Over the past week, I’ve attempted to catch up with the 2021 nominees for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. A couple are still hard to find outside of theaters and rent-based services, but several are available on streaming services right now. Here is my tentative ranking of the international nominees.
5. The Man Who Sold His Skin
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Most of my reasons in ranking this film at the bottom are due to a strong personal bias involving a book I once read called Lorsque J’Etais Une Oeuvre d’Art, whose themes of human art are very prevalent in this movie. I really do not wish to mislead the reader by indicating that the book and this film are one and the same, but it should be understood that I already loathe the idea of testing the boundaries of art so far as to interfere with human life. The interesting part about The Man Who Sold His Skin is that this human art topic is actually inspired by a true story. In short, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye commissioned a man (“Tim”) to sit pretty to show off the artist-designed Madonna tattoo in galleries three times a year. The Man Who Sold His Skin took that idea and ran with it, employing Syrian refugee Sam Ali as the canvas for an ironically themed “Visa Tattoo,” with meticulous and pretentious artist Jeffery Godefroi (a satisfyingly icky Koen de Bouw) taking on the figurative Delvoye.
There is some discussion to be had from and about this movie, and I will give it credit for experimenting with a heady subject: mixing the refugee crisis and the debate on the limits of art as a medium is a potent cocktail. It did get me thinking- as did its gorgeous art-filled backdrops. It’s no surprise that a film based around art has an eye for the visually pleasing, and this was a fortunate phenomenon.
However, where I struggle is in regards to the needlessly complex love story, and its oftentimes cartoonish depiction of modern high art culture reminiscent of the overwhelming disaster that was Velvet Buzzsaw (2018). For reference, there’s a scene where Sam Ali is being bid on, and he runs out into the crowd in an act of protest, and there’s a slo-mo scene of all of the sumptuously dressed auction attendees screaming and running out of the room. Obviously there’s a degree of futuristic fantasy to this concept, but the hot button refugee crisis loses a bit of its impact when juxtaposed with this commentary. Overall, I’d recommend you check this out if you are interested in art politics, but it was not my preferred 100 minutes.
4. Better Days
Director: Derek Tsang
Bad things happen: the movie. Better Days are the much desired outcome of this intense look at life-threatening bullying and harassment that will twist your stomach up and make you clench your fists. Young Chen Nian (played by the 29 year old Zhou Dongyu, most well known for Us and Them), gets manhandled by her bullies and by street gangs. She is innocent of everything besides the intention to succeed, which society seemingly does not want her to do. She finds an ally in the trickster Bei, who vows to protect her until she completes her exams. The insufferable Wei Lei continues to torment her, eventually leading to an act of fury. The resulting investigation, both into the suicide of Wei Lei’s previous bullying target and Wei Lei’s later death, are what qualifies this movie as falling into the crime genre. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of pettiness and misery.
To call this film heavy-handed would be an understatement, as it even opens with a statement about bullying and why it’s bad, but based on the scenario I am not of the opinion that the abuse is unrealistic or excessive just for the hell of it. I do, however, somewhat struggle to find the balance between the crime genre and the tense friendship of Chen Nian and Bei. They humanize the cops, making them more major characters, as an attempt to create a query about empathy in false confessions- but since we are already essentially viewing the film through Chen Nian’s eyes, I don’t think it makes much sense to add in this perspective. It mainly serves to drag out the runtime to 140 minutes, not all of which were necessary to tell this story.
Don’t get me wrong- I think Better Days is a fine movie, but Academy Award worthy, with its frenetic editing and very patent message, seems like a bit of a stretch. Watch for Zhou Dongyu.
Director: Alexander Nanau
Seeing the Romanian pride for the fact that this is the first Romanian film to be nominated for an Academy award (and two at that!) is very special to me, and I am quite enthused by it gaining attention for that reason. Sebastian Stan talking it up on Indiewire surely brought it to more people’s attention, and it doesn’t even seem to be a matter of frustration when people find out that this is not a narrative film but a very well-shot documentary. I will keep my comments limited, as evaluating the quality of a documentary against these other films seems a little bit unfair. That said, the first thirty minutes, I must say, are thrilling. The doc follows a team of journalists determining why victims of a club fire, who suffered non-life-threatening burns, began to die in the hospital days later. The premise feels like it should be a Hollywood movie, but the fact that these are real people doing some true investigative digging is so rewarding. They poke holes in the system, interview whistle-blowers, and catch people in lies like genuine superheroes.
I only wish that the last forty minutes had the same momentum as the beginning, because my interest did unfortunately start to wane. I don’t think that the ending hits quite hard as it might if the journalists didn’t shift attention away from the objective information of the case and to the families affected so early on- the final shot is pretty bold for a documentary and it certainly adds a cinematic quality to its resolve, but I’m not sure if it *quite* worked for me. It’s normal for the documentarians to get involved with their subjects, but I wish they had deliberately paced it so you didn’t feel like you were leaving one half and starting the next. That said, I genuinely recommend this doc, as it is one of the better ones of the past couple years. I hope Hollywood doesn’t butcher it when they steal its plot.
2. Another Round
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Another Round is probably the most well-known of the nominees, in part due to the cult following of director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen, but also because of its fun premise. Imagine: four middle-aged teachers, disillusioned with their careers and lives, taking a vow to maintain a persistent level of drunkenness during the day. The secrecy of the ring of inebriated teachers in Another Round is part of the fun. It is also part of the experiment, which, they insist, is for science. Their pact to test out Norwegian philosopher Finn Skarderud’s theory that man is born deficient 0.05% in blood alcohol is intriguing. Moreover, it raises an interesting question: is our true essence always only a cocktail away?
Vinterberg’s 12th feature film is laid-back and self-assured, much like any film would be from a seasoned director who has made a return to both his native language and his muse, Mikkelsen. The film is a less isolating romp than 2012’s The Hunt, with fraternity being the key to Another Round’s frequent light-heartedness, but the film does not spare on the harsh realities of the dangers of addiction. Foree into Danish drinking culture, the disaffection of midlife crises, and the disequal, gendered distribution of household responsibilities warn that this is partially a cautionary tale.
The movie’s final scene might isolate some from its occasionally refreshing sobriety, but I found it delightful. I could easily watch Mads Mikkelson dance for another thirty minutes. Although this film doesn’t rank among my absolute favorites of the year, I think its subject accessibility and nuance in handling it make for a rather entertaining watch.
1. Quo Vadis, Aida?
Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina
This is a harrowing movie. There’s no way to get around the matter when you’re dealing with a genocide. This look at the plight of a translator negotiating safe haven between the UN and the Serbs is brutal- not because of the violence (very little of which is actually presented on screen), but because it concentrates so heavily on the communication of the matter. Do words hold power in the wake of imminent inhumanity? Her role is simply to facilitate. She can try to offer her opinion, but in reality she’s merely the messenger. When it comes to rescuing her husband and sons from the Serbs, the significance of the conversation is ultimately up in the air.
Jasna Đuričić is a force to behold in the role of Aida. The energy and the distress of the movie can be attributed to her sturdy performance as an emboldened woman with everything to lose. It can be hard to watch because of the time-sensitive matter, and the oddly dry circumstances that are determining people’s fate. Most frustrating is the lack of action in this waiting game, mirroring real-life to a tee. Quo Vadis Aida? is a raw experience, and one that has been tragically overlooked this year. I hope people make time for this one, as it is melancholic and moving and will undoubtedly make an impact. Although Another Round will win, this is the winner in my heart.
There you have it, my tentative ranking of the nominees. I encourage people to check out all these movies regardless to stay updated on the latest releases, and if you want to talk more about the Oscars, let's have a chat before the 25th! Happy Oscars season,