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Oscar Watch: Profiles of the Nine Shortlisted Foreign Language Oscar Contenders UPDATED

Oscar Watch: Profiles of the Nine Shortlisted Foreign Language Oscar Contenders UPDATED

Nine films out of 63 qualified submissions are moving on in the race for the Oscar for Foreign Language Film.  The Phase I foreign language committee of several hundred L.A.-based Academy voters screened the films between mid-October and January 13. Their top six choices are in the shortlist of nine, plus three films added by branch chief Mark Johnson’s executive committee, usually critically acclaimed films omitted by the wider group.

Now special invite-only committees in New York and L.A. will vote on the final five to be nominated. They will screen three films a day this weekend in advance of the Oscar nominations announcement on January 24. Notably left off the shortlist are China’s “Flowers of War,” starring Christian Bale, already a hit in Asia, as well as Cannes competition  entries “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and “Le Havre,” Italy’s “Terrafirma,” Mexico’s “Miss Bala,”  and France’s “Declaration of War.” Sony Pictures Classics scored three: Iran’s  “A Separation,” which has been sweeping awards lately, as well as Poland’s “In Darkness”and Israel’s Cannes screenplay-winner “Footnote,”  but missed with Lebanon’s “Where Do We Go Now?” which had won the audience award in Toronto.

The films, listed in alphabetical order by country, are:

    Belgium, “Bullhead,” Michael R. Roskam, director;
    Canada, “Monsieur Lazhar,” Philippe Falardeau, director;
    Denmark, “Superclásico,” Ole Christian Madsen, director;
    Germany, “Pina,” Wim Wenders, director;
    Iran, “A Separation,” Asghar Farhadi, director;
    Israel, “Footnote,” Joseph Cedar, director;
    Morocco, “Omar Killed Me,” Roschdy Zem, director;
    Poland, “In Darkness,” Agnieszka Holland, director;
    Taiwan, “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” Wei Te-sheng, director.

Profiles of the nine films are below:

“A Separation”

Country: Iran (0 previous wins)

Director: Asghar Farhadi (“About Elly,” “Beautiful City”)

U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Major festivals: Berlin, Telluride, Toronto, New York

Major awards: Golden Bear – Berlin Film Festival; Foreign language film – New York Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, Broadcast Critics, Golden Globes; Screenplay – Los Angeles Film Critics

U.S. release date: 12/30/11

Gross to date: US – $339,000 (3rd week); Foreign – $9,100,000

Metacritic score: 94

With the highest pedigree of this year’s potential nominees, and a string of honors among contenders unmatched since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragons” (2000), this would seem to be a likely nominee and have strong potential to win. Its focus on domestic drama with universal themes as well as two-prominent roles for children put it more in the mainstream of past winners despite its Iranian setting. (TOH Farhadi Q & A is here.)


Country:  Belgium (0 wins)

Director:  Michael R. Roksam (1st film)

U.S. distributor:  Drafthouse

Major festivals: Berlin

U.S. release date:  unset

An edgy  thriller set in a Belgian rural community where illegal beef hormone dealers try to involve a young cattle farmer, its North American exposure has been limited to playing (and winning) at the Austin Fantastic  Fest, leading to its acquisition by the nascent Drafthouse Films. Its release otherwise so far seems to have been limited to Belgium and the Netherlands. Its inclusion means the risky move of not submitting the Dardenne Brothers’ acclaimed “The Kid on a Bike” so far has paid off.


Country: Israel (0 previous wins)

Director: Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort”/2007 nominee, “Campfire”)

U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Major festivals: Cannes, Toronto, New York

Major awards: Screenplay – Cannes

U.S. release date: 3/9/12

A success at home (it swept its national film awards last fall) and set to open in the U.S. right after the Oscars, this is another example of the constantly incisive and reflective modern Israeli cinema. The story of an intergenerational intellectual conflict set around a literary prize is both poignant and tension-filled. Though an Israeli since early childhood, director Cedar was born in New York and went to NYU Film School.

“In Darkness

Country: Poland (0 previous wins)

Director: Agnieszka Holland (“The Angry Harvest”/1985 nominee, “Europa Europa”)

U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Major festivals: Telluride, Toronto

U.S. release date: 12/9/11 (1 week qualifying); 2/10/12

Gross to date: Foreign – $856,000

Metacritic score: 74

Holland is well-known in the U.S., where she has made films such as “The Secret Garden,” “Total Eclipse,” “Washington Square,” and more recently on TV and cable with grittier dramas like “The Wire,” “Cold Case,” “Treme” and “The Killing.” Returning to her native Poland (her earlier nominated film was West German), she has made a harrowing, claustrophobic story about Jewish refugees hiding from the Germans in the sewers of Lodz. Acclaimed in particular for its cinematography (Holland has always exhibited a strong visual sense), its subject matter is similar to other nominees and winners over the decades in this category. (Holland also was an adapted screenplay nominee for her “Europa, Europa.” (TOH interviews Holland here.)

“Monsieur Lazhar”

Country: Canada (1 previous win)

Director: Philippe Falardeau (“It’s Not Me I Swear,” “Congorama”)

U.S. distributor: Music Box

Major festivals: Locarno, Toronto

U.S. release date: April 2012

A more conventionally crowd-pleasing film than “Incendies,” last year’s  acclaimed Canadian nominee, this is possibly an equally strong contender. An Algerian-émigré lands a job teaching in a public grade school in an emergency situation, leading to unexpected consequences. Both a quiet character study but also a universal story of a caring adult guiding children through a crisis, it could turn out to be the sleeper winner against more acclaimed contenders.

“Omar Killed Me”

Country:  Morocco (0 wins)

Director: Roschdy Zem (“Bad Faith”)

U.S. distributor:  None

Major festivals: Venice, Toronto

The second film from French-born actor turned director Roschdy Zem (“Days of Glory”), this French co-production follows past North African nominees (“Z”, “Outside the Law”) with mixed parentage to become a serious contender.  Rachid Bouchareb, director of “Days of Glory” and “Outside the Law” is one of the producers. It has been identified in the media and festivals as a French film. A murder mystery set on the Riviera where a Moroccan gardener is charged with murdering an old woman, it was a surprise success in France when released last summer, but otherwise has had limited international exposure.


Country:  Germany (3 previous wins)

Director: Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire,” “Paris Texas”)

U.S. distributor: IFC-Sundance Selects

Major festivals: Berlin, Telluride, Toronto, New York

Major awards: Documentary – European Film Awards

U.S. release date: 12/23/11

Gross to date:  US -$592,000 (4 weeks);  Foreign – $11,100,000

Metacritic score: 80

This unlikely international success – a 3-D documentary about a German choreographer – is also a feature documentary semi-finalist. No documentary has ever been nominated for both best doc and best foreign language film, but this could have the momentum to be the first. (Animated doc “Waltz with Bashir” was nominated as best foreign language film.) Surprisingly, veteran director Wim Wenders (along with other earlier German New Wave directors Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder) has never had a film nominated in this category. (TOH flip cams Wim Wenders here.)


Country:  Denmark (3 wins)

Director: Ole Christian Madsen (Flame & Citron, Prague)

U.S. distributor:  none

Major festivals:  Toronto

Little Denmark continues to have a strong international presence.  In a year with such releases as Danes Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”), Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”) and Susanne Bier (“In a Better World’), this less-seen comedy could continue the trend. Mainly set in Argentina, where a middle-aged wine-shop owner chases his estranged wife during the middle of a major soccer match, this has not had much international attention other than a few festivals and a local successful playoff last spring. Director Madsen is best known for his German WW2-set drama “Flame and Citron,” released by  IFC in 2009 to mostly video-on-demand viewing.

“Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale”

Country: Taiwan (1 win)

Director:  Wei Tei-Sheng (“Cape No. 7,” “About July”)

U.S. distributor:  Well Go

Major festivals:  Venice, Toronto

Produced by John Woo, this drama set during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan before World War II among a local indigenous tribe competed in Venice and swept its country’s national film awards earlier. Its 150-minute version is a bit more than half of its original four hour + length (the shorter version played has played internationally, though the submitted version for the Academy is supposed to be what was released initially). Its inclusion instead of the better-known but similar Chinese “Flowers of War” has a certain irony to it – this, like “Flowers”, is its country’s most expensive local production and deals with similar themes. U.S. rights holder Well Go usually sends its films to DVD and other venues rather than theatrical. This possibly might now attract interest of other distributors able to release it quickly to U.S. theaters.

Films that did NOT make the short list that are nonetheless worth seeing:

“Declaration of War

Country: France (12 previous wins)

Director: Valerie Donzelli (“The Queen of Hearts”)

U.S. distributor: IFC-Sundance Selects

Major festivals: Cannes, Sundance

U.S. release date: 1/27/12

Gross to date: France – $7 million +

Shunted to the minor Critics’ Week sidebar at Cannes, then becoming a sleeper hit in France, this low-budget film stars the director in a semi-autobiographical story of parents who cope with finding their young son has a brain tumor. Showing in the Sundance Spotlight section, it has been described as a latter-day New Wave narrative and far more upbeat than its subject might indicate. France tends to submit high-end, major film festival in competition films as its entries. Having won only once in the last 33 years, submitting a smaller, less high-end production might be the key to ending the drought.

“The Flowers of War”

Country: China (0 previous wins)

Director: Zhang Yimou (“The Hero”/2002 nominee, “Ju Dou”/1990 nominee)

U.S. distributor: Wrekin Hill

U.S. release date: 12/21/11 (one-week qualifying); 1/20/12

Gross to date: China – $100 million +

Metacritic score: 40

Zhang Yimou has directed both of China’s previous nominations, but both of those received strong U.S. reviews, while this massively expensive epic was mainly panned when it had a one week NY/LA run last month. An epic retelling of the 1937 Nanking massacre, it is aimed at an international audience (it is 40% in English and stars Christian Bale).

“Le Havre”

Country: Finland (0 previous wins)

Director: Aki Kaurismaki (“Man Without a Past”/2002 nominee, “Leningrad Cowboys Go America”)

U.S. distributor: Janus

Major festivals: Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, New York

Major awards: FIPRESCI Prize – Cannes; Prix Louis Delluc – France

U.S. release date:  10/21/11

Gross to date: U.S. – $438,000; Foreign – $8,834,000

Metacritic score: 82

Veteran Finnish director Kaurismaki directed his country’s sole nominee ever in the category. French-produced and set (and in French as well), it had enough Finnish elements to make it eligible. Surprisingly shut out in the official Cannes awards, it received four major European Film Award nominations (the same as “The Artist,” also French-produced). This is a more plot-centric film than most of Kaurismaki’s previous films, and its theme of a working-class man bonding with an African immigrant boy failed to resonate with stateside audiences.

“Miss Bala”

Country: Mexico (0 previous wins)

Director: Gerardo Naranjo (“I’m Gonna Explode,””Drama”/Mex)

U.S. distributor: Fox International

Major festivals: Cannes, Toronto, New York

U.S. release date: 1/20/12

Gross to date: Mexico – $3,000,000

Metacritic score: 77

More violent and action-filled than is standard for foreign language contenders, this  is a dark but inventive story of a Tijuana beauty pageant queen caught (literally) in the crossfire of Mexico’s drug war, with cartels, the police, the military and the government all using her as a pawn. More Tarantino than Bunuel, it is a rare example of a timely Mexican film that could find a younger audience in the U.S.

“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”

Country: Turkey (0 previous wins)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Three Monkeys,” “Climates”)

U.S. distributor: Cinema Guild

Major festivals: Cannes, Toronto, New York

Major awards: Grand prix – Cannes

U.S. release date: 1/3/12

Gross to date: US – $36,000 (2nd week); Foreign – $1,023,000

Metacritic score: 79

No Turkish film has ever been nominated for this award, and this proved no exception. Ceylan has established himself as his country’s most acclaimed at major festivals, which is his more natural home than the more conventional Academy main committee. This visually stunning but lengthy murder investigation is more high-end European art film than David Fincher or Curtis Hanson in style.

“Where Do We Go Now?

Country: Lebanon (0 previous wins)

Director:  Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”)

U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Major festivals: Cannes, Toronto, Sundance

Major Awards:  People’s Choice – Toronto

U.S. release date – Spring 2012

Another country with no previous nominations, its entry was unheralded after its Cannes premiere until its upset win at Toronto (against films like “The Artist” and “The Descendants” among many other strong contenders).  This mostly-French financed film tells the story of a group of women in a small town who try to ease tensions between rival Christian and Moslem communities.  Labaki’s earlier “Caramel” grossed just over $1 million for Roadside Attractions during its 2008 release. It is playing in the Spotlight section of Sundance.

Less acccessible but well-received on the fest circuit if you can track them down are:

“Attenberg” (Greece/Althina Rachel Tsangari) – Strand is releasing this coming-of-age story of an early 20s Greek woman this spring. It shared producers with last year’s controversial nominee “Dogtooth.”

“Beauty” (South Africa/Oliver Hermanus) – Cannes and Toronto audiences saw this story about a white middle-aged man who has to confront unexpected gay feelings in a still repressed society.

“Beyond” (Sweden/Pernilla August) – Directed by August (an actress whose credits range from “Fanny and Alexander” to “Star Wars – the Phantom Menace”), the intense family drama stars Noomi Rapace (the original girl with the dragon tattoo) as a woman still coping with having grown up in an alcoholic family.

“Black Bear” (Spain/Agusti Villaronga) – in Catalan rather than Spanish, last year’s local Goya winner, this Franco-era tale was selected instead of Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In”

“Breathing” (Austria/Karl Markovics) – After considerable festival exposure, this story about a 19 year old dealing with post-prison life has just been announced for New Directors/New Films in New York.

“Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” (Brazil/Jose Padilha) – This massive Brazilian hit, a crime thriller sequel has already been released in the U.S. by Variance.

“A Simple Life” (Hong Kong/Ann Hui) – Normally a film that would seem ready-made for the Academy, as well as being another Venice multiple-prize winner, this deals with a man who takes over the care of aging woman who worked for his family.

“Terraferma” (Italy/Emanuele Crialese) – Multiple prize winner at Venice, from the director of “Respiro,” this Sicilian-set émigré story has yet to receive U.S. distribution despite positive reactions from viewers.

Other likely equally worthy films did not make the cut, but this shows the range of alternatives not chosen.

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