This year's Best International Feature Oscar shortlist is the longest one yet, with 15 films included, and most of of them are unique and valuable pieces of work. This category has always been a personal favorite due to the diversity of the choices and because of how many filmmakers have had major career boosts after being nominated (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Pedro Almodóvar, Denis Villeneuve, Yorgos Lanthimos, etc.). It also demonstrates why the Academy Awards are valuable: they highlight work to the industry and the public that would frequently have been ignored, particularly due to Americans' fear of subtitles.
Of all of the films shortlisted, perhaps the one that stands out most (as well as one of the best) is Tunisia's submission, THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN, written and directed by Kaouther Ben Hania. A confident, provocative, and formally brilliant feature, the film tells the story of a Syrian refugee (Yahya Mahayni - keep an eye on him) who, in exchange for a visa to meet his lover in Europe, allows an artist to tattoo a Schengen visa on his back, turning him into a walking work of art. Unexpectedly satisfying with a number of surprises, this is a film that has made it this far with the Academy simply because of how great it is.
France's submission, Filippo Meneghetti's debut feature, TWO OF US, is also a must-see and a personal favorite. Following two older women who are both neighbors and secret lovers, this vital film feels like the work of a filmmaker far beyond his years and features two deeply-felt performances from Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier. TWO OF US rewards repeat viewings.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's now-BAFTA-nominated submission (for Best Director and Best Film Not in the English Language), QUO VADIS, AIDA? is an essential film that serves as a testament to those that perished in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and as an indictment of the UN who stood by and allowed atrocities to happen. Writer/director Jasmila Žbanić, already an acclaimed filmmaker in her own right (one of her previous films won both the Berlin Film Festival and AFI Fest), deserves to be lifted to the next level, as her filmmaking craft is lean, emotionally-engaging, and ruthlessly unsentimental. This, like TWO OF US, loses none of its power on a second watch.
This year, two documentaries, Chile's THE MOLE AGENT and Romania's COLLECTIVE, ended up on both the Best Documentary and Best International Feature shortlists. THE MOLE AGENT is an utterly charming and delightful work, and COLLECTIVE is one of the great documentaries of the modern day. Unfolding like a real-life ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, this propulsive and deeply disturbing BAFTA-nominated film about governmental and societal corruption in Romania was one of my favorite films of 2020 (many of these films are 2021 releases in the United States).
Veteran filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky returned with a vengeance with his ferocious BAFTA-nominated DEAR COMRADES!, an ironic and razor-sharp takedown of the Soviet Communist government meticulously shot in black-in-white and featuring a tightly-controlled performance from the director's longtime collaborator and wife, Julia Vysotskaya. Another of the best of 2020.
Taiwan's entry, A SUN, a masterful piece of filmmaking from director Chung Mong-hong, is an epic exploration of the lives of one family that is both beautifully-observed and devastating. Though this film has a 156-minute running time, the film's rich performances and complex story make it fly by. This film was largely unknown until Variety's Peter Debruge named it the best of 2020. I included it on my list too.
With other nominated films under their respective belts, Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi returns with his heartbreaking SUN CHILDREN (one of the best of this group) and Agnieszka Holland returns with CHARLATAN, an unconventional and compelling biopic of a controversial Czech healer.
This year also brought a few shortlisted films from countries that had never been shortlisted before (the aforementioned Tunisian film, THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN, included) including Guatemala with Jayro Bustamante's beautifully-crafted and haunting LA LLORONA that transposes the classic story of La Llorona onto modern-day Guatemala and Ivory Coast with Philippe Lacôte's highly original NIGHT OF THE KINGS. While these two films may not be their directors' first features, their distinctive style makes these filmmakers talents to continue to watch.
There were also two films from filmmakers who have never had a nominated film despite their respective countries being nominated or winning in the past: I'M NO LONGER HERE (Mexico), written and directed by Fernando Frías de la Parra, and BETTER DAYS (Hong Kong), directed by Derek Tsang. Both films have garnered a large amount of praise, especially the former, as it has received a DGA nomination as well as support from Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo Del Toro.
Finally, Norway's submission, HOPE, written and directed by Maria Sødahl, is a particularly memorable and authentic film about the director's battle with cancer with searing performances from Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård. Even if you think you've seen too many cancer films, this one is a must.
Choosing five films from this group will be incredibly tough, as the quality is, for the very most part, high. And, unlike many years in which a number of the films had not been released in the United States, the vast majority of them are available to view. Please find a list below of where you can rent, stream, or purchase all of the shortlisted titles.
ANOTHER ROUND - virtual cinema, rental and purchase everywhere
TWO OF US - virtual cinema, rental everywhere
BETTER DAYS - rental and purchase everywhere
CHARLATAN - coming soon from Strand Releasing
COLLECTIVE - virtual cinema, rental and purchase everywhere
DEAR COMRADES! - stream on Hulu, virtual cinema, and rental and purchase everywhere
HOPE - in virtual cinemas on April 16
I'M NO LONGER HERE - stream on Netflix
LA LLORONA - stream on Shudder, rental and purchase everywhere
THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN - coming soon from Samuel Goldwyn Films
THE MOLE AGENT - stream on Hulu, rental and purchase everywhere
NIGHT OF THE KINGS - virtual cinema, rental and purchase everywhere
QUO VADIS, AIDA? - in theaters and virtual cinemas now, VOD on March 15
A SUN - stream on Netflix
SUN CHILDREN - coming soon from Strand Releasing