Best Foreign Film – 1981

Official Nominations: Mephisto. The Boat Is Full. Man Of Iron. Muddy River. Three Brothers.

Some interesting picks this year, but no stand outs. Mephisto is the obvious winner, a successful twist on the Faust story and one of Hungary’s most famous films. Centered on an unnerving lead performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer as an actor who craves fame and validation – even at the cost of his friends, family, and immortal soul as the Nazi powers rise. It’s a great idea to set the ancient story of moral ambiguity and human thirst for power alongside the 20th Century’s greatest human evil.

Muddy River would bizarrely be Japan’s last Academy Nominee in this category until 2003, entirely overlooking one of the countries finest periods and some of their best movies. It’s a fairly traditional family drama from Japan, the sort of thing The Academy tends to fawn over, albeit with notions of class and tradition and neighbourly conventions being upended as we follow two boys who become friends but learn that some professions are not as respected as others.

Three Brothers is Italy’s required nomination, Francesco Rosi directing the great Philippe Noiret as one of (insert title) who look to both the past and future when they learn of their mother’s death. It’s fine, but an acquired taste. The Boat Is Full is a suitably tense, to a point, story of six strangers trying to flee Nazi Germany who are forced to hide out in a small Swiss town and pretend to be a family to evade capture and be granted asylum. Good idea, doesn’t always work for me. Finally, Man Of Iron is Andrzej Wajda’s third film to be nominated and another which deals with class and human struggles against political odds. It’s overlong and will pack more of a punch if you have a history or interest in the subject, but still one of Wajda’s crowning achievements.

My Winner: Mephisto

Mephisto (1981) - IMDb

My Nominations: Mephisto. The Road Warrior. Blind Chance. Das Boot. Christiane F. For Your Eyes Only. Gallipoli. Looks And Smiles. Marianne And Juliane. Scanners. Time Bandits.

Quite a few of my nominations I picked for Best Picture too, so we can skip over those. Mephisto is the only official film to come over to my list, joining The Road Warrior, Gallipoli, and For Your Eyes Only from my Best Picture choices. They join maybe the biggest omission from the Official category – Das Boot garnering 6 Academy Nominations including Best Director, but no wins. It’s one of the most famous Non Hollywood War movies ever made, and for a long time was one of the few European movies which those more fixated on Hollywood had seen. Perhaps surprising given that it focuses on the Germans in WWII, a group of ordinary Naval men on a submarine in the middle of a War they just want to survive. It’s still a tense watch today, and pleasingly unpatriotic and grim.

Staying in Germany (West Germany) which had a strong year, Christiane F is one of the more shocking Coming Of Age films you’ll ever see as it follows a bored teenage girl succumb to heroin addiction. Less stylized than the likes of Trainspotting and Requiem For A Dream, it’s a harrowing and gritty film which will stay with you if you’re (un)lucky enough to see it. Marianne & Juliane isn’t as harsh a watch, but is another little known and impactful film from West Germany, this time focusing on the true (ish) story of two sisters struggling to fight for Women’s Rights and how their decisions damage their own relationship. It’s a timely movie given current struggles and debate.

Blind Chance is often remembered by those who have seen it as the movie which Sliding Doors ripped off. It was one of the first movies with a dual (or in this case, triple) narrative depicting the potential directions the lead character’s life could take based on the simple outcome of their rush to make a train on time. I’m not usually a fan of these types of movies because they attempt a dedicated realism which never really mirrors how life works – you may make a thousand choices every day and none of them ever amount to much – and in the case of Sliding Doors it’s a cute excuse for a dull romance. Here it explores three genuinely different life paths, although given the shock ending you understand that each of the choices leads to disaster for someone.

I’m not a huge fan of Ken Loach and while the world of Cinema is better with him in it, I only feel the need to dip in and out of his work infrequently. Looks & Smiles is one of the more direct and translatable of his films, the anit-human, anti-working class politics of Thatcher something more familiar to me as a viewer. Still, it’s not exactly a heartwarming or exciting watch. Staying in the UK for an altogether more entertaining movie, Time Bandits is a grand work of imagination, pulling together several Pythons to craft the sort of dream-like world I feel like every child thinks of. I know when I was young – as a big fan of Myths and Legends, especially of the Greek variety, I often fantasized about travelling back in time or to some far flung land. Time Bandits captures this wonderfully. Finally, David Cronenberg treated us to some head-bursting ideas in Scanners, further pushing the body horror genre forwards while also being smart, well cast, and letting the world know that Canada was capable of making great movies too.

My Winner: The Road Warrior

Let us know your picks in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Best Foreign Film – 1981

  1. John Charet December 2, 2021 / 4:09 am

    Great to see a Cronenberg and Gilliam film in there 🙂 I would choose either Das Boot or Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and happily, you chose wisely 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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