When I first pondered doing a piece on the Best International Feature Film Oscar submissions, I assumed I would be watching 15-20 movies at most. You know, the same ones that everyone seems to be discussing on list after list for varying reasons. The films from mostly western countries with the highest profiles from producers that have the resources to spread the word and hire major publicists. And perhaps the very few dark horse candidates from smaller countries that have miraculously slipped into the conversation thanks to festivals or celebrity endorsements. Basically, the same types of films I attempt to view each year before the Oscar short list is announced.
But something happened this time, I decided to challenge myself and push further. The more films I watched, the more I became obsessed with the underdogs, the true gems that were just as worthy, if not more so, than the films deemed front runners.
But the number proved problematic. 93 films were officially selected as submissions—the number was actually 97 when I began my insane journey, but four efforts were disqualified.
How many could I actually get access to? Some had publicists. Many did not. How many would I even be able to watch? Many had running times of over two hours. How would I make my Sophie’s Choices? Was I nuts? The first decision was to stop asking myself all these questions and just take the plunge. So I did.
And, after less than a month, and a rather exhaustive search as well as an eye-popping commitment to watch every film I was able to gain access to, I have a severe case of International whiplash. The happy kind. I feel exhausted and exhilarated. I managed to see 80 of the 93, right in the nick of deadline. Talk about immersive. And the only reason I wasn’t able to see 13 of them is because, for whatever reasons, I could not gain access (probably a good thing, otherwise I would have gotten no sleep!)
For a few weeks, I cine-traveled from continent to continent, often times needing to Google Maps the locations of some of the nations. I was always very good at geography, but that was many years ago. So before each screening, I would also read up a bit on the country. I felt like I was educating myself anew. I also did my best to try and approach each film with the knowledge that these were often different cultures with their own inherent values and divergent ways of thinking (although I did find American culture oddly omnipresent in most films).
During my global cine-fest, I would continue in my attempt to contact reps for links to the films I did not have. Some were easy since, as I mentioned above, many have press reps and publicists working overtime to get them noticed. But many do not. A few of the lesser-known producers/filmmakers were surprised and delighted to get actual inquiries about their films. I was informed by some that they had very little means to promote their submissions and were grateful for any mentions. Ironically, the entries with limited funds frequently produced some of the best work. It was distressing knowing so many of these treasures would get little to no exposure. I would do my damndest to, at least, call attention to them.
One of my other goals was to watch each film from beginning to end—yes, from beginning to end—regardless. Period. The International Film rules have changed many times, and up until two years ago the category was called Best Foreign Language Film. The way the process used to work is that if an Academy member wanted to turn a film off in a screening after a certain amount of time and there was majority agreement, they would do so and simply move on to the next film. I guess it was to save time, but it seems highly unfair to me.
With voting strictly online this year, I have no clue whether Academy members can stop the film after a certain amount of time. The rules only state that the Preliminary Voting Committee will view the eligible submissions and vote by secret ballot to decide the short list, which has been expanded from 10 to 15 this year only–with no “saves.” In previous years, the committee selected seven films and a special group chose three other films to “save,” not trusting AMPAS members entirely. But they have dispensed with that this year only for fear of online sabotage. It will be interesting to see what happens without this option.
For more on the International Feature Film rules please visit the Academy’s official text.
I am happy and shocked to report that my own stubborn insistence on seeing each one in their entirety proved smart and more satisfying than I could ever have expected. Each film had something to offer. I did not detest any of them. Certainly, some were better than others and there were a few that were maddening choices, but the majority were worthy of merit and of representing their respective countries.
Then, last week, A.O. Scott of The New York Times pejoratively called the category a “ghetto” and suggested doing away with it, not taking into account the quality of the films or the fact that most of them would otherwise rarely garner any exposure here. How many Armenian, Uruguayan or Kenyan films have you seen?
How many of these 93 movies did Scott actually bother to seek out and view before his ridiculous proclamation? My guess, not many. And while I agree that the rules for submissions need to be given a rethink so governments won’t wield their own power in selecting what is put forth, I have to vehemently protest Scott’s suggestion. The category is vital. He should reexamine his rhetoric after he actually sees ALL or MOST of the films in submission. If he had bothered, he would have found a worldwide cinematic call for unity, a determined desire to seek out hope in an increasingly hopeless world.
So many themes and issues are being explored in bold ways including genocide, misogyny, homophobia, racism, man’s insistence on conquering nature, man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, familial dysfunction (especially sibling rivalry) and class inequality, to name just a few.
The list includes political films, queer films, war films, terminal disease films, films that warn against the dangers of fundamentalism, farces, thrillers, fantasy films, films about death and resurrection and even a film about a wild bull wreaking havoc on a village!
I was increasing gobsmacked by the caliber of talent, the audacity of vision and the noble intentions of many of these filmmakers.
The daring of India’s Jallikattu, Sudan’s You Will Die at Twenty and Senegal’s Nafi’s Father.
The keen social satire of Croatia’s Extracurricular and Tunisia’s The Man Who Sold his Skin.
The ambitious sweep of Spain’s The Endless Trench, Honduras’ Days of Light and Taiwan’s A Sun.
The honest brutality of Slovakia’s The Auschwitz Report, Lebanon’s Broken Keys and Serbia’s Dara of Jasenovac.
The beguiling beauty of Peru’s Song Without a Name and Ireland’s Arracht (Monster).
The stark authenticity of Sweden’s Charter, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Quo Vadis, Aida? and Iran’s Sun Children.
The stunning theatricality of Ivory Coast’s Night of the Kings and Portugal’s Vitalina Varela.
And, finally, I have to mention the ferociously strong female performances. Too many to single out here but no less than 24 films are anchored by extraordinary women. And 33 of the 93 films feature female directors (a list follows at the end).
Two more interesting stats to note:
The most Oscared nation is Italy with 14 wins (including 3 special awards before there was an actual category) and 28 nominations. They haven’t won or been nominated since 2013 (The Great Beauty), nor will they until they get it together and actually submit a worthy film (I am allowed to write this, since I’m Italian).
The most nominated country is France with 37 nominations and 12 wins (which include 3 special awards). They were nominated last year for Les Misérables but have not won since 1992 with Indochine.
For the sake of clarity, I have divided the films into four sections:
–The Best and Likely (not always one and the same)
–The Gems No One is Talking About (but should be)
–Those Worthy of Consideration for Varying Reasons
The Best and Likely (not always one and the same)
The closest to a sure thing is Denmark’s Another Round. Director Thomas Vinterberg has two other nominations in this category (The Celebration in 1999 and The Hunt in 2014). He directs this alluring film about a teacher (a fierce Mads Mikkelsen) who, along with three colleagues, decides to imbibe in vast quantities of alcohol to see how it affects their lives. Quite simply, a really terrific film.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the strongest contenders with Quo Vadis, Aida? from Jasmila Zbanic. The film is set in 1995 right before the Serbian ordered genocide of over 8000 men and boys. Jasna Djuricic, in the titular role, sears the screen as a UN interpreter desperate to save her family. Likely to rightly be shortlisted and nominated. This one could win.
On the heels of Parasite’s sweep last year, South Korea has made a formidable choice with The Man Standing Next, directed by Woo Min-ho about the days leading up to the assassination of President Park Chung-hee (who ruled for 18 years) on October 26, 1979. This sometimes confusing, always engrossing thriller provides quite a number of pesky parallels with world politics today. “When the nation goes haywire, we all die,” says a key player. How ‘now.’
Definitely in the mix is Iran’s Sun Children, directed by Majid Majidi (believe me, I am in no way supporting a country that executes gay people—just the film). Rouhollah Zamani, a terrific newcomer and the winner of last year’s Marcello Mastroianni Award for emerging talent at the Venice Film Festival, anchors this immensely absorbing tale of four boys forced to work on the streets of Tehran to survive and help support their families.
“Life without hope is suffocation,” is the theme of Jimmy Keyrouz’ harrowing Broken Keys, from Lebanon, which saw two jewels, The Insult and Capernaum, nominated two and three years ago, respectively. This moving drama centers on a Syrian pianist persecuted by ISIS because Sharia Law forbids music. Gabriel Yared composed the transcendent score.
You Will Die at Twenty is Sudan’s very first Oscar submission, and it’s a completely captivating one. Amjad Abu Alala directs a tale of a boy who is prophesized to die at the age of 20. (Moatasem Rashed and Mustafa Shehata, play the pre-adolescent and teen, respectively). The film questions religious and societal superstitions and wonders about the dangers of simply accepting proclamations by men in power—even those who have an alleged link to the almighty.
Philippe Lacфte’s electric and highly theatrical Night of the Kings from the Ivory Coast is unlike any prison film I have ever seen. It often evokes Shakespeare in its telling the story of a prison run by its inmates. The pic is stunningly photographed and superbly acted. Koné Bakary stands out as the involuntary “storyteller.”
In the past, Holocaust-themed movies have been popular with AMPAS (Ida, Life is Beautiful, Mephisto, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, to name a few winners). This year there are two notable contenders.
Peter Bebjak’s The Auschwitz Report, from Slovakia, is the remarkable true story of Vrba and Wetzler, two Slovak Jews who actually escaped the infamous extermination camp in 1944 with a detailed account of the atrocities. Why this important tale has never been told onscreen before is mystery, but it’s powerful filmmaking and the final reel is especially riveting.
Serbia offers the poignant and disturbing Dara of Jasenovac, by Pedrag Antonijević. Jasenovac was the only WW2 extermination camp not run by Germans but by Croatians. They targeted Serbians, along with Jews and Gypsies. The film is a brutal portrait of human nature gone mad. A strong contender.
Three queer-themed titles have a decent chance.
Poland’s Agnieszka Holland represents the Czech Republic with one of her best films in years, Charlatan, a complex portrait of the controversial Czech herbalist and healer played by real life father and son Ivan and Josef Trojan. A strange but hypnotic gay love story sits at the heart of this politically charged pic.
Another queer-themed biopic is Zaida Bergroth’s Tove about Finland’s iconic artist/cartoonist Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti). Set in post WW2 Helsinki (and Paris), the film is a zazzy, artsy endeavor with a magnetic lead performance. Finland submitted Tom of Finland three years ago, another LGBT-themed artist biopic.
France’s entry, Two of Us, stars Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier as an older couple who have been secret lovers. Thoughtfully directed by Filippo Meneghetti, the film is a moving cry for acceptance and the most likely of the trio of LGBTQ pics to get a nomination.
A number of documentaries are in consideration.
The most relevant doc is from Romanian. Collective, directed by Alexander Nanau, is a startling chronicle of a group of journalists who uncover a scandal that reaches the highest levels of the Romanian government. It plays like a thriller and might just be double-nominated (here and in the doc category).
Another strong possibility is Chile’s The Mole Agent, directed by Maite Alberdi, a film that hints at being about abuse and theft at a nursing home and, instead, becomes a bittersweet mediation on loneliness and abandonment and how we neglect our elderly. Older AMPAS voters might just relate.
Christos Nikou’s Apples, from Greece, certainly taps into our current COVID anxiety with a drama about a worldwide pandemic that causes complete loss of memory. The twist is clever, if predictable. Greece’s last film to be nominated was Dogtooth in 2010.
Fresh on the heels of nods for Corpus Christi and Cold War, Poland submits Malgorzata Szumowska’s bizarre and enchanting Never Gonna Snow Again about a Ukranian masseuse (a captivating Alec Utgoff) who casts a spell over a community. This one could prove an Academy crowd pleaser.
The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky helmed Dear Comrades, which takes on the Novocherkassk massacre of 1962 where many protesters were killed by the Russian army and the massacre was covered up. A solid, well-crafted film with gorgeous black and white camerawork.
Juan Daniel García delivers a mesmerizing turn in Fernando Frias de la Parra’s I’m No Longer Here, Mexico’s intermittently intriguing story of a young man’s passion for Cumbia music and his refusal to assimilate or capitulate to accepted norms. This one has buzz despite its thin screenplay.
Finally, Notturno, Italy’s submission, is a critic’s darling that is an exquisitely photographed and admirable project that left me stone cold. Director Gianfranco Rosi should have focused more on inviting us into the world of these Middle Eastern refugees instead of showcasing the lovingly photographed exteriors. Italy blundered by not submitting the Edoardo Ponti film The Life Ahead starring the great Sophia Loren. They have not had a nomination since winning in 2013 with The Great Beauty.
The Gems No One is Talking About (but should be)
Arracht (Monster), from Ireland, is probably the best film no one is discussing. Set in 1845 during the Irish famine, Tom Sullivan’s beguiling story centers on a fisherman who finds himself on the run trying to survive after being blamed for a massacre. Dónall Ó Héalai is extraordinary as is this startling work. If the voters bother to watch it in full, this could surprise.
Among my faves is Sweden’s submission, Charter, Amanda Kernell’s absolutely riveting tale of a mother (a potent Kathleen Turner-esque Ane Dahl Torp) who had the audacity to leave her husband (read: sarcasm) and must resort to kidnapping her own children to get to know them better. If there is any justice, this film will be on the short list. Charter premiered at Sundance last year.
Two satires prove to be among the most outstanding films not being discussed.
Croatia has been submitting for 29 years and has yet to snag a nomination. That should change if AMPAS members actually watch Ivan-Goran Vitez’ brilliant dark comedy, Extracurricular. The film can be described as Veep and Wag the Dog go to grade school. A divorced father wants to take his daughter out of school for her birthday and is turned away. He returns…with a gun and takes the class hostage. The ambitious mayor and an equally ambitious journalist want to capitalize on the situation. Things escalate from there. I can see how this film might be divisive, but it asks some important questions and has a sharp and scathing sense of humor about the way society functions.
Tunisia’s The Man Who Sold His Skin, arrestingly directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, centers on a Syrian refugee (Yahya Mahayni) who literally sells his own back to a world renown artist to create on and must then comply with exhibitions and other demands. Based loosely on a real story and peripherally reminiscent of The Pillow Book, the film smartly continues to raise the stakes until things really get out of hand. Monica Bellucci provides fun support in a film that makes a permanent impression (I had to) and deserves consideration.
Child trafficking is the subject for Peru’s transfixing Song Without a Name, a stunningly shot (in black and white, flat aspect ratio), heartbreaking film directed by Melinda Leon and inspired by the real 1980s case her journo father uncovered. Pamela Mendoza is extraordinary as the anguished mother whose child is stolen. A surprisingly affectionate gay love story grounds this terrific and worthy entry.
“A violent bull is running amok and destroying the peace in the village,” an interchangeable villager shouts in Lili Jose Pellissery’s audacious Jallikattu from India. And that is exactly the plot. Pellissery’s cinematic stampede grabs you by the horns and builds to a most startling climax. This is pulsating, timely moviemaking that manages to warn about human nature, greed and the dangers of an angry mob. If AMPAS members can stay with it, it could sneak in. Images from this film are still embedded in my mind!
Leticia Tonos’s A State of Madness is one of the best entries NO ONE is writing about. From the Dominican Republic and shot in a style recalling the best Hollywood noir films, the pic is based on the memoir of prominent psychiatrist Dr. Antonio Zaglul and is set in a mental institution as microcosm for 1950s Dominican Republic where dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ruled via terror. Bold, often hilarious and sublime, Madness boasts wonderful acting, especially by Rick Montero as “the sanest lunatic” in the asylum.
A daring look at sibling rivalry, Nafi’s Father, from Senegal, focuses on the confrontation between a loving Imam and his power-hungry brother (who has terrorist friends). The brothers’ offsprings wish to marry providing even more tension. Mamadou Dia helms this gripping and ultimately devastating film about the dangers of religious fundamentalism.
It took three directors (Jon Garano, Aitor Arregi, Jose Mari Goenaga) to make the Spanish entry, The Endless Trench, an engrossing epic that begins during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and spans three decades. It’s the story of a man (Antonio de la Torre) who spends 33 years literally hidden inside the walls of his home for fear of execution by Franco Fascists. Belén Cuesta is superb as the long- suffering wife. This one could surprise.
Belgium chose Frédéric Fonteyne and Anne Paulicevich’s delightful and insightful Working Girls, about a trio of French women who are sex workers in Belgium when they’re not at their day jobs. The empowering film shows how men still think they own women and how three of them decide to fight back.
A Palestinian dad needing to get to his hospitalized son in Israel provides the basic plot for Ameen Nayfeh’s intense road-trip-of-sorts drama, 200 Meters, from Jordan. Ali Suliman excels as the anxious and impatient father in this feverish film that touches on hate and prejudice.
Honduras offers a highly ambitious piece, Days of Light (Dias de Luz) helmed by six directors (Mauro Borges, Enrique Perez, Gloria Carrion, Enrique Medrano, Julio Lopez, Sergio Ramirez) about a power failure that affects the lives of a gaggle of people. Set in Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (most of Central America) the film is reflectively somber and often surprising.
The dangers of both xenophobia and paranoia are examined in Kosovo’s potent and engaging Exile, directed by Visar Morina, about a Kosovan, living in Germany, and treated with hostility at his place of work. Misel Maticevic and Sandra Huller (Toni Erdmann) impress in the lead roles.
Maria Sodahl’s semi-autobiographical film, Hope, from Norway, is a poignant tale of a playwright, wife and mother who is diagnosed with an allegedly inoperable brain tumor. Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgard captivate and the film manages to be uplifting and authentic. Nicole Kidman has already bought the rights to an American version.
Germany’s submission, And Tomorrow the Entire World, is a timely look at an Antifa commune swiftly directed by Julia von Heinz, with excellent performances from its young cast. Not sure if more conservative AMPAS voters will go for it, though.
Chung Mong-hong’s Taiwanese epic, A Sun (the longest of all the films submitted) tells the story of two very different brothers and the diverse paths they take. Grand yet intimate, the film is beautiful and brutal. It’s also excellent storytelling.
In the Kenyan doc, The Letter, a young man living in the city notices, via Facebook, that his grandmother is being accused of witchcraft by her own son which leads to the startling discovery of a slew of similar accusations against the elderly, usually to steal their land and often leading to the gruesome murders of the accused (via machetes). Directors Maia Lekow and Chris King bring to light an important and frightening reality going on right now in Kenya.
Julie Schroell’s doc, River Tales, is submitted by Luxembourg but takes place in Nicaragua and centers on a teacher preparing his class for a play about the history of the river San Juan. It’s a compelling film with an important message about how art can educate and inspire (although the scroll at the film’s end is terrifyingly sad).
Worthy for Varying Reasons
Many of the following are worthy BECAUSE of strong female performances!
Anne Dorval and Leanna Chea both do remarkable work as two women linked by one particular child in Jean-Philippe Duval’s 14 Days, 12 Nights from Canada (the replacement for the disqualified gay-themed, Funny Boy). The non-linear narrative is a bit sketchy at times and the film is bleak, but the leads are riveting.
Lili Horvát’s Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time, from Hungary, is a curious film about a neurosurgeon who drops everything to follow a colleague to Budapest, only to eventually wonder if they ever even met before. Protag Natasa Stork imbues the film with intrigue.
Dea Kulumbegashvili’s audacious, sometimes-exasperating, feature debut, Beginning, from Georgia, centers on a struggling wife and mother Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) who finds herself horrifically treated by the local police as well as her own husband after she is brutally assaulted. It’s a disturbing work about a woman trapped in a marriage, a religion, a home, a role, a life, she longs to flee.
Convoluted. Gorgeous. Mesmerizing. Frustrating. Vitalina Varela –from Portugal. Pedro Costa has made a truly transfixing work that is grounded by the angry, bitter and tormented titular character. More odd and wondrous, she is playing herself, telling her real story! Traces of Fassbinder can be found throughout this unique work.
The small southern African country of Lesotho submits for the very first time with Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, a visual poem of sorts about an embittered old woman who has lost every family member and is now fighting for her own burial rights. The film is haunting as is the world- weary face of its protagonist. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Sundance last year.
Milcho Manchevski, Oscar nominated for Before The Rain in 1994, returns with Willow, from North Macedonia, a tale about a trio of women who are all dealing with wanting a child, in the Middle Ages and present day. All three subplots are worthwhile but the first is the richest and the last, the most rewarding.
Another film about a woman desperate to conceive is from Austria: Ulrike Kofler’s What We Wanted, a stirring drama with a few unexpected turns and an exceptional central performance by Lavinia Wilson.
The Israeli entry, Asia, directed by Ruthy Pribar, has two terrific female perfs, Alena Yiv and Shira Haas (Unorthodox) as mother and daughter, respectively, navigating life with the knowledge that the daughter has little time left to live.
From Switzerland, Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond’s My Little Sister also deals with terminal illness, this time one of a pair of fraternal twins. Both are in the theatre—the ailing actor (Lars Eidinger) and his playwright sister (Nina Hoss).
Marija Perović’s Breasts from Montenegro (an unfortunate title) is about three female friends who get together for their 20-year high school reunion (along with a single male friend) and discover that one of them has breast cancer. The film is a loving, nuanced depiction of friendship with solid performances.
Prejudice, forced assimilation, religious abuse of power and the steep price of progress are just some of the themes tackled in Rene van Rooyen’s Toorbos, the South African submission, based on a Dalene Mattee’s novel. Set in 1933, the film is about a headstrong young woman, contently living in the forest, who marries and must move to the city. Elani Dekker impresses in a revelatory performance.
Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers, from Japan, is about the adoption of a baby boy by an infertile Japanese couple. A tearjerker for sure, this stirring film smartly focuses on the three mothers in the child’s life, the adoptive mother, birth mother and the woman who runs the adoption agency.
Uruguay’s Alelí is funny familial comedy that anyone with siblings can easily relate to. Directed with affection and irony by Leticia Jorge, Alelí is a delight from start to finish.
Another comedy, The Father (not the Anthony Hopkins/Olivia Coleman film of the same name), is Bulgaria’s bittersweet entry about a recent widower, haunted by his wife, who insists on visiting a medium, much to the annoyance of his preoccupied son. Nicely directed by Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov.
Albania gives us a much more serious film about siblings, Open Door, which examines the relationship between two sisters. Director Florenc Papas show us just how crappy women are still treated, no matter the country.
Fernando Trueba’s Belle Epoque won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (for Spain) almost three decades ago and is back in the running representing Colombia this time with Memories of My Father (AKA: Forgotten We Will Be), a sweet, cinematic memoir, written by his brother David, about the life of his human rights fighter father, Héctor Abad Gómez.
Singapore’s Wet Season, directed by Anthony Chen, provides Yeo Yann Yann with a fine showcase as a troubled teacher who allows a student to have sex with her. The film handles the teacher/student relationship in a much less overly dramatic manner than Hulu’s recent limited series, A Teacher—which is actually refreshing. However it may rub voters the wrong way.
Paula Hernández’ The Sleepwalkers, from Argentina, may also prove controversial for its audacious ending. This psychologically complex familial drama truly beguiles but ends too abruptly and left me feeling cheated.
One of the few non-Holocaust war movies is from Latvia. Dzintars Dreibergs’ Blizzard of Souls follows a young WWI soldier who loses most of his family. It’s fairly standard stuff with a potent turn by Oto Brantevics.
Nawapoi Thamrongrattanarit’s Happy Old Year is an initially curious choice from Thailand, about a young woman who decides to declutter her home. This meditative, slow burn film truly got under my skin as the protagonist looks back to her past with results that proved surprising.
Ecuador’s entry, Emptiness (Vacio) is about two affable young Chinese immigrants who must endure the whims of a powermad gangster. Paul Venegas directs with skill and grace and delivers a nail biter of a final reel. I applaud the originality of the storytelling.
Set in the late 1930s and based on fact, Karolis Kaupinis’s Nova Lithuania has a premise that is much more audacious than its execution, the idea that a “backup Lithuania” could be established overseas when the inevitable invasion by Germans or Soviets occurs. Another film is shot in black and white with a 1.33 aspect ratio.
Tamer Ezzat’s enjoyable When We’re Born, from Egypt, is the closest thing to a musical in the bunch. (I’d call it a film with songs) The movie lightly treads on themes involving cultural and religious conflicts and in one subplot, a guy becomes a prostitute so he can support his family (for women only, of course).
Hugo Giménez’s Killing the Dead, from Paraguay, is about two guys stuck together burying corpses for the 1978 Stroessner regime. But one body isn’t quite dead. What to do? I appreciated this little film about what fear does to people.
The former Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America, enters Wiren, directed by Ivan Tai-Apin, the true story of a deaf boy who fights for an education and sues the government on behalf of people with disabilities. This is Suriname’s first submission uncovering the ignorance of religious leaders and government officials and how the disabled are still treated as second class citizens there.
La Llorona, from Guatemala, is one of three horror films in the mix, Jayro Bustamente’s portrait of a genocidal war criminal and the ghosts haunting him is fascinating if sometimes frustrating with a pretty chilling ending. This one has a lot of famous supporters including Jane Fonda.
A more intense and downright frightening entry is Joko Anwar’s Indonesian film, Impedigore, about a young girl who ventures to the village of her birth to try and figure out why she was targeted for murder. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I am not a fan of the genre.
A few decades ago, Turkey’s Miracle in Cell No. 7, directed by Mehmet Ada Öztekin, might have been a shoo-in for consideration. This overly sentimental tear-jerker is about a mentally challenged father, who adores his daughter, and is wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to death. I have to admit the film got to me.
The Holdomer (Stalin’s genocide) saw 70% of the indigenous people of Kazakhstan die in the Great Famine. In Marina Kunarova’s gut-wrenching film, The Crying Steppe, the horrors are presented with an unflinching directness.
Arman Nshanyan’s Songs of Solomon is a mournful, overly earnest and careful film (considering the heinousness of the subject matter) from Armenia. Set against the backdrop of the Hamidian massacres of the late 1800s and the genocide of the early 1900s, Songs is purported to be a biopic about composer Komitas Vardabet but it’s not. The film centers on the friendship between a Christian woman and a Muslim woman. and depicts the madness of blame and how hatred can be far too easily spread.
The U.S. Invasion of Panamá in 1989 is the setting for Luis Franco Brantley & Luis Pacheco’s exciting Operation Just Cause (the codename for the attack). The film focuses on a gaggle of characters during the short-lived fight. The filmmakers have obviously been influenced by the pandemonium-style U.S. war films resulting in a packed action pic.
Estonia’s The Last Ones is a fairly depressing social and class inditement set in a Finnish mining community. Director Veiko Õunpuu impressively captures the gloomy mood.
The late great Brasilian director, Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ironweed), is celebrated in his wife, Bárbara Paz’s feature debut, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die (Brazil). The end of the helmers life is the focus of this deeply personal doc.
The doc Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, by Anabel Rodriguez Rios, had its heart in the right place with its depiction of corrupt politics and the toll it takes on people, but it’s too meandering for my tastes. It has, however, been getting a lot of publicity.
I was not looking forward to what looked like a nationalist propaganda film with China’s submission, Leap, directed by Peter Chan, a narrative feature chronicling four decades of the Chinese women’s volleyball team. And while it does have a “we are the champions” feel, it was also surprisingly somewhat refined and really sprung to life whenever Gong Li was onscreen (which was quite often) and I appreciated the notion that finding inner strength trumps the need to win.
The Netherlands presents Buladó, Eche Janga’s magical realism story, set on Curacao (in the Caribbean). The film focuses on the different identity outlooks of three generations. While I found the film to be a bit on the tedious side I was intrigued by its mysticism.
Similar to Buladó, but slightly more engrossing, is Costa Rica’s Land of Ashes, directed with grace by Sofia Quirós Ubeda, is about a 13-year-old girl dealing with death, in a supernatural milieu.
Saudi Arabia has submitted only four times. This year they’ve selected Scales directed by Shahad Ameen, a fantastical black and white meditation on misogyny about a fishing village that must sacrifice one daughter to the creatures who inhabit the sea.
I wanted to like Ukrainian filmmaker Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis more than I did. The futuristic post-war dystopian film is certainly intriguing but did not envelop me the way it should have.
Silja Hauksdóttir’s Agnes Joy is a somewhat disappointing entry from Iceland about a bored suburbanite mother and her petulant teen daughter. Katla Margrét Þorgeirsdóttir’s performance saves the film from grating too much—like the daughter! Another heavily publicized work.
The third horror feature, Malaysia’s Roh (Soul), directed by Emir Ezwan, is an odd tale of a bloodied young girl who visits a mother and her two children with a terrifying prophecy. It’s a definite WTF with a few scares.
Cambodia’s Fathers, directed by and starring Huy Yaleng, is based on a true story about a poor, disabled cycle rickshaw driver trying desperately to feed his family. His Murphy’s Law life is borderline comical (wandering wife, sick son, hateful daughter, constantly robbed or betrayed) but the simplistic screenplay is sometimes balanced by the endearing character he creates.
Finally, eleven directors are responsible for the mixed bag anthology from Bangladesh, Sincerely Yours, Dhaka, 11 short films about marginalized people that vacillates from the slightly-ironically funny to the mystifyingly obtuse.
MY PERSONAL TOP 15
Quo Vadis, Aida?
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Song Without a Name
The Man Standing Next
You Will Die at Twenty
A State of Madness
Night of the Kings
The Auschwitz Report
The Endless Trench
Dara of Jasenovac
My Short List Predictions
I’m No Longer Here
The Mole Agent
My Little Sister
Night of the Kings
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Two of Us
You Will Die at Twenty
The Man Standing Next
Once Upon a Time in Venezuela
Films I could not get access to
The Unknown Saint (Morocco)
Better Days (Hong Kong)
Running to the Sky (Kyrgyzstan)
Buscando a Casal (Cuba)
Gaza Mon Amour (Palestine)
Veins of the World (Mongolia)
Stories from the Chestnut Woods (Slovenia)
Dreamy Eyes (Vietnam)
Circus of Life (Pakistan)
The Milkmaid (Nigeria)
The Fisherman’s Diary (Cameroon)
Interesting to note, House of Sand and Fog director Vadim Perelman helmed Persian Lessons, from Belarus—which was in contention until it wasn’t, is about a WW2 concentration camp prisoner who pretends to be Persian in order to save his own life. This incredulous story is based in fact and relentlessly builds to an astonishing denouement. French actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (BPM) and German thesp Lars Eidinger (Babylon Berlin) do terrific work in this extraordinary film. It certainly would have been a contender but…AMPAS referred to the following rule to explain its disqualification.
On background, as part of the International Feature Film submission process, the country’s selection committee is required to provide a list of credits in key creative positions both above and below the line. The Academy Awards rule regarding eligibility states: “The submitting country must certify that creative control of the motion picture was largely in the hands of citizens or residents of that country.” The Academy’s International Feature Executive Committee deemed that “Persian Lessons,” submitted by Belarus, did not meet this requirement. (93rd Academy Awards Rule 13, B.5.)
The following is a list of countries where the submission had at least one female director (since a few were co-or multi-directed).
Bosnia and Herzigovina