For the first time ever, I accomplished my goal of seeing the entire shortlist for International Feature. And trust me, it’s quite the task, as this is the one category where even the most stalwart Oscar fanatic could be deprived of any chance to see a nominated film, or even a submitted one. According to Academy rules, an eligible film needs only to have screened in public in its home country during a certain time period. Once each nation’s approved committee makes their selection and presents it to the Academy, it’s then uploaded to an online hub, as AMPAS is phasing out DVD screeners and members-only theatrical screenings. Any member can vote in the preliminary phase of the nomination process so long as they’ve seen a certain number of the submissions, rumored to be 12, which in a typical year represents 15-20% of the total field. Once the shortlist comes out (it was previously 10 films, but it was recently expanded to 15), anyone can again vote for the final nominees provided they watch the entire roster. Then of course, once the nominations are out, there’s no viewing requirement at all for an Academy member’s ballot to be accepted.
But yeah, there’s absolutely no rule that any of these films must have a stateside release. It behooves distributors to secure the rights to these movies and play them publicly, as it gets them easy money (equivalent to or exceeding most indie features) and allows for word-of-mouth publicity. You’ll even see the more aggressive productions scramble to get a release date as soon as the shortlist is released so that non-members can still see the entries and pitch them to their friends and associates who do have an official say. There’s even been an upswing in star power in recent years, where well-known international actors (particularly Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas) will appear in these films to give them just a bit more of a commercial boost.
As I said, the shortlist used to be just 10 films, five that were voted on by the Academy membership through the normal submission process, and five more that were decided by a special committee within the Academy that wanted to feature overlooked countries or ones making their first major push. That was ended a couple years ago and replaced with the straight-up preferential system, where all eligible voters select their five favorites, with the top 15 vote-getters comprising the shortlist. It also used to be that for the final vote, Academy members had to attend an in-person special screening of all five films to have their vote count, but that has also been discontinued.
Anyway, with the expansion to 15 movies, the task to complete the shortlist became even more difficult, as now there were 50% more submissions to track down. Thankfully, in one of the few net positives of the COVID pandemic, a lot of these works have found their way onto streaming services in addition to independent and arthouse cinemas. Last year I only missed two or three of the 15 when it was all said and done, and this year I already had 10 in the bank before the shortlist even came out. The other five all got theatrical releases (two of them after the final nominations were announced), and none of them was all that hard to find. I actually had the five nominees done and dusted before the nominations, but I decided to hold off covering the category because I knew I’d be able to finish the entire list in time.
So here we are, in the one race where Disney couldn’t possibly have a horse, but still they couldn’t cut it from the broadcast, as it is a feature-length award given (technically) to an entire country. The vast majority of the foreign audience for the Oscars watches for this very category (the rest being any “Above the Line” fields with local nominees and the Shorts, which often feature international fare). I’m sure there’s someone in their corporate lab right now trying to find a way to pass off the next Mulan sequel as eligible if they release it in China first using the Mandarin soundtrack, but for now this is the one area that Disney cannot taint with its avarice, and thus we get to truly enjoy these films based on their merit and artistic quality. The Mouse cannot interfere here, and if that means reading a shitload of subtitles as my vision gets worse and worse, bring it on!
This year’s nominees for International Feature are…
Drive My Car – Japan
I said it when I first reviewed this film, and I’ll say it again. I am absolutely amazed that this three-hour film is so well-paced that it never once drags. There are tons of movies half its length or less that feel like interminable slogs, but this captivating exploration of processing grief and the universal bonds of language and communication did something truly miraculous. Even if the rest of the film was entirely mediocre apart from this, it’d still be worthy of its nomination.
Thankfully, it’s far from mediocre. This is one of the best movies of all of 2021 regardless of origin, and in one of the few areas where the Academy got something right with their nominations, this modern masterpiece is also up for Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and Best Picture, all of which are well-deserved.
Watching stage director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) come to terms with the loss of his wife and his restricted ability to drive (one of his few comforts in life, as well as part of his creative process) is tragically fascinating to watch. His budding friendship with his company-appointed chauffeur (Tōko Miura) is an exercise in empathy so heartfelt that it leaps off the screen and into your very soul, without the contrivances of trying to make them a romantic pair. The frank and open discussions of Kafuku and his wife’s complicated sex life, which also fed into their creativity, is intriguing in the extreme.
And then of course there’s the sheer brilliance of Kafuku’s literary construct as a director. Mirroring his own melancholy, he stages productions of Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya, two of the absolute classics of “tragicomedy,” using international casts from all over Asia, all speaking (and in one case, signing) in their native languages, with translations projected above the action. This idea that true drama can be conveyed using emotion, stage presence, and clever direction without the need to fully understand the dialogue is not only genius, but it works on a meta level for the entire film as well as the International Feature category as a whole. When a film can make sure you understand every nuance of every moment, even if you can’t understand a word the actors are saying, that’s proof of genuine art.
Flee – Denmark
Denmark won this category last year with Another Round, and now it’s pulled off the unprecedented, earning three nominations in the feature categories, as it’s up here, for Animated Feature, and for Documentary Feature. How this doesn’t make it an automatic Best Picture nominee, I’ll never know, but it is remarkable, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t suffer the same fate as its immediate predecessors, Collective and Honeyland, which over the last two years were the first films to get simultaneous nods for Documentary Feature and International Feature.
I’ve gushed about this film on and on over the last several months, to the point that there’s really nothing more I can say. It’s cerebral. It’s tragic. It’s brilliant. It’s beautiful. The animation is pristine. The way Jonas Poher Rasmussen creates a safe space for his dear friend to unload a lifetime of insecurity and trauma is heartbreaking, but essential. The way that Amin Nawabi draws a picture with just his words, that Rasmussen’s team is then able to animate, is nothing short of amazing. Honestly, as great as the animation is, what makes this film truly gorgeous is the fact that Amin’s words alone could create the scene fresh in your mind. If I understood Danish, I would have been tempted to close my eyes at points just to imagine his hardship. His descriptions are that vivid.
The Hand of God – Italy
The last time Italy took home the gold, it was for The Great Beauty, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, who helms this project as well. A semi-autobiographical tale of coming-of-age told through the lens of his love of film and legendary footballer Diego Maradona, this film in a lot of ways plays like a delightful hybrid of Cinema Paradiso and Bend it Like Beckham.
Filippo Scotti, serving as Sorrentino’s avatar, does an admirable job of observing all the delightful madness around him, from hilarious running jokes like his sister never coming out of the bathroom, to the tragedy of losing his parents, to the unexpected-yet-enriching scenes of his sexual awakening. Nothing unfolds the way he wants, or the way any of us would imagine it should. Fate has very few rules, if any, and what can be divined are always meant to be broken. It’s fitting then that the title and the film so heavily reference Maradona, as his most famous moment was one where he got away with a blatant violation.
This film succeeds mostly through Sorrentino’s lyrical presentation, blending dramatic elements with comedic like different works of music, art, and literature, each flowing seamlessly into the next. Life, like a great movie, is about finding the important moments and making sure everyone who sees them can understand their meaning. Sorrentino is one of Europe’s absolute masters at such a craft.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom – Bhutan
This is a legitimate surprise. It’s not that the film is bad, far from it, but there were so many heavy hitters in this field that it was genuinely shocking when this sweet, endearing story survived the final cut, making this the first nomination for the Kingdom of Bhutan from its first ever shortlisting.
A simple and well-tread story sees an ambitious musician (Sherab Dorji) forced to put his dreams of travelling abroad on hold and fulfill his governmental duties as a teacher for one more term. To his immediate consternation, he’s assigned to quite possibly the most remote village in all of Bhutan, one that requires an eight-day hike from the nearest town accessible by road. The culture clash between so-called evolved city folk and more quaint rural people who thrive on a terrain they know better is a tale older than the written word, but director Pawo Choyning Dorji finds new relevance and insight in Ugyen’s journey, igniting a love of knowledge with the wisdom of the land.
Also, the yak is hilarious and the kids are objectively adorable. Sometimes cute and smiley is all you really need.
The Worst Person in the World – Norway
I’m still pissed that Renate Reinsve wasn’t nominated for Best Actress. Not only did she give a better performance than at least 60% of the field, but she did so by playing a character that is sorely missing from a lot of cinema these days. She has FLAWS, glaring ones, and she openly acknowledges them. Seriously, contrast any five minutes of Norway’s entry with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Spencer, or literally any Disney remake with a female lead. The women in these movies come pre-built perfect in-box. Their entire purpose is to defy convention and prove why they’re better than everyone and that anyone who doubts them is at minimum flat-out wrong, and likely some kind of closed-minded bigot.
Not Reinsve. Her Julie is quirky, flighty, noncommittal, and at times outwardly contradictory between her own thoughts and words. But she makes it work because she accepts who she is, embraces it, and endeavors throughout the film to get to the best version of herself, warts and all (a figure of speech; her skin might literally be perfect). She doesn’t thumb her nose at the world and assert that she’s right in all things. She concedes that she may be wrong about everything, but desperately wants to do what’s best for all, including herself. She makes an effort to see the world from perspectives other than her own, so that when she inevitably makes mistakes, as all real humans do, she can learn from them and improve for the next go round.
How is this a novel concept? By playing someone who fucks up her relationships just as much as she works on them, Reinsve (and director Joachim Trier) shows us someone we can actually relate to, someone we can empathize with, someone we can root for even when we disagree with her actions. Julie feels like a real person, someone you’d probably like to know, with more personality in one euphoric laugh than in 90 minutes of Kristen Stewart’s dead-eyed, open-jawed gape.
1) Drive My Car
3) The Worst Person in the World
4) The Hand of God
5) Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
Now, since I’ve completed the shortlist, I will rank the entire 15.
1) Drive My Car
2) I’m Your Man – Germany
4) A Hero – Iran
5) Playground – Belgium
6) The Worst Person in the World
7) The Good Boss – Spain
8) The Hand of God
9) Hive – Kosovo
10) Prayers for the Stolen – Mexico
11) Lamb – Iceland
12) Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
13) Great Freedom – Austria
14) Compartment No. 6 – Finland
15) Plaza Catedral – Panama
Oh but wait, because I’m still not done. There were 93 submissions for this year’s contest (92 after Jordan withdrew), and I was able to succeed in my task because I logged 32 of them, just over a third. So for funsies, here’s the entire ranking of my international journey. Obviously, you can tell which 15 I’d have shortlisted and which five I’d have nominated from here. And it’s a wide spectrum of quality, because even though Lunana was #12 for me on the shortlist, it was still a “B” grade film, which is quite good. It’s just that it’s up against two “A”s and two “A-“s in the final reckoning. So here’s the complete picture, with a pretty precipitous drop in quality after #19 as far as I’m concerned.
1) Drive My Car
2) I’m Your Man
4) A Hero
6) Escape From Mogadishu – South Korea
7) The Worst Person in the World
8) The Good Boss
9) The Hand of God
11) Prayers for the Stolen
13) White Building – Cambodia
14) Casablanca Beats – Morocco
15) Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn – Romania
16) Drunken Birds – Canada
17) Luzzu – Malta
18) Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
19) Leave No Traces – Poland
20) Great Freedom
21) Titane – France
22) Let it Be Morning – Israel
23) White on White – Chile
24) Brighton 4th – Georgia
25) Do Not Hesitate – Netherlands
26) The Tambour of Retribution – Saudi Arabia
27) Compartment No. 6
28) Nothing but the Sun – Paraguay
29) Plaza Catedral
30) Oasis – Serbia
31) The Great Movement – Bolivia
32) Zero to Hero – Hong Kong
Phew! That was a lot! Thanks for taking this trip with me.
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, we take a look at the creative visions of film auteurs at the top of their games… and we’ll also try to figure out what the fuck Steven Spielberg was thinking. It’s Best Director!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Were you able to see any or all of the nominees? Did you see any foreign films in the last year? What language other than your own do you most like to hear and speak? Let me know!