Oscars 2020: Best International Feature Shortlist

Today is Best International Feature. Because I kidded myself that I was gonna be able to find and see all 15 of these by the time this article went up. And honestly, I had other categories I was more focused on and I really only need to see as many as I can for nominations and not for this. So I’m just gonna do what I did with Live Action Short and Doc Short and just guess my way through it and see everything later.

Here’s your International Feature shortlist:

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
The Mole Agent (Chile)
Charlatan (Czech Republic)
Another Round (Denmark)
Two of Us (France)
La Llorona (Guatemala)
Better Days (Hong Kong)
Sun Children (Iran)
Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast)
I’m No Longer Here (Mexico)
Hope (Norway)
Collective (Romania)
Dear Comrades! (Russia)
A Sun (Taiwan)
The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)

Currently I’ve seen Another Round, The Mole Agent and Collective and have copies of everything else except The Man Who Sold His Skin.

Before we get into the list itself, this is one of the categories where I went over all the submissions, pulled about 30 I thought had any sort of a shot and then and guessed a shortlist from that (as I do with Song and Doc Feature and usually Score). So I want to see how I did….

Of the shortlist I guessed, I got 9 right. Which, 9/15 is amazing. 60% going in cold? I’ll take that every damn year. I missed Charlatan, La Llorona, Better Days, Sun Children, Hope and the Man Who Sold His Skin. In hindsight, I knew La Llorona was a favorite to make it and deliberately left it off, so if I wanted to play it safe I could have gotten 10/15, but I’m fine. Especially since, when you look at the 31 films I pulled that I thought were the most likely contenders to get on, I ended up getting 13/15. So, I took 93 films, cut it into a third and had 13 of the 15 shortlisted films on there, with nine guessed exactly. That’s pretty fucking good.

The two out and out misses were Better Days and The Man Who Sold His Skin. Tunisia has submitted seven times and this is their first shortlist. So I really couldn’t have seen that coming specifically even though I expected there would be at least one of those. And Hong Kong — they’ve only been nominated twice in 39 submissions, and those were Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine thirty years ago. And their only other shortlist was The Grandmaster a few years ago. But that’s Wong Kar-wai. So I had no real inclination they’d get on here. Plus, keep in mind, I do almost zero research into this. The most I do is read each synopsis, go, “Oh yeah, I know they’re pushing this one and sent screeners for it/this got nominated elsewhere” and then look for the obvious countries that usually make it. That’s literally all I do. So maybe this one was obvious. Honestly, I’ll take the 13/15 I got based on the amount of work I didn’t do. In this sense, I am not a perfectionist.

Just based on what I’ve seen so far (not that I’m really versed in this), the films that felt like they were ‘left off’ (I won’t say snubbed, since I think the only one we’d consider a legit snub based on its status going in was Another Round) were Apples from Greece and Notturno from Italy (which at least made the Doc Feature list, which is still something). But otherwise I feel like most people would say a lot of the major/obvious contenders got on and there’s not much to quibble with. I mean, I’m sure some people have a horse in the race and feel like a good film got left off and that sucks. But for someone like me (who is at least 20% more invested in this than most people, who are anywhere from 0% to, “I saw this one movie and am rooting for that”), I feel like there’s nothing too egregious here. And that probably owes to the fact that they expanded the shortlist to 15, which allows some of those films that might have been left off a list of 9 or 10 to get on here.

It’s also interesting that they got rid of the ‘saves’ that they used to have. Which, if you’re unfamiliar, how most years went before now was: the branch voted on all the films (and for the sake of argument, let’s say they watched them all, which feels super unlikely, but we’ll go with it) and the top six would automatically get on (seven last year, since they bumped it from 9 to 10). Then the executive branch would reserve three ‘saves’, which the implemented in, I believe, 2007, when 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (generally considered the best foreign film of that year) didn’t make the shortlist. So it gave them the right to take three movies and throw them onto the shortlist because either they were big enough that people would get mad if they weren’t on or they thought they were good enough/had enough artistic merit to deserve a chance. And so while they started it with, I guess, good intentions, the whole thing felt super shady after a while and most years it was almost like you could telegraph at least one of the saves because it always ended up being a country that was submitting for the first or second time. So they finally got rid of that and smartly just said, “Why don’t we make it 15 so that most things get on? And then we don’t need to deal with saves at all and if something can’t make the list of 15, then it means that the voting body at large just didn’t like it enough.” And you know what? That’s a better system. Because it’s the Oscars. We get it. Sometimes great shit doesn’t make it, and it’s because the voting body didn’t like it enough or have their own inherent tastes and biases. And while we can disagree with that, it is what it is and you understand that. I’m not sure if this was just a one-year change for the pandemic or it’s gonna be a thing going forward (my guess is it’s a one-year thing they’ll decide is worth keeping, but I have no idea), but with most categories having shortlists of 15 (or, like Visual Effects, 20 and then eventually 10, which is fine, since at least we understand how the voting rounds work), it makes sense that this one… which they CHANGED THE NAME OF to try to make it feel like it mattered as much as the other categories and make it more intriguing to people and less dismissive… would do the same.

– – – – –

Anyway, onto the shoddy analysis. It’s worth noting that Another Round, La Llorona and Two of Us were nominated at the Globes and that Another Round, Mole Agent, Quo Vadis Aida, I’m No Longer Here, Collective and Dear Comrades were all longlisted at BAFTA. Though given the release dating for BAFTA (Les Misérables, which was nominated in last year’s Oscar category, was eligible this year for BAFTA because it came out in 2020 for them), the exclusions don’t mean too much. So really it’ll come down to what gets on. Since at least we know six contenders could be nominated there. So whichever ones are get a little boost and whatever isn’t we can’t read too much into. Oh, and Another Round, Collective, La Llorona and Two of Us were also nominated at BFCA.

Let’s briefly go over what each one is about/briefly go into how each country tends to do here:

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina) — Aida is a translator for the UN in the small town of Srebrenica. When the Serbian army takes over the town, her family is among the thousands of citizens looking for shelter in the UN camp.

The Mole Agent (Chile) — A private investigator in Chile hires someone to work as a mole at a retirement home where a client of his suspects the caretakers of elder abuse. (This is also on the Doc Feature shortlist.)

Charlatan (Czech Republic) — The breathtaking story of a man gifted with exceptional abilities set against the background of the events of the totalitarian fifties. (This is from Agnieszka Holland, who was previously nominated in this category in 2011 for In Darkness and in 1991 in Best Screenplay for Europa Europa. She also, unrelated, directed the movie Mr. Jones last year and it was quite solid.)

Another Round (Denmark) — Four friends, all high school teachers, test a theory that they will improve their lives by maintaining a constant level of alcohol in their blood. (This is from Thomas Vinterberg, who was nominated in this category in 2012 for The Hunt, also with Mads Mikkelsen.)

Two of Us (France) — Pensioners Nina and Madeleine have hidden their deep and passionate love for many decades, but their bond is put to the test when they are suddenly unable to move freely between each other’s apartments.

La Llorona (Guatemala) — An aging paranoid war criminal, protected by his faithful wife, faces death while being haunted by the ghosts of his past.

Better Days (Hong Kong) — A bullied teenage girl forms an unlikely friendship with a mysterious young man who protects her from her assailants, all while she copes with the pressures of her final examinations.

Sun Children (Iran) — 12-year-old Ali and his three friends, together they work hard to survive and support their families. In a turn of events that seems miraculous, Ali is entrusted to find hidden treasure underground. (The director, Majid Majidi, was previously nominated in this category in 1998 for Children of Heaven.)

Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast) — A young man is sent to “La Maca”, a prison of Ivory Coast in the middle of the forest ruled by its prisoners. With the red moon rising, he is designated by the Boss to be the new “Roman” and must tell a story to the other prisoners.

I’m No Longer Here (Mexico) — In Monterrey, Mexico, a young street gang spends their days dancing to slowed-down cumbia and attending parties. After a mix-up with a local cartel, their leader is forced to migrate to the U.S. but quickly longs to return home.

Hope (Norway) — The relationship between artist-partners Tomas and Anja is put to the test after Anja gets a life-threatening diagnosis. (Stellan Skarsgard stars in this. Which doesn’t mean much. I just love that every Nordic Oscar entry always seems to have him in there somewhere.)

Collective (Romania) — Director Alexander Nanau follows a crack team of investigators at the Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor as they try to uncover a vast health-care fraud that enriched moguls and politicians and led to the deaths of innocent citizens. (This is also on the Doc Feature shortlist.)

Dear Comrades! (Russia) — When the communist government raises food prices in 1962, the rebellious workers from the small industrial town of Novocherkassk go on strike. The massacre which then ensues is seen through the eyes of a devout party activist. (This is directed by Andrey Konchalovsky, best known for his time in America, during which he directed Runaway Train and Tango and Cash. But since he’s gone back to Russia, he’s been submitted for this category three times. The first was 2002, where he was not nominated, the second was 2016, for Paradise, for which he was shortlisted, and now this is the third.)

A Sun (Taiwan) — A family of four fractures under the weight of unmet expectations, unexpected tragedy, and uncompromising pride.

The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia) — The journey of Sam Ali, a Syrian man who fled to Lebanon to escape the Syrian war, hoping to eventually join his lover in Paris.

– – – – –

So those are the 15. Just running down some brief thoughts on this, since I’ve only watched three of the films:

  • Nobody should be stupid enough to leave Another Round off their final category guess. It could get left off (I’ve seen them revolt against stuff before — remember Force Majeure and Burning and The Intouchables and The Grandmaster), but you can’t just assume that. There’s no evidence to suggest it and it almost seems like one of the biggest gimmes out there.
  • You’re gonna have to figure out what you think they’re gonna do with the two films also in the running for Documentary Feature. This decade has featured a number of films in play for both categories and it always proves to be a sticky scenario trying to guess how it’s gonna end up. Your precedents here are (and trust me, three is a lot for something like this):
    • Pina, from Wim Wenders, shortlisted here but not nominated yet was nominated for Doc Feature.
    • The Missing Picture, documentary nominated here (but not shortlisted in Doc Feature).
    • Honeyland, which was nominated both here and in Doc Feature. And this was last year.

Actually, that’s about it. Those are the big two notes.

Here’s the country breakdowns:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina has been nominated once in 20 submissions (5%). They’ve only been shortlisted once since 2006 (2013).
  • Czech Republic has been nominated 9 times in 50 submissions (18%). They’ve only been shortlisted once since 2006 (last year).
  • Denmark has been nominated 12 times in 58 nominations (21%). They’ve been shortlisted eight times since 2006, including six nominations and one win. And this director is responsible for one of those six nominations (not the win).
  • France has been nominated 40 times in 67 submissions (59%). France has been shortlisted six times since 2006, including four nominations (2008, 2009, 2015 and last year).
  • This is Guatamala’s first submission.
  • Hong Kong has been nominated twice in 39 submissions (5%). They’ve been shortlisted once since 2006 (2013), but it was a Wong Kar-wai film).
  • Iran has been nominated 3 times in 26 submissions (12%). Of their three nominations, two were Asghar Farhadi films this decade (both of which won) and the third was by this same director in 1998.
  • This is Ivory Coast’s first submission.
  • Mexico has been nominated 9 times in 53 submissions (17%). Mexico has been shortlisted four times since 2006 with three nominations and a win, though it’s important to note that all three of their nominations were directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu and and Alfonso Cuaron.
  • Norway has been nominated 5 times in 42 submissions (12%). They’ve been shortlisted twice since 2006 (2012, 2016) and nominated once (2012).
  • Russia has been nominated 16 times in 52 submissions (31%). They’ve been shortlisted five times since 2006, with three nominations. Though it’s worth noting that the only two nominations they got this past decade were both Andrey Zvyagintsev films (Leviathan and Loveless).
  • Taiwan has been nominated 3 times in 46 submissions (7%). They’ve been shortlisted once since 2006.
  • Tunisia has never been nominated in 7 submissions. This is their first shortlist

Mostly this just tells you how much of a sure thing France almost always is. So if you take France and Another Round as gimmes, that’s 40% of your list and you only need to guess 3 more.

It tells me that Ivory Coast and Guatamala are unknowns historically and it’ll come down to how much they like the respective films. La Llorona was nominated pretty much everywhere else, but Night of the Kings, despite getting a push from some names, has not gotten much other notice to my knowledge. Now, that’s not a guarantee of anything in this category, but it’s worth noting at this point. While I’m still not convinced La Llorona will be nominated until I see it, you have to consider it a favorite to make it on at this point.

I would say that Tunisia is one I feel like I wouldn’t guess under any circumstance — no previous nominations, no real track record here, no precursors and no real build behind the film. When you’re dealing with 5 from 15, you have to make some decisions. And that’s one of mine. I’d rather just let it beat me because until I hear some chatter that there’s people behind it, it feels like an easy one to say it won’t happen.

I feel like the record for the Czech Republic doesn’t matter so much considering the director is Agnieszka Holland, who was nominated this past decade in this category, even though that film was submitted by Poland. And then Europa Europa likely would’ve won its category had Germany submitted it that year, but they didn’t submit anything, and the film still managed a Screenplay nomination. So if I’m putting that on, it’s going on for her and not based on the country’s history. The country’s history is solid in the category, they just haven’t done well over the past 15 years. Their last nomination was 2003. So we’ll see if she changes their fortunes.

Hong Kong was only nominated twice, in the 90s, and their last shortlist was for Wong Kar-wai. It’s hard for me to imagine this stands a major chance to get on, unless people really like the film. Which they might. Not having seen anything, my guess is that this was the benefit of an expanded shortlist and likely won’t get nominated.

Iran — that’s interesting. Normally I’d make the case that the only chances they’ve had recently are because of Asghar Farhadi, but in the history of Iran at the Oscars, Farhadi has two of their three nominations and this director has the third. It was 22 years ago, sure, but it’s still this guy. So you can’t rule this out. I don’t know if this is them voting for him or liking the film, but without any precursors, it’s hard for me to see this as a surefire nominee at the moment.

Mexico is an interesting situation. The film’s gotten on everywhere, but the history of Mexico in this category is not strong lately. Their nominations in this category came in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1975, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2018. And four of those last five came from Del Toro, Inarritu and Cuaron. So their only nomination outside of those three filmmakers was 2002. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them leave this off. But the film is generally talked about and liked and did make the BFCA list. It’s also longlisted at BAFTA, so I wanna see if they go there. If they do, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable about this being nominated. But if they don’t, I’m not sure if this’ll end up getting on.

Norway feels like the benefit an expanded shortlist. Their only nomination in recent years was for Kon-Tiki and they never feel like real contenders for this one. So I feel like this is another one I’ll just let get on if it’s gonna get on.

Russia surprisingly hasn’t been as strong in this category as you might think. Only Zvyagintsev got on this past decade, even though they’ve gotten shortlisted a bunch, and they only have three nominations since 2000. Not to mention, Konchalovsky was shortlisted here four years ago and didn’t get on. The shortlisting might just be them showing him his due respect as a filmmaker. BAFTA longlisted him, so if they put him on, I’ll reconsider, but right now I’m thinking this probably doesn’t make it and ends up being a red herring based on country/director.

Taiwan — this just feels like the kind of movie that bites me in the ass every year. There’s always one movie where I go, “They’ve never been nominated/this is their first movie/no one knows what it is, this is never going to happen.” And then it happens. So I’m not gonna say this won’t happen, but the history isn’t really there for them. So it’s gonna have to be a film they really like to go for. And, not having seen it and going in blind, for now I’ll say it won’t happen. I’m doing this all sight unseen anyway, so I almost have to be more data-based in my judgments. I’ll watch as many of these as I can over the next few weeks (and also likely have already, since I wrote this days ago), so I’ll get a better sense then.

– – – – –

So yeah, that’s what I have for now. Pulling a category guess out of my ass, this is what I have at the moment:

Another Round (Denmark)

I’m No Longer Here (Mexico)

La Llorona (Guatemala)

Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast)

Two of Us (France)

Alternate: The Mole Agent (Chile)

Dark Horse: A Sun (Taiwan)

Surprise: Sun Children (Iran); Charlatan (Czech Republic)

Shocker: Dear Comrades! (Russia), Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina); Collective (Romania)

Don’t guess: The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia), Hope (Norway), Better Days (Hong Kong)

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