Over the last five years, the Academy has made it increasingly easier for more voters to participate in the phase-one Best International Feature Film Oscar nominating committee, never more than during this pandemic year, when online viewing made it possible for all members to watch the movies, as long as they notched the minimum number of 12 assigned features.
With Oscar deadlines pushed back by two months, the Academy rules required that countries submit motion pictures that were released theatrically between October 1, 2019 and December 31, 2020. This year’s expanded shortlist of 15 (just like the documentary branch) will be revealed on February 9, 2021, with no executive committee saves, due to the pandemic.
Last year saw 91 contenders, and this year’s number is close. Marking a change, the Academy is vetting the submissions before announcing the final list of eligible contenders in late January. Eligible films are being added to the Academy portal (also available via AppleTV).
This leaves a short window for would-be international voters to meet their quota before shortlist preliminary voting begins on February 1, ending at 5pm PST on February 5. For Phase 2, voters will need to watch all 15 films on the shortlist.
Check out our list of likeliest contenders to land on the expanded shortlist of 15, in alphabetical order.
David Ehrlich, Eric Kohn, and Ryan Lattanzio contributed to this story.
1. “Another Round” directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Country: Denmark, with twelve nominations and two wins, most recently, for Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World” (2010).
Release: December 4, via Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Awards: Best Film, Danish Film Awards (among others); European Film Awards (screenplay, film, director, and actor), best foreign film prizes from critics groups including Chicago, Denver, and Houston; Official Selection, Cannes 2020
Former Dogme 95 honcho Vinterberg has remained one of the Denmark’s most celebrated auteurs, and this sensitive dark comedy is one of his best. Re-teaming with Mads Mikkelsen for the first time since the Cannes-acclaimed Oscar nominee “The Hunt,” the movie finds the actor playing a high school teacher in the midst of a midlife crisis who resorts to day-drinking as a means of curing his malaise. When he and a couple of buddies come across an obscure scientific report suggesting that drinking some small amount of booze during the day can improve their lives, it quickly becomes a reckless excuse to get toasted all the time. Vinterberg guides the movie from grim slapstick to tragedy and back again, a tonal balance he has excelled at achieving ever since “The Celebration” more than 20 years ago.
This time, however, the emotional tenor of the movie comes equipped with an even more powerful backstory. Vinterberg wrote “Another Round” for his teenage daughter Ida, who was set to co-star alongside Mikkelsen when she died in a car accident in 2019. The grief-stricken Vinterberg managed to finish the movie, and dedicated it to her. “She is all over this movie for me,” Vinterberg told IndieWire in an interview. “That was the only way we could do this.”
The movie was part of the official Cannes 2020 selection, but didn’t start generating widespread acclaim until it hit the fall circuit, including the virtual TIFF. Since then, it has remained one of the more popular foreign-language Oscar submissions for the way it delivers a poignant, accessible dramedy anchored by a beloved star giving it his all. Mikkelsen’s inebriated dance number in the movie’s finale keeps people talking. Expect this one to make the cut and remain in the conversation all the way to the finish line. —EK
2. “Apples” directed by Christos Nikou
Country: Greece, with five Oscar nominations (most recently for Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth”), but no wins.
Awards: Thessaloniki Film Festival, Winner Best Actor, International Competition, Aris Servetalis
Champion: After Venice Competition jury chief Cate Blanchett screened “Apples” at this year’s festival, she signed on as executive producer. “I found myself in a state with the pandemic of remembering a lot of things and thinking about the place of memory in my life, and how we remember, and who are we when people forget us,” she said on a CAA panel. “I found the performances and visual language so inspiring and compelling. For a film that is about connection and self-discovery, I found it surprising and nostalgic and not sentimental.”
Release: After being selected by Telluride and TIFF, Cohen Media Group picked up the film.
The latest recruit to the Greek Weird Wave, writer-director Nikou makes a remarkable debut here after working as an assistant director for Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) and as a second unit director for Richard Linklater (“Before Midnight”). Gorgeously filmed with a Polaroid-inspired palette and old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, “Apples” is set in an analog alternative universe without social media or iPhones, at a time when a virus pandemic has cost many people their memories. The government takes unclaimed amnesiacs and teaches them how to grow new identities, keeping Polaroid scrapbooks of their experiences. In a masterful understated performance that recalls silent comedian Buster Keaton, Aris Servetalis plays a man who leaves subtle clues along the way about what he has remembered and forgotten. He loves apples and dancing, it seems, and obediently has sex with a fellow forgetter, but reveals a longing for something better. Less is more, as Nikou leaves the audience to read into the movie’s layers of mystery.
“Technology has affected our memory,” the director said on a CAA panel. “I prefer to make the movie in a more nostalgic way, to create a world without technology, in an analog way, and play with allegory and the symbolic, to make a comment.” Little did Nikou realize how close to the bone this movie would be during a time of isolation and disconnection. —AT
3. “Beginning” directed by Dea Kulumbegashvili
Country: Georgia, with one nomination (1996’s “A Chef in Love”) and no wins.
Awards: Last September, “Beginning” shook the San Sebastian Film Festival, whose jury led by Luca Guadagnino handed this harrowing drama four prizes: Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Film. The Michael Haneke-esque slow burn comes with plenty of festival support elsewhere, with an intended 2020 Cannes premiere, and bows at Toronto and New York.
Distributor: The film gets a boost January 29 with streaming on MUBI in key territories.
Dea Kulumbegashvili’s feature debut centers on a woman’s psychological breakdown after her Jehovah’s Witness village is attacked by terrorists. While it takes austerity to the extreme, with 35mm Academy ratio cinematography and long takes that could prove punishing for some viewers, “Beginning” is an exceptionally put together, often shocking point of view — the kind that would’ve wowed the executive committee had there been one this year. —RL
4. “Charlatan” directed by Agnieszka Holland
Country: Czech Republic, with three nominations and one win, for Jan Svěrák’s “Kolya” in 1996.
Awards: Nominated for Best European Director at the European Film Awards.
Release: August in the Czech Republic, where it did well, followed stateside by Strand Releasing in late spring, 2021.
Champion: Janusz Kaminski.
After its Berlinale Gala debut in 2020, Holland’s layered biopic “Charlatan” went on a festival tour. Adapted by Marek Epstein from a true story, the movie follows famous Czech herbalist Jan Mikolásek (Czech movie star Ivan Trojan and his son Josef Trojan), whose commitment to healing took him through the interwar, Nazi, and Communist eras. But when his main Stalinist protector died, the regime went after him for his maverick, nonconformist ways. He’s a fascinating, charismatic character, on the one hand driven to cure illness, but also capable of cruelty, sadism and love — for his loyal assistant, František (Juraj Loj). Eventually, Mikolásek is arrested and put on trial.
“I’m interested in the relationship between man and nature,” said Holland in a phone interview, “and a man with a special gift paying for that gift. He has hubris, and the fear to admit your real nature, your sexual orientation. It’s about what it means to be a citizen of Central Europe in the first part of the 20th century. How much can you be free and how much a conformist? With the pandemic we are seeing the price we are paying for a disconnect with nature.”
Academy voters know Polish director Holland, one of Europe’s most accomplished filmmakers, having nominated her three times, twice for foreign-language film (“Bitter Harvest,” “In Darkness”), and once for Original Screenplay (“Europa, Europa”). She directs films (“The Secret Garden,” “Mr. Jones”) and television (“The Killing”) in Hollywood and Europe, where she raises funding in the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, Slovakia, and Germany to support her often original and idiosyncratic films, from “Charlatan” to Berlin Silver Bear winner “Spoor,” adapted by Nobel prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk from her novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.”
“I understood the movies I can make in the most free way,” she said, “with a small budget.” —AT
5. “Collective” directed by Alexander Nanau
Country: Romania, with no nominations, made the foreign-language shortlist only once (Cristian Mungiu’s 2012 “Beyond the Hills”).
Awards: European Film Award for European Documentary; Hamptons Film Festival’s Golden Starfish Award for Documentary Feature; National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Language Film; Zurich Film Festival’s Golden Eye for Best International Documentary Film.
Release: After the movie opened in Romania on February 28, it played for two weeks until cinemas were closed. After planning to release the movie stateside on May 22, Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media finally opened the movie in theaters and online November 20.
As the world deals with a global pandemic, this observational documentary about a health crisis in Romania reveals familiar patterns. When Nanau (“Toto and Her Sisters”) screened “Collective” to rave reviews at the Venice, Toronto and Sundance festivals, he had no idea that his health system exposé would prove to be all-too predictive of a world not prepared to cope with a rampaging virus pandemic.
Funded by HBO Europe, “Collective” follows a team of crack investigative journalists at sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor, who uncover the reasons why 37 burn victims died after a traumatic fire killed 27 people and injured another 180 on October 30, 2015 at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv. Gazeta Sporturilor reporter Catalin Tolontan, the movie’s hero, stands up to the Romanian government and its incompetent health ministers by showing incontrovertible proof of just how much they lied to the public, at the cost of countless lives. “Collective” digs deep into the systemic corruption and greed that infects the entire country.
Nanau refuses to interview anyone on his films. His working philosophy, also on “Toto and His Sisters,” is to follow an unfolding story in real time, he said, “because I want to experience something and learn from the life experience I go through with the characters.” He was in post-production, sifting through his material and archival footage for just the right moments in this narrative, for over 18 months.
Why do so many governments lie to their people? “It’s hard to say why it’s an endemic thing worldwide,” he said. “When we started filming, the first minister of health was part of a technocrat government who were supposed to be professionals but were still part of a system that was not able to communicate in a frank way. As we can see worldwide, they were preoccupied with launching a parallel reality. It’s always about, ‘how can we sell them another reality while we are doing what we want to do?’”
As the journalists in “Collective” uncovered the Romanian system and its chain of corruption, they revealed an extraordinary lack of concern for human life. “It’s hard to say where that lack of humanity started,” said Nanau. “For 10 years, Hexi Pharma was diluting disinfectants and bribing epidemiologists and hospital managers. Too many people were involved in it, covering it up all the time.” —AT
6. “Dear Comrades!” directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Country: Russia, with seven nominations (including two for Konchalovsky) and one win since 1992, for Konchalovsky’s brother Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun” (1994).
Awards: Special Jury Prize, Venice Film Festival 2020; Best Director, Russia Golden Eagle Awards;
Best Director, Chicago International Film Festival
Release: Opened in Russia and other countries in November and December, and in virtual cinemas stateside on December 25 via Neon.
The latest black-and-white period drama from the versatile 83-year-old director Andrei Konchalovsky (“Tango & Cash,” “Paradise”) chronicles the violent shooting of workers demonstrating in Novocherkassk in 1962. Though the full violence of the event was buried at the time, Konchalovsky unearths the details in a deeply personal manner, by rooting the story in the perspective of devout party worker Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya) whose teen daughter goes missing in the chaos. As Lyudmila travels around town in search of her child, the woman is forced to question her governmental allegiances and contemplate the broader history of Russian conflict across generations. Merging an epic scale and period detail with the intimacy of a mother’s struggles, Konchalovsky’s powerful daylong story is a real-time thriller with a melodramatic backdrop that shows a master’s touch. It’s exactly the sort of complex juggling act that tends to make the cut in the international category — a searing political saga that’s also personal (not to mention a feast for the eyes). —EK
7. “Hope” directed by Maria Sødahl
Country: Norway, with five nominations and no wins.
Awards: Nominated for two European Film Awards for European Director and European Actress. Won Amanda Awards for Best Actress (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and Best Production Design (Jørgen Stangebye Larsen). Won the Berlin International Film Festival European Cinema Labels Award. Won the Kosmorama, Trondheim Internasjonale Filmfestival for Best Female Actress in a Leading Role (Andrea Bræin Hovig), Best Supporting Role (Gjertrud L. Jynge), Best Production Design.
Release: The film opened in Norway in the fall of 2019 and went to streaming just after Berlin during lockdown, but missed a theatrical release in many countries. KimStim will release the film stateside in Spring 2021.
Sødahl’s previous film, “Limbo,” earned five Amanda Awards and won Sødahl Best Director at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2010. “Hope” is based on the director’s own experience fighting a cancer diagnosis with her partner. She avoids the pitfalls of “the cancer genre” with humor and a lack of sentimentality. In this fictionalized drama, two successful professionals and parents, a theater director (Andrea Bræin Hovig), and an older film producer (Stellan Skarsgård), have grown apart as they pursue their parallel lives. When she gets a terminal cancer diagnosis, she realizes that she has to count on her partner, who rises to the occasion, asking her to marry him. The stakes couldn’t be higher as they and their family and friends must power through the holidays as well as a wedding, and to the other side of this life-threatening illness.
Skarsgard complained to his director that he had nothing to do, but his silent reactions to his partner speak volumes. “It’s all about being present, and trusting that that’s enough,” said Sødahl on a zoom panel. She relied on frequent Lars von Trier cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro to move around the spaces with a handheld camera and catch what was crucial in each scene.
Hovig tracked the various drugs her character was taking, which could render her manic or depressed. “If you create a real relationship between the characters without dialogue, the audience gets that,” said Skarsgard. “They read the chemistry, what’s happening, when people are close, or remote. All I had to do was react to all the crazy things the woman I love is doing, and my incapacity to reach her, really. I’m just playing off her.” —AT
8. “I’m No Longer Here” directed by Fernando Frias
Country: Mexico, nine Oscar nominations, five from Arturo Ripstein, two from A.G. Iñárritu (“Amores Perros” and “Biutiful”), one from Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), and one from Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), which was the first Mexican film to win the foreign-language Oscar. Cuarón lobbied the Academy Board of Governors to change the category name to Best International Feature Film. (His argument was that for him, Spanish is not a foreign language.)
Awards: The selection committee from the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas picked out of six finalists “I’m No Longer Here,” Mexico’s winner of 10 Ariel awards including Best Picture and Director, and Mexico’s entry at Spain’s Goya Awards.
Release: Netflix released the film around the world in May and June 2020.
Champions: As Netflix urged Mexico to pick the company’s film, the awards team enlisted the aid of two powerful allies, Del Toro and Cuarón, who conducted a trans-Atlantic video conversation about the film from Toronto (where Del Toro is shooting “Pinocchio”) and London, respectively.
Frías’ second film, which went through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, is set in Monterrey, Mexico and New York City in 2011. The movie stars a cast of non-pros lead by discovery Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño as Ulises, the colorful and charming leader of a street gang of cheerful, music-loving cumbieros who like to dance and party, but run afoul of a local cartel and Mexico president Felipe Calderón’s war against drug trafficking. Ulises is forced to escape to New York, where he struggles to retain his cultural identity.
“I wanted to confront the challenges that most of the people in Mexico face every day,” wrote Frías in an email. “But I wanted to do it without exploiting the tragedy or glorifying violence. I was responding also to the stigma that young people from marginalized communities face by trying to offer a window into the lives of these characters who grow up fast and without opportunities. I wanted to challenge the stereotypes reinforced by many immigration stories and popular political narratives. Ulises, my main character, uniquely represents both his community and the journey of Mexican immigrants in the USA.”
This movie is playing well with Academy voters. And Netflix is pushing it hard. —AT
9. “La Llorona” directed by Jayro Bustamante
Country: Guatemala doesn’t have a rich history of submitting films for Oscar consideration, with only three titles total, including .this year’s “La Llorona” from Bustamante, whose “Ixcanul” the country submitted in 2015. Guatemala has never been shortlisted or nominated for the Oscar.
Awards: 2019 Venice Film Festival, Winner, the Fedeora Award for Best Film (Venice Days) and Winner GdA Director’s Award, 2019 Havana Film Festival, Winner for Best Sound, Eduardo Cáceres Staackmann, and Special Jury Prize for Best Film, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards 2020, Winner Best Foreign Language Film.
Release: Streaming on Shudder.
Champion: Jane Fonda
While Bustamante’s “Ixcanul,” a portrait of a religious village settled on the slopes of a volcano, didn’t make the shortlist, this allegorical folk horror tale is a more high-profile contender, thanks in part to its streaming presence on Shudder. While genre has scared off many voters in the past, make no mistake that “La Llorona” is as impeccably crafted as anything to come out of the contemporary wave of posh horror stories.
Bustamante uses the titular Latin American folk tale about a wailing woman with supernatural powers to explore Guatemala’s genocidal past. It’s atmospheric, scary, and sobering — and surely one of the more widely seen contenders this year. In a most unorthodox Oscar season, the film’s accessibility should give “La Llorona” a leg up in the race. —RL
Photo by Alvaro Reyes.
10. “The Mole Agent” directed by Maite Alberti
Country: Chile, with two Oscar nominations and one win, for Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” (2017).
Awards: San Sebastian Audience Award for Best European Film, Goya nominee for Best Iberoamerican Film.
Release: Gravitas Ventures picked the film up out of Sundance 2020, and planned a September 1, 2020, release. The film will be broadcast on PBS on 25 January 2021, as part of their POV program.
In the wake of “Honeyland” scoring Best Documentary and Best International Film nominations last year, several countries have offered up non-fiction entities as their foreign-language Oscar submissions; this is one of the highlights. Chile’s entry isn’t as widely celebrated as Romania’s “Collective,” but it’s been a crowd-pleasing hit on the festival circuit ever since last year’s Sundance. Alberti’s delightful character study unfolds as an intricate spy thriller, with a sweet-natured 83-year-old widower named Sergio infiltrating a nursing home at the behest of private detective Romulo Aitke. The plan goes awry with all kinds of comical and touching results, so well-assembled within a framework of fictional tropes that it begs for an American remake. But as much as such a product might appeal to companies hungry for content, it would be redundant from the outset, because “The Mole Agent” is already one of the most heartwarming spy movies of all time — a rare combination of genres that only works so well because it sneaks up on you.
Alberdi embedded herself with Aitke to prepare for the project and even considered turning his career into a TV series, “but that was super difficult for us to plan how to shoot it without being discovered and without interfering in Romulo’s work,” she said during an IDA Q&A. “We saw different cases and the one in the retirement home was the one we really loved.” Academy members will likely feel the same way. —EK
11. “My Little Sister” directed by Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
Country: Switzerland, with five nominations and two wins, for “Dangerous Moves” (1984) and “Journey of Hope” (1991).
Awards: Nina Hoss was nominated for Best European Actress at the European Film Awards, as well as the German Screen Actors Awards, where Marthe Keller was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Release: After its 2020 Berlin competition debut, the movie opened in Europe last fall and in stateside virtual cinemas January 15 via Film Movement.
Champions: Al Pacino and Tim Robbins.
Lars Eidinger plays a stage thespian with leukemia cared for by his nurturing twin sister (German star Nina Hoss), a playwright who fights for her brother’s life. The sister finds herself in the position of so many women who must juggle the demands of work, family, and caretaking. After a run of six films with Christian Petzold, in 2014 Hoss discovered documentary filmmakers Chuat and Reymond’s 2010 fiction feature debut, “The Little Bedroom”; they sent the actress a draft of “My Little Sister.” The three women spent years developing the final shooting script.
“It sits on the shoulders of the women to keep the whole family together and make it work,” said Hoss in a phone interview. “If she cares to fulfill her own dreams and wishes, it’s difficult to combine it all. As she plows through, she has the power to realize again what she is. And if she doesn’t fulfill these dreams, she isn’t useful for anyone.”
The movie asks how a twin faces the death of her second half. “What should I do if I don’t have you anymore?” said Hoss. “She faces it, she can, because she has got to go all the way with him, go through all these stages of loss, fighting and rebelling against it until these two come to the moment of acceptance and letting go.”
Hoss was delighted to work with Eidinger, who she knew from acting school. “It helped so much [that] we weren’t actors who met for first time on set,” she said. “We had this genuine warmth toward each other. We were fairly close back then, it’s that relationship where you don’t see each other much privately, but every time we do, it’s like we have just seen each other yesterday. We were having a blast going on this journey together.” —AT
12. “Never Gonna Snow Again” directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and co-directed by Michał Englert
Country: Poland, with 12 nominations for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and one win (Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida”).
Awards: Venice Film Festival’s Premio Fondazione Fai Persona Lavoro Ambiente Award – Special Mention.
Release: Kino Lorber, which has a history of offbeat foreign contenders, releases “Never Gonna Snow Again” this spring.
Poland’s submission balances beguiling whimsy with droll laughs in weaving a kind of fairytale spin on Pasolini’s “Teorema”: A beautiful man drops seemingly out of the sky and into an affluent community, invigorates their dreary lives for a minute, and then is gone in a flash. Alec Utgoff of “Stranger Things” plays a masseur who — part cherub, part beefcake — brings hypnotic powers with him from Pripyat, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, to a gated Polish neighborhood of the rich and bored. Szumowska and her cinematographer Englert co-direct this visually spellbinding tale that packs a quirky ensemble of people struggling to pinpoint their sadness. Utgoff’s Zhenia has the power to heal — spiritually? sexually? all of the above? — but at what cost to him?
The film has the crossover arthouse appeal that took Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski to the Oscars with foreign-language winner “Ida” in 2014, and nominee “Cold War” in 2018. —RL
13. “Notturno” directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Country: Italy, with three honorary Oscars, 28 nominations for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and 11 Oscars, including back to back wins for Federico Fellini’s “La Strada’ and “Nights of Cabiria,” followed by “8 1/2” and “Amarcord,” as well as Vittorio De Sica’s “Yesterday and Tomorrow” and “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” The most recent win was Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (2013).
Awards: At the Venice Film Festival, the Arca CinemaGiovani Award for Best Italian Film, Sorriso Diverso Venezia Award for Best Italian Film and the UNICEF Award.
Release: In virtual cinemas via Neon and Super LTD on January 22, 2021; on Premium On Demand and Hulu January 29, 2021.
Champions: Cate Blanchett, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Ed Lachman and Darius Khondji, and Joshua Oppenheimer.
Rosi landed an Oscar nomination for his 2016 documentary “Fire at Sea,” which explored the refugees landing on the island of Lampedusa. His next project, which debuted at Venice and was booked for Telluride, TIFF, NYFF, AFI, and London, could follow Neon’s “Honeyland,” which made Oscar history by becoming the first film to be nominated for both international feature and documentary.
This time, Rosi turned to the places that the people he filmed left behind. “At a certain point, I thought it was a necessity, a very strong need, to cross the sea and go to Syria, to Iraq, to the places where this exodus was coming from to try to understand,” Rosi told me at an IDA Q&A.
For the first eight months of his three-year odyssey along the refugee-burdened borders of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, Rosi shot nothing. Instead, he talked to people, found striking locations, and later returned with his camera to track his cast of characters for two more years. “I wanted the film to be the echo of the war,” he said, “and then try to follow the daily life of people that I met in my journey.”
While Rosi had local guides, assistants, and translators with him along the way, Rosi handled his own camera and sound. Through this journey, he never looked at his footage. Once he got home he started to organize what he had found. “The editing process became a new writing process,” he said. During six months of editing during the pandemic for the Venice Film Festival, he eliminated all the country borders. “I realized that pain was a universal element. Every person I met was not differentiated…if they were in Syria or Iraq or Lebanon.” And he found that “the film was somehow becoming so much closer to us, this sense of suspension, the sense of a suspended future, the sense that we don’t know what’s happening tomorrow.” —AT
14. “A Sun” directed by Chung Mong-hong
Country: Taiwan, with two nominations (“The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman”) and one win (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), all directed by Ang Lee.
Awards: Six wins at the Golden Horse Awards, including Best Feature, Best Director, Best Leading Actor (Chen Yi-wen), and Best Supporting Actor (Liu Kuan-ting). Nominated for Best Film at the Asian Film Awards.
Release: Netflix quietly uploaded the film directly to its platform in January 2020, skipping any theatrical rollout.
Metascore: The film doesn’t have enough reviews for a Metacritic rating, but is 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s hard to imagine how a staggering two-and-a-half-hour epic from an established auteur could play the Toronto International Film Festival, win the most prestigious movie award from its country of origin, receive a simultaneous worldwide release, and still manage to almost completely escape the attention of American critics. But the strange and singularly modern fate that befell Chung Mong-hong’s “A Sun” will only become more familiar in a world so flooded with content that even major works of art can sink into the murk like shipwrecks. Movies have never been more accessible, and they’ve never been harder to find.
“A Sun” is well worth seeking out. A stylish but unexpectedly sober tale of crime and punishment that finds its 55-year-old director pivoting away from the more heightened tone of his three previous features (“Parking,” “Soul,” and “Godspeed,” none of which are on Netflix) for a riveting moral odyssey that mixes elements of broad comedy, ultra-violence, melodrama, and even a splash of animation into the slow-boiling stew of everyday human existence. This story about a struggling family shattered by a terrible crime starts with a psychopathic gangster amputating a chef’s hand into a vat of hot soup, it ends with a warm moment of grace more than 20 years in the making, and it bridges the time in between with a matter-of-fact story so attuned to the moral velocity of real life that you don’t appreciate the opera of it all until the final curtain call.
If any 155-minute Taiwanese family saga invites easy comparisons to Edward Yang’s unassailable “Yi Yi,” Chung’s film earns them for how skillfully it mutes together the mundane with the profound, so that joy and sorrow become almost indistinguishable from each other and every passing second contains the same precious amount of time.
“A Sun” is beloved by almost everyone who’s taken the time to watch it, and it starts with a big enough bang that even half-interested awards voters might find themselves getting sucked into the slow-burn story. It’s a dark horse in this category to be sure, but it could easily become a legitimate contender if Netflix devotes the resources required for a legitimate push. —DE
15. “Vitalena Varela” directed by Pedro Costa
Country: Portugal, with no foreign-language nominations since 1980.
Awards: Golden Leopard (Locarno International Film Festival 2019)
Release: Grasshopper Films opened the film in February 2020; it started streaming September on Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, and other VOD platforms.
Champion: Willem Dafoe. “Clearly, Pedro’s work isn’t an entertainment, and not for everyone,” he told IndieWire, “but it is very pure cinema.”
Pedro Costa is not widely known among Academy members, but has been celebrated by cinephiles for decades thanks to his sophisticated docudramas, many of which take place within the confines of lower-class immigrant communities in Lisbon. “Vitalena Varela” follows the titular woman as she returns to her decrepit town after husband dies. The a slow-burn atmospheric character study is an absorbing and visually complex achievement driven by the sense of loss and religious yearning of its central character, who wanders the vacant streets while unleashing a series of profound monologues about her struggle. While it’s one of the more experimental and challenging Oscar contenders, Academy members who give it a chance will be richly rewarded by the depth of raw emotion on display. Actors branch member Dafoe has been a vocal supporter of the project. From a representational standpoint, Costa’s entry is one of the few that merges an activist intent with filmmaking ambition. “These people are buried in the ghettos, the awful societies they live in,” he said in an interview. ““I would like these films to connect with the brothers and sisters of the people on the screen.” —EK