2021 International Film Shortlist Advances Embattled Oscar Category
Eligibility controversies. Category name changes. Executive committee “saves” allowed. Executive committee “saves” disallowed. The introduction of a nine-entry shortlist. The expansion to 10. Then to 15…and so on. There has been no Academy Award category more frequently and fitfully tinkered with than best international feature film (formerly best foreign language feature).
And so to the overriding question coming out of yesterday’s shortlist of 15 titles (formerly 10; née 9): have all the tinkerings been worth it? Have we finally — maybe even just randomly — hit on the precise combination of variables that will make the selection bulletproof? For the 93rd Academy Awards, with its numerological kismet of 93 international film submissions (equalling last year’s record-setting tally), and its reigning champ “Parasite” being, for the first time in history, also the best picture winner, it sure would be a great time to declare this most broken of categories “fixed.”
Let’s not be hasty, but this list of 15 is actually fairly heartening, especially if you gauge the category’s progress by how much it’s moved on from musty old habits. In particular, it’s exciting to note that this year, more than half the shortlist comes from regions other than Europe. This is in marked contrast to last year, when South Korea’s victory somewhat obscured the fact that it was the only non-Euro nomination, and one of only two on the 10-strong shortlist.
In this year’s shortlist, eight of the 15 come from outside Europe, two of which mark first-time shortlist appearances for their respective countries. Tunisia has submitted seven times, but “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is its first to progress. And Guatemala’s widely acclaimed “La Llorona” is only its third-ever entry (but its second, interestingly, from director Jayro Bustamante).
Women directors have also made a better showing than in the past, if not staggeringly so (the submissions are chosen by the countries themselves, so this is one diversity metric over which the Academy has less control). Five of the 15 films have women directors; last year, it was only 2 of 10: Mati Diop for “Atlantics” and Tamara Kotevska, co-director of Macedonia’s “Honeyland.”
Speaking of “Honeyland,” that film was the first to gain nominations in both the international and documentary categories. This year, two films could potentially repeat that feat, with Chile’s “The Mole Agent” and Romania’s “Collective” both also appearing on the documentary feature shortlist. It’s encouraging to see a general warming up towards documentary in this category, while also surprising to note that if “Collective” were to be nominated here, it would represent the first nod for a nation long regarded as a powerhouse in world cinema. Out of 36 entries total prior to this, Romania has only made the shortlist once, and did not convert.
There are other factors that have influenced the selection, of course. The Golden Globes nomination for France’s “Two of Us” and “La Llorona” may have helped those titles gain momentum. But while the Globes recognition for Denmark’s “Another Round” certainly didn’t hurt, in that case it’s likely that the popularity and Hollywood profile of star Mads Mikkelsen had as much to do with it.
There are, obviously, omissions. Hungary’s “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time,” Greece’s “Apples,” Poland’s “Never Gonna Snow Again,” and Italy’s “Notturno” can perhaps feel most legitimately aggrieved at their close-but-no-cigar status. But again, those are all European titles and, broadly speaking, the shift away from Eurocentrism is to be welcomed.
Out in the rest of the world, those hoping for an underdog story from perennially underrepresented Africa, with Lesotho’s first-ever submission “This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection,” or Sudan’s with “You Will Die At Twenty” were also disappointed, while India’s legitimately berserk “Jallikattu” would have been a lively addition. Japan’s “True Mothers” was overlooked, though very much the kind of humanist drama traditionally favored here.
It’s less of a surprise that Georgia’s “Beginning,” Portugal’s “Vitalina Varela” and Ukraine’s “Atlantis” did not make this round. Challenging, provocative, formally austere films have always been a hard sell, at least when not about the Holocaust. One of them might have received an executive committee “save” had that practice not been shelved. But if some superb but difficult films missed out, entrusting a bigger shortlist selection to a broader swathe of (recently expanded and diversified) Academy membership, has also had significant benefits.
No one is expecting “Parasite’s” epochal double-win to be repeated this year. But there was some hope — certainly a few months ago when we were all still capable of hope — that the halo effect of its category-shattering wins, plus an Academy confined to quarters and venturing further out of comfort zones in the desperate quest for distraction, would contribute to a fresher lineup. Loosely speaking, that has happened, and if we’re down to quibbling about individual exclusions and inclusions, well, that’s just bringing international film, long the most structurally problematic Oscar arena, a little more in line with every other Academy Award category.