Monday, February 26, 2024

How “The Zone Of Interest” Challenges Traditional Oscar Expectations

When “The Zone of Interest” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it immediately generated praise, with many calling it one of the year’s best films. Critics and audiences were heralding it as a truly unique cinematic achievement from acclaimed director Jonathan Glazer (“Under the Skin” & “Sexy Beast”), one that will stay with you for a long time. In the week following its premiere, this haunting World War II film was considered one of the frontrunners for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Even though it lost this prize to Justine Triet’s thrilling courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall,” the buzz was still high, and both “The Zone of Interest” and “Anatomy of a Fall” were immediately thrust into many pundits’ Oscar predictions for Best Picture as dual foreign-language film nominees.

Once the excitement from Cannes calmed down, though, those who had not yet seen Glazer’s newest film started to hear from those who had just how different of a film this is. Many critics and pundits started to emphasize just how much of an arthouse, maybe even avant-garde film it is, and that while perhaps the director’s branch of the Academy, which has long shown its preference for more arthouse and international films, might nominate Glazer, the film itself would have a steep hill to climb to get nominated for anywhere else outside of Best International Feature Film. 

While this is undoubtedly the reality in terms of the Oscar chances for “The Zone of Interest,” it does not mean that the film cannot garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, or perhaps even well-deserved nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound. There may not be a film quite like this ever to receive major Oscar nominations, but that does not mean that there have not been times that the Academy has shocked us all and gone for films that we never would have expected. 

Here are four times in Oscar history that the Academy paid close attention to international films and went for some unusual yet well-deserved winners or nominees at the Academy Awards which could give us some clue into whether or not they’ll go for Glazer’s challenging but masterful film this year.

“The Grand Illusion” Receives A Lone Best Picture Nomination In 1938
About 80 years before “Parasite” made history as the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion” became the first foreign-language film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Not only was this an impressive feat by itself, particularly considering it received no other nominations to go along with its Best Picture nomination, but it was a feat that was not repeated until more than 30 years later when Costa Gavras’ “Z” was nominated for Best Picture in 1969 (1970 ceremony).  

“The Grand Illusion” was nominated at a time when major nominations for foreign-language films were unthinkable, especially when you consider that about two years after the film was released, Jean Renoir released another film called “The Rules of the Game” that received zero Oscar nominations, a film that is now considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. 

“The Red Balloon” Wins Best Original Screenplay In 1956
Even nowadays, the thought of a live-action short film getting a single nomination outside of Best Live Action Short Film is almost unthinkable. Sure, many short films have deserved to receive such nominations, but the thought of a short film ever receiving even a below-the-line nomination seems to be a pipe dream at best.

Well, not only did Albert Lamorisse’s short film “The Red Balloon” receive a nomination outside of Best Live-Action Short Film, but it also received an above-the-line nomination for Original Screenplay! Sorry… (checks notes) It won Best Original Screenplay. On top of all these unusual factors, it was even an international film. Giving an above-the-line win to an international short film is one of the most inspiring things the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has ever done.

However, while this choice was rare, it makes some sense. “The Red Balloon” is a wonderful and pleasant film that almost any audience member is sure to enjoy. The same cannot be said for the next film on this list. 

“Cries and Whispers” Receives Nominations For Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay And Wins Best Cinematography In 1973
For many cinephiles, Ingmar Bergman is a household name when it comes to the history of cinema. He is one of the few international auteurs to have many films that were well-received enough by the Academy to garner many Oscar nominations, but “Cries and Whispers” was his only film to get nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and what a choice that was by the Academy.

For those who have not seen the film, let’s just say… it is out there. “Cries and Whispers” is a brilliant yet undeniably grueling, hardcore arthouse film that seems like something the Academy would never, ever go for in Best Picture, especially in a year of five nominees. While the success of William Friedkin’s legendary horror film “The Exorcist” at the Academy Awards that very same year was also unprecedented, it still feels more plausible than the success of the significantly more experimental “Cries and Whispers,” a reason why this may be the film that gives the most hope to potential Oscar glory for Glazer’s newest film. 

That being said, it is the next film on this list that points to the ever-growing international branch of the current Academy that “The Zone of Interest” will have to rely on if it is to get nominated for Best Picture. 

“Drive My Car” Gets Nominations in Best Picture, Director, And Best Adapted Screenplay In 2021
If you have been closely following the Oscar race in recent years, you are already familiar with the unprecedented run this small, three-hour Japanese film took only a couple of years ago.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” had many things going against it regarding awards prospects. Not only is it a long, arthouse, foreign-language film with essentially no action, but it is also so slow-paced that some may consider it a part of a small filmmaking movement known as “slow cinema.” This puts it in stark contrast to other relatively recent foreign-language film nominees such as Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” 

On top of these obstacles, “Drive My Car” had a smaller distributor in Janus Films, at least compared to other recent foreign-language film nominees with larger distributors, such as Sony Pictures Classics, Netflix, and Neon. The film also had the problem of not having a big-name director behind it. Ryusuke Hamaguchi was a well-respected name in world cinema before “Drive My Car.” Still, he was not nearly as well-known as other international auteurs who had garnered Best Picture nominations for their international films, such as Bong Joon Ho, Alfonso Cuaron, Michael Haneke, and Ang Lee. 

So, how did “Drive My Car” get a Best Picture nomination in 2021? Well, it won the prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes before then going on to dominate the critics groups’ awards. It became only the sixth movie at the time to win Best Picture at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the National Society of Film Critics Awards, and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. This dominant critics’ group run gave it enough momentum to go all the way to the Oscars. 

If “The Zone of Interest” is going to make a splash at this year’s Oscars outside of Best International Feature, then it will need to follow a similar path to “Drive My Car.” It has enough passion to do so, but 2023 has been a year with many critically acclaimed, high-profile movies. Yet, there is still hope for this A24 Cannes acquisition, especially after its recent success at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards and the Golden Globe nominations. There may be no precedent for a film quite like “The Zone of Interest” showing up significantly at the Oscars, but history has shown us that any type of film can succeed at the Academy Awards if the passion is there.

Do you think the Academy will nominate The Zone of Interest” for Best Picture? What Oscar nominations are you predicting it will receive? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Connor and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @ConnerLorenz

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