Hollywood gate crashers

International movies shine with the 2024 Oscars nominations

Courtesy: A24

They play together and laugh, eat meals, discuss school and tend to the garden. They’re just like other families, except for one crucial detail: When it’s time to go to work, dear old Dad puts on his S.S. uniform and heads off to Auschwitz next door.

Based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest takes the banality of evil and pushes it to the brink. The father (Christian Friedel) is nothing more than a pencil pusher tasked with increasing efficacy. His wife (Sandra Hüller) enjoys the life her husband’s position brings, including fine furs and a chance to hobnob with the Reich’s higher-ups. Neither is ignorant to the unholy hell next door — she plans to grow privacy vines to block out the crematoriums — but they can’t begin to imagine how history will view them.

Writer-director Jonathan Glazer has no interest in eliciting empathy for this family. He doesn’t even try to understand what makes a seemingly ordinary nuclear family enthusiastically participate in one of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. Instead, Glazer is interested in interrogating what we view as horrific and when that perspective takes shape. Does it take 10 years, 80 years, before we understand the error of our ways? If that’s true, when will we look back at this moment and shudder at what we did and did not do?

And for that, The Zone of Interest — now playing in theaters — garnered five nominations for the 96th Academy Awards, most notably in the Best Picture category. 

Trade papers and studio PR love to call the Oscars “Hollywood’s biggest night!” So it’ll be when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences takes over the Dolby Theater on March 10, with Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Greta Gerwig and a whole lot more vying for statues of little golden men.

But for all the interest in Killers of the Flower Moon, Oppenheimer and Barbie, this year’s Oscars has a decidedly international feel thanks to The Zone of Interest and France’s Anatomy of a Fall grabbing two of the 10 nominations for Best Picture. 

Couple those with the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature — all coming from beyond U.S. borders — and the five nominated for Best International Feature, and there’s a chance that Hollywood’s biggest night ends with a few global gatecrashers.

Around the world

Alongside Zone in the International Feature category are Italy’s Io Capitano, out in theaters this month; Japan’s Perfect Days, playing the International Film Series March 16; Spain’s Society of the Snow, streaming on Netflix; and Germany’s The Teachers’ Lounge, playing at the Dairy Arts Center Feb. 14-18. It’s a stacked category, with each nominee as accomplished as the next.

Io Capitano follows two Senegalese cousins as they migrate from Dakar to Italy in search of a better life. But the journey over land and sea is so harrowing you’ll probably wonder why anyone would undertake such an endeavor. Yet, so many across the globe do, which is why director Matteo Garrone ends Capitano with a beautiful close-up that begs the audience for compassion when we see these unfamiliar faces looking for help on street corners.

Equally harrowing is Society of the Snow, which recounts the story of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains, where 16 survivors had to endure extreme hardships for 72 days — the plane crash sequence alone is not for the faint of heart. There’s significantly less death in The Teachers’ Lounge, but this taut and anxious drama builds to a fever pitch after one teacher accuses another of theft. Things get out of hand quickly, and the young idealistic teacher (Leonie Benesch) learns that best intentions are often misconstrued when class and race are involved.

Systemic genocide, humanitarian crisis, survival at 15,000 feet and anxiety-inducing social conflict — no wonder I’m so high on the small epiphanies and everyday appreciations that make Perfect Days so, well, perfect.

Over in the documentary category, things aren’t much rosier. Uganda’s Bobi Wine: The People’s President, streaming on Disney+, follows a pop star turned presidential challenger in a system that reports to be peaceful and democratic and proves to be anything but. Iran’s Four Daughters, playing at the Dairy Arts Center Feb. 7-11, reconstructs the relationship between a mother and her daughters, two of whom chose a troubling path. 

Chile’s The Eternal Memory, streaming on Paramount+, is a charge never to forget, even as one of the main subjects succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. India’s To Kill a Tiger, not currently available for viewing in Colorado, follows a father as he fights for justice for his sexually abused daughter. And then there’s Ukraine’s 20 Days in Mariupol, available on VOD, a gripping and illuminating first-hand account of the Russian invasion.

Of the four docs I’ve seen, 20 Days in Mariupol stands tallest. It’s a stunning piece of work that will most likely hoist the Oscar on March 10. Zone of Interest will probably do the same in the International Feature category, and that might not be the only award it nabs. A lot can happen after a month on the Oscars campaign trail. Could Zone of Interest play dark horse and run the table the way Parasite did four years ago? When it comes to the Oscars, anything is possible. 

ON SCREEN: The 96th Annual Academy Awards. 5 p.m. Sunday, March 10, broadcasting live on ABC.