Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” has been a critical darling, after garnering stellar reviews and winning the top prize from the New York, Los Angeles and National Society of Film Critics. The last films to win those three prestigious groups were Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010), with the former winning the Oscar for best picture. Interestingly, those two films’ years were among the last time the Academy nominated 10 picture nominees, which will happen again this year.

Co-distributed by Janus Films, which had Oscar success with “Revanche” (2009) and “Sideshow,” Hamaguchi’s feature is representing Japan and on the Oscars shortlist for best international feature. With this added success on the circuit, the film aims to contend outside of its traditional space, notably in best picture, director, actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and adapted screenplay (Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe). But can the three-hour, non-English language film go toe-to-toe with buzzier titles and names in the awards conversation?

Seven films have the honor of being nominated for both best picture and international feature: “Z” (1969), “The Emigrants” (1971/72), “Life is Beautiful” (1998), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), “Amour” (2012), “Roma” (2018) and “Parasite” (2019). “Emigrants” is the only one of the seven to receive nominations in different years and the only one to lose the international feature category.

If the film wins international feature, it would be the second-longest film ever to win the category at 179 minutes, behind “War and Peace” (1965) at seven hours and two minutes, and 19 minutes longer than the third-place holder, “Indochine” (1992). On an interesting note, Paolo Sorrentino, contending again with Italy’s “The Hand of God,” has the fourth-longest winner ever with “The Great Beauty” (2013) at 141 minutes. If he won this year, the Italian film would tie for seventh-longest with “Departures” (2008).

Once nominations are announced, voting opens up to the entire Academy membership instead of the branches voting in their crafts. But it’s hard to say if the membership at large is willing to dedicate its time to the entrancing gem. Based on the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami from his short story collection, “Men Without Women,” the film has an outstanding 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and has even generated some unorthodox debates on social media regarding film criticism and “elitism.”

Lazy loaded image
“Drive My Car” Courtesy of Everett Collection

Back when the Academy was nominating five films for best picture, Hamaguchi would feel like a typical “lone director” candidate, someone who could be nominated for directing but see their movie miss out in the top category, like Pedro Almodóvar for “Talk to Her” (2002). The issue this year is that many former nominees and winners are contending for spots (i.e., Joel Coen, Jane Campion, Steven Spielberg). In the past, when the Director’s Branch has stepped outside of the best picture nominees, they tend to select more European-leaning filmmakers like Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”), Paweł Pawlikowski (“Cold War”) and Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). That fact bodes better for someone like Sorrentino than Hamaguchi.

There have been 20 non-English language films nominated in 93 years in adapted screenplay, with the last being France’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) for a script adapted by Ronald Harwood, but none have ever won. This is far less than original screenplay, a category which has had 65 films nominated with six previous winners. That’s quite an uphill battle, but the writer’s branch is typically more willing to recognize non-populist or “unconventional” choices.

It’s easy, though lazy, to make the comparison between “Drive My Car” and “Parasite” (2019), which made history as the first non-English language best picture winner. But besides both being East Asian films, they don’t share any similar qualities, storytelling tones, or filmmaking styles. Nevertheless, Bong Joon-ho’s movie captured a large enough pocket of the zeitgeist, more importantly, the actor’s branch, the largest of the Academy. Without a SAG nomination, the precursors often provide a roadmap for voters to prioritize their watchlist (which they have done for “Drive My Car”) but that’s about it. Unless you opt into the international feature race, it’s unclear if the Academy-at-large is giving Hamaguchi’s meditative drama the required viewings needed to crack best picture. But, you never know.

The “Drive My Car” campaign is also competing with louder, more financially robust studios, not just within the international space but also in the major categories. For example, in best actor, Nishijima, the first Asian actor to win NSFC, is vying for a spot against A-listers and former Oscar-winners like Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Don’t Look Up”). For an entirely non-English speaking performance, lead actor has been a more challenging category for being open to languages outside of English and Spanish. Though Steven Yeun, who spoke in both Korean and English, was recognized for “Minari,” the last individual nominated for an entirely non-English language role, other than Spanish, was Roberto Benigni for the best picture-nominated “Life is Beautiful,” for which he won.

It’ll be interesting to see how far the love for “Drive My Car” will go. Oscar nomination voting opens on Thursday.

2022 Academy Awards Predictions