For the past two years, the Academy Award for international feature has been a foregone conclusion. With both “Parasite,” and “Roma,” the overriding question was which other categories they might take, and in a history-making achievement now wistfully recalled by many as “the last good thing to happen before lockdown,” “Parasite” took both the international and best picture awards last year.
This time, none of the international feature nominees snagged a best picture nod, but that doesn’t mean there’s no frontrunner. Denmark’s “Another Round,” a beautiful, bittersweet film about a gang of schoolteachers boozily self-medicating through their midlife crises, is the clear favorite, especially after its pleasant-surprise directing nomination for Thomas Vinterberg. For the past 40 years, also getting a director nod has all but guaranteed the international Oscar win, and boosted by the popularity of star Mads Mikkelsen giving one of his best performances, Denmark’s fourth international Oscar win is in the cards, and would be hard to begrudge.
From the most widely predicted nomination to the least: Tunisia’s first-ever international feature nod comes for the comparatively under-the-radar “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” the only one of the five films not currently available to the public. Despite an excellent central turn from Yahya Mahayni, Kaouther Ben Hania’s film is an uneven, sometimes uneasy mix of art-world satire and refugee drama. So although it’s heartening to see an African film in the nominations — this will be only the 10th ever from the entire continent — its appearance is certainly the category’s biggest surprise.
That the sole Asian nomination came for Hong Kong’s “Better Days” was unexpected too, albeit less so. Taiwan’s shortlisted “A Sun” reportedly made a late surge, especially once it appeared on Netflix. But Derek Tsang’s moody, noirish love story, featuring a heartbreaking central performance from actress Zhou Dongyu, is a worthy inclusion, and arguably has an important issues-based edge in highlighting the troubling phenomenon of bullying in Chinese schools.
But for social commentary, there can be no better candidate than Romania’s “Collective,” an essential documentary that plays like a procedural thriller investigating medical malfeasance and political mismanagement after a lethal fire in a Bucharest nightclub. Also garnering a nomination for documentary, it is, amazingly, the first international film nomination for Romania, home to one of the most globally respected national cinemas of recent decades. Even if it wins in neither category (and the documentary winners tend overwhelmingly to be English-language titles) the dual nominations for Alexander Nanau’s film must surely help it find the broad audience it deserves (it is streaming on Hulu).
And an audience is also building for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s harrowing and compassionate “Quo Vadis, Aida?” perhaps giving it the best shot at overtaking “Another Round” in the final assessment. Jasmila Žbanić’s film is a riveting account of the Srebrenica massacre, which pivots on a steely, devastating central performance from Jasna Đuričić. In a just world, she would have been in the running for acting awards too, but when a category yields three films that would be unimpeachable winners, from an impressive shortlist of 15 that represented the diversity of global cinema far better than previous years, there is cause for celebration — maybe another round? — in the international feature arena in 2021.