10 International Films That Deserve Oscar Nominations
With one day left before the first round of Oscar voting, Academy members shouldn’t forget these international options.
One of the most exciting narratives of this year’s awards season has been the breakout success of “Parasite,” Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or-winning dark comedic tale of family con artists and class warfare, which went on to become the highest-grossing foreign language film in the U.S. by the end of 2019. Distributor NEON has transformed that momentum into serious Oscar buzz, potentially yielding Oscar nominations for the movie in several major categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
However, while these outcomes may provide many reasons to celebrate on the morning of nominations, they only begin to crack a bigger challenge for the Academy in its quest to acknowledge filmmaking beyond American borders.
Last year, “Roma” director Alfonso Cuaron often used the platform of his Oscar campaign to remind people that the concept of a “foreign-language film” was malleable. Growing up in Mexico, Cuaron said, his favorite foreign-language films included Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”
Cuarón’s point resonated with the Academy, which changed the name of the Best Foreign Language Film category to Best International Feature Film. The new label spoke to good intentions, but didn’t actually change the nature of the Oscar race. Though some 20% of Academy voters are now international, the bulk of awards season buzz is consumed by American cinema, with most non-English language movies acknowledged at the ceremony through their nominations in a single category.
Recent years have found a few notable exceptions, including Cuarón, who went on to win Best Director in a very international category that also included Poland’s “Cold War” helmer Pawel Pawlikowski — whose black-and-white drama also scored a cinematography nomination — and Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos (albeit for the British production “The Favourite”).
This year, “Parasite” may not be the only contender to push beyond the foreign-language ghetto, as Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” stands a chance at scoring a directing nod as well as a first-ever nomination for star Antonio Banderas. But there were many, many more movies released in 2019 that Academy voters might consider — but only if they’re willing to do their homework. While only films on the shortlist for Best International Feature Film can be nominated for that category, others may still qualify for major categories as long as they’ve been released and submitted for consideration.
The Academy’s list of eligible productions for this year’s Oscar race extends far beyond this year’s frontrunners. As voters scramble to meet the January 7 deadline to vote on this year’s nominations, they may want to consider these options — some of which may be more obvious than others.
We realize this is late in the game, but anyone with a stack of screeners and some gaps to fill still has time to squeeze in a few more possibilities. Academy voters might still end up delighting in the likes of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “1917,” but if they want to instigate real change, they’ll consider this broader set of options as well. The following list has been ranked in order of priorities, assuming that most voters have already considered the titles closer to the top of the list.
Yes, “Parasite” may seem like a no-brainer. As IndieWire’s Anne Thompson previously reported, Bong’s acclaimed achievement may even do better than “Roma,” which scored 10 nominations. “Parasite” could do all that and more if it lands an Editing nomination. For that to happen, however, voters who love “Parasite” shouldn’t forget about the many other significant categories where it deserves nominations. The movie’s main set, a house built from scratch, should land it a Best Production Design nomination, and it should also find support in categories such as Cinematography and Sound Editing.
Then there are the performances. Bong regular Song Kang Ho stands a shot at a Supporting Actor nomination for his turn as a morally-conflicted father, but Choi Woo-shik’s turn as the son of Song’s character — a young man split between his family’s interests and the prospects of a more stable future — could just as easily make sense for a Best Actor nod. And how about a Supporting Actress vote for Lee Jung-eun, who plays the determined housekeeper who has shocking secrets in the basement of the wealthy home where that has employed her for years? She’s a key factor in the movie’s shifty tone during its surprising midpoint.
9. “Pain and Glory”
Almodóvar’s best movie in years is also his most personal — a touching, wistful look at what it means to be an aging artist grasping for more relevance. It’s a shoo-in for a Best International Feature Film nomination — where it’s almost certainly going to lose to “Parasite.” (Almodóvar won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Talk to Her,” but that’s it.) The good will for Almodóvar and the movie could yield at least two more nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, though the movie deserves a Best Picture nomination as well — and getting it into the expansive possibilities of that field, where up to 10 movies can get nominated, is the ideal way to take advantage of a flexible category.
However, “Pain and Glory” has much more to offer than these potential outcomes. Penelope Cruz only appears in a handful of flashback scenes as the main character’s doting mother, but she gives a wondrous, textured performance informed by the subtle way that she embodies a memory, and would make a lot of sense in the Supporting Actress category. But nobody’s talking enough about Leonardo Sbaraglia, the great Argentine actor who delivers a bittersweet turn as the ex-lover of Banderas’ Salvador Mallo, the fictionalized version of Almodóvar who struggles with the pain of their drug-fueled breakup. When Sbaraglia shows up late in the movie for a wrenching scene of reconciliation at Salvador’s apartment, the movie transforms into a romantic two-hander almost exclusively informed by the two actors’ investment in creating an authentic onscreen bond.
Throughout these circumstances, a haunting score guides “Pain and Glory” through its meditative story, underscoring the ambiguous nature of the emotions in play. That’s thanks to composer Alberto Iglesias, who won the Cannes Soundtrack Award back in May but hasn’t received nearly as much attention in recent weeks. In the Best Original Score category, shortlisted Iglesias absolutely deserves a final slot.
Matt Diop’s Cannes-acclaimed feature debut is a mesmerizing look at the immigration crisis through an original lens. The Senegalese Oscar submission finds a young woman (Mame Binet Sane) struggling with the sudden absence of her lover when she joins several men in an ill-advised attempt to flee to Spain. While the shortlisted film could easily score a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film — again, losing to “Parasite” — it has many attributes worth singling out, starting with Sane’s extraordinary performance. The actress’ stone-faced delivery is undercut with bursts of emotion as she struggles to understand the nature of her partner’s fate, and it reaches entirely new heights once the story pitches into supernatural possession territory in its poetic final act.
That remarkable narrative conceit creeps into the material with such ingenuity that “Atlantics” should receive serious consideration for Best Original Screenplay as well. Lacing it all together, the movie’s storybook imagery — deep blues and blacks underscore the otherworldly circumstances at play — speak to the achievements of cinematographer Claire Mathon, who deserves a nomination as well. And getting her into the Best Cinematography category could kill two birds with one stone, because…
7. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
…Mathon also shot Celine Sciamma’s striking 18th century lesbian romance (and won a Best Cinematography award from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics in recent weeks). “Portrait” was another revered Cannes title, one directed by France’s greatest working filmmaker, and it’s a potent example of how to rejuvenate the period drama by finding fresh material worthy of its appeal. Nominating “Portrait” in several categories would also make up for the limitations of the foreign-language shortlisting process, since France chose to submit “Les Miserables” over “Portrait,” making it ineligible for the Best International Feature Film category.
Fortunately, there’s much more to nominate beyond that, including two first-rate performances. Adele Hanele plays Heloise, the affluent offspring of a family that hires a painter played by Noémie Merlant to paint Heloise’s portrait. The developing romance relies on nuances gestures and cues to hint at their developing bond before it reaches a bittersweet climax. Meanwhile, the ever-talented Sciamma herself ought to be considered for the best director category, which stands a good chance at shutting out any women nominees at all.
6. “Les Miserables”
SRAB Films/Rectangle Productions/Lyly films
Ladj Ly’s directorial debut opened Cannes 2019 with a bang, resurrecting the street warfare of “La Haine” with a contemporary police thriller that never slows down. The naturalistic filmmaking follows a set of officers over the course of a short period as tensions build in the Paris suburbs, culminating in a shocking climax that echoes “Do the Right Thing” in its visceral exploration of class-based tensions with local authorities.
For these claustrophobic action-packed scenes alone, Ly deserves a Best Director nomination — just as much as Sam Mendes does for the similarly jittery warfare of “1917.” And while “Les Miserables” is France’s Oscar submission, voters may also consider putting Damien Bonnard on the ballot for Best Actor, considering that his riveting performance as a conflicted policeman taps into the essence of the movie’s potent themes.
The directorial debut of Egyptian-born filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky was a surprise entry in Cannes competition in 2018, but Strand Releasing didn’t open it in the U.S. until last May, and it qualifies in other categories despite not making the cut for the shortlist. Shawky’s gentle, unassuming movie follows leprosy survivor Beshay (Rady Gamal, who actually did survive the disease) who leaves his colony after his wife’s death in search of long-lost relatives. In the process, he embarks on a road trip with a young orphan named Obama (Ahmed Adelhafiz), whose energetic drive for adventure helps Beshay come out of his shell. The two likable characters often help the movie overcome its sentimental formula by grounding it with naturalistic performances. Gamal in particular is a remarkable case study for the value of placing underrepresented faces onscreen: While his physical appearance at first makes him stand apart from those around him, he develops into such an inviting figure over the course of the story that it’s almost as if “Yomeddine” were a documentary. While it might be a shot in the dark, voters who choose to acknowledge Gamal’s performance on their lists for Best Actor would be making a smart call.
4. “Invisible Life”
Director Karim Ainouz’s lush melodrama was Brazil’s Oscar submission, but unfortunately didn’t make the shortlist. No matter: There is much more to celebrate about this absorbing ’50s-set tale of sisters Erídice and Guida (Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler) pulled apart over the years by their traditionalist family. The movie follows Erídice as she contends with a bland marriage while Guida’s carefree romantic indulgences lead her father (Gregorio Duvivier) to cut her off. Ainouz’s complex screenplay, adapted from Martha Batalha’s novel, would make a lot of sense for the Best Adapted Screenplay category — it’s profound, touching, and loaded in inquisitive moments — while the movie’s sophisticated ability to shift between two overlapping narratives across a long period of time means that editor Heike Parplies (whose credits include “Toni Erdmann”) deserves a vote as well.
3. “I Lost My Body”
The winner of last year’s Cannes Critics Week is a unique animated achievement that follows the exploits of a severed hand traveling across Paris on a quest to find its missing body. Acquired by Netflix out of that festival, French director Jérémy Clapin’s gothic 2-D wonder is at once a romantic tale of soul-searching and a supernatural adventure story. Having found much acclaim on the festival circuit and with Netflix muscle behind its campaign (the film won the Animation Is Film Grand Prize and scored six Annie nominations), “I Lost My Body” stands a good shot at scoring a Best Animated Feature nomination.
But the movie owes just as much of its appeal to the screenplay, which Clapin and Guillaume Laurant adapted from Laurant’s acclaimed graphic novel. From its unusual opening premise, it continues to shift in fresh and surprising directions, as leading man Naoufel — whose life ambitions are at odds with his drab routine as a pizza deliveryman — stumbles into an awkward scenario when he takes on a new gig as a mechanic in the quest to get closer to a neighborhood girl. The movie’s understated tone builds to operatic moments with the expressionistic intimacy of a Wong Kar Wai movie, thanks to a large degree by the way the script navigates so many unusual turns.
German director Christian Petzold excels at making complex, moody explorations of the personal toll that large institutional events have for his country’s citizens. “Transit” takes that fixation into a fascinating new setting, with a modern-day alternate history saga in which German political refugee Georg (Franz Rogowski) escapes Paris after fascist forces swarm in. Over the course of this unpredictable dystopian escape story, Georg flees to Marseilles and winds up taking on the identity of a local writer in an attempt to flee to Mexico. Instead, he falls for the writer’s estranged wife and struggles to determine his priorities as the situation in Europe grows increasingly dire.
As with “Barbara” and “Phoenix,” Petzold excels at transforming the suspenseful material into a psychological deep-dive, with a fascinating screenplay adapted from Anna Seghers’ novel that maintains its gripping tone throughout. Guided by the voiceover of a bar owner who remains on the periphery for most of the story, “Transit” doubles as a clever meditation on the way historical events are reduced to the boundaries of recollections. Petzold’s work deserves wider recognition in general, and an adapted screenplay nomination would certainly do the trick, but scrupulous voters might also consider Rogowski’s performance for Best Actor — he’s at once fierce and fragile as a desperate man running out of options.
2019 kicked off with one of the best discoveries of the year: Premiering at Sundance, Colombian-born director Alejandro Landes’ mesmerizing look at child soldiers in foggy mountainous terrain, battling against each other and the elements as they sort through a seemingly pointless war, was a cinematic highlight. Landes’ ability to shoot in these remote landscapes yields breathtaking outdoor scenery and some acrobatic camerawork so risky it’s a wonder everyone survived the shoot. But if the backstory to “Monos” suggests an “Apocalypse Now”-level feat of filmmaking ambition, the ensuing narrative is more like a modern-day “Lord of the Flies,” exploring the impulses of young guerrilla fighters from the inside out.
Landes may have a long career ahead of him, but it’s still a shame that “Monos” didn’t make the Oscar shortlist. Academy directors could make up for that by supporting him for Best Director; shockingly, the music branch didn’t shortlist the magical score by “Jackie” composer Micah Levi. A haunting acoustic soundscape that often seems to hover within the mindsets of its characters, Levi’s innovative composition is unquestionably one of the great musical achievements of the past 12 months, and in a just world, she’d land her second nomination this year. No such luck. But “Monos” ought to make its way onto some ballots.