International Film Oscar Race Swings in Gear as Summer, Fall Festivals Unfold

Penélope Cruz's New Movie Parallel Mothers to Close Out New York Film Festival: DetailsCredit: Sony Pictures Classics.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

So the world is on fire and a global pandemic well into its “my God, is this still happening?” phase rages on. Among the slightly less critical consequences is another level of intricacy added to the Academy Awards’ most byzantine and unpredictable category — best international feature film. Any other year, we’d have a much clearer picture of actual submissions by now, but once the deadline moved back a month to Nov. 1, most countries delayed their selection processes accordingly. Considering local release dates — a factor in a film’s eligibility — are hard to guarantee right now, take this highly speculative, partial and at times proudly agenda-driven rundown of the current contenders with a pinch of salt: best international feature film remains a fascinatingly flawed category because it is subject to politics and strategies that are, to anyone not actually on a national selection committee, mystifying.

From Europe, however — the continent that traditionally dominates the category — a few selections are already known, while some others seem all but inevitable. Poland has already submitted the Venice competition entry “Leave No Traces,” a fact-based, 1980s-set procedural hinging on the topical subject of police brutality. Switzerland, meanwhile, has opted for the Cannes Critics’ Week selection “Olga,” a character study of teenage female gymnast preparing for the Olympics. And Kosovo has selected one of the year’s big Sundance winners: Blerta Baholli’s feminist drama “Hive,” about rural collective of female entrepreneurs, won both the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.

On the prospective side, Italy hasn’t won since Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” in 2014, so it’s likely they’ll turn Sorrentino-ward again. And, inspired by his own childhood in Naples, the filmmaker’s Netflix-backed, Venice-premiering coming-of-ager “The Hand of God” has the grand formal sweep his admirers love. Another former Oscar winner, Pedro Almodóvar, ought to be the Spanish candidate again for his Penélope Cruz-starring drama “Parallel Mothers.” Almodóvar has been passed over before by the national selectors — notoriously for “Talk to Her,” for which he won a writing Oscar — but it’s hard to see compelling opposition this time. Norway will surely enter Joachim Trier’s bittersweet romantic comedy “The Worst Person in the World” following rapturous reviews and a Neon acquisition at Cannes.

Cannes served up a few other sure things, including Finland’s probable entry “Compartment No. 6,” a lovable odd-couple travelogue from director Juho Kuosmanen that won the Grand Prix, as well as a distribution deal with expert campaigners Sony Picture Classics. A24 will be stirring up buzz for Iceland’s freaky horror comedy “Lamb,” which stars Noomi Rapace in an oddball tale of a farming couple raising a very unusual baby. We expect Austria to enter Sebastian Meise’s deeply moving, Mubi-acquired gay prison drama “Great Freedom,” which won big in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section.  

Another Sundance winner, the neo-realist fisherman study “Luzzu,” is expected to be Malta’s second-ever submission. From elsewhere on the festival circuit, look for the Czech Republic to submit Karlovy Vary fest opener “Zátopek,” an engaging, accessible biopic of the country’s legendary Olympian.

France, as usual, is spoiled for choice: Julia Ducournau’s ferocious, genre-bending Palme d’Or winner “Titane” might seem the obvious pick, but given the country’s selectors traditionally don’t favor controversial auteur fare, elder statesman Jacques Audiard’s vibrant youth study “Paris, 13th District” might be the safer bet in all senses of the word.

Germany has announced a shortlist of 10 titles prior to the final announcement: Our gut says they may pick recent Emmy-winner Maria Schrader’s “I’m Your Man,” a clever sci-fi romcom starring a German-speaking Dan Stevens, but fellow Berlinale entries such as the documentary “Mr. Bachmann and His Class” and Dominik Graf’s “Fabian — Going to the Dogs” seem feasible. Russia is a wild card: it’s hard to guess whether they’ll pick a tough festival hit like Kira Kovalenko’s “Unclenching the Fists” or a domestic blockbuster like the elaborate fantasy “Upon the Magic Roads.” Romania, which finally earned its first nomination for “Collective” this year, faces a choice between Radu Jude’s challenging Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” or Radu Muntean’s less laureled but more approachable “Întregalde.”

Other potential European submissions include Sweden’s “The Emigrants,” a locally hyped remake of Jan Troell’s 1971 best picture-nominated period saga; Hungary’s well-reviewed “Evolution,” a generational family study from Hollywood-approved director Kornel Mundruczo; Croatia’s “Murina,” a Cannes-buzzed noirish coming-of-age tale boasting Martin Scorsese as executive producer; Georgia’s critically adored Berlinale title “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”; and Bulgaria’s “Women Do Cry,” a solemn, female-focused political drama starring Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova.

And speaking of star power, while reigning champs Denmark might not be up for another “Another Round,” a beefy Mads Mikkelsen turn could just nab the nod for broadly enjoyable revenge tale “Riders of Justice.”

But if Europe will probably again disproportionately dominate the submissions list, the welcome extension of the shortlist to 15 titles in 2020 saw the continent’s stranglehold at that stage lessen a little, which will hopefully work to encourage further entries from outside the bloc. Nabil Ayouch’s “Casablanca Beats,” a lively portrayal of a neighborhood youth arts project and the young rappers it inspires has been confirmed as Ayouch’s fifth submission for Morocco, but even before announcements are official, in some cases the picks from smaller national cinemas are easier to take a punt on. Jordan, for example, whose “Theeb” was nominated in 2015, will surely put forward their Locarno-premiering gangster film “The Alleys” from director Bassel Ghandour, as only their fifth ever submission. Similarly, if Chad submits for only the third time, it must be Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s “Lingui,” given its momentum after competing in Cannes. 

Egypt has fielded a candidate regularly in recent decades and has two strong contenders, of which Ayten Amin’s Tribeca-awarded “Souad” is perhaps a shade behind terrific absurdist black comedy “Feathers,” from Omar El Zohairy, which won Cannes Critics’ Week. Iran, ever a world cinema powerhouse, might be in a similar position: the smart money will certainly be on previous international feature winner Asghar Farhadi for “A Hero,” especially after its Cannes Grand Prix, but Panah Panahi’s superb “Hit the Road” would be a lively and less expected choice.

Israel, nominated ten times in the category but never a winner, has announced its five-film shortlist, including two prominent Cannes selections: Nadav Lapid’s abrasively political “Ahed’s Knee” and Eran Kolirin’s more whimsical satire “Let It Be Morning.” Lapid has the critical heat, but having been notoriously disqualified on a technicality with “The Band’s Visit” in 2007, Kolirin might be due a second chance.

Meanwhile, in Latin America, the picture is fuzzier, although Ecuador, which has never scored a nod, has announced it’s hoping for tenth time lucky with “Submersible,” a gripping drama about four people trapped on a sinking smuggler’s submarine. Mexico is in a happy quandary with both Lorenzo Vigas’ Venice competition film “The Box” and Tatiana Huezo’s superlative “Prayers for the Stolen,” which garnered an Un Certain Regard Special Mention, in contention. And if Costa Rica enters the race, Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s shimmering, magic realist “Clara Sola” is the obvious choice, given its strong reviews out of Directors’ Fortnight, and recent acquisition by Oscilloscope.  

In the less-than-sure-thing category, Uruguay has submitted regularly in the new century, so a push for Manuel Nieto Zas’ compelling, slow-burn Directors’ Fortnight drama “The Employer and the Employee” is possible, while Brazil and Argentina may look to their Sundance favorites, Iuli Gerbase’s timely “The Pink Cloud” and Ana Katz’s delightful “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet,” respectively. Both have strong pandemic-era resonance, though both are also lower-key than these major regional players are wont to choose. Colombia, meanwhile, could throw a surprise into the race. Their recently announced five-film shortlist includes revered Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s hypnotic, Tilda Swinton-starring “Memoria,” eligible by virtue of being produced in the country — though if they want to stay more local, Nicolás Rincón Gille’s “Valley of Souls,” a deeply moving evocation of a grieving father’s Conradian quest to find the body of his murdered son, is also on the list.

Over to Asia, where the first submission from the continent is Cambodia’s “White Building,” a pensive social drama about the cost of rapid urban development in Phnom Penh, produced by Jia Zhangke. It’s aiming to be their first nominee since 2013’s “The Missing Picture.”

India — which, despite having one of the world’s biggest film industries, has only been nominated three times — could have its best shot in years with Chaitanya Tamhane’s meditative musical drama “The Disciple,” which has accrued a devoted following on Netflix. India’s selectors can be unpredictable, but they picked Tamhane’s debut, “Court,” in 2015, so the omens are good. China’s choices are likewise eternally hard to second-guess, but the logical choice would appear to be “Cliff Walkers,” a period spy thriller from three-time nominee Zhang Yimou — if the national controversy over his previous feature, “One Second,” has abated.

Indonesia, never previously shortlisted, could try to reverse its fortunes with mononymous director Edwin’s darkly comic actioner “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash,” which won the top prize at Locarno. And after coming close to a nomination with Chung Mong-hong’s shortlisted family melodrama “A Sun” last year, Taiwan may try its luck with the same director: Chung’s quarantine-themed follow-up “The Falls” just bowed at Venice.

The obvious choice for Japan would be “Drive My Car,” a leisurely, soulful Haruki Murakami adaptation by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, which was the critics’ favorite at Cannes this year — unless they prefer Hamaguchi’s other 2021 film, the Berlinale-awarded “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.” Also with two films in the running (“Introduction” and “In Front of Your Face”) is South Korea’s dizzying prolific Hong Sang-soo: beloved by festivals but never picked by his homeland, he could finally benefit from a relative lack of prominent alternatives, save perhaps for Park Hoon-jung’s more generic Netflix thriller “Night in Paradise.” Either way, two years after the history-making glory of “Parasite,” it’s probably another country’s turn to celebrate.