Oscars International Feature Shortlist: Which Films Could Make The Cut12/19/2021
The 15-strong shortlist for the Oscars’ International Feature Film category is due on Tuesday, so it’s time to run down my annual preview of titles that have a good shot at making the cut. Films from a total 93 countries are eligible in the race this year, and below we take a close look at a selection of them.
As continues to be the case every year, this is a strong crop of work from diverse voices around the world. Themes range from the personal to the audacious, from true-life to folkloric and mystical, and include humanistic takes — in some cases dramatic, and in some, comedic.
Prizewinners from festivals, notably Cannes this year, make up a number of the entries, while Sundance also has a prominent showing.
Deadline, through its various Contenders events, as well as separate interviews, has spoken with the filmmakers behind many of the overall entries. Each title on the list below has been reviewed by Deadline’s critics as we have grown our International Critics Line strand.
While the list is in no particular order, I’m going to hop into gear with Drive My Car given its recent top honors from Los Angeles and New York critics groups.
DRIVE MY CAR, dir: Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Japan); U.S. Distributor: Sideshow/Janus Films
Hamaguchi co-wrote and directs Drive My Car, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. The drama won the Best Screenplay prize in Cannes and has been on a smooth ride ever since, recently taking top overall film honors from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, along with Best International Feature at the Gotham Awards. It also boasts Independent Spirit and Broadcast Film Critics’ nominations, among many others.
In Deadline’s review, Pete Hammond called Drive My Car, “Exceptionally well-written, with sharp insights on love, loss, marriage, grief, truths on stage and off, and what we may – or may not – know about those closest to us.”
Hamaguchi told me, “If you love someone, in general there is alway the risk of loss. Life essentially means theres a chance of losing someone you love.”
One of the most highly-praised films out of Cannes, the story centers on Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a stage actor and director happily married to his playwright wife. Two years after the latter abruptly disappears, Kafuku is asked to direct a production of Uncle Vanya and, despite his protests, must be chauffeured for the duration by Misaki (Toko Miura). Fun fact: the car in Murakami’s story was a yellow convertible; Hamaguchi changed it to a red hard top Saab because, “It’s hard to record sound in a convertible” and “yellow wouldn’t stand out in the landscape; red is not a color you see in the landscapes in Japan.”
While the craft of acting is a theme, Hamaguchi told me that even if he’s done a bit of it himself, acting is “something I didn’t fully understand… There’s something secret about it and in order to understand more about it, the best way to explore would be to incorporate this performative aspect in the film.”
Drive My Car clocks in at 179 minutes, and Hamaguchi said he originally had a longer version, but was “blessed with my producers” and would have cut it further had they insisted. Still, he told me, “It’s a struggle to find balance between quality and length. For my next project that’s something I will be seeking… I would love to make a 90-minute action film.”
LAMB, dir: Valdimar Jóhannsson (Iceland); U.S. Distributor: A24
Lamb debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section and won its Prize of Originality, going on to further festival play and honors, and landing a spot on the National Board of Review’s Top 5 Foreign Language Films list. This is Jóhannsson’s first feature and enjoyed robust specialty box office when it released in the U.S. in October.
Noomi Rapace, who is also an exec producer, stars in the dark and malevolent folktale about a childless couple in rural Iceland who make an alarming discovery one day in their sheep barn and soon face the consequences of defying the will of nature as a special someone comes into their lives. They name her Ada.
Rapace told Deadline at Contenders Film: International, “It’s quite a universal story. It deals with parenthood, loss, healing… Humans versus nature and how far are we willing to go. How much have we taken and when will nature hit back at us?”
In Deadline’s review, Stephanie Bunbury called the film’s opening sequence, “brilliant… visually magnificent, resolutely unhurried, eerie but at the same time as homey as Little House On The Prairie,” as it sets the scene for everything that is to come. She added, “The story builds like a storm. When that storm breaks in a killer final act, it doesn’t come as a shock. It simply feels inexorable, like the turning of the earth.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, dir: Joachim Trier (Norway); U.S. Distributor: Neon
A hit out of Cannes, where it won the Best Actress prize for lead Renate Reinsve, this is Trier’s third time representing Norway at the Oscars. It’s already scooped awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, among others.
Mostly, Trier recent told me, “The wonderful thing for me has been that Renata has been given the attention she deserves.” He also feels “fortunate to have made a film that is wearing its heart on its sleeve. It’s a humanist story and it’s a film about humanist experiences of love and loss; it’s not a huge abstract universe. I’m kind of happy that I made this film right now in this kind of climate.”
The story centers on Julie, a spirited 30-year-old who has everything going for her. But she’s also experiencing growing disenchantment with a long-time serious boyfriend (Anders Danielsen Lie). Broken into chapters, it covers four years of Julie’s life, from good times to a sense of missed chances and mistakes.
Trier is a big fan of U.S. cinema of the 1970s — and shooting on 35mm to “expose skin color like we used to do, looking into the eyes so that it has that kind of organic, sensuous, cinematic feeling and to try to create a space where the actors can be very free.”
In his Deadline review, Todd McCarthy called the film “a sharp and poignant look at how one’s supposedly best years pass by so quickly you barely realize it” that’s “loaded with freshly observed intimate moments.”
HIVE, dir: Blerta Basholli (Kosovo); U.S. Distributor: Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber
This debut feature from writer-director Basholli won the World Cinema Audience, Directing and Grand Jury Prizes at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber in North America, it recently secured the backing of Elisabeth Moss and Lindsey McManus who boarded as executive producers.
This is the true story of Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) who, like many of the other women in her patriarchal village, has lived with fading hope and burgeoning grief since her husband went missing during the war in Kosovo. To provide for her struggling family, she pulls other women in her community together to launch a business selling the red-pepper sauce ajvar. Together they find healing and solace in considering a future without their husbands.
At Deadline’s Contenders Film: International, Basholli said, “I could make many films about [Fahrije’s] life and what she went through during the war and after the war but it was actually her character and her personality that really had a great impact on me and on all of us.”
In Deadline’s review, Stephanie Bunbury wrote, “The shocks and devastation are in the details and set-pieces, which pack several severe punches.”
TITANE, dir: Julia Ducournau (France); U.S. Distributor: Neon
In July, Ducournau became only the second woman ever to win Cannes’ Palme d’Or, before taking awards in Toronto and being named a Top Five Foreign Language Film by the National Board of Review.
In a year that has seen several female directors scoop major prizes, Ducournau recently told me, “We can’t ignore it, it’s too important what’s happened. We can no longer talk about luck or exception and even if I am someone naturally skeptical, I think it will have an impact on the industry in the coming years.”
Titane merges the world of horror and the erotic symbolism of automobiles. After a series of crimes, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) assumes the identity of a young boy who disappeared 10 years prior. Living with Vincent (Vincent Lindon), the father of the boy, becomes increasingly difficult as Alexia’s pregnancy has some strange side effects.
Ducournau says, “Each film is like a snake skin that I leave behind me and then continue with the same body. I see my characters as a mutation of the same character from film to film… I’m quite young in my career and I haven’t at all finished exploring the themes and obsessions that I have, and I don’t think it will end anytime soon.”
In Deadline’s review, Anna Smith called Titane “a shock-driven genre film that has plenty of violent, squirm-inducing moments… But behind its high-octane exterior there are fascinating themes that Ducournau begins to explore.”
Ducournau said she isn’t pushing boundaries just for the sake of it. “What I show is so that the audience can feel what the character feels.” Ultimately, Ducournau told me, “I hope people will feel less alone in seeing my film because myself as a viewer I feel less alone in seeing some films.”
FLEE, dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen (Denmark); U.S. Distributor: Neon/Participant
Flee is not only Denmark’s International Feature Oscar entry, it’s also eligible in the Feature Documentary and Animation categories. A Sundance debut, where it took the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, it has gone on to awards from Seville to Oslo, Chicago, New York, Annecy and more. At the European Film Awards, it was named both Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature, while it took doc prizes at the Gotham Awards and from the New York Film Critics Circle.
This is the true story of a man, Amin, on the verge of marriage that compels him to reveal his hidden past for the first time and what he went through after fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996.
Amin is also a childhood friend of the director, and previously never spoke about his past. Rasmussen recently told Deadline the idea was not to make a refugee story, rather it comes from “having a friend from more than 20 years who had this secret, and he at some point came to the conclusion that he had to share what happened to him in his past because he felt kind of disconnected to his past and his present and he really wanted to get these things together and so he felt like a whole person.”
Todd McCarthy in his Deadline review called Flee “an odyssey of seemingly unending suffering and insecurity, rendered in bold images both impressionistic and savagely real, that imaginatively reflects the brutal international odyssey the subjects endured.”
I’M YOUR MAN, dir: Maria Schrader (Germany), U.S. Distributor: Bleecker Street
A Berlin Film Festival debut that took the Best Actress Silver Bear for Maren Eggert, I’m Your Man centers on Alma, an anthropologist who agrees to live with a humanoid robot for three weeks as part of a trial testing period. Thomas (Dan Stevens) has been designed as Alma’s ideal partner, and as manufactured as he may be, he has other gifts, notably helping Alma discover a different life.
Schrader recently told us that she responded to the short story source material after being “taken by the simplicity of the setup. You know, two individuals, a love story, a man and a woman — and the man is not a man but a machine. Instantly there were so many questions in my head… What is love? Is it possible with someone who is not living?”
In Deadline’s review, Anna Smith wrote, “When the odd couple begins to cohabit, the robot is a catalyst for self-reflection and self-doubt in this comedy-drama that’s as thought-provoking as it is funny” and “a chance to ponder on the psychology of attraction from the perspective of a professional woman with a complex interior life.”
CLARA SOLA, dir: Nathalie Álvarez Mesén (Costa Rica); U.S. Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Mesén’s dramatic debut feature bowed in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes earlier this year, going on to win prizes in various international festivals. Set in a remote Costa Rican village, it centers on 40-year-old Clara, who endures a repressively religious and withdrawn life under the command of her mother. Tension builds within the family as Clara’s younger niece approaches her quinceañera, igniting a sexual and mystical awakening in Clara, and a journey to free herself from the conventions that have dominated her life.
Mesén told Deadline in Cannes that the character “represents the voices of all the women in my family and in other families. You know, grandmothers, the coming generations — hopefully women breaking free from the norm that [they have inherited].”
Reviewing the film for Deadline, Anna Smith called Clara Sola “an atmospheric film that blends magical realism with psycho-sexual drama” under Mesén’s “confident direction.”
COMPARTMENT NO. 6, dir: Juho Kuosmanen (Finland); U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Kuosmanen is epresenting Finland for the second time, with just his second feature. Cannes Grand Prize laureate Compartment No. 6 (which shared the win with A Hero) has an Independent Spirit nomination among other honors from international bodies.
The story, based on a 2011 novel by Rosa Liksom, follows a young Finnish woman (Seidi Haarla) as she escapes a love affair in Moscow by boarding a train to the arctic port of Murmansk. Forced to share the long ride and a tiny sleeping car with a larger-than-life Russian miner (Yuriy Borisov), the unexpected encounter leads the occupants of the titular compartment to face major truths about human connection.
Kuosmanen recently told Deadline he had always an ambition to shoot a film on a train, as well as a film in Russia. “I felt that this book would be leading me to a film where I can actually make my dream come true,” he said. Although working in a cramped space provided challenges, Deadline’s Todd McCarthy wrote in his review that “Kuosmanen and cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi get the camera into very tight quarters with impressive agility.” He also wrote that the film“offers up vivid emotional twists and turns that are charted with unusual acuity.”
THE HAND OF GOD, dir: Paolo Sorrentino (Italy), U.S. Distributor: Netflix
This Venice Grand Jury Prize laureate is Oscar-winner Sorrentino’s most personal film to date. A coming-of-age story, it’s based on the filmmaker’s own youth, and the tragedy of losing his parents as a teenager.
Sorrentino told Deadline at Contenders Film: London, “I had this story I was scared to do because it’s very personal, but because it’s a painful story — even if there is a part of comedy — I thought it was a good idea to share my pain with a potential audience and see if that pain was only about me or also about other people.” Another part of the impetus was turning 50, because that’s “an important moment in life in order to look back and not to look at the future. But at the same time, this movie is giving me a future.”
In Deadline’s review, Pete Hammond wrote, “In many ways this is Sorrentino’s Amarcord, Day For Night, Cinema Paradiso, Pain And Glory, but first and foremost a knowing and engaging film from a director ready for the first time, on film at least, to look deeply inward for inspiration.”
THE GOOD BOSS, dir: Fernando Leon de Aranoa (Spain); U.S. Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Debuting at San Sebastian, this comedy-drama that examines abuse of power now boasts an all-time record 20 nominations for Spain’s Goya Awards. The Javier Bardem-starrer will also play Palm Springs and has a nod at January’s Satellite Awards.
Reteaming for the third time with director de Aranoa, Bardem plays Blanco, the charismatic but controlling boss of a factory that makes scales, and someone who will go to extreme lengths to protect the world he has created for himself — and to ensure his affairs with interns are not exposed to his wife.
De Aranoa recently told me, “When the film finds this character, he has a kind of control over all the different angles of his life… and then the film tells about this in a moment when he’s losing control and how he tries to keep this at any price.”
It was “very important,” to have the audience “have some sympathy with the character. You need to do that, otherwise there is no way to build a good character.”
In Deadline’s review, Stephanie Bunbury wrote, “many of the laughs build slowly in scenes where at least one person present has no idea what is going on and isn’t going to be told… Peak dramatic irony is reached in an excruciating and exquisitely timed dinner party scene.”
A HERO, dir: Asghar Farhadi (Iran); U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios
A two-time winner in this category, Farhadi took the Grand Prize (shared with Compartment No. 6) in Cannes where A Hero was instantly buzzy. The social drama was later named Best Foreign Language Film by the National Board of Review, and has scored myriad mentions from other bodies. This is the fifth time he reps Iran at the Oscars.
Set in Iran, the story follows Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a man imprisoned for debt. On a two-day leave, he tries to make a deal with his debtor to pay back part of what he owes when his girlfriend finds a handbag filled with gold coins. But things do not go according to plan. After initially receiving much acclaim for returning the lost coins, Rahim’s life takes a serious downturn.
Farhadi has told Deadline, “What’s very interesting to me about this story is when somebody does a good deed like that, we take [away] the allowance for them to make mistakes anymore… and they have to be always like that moment in their lives.”
In her Deadline review, Anna Smith called A Hero “a thought-provoking watch which is perhaps the filmmaker’s most subtle and heartfelt film since A Separation,” whose “story veers on the edge of Shakespearean tragicomedy, with darkly funny results. But the dominant tone is dramatic, and occasionally tense and painful.”
LINGUI, THE SACRED BONDS, dir: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad); U.S. Distributor: Mubi
Veteran Chadian director Haroun’s latest screened in the Cannes competition, before traveling to other festival around the world. It is among the National Board of Review’s Top Five Foreign Language Films and will play Palm Springs in January.
Set on the outskirts of Chad’s capital N’Djamena, the story centers on fiercely determined single mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) who works tirelessly to provide for herself and her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio). Suddenly, Amina’s fragile existence collapses: she learns Maria is pregnant, and has been kicked out of her Islamic girls’ school. Maria does not want this pregnancy, but abortion in Chad is condemned both by religion and law. Abandoned by her own family years before for her pregnancy with Maria, Amina is determined to offer a different fate for her child.
Haroun has said, “I wanted to paint a portrait of a Chadian woman similar to the ones I know. They are single women, widowed or divorced, who raise their children alone. Often looked down upon by society, they nevertheless manage to figure out how to make ends meet… They are the unsung heroines of everyday life.”
Deadline’s Todd McCarthy called Lingui “disarming and refreshing” while “the merits of the film are mostly to be found in the way the director organically searches for and then quietly serves up plausible resolutions.”
LEAVE NO TRACES, dir: Jan P. Matuszyński (Poland); U.S. Distributor: Buffalo 8
Debuting at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, Leave No Traces instantly became Poland’s official submission for the International Feature Oscar race. It also scooped three Polish Film Festival prizes and will play Palm Springs next month. The story chronicles true events that took place in 1983, when Poland was shaken by the case of a high school student beaten to death by militia.
Tomasz Ziętek plays Jurek, the only witness to the beating of Grzegorz Przemyk. The film follows his plight as the oppressive regime used its whole apparatus to squeeze Jurek and other people close to the case, including his parents and Przemyk’s mother.
Matuszyński recently told me that he “had some sort of a blank spot in our history, and this is why I am probably so interested in that kind of story.” He said he focused on Jurek’s perspective, “which allows you to bring up those big questions: What does it mean that he saw everything? What does it mean the whole truth? Can you actually repeat everything that happened there?”
Deadline’s Valerie Complex wrote in her review that Zietek “moves between the range of emotions with phenomenal ease.”
LUZZU, dir: Alex Camilleri (Malta); U.S. Distributor: Kino Lorber
A Special Jury Award winner for Acting at Sundance, Luzzu made history by becoming the first Maltese feature to compete in a major international festival.
In Camilleri’s debut feature, Jesmark Scicluna plays Jesmark, a struggling fisherman on the island of Malta who is forced to risk everything by entering the world of black-market fishing to provide for his wife and newborn baby.
Camilleri recently told Deadline, “I was so interested in the world of fishermen; it’s seeped in beauty and tradition but very little is known about it. There was a sentimental or romantic notion about fishermen and I wanted to break that down and take a look at what it is to uphold this tradition in a modern context.” In fact, Scicluna is a real fisherman while the cast was primarily made up of non-pros.
Reviewing the film, Deadline’s Valerie Complex called it “a love letter to the country’s people and the people who try to keep this culture alive… This subtle story of a fisherman in crisis manages to build a sense of triumph out of tragedy.”
PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN, dir: Tatiana Huezo (Mexico); U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Mexico’s Oscar entry debuted at Cannes, receiving a special mention in the Un Certain Regard strand. It was also a multi-award-winner at San Sebastian and has Independent Spirit and Satellite Awards nominations; it will play Palm Springs in January.
Huezo’s debut feature is liberally adapted from Jennifer Clement’s eponymous 2014 novel. A coming-of-age story of three young girls, it also tells a story of corruption, drugs and human trafficking. Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) and her friends wear boyish haircuts and have hiding places underground. Their mothers work in the poppy fields, and also train the girls to flee from those who turn them into slaves or ghosts. One day, one of the girls doesn’t make it to her hideout in time.
“I think definitely one of the biggest challenges in doing this was in trying to relate the story in a very violent context through the eyes of a child and through the eyes of a little girl who is exposed to brutality as a woman,” Huezo told Deadline at Contenders Film: International.
In her review, Anna Smith wrote, “Huezo steers well clear of horror or melodrama, opting for crisp, vivid realism from a child’s POV, with engrossing results.”
GREAT FREEDOM, dir: Sebastian Meise (Austria); U.S. Distributor: Mubi
This Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner also scooped Best Film at the Sarajevo Fest among other trophies along its journey. It’s next due in Palm Springs.
Set in postwar Germany, Great Freedom tells the story of Hans (Franz Rogowski), who is imprisoned time and again for his sexuality under a notorious statute known as Paragraph 175 which was invoked under the Nazi regime to justify the persecution and incarceration of homosexuals, and remained in force until 1969. Hans, who first goes to prison from a concentration camp, finds solace in the one steady relationship in his life: that with long-time cellmate, Viktor (Georg Friedrich).
At Deadline’s Contenders Film: International, Rogowski said, “I don’t know how it must have felt to be under such levels of structural violence, not being able to live your love or relationships in freedom, but I had a lot of respect for the character and what he’s gone through.”
Stephanie Bunbury wrote of Rogowski in her Deadline review, he “has always had a bravura capacity to flit up and down scales of emotion like a concert pianist playing Rachmaninoff, but he excels himself here.” Further, she noted, “Quite how Meise and cinematographer Crystal Fournier manage to make the (prison) interiors so rich and fascinating over a two-hour stretch will remain one of life’s mysteries.”
UNCLENCHING THE FISTS, dir: Kira Kovalenko (Russia); U.S. Distributor: Mubi
Set in North Ossetia, a sparsely populated part of Russia on the border of Georgia and next to Chechnya, Unclenching The Fists follows a young woman, Ada, who is struggling to escape the stifling hold of the family she loves as much as she rejects.
Kovalenko’s sophomore feature debuted in Cannes, winning the top Un Certain Regard prize as well as honors from the Jerusalem and Denver fests; it heads to Palm Springs in January.
The director/writer recently told Deadline her inspiration for the project was a line in William Faulkner’s Intruder In The Dust: “While some people can endure slavery, nobody can stand freedom.”
Stephanie Bunbury’s Deadline review noted, “Kovalenko and her co-writer Anton Yarush weave this story’s warp and weft of contradictory truths with tremendous skill and intelligence.”
Escape From Mogadishu (Korea)
107 Mothers (Slovakia)
Let It Be Morning (Israel)
Casablanca Beats (Morocco)
Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn (Romania)
White Building (Cambodia)
Drunken Birds (Canada)
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