By Will Mavity
When the Academy was limited to five Best Picture nominees prior to 2009, the directors’ branch would typically give us at least one “Lone Director” nominee per year. A lone Best Director nomination is when a film is nominated for Best Director without a corresponding Best Picture nomination. Given that only directors choose the Best Director nominees, while the entire Academy selects the Best Picture nominees, usually, these lone Best Director nominees are for films that were too bold and experimental for the more populist Academy as a whole to embrace.
Examples of “Lone Director” nominations are Alfred Hitchcock for “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Steven Spielberg for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” David Lynch for “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive,” and in more recent years, Paul Greengrass for “United 93.”
In addition to favoring bolder and experimental films for Best Director nominations, the directors’ branch has always been the most open of the various branches to non-English language films. While portions of the Academy still struggled with xenophobia and subtitles in the 60s and 70s, the directors’ branch nominated the likes of Hiroshi Teshigahara for “Woman in the Dunes,” Costa-Gavras for “Z,” Gillo Pontecorvo for “Battle of Algiers,” Pietro Germi for “Divorce Italian Style,” Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties,” Francois Truffaut for “Day For Night,” Jan Troell for “The Immigrants,” and of course, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini for multiple films.
Even once the Academy expanded beyond five Best Picture nominations, we have continued to see lone director nominations show up. Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher,” Pawel Pawlikowski for “Cold War,” and Thomas Vinterberg for “Another Round,” where each was nominated for Best Director without the corresponding Best Picture nominations. And notably, two out of those three were for non-English language films.
Over the past decade, the Academy has attempted to expand and diversify its membership dramatically. And in the process, it has become a much more international organization. Many of the new members of the directors’ branch were international filmmakers. Thus, the directors’ branch has continued to be more open-minded towards non-English language films and directors.
During the past decade, five of the Best Director nominees, including two of the winners (Alfonso Cuarón for “Roma” and Bong Joon-ho for “Parasite“), come from non-English language films. Other recent Best Director nominees and Winners such as Michel Hazanavicius, Ang Lee, Morten Tyldum, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Denis Villeneuve, Guillermo Del Toro, and Yorgos Lanthimos were nominated for English language films. Still, they had built their reputations by initially directing non-English language films.
In short, in any given Oscar season, especially in light of “Parasite” historically winning Best Picture, we may have yet another non-English language Best Director nominee this year. Perhaps, this will be a lone Best Director nominee. Perhaps, the Academy as a whole will be inspired enough to nominate the corresponding film as well. Cannes has already offered up some promising contenders, and the Venice and TIFF lineups suggest that there are plenty more to come. Here are some of the most exciting possibilities for which directors for Non-English Language films could be nominated this year…
Pedro Almodóvar – “Parallel Mothers”
It always helps to already be “in the club” when it comes to getting a Best Director nomination. Look no further than Stephen Daldry, Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, and more who fought to get a first nomination and then were nominated with ease for later (often lesser) efforts. Almodóvar is very much already “in the club” with the directors’ branch and the Academy as a whole. One of the most acclaimed living filmmakers, Almodóvar, has already been a lone Best Director nominee once (“Talk to Her”) and has directed three different International Feature Oscar nominees. Plus, he most recently directed Antonio Banderas to a surprise Best Actor Oscar nomination for “Pain and Glory.” In other words, he is still very much on The Academy’s brain. If the branch often defaults to filmmakers they recognize, Almodóvar is likely the most widely known name on this list.
The film is premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival, which suggests its producers are confident in its quality. However, solid reviews and a prize from the festival would go a long way in providing this one with awards season momentum. It will play after that at the New York Film Festival as the Closing Night Film. Additionally, Sony Pictures Classics is distributing the film. Sometimes their campaign strategies do not pay off, but they are coming off a season where they took “The Father” from an awards season underdog to the likely runner-up for Best Picture.
Mariano Cohn & Gastón Duprat – “Official Competition”
The directors’ branch tends to avoid nominating films with two directors. “Little Miss Sunshine” famously forfeited the Best Picture frontrunner status in 2006 after it missed a Best Director nomination, a snub that many blamed on a bias against nominating directing duos. Still, The Coen Brothers are Directing Oscar winners, so it does happen. Then again, The Coen Brothers were long established in the industry by the time they won. Cohn and Duprat are not as established in the American film scene as some of the other filmmakers on this list, but they are tackling one of the Academy’s favorite topics: itself. The entire film is a skewering of the film industry and festival circuit. As we have seen with films like “The Player,” “Argo,” and “Birdman,” the Academy often can’t resist films that have some fun at Hollywood’s expense.
Like “Parallel Mothers,” “Official Competition” is in competition at Venice, which suggests quality, and could provide serious awards momentum. Additionally, having a cast that includes Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas certainly doesn’t hurt. However, it currently does not have a US Distributor. Getting Neon, Searchlight, or Sony Classics suggests we can expect a strong campaign, while it may struggle if it is acquired by one of the smaller distributors.
Julia Ducournau – “Titane”
Until the moment “Titane” won the Palme d’Or, I would not have even bothered to include the film on this list. At the risk of spoiling the film, I’ll simply say, it could not be less stereotypically Oscar-friendly if it tried. And while some pointed out that “Parasite” was not exactly a traditionally AMPAS film, “Titane,” which boasts copious amounts of (unusual) sex and violence, not to mention genre trappings that many voters find off-putting, is much less so than “Parasite.”
Still, especially with Neon distributing the film, even if the film might be too unorthodox to be a Best Picture contender, that doesn’t take a lone Best Director nomination off the table. Ducournau already has the goodwill from “Raw,” and being able to boast a Palme win is a great start for the film’s campaign. Sometimes the directors’ branch goes for films that no other branch in the Academy will touch because the film is so ‘weird’ (“Mulholland Drive,” for example).
If Neon decides to make Ducournau their main awards push this year, and if various critics groups rally around her, who knows?
Asghar Farhadi – “A Hero”
In the same camp as Almodovar, Farhadi is already semi “in-the-club.” While he has yet to be nominated for a directing Oscar, he has directed two International Film Oscar Winners and received a screenplay nomination for “A Separation.” His latest film, which won the Cannes Grand Prix (the second most prestigious award at the festival), is apparently a complex and suspenseful crime drama, which received strong reviews. Amazon acquired it, and in the absence of a hefty field of contenders (thus far just the divisive “Annette,” Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos,” the Benedict Cumberbatch period piece “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” and George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar”), a critical favorite like this one could end up being their main push. Amazon certainly has the campaign coffers to run a strong campaign for Farhadi.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen – “Flee”
Rasmussen’s “Flee” received rave reviews at this year’s Sundance, with many singling out director Rasmussen’s innovative style. The hang-up is, the film is a documentary and is animated. No documentary and no animated film has ever been nominated for Best Director. Still, every year statistics are being shattered. If critics rally around this one, it could be one of the few animated films nominated for Best Picture. And if that happens, especially with Neon pushing it, maybe the fact that portions of the film were rotoscoped as opposed to animated from scratch could be sufficient to overcome the bias in the directors’ branch against the directors of animated films.
Celine Sciamma – “Petite Maman”
Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was a massive critical success but failed to snag any Oscar love. Still, Sciamma is a known commodity, and Neon snapped up her latest film, “Petite Maman,” after it premiered in Berlin. It received universally strong reviews. However, the fact that it hasn’t sustained much buzz since is concerning, especially since the film is less than 75 minutes. If it is “slight,” it may not be able to compete with some of the other contenders this year. Still, the film is going to TIFF, which could rekindle its buzz. Its touching subject matter focusing on mothers and daughters could help generate support as well.
Paolo Sorrentino – “The Hand of God”
Paolo Sorrentino is another somewhat “in-the-club” filmmaker. After all, “The Great Beauty” won the International Feature Oscar back in 2013. At the same time, his other films like “Il Divo” and “Youth” have landed nominations in other categories like Best Makeup & Hairstyling and Best Original Song.
Netflix is reportedly very excited about his newest film, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a young boy in Italy who falls in love with cinema. Netflix already brought Alfonso Cuarón’s inspired-by-childhood film to the Oscars with “Roma.” Sorrentino is making something similarly heartfelt, especially with his strong sense of visual style, and a tie-in to Hollywood’s favorite topic (again, itself) makes me think this one could be a serious contender. It will be premiering at Venice, which means the Italian Sorrentino might have a home-court advantage in terms of festival awards. If this has a strong critical start at Venice, watch out.
Joachim Trier – “The Worst Person in the World”
Many non-English language Best Director nominees benefitted from helming stylish films, with the direction that almost felt…obvious? Cuarón’s work in “Roma,” Meirelles’ work in “City of God,” Kieślowski’s work in “Red” very much drew attention to the filmmaker. This isn’t a criticism—all three films utilized “flashy” direction in a way that served the story. But the directors’ branch undoubtedly is more inclined to go for “flashy” – quick cuts, dynamic camerawork, black and white cinematography, long takes. Some have raised concerns that Trier’s more grounded work here is less “flashy” and thus might not be the most obvious pick for the directors’ branch. Kyle Buchanan compared Trier’s direction to that of Noah Baumbach’s. Still, Neon could give him a strong campaign, and the film was a major crowd-pleaser at Cannes. It seems to have been among the most accessible at Cannes, which could go a long way. If the film is embraced by other branches like the writing and acting branches (Renate Reinsve won the Cannes actress prize), perhaps it could ultimately become a large enough contender across the board to snag a director nomination regardless, maybe alongside a picture nomination as well.
Zhang Yimou – “One Second”
Zhang Yimou may not have been an Oscar regular in recent years, but he has a long and prestigious career. He has directed three International Feature Oscar nominees, including the box-office smash, “Hero,” as well as helming films that received cinematography and costume design nominations such as “House of Flying Daggers,” “Shanghai Triad,” and “Curse of the Golden Flower.” He is among the most respected Chinese directors alive. His latest film focuses on a small town during China’s cultural revolution working to preserve a film from destruction. Like “The Hand of God,” it is described as deeply personal and the director’s love letter to cinema.
Skipping Venice in favor of a Toronto premiere doesn’t scream Oscar contender. Still, it could end up being a crowd-pleaser, and Zhang could easily take advantage of the same sort of “overdue” narrative that carried Michael Haneke to a nomination in 2012 for “Amour.”
Park Chan-Wook (“Oldboy”), Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters“), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu “The Revenant“) are each working on new films as well. The fact that none are scheduled to premiere at the various fall festivals suggests to me that they won’t premiere until next year. However, should any of the three get 2021 release dates, those are three well-respected directors that could factor in.
It is worth noting that there are also several English Language Oscar contenders from directors who cut their teeth on non-English language films, which might also appeal to the increasingly international directing branch. French director Leos Carax just won Cannes’ Directing prize for “Annette.” Pablo Larraín, director of Chile’s Best International Film nominee “No,” is directing the Princess Diana film “Spencer.” Mexico’s Michael Franco, who helmed last year’s “New Order,” is premiering “Sundown” starring Tim Roth at Venice.
In short, it is shaping up to be a strong year for films from around the world. Hopefully, the Academy and the directors’ branch continue to be open-minded.
Which directors for Non-English Language films do you expect to be most likely to be nominated for Best Director this year? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies