The Academy’s International Feature Film Award Committee has nothing to do with selecting the foreign-language submissions from more than 90 countries around the world. It’s up to the individual country to figure out which film has the best chance to build a following among some 1,000 global Academy participants (mostly in Los Angeles) who watch a dozen films at festivals, screenings, theaters, or on the Academy online portal, and rate them to come up with a shortlist of 15 films for the overall Academy to watch. Those who see the entire shortlist can pick the final five nominees.
While many in Hollywood decry this method of selecting the international Oscar contenders, the scale and logistics of the submitting and voting process have staved off any meaningful reform. More countries are participating every year. This year met last year’s record 93 films submitted. Some members would like to see 10 nominees, given the high volume of quality films on display.
For the 94th Academy Awards, the submitted movies had to be released theatrically in their respective countries between the first of January and December 31, 2021, and submitted to the Academy by November 1, 2021.
The final five nominees will be announced on February 8, 2022. Historically, countries with well-established movie industries (in order of most Oscar wins: Italy, France, Spain, Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Soviet Union, Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Austria, Iran) have garnered the most nominations and wins over the years. But Mauritania delivered its first and only nominee “Timbuktu,” while South Korea’s first International Feature nominee and win, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” also won four Oscars including Best Picture, the first international film to do so.
It doesn’t matter what language is spoken from what country, as long as there isn’t too much English. American films are not eligible. The year’s first submission came from Ecuador, first-time entrant Alfredo León León’s “Submersible,” about a handcrafted narco sub with both valuable and hidden cargo onboard that is threatening to sink. After 10 submissions, Ecuador has yet to land a nomination.
Film festival prize-winners have an advantage, as do films with a strong North American distributor willing to spend and campaign. After a pitched Take battle over which film would be the final selection from France’s Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, Julia Ducournau’s taboo-busting Palme d’Or and TIFF Midnight Madness winner “Titane” (Neon) did not land on the shortlist.
Making the cut was Spanish contender Fernando León de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss,” which was selected over Pedro Almodóvar’s lauded “Parallel Mothers,” which opened Venice and closed the New York Film Festival. The same thing happened 19 years ago when the country selected de Aranoa’s “Mondays in the Sun” over Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her,” which went on to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The auteur has been selected by Spain seven times. Sony Pictures Classics will campaign “Parallel Mothers” for Best Picture, Director, Actress, and Original Screenplay, among other categories. Ironically, “The Good Boss” stars Oscar-winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”), husband of Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”). “The foreign film stigma is gone with the ‘Parasite’ win,” wrote SPC co-president Tom Bernard in an email. “So we will be submitting in all the mainstream categories.”
Another well-regarded auteur is Iranian Asghar Farhadi, who has won two foreign-language Oscars, for “A Separation,” which was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and “The Salesman,” and could be up for a third for Cannes Grand Prix-winner “A Hero,” a searing family drama about a feckless man trying to extricate himself from debtor’s prison in order to marry the woman he loves. Amazon is lobbying hard for the well-reviewed drama.
Sharing the Grand Prix at Cannes with “A Hero” was Juho Kuosmanen’s Finland entry, gorgeous winter train saga “Compartment No. 6” (Sony Pictures Classics) which tracks two incompatible train mates on a journey of discovery.
Germany selected well-received “I’m Your Man” (Bleecker Street), directed by Maria Schrader and starring British German-speaker Dan Stevens as a live-in humanoid lover resisted by a professor (Maren Eggert) who is evaluating the service provided by a humanoid exquisitely tuned in to a woman’s deepest desires. Resistance is futile.
Netflix is backing a few foreign-language contenders. High-profile Silver Lion winner at Venice, “The Hand of God” (December 15) marks a departure from Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino’s more florid works, such as Oscar-winner “The Great Beauty.” More Cuarón’s “Roma” than Fellini’s “Roma,” this is a personal story set in Sorrentino’s cinephile youth in his hometown Naples. Netflix is also supporting Mexican entry, Tatiana Huezo’s wartime coming-of-age fable “Prayers for the Stolen,” focused on three pre-adolescent girls, which debuted at Cannes.
As expected, Japan selected prolific Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour Cannes Best Screenplay-winner “Drive My Car” (Sideshow and Janus Films), starring the incomparable Hidetoshi Nishijima as a grief-stricken actor-director in rehearsals for a multi-national stage performance of “Uncle Vanya,” which made a big splash at the NYFF and won Best Film from both the New York and Los Angeles film critics groups.
Sebastian Meise’s Austrian entry “Great Freedom” (March 4, Mubi) debuted at Cannes and won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize; it also won Best Feature Film at the Sarajevo Film Festival. And actor Franz Rogowski earned the Special Jury Prize for Exceptional Performance at October’s Hamptons International Film Festival.
One of the few films to be selected by all the major film festivals, from Sundance 2021 through NYFF, is Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s timely Afghanistan immigration documentary “Flee” (Neon), which could benefit from multiple nominations like “Honeyland” and “Collective.” Could it also land in the animated feature race? That did not happen for Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir.” But it’s a long-shot possibility. Many, many fans of the film will step up to boost its already robust profile, including Alfonso Cuarón.
Another Cannes winner, for Best Actress Renate Reinsve, is Joachim Trier’s relationship drama “The Worst Person in the World,” a strong candidate for Norway. Also playing Cannes was Iceland entry “Lamb” (A24), directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and starring Noomi Rapace.
Shortlist contenders are listed in alphabetical order. No film will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.
“Drive My Car” (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
“Flee” (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Denmark)
“The Hand of God” (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
“A Hero” (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
“The Worst Person in the World” (Joachim Trier, Norway)
“Compartment No. 6” (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland)
“The Good Boss” (Spain, Fernando León de Aranoa)
“Great Freedom” (Sebastian Meise, Austria)
“Hive” (Blerta Basholli, Kosovo)
“I’m Your Man” (Maria Schrader, Germany)
“Lamb” (Valdimar Jóhannsson, Iceland)
“Lunana: A Yak in the classroom” (Pawo Choyning Dorji, Bhutan)
“Playground” (Laura Wandel, Belgium)
“Plaza Catedral” (Abner Benaim, Panama)
“Prayers for the Stolen” (Tatiana Huezo, Mexico)