Austria, Great Freedom
Bhutan, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
Finland, Compartment No. 6
Germany, I’m Your Man
Iran, A Hero
Italy, The Hand of God
Japan, Drive My Car
Mexico, Prayers for the Stolen
Norway, The Worst Person in the World
Panama, Plaza Catedral
Spain, The Good Boss
Last year, I took on the insane but exciting challenge of seeing as many of the 93 International Feature Film submissions as I could get access to—eventually 89 to be precise. It was tremendously time consuming, but also thrilling as I felt I was visiting different countries, different cultures—and most every film had something worthy to offer. Certainly, some rose higher above the others in terms of quality. It was a thrill to see a gem like Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia) make the final five while other worthy films like Ivan-Goran Vitez’ brilliant dark comedy, Extracurricular (Croatia), Tom Sullivan’s beguiling Arracht (Ireland), Amanda Kernell’s absorbing Charter (Sweden), Leticia Tonos’s bold A State of Madness (Dominican Republic) and Melina Leon’s transfixing Song Without a Name (Peru) did not.
This year, I took a sane pill and decided to wait for the short list. When the titles were announced, I had already seen 11 of the 15 films so I set about securing the final four to view. I wasn’t surprised Julia Ducournau’s wacky Titane (France) didn’t make the cut since it is quite divisive, and the Academy did away with the saves this year. It saddened me that two of the best films of the year, Unclenching the Fists (Russia) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Romania), failed to secure slots. Both were much bolder films than many that made the final 15.
The movie that did make the short list were largely predictable with a few sprinkled surprises. Here is a run-down followed by my own predictions and preferences.
The most likely:
Drive My Car
The least surprising choice is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car from Japan, a film that has become quite the critical darling and won the Best Picture prize via the Los Angeles Film Critic Association and the New York Film Critics Circle in addition to taking many other top year end critics group honors. Based on a short story, yet 3 hours in run time, the movie centers on a man dealing with the death of his wife while directing a production of Uncle Vanya and being driven around by a young woman. The film has spellbinding moments. It will be interesting to see if the Academy jumps on the critics’ bandwagon. It doesn’t have the joyous feel of last year’s winner, Thomas Vinterberg’s rousing Another Round (Germany). But, right now, it’s the front runner.
From Denmark, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” has the distinction of making the International Feature and the Documentary Feature shortlists as well as also being in contention for the Best Animated Film Oscar. If it were to be nominated for all three, it would be one for the books. The film focuses on the very personal tale about a good friend through an unrestrained narrative. Amin is a gay Afghan refugee who has kept horrific secrets to survive. This unique work blends animation and doc footage. I appreciated what the film had to say and its ambition more than the execution, but I also realize I am in a minority. Flee stands a good chance of making Oscar nomination history.
Asghar Farhadi is one of the best international filmmakers working today. He justly won Oscars for A Separation and The Salesman and his film The Past was just as powerful. So, I was really looking forward to A Hero, Iran’s Oscar submission. And while I was moved by it, the final reel was a let-down. The director knows how to stage these amazing scenes that show just how people behave when they feel their back is up against a wall and how little white lies can bite one on the ass. Also, how in Iranian culture (and many others) pride and perception means everything. The film also has fascinating things to say about how social media can instantly change a person’s image. A Hero centers on a young man who is in prison for owing money, and, while on leave, finds some gold. From there a fascinating narrative unfolds. But Farhadi ends things with a whimper when a bang felt necessary. Still, it’s solid filmmaking.
The Hand of God
No nation has won the International Feature Film Oscar (known as Best Foreign Language Film for decades) more than Italy. Toss in writer-director Paolo Sorrentino having won this award before for The Great Beauty. Add Netflix pushing it hard. Finally, the fact that it happens to be one of the best (if not the best) of the 15 and there’s a great argument to be made for The Hand of God, a stirring, intimate love letter to cinema, receiving a nomination. Sorrentino digs deep into his past, and with Filippo Scotti portraying a younger version of himself, paints a portrait of a lost teen looking for meaning and purpose. I sure hope this transcendent work is recognized. For me, it’s one of two films that rise above all the others.
The Gems That Should Be Considered:
The last time Austria was represented among the nominees in this category (2012) with Michael Haneke’s Amour, it won. This year’s entry is just as unsparing exploring the damages wrought by Germany’s evil Paragraph 175 by focusing on the life of one queer man (Franz Rogowski in a captivating performance), who is literally transported from a concentration camp to prison where he—on and off—spends his adulthood, because of his sexual orientation. Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom pulls no punches in this truly remarkable work. If there is any justice, this will pull a Man Who Sold His Skin and grab the surprise slot. In the past, the old joke was that Holocaust films would always get a nomination. In this case, it would be most deserved.
One of the most original and disconcerting films of the year—perhaps of the last five years—Valdimar Jóhannsson’s “Lamb,” from Iceland, gave me the giggles and the shivers, sometimes in the same moment, but it was never less than compelling, and the themes of acceptance and what makes a family that are explored–not to mention an even larger one of human hubris–echoed long after the shocking finale. Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Guðnason play a dispirited couple living on a remote farm who make a strange discovery that alters their lives. I can completely see this one making it into the final five if enough voting members are taken with it the way I was. I can also see it turning a lot of members off.
The Worst Person in the World
Renate Reinsve anchors Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s smart and savvy, The Worst Person in the World, with a performance so multifaceted and authentic I felt like I was a peeping tom—but so compelling I did not want to stop watching. The film chronicles the journey of a woman basically trying to figure out her place in the world as a person—relationship and career-wise. It’s a messy and paradoxical odyssey where two very different men cross paths with her (Anders Danielsen Lie and newcomer Herbert Nordrum) but Trier and his keen co-scribe Eskil Vogt always keep the focus on Reinsve, and the viewer is the better for it. In a perfect world she would be a Best Actress nominee.
Potential Dark Horses:
Compartment No. 6
Two very different people from very different backgrounds connect on a train across rural Russia in Juho Kuosmanen’s superlative Compartment No. 6 from Finland. Yes, it’s a gap bridging film but not in a polemic sense. The narrative focuses on a Finnish archeology student (Seidi Haarla) who has left her too-popular girlfriend to venture to see rock paintings. Aboard the train she’s forced to bunk with a crude working class Russian dude (Yuriy Borisov) and an unlikely friendship is formed. The film has a strange but intoxicating charm. Both actors are terrific. Winner of the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, I would not be surprised if this one slipped in.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
I was really taken with the simplicity and the joy in Pawo Choyning Dorji’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, Bhutan’s touching submission (Bhutan’s very first to make the short list). There’s nothing new to the story, a young teacher (Sherhab Dorji), in this case one with no motivation to teach—or so he is told– leaves the big city and is sent to a remote village near the Himalayas (population: 56). He wants to leave as soon as he arrives but soon falls under the spell of the eager children as well as a young woman who gifts him a yak, that he must keep in the classroom, hence the title. Yaks are sacred creatures in this culture. And there is something magical about the sight of this man providing knowledge to his students with the yak looking on. Dark horse, anyone?
Panama’s first short listed Oscar entry, Plaza Catedral, is a somber, moving mostly-two-hander involving a woman (a deeply affecting Ilse Salas), with little will to live, and a 13-year-old street thug (a terrific Fernando Xavier De Casta) who invades her life. Writer-director Abner Benaim has crafted a truly striking, powerful film about loss, poverty and the crushing horrors in store for most kids as they come of age. It’s a sobering film made even more devastating by the final title card that informs us that young De Casta was murdered shortly after the film was completed. Art and life converge in the worst ways. This one could surprise.
I’m Your Man
For those wondering what happened to Matthew Crawley after he died on Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens has been stretching his acting muscles in various roles, most recently in the German-language satire, I’m Your Man, written and directed by Maria Schrader. Stevens embodies a newly minted cyborg created to tend to a specific woman’s every need. Alma (Maren Eggert) the female scientist in question) must evaluate him and decide his fate. Schrader does an impressive deep dive into human feelings while keeping things funny and oddly romantic. If this one moved forward it would suggest that voting members are looking for escapism –which in these COVID times is more than possible.
In Laura Wandel’s headstrong debut feature, Playground (Un monde”), from Belgium, seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is about to begin her first day at a new school along with her older brother Abel (Gunter Duret). Unease, the desire to fit in, bullying, shame, confusion, bravery and disappointment are just some of the themes explored. The camera stays focused on Nora for the entire 72-minute duration allowing us rare insight into the ever-evolving world of a pre-adolescent. It’s fascinating and impressively unrelenting filmmaking but can also be a bit frustrating for some viewers—which might turn off certain Academy members.
And the Rest:
The Good Boss
There’s something slightly off about León de Aranoa’s social satire, The Good Boss that makes it less than what it should be in terms of having the dark comedy grit it should. But Javier Bardem’s slick performance mostly makes up for it as a seemingly loving quiet beast of a capitalist who also happens to be a closet lech. I have no idea why Spain selected it over Pedro Almodovar’s far superior “Parallel Mothers.” It is a fascinating footnote to have a real-life couple (Penelope Cruz and Bardem) starring in both.
Blerta Basholli’s gripping feature “Hive,” is set in the aftermath of the war in Kosovo and focuses on a group of women trying to survive in a stifling patriarchal society awaiting news of their husbands’ fates. At the center is a woman (Yllka Gashi) simply trying to provide for her family and being ostracized for it. The film is not overtly political. It’s good storytelling. It’s also a bit of a slog.
Prayers for the Stolen
Mexican documentarian Tatiana Huezo’s first feature is about a group of girls growing up in a Mexican community that is tyrannized by a drug cartel. The pre-teen girls are forced to wear boyish haircuts and are hidden otherwise the vicious cartel criminals do the most despicable things to them. The film suffers from a confusing narrative structure, but what the film has to say could not be timelier.
The Likely Five
Drive My Car
The Hand of God
Compartment No. 6
My Personal Favorites
The Hand of God
The Worst Person in the World
Drive My Car