Welcome to Part Two of our annual look at which films have a good shot of landing on the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film shortlist. Voting for the shortlist is currently underway with the expanded roster of 15 titles to be unveiled next week. In a year unlike any other, there is reliably excellent work and another embarrassment of riches among the 93 films submitted from countries all around the world.
Under new rules, Academy voters have to watch a minimum 12 entries on the list they were sent (about 23 on each one to choose from) in order for their vote to count at all. Final voting for the first round closes Friday. The so-called exec committee “saves” have been eliminated.
Here are today’s 11 picks (in no particular order) with some special mentions also below (click here for yesterday’s Part One):
LA LLORONA, dir: Jayro Bustamante (Guatemala); U.S. Distributor: Shudder
Jayro Bustamante’s blended-genre La Llorona, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, marks the second time the filmmaker reps Guatemala’s for the International Feature Film Oscar — and is only the third film ever submitted from the country. It is also hot off of a Golden Globe nomination and has a famous new fan in Jane Fonda with the legendary actress recently hosting a virtual screening of the movie.
The story of La Llorona, which takes its name from the titular legend of the Weeping Woman, centers on Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a dictator who evades prosecution for his crimes against humanity and is subsequently haunted by supernatural forces, leading to his death.
Mixing elements of folklore, magical realism and horror, La Llorona also brings attention to the genocide of native Mayans in 1980s Guatemala, a tale that some in the country would rather not address.
The director explains that when word of the project became public, “We started to get threats — anonymous calls saying not to do it.” Undeterred, production went ahead, but Bustamante admits to being “afraid” when the movie was released in cinemas. “The local press was very attuned to it, but it came out a week before the (Covid) closures so we weren’t able to see how it went.” When the movie released internationally, there was support from what Bustamante calls local “intellectuals.” And when it was selected to represent Guatemala, “it was a very droll phenomenon — the film was liked by the public.”
Bustamante was inspired to tell the story in order to talk about the genocide, but not “in and of itself because I knew the public wouldn’t want that.” So, he did some research and found that the most popular genres with local audiences are horror and superheroes. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to have to make something more acceptable.’ In brainstorming, I found La Llorona is as important as the Guadalupe Virgin. She has all the elements of horror, and, given her importance, she’s almost a heroine.”
Reinterpreting her legend through folklore, magical realism and horror, “helps to digest subjects that are difficult. Magical realism and horror is a bit like fairy tales,” continues Bustamante.
Bustamante, who is based in both Paris and Guatemala, says he wants to branch out in his filmmaking, but they must be projects that “have an impact or a social change, because without that I don’t see the interest.”
HOPE, dir: Maria Sodahl (Norway); U.S. Distributor: KimStim
Maria Sodahl’s largely autobiographical Hope world premiered in Toronto in 2019 and was screened in Panorama at Berlin last year. It then premiered in Norway to positive response. Last week, Amazon Studios acquired series adaptation rights with Nicole Kidman atttached to star.
The film’s trajectory is a nice outcome given where it all started, with Sodahl receiving a terminal brain cancer diagnosis in 2012 — and at Christmastime no less. Hope charts the story of Anja (Andrea Braein Hovig) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgard) who live together in a large combined family. The couple has grown apart over their long time together, and when Anja is given three months to live, their life breaks down and exposes neglected love.
Sodahl herself was given the all-clear two years ago after having developed the film while in hospital. “I was hesitating a lot, firstly because it was just the theme and my fear of making some sentimental cancer movie… But at the end of the day I started working with it against my will in a way because there was no way around it. Reality sometimes is more crazy than any fiction.” When she had written the script and “knew it was a story and not my private therapy, it became universal.”
She ended up using real medical personal in the film — “it’s amazing how many doctors want to be in a movie!” — and cast Skarsgard who is a family friend and was “an obvious choice,” then found Hovig while auditioning dozens of women. Muses Sodahl, “She had everything I didn’t know I needed.” Brooklyn distributor KitStim aims to release Hope theatrically before the summer.
NIGHT OF THE KINGS, dir: Philippe Lacôte; U.S. Distributor: Neon
Director Philippe Lacôte is representing Ivory Coast with his sophomore feature, Night Of The Kings — this is only the third time the West African country has submitted a movie to the International Feature Oscar race, and two of them have been from the filmmaker. Recently, David Oyelowo boarded the drama as an executive producer.
Set in the notorious La Maca prison in Abidjan, Night Of The Kings takes place as a red moon rises and a new inmate, designated Roman, is ordered by the prison’s self-appointed boss to tell a story. Ultimately, Roman crafts a tale that lyrically enthralls his fellow prisoners.
Lacôte mixes documentary style filmmaking with a sort of magical realism and a link to the story of Sherezade. “I try to make fiction with real and true stories,” he has told me. “It’s important when I speak about one world to have the reality in it.” Among the cast, 25% of extras are former prisoners and it was “important to have this authenticity.”
But that’s “not in contradiction with poetry. In my culture, in my country, the border between the visible world and invisible world, the border between magic and the realistic, is very fine.”
See here for a deeper dive on Night Of The Kings.
SUN CHILDREN, dir: Majid Majidi (Iran); U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s drama had its international premiere in Venice last year and walked away with the Marcello Mastroianni Award for young star Roohollah Zamani. A first-timer, he plays 12-year-old Ali, who, with his three friends, works hard to survive and support his family, doing small jobs in a garage and committing petty crimes to make fast money. Everything changes, however, when Ali is entrusted to find a hidden treasure underground but must first enroll at the Sun School, a charitable institution that tries to educate street kids and child laborers.
All of the children in the film are actually street kids and Majidi tells me Zamani “is very special. Because of the film he has become quite famous, already featuring in a TV series. I am sure he will have a bright future in cinema. Alongside his education, he would love to continue acting.”
Majidi, who has previously worked with children, says he enjoys doing so because, “I consider our future is in their hands somehow and unfortunately they have problems with society and sometimes their own family. But these kids who are victims of child labor are even more victimized by their families or society or their way of life.”
He discovered the Sun School “by happy coincidence” and was impressed. “It’s run by an NGO of young people who offer education to victims of child labor. It’s a very special education because the kids can’t follow the conventional way of learning — they are restless because of the life they’ve had, they can’t even sit for a long time in a classroom.”
So, Majidi thought, “If I could promote this idea of taking care of these kids that might be a good deed, it might be a change in the way we are looking at this problematic which is global.”
And some change is indeed afoot, Majidi says permits have been granted from the Tehran City Council and the Education Ministry to start building similar institutions all over the country. He has also been approached by UNICEF and is “very hopeful that this will become some kind of a chain reaction we provoke in the whole world. These kids really need all the help they can get.”
The treasure hunt in the movie acts as a metaphor, the filmmaker says, because, “there is a treasure inside each and every one of them, an unbelievable potential that needs to be actualized.”
I’M NO LONGER HERE, dir: Fernando Frias (Mexico); U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Fernando Frias’ I’m No Longer Here (Ya No Estoy Aquí) was conceived when the filmmaker was a student at New York’s Columbia University. The project was selected by the Sundance Writers Lab in 2014, and went before cameras in 2017, ultimately hitting the festival circuit in 2019, and Netflix last year. There were several hurdles along the way, including financing, a lengthy hiatus and the lead actor being rejected for a U.S. work permit three times in a row.
A spotlight on Kolombia counterculture in Monterrey, Mexico, I’m No Longer Here follows the story of 17-year-old Ulises (played by breakout Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño). He’s the leader of “Los Terkos,” a street gang that has a passion for slowed-down cumbia music. But it’s not just a music genre; for them it’s a culture shown through dance parties, their oversized wardrobe, unique hairstyles and gang alliances. After a mix-up with a local cartel, Ulises is forced to migrate to Jackson Heights, Queens, where he quickly finds himself wanting to return home.
I’m No Longer Here went on to scoop 10 Ariel Awards (Mexico’s Oscar equivalent) along with other prizes, and has found support from such Mexican titans as Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron.
See here for a closer look at I’m No Longer Here
THE MAN STANDING NEXT, dir: Woo Min-ho (Korea); U.S. Distributor: Capelight Pictures
Korea’s highest-grossing movie of 2020 is following in some pretty big footsteps, repping the country a year after Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite not only became the first Korean film to be nominated in this category, it went on to win the International Feature Oscar and was the first foreign-language movie ever to scoop Best Picture.
Director Woo Min-ho says he was surprised to be selected as the representative, but doesn’t appear to be feeling too much pressure. “It feels like we’re going through regional qualification in the World Cup, and it would be very delightful if we make it further,” he tells me.
The Man Standing Next is set in 1970s Korea, when the country was under the absolute control of controversial President Park Chung-hee, and chronicles the events leading up to his assassination at the hand of one of his aides in 1979.
Woo first read the book Namsanui Bujangdeul (KCIA Chiefs) while at university and, after the success of his film Inside Men, acquired rights to it in 2016. Written by professor and former journalist Kim Choong-seek, the book was published from a series of articles that Kim wrote when he was a journalist at the newspaper Dong-A Ilbo in 1990. “The book does not focus only on the assassination, but is a massive record from the beginning of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) and to its end,” Woo explains. “Since it was still a military regime back then, it was considered forbidden to openly dig up about the KCIA. Kim said he wrote the articles even though his career might have become at risk.”
Continues Woo, “The assassination of President Park is one of the most important incidents in modern Korean history, and I wanted to reinterpret it from a different viewpoint than the already existing ones. At that time, it was commonly believed that the KCIA director assassinated the president to take power during political conflicts. But the film explores if there could be other reasons, following the question of why he killed the president he served. Furthermore, I did not want the film to provide an answer but rather hoped the audiences would find their own answers while watching the film.”
There was some concern about political sensitivity as Woo says, “Many of those around me were worried because I secured the rights of the source material during the administration of President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of President Park. But as a filmmaker, I could not accept that this reason could possibly inhibit the adaptation of the incident to a film. President Park Geun-hye was later impeached by the candlelight demonstration, and there were no difficulties in the process of making the film. However, the incident is still very differently interpreted based on the political perspectives, so it was important for me to direct the film not leaning on any sides.”
Part of the film takes place in Washington, DC and Woo says, “We shot in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a symbol of democracy. Korean and American crew members collaborated well, so we had a pleasant time during the shooting. But of course, the set feels like a battlefield, no matter where you shoot.”
APPLES, dir: Christos Nikou (Greece); U.S. Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Christos Nikou’s feature debut Apples was a buzzy title heading into its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, and emerged with a very notable champion in that edition’s jury president Cate Blanchett whose company boarded the movie as executive producers.
A very prescient work, Apples — the debut feature from writer-director Nikou — is set amidst a worldwide pandemic that causes sudden amnesia and follows a middle-aged man who finds himself enrolled in a recovery program designed to help unclaimed patients build new identities.
Blanchett recently told me that Apples “was a labor of love for Christos and it took six years to get up and yet it is so timely… Somehow we’re seeing through the prism of what we’re going through globally… yet there is a kind of an optimism to it… You couldn’t have a more timely narrative.”
Nikou told me, “I had this idea in my mind. One was very personal about my father as I was dealing with the loss and memory and how you can erase something. And then as I was trying to understand why people forget so easily, I understood that this has happened more with the extensive use of technology. The way we have lived, especially the last ten years through the use of social media, has made our life a little more dystopian… and now we live in this pandemic that is a dystopia.”
However, adds Nikou, “We tried in the film to give a very optimistic opinion about how you can get out of the pandemic, in a way stronger, and you will not forget your past, not forget the way that you learned to live and that we are humans first of all.”
See here for more of our chat with Blanchett and Nikou
THE AUSCHWITZ REPORT, dir: Peter Bebjak (Slovakia); U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Peter Bebjak’s historical drama tells the harrowing true story of two imprisoned Slovak Jewish men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler. Risking certain death, the two orchestrate a meticulous report of Nazi operations before escaping from Auschwitz to reveal the long-denied truth to the world. What Wetzler and Vrba come home to, however, is the agonizing realization that even the truth may not be enough.
Bebjak tells me the story was not very well known in Slovakia, which he says may be because “Vrba emigrated abroad and under communism this was considered a crime, not to forget the somehow restrained attitude of the regime towards the Jewish minority and the Holocaust. It feels like they were afraid of creating a hero of someone who was not representative of communist party. Only now with the help of this movie we manage to spread the story of Wetzler and Vrba.”
And a remarkable story it is. In 1944, the men hid for three days in a pre-prepared hiding place under a pile of building material located at the outer part of the camp that remained unguarded after the evening recount of prisoners. They did so for three days “because this was a usual time frame for an intense search around the camp. After the search was cancelled, Wetzler and Vrba were able to leave the hiding place and embark on their mission,” explains Bebjak.
The director wanted to tell this story as a reminder of the atrocities of the past. “Every story that points out mistakes people have made in the past is an important memento,” he tells me. “We should not let it happen ever again. We live in a time of growing extremism and, unfortunately, the number of people supporting these points of view is becoming more significant as well. It is crucial to keep telling all these historical stories, so we do not lose sensitivity to what happens around us and do not let history repeat itself. It would be dangerous to pretend these extremist opinions do not exist or that they do not represent the majority of people — even Hitler did not start with massive support and we all know where he brought the world.”
The look of the film is quite unique, which Bebjak says was achieved with his cinematographer Martin Žiaran, “trying to find the most suggestive way that would help us bring viewers closer to what our onscreen characters feel. There were three basic elements that helped us to achieve this goal, three different ways of how to portray it that follow each other and communicate: significant change of camera shot angles, images turned upside down and subjective camera.”
Samuel Goldwyn Films acquired The Auschwitz Report in December and is eyeing a fall release.
AND TOMORROW THE ENTIRE WORLD, dir: Julia von Heinz (Germany); U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Julia von Heinz’s German entry follows Luisa (Mala Emde), a student from a privileged background, whose political leanings lead her to join a small Antifa group. Along the way, tensions arise when Luisa is attracted to Alfa (Noah Saavedra), who believes in being violent to further the cause. The film zeroes in on the vital distinction between being a weekend radical and a truly committed game-changer.
Since first premiering in Venice and Toronto last year, the political drama has found itself in the crosshairs of far-right party AFD which launched a public attack in the German parliament, denouncing the film’s content and saying it was “not understandable” that the project had received backing from public funds and had been selected for the Oscars.
Von Heinz recently told me she and her producers at first didn’t know how to react to the situation, but, “It wasn’t an option to stay silent about it. We never wanted to give them a bigger stage because they really want to change Germany, but we have to take it seriously because they are gaining more influence now. It’s dangerous for everyone in culture because they have a very clear program how they want to change culture against a multicultural perspective and really want to change our funding system.”
The film has a propulsive nature which von Heinz says she intends to bring to future projects. “We thought a lot about it because it’s so much easier to make a film that is lifeless. We decided it had to be at least 180 degrees of movement. Often the actors could do whatever they wanted. (DP) Daniela (Knapp) had to follow them, and there is no moment in the film where the actors had to follow the camera or where we put a mark on the ground and said, ‘Please stay here.’ I put a lot of walking and running scenes in the script so I always had the feeling something is moving forward.”
When the movie released in Germany, albeit for just four days before another Covid lockdown, von Heinz says “interest was huge. That is what you wait for as a filmmaker all your life — when you have a film that more people want to see than there are places in the cinema!”
Von Heinz’s next project will be her English-language debut which she will shoot in Poland with American actors next year.
DEAR COMRADES!, dir: Andrei Konchalovsky (Russia); U.S. Distributor: Neon
Legendary filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky says he initially thought about making Dear Comrades! in the 90s when he was first exposed to the story. The historical drama is inspired by the true story of a state-sponsored massacre in the Russian city of Novocherkassk in the early 1960s. It’s seen through the personal experience one of the city’s Communist Party officials whose views go through a transformation as the massacre impacts her own family. The official is played by Konchalovsky’s partner and longtime collaborator Yuliya Visotskaya.
“Every idea usually takes years, sometimes decades, because it’s not like I’m sitting and thinking ten years about the project,” Konchalovsky told me recently from Tuscany. “It’s not like I’m laboring all the time on one thing, it’s like some ideas come and go and come and go and finally maybe it will get to be something fruitful.” Dear Comrades! certainly paid off at its premiere in Venice, winning the Special Jury Prize last year.
The events of Novocherkassk were a taboo subject, Konchalovsky says. “No one wanted to speak about it because they signed an affidavit never to speak about it and basically tried to forget it. So, I thought about it for some time and forgot about it.” Years later, he was directing Visotskaya as Antigone in Cologne and “felt she has this kind of allure or dimension that we can call a tragic dimension as an actress and I thought I should do something tragic with her and the idea of Antigone and this massacre came together. The result was this idea of communist stalwart that has certain convictions crumble under the circumstances of reality.”
Visotskaya’s family actually lived about 300 meters from the site of the massacre, but they never spoke about it. “They were so scared, and also so much in love with Stalin after World War II. It’s a complex thing that I grew up in it, but didn’t feel it very close.” Even so, “as a human being, you feel the pain.”
Konchalovsky bristles at the idea his films have a political connotation. “Of course my film has some connections with the political situation, but still, it should exist because it moves you, because it’s a very human story of spirtual violence which exists in any period of any country, a crush of ideals, illusions, convictions, tears and broken bones.”
JALLIKATTU, dir: Lijo Jose Pellissery (India); U.S. Distributor: XYZ Films
Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malayalam-language genre thriller might be described as a man-versus-beast-man-becomes-beast sort of tale. The film charts the catastrophic events that unfold when a butcher’s bull escapes and runs amok through a remote village in the hill ranges of Kerala.
Jallikattu, which debuted at Toronto in 2019, is also part cultural allegory. Pellissery describes it as, “An animal running in front who is senseless and an entire crowd running behind who has sense, and one-by-one they lose their sense. So, we start with one animal and a group of men and it turns into a circle of all animals.”
The seed came from a short story which had a satirical bent, but Pellissery saw it more as a thriller. Revisiting the film now, he says 2020 “showed me a different kind of world. I started seeing more of Revelations and apocalypse which is my lead in to the movie now, I’m exploring it from this angle.”
The director believes in making movies that have relevance and explains of Jallikattu, “The kind of journey people are taking today looks like Jallikatttu. We see it on a daily basis up until the last incident with the storming of the U.S. Capitol.”
The Lunchbox producer Guneet Monga recently joined Jallikattu as executive producer while Pellissery is working on Churuli, which will complete the trilogy that began with RIP and the current film.
Blizzard Of Souls, dir: Dzintars Dreibergs (Latvia); U.S. Distributor: Film Movement
My Little Sister, dirs: Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Raymond (Switzerland); U.S. Distributor: Film Movement
Notturno, dir: Gianfranco Rosi (Italy); U.S. Distributor: Super Ltd
True Mothers, dir: Naomi Kawase (Japan); U.S. Distributor: Film Movement