Oscar Gold 2021 – International Feature

If there’s any one category that gives me fits and anxiety attacks year in and year out, it’s this one. It’s not that the entrants are bad by any means, it’s simply a matter of access. The eligibility calendar for International Feature submissions shifts back a couple of months before the general ballot, so as to make it easier for Academy members to view, but the rules clearly state that there’s no obligation for any country to screen its submission in the United States, and given the nature of the business end of the film industry, a movie might have to make the shortlist or even be nominated before it can secure a stateside distributor. The Academy voters don’t have to worry about that, as all submissions are uploaded to a Members Only web server to view. But for us plebeians, it’s a total crapshoot.

While access hasn’t really improved this year, the International Feature category has done better as far as transparency is concerned. In years past, the shortlist of 10 was chosen half by member votes and half by a select committee which highlighted films from countries with less of a marketing boost. The majority of nominees and winners have come from European countries, with only 16 from outside, so lesser served countries like African nations and Asian countries apart from China, Japan, and Taiwan might make the shortlist through special consideration.

That was a good policy, but it sadly didn’t solve the core issue, which was that voters tended to default to European countries, either due to implicit bias or just familiarity with locations and filmmakers from those areas, particularly Italy, France, Spain, and to a lesser extent Poland, Germany, and Russia. So three steps were taken this year. First was that the shortlist was expanded from 10 films to 15. Second was the elimination of the committee and expansion to the entire Academy for preliminary voting (typically members of the various branches nominate films in their respective categories and overall for only Best Picture). Third, and most important, was a requirement that members wishing to vote in the preliminary stage had to watch a certain number of the submissions (rumored to be at least 12, though I couldn’t find any official confirmation from the Academy) and could only vote for ones they’d seen. Does this prevent members from playing favorites with foreign creatives? No. But at least they have to watch the film before they vote for it, rather than just defaulting to whatever their international friends are working on in a given year.

Thanks to the pandemic, a lot of the submissions ended up getting quick distribution through streaming services, particularly Netflix and Amazon Prime. Between them and Virtual Cinemas (including the local indie theatre chain here in L.A.), I was able to track down 10 of the 15 shortlisted films before the nominations came out, which resulted in me seeing four of the five nominees in advance. My friends helped me find the fifth a few hours after the announcement, and I watched it that night, giving me a grand total of 11 of the 15. Not too shabby, seeing as how this was the first legitimate shot I’ve ever had at clearing this category in advance. Most years I’m scrambling to track these films down because of distribution delays, to the point where private screenings and last-minute premiers are all that save me from breaking my streak of seeing every nominated film.

So for the first time ever, International Feature was locked up fairly early in the process. And thankfully, we’ve got a fairly decent set this year. For what it’s worth, of the four I didn’t see, La Llorona (Guatemala) is available on AMC+ and Hope (Norway) will be released next Friday, which is when I typically have to track down the last nominees. I never could find Sun Children (Iran), though it does have a US distributor, or Charlatan (Czech Republic). If I get the chance, I may still watch these four for the sake of my own curiosity and to officially complete the shortlist, though I doubt my opinions on the group would change all that much.

This year’s nominees for International Feature are:

Another Round – Denmark

Mads Mikkelsen is already a bona fide celebrity in the US, so to see him starring in yet another foreign nominee (he was previously in Denmark’s 2012 nominee, The Hunt) is just a lot of fun, because no matter what he does, he’s completely in his element and just one of the best actors in the world. Here, he and Best Director nominee Thomas Vinterberg tell a funny, poignant, and ultimately life-affirming tale of mid-life crisis through figurative and literal beer goggles.

Mikkelsen plays a high school teacher who’s in a bit of a rut both in his professional and personal life, so he and his colleagues, being academics, decide to partake in a behavioral experiment based on a theory that people would live their best lives if they were at a constant therapeutic level of intoxication. The results are predictable, from the initial rise of all four friends in their various endeavors, to some sloppy setbacks and embarrassments, to the inevitable fall for one of them into actual chemical dependency. But just because the story arc can be seen coming doesn’t make the journey any less worthwhile, thanks to Mikkelsen’s spectacular performance and a very game supporting cast. I don’t drink much myself anymore. It’s not for any particular reason, I’ve just tapered off over the years. But man I wanted to crack open a good beer while watching this genuine crowd-pleaser.

Better Days – Hong Kong

Strictly speaking, China gets three bites of the apple when it comes to this category, as the Academy is one of the few international entities that recognizes the autonomy of Hong Kong and Taiwan. In fact, both governments submitted films that made the shortlist for this category, while mainland China’s entry, Leap, did not.

Anyway, to the actual nominee. Derek Tsang’s film was immensely popular in China due to its two leads, actress Zhou Dongyu and boy band singer Jackson Yee. The two form an “opposites attract” friendship then romance after Zhou’s character becomes the victim of massive bullying at her cram school, which has already led to the suicide of another student. After the tormenters are identified and punished, the fastidious Chen Nian (Zhou) enlists the help of street hooligan Liu Beishan (Yee) for personal protection. The two grow through their association and at times even find a kind of codependency, until an unexpected act of violence threatens their safety and their freedom.

I know it’s playing to a local audience that collectively adores the two stars, but honestly, it’s the romance that drags the proceedings to a grinding halt at times. There’s a lot of good exploration of bully culture, particularly the hopelessness that victims feel when there are no real consequences for those who do harm and they themselves are blamed for not somehow solving the problem on their own. Then when they do take a stand, they get smacked down by an unfair system that finds a way to protect those who exploit it. That’s where the real meat of the story is, and when this film addresses that core problem, it’s one of the best of the year. When it’s a teenage romance of a “good girl” riding on the back of the “bad boy’s” motorcycle, then it’s just pandering cliché.

Collective – Romania

Also up for Documentary Feature, which we discussed two weeks ago, Collective equals the feat accomplished by Honeyland from last year, joining the North Macedonian film as the only ones ever to be nominated in both categories. It was my personal preference for Documentary, and it’s a very strong candidate here as well.

There’s not much more to say about it that I haven’t already covered, but it bears repeating that this is an essential film, not just because it’s a celebration of journalism in the age of misinformation, but also because after the year we’ve just endured, it’s very important to note how Romania’s tragedy reflects our own. It wasn’t just the nightclub fire, though that would have been enough to warrant an entire film. It was the fact that after the corruption was exposed and people’s healthcare was put at risk, the criminal elements doubled down and used lies to appeal to that very fear for their own ill-gotten gains. The politicians took information about diluted disinfectants further harming the victims and decided to not only not help these people, but create a completely separate issue out of nothing by trying to paint the interim minister, a pure technocrat brought in to fix the very problem that the outgoing government perpetuated, as someone who would interfere with the people’s healthcare and leave them to die. They accused the person brought in to help of the very thing that they were doing, and it worked.

The same shit’s been happening over here. Over the last year we’ve dealt with a President who confessed on tape, knowing he was being recorded, to downplaying the COVID pandemic. He brought in quack doctors to promote his made-up cure, preventing people from getting the help they needed, and creating a logjam for the people who actually used hydroxychloroquine properly. He constantly tried to pass the virus off as a flu and blamed China as if it was a biological attack. And even with him finally out of office, his surrogates are still out there rationing vaccines to their rich friends (Florida), demanding full re-openings of states with no sustainable drop-off in infections (Texas, Iowa), and even going to court to strike down mask mandates (Wisconsin), all because they didn’t want their status quo interrupted any more than it already had been. Never mind that we’re getting close to 600,000 dead. Never mind that the measures Biden and his team of actual scientists have put in place are actually working. They just want to declare the pandemic over, take credit for solving an issue they made worse, and use it to profit and continue leading through kleptocracy. If you watch Collective and don’t see America in it, you might need to seek professional help.

The Man Who Sold His Skin – Tunisia

If we’re handing out the award based solely on title, this would win hands down. It jumped out to me the moment the Academy released the list of submitted films. It was the one nominee that I couldn’t track down before it made the final cut, but thankfully some friends found it for me, and it did not disappoint.

I mentioned during the leadup to the Blitz that when it came to documentaries, there had been a nominee each of the last few years about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, to the point that I openly wondered if the Academy’s Documentary Branch had an agenda to expose as many stories about that tragedy as possible, even though in the Feature category, none of them ever won. This year that streak ended (though they had Italy’s Notturno on the shortlist), but the International Feature category may have picked up the baton, as Tunisia’s entry – while fictitious – does hew close to the thematic core of those films.

Sam, a Syrian refugee, pays his way to Belgium to see his fiancée Abeer by agreeing to become a piece of living art, allowing a famous artist to tattoo his back and put him on display. The work ends up being a replica of a Schengen Visa, which allows people to travel freely across most of Europe, representing the freedom from suspicion and the freedom of movement that Sam can never truly have. It serves as a great visual metaphor, because the more the artist shows us his free expression, the more constrained Sam himself becomes, even if he’s not in a warzone. It also just evolves into a very nice “things we do for love” story about a man who will stop at nothing to keep his promises and give the woman he loves the life they deserve.

There’s some really great acting here, particularly from our lead, Yahya Mahayani, as well as Monica Bellucci as the artist’s completely unscrupulous publicist, Soraya. She serves as the ultimate babysitter for Sam, stymying his quest for freedom at every turn, and getting an almost sadistic glee out of it after he initially spurned her condescending attempt at charity when they first met. There’s no outright malice in her actions, but there’s this sinister hint that she enjoys having control over the life of a man who could lose everything if he doesn’t play ball, and their sarcastic exchanges make for some really strong dark comedy.

Quo Vadis, Aida? – Bosnia and Herzegovina

Tunisia’s entry showed how much a person can lose if someone else in a powerful position wants them to suffer. Bosnia’s film gives us an alternate angle, showing us that very loss because someone in power simply didn’t care enough to do the right thing. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a slow-moving tragedy that we can all see coming, almost Shakespearean in nature, because those entrusted with the lives of others simply looked out for themselves.

Serving as a translator between the United Nations peacekeeping force from the Netherlands and the locals under siege from Serbian troops during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Aida, played by Jasna Đuričić, is desperate to make sure her Muslim husband and sons are able to be evacuated when the city of Srebrenica is overrun. After several rounds of UN threats that are never acted upon, the Serbs take over, strong-arming negotiations and quietly executing every Muslim man they can find. Aida tries to follow procedure, but when her family is put at risk, she resorts to whatever tactics she can to get them safely on a transport and out of harm’s way, even though the people she’s been working for all this time – and who should ostensibly be falling over themselves to help her – continually decline to get involved. Every time they cite some nebulous protocol or insist that the Serbs will be true to their word, you just want to jump into the screen and throttle them. There are rules, and then there’s common sense, decency, and basic humanity. There’s diplomacy and trust, and then there’s willful ignorance and gullibility. It’s okay to judge a book by its cover when the book is brandishing automatic weapons, assholes!

Watching Aida try every trick in the book to save her kin is equal parts inspiring and devastating, because we all know how this is going to turn out, even if we aren’t specifically knowledgeable about the Srebrenica Massacre. Basic story structure and the too-late realization that humans will almost always default to their worst impulses when it serves them tell you everything you need to know about what kind of an ending all her efforts will bear. But Đuričić’s performance is just so strong and so committed that you can’t take your eyes off the screen. You want it to end well. You pray that it will. And when you look at Aida, you earnestly want to find some way to alter the events from turning out the way you know they will. But you can’t look away, even as your (and her) worst assumptions are confirmed. It’s probably the best singular performance in this entire category, enough to elevate the film beyond its lesser elements, like the editing and the somewhat pedantic screenplay.

***

There isn’t a truly bad film in the bunch, though on a personal note, based on the 11 films I saw, only three would have made my final cut, which I’ll get to more in just a second.

My Rankings:
1) Collective
2) Another Round
3) The Man Who Sold His Skin
4) Quo Vadis, Aida?
5) Better Days

Just like with Documentary Feature, I’ll now provide my rankings within the context of the shortlist, at least as far as I was able to see.

Shortlist Rankings:
1) Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast)
2) Collective
3) Another Round
4) The Man Who Sold His Skin
5) The Mole Agent (Chile)
6) Two of Us (France)
7) Quo Vadis, Aida?
8) Better Days
9) Dear Comrades! (Russia)
10) I’m No Longer Here (Mexico)
11) A Sun (Taiwan)

Honestly, I think it’s absolutely criminal that Night of the Kings was left off. God it was so good. And in a bit of irony, I would have nominated The Mole Agent here, but just barely not have put it on my final list for Documentary Feature, where it actually is nominated. For the record, Quo Vadis, Aida? is my cutoff for real consideration. As I said, none of the nominees is bad, but Better Days is the first one on this list that I’d say isn’t worthy of a nomination. I personally wouldn’t have nominated Quo Vadis, Aida? either, but there’s enough there that its inclusion still makes sense.

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, it’s time to yet again placate Diane Warren’s ego, and then look at some actual music. It’s Original Song!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Were you able to see these films? What steps should the Academy take to make it easier to see the submitted films? Does it make you chuckle that two of these films feature men in love with a beer/Abeer? Let me know!

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