This year’s foreign-language Oscar race has no precedent. For the first time, everybody in Los Angeles who participated in phase one was also invited to winnow down the shortlist of nine nominees to five. That greatly increased the number of voters, as did international members being allowed to stream the shortlist.
Over the last three years, the Academy has made it easier to participate in the phase-one foreign-language Oscar nominating committee, which had a noticeable impact on the overall nominations. Foreign-language films appear in the Best Picture, Director, and acting races as well as Production Design, Cinematography, and Hair and Makeup.
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda
New foreign committee chairs, screenwriter Larry Karaszewski and documentarian Diane Weyermann, pushed for inclusion. “Reaching out to other Academy members worked,” said Karaszewski, “with the profile of many of these films on a level that hasn’t been seen in the foreign language category in a while.”
All Academy voters can watch the final five nominated films online. Links went to voters on nominations day, January 22, two weeks before DVD screeners arrived in the mail.
But how many will see all five? Some may vote for the most popular, well-screened films (see: “Roma”) over the more-obscure titles, but all have supporters. Some may think that “Roma” deserves the first foreign-language win for Mexico, while others may feel that lauded period romance “Cold War,” which also competes against “Roma” for Director and Cinematography, should win something.
More about the nominees, ranked in order of their likelihood to win:
Country: Poland, with 11 nominations and one win, for Pawlikowski’s black-and-white holocaust film “Ida.”
Awards: Cannes: Best Director, National Board of Review: Best Foreign Language Film, New York Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film, European Film Awards: Film, Director, Actress, Screenwriter, Editor, ASC: Best Feature Cinematography, Oscars: three nominations, including Director and Cinematography.
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Domestic Box Office: $2,883,000
Written by Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki, this moody romance follows Stalin-era Polish musician and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and headstrong singer-dancer Zula (singer-actress Joanna Kulig), who tour with their folk-dance troupe. The lovers — inspired by Pawlikowski’s parents, who played out their tempestuous on-and-off relationship over 40 years, not 15 — separate and reunite in France, Yugoslavia, and Poland as they try to create their authentic selves, thwarted by national politics.
Pawlikowski grew up buffeted by his constantly wrangling and separating parents. His mother first met his older father in eastern Poland when she was 17, and ran away to study ballet in Warsaw, to the discomfiture of her well-to-do parents. His father was handsome. “He was charismatic, he looked like Gregory Peck,” said Pawlikowski. “He looked like Tomasz. They fell in love, she was young, it was fantastic.”
His parents had affairs, broke up, got back together, had baby Pawel, and broke up again after a few years. His mother remarried and took 14-year-old Pawlikowski to London, where he studied and eventually made films for the BBC. His parents were reunited again at the end of their life, dying together in 1988.
And Pawlikowski, after some success in Britain with such films as “My Summer of Love” starring Emily Blunt, married and “was compulsively really trying to have a old-fashioned family,” he said, “which wasn’t so straightforward, with two kids and dog and all that.” After his wife died suddenly, he raised his kids alone while teaching film, not making movies for five years. After they went to college, he moved to Paris, where he made experimental “The Woman in the Fifth,” which featured Joanna Kulig. But he felt lost.
He felt drawn to his homeland, where he made his first Polish film, black-and-white “Ida,” which won the Oscar and gave him the confidence to make “Cold War,” another very personal film that showed how politics, borders, and exile can shape and distort one’s sense of self.
His parents’ story “was more complicated,” said Pawlikowski. “It was a starting point to tell of such a relationship. It was like the matrix for me of all relationships between a man and a woman.” He realized when he was unaccountably attracted to the relationship between the married poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (he dabbled in developing a movie about them, but withdrew) that “it’s a fantastically even fight; she is as strong as he is, but they fight back. In her case, she opted out. But they were both equally charismatic, strong, not giving in, and sometimes totally symbiotic and sometimes totally hateful. ‘Why am I so interested in this story? This harkens back to the weird love story with my parents.'”
In this story, Wiktor and Zula meet over an out-of-tune piano as the folk-music troupe’s conductor gauges the lovely young woman’s musical ability. The attraction and connection between them is powerful. “The idea of using three or four motifs and changing them, making them orchestral and choir and then making them into jazz, that was there at the beginning,” Pawlikowski said.
The star-crossed lovers never quite get solid footing as they are chased across Europe by complicated politics. “The ground was always shaky,” said Pawlikowski. “Life was particularly shaky under Stalinism in exile.”
Pawlikowski sets his film in a high-contrast black-and-white past, shot digitally in the old Academy aspect ratio, with many takes and script changes and fluid shots improvised on the fly. “I’m sculpting with real flesh,” he said. That’s how he wound up with an 89-minute film; he doesn’t shoot conventional coverage. “I try to have a scene which doesn’t get drawn out. There’s a kind of music to it and a punchline. I try to construct the film out of simple bricks, put them side by side.” He edits as he goes.
Making people cry was not his goal. “Of course, you manipulate,” he said. “The story is very moving, but I try not to blatantly press buttons.”
Bottom Line: “Cold War” is another rare black-and-white film in the race; Cuarón is competing with Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal as well for Cinematography. He may beat him in those categories, which leaves open the possibility that Pawlikowski could accept a second Oscar for Poland.
Country: Mexico, with nine prior nominations, no wins.
Awards: Venice: Golden Lion, New York Film Critics: Picture, Cinematography and Directing, Golden Globes: Director and Motion Picture, Critics Choice Awards: Picture, Director, Foreign Language, and Cinematography, Los Angeles Film Critics: Picture and Cinematography, Directors Guild Award: Feature, BAFTAs: Film, Film not in the English Language, Director, Cinematography.
Domestic Box Office: Netflix booked the film in theaters three weeks ahead of its December 14 availability on the service, but does not report numbers. The movie has grossed an estimated $3.5 million so far in limited domestic release on about 250 screens, with a total of 600 locations worldwide. But it’s also been seen in 190 countries on Netflix.
Set in 1971 in Cuarón’s old neighborhood in Mexico City, “Roma” is a deeply personal portrait of the filmmaker’s beloved nanny. As he was conjuring the movie, Cuarón told his brother Carlos: “I want to do it. I just know that I need to do it. I don’t know if people are going to see it.”
Cuarón and his go-to cinematographer Emmanuel (“Chivo”) Lubezki (Oscar-winner for “Birdman,” “The Revenant,” and “Gravity”), discussed three inviolate principles.
The story wholly belongs to the real-life Cleo. Her experience shapes the movie.
Memory writes the movie. The details that existed in the past become essential to the story.
The film must be in black in white to tie it to the past, but use digital to bring its sensibility to the present.
Cuarón decided to shoot the movie on digital 65mm cameras in naturalistic, deep-focus black-and-white. “I wanted it to look like a film from the past, but not nostalgic,” he said, “like the film, it was the conflict between memory and today. It’s also a film that is embracing digital 65: pristine, no grain, amazing dynamic range, in order to look into the past.”
The resources Cuarón needed — about $15 million — came from David Linde, CEO of Participant Media. Linde produced “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and Cuarón’s son Jonás’ film “Desierto.” Cuarón spent 10 minutes summarizing the story and Linde was in, even though Cuarón said no one else at the company could read the screenplay (which, he neglected to mention at the time, he’d yet to write).
The schedule ballooned to more than 110 shooting days, a schedule that Lubezki couldn’t accommodate. Cuarón shot the movie himself.
“In many ways, this movie was designed for Chivo,” he told me last year. “It’s one of those ironies. I was thinking of Chivo and the resources and time we’d need to do the long takes. We always complain about the lack of time, we’re always rushing.”
Bottom Line: “Roma” is the most acclaimed foreign-language frontrunner. If it were to win, it would be the first ever in this category for Mexico. (Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” won Production Design and Cinematography, but lost Foreign Language to “The Lives of Others.”) But this year, black-and-white “Roma,” with 10 Oscar nominations, is also positioned to win Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography. With some “Roma” fatigue setting in after Netflix’s exhaustive campaign, some voters may want to share the wealth with other deserving foreign-language contenders.
Country: Japan, with 16 nominations, four wins (three honorary Oscars).
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Awards: Cannes: Palme d’Or, Los Angeles Film Critics: Best Foreign Film, National Board of Review: Best Foreign Films, Palm Springs International Film Festival: Fripresci Prize for Best Foreign Film, Vancouver International Film Festival: Most Popular International Feature.
Domestic Box Office: $3 million.
After more than 10 years of picking apart the nuclear Japanese family, from “Like Father, Like Son” to “Our Little Sister,” Kore-eda has been building toward “Shoplifters” for decades.
“People have called this a ‘culmination,’” Kore-eda told IndieWire’s David Ehrlich earlier this year, “but that wasn’t my intention. Over the course of my career I’ve had a number of different recurring themes and motifs, and I didn’t knowingly set out to incorporate them all into this one film, but now that I look back on it I can see that they are all in there.”
In “Shoplifters,” the hardscrabble three-generation Shibata family live in a shack on the outskirts of Tokyo. Without enough resources of their own, the parental couple rescue a troubled girl who is escaping from an abusive household. Kore-eda slowly unpeels the layers of this secretive but loving family as the girl becomes a disruptive force.
Dissecting what makes a family was Kore-eda’s aim. “One of my major life realizations is that having a child is not enough to make you a parent,” Kore-eda said. “I think my films reflect my own sense of crisis about that, and this film — in which the binding agent is ultimately neither the blood relationship nor the time the Shibatas spend together — brings that crisis to a head.”
Bottom Line: This hard-nosed heart-tugger about family, while it has lost many awards to “Roma,” was a huge hit in Japan and has struck a universal chord with global audiences that shocked even Kore-eda. The filmmaker has swiftly moved to finance and shoot his first European movie, “The Truth,” in Paris, starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke.
Country: Lebanon, with two nominations, no wins.
Awards: Cannes: Jury Prize, Melbourne International Film Festival: Best Narrative Feature, Mill Valley Film Festival: Best World Cinema, Rotterdam Film Festival: Audience Award, Sarajevo Film Festival: Audience Award, Sao Paolo Film Festival: Audience Award, Stockholm Film Festival: Best Screenplay.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Domestic Box Office: $734,063* (still in limited release)
The seeds of Nadine Labaki’s tenth feature began germinating in 2015 with that viral image of a drowned child washed up on a beach in Turkey. “Nobody forgets that sight,” she said. “At that point, something started: ‘If this child could talk, what would he say? What would he tell the world?’ That was the igniting point: children on the streets in Lebanon, begging or working, not going to school, not receiving day care, who don’t have the most fundamental rights.”
As she researched, digging into the poorest neighborhoods and prisons in her hometown of Beirut, she would find children and ask them: “Are you happy to be alive?” “Unfortunately, most of time,” she said, “they were not happy: ‘I don’t know when I was born, if anybody loves me, I’m hungry, I wish I was dead.’ They’ve been beaten up, abused, or raped. They are very angry knowing what is happening to them. I was trying to become the vehicle for them to express themselves.”
Labaki developed the story of a 12-year-old runaway who is caring for a small toddler in a shantytown when the child’s mother doesn’t come back. Days pass. He winds up in jail for a stabbing and puts his own parents on trial for neglect. “A child cannot sue his parents in real life,” she said. “He has to have a legal guardian, so he cannot sue his parents. But I wanted to translate that anger.”
It took four years to complete the screenplay, written with a group of writers including her rookie producer husband, composer Khaled Mouzanar. Labaki and her team raised money as they went. “We sometimes found ourselves in a very bad situation and had to pay money we didn’t have,” she said. “We mortgaged our house, we decided to risk everything.”
Labaki filmed over six months on Beirut locations with natural light, with a small crew and non-professional, often illiterate, actors, and edited for two years. “Every single detail was inspired by something we saw,” she said. “We had to be open and create space for the actors to be themselves. We don’t paralyze them with complicated camera movements. We stay mobile and capture who they are.”
The filmmaker was haunted by her memory of driving home from a party late one night, and stopping at a traffic light to see a child about a year old with his beggar mother sitting on a tiny cement block that was so uncomfortable that he was dozing off and waking up because he couldn’t sleep. She restages this event in a harrowing sequence in the film as the boy (Zain Al Rafeea) is panhandling as his baby charge teeters along the edge of a teeming roadway.
“In the film, while we were doing the scene, nobody looks at them,” said Labaki. “And this is really happening. We shot in a way that we were almost invisible and blended well, so nobody notices us. It’s fascinating and upsetting. We are all used to these invisible people excluded from our system, it’s almost like the setting of our cities, these belts of misery are part of the decor.”
The harrowing prison sequence required a long negotiation process to obtain permits to shoot there; the inmates in the film are real. “We got a lot of opposition, because people in the government don’t want to show what is happening,” she said. “We had to try to convince people that if they want things to change they have to show how it is.”
Bottom Line: This crowdpleaser grabs audiences and wrings them out, which is how it beat out substantial competition for a spot in the top five. But it will be hard to come out ahead of “Roma” or “Cold War.”
Country: Germany, 11 nominations, two wins, including the filmmaker’s “The Lives of Others.”
Awards: Oscar nominations: Cinematography
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Box office: $109,438* (still in limited release)
After “The Lives of Others” won the Oscar, the German wunderkind went Hollywood, directing the notorious Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp flop “The Tourist.” Back in Germany, Henckel von Donnersmarck insisted on sticking to his native language for this elegant art-world portrait of a post-World War II artist modeled on the life and art of Gerhard Richter.
Filming in English “would have removed it from being truthful and impactful,” said the filmmaker, who was inspired to make a movie by German journalist Jürgen Schreiber’s riveting account of Richter’s backstory. “He had done a beautiful painting of himself as a little child being held by his aunt, which was later revealed to be based on a snapshot from his childhood.”
According to Schreiber, Richter’s aunt was murdered by the Nazis for being schizophrenic. “The journalist found out that the father of the woman Richter ended up marrying was a high-ranking SS doctor responsible for a major part of the Nazis’ euthanasia program, where they murdered people with developmental issues and disabilities,” said Henckel von Donnersmarck. “If you look at the work, at his portrait of his father-in-law, on some level he must have known. The film was a way to explore how the criminals and the victims were living under one roof in one family. Sometimes we intuit and see things we can’t know. That’s what art should do.”
After researching the post-war era and art scene in East and West Germany, and interviewing Richter and artist David Hockney, Henckel von Donnersmarck turned out a script in nine months and lined up cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“Being There,” “The Right Stuff”) whose work he had admired since seeing “The Black Stallion” at age seven. “He has a completely amazing way of guiding the viewer through his light,” said Henckel von Donnersmarck, “but never in an obvious way, always in service of the story.”
He also brought on an international crew, from the makeup and hair team for “The Tourist” to many of his crew from “The Lives of Others,” including French editor Patricia Rommel and costume designer Gabriela Binder. “It was a Babel of different languages,” said Henckel von Donnersmarck. “People didn’t know German. We all speak the Esperanto of the world: film language.”
The director had been following the career of actor Tom Schilling since he discovered the high school student when he was in film school, and asked him to play Richter opposite “The Lives of Others” veteran Sebastian Koch as the SS father-in-law.
Sony Pictures Classics came in early on the ambitious film, which covers 30 years in 67 shooting days, from the VFX-laden bombing of Dresden through the young artist’s formative socialist years and his transformation at age 30 when he starts over in the West. “Then he’s really free,” said Henckel von Donnersmarck. “We were shaped by totalitarian regimes, shaped by authority. To find your own voice, you have to shrug off expectations and specific ideas and convictions. That’s the journey this artist goes through: Joseph Campbell’s mystical hero’s journey of the artist trying to find his own voice.”
Creating the art was a huge challenge. “We had to get that part right, or the whole film wouldn’t work,” said the filmmaker, who luckily ran into one of Richter’s students, Andreas Schön, at an opening in San Diego, and convinced him to use Richter’s old techniques to create original art for the movie. “He’d take the photographs and set them up and project them through an ethoscope and Andreas Schön would paint it on a photocell. Richter would throw it out of focus with format technique. Schön spent the last 20 years trying to break free from Richter and his influence.”
The film also deployed a fleet of painters to recreate “degenerate” art that was destroyed by the Germans The director still has them in storage in Berlin, but has promised to destroy the forgeries.
Much like “The Lives of Others” (but with an epic running time of three hours and nine minutes), “Never Look Away” wasn’t embraced in Germany until after the Oscar nomination. Nor was it embraced by Richter. “The spirit of the film is about overcoming difficulties and using art as a tool of healing,” said Henckel von Donnersmarck. “It’s a positive film, which is not the angle that the German distributor used with the German trailer. They marketed it as a super-dark thriller. I always feel that’s not a good idea. Your presentation of a film should be honest. I think that factor contributed to a slow start; I am confident we will have a strong finish.”
Bottom Line: The latest film out of the gate is still in release, which brings it front and center as Academy voters catch up with their screener piles. They tend to respond to films about art, especially ones as elegantly lensed as this one. But the running time is an impediment.