Blame the lack of a box-office hit, or the new Academy rules, but the Oscar frontrunners for the best foreign film of 2018 are as clear as mud.
New Academy president John Bailey has made changes to widen the number of voters participating in the foreign-language Oscar nominating committee, with the final five available to the full membership online. (Links went to voters on January 23, weeks before DVD screeners arrived in the mail.)
More people signed up for the first round of foreign-language voting (many of them previously ineligible publicists and marketers), but the opened-up London, New York, and San Francisco shortlist committee screenings saw minimal increases in attendance. And while there’s a sense that the international voters invited to watch screeners online skewed European, no one knows how many voters watched the shortlisted entries to come up with the final five.
For this year, the changes mean way more Academy voters could watch all five films. But will they?
The question is, which narratives will push one film into winning the Oscar? This year, with no clear frontrunner, all five movies have a shot.
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As usual, the foreign-language Oscar contenders are an eclectic bunch. They range from countries with frequent Oscar contenders, like Russia, Sweden, and Hungary, to Lebanon’s first-ever nomination (“The Insult”) and Chile’s second (“A Fantastic Woman”).
Read more about these nominees, ranked in order of their likelihood to win:
“A Fantastic Woman,” directed by Sebastián Lelio
Country: Chile, with one prior nomination (“No”).
Awards: Berlin’s Silver Bear (for screenplay), Goya Award for Best Iberoamerican film, San Sebastian International Film Festival, Best Latin American Film, Fenix Film Awards for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Film; Golden Globe nomination.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Domestic Box Office: $220,820 so far in limited release.
Lelio’s story centers on Marina (Daniela Vega), a transgender singer-waitress in love with handsome older man Orlando (Francisco Reyes) with whom she shares an apartment. But her happiness is shattered when her lover dies in her arms. Orlando’s bitter family doesn’t understand their relationship, and won’t let the grieving Marina stay in her apartment with the couple’s dog, or come near the family’s memorial service. “I was trying to make a film as complex and as free as its main character,” Lelio told IndieWire, “and I owe that to Dani.”
Transgender actress Vega and Lelio clicked as soon as they met. ”We fell in love immediately,” Vega told IndieWire. “We were both talking about very varied things and very intimate. [It was] just like a movie within another movie.” She placed her trust in him. “He’s capable of reaching into the actors and bringing out the most beautiful feelings and bringing them into the world. He is the person who gave me all the confidence to say: ‘Yes, let’s do the scene without clothes, the violent scenes, the fantasy scenes.’”
Marina and Daniela are not the same. “We are very different persons, Marina and me,” Vega said in our Awards Spotlight video interview. “For Marina it’s not impossible to cross the line, and to be a diva, for example. And I think every woman can be a diva, and every woman can be just a woman. I think life is a runway, and you can do everything you want. If you want…
“I’ve lived more comfortable situations, especially with my family and my friends,” added Vega. “I am very lucky for that reason, and I hope a lot of transgender people can feel love like me. Because destroying is very easy, but building something is hard.”
Bottom Line: The most warmly accessible and emotional of the five contenders is the likely winner. Lelio is well known for “Gloria,” which was snubbed for a nomination, and has several English-language films in the pipeline. Pioneer Vega has been an effective spokesperson for the film and marks the first transgender actor to present at the Oscars. The film’s inclusion narrative will appeal to many voters, who can easily identify with someone who has been mistreated in life or had something important taken away.
“The Square,” directed by Ruben Östlund
Country: Sweden, with 14 nominations and three wins, all from Ingmar Bergman (“The Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” and “Fanny and Alexander”).
Awards: Cannes’ Palme d’Or, Goya Award for Best European Film, six European Film Awards including Best Comedy, Film, Director, Screenwriter, Actor, Production Design; Golden Globe nomination.
Domestic Box Office: $1.5 million
Cannes Film Festival
Red-haired Swedish provocateur Ruben Östlund has an impish sense of humor, and his films steer audiences into uncomfortable places, forcing them to look at themselves in unflattering close-up. Östlund is used to fielding a range of reactions. “It’s pointless if I communicate something and everyone agrees,” he told me. “Since my first movie, I have been dealing with ‘provoke food.’” (That’s Östlund for “food for thought.”)
The shortlisted foreign-language Oscar entry “Force Majeure” fared so well with audiences and critics that Östlund believed it was a slam-dunk for the 2015 Oscar nomination. He and his 15-year producing partner Erik Hemmendorff confidently videoed themselves chomping apples and watching the nominations live; their failure went viral on YouTube. Which is one reason why the Palme d’Or win for “The Square” at Cannes — over fellow eventual Oscar submissions such as “BPM: Beats Per Minute” and “Loveless” — was so sweet.
Unlike the self-contained story of “Force Majeure,” “The Square” sprawls across a series of broken social contracts. “It’s a larger topic about society,” Östlund said, “who we should be as human beings, ethics and morality.”
That led him to create the antihero of “The Square,” museum director Christian (Danish actor Claes Bang), a well-groomed, entitled, and powerful man at the top of high culture. “It’s interesting to be a man nowadays,” said Östlund. “Things have been very safe in our position being patriarchs of society. Our behavior has never been in the limelight. Now the camera is aimed back at us and we are being criticized for our behavior, which is scary and brings out self-consciousness, a feeling of ‘Why should I be judged?’”
Bottom line: Given its high profile, more voters are likely to have watched this entertaining and clever two-and-a-half hour movie and to recognize such-English speakers as Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West. But the divisive, highbrow movie lacks an emotional center and drives as many viewers away as it woos.
“The Insult” directed by Ziad Doueiri
Awards: Venice Best Actor Kamel El Basha, AFI World Cinema Audience Award
Distributor: Cohen Media
Domestic Box Office: $676,473 to date.
Doueiri came to California to go to film school, graduating from UC San Diego, and stayed for 18 years working his way up from camera assistant to cameraman on such films as “Jackie Brown.” In 1998, he returned to Beirut to start telling the stories welling up in his head, from “West Beirut,” “Lila Says,” and the controversial “The Attack” (it tried to show the Israeli perspective, and was banned), to courtroom drama “The Insult,” which ignited a national conversation about Christians, Palestinians, Muslims, and Jews.
“I never set out to do controversial movies,” he told me. “That’s not how it works. The subject itself is not controversial, it’s what we make out of it. The controversy stems from scumbags who do not abide or agree with what you are trying to say.”
Doueiri found it an enriching experience “exploring my so-called adversary’s territory, exploring the Christian side in ‘The Insult’ when I grew up as hostile to them,” he said. “I become curious. We share the same values, insecurity, weakness, flaws, fearing for life. But as you grew up, the enemy is stigmatized.”
“It’s very tribal, especially with Arab men,” he added. “it’s the honor and dignity thing: Yasir and Tony are bullies, stubborn mules, they are suffering but they don’t know how to interpret it.”
Inspired by Hollywood courtroom dramas like “The Verdict” and “Judgement in Nuremberg,” Doueiri wrote the script in English (later translated into Arabic) and shoves his two characters into a courtroom battle. “I wanted to make it accessible to an American audience,” he said.
Doueiri’s Muslim lawyer mother doesn’t agree with the film, but she did raise him to believe in justice and she was the first person he called when the film was nominated. As far as Doueiri is concerned, if women took over Arabic Muslim culture “we would be in a better place. American and Hollywood women are light years ahead of Muslim women.”
Bottom Line: For many, this well-acted but schematic movie’s two intransigent antagonists reveals the roots of the tribal politics of the Middle East.
Courtesy of Netflix
“On Body and Soul,” directed by Ildiko Enyedi
Country: Hungary, with ten nominations and two wins (“Mephisto” and “Son of Saul”).
Awards: Berlin’s Golden Bear, Best European Film Award for Best Actress.
Veteran Hungarian writer-director Enyedi returns to feature films after 18 years with this unconventional love story. Almost 30 years ago, the 62-year-old won the Cannes’ Camera d’Or for her feature debut, “My Twentieth Century.” After many subsequent projects came to naught, Enyedi found success with HBO Europe’s 37-episode “Terápia,” based on the Israeli series “In Treatment.”
In “On Body and Soul,” a slaughterhouse director (Géza Morcsányi) is attracted to a new quality inspector (Alexandra Borbély). When a theft is reported at the factory, a psychologist (Réka Tenki) questions the workers. To her shock, Endre and Maria both tell her they recall dreaming that they were deer in a snowy forest. They’re inhabiting the same dream and slowly begin a romance. Dreams are what make people “surreal and magic,” Enyedi told IndieWire. The point of “On Body and Soul” is thus “not just to watch a weird lady, but to really enter in her world.”
During many screenings in many countries the film’s most shocking moment — when Maria hurts herself, let’s just leave it at that — has caused people to faint. “On Body and Soul” tasks its characters with “facing [their] issues, and being brave enough to leave [their] comfort zone for the chance to live a real life,” Enyedi said. “And real life means not only pleasant things.”
Bottom Line: This poetic art film, the only contender directed by a woman, could be a dark horse — if enough voters got past the slaughterhouse setting (there were walkouts at screenings). After going all-out for Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” (to no avail), Netflix has been oddly restrained in promoting “On Body and Soul.
“Loveless” directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Country: Russia, with seven nominations and one win (“Burnt by the Sun”). This is the director’s second nomination.
Awards: Cannes Jury Prize, London Film Festival, Best European Film Awards for Best Composer and Cinematographer, Russia’s Golden Eagle Award for Best Director, Los Angeles Film Critics for Best Foreign Film, Indie Spirit, Golden Globe and BAFTA foreign-language nominations.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
“Loveless” is a moving, intense family drama that damns Russian society, which writer-director Andrey Zvyaginstev portrays as consumed by careerism, selfishness, greed, and even profound neglect of its own children. His last film, Oscar-nominated “Leviathan,” was also a film critical of Russia at a time when the country’s culture ministers demand that their industry reflect their nation in a positive light. Even though the elegantly wrought wintry drama was financed independent of the Russian film industry and government funding, Russia submitted it as its official Oscar entry.
During filming, the writer-director unaccountably felt compelled to shoot a deep mid-winter riverside panorama of snow-covered water and trees. He told me that he wound up bookending the movie with this moody landscape that draws us in, makes us wonder, what happened there? What is hidden? “This is what cinema does,” he said, “because the world is full of mystery, and in the movies we need to create this tension that real life is on the border of something mystical and ambiguous and something that we cannot explain. It’s a reflection of the reality we live in.”
The movie shows us why an unloved child, caught between two warring parents who have found other lovers and want to divorce, could leave home and disappear. In one damning long take, the camera moves away from the the squabbling parents to reveal their 12-year-old unwanted son, hidden in the dark behind a door, weeping uncontrollably. It’s a body blow to the audience, as the search for the child reveals the sources of this family’s unrecoverable anguish. “It was the first scene that I had in mind,” said Zvyaginstev. “I knew exactly how I wanted to do it, without cutting; everything started from this scene. This episode is so dear to me that I asked my producer not to insert this in the teaser trailer. It’s sacred.”
While some critics found “Leviathan” hard to top, this master filmmaker is working independently from Russian government largesse, speaking freely about the society that he observes with pitiless clarity. Zyangintsev believes that it’s not only Russia that suffers “from something we all have in common. We have distanced from each other spiritually, we are egotistical and don’t care as much about each other as we used to. It’s an illness of our time.”
Bottom Line: While many respect this master auteur, Zvyagintsev pushes audiences to look at darkness they may not want to see.
–Eric Kohn, Jenna Marotta and Jude Dry contributed to this story.