By Sean Boelman
In recent years, the race for Best International Film has gotten increased publicity, with last year’s Roma and this year’s Parasite being critical and audience favorites entering the greater Best Picture conversation. However, despite the benefits of heightened attention for the contenders, a majority of the buzz seems to be going to the one frontrunner. The purpose of this article is to help make people more aware of the other great nominees.
The clear favorite to win the award (both the Golden Globe and the Oscar) is the South Korean film Parasite. A wickedly funny dark satire, Bong Joon-ho’s film follows a lower-class family as they slowly infiltrate the lives of their wealthy employers. Bong has quite a bit on his mind with this film, and he tells it in a way that is consistently entertaining and surprisingly accessible to general audiences. Additionally, the film is absolutely gorgeous, the cinematography and production design being among the best of the year. Still, even though it is excellent, it still feels like the least deserving of the contenders in a completely stacked category.
Another film likely to translate its Golden Globe recognition into an Oscar nomination is Ladj Ly’s French thriller Les Misérables. Not to be confused with the musical inspired by Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic novel, Ly’s film is an exploration of police brutality within the modern French police system. This is likely the most thought-provoking and challenging film of the bunch, and while not all of its ambitious swings hit, this is certainly a very timely and important film. Though it lacks the polish of Parasite, Ly’s gritty style fits the film perfectly.
The final Golden Globe nominee that is likely to also show up in the Oscars race is Pain & Glory, a semi-autobiographical drama from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Antonio Banderas is considered a favorite for his wonderful performance as a film director who is reflecting on the mistakes he has made over his lifetime. Quiet and contemplative, the film is one of the more low-key nominees, but Almodóvar still brings a distinguished and intriguing visual style to his story. What truly makes this film stand out, though, is its undeniably personal nature.
What is surprising about this year’s Best International Film race is that the two best films vying for the Golden Globe have no chance of being nominated for the Oscar. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma’s elegant French lesbian romance, was passed over by the French selection committee in favor of Les Misérables. Although both films theoretically deserve a nomination, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the clearly superior film with its nuanced but deliberate story and breathtaking cinematography.
The final (and arguably best) nominee for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film is the one that shouldn’t be there. Since the Golden Globes still have it as a “foreign language” category, Lulu Wang’s autobiographical dramedy The Farewell was relegated to this competition instead of the main categories in which it rightfully belongs. The film’s premise, hiding a family member’s terminal condition from them, is rooted in a cultural practice unknown to most viewers, and that is what makes the film so intriguing. Also of note are Wang’s hilarious script and great performances from Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen (the former of whom was nominated as well).
This batch of nominees is indicative of some of the greater issues with the awards system. For the Golden Globes, films that are nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category are not eligible to be nominated in the two main competitions, resulting in two films that arguably deserve a nomination in these more prestigious categories being relegated to a lesser laurel.
The issue in the Oscars race for Best International Film is even more frustrating, though. With the current nominations process, each country only gets to submit a single film as their representative in the awards. In a year such as this, in which there are two worthy contenders from a single country (Les Misérables and Portrait of a Lady on Fire from France; Synonyms and Incitement from Israel), some films that deserve (and arguably even need) this added attention won’t get it. Even though the idea of an award honoring the best in international cinema is welcome and necessary, there is a better way to go about it.
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