Oscars: Previewing Top Contenders For The International Feature Shortlist – Part One

Nancy Tartaglione
·20 min read

Voting for the shortlist in the International Feature Film Oscar race 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.

In the first of a two-part series, below is the latest installment in our annual look at what films have a good shot of landing on the shortlist. Contrary to last year, when Korea’s Parasite was the hands-down favorite going in — and then pulled off the first-time feat of a foreign-language movie winning Best Picture — this is the most open field in quite a while.

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Speaking with the filmmakers behind each of the candidates, some similarities emerged, notably that despite a lack of physical festival exposure for many due to the pandemic, a consensus felt the result made for a more democratic process with everyone campaigning from home.

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 10 picks (in no particular order) with 10 more to come on Thursday:

THE MOLE AGENT, dir: Maite Alberdi (Chile); U.S. Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Chile’s entry debuted at Sundance in 2020 and is a documentary that went through some changes from its early concept to the end result. After trailing a private eye as she searched for a subject in a film noir/documentary hybrid, Alberdi focused on a retirement home where there had been reports of mistreatment of elders. In order to gain access to the facility, she had to be somewhat misleading. “This was the first time that I had to plan a film in this way,” she told me. “Usually, I am super honest with the characters I am shooting and the release that I am signing. But in this case, I chose the retirement home case because I thought it was the only one where with the private detective that I was following I could shoot by myself without killing his mission.” She ended up going to the home alone with her producer and said they wanted to make a film about old age in general and everything that was happening there, “good and bad.” The facility signed off “and allowed us to show everything, but we didn’t put in the release that the film was about a mole agent.” The mole in question was octogenarian Sergio Chamy, whom Alberdi has called “the worst spy in the world,” but who nevertheless earnestly accomplished his mission. Because Alberdi began shooting on her own before Chamy’s arrival, “We had to act that we didn’t know each other… no one suspected our relationship.” Alberdi owns that “It was a lie to enter, but I was at the beginning comfortable with the lie because I was thinking I was going to be shooting a felony so in that sense it was like ‘OK, this is important for the truth.’ But when I started to realize it was a good place, that lie started to be uncomfortable for me.” The director ultimately made the retirement home principals the first she invited to screen the film and owned up; “They loved the film and thought it represented reality; they took it with humor.”

The Mole Agent, per Alberdi, arrived in Chile in a moment “that two important things cross: one the pandemic and the other the Social Outbreak riots and protests of October 2019. This year, there are elections for a new constitution. “We are living in a country really trying to understand where we are, where do we want to move, and which kind of society we are and want to be,” she explains. Elder people are on the agenda: “How do you want to be old, what kind of pension system do we have, why do people have to work at such old age?”

For Alberdi, there is significant meaning in being only the second woman to have a film represent Chile in the International Oscar category, but also to do so with a documentary. “I usually have the question, ‘When are you going to make a fiction film?’ As if the day I am going to make a fiction I am going to be a real director.” Don’t expect a narrative fiction anytime from the filmmaker: “I always say it’s like I am a sculptor and fiction filmmakers are painters and we are all in the same museum and they’re all films, but we work with different materials. I don’t know how to paint oil and they don’t know how to make a sculpture, but we are all making art.”

QUO VADIS, AIDA?, dir: Jasmila Zbanic (Bosnia)

Debuting in Venice “was really, really beautiful,” for filmmaker Zbanic. It was also a race to the competition having finished the last day of editing in mid-July, and then posting across several European countries. Zbanic tells me that picture and sound were done in Romania while the sound designer was in Sarajevo, VFX in the Netherlands, editing in Poland and all with a studio in Berlin. “It was so stressful, we finished one week before Venice.”

Accustomed to bringing busloads of cast and crew to premieres, Zbanic had to make due with just a handful of people in Venice. Her lead stars were even on a “forced holiday” quarantining for two weeks in Croatia.

Ultimately, the story of the titular translator for the UN in a small town in Srebrenica, whose family is among the thousands of citizens looking for shelter in the UN camp when the Serbian army takes over the town, had a home premiere in October 2020 with only 100 people. It didn’t involve all the actors, nor politicians or VIPs; “We wanted young people to show them you can look at hard subjects, but you can still be emancipated from them because it’s not your fault this happened.” Many Serbian politicians deny that Srebrenica happened, Zbanic explains.

The filmmaker herself was 17 when the war started in Sarajevo. “We were under siege in a valley and the army was around on the mountains and we couldn’t get out of the city, we didn’t have electricity or water.” More recently, she says she “felt a horrifying connection with the events of the U.S. on January 6 because that’s how war started with this fear people felt; this is very, very recognizable.”

When looking back at how life used to be, Zbanic believes people connect to Quo Vadis, Aida? because things “are normal and then an unimaginable thing happens…Because of Covid and other things from one day to the next, we are not safe.”

MEMORIES OF MY FATHER, dir: Fernando Trueba (Colombia); U.S. Distributor: Cohen Media Group

A love letter from a son, Memories Of My Father is based on the memoir by Héctor Abad Faciolince about his dad, Hector Abad Gomez, who was a doctor, professor and activist for social justice — and who was murdered in 1987 by Colombian paramilitaries.

The book was so dear to Belle Epoque Oscar-winner Trueba’s heart that he had given it to friends and family many times over the years. When he ultimately decided to turn it into a film, he teamed with legendary Spanish actor Javier Camara — and finally the original author’s entire family; “They all came one day or another,” he says. Faciolince was reluctant to be on set, even flying to Italy to give the production the space it needed. But when he had to return to Colombia for a personal matter, he ended up coming to set little by little and being more involved, as did a niece who worked on script continuity.

At one point, marvels Trueba, “They did a party for us in one of the family houses and at a moment I look and on the sofa are all of Hector’s real sisters and all the actresses (playing them) and I say, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ That doesn’t happen in your life as a director.”

Camara also connected with the family — and others, even being embraced on the street by Gomez’s grandson who “drenched my coat with tears.”

At a first screening at the Museum of Modern Art in Medellin, Gomez’s widow, Cecilia, who is now in her 90s, told Trueba, “I was laughing through the movie and suddenly I stopped and said, ‘What are you laughing at? You know what is going to happen next.’” But she was “so amazed by Javier’s work” that she wanted to talk to him as if he was Hector.

For Trueba, he really enjoyed scenes which are full of movement in the family’s home and center around a big meals. “In my family, we are seven boys and one sister so I know these kind of lunches and dinners and everyone talking at the same time. For me it was very important to recreate the atmosphere of this family.”

It was also important to tell a story of Colombia that is not mired in drug cartels and gunfights. Camara told me he was “a little fed up of this prejudice. I loved doing a film about a common hero of a country.” He is also very eager “to know the reaction in Colombia, not only because it is a country divided in terms of right and left wing — I want to know what kind of dialogue is going to open this film… Magical realism exists, it’s not just a dream, it exists every day in Colombia, I saw this.”

CHARLATAN, dir: Agnieszka Holland (Czech Republic), U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing

Previous Oscar nominee Holland’s latest premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and was selected for Telluride before that event was cancelled. It was also a box office success in Czech Republic, the third country she is repping after entries from Germany and Poland.

The story of Czech healer Jan Mikolášek, who cured hundreds of people using plant-based remedies, was intriguing for Holland in that he was “an incredibly complex character with many layers.”

The filmmaker holds Czech Republic close to her heart after having lived in Prague for five years earlier in her life — “I was positively inspired to come back to Prague to shoot,” she tells me.

She was not very familiar with the story of Mikolášek, but quickly found that he started ”to ring bells” as in, she would hear from locals, “‘Oh yeah, my grandmother told me about him.’ It felt like everyone on the crew had some connection.” She also met herbalists who all knew him and consider him “as mentor and master, they are still using his methods.”

Holland added some of her own spin to the story: “I don’t like classic biopics, they are kind of imprisoning and conventional and don’t see the whole truth. The most important things are not visible.”

Repping Czech Republic for the filmmaker “means I am very close to the culture and cinema. I spent five very important years of my life there.”

ANOTHER ROUND, dir: Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark), U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Thomas Vinterberg’s drama about four weary high school teachers who test the theory that a constant level of modest inebriation opens our minds to the world, got another feather in its awards season cap today when it scored a Golden Globe nomination in the Foreign Language film category. Other accolades to date include sweeping the European Film Awards, taking the French Art House Cinema Prize, the Silver Shell for Best Actor and the Virtual Audience Award for Best Film at the London Film Festival.

Vinterberg has acknowledged he made the film during a very significant time in his life as his family tragically lost their 19-year-old daughter Ida in a car accident; she had been primed to act in the film which was made at her school.
Despite the serious backdrop and subject matter, which also offers moments of pure comedy, Vinterberg has previously told me he and frequent screenwriting collaborator Tobias Lindholm “deliberately avoided having a message.” The film is, “a survey and exploration not only of alcohol usage but of the uncontrollable. I guess if there’s anything in this movie as a hidden message, it’s a battle for the uncontrollable.”

The Mads Mikkelsen-starrer was a runaway smash in Denmark, becoming Vinterberg’s best performance ever there and the No. 1 movie of 2020.

It would have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival had the event not been kiboshed by Covid this year. Instead, it made its world premiere — remotely — at the Toronto Film Festival in September, just prior to its release in Denmark.

Regarding the past year and the tragedy his family has faced, Vinterberg has said, “It changed my perspective, I’m not sure where I’m going to land yet, but I’m not going to do anything unimportant.”

NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN, dir: Malgorzata Szumowska (Poland); U.S. Distributor: Kino Lorber

Poland’s Oscar entry debuted in Venice and stars Alec Utgoff as Zhenia, a quiet but hypnotic masseur from Ukraine who changes the lives of residents in an affluent neighborhood just outside of Warsaw. Helmer Szumowska recently told me the character was originally Polish in the script, but a decision was then made to use an outsider. “Polish people work in the UK (in for-hire jobs) and in Poland, Ukranian people do that job. We wanted to show how society is diverse and how we treat the people who are working for us.” The outside perspective, she said “is always different than the inside perspective.”

In Venice, she says, “ordinary people really surprised me with questions about who is Zhenia — is he black or is he white? Is he God or devil, death or life? – I was really surprised, but I think they were right. That was our intention, but we didn’t think about it exactly that way.”

Still, she has also been “surprised by how much Americans, film lovers and industry people, really understand the film and are so touched by it — I have a feeling they understand it much more than in Poland,” Szumowska says.

Her films have average ticket sales of about 300K at home, which is very solid for art house. But, she laments, the moniker “makes it sound boring or reductive… It’s like two separate worlds: one with more ambiutious films and new names going to festivals, and the other is very commercial romantic comedies inside of Poland.” For her, however, Never Gonna Snow Again is “an enigmatic film.”

A SUN, dir: Chung Mong-hong (Taiwan), U.S. Distributor: Netflix

Chung Mong-Hong’s Taiwanese Oscar entry has been hailed as one of the best films of the year in several corners. And yet, since the drama debuted at Toronto 2019 it has not been a major fixture of the awards season conversation. It did, however, win top prizes at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards a little over a year ago.

The story is about an ordinary family of four. The father, A-Wen, is a driving instructor; the mother, Qin, is a hairdresser; the older brother, A-Hao, is a high school senior following his father’s expectations in studying to retake his medical school entrance exams; the only member who seems problematic is the younger brother A-Ho, who has been “different” since he was a child.

Chung tells me the story first came to him in 2017, when he met a friend 40 years after they knew each other in high school. “He told me when he was 20-years-old or so, he and another young person slashed someone’s hand off. He didn’t do it, but the incident happened because of him. The perpetrator was jailed for a long time, even longer than my friend was. After he was released, he threatened my friend with a gun.” Chung says he felt “sad because young people like them should study at school and enjoy school life, but instead, they experienced these incidents, and even jail time. What was he thinking? What was his story? His father was an ordinary teacher. There were no particular family issues.”

Ultimately, Chung expanded the story to describe a typical middle-class family in Taiwan. “We went through a lot of turbulence in Taiwan in 2018 where we had the Taiwanese magistrate and mayor elections. There were a lot of uncertainties in front of us. Some issues linger for decades. I felt especially more troubled during the mayoral election in 2018.” So, he asked himself, “Is it possible for me to describe a family in decay under such a turbulent social and political background? How do they rebuild from the ruins? That’s the motivation for me to make this film.”

Regarding the timing of the release, Chung says, “It was lucky to be in cinemas before the outbreak, and received some positive reviews. No one could have anticipated our experiences in 2020. The pandemic continues to haunt us until now. The film industry is certainly impacted by this pandemic, as viewers are more unwilling to cinemas. I have always been more pessimistic about films. It takes a lot of time for viewers to go to cinemas, and stay inside for hours. The pandemic has drastically reduced this activity, and more people choose to watch films at home on their TVs. I think many films are meant for cinemas. It feels different to sit in a dark room to watch what’s shown on the big screen. To many people, though, they don’t care if they are in a really dark place with a big screen for movies. The digital age has gradually changed our cinematic experiences, and the pandemic accelerates this change.”

TWO OF US, Filippo Meneghetti (France), U.S. Distributor: Magnolia

Hot off a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, director Filippo Meneghetti has today been moved by the fact that his feature debut has garnered such recognition. But, it was a long road to being France’s submission for the International Feature race. He spent six and a half yaers working on the project — five just to finance it. That’s a situation that isn’t unheard of for a debut feature, but he was also met with reticence because of the age of the film’s leads.

The story centers on retirees Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) who have hidden their deep and passionate love for many decades. Everybody, including Madeline’s family, thinks they are simply neighbors. When an unforeseen crisis turns their relationship upside down, Madeline’s daughter (Léa Drucker) begins to gradually unravel the truth between them.

Says Meneghetti, “People wanted the actresses to be younger; For me, it was never a question.” So, he stuck to his guns and finally got it made. “As a filmmaker, I have a responsibility to show the world in all its states. I’m affected in the bad sense by society’s obsession with youth and beauty, its bugs me every day. I wanted to show older people who have wrinkles and despite and because of those wrinkles they are beautiful, they tell a story and emotion.” He adds, “I think I really wanted to confront the question of auto-censure…We can close the door and society won’t see us anymore, but we can’t close the door on ourselves.”

In France, the movie came out just before the first Covid lockdown, and did well. Because it had originally premiered in Toronto 2019, Meneghetti had the “lucky” opportunity to travel six months with the movie. During that time, Meneghetti says he was inspired that a lot of young people responded positively. “One time, 15-year-old students came to see me saying, ‘Thank you, we didn’t want to see this one, but now we are so happy we’re going ot tell all our friends.”

COLLECTIVE, dir: Alexander Nanau (Romania); U.S. Distributor: Magnolia

Nanau’s documentary is a look at the impact of investigative journalism in the wake of the 2015 fire at Bucharest’s Colectiv club which left 27 dead and 180 injured. The film premiered in Venice in 2019 and has gone on to win several prizes at international festivals. Says Nanau, this was a “local story worth telling.” While he was shooting, he realized the whole world around us was transforming into what we were filming — from Brexit to Bolsonaro to Trump” as the “young generation asked for the first time the government to step back because they were corrupt.”

He continues, “After the fire national tragedy, somehow everyohe had the feeling they knew somebody who was there.” But the “journalists were the only ones asking the right questtions.”

The film released locally last February, just before the Covid lockdown but during its run there were SRO screenings filled with young people. And when Collective released on HBO Go, it was No. 1 within two weeks, says Nanau. He adds, “It’s hard to measure what can a story do for a society. The only thing we can measure is the journalists. Once the film was launched, the number of valid whistle blower leads went up ten times; they barely could cope with the hundreds of leads.”

This is the first documentary to be submitted to the Oscars from Romania and Nanau says, “It shows very clearly that no matter how rotten society is, there is always hope because there are always people who risk and whose courage can change society.”

BEGINNING, dir: Dea Kulumbegashvili (Georgia); U.S. Distributor: Mubi

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s feature directorial debut Beginning was a part of the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival’s 2020 edition, and had a special in-person screening during the event’s abridged celebration in October. The drama further was invited to the Toronto, San Sebastian, New York and Busan festivals.

The story is set in a small Jehova’s Witness community in provincial Georgia and kicks off when their prayer house is attacked. But the focus of the film is Yana, the wife of the community leader who is struggling with her own identity and desires.

Kulumbegashvili has said part of the inspiration came from feeling like a stranger in her own home after returning from studying film in New York.

“I wanted to make a film about a woman who maybe in a more conventional narrative would be a secondary character, but at the same time I was very much interested in the themes of violence and isolation,” she previously told me. “I was living in New York and when I was coming to Georgia to spend time with my family I did encounter the community of the Jehova’s Witnesses and I could see how, because of the choice of their religion, they all of a sudden became strangers in the place where they grew up, and perhaps I was also experiencing questions about what does it mean to belong… Once you leave your home you’re an outsider in both places.”

Ultimately, her family was supportive, with her mother and nephew even acting in the movie, which is being handled by Mubi and Wild Bunch.

Kulumbegashvili uses very long sequences that are quite still and put the subject slightly left of center, as well as working in a 1:33 aspect ratio. “I wanted to capture how time flows for this woman and how she lives in the spaces,” creating a film “that would invite the audience to look… I knew I wanted to grab the essence of the moment and not only observe.”

We’ll be back tomorrow with another 10 promising titles…

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