Despite a retrograde submissions process that forces countries to put their weight behind a single work (and allows them to clog the most viable artery that urgent, politically unflattering films have when it comes to reaching a global audience), the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category remains one of the strongest and most exciting aspects of awards season, especially now that “Parasite” has proven that it’s possible for these movies to scale the half-inch barrier that separates them from the Best Picture race. On a more harrowing note, the pandemic-exacerbated decline of arthouse theaters and the specialized market has put even more pressure on this category — the prospect and process of vying for this award is the only hope that most subtitled films have of making an impact in the United States.
Fortunately, Academy members will have a bumper crop to choose from when it comes to creating their annual shortlist of potential nominees. Ninety-three different countries submitted a film this year, and that number includes so many festival heavyweights that even major Cannes standouts like Austria’s “Great Freedom” and Mexico’s “Prayers for the Stolen” might find themselves boxed out by a topsy-turvy season in which it once seemed possible that Palme d’Or-winner “Titane” might not even be chosen as its home country’s pick. Facing their usual embarrassment of riches, France ultimately chose Julia Ducournau’s auto-erotic fable over Venice champ “Happening,” one of the most painful “why not both?” moments in a year that inevitably also saw Iran going with Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” over Panah Panahi’s even more damning masterpiece “Hit the Road,” and Spain overlooking Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” in favor of a film that isn’t Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to turn up your nose at a group of contenders that could potentially include career-best work from auteurs like Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Radu Jude, and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, least of all in a year when one of the odds-on favorites to walk away with the Oscar is an animated documentary. Below is our list of the 15 films most likely to win a spot on the shortlist when it’s revealed on December 21.