Chile's 'Gloria,' Australia's 'The Rocket' among recent entries in foreign Oscar race

Posted by · 7:00 am · September 10th, 2013

While in Venice, I lost track somewhat of the submissions process for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — and at this stage, with the deadline for entries only a few weeks away, turning your back on the process for even a few days means you feel significantly behind. Last time I checked in, five films had been submitted; today, by my count, the number has gone up to 22. I’ve gathered them all on the category’s Contenders page for your reference, and even done some preliminary ranking based on the entries so far; expect considerable movement there as new films join the race. As always, inside tips and insights from our international readers are most welcome, so don’t be shy.

So, where do we stand in the race at the moment? Not very steadily, to be honest, with category regulars like France, Italy, Denmark and Israel yet to submit. Last year’s complete submissions list featured 71 films, so chances are we aren’t even looking at one-third of the final field yet.

But from the smaller sampling of contenders we have so far, one trend is clear, as it has been for several years running now: the Berlin Film Festival may sit below Cannes and Venice in terms of media coverage and perceived prestige, but it’s an increasingly happy hunting ground for this particular category. “A Separation,” “A Royal Affair,” “War Witch,” “Bullhead” and “The Milk of Sorrow” are among the recent Oscar nominees to have emerged from the February chill of Berlin, and the same goes for many of the leading contenders in this race so far. 

We’ve already talked about Romania’s formidable entry, “Child’s Pose,” which won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. But one of its closest Berlin competitors has also joined the race, and may be a slightly easier sell to the Academy: Chile’s “Gloria,” a wonderful comedy of middle-aged rebirth that won the Best Actress award for Paulina Garcia, a TV star in her home country here acing her first big-screen lead. Achingly vulnerable even at her most spunky, her delightful performance is the key selling point of this narratively loose story of a fiftysomething divorcee reasserting her personal, social and sexual worth after too many years in the background, but it also shows off writer-director Sebastian Lelio as a filmmaker of breezy confidence and warm human understanding.

As I wrote in my review at Berlin, it’s a richly enjoyable, universally accessible film with a light feminist undertow — and US indie distributor Roadside Attractions evidently agreed, smartly snapping it up shortly after it emerged as one of Berlin’s clear crowdpleasers. Roadside have proven savvy Oscar campaigners in recent years, defying the odds to land major Oscar nods for scrappy outsiders like “Winter’s Bone,” “Albert Nobbs,” “Margin Call” and “Biutiful” (their first foreign-language nominee), so I expect them to do well by “Gloria.”

Could Garcia even do a Fernanda Montenegro (who, incidentally, also began her awards trail with a win at Berlin) and break into the Best Actress race? It’ll be a hard climb, but it’s possible. For Best Foreign Language Film, meanwhile, I like their chances a lot more; indeed, I think it might be the strongest contender in the race so far. After over 20 years of trying, Chile landed their first ever Oscar nod with Pablo Larrain’s “No”; perhaps it’s a good luck charm of sorts that Larrain is attached to “Gloria” as a producer. 

Another Berlin breakout that joined the race only this morning is Australia’s “The Rocket,” which won a number of awards at Berlin — including Best First Film for director Kim Mordaunt — before going on to claim Best Film, Best Actor and, most tellingly, the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. I missed this reputedly heartwarming tale of a resilient 10-year-old in Laos who takes leadership of his family when they are evicted from their ancestral home by corporate developers, but I’ve heard nothing but moist-eyed praise from colleagues; comparisons to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Whale Rider” have been made more than once.

Australia has yet to land an Oscar nod in this category; they made the January shortlist with 2009’s “Samson and Delilah,” and I really thought they’d crack it with last year’s Holocaust drama “Lore.” it seems they’ve given themselves their best possible chance of breaking that duck this year. (Meanwhile, Australia’s neighbor, New Zealand, has entered the race for only the second time with the Maori-language drama “White Lies,” about the class clashes that emerge when a wealthy white townswoman seeks the help of a traditional rural healer to help bury a potentially fatal secret.)

Another notable contender with Berlinale origins actually dates all the way back to last year — and it comes from Austria, reigning champions in the category with “Amour.” “The Wall” is hardly in the same league of art house prestige, but it’s a very fine film, and a career-crowning showcase for German star Martina Gedeck. She’s on galvanizing form as a holidaymaker in the Alps who, following the departure of her companions on a casual errand, finds herself sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible but impenetrable barrier, with no other humans in sight. It’s a lo-fi sci-fi premise for a film that otherwise operates as a realistic character study, with Gedeck taking gutsy initiative to survive.

Music Box Films released “The Wall” in the US back in May. It was released last year, near the start of the eligibility period, in its home country, and was nominated for five awards at the Austrian Film Awards in February, including Best Film, Director and Actress. It lost all three of those to Ulrich Seidl’s daring sex-tourism study “Paradise: Love.” It’s fair to say their selection committee has picked the more Academy-friendly effort, though it might still be a tough sell to the Academy.

Two more Berlin titles in the race, both from Eastern Europe: Georgia’s “In Bloom,” a coming-of-age tale about pubescent female friendship in the post-independence climate of 1992 that won the CICAE Award at the festival, and has since taken Best Film and Best Actress at Sarajevo; and Serbia’s “Circles,” a crime drama about the long-term fallout from an act of fatal violence by three Serb soldiers that won an Ecumenical Jury award at Berlin. In fact, “Circles” had its world premiere in the World Cinema strand of Sundance, where it won a Special Jury Prize.

Cannes, by contrast, doesn’t have much of a presence in the submissions list just yet. One high-profile entry from the festival to look out for, however, is Singapore’s “Ilo Ilo.” I haven’t yet seen this debut feature from Anthony Chen, which was unveiled in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, but the already noisy Croisette chatter around it grew louder still when it won the Camera d’Or — beating out such higher-profile debuts as “Fruitvale Station.”

Reviews have been uniformly glowing for this gentle story of the bond between a 10-year-old Singaporean boy, neglected by his financially pressured parents, and his loving Filipina nanny; I’ve heard Edward Yang comparisons bandied about, and those are not to be used or taken lightly. Already picked up by Film Movement for a 2014 US release, it seems an unusually strong contender from Singapore, which has entered the race only seven times since 1959, to no avail.

“Ilo Ilo” may well be Asia’s best hope in the competition so far — particularly with Japan, averse as ever to the obvious in the submissions process, having thrown us a curveball with their entry. At Cannes, many pundits noted that Jury Prize winner “Like Father, Like Son,” Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental study of two families rocked by the discovery that their children were switched at birth, had all the makings of an Oscar frontrunner. Hayao Miyazaki’s gorgeous swansong “The Wind Rises,” a smash hit in Japan, seemed a plausible alternative. 

Perhaps predictably, the Japanese selection committee has gone with neither of those, instead selecting “The Great Passage,” a romantic drama from 30-year-old director Yuya Ishii (“Sawako Decides”), now the youngest filmmaker ever to represent his country in the race. The story of a socially awkward bookworm tasked with compiling a vast “living language” dictionary while he pines for his landlady’s winsome granddaughter, it’s been a minor presence on the festival circuit, premiering at Hong Kong in March and since playing the Seattle fest in June.

That’s not necessarily a drawback: their last nominee in the category, 2008’s “Departures,” also emerged from next-to-nowhere before beating far more celebrated titles (including a Palme d’Or winner, no less) to the prize. The film may well be a delight, but I can’t help suspecting the Japanese selectors have denied themselves an easier path to a nomination in a race that — after two straight years of long-telegraphed frontrunners in “A Separation” and “Amour” — is very much up for grabs this year.

Keep up with the ongoing submissions list here. 

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