Each year at the Oscars, five movies made outside the US get to compete in the Best International Feature Film category, and the nominees are always a rich and rewarding group. (The category was previously called Best Foreign Language Feature; the name has changed for 2020, but the eligibility rules remain the same.)
This year’s contenders range from hard-hitting dramas about sin and redemption and justice to social thrillers. One is nominated for five additional Oscars, including Best Picture; two more are nominated in other categories as well, including Best Documentary and Best Actor. All five are a great entry point into the richness of 2019’s world cinema releases.
Here’s a brief guide to the 2020 nominees for Best International Feature and how to watch them.
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Poland’s entry, Corpus Christi, is inspired by true events — and they’re startling. A 20-year-old violent criminal named Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) experiences a spiritual awakening while serving a sentence for second-degree murder in a youth detention center. But because he has a criminal background, he cannot become a priest when he leaves.
So instead, Daniel takes matters into his own hands. After being mistaken for a cleric once he’s free, he simply begins to act like one, posing as a recently ordained priest in a small community that’s reeling from a recent tragedy. Corpus Christi (the Latin phrase for “the body of Christ,” part of the Catholic liturgical mass) explores guilt, redemption, grief, and salvation in a somber, hard-hitting drama.
How to watch it: Corpus Christi opens in New York City on February 19, and will roll out to other cities subsequently.
Les Misérables (France)
Les Misérables, the first film from French director Ladj Ly, isn’t based on the famed Victor Hugo novel. But that’s where it takes its cues, concluding with a quotation from the book: “Remember this, my friends, there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. Only bad cultivators.”
Ly, who is of Malian descent, sets his film in Bosquets, a suburb of Paris. It’s an ambitious story about the challenge — for both residents and the law — of keeping a neighborhood peaceful when tensions run high. At times, it recalls both HBO’s The Wire and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in how it illustrates the interlocking factors and factions at play. But it ends on a difficult truth: When the police, through brutality, have lost the trust of the neighborhood, it doesn’t matter who’s really in charge; violence will erupt. The curtain between uneasy peace and outright war is gauzy indeed.
How to watch it: Les Misérables is currently playing in select theaters.
Honeyland (North Macedonia)
Honeyland is the only documentary to be nominated in the International Feature Film category, and a nominee in the Documentary Feature category as well. It’s a vibrant, fascinating, and sober look at a serious issue — the endangerment of bees — by way of a human portrait. Hatidze Muratova is the last beekeeper in Macedonia. She lives on a quiet, secluded mountain and cares for her elderly mother as well as her apian charges. Her life’s work, as she sees it, isn’t just to keep the bees; it’s to help restore balance to the ecosystem around her, and bees are vital to that mission. But Muratova’s sense of solitude is disrupted when a family of nomadic beekeepers arrives, seeking honey to sell.
The newcomers not only disrupt Muratova and threaten the insects’ existence but also invade an established way of life on the relatively untouched mountain. As the film progresses, different ways of thinking about commerce — as well as beekeeping and the natural world — come together in a story that is sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, and often enlightening.
Parasite (South Korea)
It’s difficult to categorize a Bong Joon-ho film; the director excels at making movies that explode boundaries. His darkly comedic monster films like The Host and Okja double as biting social commentaries, often aiming barbs at inequality, particularly in his native South Korea. Parasite returns to those themes with superb control; it’s a bleakly comic film about two families, one wealthy and one not so wealthy, and a caustic tale of class conflict. (At times it plays like a dark inversion of 2018’s Shoplifters.)
In Parasite, Bong is working at the top of his game, constructing with his cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo a world where drastic shifts inside houses signify not just changing living conditions but the interior state of the inhabitants. Everything on these characters’ insides shows up outside, too — and that may be why their world is in chaos.
At Cannes, Parasite won Bong the Palme d’Or in a unanimous decision by the jury, becoming the first Korean film to take home the festival’s top prize. Now, it’s made history again by becoming South Korea’s first Oscar nominee both for Best Picture and Best International Feature; with additional nominations for screenplay, director, editing, and production design, it might just win it all.
How to watch it: Parasite is currently playing in select theaters.
Pain and Glory (Spain)
In Pain and Glory, Antonio Banderas turns in the performance of a lifetime (and one for which he was nominated for Best Actor) as aging film director Salvador Malio. Throughout the film, Malio encounters a series of people, both in person and in his memory, who represent important moments of creative, spiritual, and sexual awakening in his life — including his mother, played by Penélope Cruz, and a former lover, played by Leonardo Sbaraglia.
Pain and Glory has been hailed as a career peak for both Banderas and director Pedro Almodóvar, who have been collaborating for decades. It’s hard not to read the film as a personal reflection centered on Almodóvar, who turned 70 just days before its US release. And as such, it’s one of Almodóvar’s warmest and most poignant works in years.
How to watch it: Pain and Glory is playing in select theaters.