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For Your Consideration: How the Foreign Language Oscar Race is Heating Up

For Your Consideration: How the Foreign Language Oscar Race is Heating Up

It’s pretty much an assured equation: Oscars + Foreign Language Film
Category = Outrage. Sometimes, the fault lies with Academy voters (as it
did when “Departures” won the Oscar in 2008 over what most viewed as
two greatly superior nominees, “Waltz With Bashir” and “The Class;” or
when “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “Persepolis” and “Volver” were all
left off the ballot in 2007). Sometimes, the national submission
committees are at fault (like when Spain chose “Mondays in the Sun” over “Talk To Her” back in 2002, only to see the former get nada and the latter win the Oscar for best original screenplay — a category Spain had no control over). And sometimes it’s just those pesky Academy rules. Like last year when “Blue is the Warmest Color” couldn’t submit because it wasn’t released within the Oscar-dictated timeframe.

READ MORE: The 5 Big Oscar Race Takeaways From Toronto

This year’s race has another “Warmest Color”-related issue (more on that later) amidst the quickly finalizing list of entries from around the world. Countries have until October 1 to submit, though at this point the vast majority of them already have announced their contenders (many of which are about to screen at the New York Film Festival). We went through the list to offer up a few things of note before the race starts officially heating up next week:

1. There’s a lot of entries: Last year, a then-record 76 countries submitted to the foreign language category. This year 55 have already announced, with a week left to go. With Spain, South Africa, the Philippines, Russia, Bangladesh, Uruguay, and last year’s winner Italy among the many countries left to submit, it’s likely the ultimate number will come to close to eclipsing last year.

2. Mauritania, Panama and Kosovo have submitted for the first time. Among those countries making a play at Oscar for the very first time are Mauritanian, with Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” (which won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes this year, where it played in competition); Panama, with Abner Benaim’s “Invasion” (about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama); and Kosovo, with the latest from Isa Qosja’s “Three Windows and a Hanging” (which won the Cineuropa Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival this summer). There’s also likely a fourth newbie country joining them as Nigeria had their first-ever Nigerian Oscar selection committee this past May, and is planning to make their first submission this year.

3. Poland and Mexico are coming into the race with secret weapons: Films that are already box office hits in America. Films that factor into the foreign language Oscar race often become box office hits in America, but usually around the time they’re actually nomination. The last three winners in this category — “A Separation,” “Amour” and “The Great Beauty” — all managed to gross substantial dollars in the US, but all of them were released in the last six weeks of the year, timed to benefit from potential Oscar buzz. That’s what’s interesting about Poland and Mexico’s submissions — they were Stateside hits before they were even submitted for Oscar consideration. Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Ida” was released back in May by Music Box Films and has gone on to gross $3.7 million — more than last year’s winner “The Great Beauty” ultimately grossed (despite being a black & white film about a Polish nun — hardly marketable territory). And then a few months later, Lionsgate and Pantelion released  Sebastián del Amo’s “Cantinflas” (about the famous Mexican comedian) and saw it take in over $6 million. At this point, neither film financially needs an Oscar nomination, but the high profile their financial success has given them could certainly help get them one.

4. Canada is giving Xavier Dolan a second chance as their submission — and this time he could go all the way. Xavier Dolan has represented Canada once before for his 2009 debut film “I Killed My Mother,” but did not end up getting nominated. In the four years that followed, Canada was nominated three times, for “Incendies,” “Monsieur Lazhar” and “War Witch.” They missed out last year for “Gabrielle,” but things are definitely looking good for Dolan’s second time at bat to return the Canucks to the fold. “Mommy” has given Dolan career-best reviews, has received distribution from Roadside Attractions, is coming off both a big win at the Cannes Film Festival and a lot of buzz in Toronto, and has newfound Hollywood backing from folks like Jessica Chastain (not to many other folks in this category can say the same). More over, “Mommy” is also an incredibly emotional and inspired film that’s unlike anything else Oscar voters are going to see in this category. The fact that Dolan is still only 25 also makes for an interesting considerarion: If he wins, he’d be (from our exhaustive clicking in Wikipedia — so excuse us if we’re wrong) the youngest director ever to take home a foreign language Oscar. Claude Lelouch was 29 when he won for “A Man and a Woman” in 1966, as was Jiří Menzel when he won a year later for “Closely Watched Trains.”  Dolan would beat them by 4 years.

5. “Blue” isn’t the warmest color for France… again! Last year, France did not submit the hugely acclaimed (and Palme d’Or winning) film out Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Instead they went with Gilles Bourdos’s biopic “Renoir.” But that wasn’t because they chose it over “Blue.” Academy rules maintain that films must be released in their home country before September 30, and “Blue” just missed it. Which made it eligible this year. But “Blue” got snubbed… for another biopic. Bertrand Bonello’s take on Yves Saint Laurent, “Saint Laurent” (not to be confused with Jalil Lespert’s “Yves Saint Laurent” — generally regarded as the weaker of the two and also a release this year) will be competing for France. It stars Gaspard Ulliel as the fashion designer and Jérémie Renier as his lifelong partner Pierre Bergé. Its submission officially means “Blue” will ultimately end up Oscar nomination free (though it does have that Palme d’Or to keep it warm).

6. After a couple notable snubs, the Dardenne brothers get another chance. Despite winning two Palme d’Ors, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have never been nominated for an Oscar. Belgium submitted them in 1999, 2002 ad 2005 with “Rosetta,” “The Son” and “L’Enfant” (two of which were those noted Palme winners), and Academy voters snubbed them every single time. Then, it seems, Belgium gave up. They decided not to submit 2008’s “Lorna’s Silence” or 2011’s “The Kid With a Bike,” despite strong reviews for both films. But with this year’s “Two Days, One Night,” the Dardennes are back in the race, and have a lead performance from Marion Cotillard (a dark horse for a best actress nod) to aid them in the quest. Will this finally be the year Oscar says “oui” to the Dardennes? We’ll find out soon enough.

7. Sweden is looking to return to the race (and maybe even win). Sweden has won three foreign language Oscar films — all for Ingmar Bergman films, and the last over 30 years ago for “Fanny & Alexander.” Could Ruben Östlund become the first Swedish filmmaker who is not Bergman to take home a prize for the country? Like Bergman’s work, his “Force Majeure” questions social codes and moral ambiguities — through the context of a Swedish family on vacation at a ski resort in the French Alps. And critics and film festival audiences sure were into it, with “Majeure” being a force at both Cannes (where it won the jury prize in Un Certain Regard) and Toronto. Along with the aforementioned “Ida,” “Mommy” and “Two Days, One Night,” this is probably among the frontrunners at this point (and here’s 5 more specific reasons why).

8. If you’re looking for controversy, look no further than Bulgaria. Compared to most years, 2014 is looking a little light on the controversy side when it comes to this race. So if you’re looking for a fix, thank the Bulgarians. They submitted Ivan Nichev’s “Bulgarian Rhapsody,” even though no one out of Bulgaria seemed to have ever heard of it. Maybe the fact that Nichev is a member of the Bulgarian National Film Council, the group that selected his film, had something to with it? The Bulgarian filmmaking community sure think so (and rightfully), and they’ve been protesting the decision with an online petition. But so far, “Rhapsody” remains (though we don’t exactly expect it to go the distance here).

Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contributing Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

Check out Indiewire’s latest chart of Oscar predictions (including for foreign language film) here.

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