Announcing the Oscar nominees at the crack of dawn, Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan seemed blindsided by a few of the international names they had to announce, from Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Ree-ooskay”?) to Joaquim Trier (“Yoo-aim”?). For anyone tracking the increasing international presence of Oscar contenders, however, these names came as no surprise.
Two years after the historic Best Picture win for “Parasite,” the Academy continues to show significant support for international cinema in major categories. “Drive My Car,” Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, landed a startling four nominations — for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best International Feature — making it the first Asian film in history to score all four of those categories (though Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” also scored four nominations in 1985, for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design).
The last Japanese film to land an Oscar nomination was “Shoplifters” in 2018 for what was then known as the Best Foreign Language Film category, but no Japanese film has won that category since “Departure” in 2008.
“Parasite” landed in similar categories (with an original screenplay nomination), making similar history for South Korea. However, as a broadly entertaining genre movie with renowned director at the helm, its mass appeal was clear early on. “Drive My Car” represents the next chapter on that continuum, with the influx of a genuine arthouse sensibility in categories where it has previously been marginalized.
And it’s not the only indication of that progress. A preliminary analysis provided by an Academy representative shows that 109 nominees (nearly 52%) have a country of origin or nationality outside of the United States, and 24 countries beyond the U.S. are represented across five continents.
The animated Danish documentary “Flee” made history of its own: In addition to its nominations for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film, the movie is the first non-fiction achievement to land in the Best Animated Feature category. The story of an Afghan refugee recounting his struggles for the first time, “Flee” uses its delicate 2D animation to maintain the anonymity of its subject while transforming his flight into a bracing adventure story.
The global presence even goes beyond that. In addition to its Best International Film nomination, Norwegian dramedy “The Worst Person in the World” landed a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Joaquim Trier and Eskil Vogt (the first Norwegian film to do so), while Penélope Cruz made the cut for Best Actress in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” which also secured a Best Original Score nomination for longtime Almodóvar collaborator Alberto Iglesias; Cruz’s partner Javier Bardem joined her as a fellow acting nominee for his lead role in “Being the Ricardos.” Then there are the smattering of acting nominees from the U.K., Ireland, and Australia — Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Olivia Colman — along with Jane Campion, the Best Director frontrunner from New Zealand.
But their presence is par for the course and less striking than the Academy’s growing comfort with non-English-language fare that doesn’t pander to conventional Oscar bait expectations. With roughly 25 percent of the Academy comprised of non-U.S. voters, it should come as no great shock that the lingering stigma around subtitles would show signs of dissolution. It’s also worth noting that nearly half of current Academy membership joined in the midst of a significant conversation about the definition of “foreign-language” movies and their potential to be seen within the broader landscape of current cinema.
While campaigning for “Roma” in 2018, Alfonso Cuarón regularly made the case against the concept of a “Best Foreign Language Film” category, noting that his favorite foreign film while growing up in Mexico was “Jaws.” Cuarón ultimately won that category in addition to Best Director and Best Cinematography, while the Academy listened to his plea, and changed the category’s name to Best International Feature the next year. That was when “Parasite” dominated the Oscars. Over the past year, new International Feature Film committee co-chairs Rajendra Roy and Susanne Bier made a broader effort to engage membership in the screening committee for international features, potentially raising awareness about their qualifications in other categories. Roy even made a public campaign to members via Twitter to encourage their engagement.
Especially great opportunity for Members-at-Large to get engaged in noms process… 👀 at you @eug @RosalieVarda @cameron_tiff @BirdRunningH2O @KPutnam 😉
— Rajendra Roy (@rajroynyc) October 11, 2021
Among the immediate reactions to this morning’s nominations, “Worst Person” double-threat Trier’s quote stands out. “The Oscars are becoming more and more international,” he said, “which makes this nomination even more wonderful.”
As for “Flee,” we may never know how close Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s festival hit came to securing a Best Picture nomination, as the category continues to ignore documentaries. But its trifecta of nominations is also on a continuum. In 2020, “Parasite” distributor Neon also made history with the North Macedonian documentary “Honeyland,” which became the first non-fiction achievement to land a Best International Feature nomination. That achievement was repeated one year later by the Romanian documentary “Collective.” While “Flee” (another Neon release, with Participant) seemed likely to repeat that trend, some were skeptical that it could pierce animated feature as well. That category has historically been kind to international contenders, where everything from the French drama “I Lost My Body” to Japanese fantasy “Mirai” have been nominated in recent years. However, the unusual production style of “Flee” — Rasmussen edited the audio of his interviews like a radio play, then developed the animation around it — suggests a more expansive attitude toward narrative experimentation.
Which brings us back to “Drive My Car.” One of two films from Hamaguchi released last year (in addition to the lower-budget “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”), the slow-burn drama has been a critical favorite since it premiered at Cannes last July and won a screenplay award there. The layered tale of a widowed theater director developing a new version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” the ambitious movie plays with language within the context of its own story, as the character’s version of the play adopts a multilingual approach. That may have seemed like a radical decision a few years ago, but based on the range of languages among this year’s nominees, it’s almost close to normal.