2021 Oscars Guide: International Features : Pop Culture Happy Hour This year's Oscar nominees for best international feature film tackle a variety of issues, from school bullying to mass slaughter, from government corruption to alcohol abuse — one nominee even grapples with the nature and purpose of art itself. But even though these films reveal some darker truths about the human condition, they each manage to do so with a vivid sense of style and a deep sense of empathy that's as enlivening as it is enlightening.
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2021 Oscars Guide: International Features

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2021 Oscars Guide: International Features

2021 Oscars Guide: International Features

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

This year's Academy Award nominees for best international feature film tackle a variety of issues, from school bullying to mass slaughter, from government corruption to alcohol abuse. One nominee even grapples with the nature and purpose of art itself. But even though these films reveal some darker truths about the human condition, they each manage to do so with a vivid sense of style and a deep sense of empathy that's as enlivening as it is enlightening. I'm Glen Weldon. And today on NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, a guide to this year's Oscar-nominated international feature films. So don't go away.

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WELDON: Welcome back. With me today is film critic Carlos Aguilar. Welcome, Carlos.

CARLOS AGUILAR: Thank you for having me.

WELDON: It's great to have you. And we'll try to pull out some commonalities in this particular mix of films at the end. But let's jump into it right away. First up is "Another Round." That's the nominee from Denmark. It stars Mads Mikkelsen, among others. The director, Thomas Vinterberg, is also up for best directing this year. It is now streaming on Hulu. It's about a group of four school teachers, all middle-aged white dudes, not coincidentally, who make a pact to see how their lives improve if they maintain a constant blood alcohol level of 0.05%. Things go great until they don't. Carlos, what did you think?

AGUILAR: I mean, I think this one is by far the most accessible in the sense that it's - you know, the situations and the circumstances of these people both are very relatable. You know, they're having issues at home with their wives. They've lost their lust for life. They're at a place in their lives where they're teaching young people and they see themselves or projecting in what they've done with their lives and how they no longer feel interested in the things that they used to be. So it's sort of, like, revitalizing for them, an invigorating experience to be drunk and to sort of experience life again.

Mads Mikkelsen's performance is really the highlight here throughout, particularly towards the end in a beautiful scene that, you know, has been talked about a lot. And it's a film that I feel could be, you know, remade in any country in the world. It's not super specific to Denmark, I will say. So that also helps it be, you know, relatable and connect with people everywhere.

WELDON: Yeah, it does have a sort of not quite sly or implicit critique of Danish drinking culture, but you're absolutely right. It could apply elsewhere. I admit I got a little impatient with this film because there's only one way it's going to go. And it proceeded to go exactly that way. That's why when this film widened out from these four dudes, these four schmucks, I got a lot more interested in the ramifications of their choices. I didn't need to spend a lot of time watching them make those choices. So the more we saw the world around them, the more I liked it. This one's got the heat behind it. This is the likely winner this year.

But I do think there are some more interesting films in the mix. Here's one. "Quo Vadis, Aida?" is the entry from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It's written and directed by Jasmila Zbanic and it's streaming on Hulu. This is set in the small Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995. When I typed Srebrenica into my browser to kind of see where it was in the world, it auto-filled with the words genocide and massacre. So that's how I knew what I was in for. Aida is a Bosnian woman who works as a U.N. translator, and she spends the film desperately trying to get her family to safety when the Serbian army invades the town. She is played unforgettably, I would say, by Jasna Djuricic. It is a very tense film. What'd you think?

AGUILAR: This one's my personal favorite. I really think it's a devastating experience to watch in the sense that, you know, like you said, the tension and so the choices that this woman is forced to make. She's, you know, being put in a position in which she wants to save her own immediate family. But at the same time, she's responsible for communicating with the thousands of people that have been displaced. And I think that we get the sense of how her position within the institution of the United Nations and this crisis is very chaotic. And we understand that her hands are tied and she's, you know, pushing against the sort of inaction and the bad decisions that the U.N. made during this crisis.

And I feel like, like you said, just that Jasna Djuricic's performance is stunning. You could feel that worry, that pain in her face and just seeing her going to incredible lengths to try to find a solution and trying to save her family. I do think that one of the most important or relevant things about this movie that the director makes very clear is that these people, the victims and the perpetrators, belong to the same community, right? We find out that Aida, who was a teacher before being forced to become an interpreter, had been the teacher for a lot of the people who are in the Serbian army, and, you know, they were all sort of the same group and were divided among ethnic and religious lines. So the fact that we learn that the violence comes from within - from the same group, I think, makes it very powerful.

WELDON: Yeah, and you're absolutely right because the choice to make her a translator really opens up the film in a really smart way because we see how much access to information she has and how much she still doesn't know what's going on and how she passes that along to people or chooses not to pass it along to people.

This is a film with just a growing sense of panic and helplessness. I think it works best when it stays on her point of view. When we widen out, we get - yes, we get more context, but we lose some of that urgency. What I admire most about this film is that in its attempt to unpack what happened, it's also pointing out implicitly the many ways that this could happen again, where evil is met with inaction or, as it was in this case, with a kind of misguided sense of impartiality. It's a very wrenching film. There's a moment of grief in the last act that is completely unforgettable, and yet the film leaves room for a little grace note at the end that kind of points forward, that suggests some means of moving on. I really admired the hell out of this film.

All right, next up - "Better Days." This is from Hong Kong. It's directed by Derek Tsang. This is available to rent or buy as we tape this. It's about a girl, Chen Nian, who gets bullied at school. And then she meets a kid who's in a street gang, and as her bullying intensifies, he attempts to protect her. What did you think of this?

AGUILAR: This one was less successful for me in the sense that I feel that it falls into the melodramatic and sort of pushes into PSA territory. I mean, I feel like the final moments of this movie are quite literally a PSA against bullying, which is clearly an important issue. Having said that, I do think that the performances at times are very engaging, and I felt the chemistry between the two protagonists.

The depiction of bullying - it's very brutal and cruel in ways that I feel we rarely see in American television or films, you know? This is the type of bullying that should cause alarm anywhere, you know, and I do think that the length of the film and how much time we spend with them is not always to the benefit of the story. I feel like there could have been a little less beautiful moments of connection between them - not that they're not interesting, but I do feel like it extends unnecessarily.

WELDON: I hear what you're saying. I mean, you're right. It's very overt in its mission to proclaim the evils of bullying. It does feel a little schematic at times, but what it does nicely is contrast their two different worlds. Hers is one of very high pressure, studying for exams that are going to determine the course of her life, and his is just trying to survive on the streets. The thing that unites them is that they're both alone. And as they get closer, there's some great shots of him walking on the other side of the street slightly behind her as she walks to school to protect her. It's really involving. Yes, it's melodramatic, but it's really involving. You hate these bullies, and you really root for this young couple. And it's got a great final shot.

Next up, a movie we talked about before on this show - "Collective" from Romania. It's directed by Alexander Nanau. It's streaming on Hulu. It's also nominated for best documentary. When I tell you that this is that documentary about the Romanian health care system, I can hear pulses quickening across the nation, but listen. It starts out investigating the aftermath of a fire that broke out in a crowded nightclub, and then it follows the burn patients who should have recovered, but instead they ended up dying months and months afterwards. What did you make of this, Carlos?

AGUILAR: This one's a riveting documentary. It's one of those films that - you know, it's so specific. And, like, yeah, it's about the Romanian health care system, but in its ramifications and how it explores this particular event and everything that happened after, it becomes very important and sort of - you see parallels with the American experience and with any country that's sort of been kind of pushed into the fake news and sort of the lack of support for the press.

I do think that it's very commendable in how it really puts the journalists as the heroes of the story, as the ones that are, you know, against their better judgment, in a sense, going after, you know, the corrupt politicians and the corrupt institutions that are, you know, quite literally putting people's lives at risk. And as we learn sort of the layers of how deep this goes, it becomes even more shocking and engaging and, you know, having that health minister who's sort of, like, the good guy trying to make a change and seeing him also be kind of swallowed by the system. And it's all so compelling. I really - I'm a fan of this one.

WELDON: Yeah, you hit the right word there - compelling - because even though this gets into ramifications and details of health care systems, it starts from a place of intense emotion. You see these families shattered. It does contain footage of the fire in the club, so we should warn folks about that. That's a tough sit. We see the ouster of corrupt politicians. They get replaced by these technocrats who strive to correct.

But ultimately, this is a film about shoe-leather reporting, a very slow kind of thread pulling. The revelations into this corruption that we get - they happen slowly. They happen incrementally. This is a very unglamorous look at journalism. And therefore, I say anyone who is inspired to get into journalism by this movie, I feel safe to say, is getting into journalism for the right reasons because this is tough. We could do a supercut of just the amount of pained rubbing of the eyes that takes place in this film.

The access granted to this film crew to government meetings where language is being hammered out for official statements is remarkable. But the other way this film could have gone wrong is if it turned these reporters into crusaders, into heroes. But we keep going back to the victims, and this film ultimately becomes about the way systems strike back at any attempt to change them. This has a little less hope than some of the other films in this mix.

Finally, we have "The Man Who Sold His Skin." This is the Tunisian entry. It is written and directed by Kaouther Ben Hania. It's only in theaters as we record this. Here's the deal. To be able to travel freely in Europe and reunite with the love of his life, a Syrian man named Sam, who is played by Yahya Mahayni, agrees to have his back tattooed by a very famous artist, becoming an art object himself. As you can probably guess, he gets more than he bargained for. What do you think, Carlos?

AGUILAR: I'm not a fan of this one. This one, to me, feels very schematic, and so trying to portray its ideas, which I think are very important, in a way that felt to me a bit insincere. I understand that it's based on a real story about an artist who actually tattooed the back of another person and sold it as a piece of art. So just coming from that, it's - you know, it's interesting as a concept for me. Just the execution and the performances, the tone and - at times, it's trying to be a satire dealing with this subject. Those moments in which, you know, we have Monica Bellucci being sort of this - you know, this art curator or this assistant to the artist who's very ruthless and, you know, sort of pushing for this man to be completely exploited and give up any freedom as a person - they didn't feel to me like they work in a sincere and narrative way that I could believe. Like, I was always sort of questioning the intentions and the validity of the filmmaking.

And the final act, to me, is really the weakest part of this film. It just goes into a very neatly wrapped sort of ending that, to me, takes away from the big questions that he's asking about exploitation, about, you know, the pain of refugees and how, you know, we see refugees and their struggle and about the art world, about what's considered art and who gets to make art and who gets to travel freely with this visa that this man gets tattooed on his back. So I feel like the concept and some of the ideas within it are very, you know, relevant and should be talked about. I just wasn't a fan of the tone and the execution that the director chose to to use to tell them. I'm a big fan of her previous film, "Beauty And The Dogs," so I think the filmmaking has merit. I just wasn't a fan of the tone.

WELDON: No, I get that. I mean, this is another film - like "Another Round," frankly - that sets up its dominoes, and you know exactly how they're going to fall. I thought - I had some fun watching it. I mean, it's not the blistering satire of the art world that "The Square" was a couple of years back, but it's playing in the same sandbox.

You mentioned the actual artist, who actually tattooed a dude's back. He gets a brief cameo. That's Wim Delvoye. He plays an insurance guy who's trying to estimate the amount that this guy is worth. He tattooed the back of a guy named Tim Steiner. And that guy is going to be sitting in art galleries for the rest of his life, and when he dies, his tattoo will be framed. You're always a step or two ahead of this character, but I was always with him. I really liked the performance. We spend so much time in close-ups on his face because, of course, this film is about the humanity of that character. And it doesn't want to let you forget that.

Now, Carlos, I was trying to come up with some kind of through line here, some kind of thread that weaves through these five films. I mean, the most I could come up with is violence. They all kind of deal with violence in some way, including the violence we do to our livers in the case of "Another Round." But what do you think? What do you take away from this mix here?

AGUILAR: I mean, I think that to a degree, they're all very life-affirming. And I know that that's hard to say when we have, you know, these very difficult films. But, for example, even something like "Collective" - to me, you know, just the fact that there are people willing to stand up to something like corruption, you know, a corroded system to me is very powerful in a sense. The same, as you mentioned, with "Quo Vadis, Aida?" - the final shots, to me, speak about the fact that there could be another way, that there could be a, you know, reconstruction of the societal fabric of, you know, Bosnia or whatnot. You know, "Another Round" is very clearly a life-affirming film towards the end. So I do think that that all of them tried to end on a note that is not entirely, you know, negative or downbeat. They're all tackling these issues in a way that proposes, you know, a happier, better world, as corny as that sounds.

WELDON: No. Corny - no, no, no. I think you're right. They each locate an element of hope, even in some very, very dark times.

We want to know what you think about the nominated films we discussed today. Find us on facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Carlos, for being here.

AGUILAR: Thank you for having me.

WELDON: And if you want more Oscars coverage, stay tuned all week. And on Friday, we'll have our big Oscars preview. We'll predict who we think will win in the major categories. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow.

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