When the Oscars‘ Foreign Language shortlist was unveiled before Christmas, it contained few surprises. Today’s final selection of the five nominees has a bit more shock value — for France, especially. Expectations were high that The Weinstein Company’s feel-good box office smash The Intouchables would land an Oscar slot. But the Academy was evidently not in a laughing mood.
Many watchers even had Intouchables facing off with Austria’s perceived frontrunner Amour (Sony Pictures Classics) on February 24. Michael Haneke’s heartrending love story about an aging couple found a lot of love today with not only a Foreign Language nomination but also nods for lead actress Emmanuelle Riva – at 85 the oldest woman ever nominated – Haneke’s directing, his original screenplay and Best Picture. This week, Amour was nominated for four BAFTAS and last weekend, it won the National Society of Film Critics’ top honor. It had previously won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s best picture nod and of course began its career in Cannes where Haneke won his second Palme d’Or. But could so much love from the Academy today end up cancelling Amour out here? As producer Margaret Menegoz told me before the nominations, “We were almost certain for (2009 nominee) White Ribbon. You never know.”
While Haneke’s film is Austrian, it is in French and while that may have confused things, the lack of a French nominee today holds with an interesting statistic: Since 2000, France has had a film nominated in the category for two years in a row, then been absent for two years. If the trend holds, next year should produce a nominee. But a winner would be more elusive as one French exec tells me today, “The real issue is the way movies are selected to represent the country. It’s unbelievable that producing 200 movies a year France has not been able to win a single [Foreign Language Oscar] in 20 years.”
Harvey Weinstein still has a horse in the foreign race (along with horses in many other races). Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki, which Weinstein picked up in November, made the Oscar cut today. The Norwegian film, about Thor Heyerdahl’s seafaring 1947 adventure, also has a Golden Globe nod. The directors were in Palm Springs over the weekend, as my colleague Pete Hammond mentioned earlier this week. It was after Oscar nominations balloting had closed, but they’re still out making the rounds. Norway has been nominated four times for the foreign-language Oscar, but never won. Heyerdahl’s documentary of his own adventure won the Best Documentary trophy in 1951.
Pablo Larraín’s No (SPC) won the top Director’s Fortnight prize when it debuted in Cannes. The Chilean film has since also picked up a National Board of Review mention as a top-five foreign-language pic of the year and is no surprise in the final five on Oscar’s roster. In the movie, Gael Garcia Bernal plays the executive who engineered an advertising campaign that toppled Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 referendum. This is the country’s first nomination.
Also unsurprisingly making the final round is the now-L.A.-based Danish director Nicolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (Magnolia). The movie started its career back in Berlin with a Silver Bear for newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as well as the screenplay prize. It’s a lush re-creation of life at the court of Denmark’s mentally disturbed King Christian VII whose doctor and confidant, played by Mads Mikkelsen, falls for his beautiful young wife. She’s played by hot up-and-comer Alicia Vikander, who was just shortlisted for a Rising Star BAFTA. It’s also got a Golden Globe nomination in the foreign-language category. Denmark last had an Oscar winner for 2010′s In A Better World.
The last, alphabetically at least, of the final five, War Witch (Tribeca), had producers worried it wouldn’t even be Canada’s official entry for the Oscar. The day before the decision was made, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways had won the Best Canadian Feature prize in Toronto. Kim Nguyen’s film is the story of a resolute young girl in wartorn sub-Saharan Africa. Fifteen-year-old non-pro actress Rachel Mwanza won a Silver Bear as Best Actress in Berlin this year. Canada’s been at the party four of the last 10 years, winning with 2003′s The Barbarian Invasions.
Along with Intouchables, those left out of the running after today include Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur. To some surprise, his The Deep (Focus World), based on the true story of the sole survivor of a 1984 fishing boat accident, did not land a nomination. Kormakur has been making a name for himself in Hollywood but returned to Iceland to make The Deep under harrowing circumstances and with a boat that had a mind of its own.
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s shortlisted Beyond The Hills was a Cannes winner, for screenplay and lead actresses, but it did not make today’s cut. Perhaps voters felt shortlisting the film was enough amends after leaving his 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days out altogether back in 2008. The other omission today was Ursula Meier’s Swiss entry, Sister, with strong performances by Léa Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein as siblings living on the edge of a high-end ski resort. Although Meier has been stalwart traveling with the film (including to Palm Springs this weekend), the fact that it was released earlier in the season may have dented its impact.