Last year, I offered up a preview of the 15 films that had the most buzz going into the unveiling of the Foreign Language Oscar shortlist. Somehow this year, with a record 76 entries (last year it was 71), I whittled down another 15 films that have a shot at the shortlist which is expected to be finalized later this week. This was not an easy task in one of the strongest fields for foreign film in recent years. While 2012′s eventual winner Amour seemed like a foregone conclusion, this year has any number of possible outcomes. Movies that started their careers in Berlin and Cannes are represented below, but so are others that didn’t make it to those high-profile events. I spoke with the directors of each film about their inspirations and expectations, and in some cases with the U.S. distributor about what gave them the confidence to acquire. Notably, Harvey Weinstein clarifies the controversy surrounding an edit of Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong entry The Grandmaster. There’s also a lot more here from folks like Paolo Sorrentino, Thomas Vinterberg and Sebastian Lelio, among many others. The rules for selecting the final winner have changed this year with the entire Academy voting body able to weigh in without proving they have seen the films in a movie theater. But the regs for establishing the shortlist remain the same: The Phase I committee determines six of the nine films on the shortlist. The other three titles will be determined by the select Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee. Those three extra titles might have international renown but been somehow overlooked by the larger committee (wink, wink City Of God, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days and others). After that, an uber-committee of 30 higher profile members chooses the ultimate five nominees after viewing the finalists over the course of a long weekend. Below (in alphabetical order by title) are profiles of the 15 films that I believe have a shot at the first stage:
Foreign Language Oscar Preview: A Long List Of Strong Contenders For Such A Shortlist Of Possible Nominees
Global Showbiz Briefs: Tom Hollander Plays Dylan Thomas; Turkey’s ‘The End’ Sells To Russia; Pathé’s ‘Pride’; More
Tom Hollander Stars As Dylan Thomas In Andrew Davies Drama
Tom Hollander (Rev, Any Human Heart) will play Dylan Thomas in the one-off drama A Poet In New York by Andrew Davies’ (Mr Selfridge). Modern Television is producing for the BBC to mark the centenary of Thomas’ birth. The story kicks off with the Welsh poet’s arrival in Manhattan on his fatal visit and covers the last days of his life as well as his stormy relationship with wife Caitlin. Essie Davis, Ewen Bremner and Phoebe Fox also star. Shooting is underway, with the drama due to air on BBC One Wales and BBC Two next year.
For the Academy’s official screening schedule, click here.
Summer Movies Will Face Tough Competition in Britain
Things don’t look too rosy for the British summer box office in 2012. Film Distributors’ Association CEO Mark Batey told BBC News that May to September will be a difficult period. Competition will come from 2 1/2 weeks of the London Olympics, plus Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix, the queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Paralympics. Summer films like The Dark Knight Rises, Battleship, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Bourne Legacy will have little chance to continue the British box office growth seen this year over 2010, Batey said. The British box office currently stands at £872 million, 4% higher than it was this time last year.
Spanish Sales Agency Freak Moves Into Feature Films
Madrid-based short-film sales agency Freak is branching out to feature films. It announced international sales of Bernard Arellano’s Between Night And Day and Celia Novis’ On Vampyres And Other Symptoms. Arellano’s movie won the Industry Award at the recent San Sebastian International Film Festival, and Novis’ film is screening at horror fest Sitges on Oct. 12. Freak also will attend the American Film Market this fall as well as the IDFA/Docs For
With the deadline for submitting films in the Foreign Language Oscar race looming, the competition is taking shape. Some 44 films have been entered by Deadline’s count. Last year, 65 films were entered, so expect 20 or so more to be announced. After the October 3rd cutoff, the Academy’s Foreign Language Executive Committee, led by Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man) will vet the list and approve the final rundown before the 3-month screening process begins to pick 9 finalists and the eventual 5 nominees. Already, Johnson has indicated to me there is controversy. Albania has entered The Forgiveness of Blood, the hit at Telluride and Toronto directed by LA-born and -bred Joshua Marston. Apparently, other Albanian filmmakers are balking at the nationality of the movie’s helmer. It will be up to the committee to determine whether the film has enough Albanian elements to qualify despite being in the unique situation of having an American director (and co-writer). The very internationally inclined Marston had the official 2004 Colombian entry, Maria Full of Grace, before it was disqualified for not being Colombian enough. It did eventually win a Best Actress nod for Catalina Sandino Moreno.
The Russians are also squabbling over their official entry, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt By the Sun 2: Citadel, the sequel to his 1995 Oscar-winning foreign language film. Even though the full Russian Oscar selection committee voted for it, Mikhalkov has been “burnt” by committee head Vladimir Menshov, who is against putting the critical and box office flop forward to the American Academy. (Despite a $45 million budget, it grossed only $1.5 million). He is awaiting Mikhalkov’s formal response to his request that he pull the film. He has until October 1, according to the Russian rule book.
China’s choice of three-time nominee Zhang Yimou’s (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Hero) period epic The Flowers of War (formerly known during production as Heroes of Nanking), starring Oscar winner Christian Bale, is China’s most expensive film ever. It’s reportedly 40% English-language and 60% Mandarin, which lets it squeak by under Academy rules. Twenty minutes of footage from the film, which opens its regular run December 16 in China, was shown to buyers and press in Toronto and was well-received. Executive producer and former Universal Pictures honcho David Linde told me in Toronto that if the film gets a domestic distribution deal in time, it is entirely possible to open in the U.S. to qualify for all categories – presumably including a Best Actor bid for Bale. (Linde was non-committal on that, so we will have to wait and see.) If it gets nominated and the film is held from American release until next year, that would make it ineligible for other categories in 2012.
Among the countries still waiting to be heard from are frequent nominees Italy, Spain and Turkey. I fully expect those countries to select films that were all in the official competition in Cannes this year: Italy’s Habemus Papam from Nanni Moretti; Turkey’s Cannes Grand Prize winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan; and Spain’s The Skin I Live In, the first “horror” effort from two-time Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar. The latter has had a spotty track record with the Spanish Academy that makes the selections, but the rift is said to have eased. If they are in their right mind, they will certainly select Skin, which I think is one of Almodovar’s best and most entertaining films.
I am a bit surprised to see Belgium select Bullhead over Cannes prizewinner The Kid With a Bike from the highly respected Dardenne Brothers and also over Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight grand prize winner, the brilliant coming-of-age story Les Geants.
France usually picks something out of the main competition in Cannes, especially because festival director Thierry Fremaux is also on France’s official Oscar selection committee. But this year the country chose the well-received film that opened the smaller Critics Week competition, Declaration of War, an emotional story of young parents trying to deal with their child’s cancer diagnosis. Perhaps after seeing the Academy ignore last year’s home-grown Cannes Grand Prize winner Of Gods and Men they decided to go in a different direction. They ignored potential candidate Polisse, which won the Jury Prize in this year’s main competition at the fest. They also passed over another French-bred competition entry, the enormously popular The Artist (which added to its laurels by winning the Audience Award today at the San Sebastian Film Festival). The black-and-white silent film set and shot in Hollywood is probably not perceived as French enough, despite the Gallic credentials of director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin (Best Actor in Cannes). A Weinstein Company source told me they aren’t upset as they are aiming for a Best Picture slot and don’t necessarily want the film perceived as a foreign language picture.
Highlights among other official selections so far:
The films, listed in alphabetical order by country, are:
Algeria, “Hors la Loi” (“Outside the Law”), Rachid Bouchareb, director;
Canada, “Incendies,” Denis Villeneuve, director;
Denmark, “In a Better World,” Susanne Bier, director;
Greece, “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos, director;
Japan, “Confessions,” Tetsuya Nakashima, director;
Mexico, “Biutiful,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director;
South Africa, “Life, above All,” Oliver Schmitz, director;
Spain, “Tambien la Lluvia” (“Even the Rain”), Iciar Bollain, director;
Sweden, “Simple Simon,” Andreas Ohman, director
This year’s 65 Best Foreign Language Film nominees have been screening since October. But which will be the Final 9 due to be announced tomorrow? Choosing 6 films will be the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ large volunteer committees, plus another uber-Academy committee presided over by Foreign Language committee head Mark Johnson will select 3 more movies tonight. Then the 9 films will be judged by specially selected groups in LA and NY who will whittle the list down to the 5 official contenders. The Academy reverted to this 3-step nomination process to ensure that internationally well regarded, but perhaps edgier, films weren’t omitted. 3 more movies selected byThis category is hard to handicap and springs surprises. But here’s background on what are considered some frontrunners:
Aftershock – China
A mother is faced with an agonising decision to make in Aftershock: two children are found trapped underneath rubble after an earthquake and it’s determined that if one child is removed, the rubble will fall and crush the other to death – so the mother must decide, which child should she save? Aftershock, directed by Feng Xiaogang – called China’s Steven Spielberg – has become the country’s highest-grossing local film of all time. Xu Fan, who is Feng’s wife, gives a strong performance as the mother faced with an impossible choice. Feng also draws out moving performances from the rest of his cast, especially from Li Chen playing the grown-up daughter. Critics praised that the special effects are never allowed to swamp the story. New US company China Lion Film Distribution released Aftershock on 31 AMC screens on October 29th across the U.S. and Canada. Given North America’s large Asian population, and that it has grossed more than $100 million in China, it’s surprising that some cinemagoers have reported just 3 people at screenings. Milt Barlow, CEO of China Lion, blames Internet piracy and illegal DVDs for why Chinese audiences in the U.S. stayed away.
Feng wanted to make Aftershock after he read the novel about the 1978 earthquake, which left 246,000 people dead. Then Sichuan was devastated by an earthquake in 2008, killing another 87,000 people, and he decided to put the project on hold. Making a film about an earthquake seemed disrespectful after such a recent tragedy. It was only after relief efforts became the focus for Chinese unity that Feng changed his mind. He persuaded Hong Kong-based Media Asia Group to put up the $19.1 million he needed to make his film. What he wanted, Feng told Media Asia Group CEO John Chong, was to make a movie about the triumph of humanity. The Chinese director is downbeat about Aftershock’s chances at the Oscars because it’s meant to appeal to Chinese audiences only. Censorship makes it hard for Chinese directors to make films that travel, he says, because U.S. audiences are not interested in anything with subtitles.
Biutiful – Mexico
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has called his film “an act of resistance” against everything that is wrong with today’s movie industry. It took 4 months for Biutiful to get picked up for U.S. distribution despite Javier Bardem winning Best Actor at Cannes. Distributors shied away because of the film’s unrelentingly bleak subject matter: Bardem plays a deeply-devoted father dying of a terminal disease while trafficking in human misery – drugs, illegal workers, and anything else he can make a quick buck from so he doesn’t leave his two children in debt. American producer Mickey Liddell agreed to fund P&A because he couldn’t get the movie – and its ultimately hopeful ending — out of his head. Roadside Attractions is releasing the film on January 28th. So far Biutiful has grossed $10M around the world.
Inarritu admits he was lucky to get this $30M-$40M cost and nearly 3-hour long film made. Shooting began two months before the global financial crisis hit in October 2008. “I would be dreaming about doing a film like this today,” he said. Even its associate producer, Guillermo Del Toro, has called it the last foreign-language film on this scale. Fellow directors Werner Herzog and Robert Benton, moved by Inarritu’s difficulty in attracting attention for his picture, have both interviewed him at DGA screenings in LA and NY. Del Toro hosted an event launching its Oscar campaign in November. Inarritu is a 3-time Oscar nominee whose films include Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director in 2006. But this could be the first time he is recognized for his writing talents.
Confessions – Japan
This film from Kamikaze Girls director Tetsuya Nakashima had its North American debut at the New York Asian Film Festival. Nased on Kanae Minato’s bestselling novel Kokuhaku which has sold over 700,000 copies in Japan to date, Confessions stars Takako Matsu as a junior high school teacher who plots an elaborate revenge on two of her 13-year-old students after they murder her young daughter. Nakashima says that he was partly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight while making the film, which has heavily stylized visuals and a strong soundtrack, including a track contributed by Radiohead. Confessions was released in Japan in June, and spent four weeks at No. 1, pulling in more than 3.5 billion yen ($44.4M) and actually increasing its per screen average during its first month. It has been nominated for 11 Japanese Academy Awards. UK distributor Third Window Films has acquired Confessions for British release. There’s no U.S. distributor yet – although that will change if Confessions is set for a Ringu/The Ring-style reboot on top of any Oscar nomination.
La Prima Cosa Bella (First Beautiful Thing) - Italy
This bittersweet comedy played very well for the Academy Foreign Language Selection committee on December 6th, drawing one of the biggest crowds of the year at those screenings. It looks likes this could be Italy’s first pic to make the final 5 since Roberto Begnini’s Life Is Beautiful 12 years ago. The film won 3 Donatello awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscars, for screenplay, actress, and actor. Set both in 1971 and in the present day, the pic focuses on a young man returning home to say good-bye to his mother, a former beauty queen who is now dying of cancer played by Donatello-winner Micaela Ramazzotti.
Produced by Indiana Films, whose partners include Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino, First Beautiful Thing grossed $8.9 million during its Italian run, making it the 6th most popular Italian film of the year. Rome-based Intramovies has so far sold the film to Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. Palisades Tartan has taken the film for the U.S., although there’s no release date yet. Critics have praised director and co-writer Paolo Virzi for the way he has reinvented old-style Italian comedy. Commenting on Italy choosing his movie for Best Foreign Language film, Virzi said: “Italian cinema has great resources and talents, but little regard for itself, so it has become its own worst enemy.”
The Human Resources Manager - Israel
Eran Riklis, director of The Human Resources Manager, tells me that it’s “the story of a man who, in order to rediscover his life, has to go on a road trip with death”. Riklis noted: “I read Abraham Jehoshua’s book and it felt like the story was one I could tell. It’s about something that’s very local and yet at the same time totally universal, whether it’s the plight of foreign workers or the manager’s loneliness.” The Human Resources Manager may have won 5 Ophir Awards (the Israeli film awards) including Best Feature, but the New York-based Jewish Daily Forward newspaper has carped that this Oscar submission is more in recognition of Riklis’ previous films – The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree – than this one. Apart from Israel, The Human Resources Manager has opened in France and Italy. Film Movement is planning on opening the film at Lincoln Plaza and the Landmark Sunshine Theater in NYC on March 4th. It will then have a national roll-out prior to its summer cable VOD release. The film has also been picked up for Australia, Benelux, Latin America and Spain.
EXCLUSIVE: (Screening schedule below) Although the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has yet to officially announce it, their official Best Foreign Language Film Award screening schedule has begun circulating and I’ve obtained a copy (see below). It contains a total of 65 movies competing, each selected as the sole entry from their home countries per Academy rules. AMPAS breaks the unwieldy process into four different color groups: Red, White, Green, and Blue with each section assigned 16 films (although RED gets an extra one as it is currently laid out). Screenings for the large volunteer committees will begin Friday at 7:30 PM with the Canadian entry Incendies and end Thursday January 13 with a 9:40 PM screening of Latvia’s Hong Kong Confidential (not to be confused with Hong Kong’s Echoes Of The Rainbow screening November 12). After this 3-month process is completed, and the top six scoring movies are selected, another uber-Academy committee presided over by Foreign Language committee head Mark Johnson will choose 3 more movies from the initial 65 entries. Then these 9 films will be judged by specially selected groups in LA and NY who will whittle the list down to the 5 official contenders. After years of controversy over glaring omissions from the big committee like Brazil’s City Of God among others, the Academy reverted to this 3-step nomination process in order to protect some of the more internationally well-regarded, but perhaps edgier, entries from embarrassing slights in the Oscar process.
The opener, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, is one of the most anticipated this year after highly successful showings in this Fall’s film festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Perhaps the best known film on the list is Mexico’s entry, Biutiful, from 3-time Oscar-nominee Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. It was in the official Cannes competition and won Best Actor for star Javier Bardem. After several tense months, it was finally picked up for American distribution by Roadside Attractions and will open on December 29th in time to compete in other categories as well. With a January 11th official screening, it will be one of the last to show for the foreign language committee as well as the only entry not currently scheduled as part of a double feature. At 148 minutes, it sports the longest running time, too. The shortest is Uruguay’s La Vida Util at a breezy 66 minutes.
Other anticipated entries include Thailand’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (screening Nov 15), France’s Cannes Grand Prize winner, Of Gods And Men (Nov 13), the controversial Cannes entry Hors La Loi from Algeria (Dec 4), another Cannes discovery, South Africa’s Life, Above All (Jan 6), Greece’s Dogtooth (Dec 4), Spain’s Tambien La Liuvia (Dec 3), China’s earthquake drama, Aftershock (Oct 25), Romania’s When I Want To Whistle, I Whistle (Jan 6), and Danish director Susanne Bier’s In A Better World (Jan 13). Germany’s When We Leave (Oct 29) just screened at this weekend’s Hamptons Film Festival to acclaim and will be paired with Iraq’s Son Of Babylon (Oct 29). Israel will also have the chance to continue it’s hot streak of 3 nominations in a row (Beaufort, Waltz With Bashir, Ajami) by going for a 4th with the tragi-comedy, The Human Resources Manager (Oct 18). Kazakhstan’s Strayed (Dec 18) could be one to watch along with India’s Peepli (Oct 16) as both those countries have had recent contenders. But with 65 entries, it’s anybody’s guess where this is going. Discoveries will always be made and American distribution scouts will be checking out those lesser known films that are still up for grabs.
Of course, as I’ve already detailed previously, controversy has reared its head in the selection of some entries, as it always does, including Italy’s well-reviewed The First Beautiful Thing (Dec 6), selected over the international Tilda Swinton hi, I Am Love, sparking outrage from Love’s American distributor Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia and disappointment from the producers of another well-regarded italian possibility, The Man Who Will Come. Some also accused politics in playing a part in Brazil’s selection of the glowing biography of its current popular President, Lula, The Son Of Brazil (Dec 11). Eyebrows have also been raised over South Korea’s snubbing of its highly regarded Cannes competition selection, Poetry which was thought in many quarters to be a sure thing and has received an American distribution deal from Kino. Instead South Korea chose the less buzzed-about A Barefoot Dream (Oct 22).
Of course the hottest titles going in are not necessarily going to be the big winners in the end. Remember that 2008’s eventual foreign language champ, Japan’s Departures, and even last year’s crowd pleaser from Argentina, The Secret In Their Eyes, ( were big surprises to many when the envelope was finally opened (although I managed to correctly predict both). Members who vote in this competition often tend to shun the heavier stuff and go for the more accessible alternative. Screening schedules follow:
Is Oscar influencing presidential politics in Brazil? Controversy recently erupted when the movie biography of that country’s enormously popular President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was chosen as Brazil’s official entry for the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film race. Problem is, the selection came just 10 days before this Sunday’s Presidential election. Lula is not running again even though he enjoys a popularity rating of 75%, but his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, is. Some factions are crying foul, saying the film was only chosen to boost Lula’s interests and help his protegé Rousseff’s by association. The argument against anointing the film, Lula, o Filho do Brasil (Lula, The Son Of Brazil) is given further credence because it was widely considered a commercial and critical flop when it opened earlier this year. Yet it beat 22 other candidates — while Rousseff has erased a one-time 10 point deficit in the polls and taken a new commanding 20 point lead heading into Sunday’s vote.