In a year of 83 record submissions, a pack of critically applauded frontrunners stand out in a lively foreign Oscar race defined by quality and quantity, including Poland’s “Ida,” Belgium’s “Two Days, One Night” and Russia’s “Leviathan.” Yet if I had my pick of the lot, here are five standout entries due for consideration, and in the case of Finland’s “Concrete Night,” US distribution as well. You can catch all five at the Palm Springs International Film Festival next month.
Honorable mentions and other contenders picking up heat include: “Wild Tales” (Argentina), “Timbuktu” (Mauritania), “White God” (Hungary), “Beloved Sisters” (Germany), “The Circle” (Switzerland) and, with some trepidation, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s bloated, but haunting talkfest “Winter Sleep” (Turkey).
“Concrete Night” (Dir. Pirjo Honkasalo, Finland) While this black-and-white snapshot of a 14-year-old boy’s life in the hardscrabble Helsinki slums may seem like the breakout work of a young and edgy first-timer, director Honkasalo has been making narratives, docs and shorts for almost 50 years. Her latest is an intoxicating, drop-dead beauty of a film, a brooding coming-of-ager sumptuously shot by DP Peter Flinckenberg, whose inky meld of light and shadow harks back to the important social realist films of the 1950s and 60s, but with a dark fairytale twist. As embittered young Simo (Johannes Brotherus) follows his elder, prison-bound brother (Jari Virman) through the shady catwalks and corridors of the city’s underbelly toward inevitable doom, he learns what it means to lose the rose-colored glasses of youth in the urban jungle.
“Force Majeure” (Dir. Ruben Östlund, Sweden) Certainly a leading contender this year—and far and away among the very best—”Force Majeure” is Ruben Östlund’s gruesomely funny fourth feature that busts the precious, illusory construct of the nuclear family. The film’s spectacularly enacted centerpiece, an avalanche that very suddenly imposes on a family of four skiing in the French Alps, is merely a primer for an always-fascinating-to-watch implosion of a male ego. Coded he-said/she-said exchanges between husband and wife take hilarious detours into well-oiled, dinner-theater meltdown territory where every glance, furrowed brow or pursed lip is a loaded gun. And Östlund, shooting from an archly comic and detached distance as if he were Jacques Tati directing “The Shining,” is all too giddy to ridicule every one of his affluent characters and their artificial niceties.
“Mommy” (Dir. Xavier Dolan, Canada) Don’t estimate Xavier Dolan. His Cannes sensation turned Oscar contender “Mommy” affirms that the prodigal filmmaker behind succès d’estime “I Killed My Mother” has, at 25, finally grown up. Here he pulls back on the bravado to deliver an unpretentious emotional workout pivoting on a scrappy single mom (Oscar-worthy Anne Dorval), her behaviorally erratic teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and a timid housewife with a speech impediment and secrets next door. Will the Academy spark to this suffocatingly powerful film and its spiky, complicated antiheroes? The well-timed, recently announced casting news of Dolan’s next film (starring Jessica Chastain, Kit Harrington and, yes, Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates) could assure that voters have this young, outrageously talented new filmmaker on their radars.
“Norte, The End of History” (Dir. Lav Diaz, Philippines) Loosely, yet recognizably an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” this amazingly huge yet intimate panorama of modern Filipino life runs four hours. But every gripping moments floods the senses—with palpable suspense, patient silence and three complicated characters that, like people in a novel, deepen over time. Postgrad student Fabian (Sid Lucero) is our latter-day Raskolnikov, a detached, overeducated pedant who tests his fatalistic Nietzschean philosophy by committing a callous crime that tears asunder the lives of a lower-class rural family, falsely sending a young father to prison while his wife is left to eke out a living for their children in a poor farming community. “Norte” unspools one astounding tableau after another, lensed in mouthwatering digital by Larry Manda and gently stitched together by writer/director Diaz, who also edits, in pursuit of a shattering, inexorable end-note. (Psst, this one’s streaming on Netflix.)
“Saint Laurent” (Dir. Bertrand Bonello, France) This is two-plus hours of a man suffering beautifully, and for those cinephiles made weak at the knees by tortured artists, this is movie heaven. In his earlier “House of Pleasures,” Bonello confined his vision to the hothouse of a fin-de-siecle bordello; here, he paints his broadest vista yet, swan-diving, with postmodernist zeal, under the skin of the debauched icon. The clothes are gorgeous, and so are the men, as played with twitchy charm by Gaspard Ulliel as YSL, and an almost comically sexy, mustachioed Louis Garrel as Jacques de Bascher, one of Saint Laurent’s many despairing lovers. Though a unruly and undisciplined, falling apart at the seams in its final hour, “Saint Laurent” is like an alternate, decadent gay ’70s Scorsese picture, with a flurry of terrific scenes— including a midsection, doped-up dance between the fading, bleary-eyed lovers—that simply gut you.