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 92 submissions were eligible. 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.
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. Film festival prize-winners have an advantage, as do films with a strong North American distributor willing to spend and campaign.
Making the final cut was Netflix’s Silver Lion winner at Venice, “The Hand of God,” which 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.
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 the trifecta of New York, Los Angeles, and National film critics groups, as well as winning international prizes from the Golden Globes, Spirits, BAFTA, Cesars, and Critics Choice Awards.
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 landed both documentary and international nominations, like documentaries “Honeyland” and “Collective.” “Flee” marks the first film to also land in the Animated Feature race, a feat that was missed by Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir.” Many, many fans of the film stepped 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, which also landed an Original Screenplay nomination.
Likely bumping Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” out of the lineup was “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” which was picked up by the distributor of last year’s winner “Another Round,” Samuel Goldwyn Films. Bhutan was so proud of Pawo Choyning Dorji’s feature film debut that the country submitted the movie twice after it was initially disqualified because the country didn’t have an official selection committee and hadn’t submitted a film for 23 years. (When Dorji started filling out the submission form, neither Bhutan nor its official language was listed.) The director shot the movie high in the remote Himalayas with local villagers and rookie musician-turned-actor Sherab Dorji as a teacher from the city reluctantly abandoning his mobile phone connection.
Nominees are listed in order of their likelihood to win.
“Drive My Car” (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
“The Worst Person in the World” (Joachim Trier, Norway)
“Flee” (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Denmark)
“The Hand of God” (Paolo Sorrentino)
“Lunana: A Yak in the classroom” (Pawo Choyning Dorji, Bhutan)