Critics matter. That’s how I interpret the love the Academy showed for “Drive My Car” this year, nominating the three-hour Japanese drama in four separate categories: best picture, director, adapted screenplay and international film, and in so doing, effectively issuing a referendum to the Spike Lee-led Cannes jury that awarded the Palme d’Or to the relatively divisive “Titane.”
Sure, other non-U.S. films have been widely recognized by the Academy before. “Parasite” scored six noms and won best picture just two years earlier, but that film was also a huge commercial phenomenon, earning $25 million by the day nominations were announced in 2020. “Drive My Car,” by contrast, hadn’t yet cracked $1 million.
Keep in mind: The Academy voters who select the international feature nominees watch every film that is submitted for that honor. But in every other category, popularity matters, and nothing gets nominated unless a sufficient number of members watch — and respect — those films.
To me, the Academy’s embrace of “Drive My Car” can mean only one thing: All the critical support for Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s moving Haruki Murakami adaptation succeeded in convincing Academy voters that it was one of the must-see films of the year.
It’s not often that the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. agree, although in cases when that happens, it has certainly helped films such as “Roma” and “Boyhood” fight their way into the best picture category.
But it’s not a de facto sign that “Drive My Car” should be considered a front-runner in the international feature race, since voters must watch all five nominees in this category. So, while that near-unanimous chorus of critics will no doubt be echoing in the back of their heads, this is a very strong selection and other favorites could emerge.
The Danish documentary “Flee,” for instance, had one of the most awarded festival runs of any film last year (it was selected by the COVID-canceled 2020 Cannes Film Festival and kicked off 2021 with the World Cinema Dramatic grand jury prize at Sundance). Many more kudos followed — including clear and overwhelming support from a jury I oversaw last year, at Los Angeles’ Animation Is Film Festival. (“Flee” is also nominated in Oscar’s animated and documentary feature categories.)
Prior Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) has been channeling Federico Fellini for most of his career, but never more than in his autobiographical “The Hand of God.” Netflix audiences might not make the connection, but critics and Academy members alike can’t ignore that the film, which captures a turning point in his childhood, is essentially Sorrentino’s answer to “Amarcord.”
As often happens in this category, terrific submissions slip under the radar, only to surprise the pundits when they appear on the final ballot — although Variety critic Richard Kuipers’ rave review for Bhutanese teacher drama “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” was an early sign that this crowd-pleaser was something special. Academy members, like mainstream audiences, respond to emotional stories, and this one blends breathtaking views of its rural Himalayan location with an effective flip on the usual mentor-student formula: Here, it is the eager-to-learn kids who inspire their ambivalent instructor.
For this film critic, however, the rival to watch is Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World,” which competed alongside “Drive My Car” in Cannes. Where Hamaguchi’s film is calm and quite leisurely paced (we see what feels like nearly all of “Uncle Vanya” read or rehearsed), paying off in the final half-hour, Trier’s kinetic, ultra-cinematic portrait of a young woman feeling her way in the world through trial and error feels like a very different kind of ride — and one that I suspect that many Academy members may prefer.
Renate Reinsve positively radiates at the center of this movie, and while both films are masterpieces in their own way, it may well come down to whether voters respond more to energy or understatement.