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Foreign Films Are a Treasure Trove of Acting Gems in Crowded Awards Season

On Oct. 20, 16 films were released theatrically in the U.K., a box office battle that, among other things, pitted an action movie (“Geostorm”) against an art film (“I Am Not a Witch”), a doc (“Dina”), a satire (“The Death of Stalin”), a teen romp (“Access All Areas”) and a horror pic (“Happy Death Day”). This situation is worth noting since the U.K. release schedule alone seems to have reached critical mass. According to British writer-researcher Stephen Follows, the U.K. released some 821 films theatrically last year, almost 100 more than the 736 released in the U.S.

“This means that if you saw a new movie every morning and every afternoon on every single day of the year, you would still miss 91 new movies,” Follows notes dryly on his blog.

Add to this the rapacious acquisitions made by Netflix and Amazon Studios and the chances of even getting audiences in the door start to dwindle even more. An early casualty of this has been the prestige foreign-language picture: the arthouse hit — the surname-driven industry that used to yield decent figures for new films by Michael Haneke, Jacques Audiard or Lars von Trier — is nowhere near what it used to be. And with it has gone some of that prestige: as the awards season rises on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see some of the surprises of old, when Pedro Almodovar could be nominated for director of the very Spanish “Talk to Her” (2002) and Marion Cotillard could win the actress Oscar for the entirely French “La Vie en Rose” (2007).

The competition is now so fierce that even a source close to the eminently awards-friendly biopic “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” — which checks an unreal amount of Academy-friendly boxes, including its Golden Age Hollywood subject matter (film noir siren Gloria Grahame, who died tragically at 57) and much-loved showbiz royalty (four-times nominated star Annette Bening) — isn’t taking anything for granted, confiding after its Toronto bow that “we’ve [still] got a long way to go.”

Indeed, add the Academy’s recent diversity push — 774 people inducted from 57 countries — and the likelihood of a consensus becomes even more remote. As a result, the categories that may suffer most are the performance ones, leaving the calendar’s A-list festivals as the main bellwethers for non-U.S. talent. Indeed, Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux respectfully declined to contribute to this report for that reason, adding that his decision to stay silent was “not easy.”

So who are the talents that stand to miss out?

At this year’s Berlinale, the jury surprised attendees by ignoring trans actor Daniela Vega — described by the Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival’s artistic director Mark Adams as “the stunning lead role” in Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” — going with South Korea’s Kim Min-hee (“On the Beach at Night Alone”) for the actress award. Vega crops in many critics’ 2017 best-of lists, including that of the Telegraph’s Tim Robey, while the BFI’s deputy head of festivals Tricia Tuttle praised Vega’s performance as “one of my film highlights of the year. She is utterly transfixing as a transwoman grappling with inhuman bigotry after the death of her lover. With great economy of performance she telegraphs love, desire, patience, hopefulness, fear, loss and finally, profound strength and dignity. All that, and then there’s the voice! Divine.”

“The categories that may suffer most are the performance ones, leaving the calendar’s A-list festivals as the main bellwethers for non-U.S. talent.”

The film has enjoyed a healthy festival life, especially in the U.S., where it debuted at Telluride, but a year is a long time to maintain momentum, and trans awareness is still in its infancy, industry-wise. Also from Berlin, Picturehouse’s Clare Binns picks out French actress Catherine Frot, holding her own against Catherine Deneuve as the title character in Martin Provost’s “The Midwife.”

Cannes Star Turns

Moving on to Cannes, a particularly strong, auteur-heavy competition lineup this year conspired to keep many away from the Un Certain Regard section.
For critic Jonathan Romney, there was a great new find in Leonor Serraille’s Camera D’Or-winning character study “Jeune Femme.” Its star, Laetitia Dosch, is “a fabulous discovery,” he enthuses, “exuberantly funny and counterintuitively bringing real joy to her portrait of a woman in total meltdown.”

In the same sidebar, Emma Suarez made a big impression in Mexican helmer Michel Franco’s fifth and latest feature film, “April’s Daughter,” being — as Picturehouse acquisitions exec Paul Ridd puts it — “phenomenal as the worst onscreen mother ever.”

For producer Mike Downey, who’s also deputy chairman of European Film Academy and new artistic director of the Antalya Intl. Film Festival, where the film recently competed, the performance is a revelation. Describing “April’s Daughter” as “a chilling examination of maternal instincts,” Downey marvels that Suarez’s “subtle, sharp” turn “makes the real Joan Crawford look like the fictional Mildred Pierce. She’s credible and convincing in the most difficult of roles,” he says. “The chill factor comes from her playing it straight.  The art is in her matter-of-factness — and by being gently led by a very smart and talented director.”

Standout Men

Interestingly, most pundits tended to opt for female performances as those that might be overlooked by awards season voters, while some of the standout males were sometimes overshadowed either by their co-stars or the films themselves.

Damian Spandley, director of program at Curzon Cinemas, singled out Dublin-born Barry Keoghan’s “terrifying” supporting role in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” while also wondering whether the French-sounding but very American Timothée Chalamet might lose some of the spotlight to Armie Hammer’s career-redefining role in the largely Italian co-production “Call Me by Your Name.” Spandley also speaks for many by praising Claes Bang’s steady and unfussy performance in Ruben Ostlund’s Swedish Palme D’Or winner “The Square,” in which the actor shines despite scene-stealing cameos from the likes of Elisabeth Moss and — especially — Terry Notary, playing a space-invading performance artist.

Tim Robey, meanwhile, bangs a similar drum for Jérémie Renier, who anchors Francois Ozon’s dizzying Cannes Competition thriller “L’Amant Double.”

In the meantime, one yet-to-be-determined effect of the long-term fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal is how even British acting talent may fair in future awards seasons without the producer’s bullishly effective Anglophilia. Col Needham, founder & CEO of IMDb, for example, finds himself rooting for Ritesh Batra’s quietly launched U.K. drama “The Sense of an Ending.”

“The whole cast is outstanding,” he says. “However, if I must single out a specific performance, then Jim Broadbent is simply perfect as Tony Webster, a man coming to terms with the consequences of cruel actions in his youth. Broadbent manages to engender empathy for a character who has fundamentally ruined lives and who is deeply unpleasant beneath his quirky veneer. It is not an easy act to pull off.”

That said, it is still early days in the season, and one lesson learned from last year’s best picture upset is that the race isn’t run until it’s over. Or as Needham wryly puts it, “Of course, this is all much easier after awards season, when we discover who really has been overlooked.”

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