Entertainment & Arts

The Envelope: With 83 foreign films in Oscar contention, a look at six standouts

‘Force Majeure’ from Sweden
Sweden’s foreign-language submission, “Force Majeure,” won the Cannes Un Certain Regard jury prize.
(Magnolia Pictures)

The academy has received foreign-language film submissions from 83 countries this year, topping the previous record by seven. And just as it seems unfair to limit each country to just one entry, 83 is a few too many films to cover here, so here are six likely contenders for the crown, in alphabetical order.

“Forgotten” (Bolivia): Takes on the black page in history known as “Operation Condor,” the concerted effort by several South American dictatorships to suppress and terrorize their own people in the name of stanching communism. And yes, the CIA was involved.

Co-producer, -writer, and -star Carla Ortiz says she was inspired by not only loosened restrictions on discussing the topic in her country but also by the “Arab Spring”: “I was in Egypt in 2011 ... I looked at other Middle Eastern countries and other South American countries and realized that dictatorship is not something that happened [only] in the ‘70s or the ‘50s or the ‘60s.”

The film takes place at the inception of the crackdown, mixing the gut-wrenching brutality of the time with a storyline connecting the past and present. “Forgotten” forces contemporary audiences to confront the roots of today’s politics and to remember atrocities such as the theft of thousands of children from their families.


“Force Majeure” (Sweden): A family on an idyllic ski vacation experiences a traumatic event that changes the way they see themselves. The Cannes Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner is shot in long, calm takes that capture the atmosphere while eschewing the usual techniques — such as score or rapid cutting — to manipulate the viewer.

Writer-director Ruben Östlund says, “Instead of judging any of the characters, despite all their shortcomings, I really want us to look at all of them in a nonjudgmental way.”

“Force” is comedic in the Chekhovian sense: There are no jokes, but characters’ foibles are on full display.

“In every tragic moment, there are those small trivial details that make it comical,” said Östlund. “When I put them next to each other in a scene, maybe I can show how fragile life is and how stupid and beautiful we look when we try to deal with it.”


“Leviathan” (Russia): Takes the Book of Job, Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and an American bulldozer rampage as inspirations. This Job, a disagreeable sort given to explosions of rage, is indeed subjected to many trials — but what if there were no heavenly prize waiting for him? It’s an ugly portrait of Hobbes’ social contract gone wrong, in which the citizen surrenders more than a little liberty and gains even less than he bargained for in exchange. Replace Job’s devil with Hobbes’ state, and what you get is an ordinary guy ground into nothing by wheels of all sizes.

“Both books explore the nature of relations between a man and a higher power,” says director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev. “The story that inspired me to look at this issue in the first place was the story of Marvin Heemeyer [who armored up a bulldozer and tore down buildings including City Hall in Granby, Colo., in 2004]. But in its heart, ‘Leviathan’ is a universal story which focuses on emotions and passions of men and women, and a testament to human spirit and endurance.”

That a work so apparently critical of the machinery of government could be made in Putin’s Russia may surprise American audiences, but Zvyagintsev says, “To see our story as a political statement would be to oversimplify it to the point of making it primitive,” pointing out the film was partly funded by the Ministry of Culture.

“Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed” (Spain): In 1966, a middle-aged Beatles fan who uses their lyrics to teach English in Madrid learns that John Lennon is in the country to shoot the Richard Lester film “How I Won the War.” What ensues is a pleasant road trip with the good-natured fellow and two wandering souls: a young woman escaping her fate as a madonna and a teenage boy leaving home.

“The anecdote of John Lennon’s stay in the south of Spain was known, but not the trip of the teacher to meet with him,” says writer-director David Trueba. “I tried to use the episode to make a whole picture about that generation that changed Spain during the 1960s.

“History books tend to give all responsibility in the changing of political and social aspects to very relevant people,” said Trueba, adding his multiple-Goya-winning film “is about the way that anonymous people in their particular and intimate behavior eventually arrived to change the whole world around.”

“Mommy” (Canada): A claustrophobic look at the poisonous co-dependent relationship between an irresponsible but adoring mother and a manic and possibly dangerous son. By presenting the Cannes Jury Prize winner mostly in 1:1 aspect ratio (imagine the screen with only the middle third visible), the filmmakers make the audience feel trapped in a phone booth with a viciously squabbling family.

“Wild Tales” (Argentina): This film wins the prize for the year’s most audacious opening scene. The anthology features six stories exploring the point at which humans boil, when people are driven — right or wrong — to take extreme actions.


Writer-director Damián Szifrón notes that humans are animals and, under duress, “we want to react, to bite someone, but unlike other species, we have the ability to repress our instincts, to go against them. And although this repression protects our physical and mental integrity, it has consequences: Many of us suffer from stress, others depression and still others explode. This is a film about those who explode.”

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