A euphoric feeling ran through the entire consciousness of Hollywood when Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won Best Picture. The historic win was a giant step forward for international cinema. It proved any film from around the world could win Oscar’s top prize. The South Korean thriller, along with Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” also broke out of the Best International Feature category to land several other nominations. Those features, along with “Corpus Christi,” “Honeyland,” and “Les Misérables,” filled out an impressive Best International Feature field.
So with a stacked category, many other international features from this past year missed out on nominations from the Academy. Some weren’t submitted by their respective countries. Others were on the shortlist but passed up for the nominees. In honor of the recent release of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and the upcoming “The Whistlers,” we count down the top ten international features not nominated for Oscars in 2019.
dir. Mati Diop
The lone directorial debut on the list is also the most innovative, genre-bending international feature outside of “Parasite.” Set in modern-day Senegal, Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” follows two lovers who struggle to be together due to their class status. Beyond the love story, it’s also a supernatural thriller showcasing the economic struggles of those who live in the country. Portrayed by unknown actors, Diop’s cast elegantly represents how personal this story is to all involved. With claustrophobic cinematography from Claire Mathon and Diop’s balanced direction, “Atlantics” is a snapshot of a country we don’t talk about a lot. In short, it will leave you wanting to see more from Diop within the next couple of years.
dir. Asghar Farhadi
Asghar Farhadi is no stranger to the Academy. The Iranian director has won the Best Foreign Language Film category twice with “A Separation” and “The Salesman.” So it was shocking his latest didn’t land any awards traction. “Everybody Knows” tells the story of a family on the verge of destruction after the revelation of a damaging secret. While he is no stranger to family dramas, “Everybody Knows” has as much tension as anything in Farhadi’s catalog. Beyond his tenacious writing, he’s able to get remarkable performances from Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. Released early in the year, “Everybody Knows” may have been forgotten, but it’s on par with Farhadi’s other work.
dir. Zhang Yimou
There is nothing more exhilarating than watching a well-designed action film. Zhang Yimou’s non-stop thrill ride “Shadow” is precisely the kind of spectacle we don’t often see anymore. While action dominates throughout, the personal and political dynamics set this feature on a whole other dramatic level. In a battle between a commander and his shadow, Yimou takes Ancient Chinese history and wraps it into an intriguing fictional epic. It’s a shame “Shadow” didn’t have an award run like his other films, “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou,” and “Hero” did. But with dazzling production design, costumes, and choreography, “Shadow” is a technical achievement many need to catch up with asap.
dir. Alejandro Landes
In a loose adaption of “Lord of the Flies,” director Alejandro Landes examines the psychological ramifications of child soldiers in Columbia. “Monos” follows a group of adolescents performing military training within the jungle. Tasked with guarding a hostage, the group slowly starts to go rogue and becomes a united force of terror. Billed as a metaphor for the country’s youth and angst, “Monos” presents an equally horrific, heart-pounding story about how violence can corrupt children. With impactful direction and haunting performances from Moisés Arias and Sofía Buenaventura, “Monos” isn’t the most comfortable film to sit through. But, it’s an incredibly powerful drama you won’t forget about.
6“One Child Nation”
dir. Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
The first of two documentaries on this list sets out to discover the truth behind China’s One-Child Policy. In “One Child Nation,” directors Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang examine the real-life ramifications the policy had on families like theirs. The documentary consists of testimonials from Wang’s family, telling their disheartening tales about their involvement with the policy. Through propaganda and societal pressures, we discover the tragic treatment of female infants. Moreover, we learn about the unreliable system to help families reconnect with the child they abandoned. “One Child Nation” is a deeply troubling, relevant example of why governments shouldn’t meddle within the lives of their citizens.
dir. Asif Kapadia
Sports movies never get a lot of love during awards season. It’s strange because, just like our favorite actors or directors, we obsess over athletes and the sports they play. In steps Asif Kapadia’s fascinating documentary “Diego Maradona,” which covers the career of one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Much like Kapadia’s other documentaries, he examines a popular figure in our culture to reflect on our society. Case in point, Maradona’s a generational talent whose fame got in his way and led to his destructive downfall. “Diego Maradona” plays like a Shakespearean tragedy more than a sports documentary. In short, it’s a cautionary tale on how celebrities and athletes should see themselves and how we should treat them.
4“Ash is Purest White”
dir. Zhangke Jia
Chinese cinema has dominated this list, but “Ash is Purest White” is the best feature they gave us in 2019. Zhangke Jia’s love story follows the complicated relationship between a gang leader (Liao Fan) and his girlfriend (Zhao Tao). Set across two decades, we see the ups and downs of their partnership, especially when an act of violence separates them. As a result, we discover they shouldn’t be together and how life can alter one’s love for another. Beyond the romance, “Ash is Purest White” also demonstrates the challenges Chinese women go through to make their own way. Elegant beyond compare, Zhangke Jia’s patient direction mixed with Tao enchanting performance makes for a tantalizing experience.
dir. Christian Petzold
For almost twenty years, Christian Petzold has built a catalog to rival just about any modern filmmaker. Within the past decade, he’s made compelling dramas like “Barbara” and “Phoenix,” each leaving audiences clamoring for more. In “Transit,” he might have made the best film of his career. Based on a 1944 German novel, it follows a man trying to escape a country run by a fascist government. Petzold transitions the setting of his adaption to modern-day. By doing so, everything feels relevant to current events going on around the world. Similarly to “Casablanca,” “Transit” displays humans longing for a better life, no matter the costs. Petzold is doing another project right now, and hopefully, it can finally break through for him in the award season.
dir. Olivier Assayas
After working on a couple of English language projects, Olivier Assayas returned to his French roots with “Non-Fiction.” The story centers around two couples and their professional and personal connections to each other. But beyond the basic set up, “Non-Fiction” evolves into a cultural conversation about the evolution of modern technology. Assayas balances both sides of the argument to allow the audience to choose where they stand on the issue. Therefore, he elegantly blends the romantic subplots and cautionary message through crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. With an excellent cast led by Juliette Binoche, “Non-Fiction” is one of the most underrated movies of 2019.
1“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
dir. Céline Sciamma
Unsurprising, this was the obvious choice from the inception of this top ten list. No other international feature from 2019, outside of “Parasite,” deserves the label of a masterpiece. Celine Sciamma’s romance between a French painter (Noémie Merlant) and her female subject (Adèle Haenel) is one of the most beautiful films you will ever see. Made with a mostly female cast and crew, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is told entirely through a female perspective. With this team behind it, it’s a tender, tranquil experience devoid of the male gaze. In the end, your focus is solely on the character’s relationship and their forbidden love.
Every shot feels like a painting hung in a museum. Rightfully so because this should be on full display for the world to see. It’s criminal how beautiful “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” looks, a sharp contrast to Sciamma’s previous projects. Her work with Claire Mathon is arguably the best of any director/cinematographer combination from 2019. They make the entire picture seem like it was extremely easy to make. Ultimately, France chose to run “Les Misérables” instead of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” as the French submission for the Oscar. With this, its awards chances stalled as a potential competitor to “Parasite” for the award. It’s a shame because when we look back at 2019, this is one of the best films of the year. But since it’s trickling into theaters around the country, check it out on the big screen and bask in its beauty.