Festivals Boost Contenders for Oscar International Film Race

A Hero Asghar Farhadi
Courtesy of Amirhossein Shojaei

If you wanted to name a winner from the Oscar international film shortlist right now, it would be the Cannes Film Festival. Nine of the 15 titles that made the cut came from the fest, even though the Palme d’Or winner, France’s submission “Titane,” did not. But then only those who were not paying attention to past trends in stage one voting assumed that it would be included.

Although a record 93 countries put forward an entry, only 15 are moving on. The ones selected for the shortlist come from almost every continent, although Africa, despite some exciting entries such as Somalia’s “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” Chad’s “Lingui: The Sacred Bonds” and Morocco’s “Casablanca Beats,” was ignored (all three titles premiered at Cannes).

Cannes players that are in the mix include Iran’s “A Hero,” helmed by previous Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi; Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” by Joachim Trier; Finland’s “Compartment No. 6” by Juho Kuosmanen; Austria’s “Great Freedom” by Sebastian Meise; Belgium’s “Playground” from Laura Wandel; Mexico’s “Prayers for the Stolen” by Tatiana Huezo; and Japan’s “Drive My Car” from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.

Cannes gave a boost to four of the five Nordic countries on the list. “Lamb,” an edgy genre film from Iceland helmed by Valdimar Jóhannsson that played in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, certainly has its fans (and bagged an award there for artistic innovation). Meanwhile, Denmark’s animated documentary “Flee,” directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, was a 2020 Cannes Label selection that waited six months to premiere at Sundance.

14 of the 15 titles debuted at big-name festivals. Like “Flee,” Kosovo’s “Hive,” by Blerta Basholli, also premiered at Sundance; Germany’s “I’m Your Man,” directed by Maria Schrader, bowed at Berlin; and Italy’s “The Hand of God,” from previous winner Paolo Sorrentino, premiered at Venice. Spain’s “The Good Boss,” from Fernando León de Aranoa, was introduced at San Sebastian. Bhutan’s 2019 charmer, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” from Pawo Choyning Dorji, launched in London and segued to Busan.

The below-the-radar title in the festival department is Panama’s submission, “Plaza Catedral,” by Abner Benaim, which premiered in Guadalajara, picking up two acting kudos, and played the Intl. Film Festival of Panama, but hasn’t yet been seen outside Latin America.

Some years ago, a former chairman of the committee responsible for selecting the nominees joked, “We were really famous for voting for anything that had to do with a grandparent and grandchild or the Holocaust.” But that profile has nothing in common with this year’s shortlist.

The 2022 selection takes on contemporary concerns, including an examination of social-media ills (“A Hero”), Afghanistan in crisis, immigration, problems of refugees (“Flee”), the narco wars and their victims (“Prayers for the Stolen”), school bullying (“Playground”), women vs. the patriarchy (“Hive”), social injustice (“Plaza Catedral”) and gay issues (“Great Freedom,” “Flee”).

Some of the films tackle topical issues with a lighter hand. “I’m Your Man” is a romantic comedy disguised as a think piece about the relationship between (wo)man and robot. The snarky satire “The Good Boss” is about a CEO who says one thing but does another. “Lunana” is a sort of coming-of-age film about a man sent to a remote area of the Himalayan kingdom to teach and winds up learning an important lesson. It’s only the second time Bhutan has sent a film to the Oscars and the first time it made the shortlist.

Of course, if you look back at the nominees in what was once the foreign-language category, you will find numerous outstanding humanist dramas, which this year’s shortlist has in spades. The best of them bring something fresh and exciting to their storytelling such as “The Worst Person in the World,” “Compartment No. 6” and “Drive My Car.”