World Circuit: International Oscar Hopefuls Take a Bow with Festival Premieres

Though we are still months away from the first wave of official submissions for the newly renamed Best International Feature Oscar, the spring/winter festival circuit has already introduced some worthy candidates. As major awards are won and distribution deals close, the excitement is mounting for another competitive year among the non-English Oscar contenders. Here’s a look at some of the early contenders from the three biggest international film festivals so far, namely Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes:

SUNDANCE

“Monos”

With back-to-back Sundance premieres landing on the shortlist (2017’s “The Wound” and 2018’s “The Guilty“), the Park City festival has quickly solidified its place as a major launching pad for foreign language Oscar hopefuls. Two of the notable titles this year came from Latin America, as Uruguayan drama “The Sharks” and Colombian thriller “Monos” won the Directing and Special Jury awards, respectively. Featuring Julianne Nicholson in a key role, “Monos” was acquired by Neon and will hit North American theaters on September 13.

Also picked up in Neon’s buying spree at Sundance was the documentary “Honeyland” by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov. Taking home the top prize in the World Cinema Documentary section, as well as Special Jury awards for Cinematography and Impact for Change. This urgent plea to protect the bees could be a formidable contender for Macedonia. Finally, perennial nominee Denmark has a reliable option in “Queen of Hearts,” the Audience Award winner starring the esteemed Trine Dyrholm.

BERLIN

“Synonyms”

By most accounts, 2018 was an off year for the Berlin Film Festival, with few films making a mark after their premieres. However, 2019’s slate offered up some intriguing prospects which could factor into the upcoming Oscar race. Leading the way is Golden Bear winner “Synonyms,” a critically acclaimed drama from director Nadav Lapid. As is customary, its Oscar fate is mostly dependent on the outcome of Israel’s Ophir Awards, where the Best Film winner is automatically selected as the country’s submission.

Among the award recipients at the festival, there were several Oscar candidates from European countries. French auteur François Ozon could notch the second Oscar selection of his career with “By the Grace of God,” winner of the Jury Grand Prix. Music Box Films will be handling the US release of this socially relevant drama about a sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Silver Bear prizes for Best Director and Best Script went to Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But” from Germany and “Piranhas,” an Italian crime drama from director Claudio Giovannesi. Both filmmakers are seeking their first Oscar entries. Similarly, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland will hope to cap an already noteworthy 2019 with an Oscar bid for his new film “Out Stealing Horses.” Early this year, he directed Liam Neeson in “Cold Pursuit,” the English language remake of his film “In Order of Disappearance.”

CANNES

“Atlantics”

As the prestigious home of world cinema, it’s easy to understand why Cannes has long established itself as the go-to festival for foreign language Oscar hopefuls. That tradition seems set to continue this year with a slew of titles making a strong case for Oscar selection. The biggest story out of the Croisette was undoubtedly Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” a satirical drama centered on a low-income family who manipulate their way into the lives of the elite. Earning rave reviews from the critics, the film also won the Palme d’Or in a rare unanimous jury decision. If selected by Korea, it could become a cause célèbre to deliver the country’s long overdue first Oscar nomination.

Hope springs eternal for “Parasite,” who will benefit from a distribution deal with Neon, the upstart distributor that seems to be making a strong push for the International Feature Oscar. In addition to the aforementioned “Monos” and “Honeyland,” they also added another festival favorite in the form of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Writer-director Celine Sciamma took home Best Screenplay honors for this lesbian period drama about a burgeoning relationship between a painter and her subject.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” will face stiff competition to be France’s Oscar submission, however, as the home nation had a strong showing at Cannes. Aside from “By the Grace of God” from Berlin, there was much love for Cannes Jury Prize winner “Les Misérables,” a debut film from Ladj Ly. On the back of a successful premiere, it was picked up by Amazon for an anticipated awards season release.

Like France, it was also a strong year for Brazil at Cannes. In the Palme d’Or competition, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Bacurau” tied with “Les Misérables” for the Jury Prize. Meanwhile, in Un Certain Regard, Karim Aïnouz won the top prize for “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.”

Despite the festival’s infamous lack of female directors in competition, the few 2019 invitees emerged from the lineup with well-received films. Highlights include the Austrian Best Actress winner “Little Joe” from Jessica Hausner and Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” which became the first ever film from a black woman to win a prize at Cannes. If Senegal chooses to submit it, this refugee drama could make further history as the country’s first Oscar nominee. Elsewhere in Un Certain Regard, actress-turned-director Monia Chokri has an outside shot at the Canadian submission, after her debut feature “A Brother’s Love” received a special mention from the jury. In the same section, one of the biggest breakout films was “Beanpole,” which snagged the Best Director and FIPRESCI prizes and could potentially be Russia’s Oscar entry.

Last but certainly not least, Cannes favorites Pedro Almodóvar and Dardenne brothers unspooled their likely Oscar contenders to different responses. The former’s “Pain and Glory” was highly regarded by critics, before earning Antonio Banderas a Best Actor win for his efforts. On the other hand, the Dardenne brothers’ effort “Young Ahmed” proved more divisive, but secured the jury’s Best Director prize.

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