and so why not return with a super iconic character that everybody dreamed of playing.” Arcel says he’s getting a lot of offers in Hollywood, “But I do think I’m able to keep my feet on the ground. That’s how we Scandis are.”
U.S. distributor: Adopt Films
French-born Ursula Meier won the Swiss version of the Oscar for 2008′s Home. Her follow-up, Sister, is set in the same Franche-Comté region as that film and also deals with themes of family and belonging. Léa Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein star as siblings on the edge of a high-end ski resort where she works odd jobs and he commits not-so-petty acts of larceny. Sister producer Ruth Waldburger tells me that despite Meier’s popularity in Switzerland, “It wasn’t completely evident” the movie would be the country’s Oscar entry. It helped, she says, that the film already had a U.S. distributor. Adopt Films acquired Sister in Berlin where it won a special jury prize (it’s also nominated for an Indie Spirit). Waldburger believes that debuting in Berlin was crucial to Sister’s career and Adopt Films’ Jeff Lipsky tells me he had the film on his radar going into the fest and jumped at it. “Our experience at major international film fests is if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that the films that are available are not the ones that will stand out for you.” But “we saw one film after another starting with Sister.” The film opened in the U.S. earlier this season which Lipsky says was partly because “We had this notion that Agnès Godard might have a shot at a cinematography nomination… So, we wanted to give (Sister) a little extra exposure.” Meier, he says “has gone everywhere we have asked her to go. She’s globally been on the road for the better part of a year. She has a heart of gold.”
War Witch (Canada)
U.S. distributor: Tribeca Film
War Witch brought an acting Silver Bear to non-pro Rachel Mwanza earlier this year and she also picked up the acting prize at Tribeca where the film was named best narrative feature. It also recently scored an Indie Spirit nomination for best international film. Set in sub-Saharan Africa, a young girl is forced by rebels to kill her own parents. After surviving a battle against the government’s army in the rebel camp, the girl is declared the new sorceress. She ultimately falls in love and becomes pregnant, deciding she must journey back to her birthplace. Producer Marie-Claude Poulin tells me when director Kim Nguyen turned up with the project nearly four years ago, her company Item 7 “adored the script despite the difficulties we felt in the subject.” Shooting war scenes in Congo was another kind of difficulty. Poulin tells me the army arrived on the first day and she had to go to the Department of Military Intelligence to apologize. “I was on television to let people in Brazzaville and Kinshasa know that it wasn’t real gunfire.” Becoming the Canadian entry for the Oscar was also nail-biting, says Poulin. The day before the decision was made, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways had won the Best Canadian Feature prize in Toronto.
Blood of My Blood (Portugal)
Children Of Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Our Children (Belgium)
Pieta (South Korea)