A closer look at this year’s International Feature Oscar also-rans

The shortlist was too short for Monos and these other standouts from 2019.

Words

Charles Bramesco

@intothecrevasse

Earlier this week, the Oscar race shifted up a gear as a few of the key contests released the shortlists narrowing their field of eligible competitors for the five proper nominations. Best Original Song, Animated Film, and the newly rechristened Best International Feature Film categories have all separated the wheat from the chaff in anticipation of the voting period for the final slots that will begin in January.

Our predictions about who would make the cut were largely on-the-money, which amounts to both good and bad news. It’s good news in the sense that it’s good and nice to be right about things, but regrettable in that it means for the lion’s share of the submissions from around the globe, this spells the end of their presence on the global stage. In the interest of bringing some additional attention to the year’s smaller exports, here are six of the also-rans that may not have made the cut for the shortlist, but still more than merit a closer look.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Netflix devoted their promotional budget to ramming Mati Diop’s superb Atlantics through the nominating process, which left the United Kingdom’s entry hung up to dry. In a year that found an African film disqualified for using too much English, Chiwetel Ejiofor made his directorial debut with an English-speaking nation’s film acceptable on the grounds that it’s mainly in the African language of Chichewa.

The true story of a penniless Malawian kid who saved his village by using his autodidact engineering skills to jerry-rig a windmill powering an electric water pump, it’s a ringing testament to the resourcefulness and intelligence flowering in the unlikeliest of places. A genius can come to us from anywhere, and with enough perseverance and hard work, they can make a difference starting at home. For kids looking to break into an increasingly diversified STEM field, it’s an inspirational case study. (And the breathtaking cinematography from Dick Pope doesn’t hurt, either.)

Monos

Much like Netflix, NEON had to put all of their International Feature eggs in one basket (though their Parasite looks like the odds-on winner), but critics have still made something of a stir over Alejandro Landes’ broken-down-and-reconstituted genre film from Colombia. In a mountaintop stronghold high above the clouds high above the jungle high above civilization, a teenage paramilitary organization led by the diminutive yet brutal commander known as The Messenger prepares for something. We don’t know what, but judging from the American hostage, it won’t be good.

Landes uses his Lord of the Flies-esque setup – unsupervised youth turning to their baser impulses when cut off from polite society – as the scaffolding for some magnificent formal experiments. His work with slow motion and protracted close-ups as well as his deployment of Mica Levi’s hellacious score create an atmosphere of madness to mirror the psychological breakdown of the characters onscreen. Moreover, the filmmaker lodges a vicious critique of western colonialist exceptionalism, framing the kids’ fortress as a dark eden safe from the influence of the outside.

And Then We Danced

We were quite taken with this Swedish-Georgian coproduction (it’s about a Georgian dance ensemble, but it’s Sweden’s submission in an official capacity) out of its premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Our man on the scene Ed Frankl wrote, “Anchored by a host of excellent young performers, there’s an infectious joy to the film, with a spirit of defiance despite its painful depiction of artistic and sexual repression.”

Levan Akin focuses on one young man who’s got his eye set on excellence, and with his female dance partner, the path to it is clear. But the introduction of a new talent to the ensemble confronts him with his first rival and first crush, a combination of feelings made all the more confusing by the repressive dictates of orthodoxy in still-relatively-conservative Georgia. He defiantly dances his way through compulsory heterosexuality in a film leavening its heavy look into LGBTQ persecution with dazzling musical numbers.

Weathering with You

Makoto Shinkai is one of the biggest names in Japanese animation right now, and his latest feature re-established for the umpteenth time why that is. Set aside the tender love story between lonely souls grasping at one another in brief passing, set aside the softened sci-fi angling toward global warming commentary – independent of context, analysis, what-have-you, this is an overwhelmingly gorgeous film. Shinkai gracefully clears the hurdles of artistically rendering light and water, two elements tricky to articulate onscreen and essential to the story he’s chosen to tell.

A down-on-his-luck street teen falls in with (and falls in love with) a “sunshine girl,” rumored by legend to be able to control the weather. They start a lucrative clement-conditions-for-pay business, but it quickly spins out into potential cataclysm as she reckons with forces beyond her control. It boasts one of the year’s most disarming, unexpected endings, as Shinkai dares to wonder whether a great flood to wipe deleterious humanity off the face of the planet might not be the worst thing right now.

It Must Be Heaven

Elia Suleiman’s grand return to filmmaking after a 10-year hiatus proved that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The situation between Palestine and Israel has deteriorated, but for Suleiman’s deadpan stand-in character, it’s right back to the hilariously bleak tensions and Tatiesque wide-shot comedy and overarching sense of despair that defined his earlier work. One gag involving cops on Segways, weaving around one another as if in a choreographed ballet, could have been lifted right from his masterly The Time That Remains.

But the Palestinian great’s latest effort advances his oeuvre by sending him on the road, as “Elia” decides the time is right to get out of the Middle East and see if life might be better abroad. Of course it is not, as he travels through Paris, New York, and other metro areas only to find the same absurdity, hostility, and senselessness he was trying to escape at home. And all the guy wanted was to tend his lemon tree in peace!

A Land Imagined

The year’s major work of Chinese miserablism was Hu Bo’s shattering An Elephant Sitting Still, but their neighbors in Singapore offered this worthy companion piece that also stared unblinking at the human toll of industrialization in Asia. In it, a policeman sent to investigate the death of a worker at a construction site keeps digging deeper and deeper, and finds that there’s no bottom to the greed and corruption of those on the winning side of capitalism. The class system has a body count.

The scenes focusing on the mechanics of the worksite, the sludge of cement sliding through chuting in particular, present a potent metaphor of manmade influence choking out the course of nature. In frightfully literal fashion, the film eventually boils down to the old expression: if you work for a living, then why kill yourself working?

Published 18 Dec 2019

Tags: Academy Awards Alejandro Landes Chiwetel Ejiofor Elia Suleiman Makoto Shinkai Oscars

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