The best international feature film category at the Academy Awards could, in some ways, be compared to flying economy. Often, the five films that get a seat aboard the Oscars seem squashed in the back, lest they take up space that Hollywood might want to luxuriate in. You’d like to upgrade to best picture? With twice the room and more prestige, who wouldn’t. But many of those seats still appear to be reserved for English-language pictures.
However, things are changing for the better, with Academy voters finding increasing space for international films in other categories. As the awards continues to ask existential questions of itself, this is cause for celebration.
In the Oscars’ 94th year, there are a few firsts among the nominees for best international feature. “Drive My Car” by Ryusuke Hamaguchi became the first Japanese film to be nominated for best picture, and “Flee” by Danish writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen became the first film nominated across best international feature film, best animated feature and best documentary feature. Meanwhile Bhutanese cinema received its first nomination in any category with Pawo Choyning Dorji’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”
Norwegian nominee “The Worst Person in the World” and “Drive My Car” both made the cut in writing categories – director Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt sharing a nomination for best original screenplay, and Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe for best adapted – while Hamaguchi finds himself only the third Japanese filmmaker nominated for best director.
“Drive My Car” ties Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” (1986) for most nominations ever for a Japanese film, but a “Parasite”-level sweep is unlikely, even if few would quibble with the movie’s brilliance. However, the repeated inroads of non-English language cinema suggests, to borrow a phrase from Bong Joon-ho, that voters are overcoming the one inch tall barrier of subtitles and finding a whole world of movies to celebrate. No doubt the Academy’s increasingly international membership is helping too.
Last year’s resurgent festival scene and a backlog of releases due to the pandemic meant there was even greater choice than usual. As always, each country may only nominate one movie for best international feature, with 93 countries submitting this year. Many big-hitters missed out. France had Julia Ducournau’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Titane” and Audrey Diwan’s Venice Golden Lion winner “Happening” at its disposal; “Titane” was submitted over “Happening,” only to fail to make the shortlist. Spain submitted Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss” over Pedro Almodovar’s “Parallel Mothers,” only for it to strike out and see Almodovar’s film nominated for original score (Alberto Iglesias) and star Penelope Cruz for best actress. Romania’s Berlin-winner “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” by Radu Jude, two-time Iranian Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” and Austrian submission “Great Freedom” by Sebastian Meise are all fantastic films that were either not shortlisted or nominated.
There was such an abundance of great international cinema, the question of whether this category should be expanded to 10 nominees, like best picture, must be asked once more. Until then, we have these five. If you need to catch up on this year’s crop, here’s all the details, along with where to watch them.
“The Hand of God”
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino is up to his usual tricks in “The Hand of God,” setting them loose on a work of poignant, sometimes bizarre, autofiction.
Set in sweltering 1980s Naples, Sorrentino’s stand-in Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is an awkward teenager struggling to find his voice among his large, bickering carnival of a family. The talk of the town is the possible move of football megastar Diego Maradona to local club Napoli, but Fabietto is equally preoccupied with his aunt Patrizia (a disquieting Luisa Ranieri). An abused woman with mental health concerns, the director chooses to present this primarily through the medium of her exposed breasts, at which her nephew can’t help but stare. It is not the most conventional sexual awakening committed to screen, and where the film goes from there is eyebrow-raising to say the least (kudos to Sorrentino for his honesty if it’s all true).
That aside, there’s beauty aplenty in how director and regular cinematographer Daria D’Antonio shoot their hometown. Visual flourishes and a Fellini-esque menagerie of larger-than-life characters combine in an elegy to the city and the director’s youth – one defined by a tragedy that set Sorrentino on his path.
“You’ve got to have a story to tell,” a director urges aspiring filmmaker Fabietto toward the end of the movie. Sorrentino, already an Oscar winner for “The Great Beauty” in 2013, hasn’t exactly made a bad fist of telling fictional stories. By returning to Naples and telling his own, he’s come full circle and made one of his richest films to date.
“The Hand of God” is available to watch on Netflix.
“Drive My Car”
Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi had a huge 2021, debuting not one but two critically acclaimed films. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” enchanted the Berlin Film Festival, but it was his three-hour adaptation of Haruki Murakami short story “Drive My Car” that gained traction after its debut at Cannes.
The adaptation is an expansion of the story of actor Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) grieving the sudden death of his wife. Two years on, he’s hired to direct a production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” where Kufuku meets chauffeur Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), with whom he has unlikely kinship. Through chance and his own making, the past surrounds Kufuku, forcing him to confront his loss.
Hamaguchi’s intricately woven story contemplates the disconnect between inner turmoil and outward stoicism. He brilliantly uses Chekhov’s play, with its thematic overlap, as a safe space for characters to wrestle with their real lives. By casting the play as a multilingual production (actors perform in Korean, Tagalog, Mandarin and Korean Sign Language, among others), Hamaguchi steers the audience’s attention towards language and the body. Like Kafuku, we become attuned to when the two fail to tell the same story. His frustrations become our own, his direction of his actors a proxy for what he desires for himself: self-knowledge, and perhaps through that, catharsis.
This is intellectual filmmaking that offers no concessions to the audience. It demands your attention and offers rich rewards in return. Hamaguchi may be surprised by the Academy’s love for the film, but that comes off the back of topping multiple critics’ best of year lists. The film has already won a BAFTA and must be considered red-hot favorite to take the Oscar on Sunday.
“The Worst Person in the World”
The capstone of Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, “The Worst Person in the World” refuses to stick to the rom-com blueprint in its portrait of the Norwegian city and its inhabitants.
Julie (Renate Reinsve) is approaching 30 and is coasting. Her older boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is looking to get serious, but Julie has reservations; thoughts that crystallize when free-spirited Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) walks into her life, setting off a charisma bomb that will go down as one of cinema’s great meet-cutes.
Trier has no interest in fairy tale endings, however. His and Eskil Vogt’s rich and textured script drills into the ideation and idealization of modern living, and the life that happens while you’re making – and breaking – plans.
Julie something of a paradox, riven by impulsiveness and indecisiveness (and she’s privileged enough that she can be). The writing is strong, but this is a film propelled by a star turn. Reinsve’s iridescent performance won her the best actress award at Cannes (remarkably, she’d been about to give up the industry before being cast) and as Julie she’s nothing short of a marvel; a muddle of inconsistencies and equally beguiling and infuriating. In other words: deeply human.
“The Worst Person in the World” paints a portrait that’s so arrestingly real, it recasts much of what came before in the genre as synthetic. For romcoms, this is a corner turned.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s international animated documentary represents an impressively original triple threat at the Oscars this weekend.
The Danish film debuted at Sundance in 2021 where it won the world cinema documentary award and it’s been attracting high-profile admirers ever since. It centers on Amin, a gay Afghan who as a boy fled Kabul in the 1990s. Now an academic in his thirties living in Denmark, he narrates the story of his perilous flight, dredging up myriad horrors that are written and rewritten before our eyes as what was once suppressed breaches consciousness and finds form.
The choice of animation allows Amin (a pseudonym) anonymity, but what it affords Rasmussen is dazzling scope for creative expression, utilizing a variety of styles from smooth rotoscope to scratchy sketching in stylistic collusion with the tone of the moment. It’s truly beautiful, impactful filmmaking that’s not quickly forgotten.
“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom”
This year’s surprise contender, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is only Bhutan’s second entry to the Academy Awards and its first nominee.
Writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s mild-mannered addition to the “city-slicker-goes-to-the-countryside-and-learns-what’s-important-in-life” canon follows Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), a government employee and wannabe singer whose dreams of Australia are put on hold when he’s sent to teach in the remote mountain community of Lunana. Initially dismissive, his petulance gives way to an appreciation of rural life and the culture he was so ready to leave behind, helped by cute kid Pem Zam (Pem Zam) and singer and local beauty Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung).
It’s familiar story, but perhaps one shouldn’t hold that against the film. “Lunana’s” trump card is its stunning setting and window into an underexposed part of the world. Handsomely shot by Jigme Tenzing, we see both bustling capital Thimphu and the majestic foothills of the Himalayas, an idyll if ever there was one. The guileless turns of the film’s real-life highlander cast also grounds the film nicely and act as an effective foil to Ugyen.
Academy voters have plucked from relative obscurity a film that debuted at the London Film Festival way back in 2019. Dorji beat out giants of world cinema to bag a nomination – and with a debut feature, no less. All this considered, “Lunana” represents a landmark in Bhutanese cinema.
The 94th Academy Awards takes place on Sunday March 27.