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In recent years, an all-but-unassailable front-runner has tended to emerge early in the Oscar race for international feature, assisted by critics’ awards consensus and often accompanying best picture buzz. “Roma,” “Parasite” and “Drive My Car” were all firmly positioned as the ones to beat by the time the category shortlist was announced in December, and never relinquished that position. This year, however, the race looks rather more open and exciting: The 2022 festival circuit has turned up a surfeit of non-English-language features with critical acclaim and audience appeal, but none has yet pulled away from the pack.

That makes predicting this year’s shortlist trickier than usual. From 92 submissions, the number of credible, high-profile candidates for a slot exceeds the limit of 15 titles; it’s easy to imagine almost any of them being a “surprise” omission. As usual, European submissions dominate the pool, though Asia and the Americas field some of the buzziest possibilities.

Top of the list, perhaps, is South Korea, which earned its first nomination and win three years ago with “Parasite”: The country could get its second with Park Chan-wook’s twisty, ingenious film noir “Decision to Leave,” which wowed critics and picked up the director prize at Cannes. Having grossed more than $1.7 million in the U.S. box office, the MUBI release is also currently the highest leader among the submissions. Academy traditionalists may be won over by the film’s sleek Hitchcockian stylings; more adventurous voters will be enthralled by its labyrinthine storytelling. 

Another Korean-set entry that could find favor with the branch is Cambodia’s entry, “Return to Seoul,” a multinational production from director Davy Chou. Its story of a young French Korean adoptee seeking her biological parents in her homeland has the traditional emotional pull that tends to help in this category, but the film’s fluorescent visual style gives it a youthful edge. The backing of Sony Pictures Classics — a studio with a long history of success in this category — and an Independent Spirit nom are further points in its favor. 

The heart-warmer of the field, meanwhile, might be Pakistan’s “Joyland,” a hopeful, jewel-toned transgender love story from debut director Saim Sadiq that has proven a festival crowdpleaser. “Joyland” made headlines in November when it was banned by Pakistani censors, earning a swell of industry support as its Oscar eligibility was briefly thrown into question. The ban was eventually lifted, but the additional publicity won’t have hurt a film that has already landed a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards.

“Joyland” is one of a few LGBTQ+-themed films in the running, including what might be the most viable contender from the always under-represented continent of Africa. Morocco’s “The Blue Caftan,” a Cannes-premiered tearjerker from director Maryam Touzani, was picked up for the U.S. by Strand Releasing. Its melodramatic tale of a closeted gay tailor reassessing his life in the face of his wife’s terminal cancer diagnosis is both progressive and classical enough to please the branch’s more traditional voters.

The emotional powerhouse of the race, however, is likely to be another subtly queer drama: Belgium’s “Close,” the second film from young director Lukas Dhont (whose trans-themed debut “Girl” was widely expected to but failed to make the 2018 shortlist). “Close” left audiences at Cannes and Telluride puffy-eyed with its story of an intensely close bond between two 13-year-old boys broken by unspeakable tragedy. That impact, plus the campaign clout of distributor A24, led many pundits to install it as a favorite, though its failure to secure nominations at the Gotham and Spirit awards suggests it’s no bulldozer.

Speaking of heavyweight distributors, Netflix has justly high hopes for its prize pony, Germany’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” — a new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel, the previous version of which won the 1930 best picture Oscar. This impressive, viscerally realized new interpretation from Emmy-nominated director Edward Berger (“Patrick Melrose”) boasts technical dazzle to rival Sam Mendes’ recent WWI epic “1917,” and could once more be up the Academy’s alley.

Concerns over a more current war could bolster support for Ukraine’s entry, Maryna Er Gorbach’s bluntly powerful “Klondike.” This blistering domestic drama set against the violent backdrop of Russo-Ukrainian conflict was already a gut-punch when it premiered at Sundance in January, winning a directing prize — but became even more topical than expected when the war escalated a month later. Ukraine has never cracked the shortlist before; though it’s a tough sit, “Klondike” ought to be their Oscar breakthrough.  

Another contender hoping to get through with shock therapy is Denmark’s “Holy Spider,” from Swedish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi. Set wholly in the Iranian city of Mashhad, it’s a brutal true-crime portrait of serial killer Said Hanaei, who murdered 16 female sex workers between 2000 and 2001. The film’s mixture of feminist perspective with explicit violence against women won’t be to all voters’ tastes, but it’s a conversation piece being prominently campaigned by Utopia. 

Sometimes a star well-known to Academy members can draw attention to a film in the race, and that could be the case with Vicky Krieps and Austrian submission “Corsage,” a deliciously subversive feminist reworking of the life story of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Backed by IFC Films, Marie Kreutzer’s sexy, elegant portrait was a Cannes breakout that has also scored Spirit and Gotham nominations.

Spain’s entry “Alcarràs” has generated as much noise in the race as some of the other titles mentioned, but Carla Simon’s earthy, lived-in study of a Catalonian farming family facing the loss of their land has been a steady audience favorite at festivals since winning the Golden Bear at Berlin and scoring a deal with MUBI: don’t underestimate it. Another unassuming sleeper in the race, appropriately enough, is Ireland’s “The Quiet Girl,” a simple but incrementally heart-rending study of an abused, introverted 10-year-old healing the marriage of two foster parents in rural County Waterford. It’s the kind of film that sneaks up on audiences, and could do on the Oscars too: Neon’s Super distribution arm has scored the U.S. rights.

Super also boasts “Saint Omer,” the film hoping to end France’s confounding 30-year drought of wins in the category. Alice Diop’s quietly devastating courtroom drama is the country’s first-ever submission from a Black female director: Inspired by the true-life case of a Senegalese immigrant accused of murdering her infant child, it’s a thought-provoking piece overlaid with complex racial and gender politics, and should resonate with the Academy’s more socially conscious members.

If they prefer their courtroom dramas more conventionally rousing, Santiago Mitre’s “Argentina, 1985” — submitted by, you guessed it, Argentina — could do the trick. Powered by a charismatic star turn from Ricardo Darin, this gripping true story of the landmark case that put perpetrators of the country’s military dictatorship on trial isn’t a game-changer, but it might be the most traditionally Hollywood-style film in the running, and has the might of Amazon Studios behind it.   

Mitre’s film is perhaps the strongest contender from the Americas, and could score shortlist spots with two films opposite in scale. Bolivia’s “Utama” is a gorgeous slice of rustic folk realism from Alejandro Loayza Grisi that won the top prize in Sundance’s world cinema competition. 

Think of it as the David to Mexico’s Goliath: “Bardo,” the Netflix-funded colossus from five-time Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu, certainly has the pedigree of a winner. But this semi-autobiographical meditation of art and identity has wildly divided opinion since premiering at Venice, with critics largely declaring it a bloated indulgence. Fellow filmmakers in the Academy might find it more relatable — but in this most competitive of years, there can be no sure things.