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Ahead of the 93rd Academy Awards last April and despite the global pandemic, a record 97 countries submitted a film for the best international feature Oscar competition, and a record 93 were accepted into the race. For the 94th Oscars, the number of submitted films trickled down to 93, and the process of vetting those entries is still underway. But one thing is already certain: This year’s crop of hopefuls includes a bunch of edgy productions of the sort the Academy used to shy away from, but increasingly has embraced.
What changed? For many years, the knock on the Academy’s foreign-language film committee (now known as its international feature film committee, which is composed of volunteers from across the organization’s branches) was that it was too conservative in its tastes. That wasn’t particularly surprising, given that most of the people who volunteered to watch dozens of subtitled films within a period of just a few months were retirees. “We were really famous for voting for anything that had to do with a grandparent and grandchild or the Holocaust,” recalls Mark Johnson, who chaired the committee for 17 years.
But with each egregious nomination snub by the committee — among them Brazil’s City of God (2002), China’s House of Flying Daggers (2004), Spain’s Volver (2006), France’s Persepolis (2007) and Romania’s Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (2007) — pressure grew on the Academy to do something different.
Johnson introduced a new process: The general committee — almost all of whom lived in the L.A. area, as all screenings were exclusively held at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters — would pick six titles; the executive committee would then determine three overlooked titles to “save”; and then a list would be publicized with the nine shortlistees (not specifying which were committee picks and which were saves), at which point a “phase two committee” of several dozen distinguished Academy members in L.A., New York and London, handpicked by Johnson or his successor, would binge three movies a day during three consecutive days and determine the final five nominees.
Problems didn’t go away entirely — most notably, Italy’s Gomorrah (2008), Thailand’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Belgium’s Two Days, One Night (2014), France’s Elle (2016) and Germany’s In the Fade (2017) were still left out of the final five — but more daring movies (many rumored to be “saves”) began to make it onto the shortlist and were even nominated — most famously Greece’s Dogtooth (2010), which Larry Karaszewski, one of Johnson’s successors as foreign-language film award executive committee chair, remembers as “the watershed film” that made countries around the world feel confident enough to submit edgier films. This all paved the way for an uptick in such outside-the-box nominees as Cambodia’s The Missing Picture (2013) and North Macedonia’s Honeyland (2019) and winners including Chile’s A Fantastic Woman (2017) and South Korea’s Parasite (2019).
Since the pandemic, the selection process has become more democratic than ever. Because no Academy members could attend an in-person screening, the Academy uploaded all official international submissions onto its secure, members-only Academy Screening Room app and invited all members to sign up to serve on the general committee. Though theaters have since reopened in L.A., the Academy has decided to retain that selection process this season and, in all likelihood, indefinitely.
This bodes well for some of this season’s hipper international feature submissions.
In 2008, the animated doc Waltz With Bashir was Israel’s submission and was nominated but lost to a fairly traditional Japanese melodrama, Departures. This season, another animated doc has been submitted — Flee, by Denmark — and would seem to stand as strong a chance as any film at landing not only a nom but also a win. Drawing upon conversations he conducted with an Afghan refugee he befriended as a child, but using animation to protect the man’s identity, Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen recounts a story that brings to life the immigrant experience more than most live-action films ever could. The doc won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema Documentary).
Meanwhile, France has chosen Titane, the second feature directed by Julia Ducournau, which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or and Toronto’s Midnight Madness People’s Choice awards — a rare combo that reflects just how unusual the Neon release is. It tells the story of a woman who becomes a nonverbal, violent serial killer and has sex with cars but is jarred by exposure to unconditional love when a man accepts her as his long-lost son. As bizarre as the film sounds (and is), it is also exciting, electric and has everyone talking, which probably explains why it had the biggest opening weekend at the U.S. box office of any Palme winner in 17 years.
And then there are unconventional takes on conventional dramas. Italy submitted Paolo Sorrentino’s Venice winner The Hand of God, which seems like a fairly straightforward autobiographical drama until it takes a shocking turn about halfway through. Asghar Farhadi, with A Hero, is once again representing Iran — two of his films in the past decade won the non-English-language Oscar — but this time, the moral morass he’s tackling has to do with social media. And the film with which A Hero tied for Cannes’ Grand Prize, Finland’s Compartment Number 6, from up-and-comer Juho Kuosmanen, might at first seem like a run-of-the-mill opposites-attract love story but quietly reveals itself to be a reminder of the charms and complications of life and love before smartphones.
In short, as the Academy has shown a greater openness to complex films in the international feature category, countries around the world have responded by submitting more of them.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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