A certain subset of Oscar nominees already have reason to celebrate.
It’s been a remarkable year for foreign language cinema. Led by Mexican drama “Roma,” a bumper crop of foreign language films have picked up Oscar nods in feature, documentary, short and craft categories. Not that world cinema needs the validation of Tinseltown, but its cup runneth over.
“Roma” could become the first foreign language film to win the Oscar for best picture, with director Alfonso Cuarón widely tipped for best director. Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski is also in contention for best director for “Cold War.”
Three of the five cinematography nominees – Lukasz Zal for “Cold War,” Caleb Deschanel for German entry “Never Look Away” and Cuarón for “Roma” – are non-English titles. Meanwhile, Swedish film “Border” picked up a nod for best makeup and hairstyling and German-made, Arabic-language “Of Fathers and Sons” is nominated for documentary feature.
But back to the race for best foreign language film. To bring you up to speed, here’s what you need to know about the nominees, and where to watch them.
“Cold War” (Poland)
“Cold War” arrives at the Oscars having swept the European Film Awards last December with its hopelessly romantic take on two lovers on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Pawel Pawlikowski, competing for his second Oscar after winning with 2014’s “Ida,” drew on his parents’ story in creating fractious couple Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a singer and music director who fall hard for each other in 1950s communist Poland. From there to Paris, Berlin and Yugoslavia, its fleet-footed approach captures 15 years of tempestuous love in indelible sequences that rarely pause for breath. All the while music provides an additional emotional barometer, from the evolving refrain of folk song “Dwa Serduszka” (“Two Hearts”) to jazz and rock and roll.
The director and co-writer had said his parents history was “too long and messy,” and yet what he’s made is an elegant 88-minute chasse, locked in motion by two mesmerizing lead performances. Delivered in delicious, inky black and white and presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, it’s classical and classy filmmaking with flair to burn.
Where to watch: Playing in US theaters; available March 22 on Amazon Prime.
The film that gave Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda the Palme d’Or at Cannes, “Shoplifters” was one of the least contentious winners in recent memory.
Centering on a rag-tag family of petty thieves scraping out an existence in down-and-out Tokyo, the father takes in a young girl Rin (Miyu Sasaki), left out in the cold. Living hand to mouth in squalor despite both husband Osamu (Lily Franky) and wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) working full time, they, along with elderly grandma (the late Kirin Kiki), older daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and younger son Shota (Jyo Kairi) live together under one tottering roof and gently annoy each other. Rin injects new life into the household, but when a five-finger discount goes awry, the family, and the lies it has built itself on, come crashing down around them.
Kore-eda’s social drama continues career-long themes, that, like British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, levels pointed criticisms at the systems that have failed his characters. All the adults play their parts with a jaded world-weariness that yields to small, joyous moments that scatter the narrative. But it’s the quietly devastating Ando that rises above fellow cast members with one of the most moving performances this awards season.
Where to watch: Available on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Blu-ray/DVD in the US.
“Never Look Away” (Germany)
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, already a winner in this category for 2006 Stasi drama “The Lives of Others,” dives further back into German history with “Never Look Away.”
Inspired by the life of German artist Gerhard Richter (which the artist is none too pleased about), “Never Look Away” follows painter Kurt (Tom Schilling) from harrowing childhood under the Third Reich to his rise in the 1960s across three hours.
Kurt, whose aunt was murdered by the Nazis because of her mental illness, lives in the long shadow of the war. From his start as a sign maker and socialist-realism muralist in East Germany to his struggle for success in the West, the artist represents a generation attempting to spring loose from the guilt and shame that has buried a nation. But try as he might, the darkness claws into every aspect of his personal life.
“Never Look Away” offers a stark history lesson refracted through its story of romance and artistry. In that sense there’s more than a few comparisons to be made with “Cold War.” But while Pawlikowski opts for dreamlike snapshots, von Donnersmarck lays out his plot with cold calculation for optimal emotional response. An image of resilience and abstraction, painted in traditional brushstrokes.
Where to watch: Playing in US theaters; pre-order available via Amazon and iTunes.
Landing at Cannes last year with an attention-grabbing premise, “Capernaum,” by Lebanese actress-director Nadine Labaki, tells the story of a pre-teen who sues his parents for bringing him into the world.
First-timer Zain al Rafeea hold the lens in a way that would make some of his older peers green with envy as we follow him around Beirut, often with toddler Jonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) in tow. The courtroom serves as a framing device for scenes of neglect, child marriage, illegal work and extreme poverty. It’s all evidence of the precariousness of the social contract, tonally flitting between satire and moral outrage. But there’s humor to be had too with strong interplay between its young leads.
Despite the hardship, at “Capernaum’s” heart is a kernel of hope, held tight by Zain, but which he shares with the viewer. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes last May and a host of festival audience awards since, Labaki’s fourth film as director has maintained considerable traction.
Where to watch: Pre-order available on Amazon and iTunes.
Can Cuarón go five for five? Nominated for best picture, foreign language film, direction, cinematography and original screenplay, “Roma” has already taken the Golden Globe and BAFTA in this particular category.
The Mexican director has reimagined his own childhood, telling it from the perspective of his nanny – Libo in real life, Cleo in the film – played by best actress nominee Yalitza Aparicio. Set in Mexico City in the early 1970s, the family Cleo cares for is falling apart while she has her own fledgling romance to negotiate. All the while wider social upheaval threatens to bring chaos to everyone’s doorstep.
A study of class, family and politics, Cuarón’s excoriating look at his own upbringing and the nation that catalysed it manages to be both understated and grandiose; naturalistic and finely orchestrated. Overall, “Roma” demonstrates a maestro at the top of his game. It has beguiled audiences ever since it won the Golden Lion at Venice last September. Don’t expect the accolades to stop with Oscars night.
Where to watch: Available on Netflix.