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Amazon’s ‘Cold War’ and Netflix’s ‘Roma’: The Oscar Drama Behind 2 Black-and-White Contenders

Pawel Pawlikowski and Alfonso Cuaron are duking it out for the foreign-language Oscar but hope for more.

“Cold War”

Amazon Studios

As expected, Poland submitted Oscar-winner Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” (December 21, Amazon Studios) for Best Foreign Language Feature. Pawlikowski won that Oscar in 2015 with “Ida,” and now the Cannes 2018 Best Director-winner will go up against Best Director Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”), whose Mexican submission, “Roma” (December 14, Netflix), also wowed audiences and critics at Telluride and Toronto, after taking home the Golden Lion in Venice.

Both films play the upcoming New York Film Festival. Both films are shot on Alexas in black and white, and both are their distributors’ best hopes for Oscar glory.

In August 2017, Amazon acquired “Cold War” via France’s MK2 Films and U.K’s Protagonist Pictures. The star-crossed romance (inspired by Pawlikowski’s parents) follows a Stalin-era Polish musician and pianist (Tomasz Kot) and headstrong singer-dancer Zula (Joanna Kulig) on tour with their folk-dance troupe. The lovers separate and reunite in France, Yugoslavia, and Poland as they try to find their authentic selves, thwarted by national politics. Written by Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki, it was first presented to buyers in Berlin.

roma

“Roma”

Netflix

The two films have much in common, beyond the dramatic high-contrast black-and-white cinematography of World War II-period “Cold War” and the deep-focus, more naturalistic 1971-set “Roma.” Both are deeply personal stories that dip into fictionalized autobiography as the filmmakers work through dramas from their past. Pawlikowski uses a wartime setting to explore a fractious marriage rife with separations and reunions. And Cuaron tells the story of his nanny, who got pregnant out of wedlock when he was a child, and lives in his family’s Mexico City home to this day.

This elegiac recreation of Cuaron’s youth, with immersive Dolby Atmos sound as its score, is hitting on all cylinders as a groundbreaking Best Picture contender, with nominations for Director, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, and Actress (schoolteacher Yalitza Aparicio) in the cards as well as Best Foreign Language film. Netflix isn’t messing around, having added a squadron of awards campaigners led by veteran Oscar strategist Lisa Taback to shepherd this film into some kind of day-and-date theatrical December 14 release via the Landmark and Alamo indie chains.

“Cold War”

Netflix is also promoting a strong slate of fall films unveiled at festivals, from Tamara Jenkins’ New York family drama “Private Life” to Paul Greengrass’s Norway terrorist thriller “22 July,” but Participant-funded “Roma,” which Netflix won in a bidding war, is the streamer’s best bet for multiple Oscars.

What’s surprising is “Roma” could be challenged by “Cold War” in a rare battle of black-and-white foreign-language films. The sumptuously filmed “Cold War” has become the shining star in Amazon’s fall slate. Amazon’s mission is to make commercial art films headed for critical, festival, and awards acclaim, but the studio’s other fall films met mixed response on the festival circuit, from Mike Leigh’s period war film “Peterloo” (November) to Oscar perennial Plan B’s drug drama “Beautiful Boy” (October 12 ), starring “Call Me By Your Name” Oscar nominee Timothée  Chalamet, who marks the film’s best shot at a nomination.

Amazon is banking that “Cold War” could be a strong awards contender outside the foreign-language category for Picture, Director, Cinematography and Actress. It should prove an arthouse hit in North America, adding to such Amazon successes as Kenneth Lonergan’s  “Manchester by the Sea”(Roadside Attractions) and Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” (Cohen Media), which both won Oscars, as well as last year’s Sundance acquisition, summer hit “The Big Sick” (Lionsgate), which earned an Original Screenplay nomination.

Both Amazon execs Ted Hope (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Bob Berney know how to play the Oscar game. Berney pushed challenging foreign fare like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “La Vie en Rose” to Oscar wins. Could Amazon’s marketing team do the same thing for Polish bombshell Joanna Kulig that he did with Best Actress Marion Cotillard? Only if the film takes off stateside.

Pawlikowski and Cuaron could go head to head in multiple categories at a time when it’s pretty rare for a black-and-white movie to enter the Oscar race. The last one to win was “The Artist” in 2012, following “Schindler’s List” in 1993, and “The Apartment” in 1960. Even less likely is a movie that vies for both Foreign Language and Best Picture Oscars. Ang Lee’s East-West fusion “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” managed the feat, along with Costa-Gravas’ “Z” and chair-hopping Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”

Sony Pictures Classics

Of course, Austrian director Michael Haneke’s black-and-white holocaust drama “White Ribbon” was nominated for both Foreign Language and Cinematography, and he went on to direct heart-tugger “Amour,” one of the few movies to land Foreign-Language and Best Picture nominations, which was also nominated for Actress, Director and Original Screenplay.

It’s not that unusual for a foreign-language nominee to compete for Oscars in multiple categories, as did Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” in 1984, winning four, including Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Foreign Language Film, or Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which won Cinematography, Art Direction and Makeup.

But could both “Roma” and “Cold War” wind up in the Best Picture race? It’s possible; the Academy has been flooding its member rolls with sophisticated craftspeople from all over the world. Meanwhile, Academy leaders are feverishly praying that enough “popular” films land in the Best Picture race to boost show ratings on ABC. Let’s just say that AMPAS president John Bailey isn’t rooting for his foreign-language favorites to compete outside their chosen category.

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