In what has been the strangest year on recent record for myriad reasons, the International Feature Film Oscar race is not immune to the impact of Covid. Along with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweaking submission deadlines, many films vying for recognition in the International Feature category have experienced a lack of physical festival exposure and the customary resultant buzz, as so many events were canceled or moved online throughout the past nine months. In several cases, films selected by their respective countries actually debuted way back in the 2019 festival season.
This comes at a particularly interesting time for non-English language movies, given the incredible 2019 run of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. After beginning its career in Cannes, it went on not only to scoop the International Feature trophy, but also Best Director and Best Film — the latter a first for a foreign-language movie.
For the moment, there is no film with as much heat on it as Parasite had at this time last year. But there is a promising field. The full list of eligible films has not yet officially been made available—it’s our understanding that rather than release a submission list as would normally be the case during the fall, the Academy has opted to wait until all films are fully vetted. That’s believed to be a means to avoid having to change things around should a submission not fully meet the official criteria.
Last year, Nigeria’s Lionheart was ultimately ruled out because of its use of English, and the same phenomenon has come to pass with Canada’s official entry this year, Funny Boy. The Academy is expected to release a full official roster in the coming weeks.
Some trends are notable this year out of Africa and South America. A handful of countries have put forth submissions for the first time ever, including Lesotho (This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection), Sudan (You Will Die at Twenty) and Suriname (Wiren). Also, some are upping their participation after having put forth titles in just a few previous years, including Paraguay (Killing The Dead), Ivory Coast (Night of the Kings), Kenya (The Letter) and Guatemala (La Llorona).
Also, documentaries have a significant presence including Brazil’s Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Chile’s The Mole Agent, Romania’s Collective, Luxembourg’s River Tales and Italy’s Notturno from Gianfranco Rosi. The latter is an interesting choice by the Italian committee which had stoked the ire of previous Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino when it selected Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea as the country’s representative in 2016. Sorrentino at the time lamented the fact that Italy could have split the Documentary and International Feature categories across two films.
Among the more high-profile titles that have already made a splash with some awards bodies is Denmark’s Another Round (Druk). The drama from Thomas Vinterberg, a previous Oscar nominee for 2012’s The Hunt, recently swept the European Film Awards after taking prizes in San Sebastián, London and elsewhere, and has been a box office smash at home where it is the biggest movie of the year. Samuel Goldwyn released it in theaters and digitally in the U.S. in December. The story of four weary high school teachers who test the theory that a constant level of modest inebriation opens our minds to the world, their experiment takes them on a journey of self-discovery with both tragic and uplifting consequences.
There are some other familiar names vying for a run in the International Feature category this year including Agnieszka Holland with Charlatan from the Czech Republic. Holland has been nominated twice before, with 1985’s Angry Harvest and 2011’s In Darkness—and with Charlatan she brings to three the number of different countries she has repped. Set against the backdrop of the 1950s, biographical drama Charlatan premiered in Berlin earlier this year and centers on healer Jan Mikolášek who cured hundreds of people using his plant-based remedies.
Likewise, previous Spanish Oscar winner Fernando Trueba is representing Colombia for the first time. His El Olvido que Seremos (English title: Memories of My Father) stars Spanish legend Javier Cámara. It’s a love letter from son to father based on the memoir by Héctor Abad Faciolince about his dad who was a doctor, professor and an activist for social justice and was murdered in 1987 by Colombian paramilitaries.
Films getting their launch at Venice, 2020’s first major international festival of the pandemic era, include Poland’s Never Gonna Snow Again and Greece’s Apples. The former is the surreal story of a Russian-speaking immigrant who becomes a guru-like figure in a wealthy gated community. It hails from filmmaking duo Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert.
Apples opened the Horizons section in Venice. Christos Nikou’s exceedingly timely comedy/drama, set against the backdrop of a pandemic, went on to play Telluride, as well as Toronto, and has the blessing of Cate Blanchett who is an executive producer on the pic.
Holdovers from festival play in 2019 that show potential include Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us from France; Romania’s Collective from Alexander Nanau; Mexico’s I’m No Longer Here by Fernando Frías; Jayro Bustamante’s Guatamalan entry La Llorona; Bhutan’s family drama A Yak In The Classroom from Pawo Choyning Dorji; multi award-winning Hong Kong crime drama Better Days from Derek Tsang; Albania’s Open Door by Florenc Papas; India’s Jallikattu by Lijo Jose Pellissery; and Bulgaria’s The Father by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov.
Also worth keeping an eye on are Naomi Kawase’s Japanese title True Mothers, which was stamped with the Cannes 2020 label; Austrian drama What We Wanted by Ulrike Kofler; Quo Vadis, Aida? a war drama from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Jasmila Zbanic that bowed in Venice; Georgia’s Beginning from Dea Kulumbegashvili, which also has the Cannes 2020 label; Russian master Andrei Konchalovsky’s Venice entry Dear Comrades!; Sweden’s Charter by Amanda Kernell; Switzerland’s My Little Sister from duo Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond; and Iran’s Sun Children directed by Majid Majidi, repping the country for the sixth time.
Further, there is likely to be keen interest in Korean political thriller The Man Standing Next which is following in some sizeable footsteps. The 1970s-set film about maneuvering inside the Korean Central Intelligence Agency is the top grossing movie of 2020 in the market with over $37M. Woo Min-ho directs.
The deadline for entries this year was December 1, while preliminary voting in the category will begin on February 1 and end February 5. The shortlist—again comprised of 10 films as was the case last year when it was upped from nine for the first time—will be announced on February 9, along with shortlists in other categories.
During Phase I, the International Feature Film Preliminary Voting Committee will view the eligible submissions in the category and vote by secret ballot. The group’s top seven choices will then be augmented by three additional selections voted by the Academy’s International Feature Film Executive Committee. The International Feature Film Nominating Committee must view the 10 shortlisted films and vote by secret ballot to determine the category’s five nominees. Final voting for the International Feature Film award is restricted to active and lifetime Academy members who have viewed each of the five nominated films.
Given the Covid impact on movie theaters, the Academy this year is allowing submissions that had a previously planned theatrical release, but which have initially been made available through a “reputable commercial streaming distribution service, or video on demand.” This required filmmakers to submit documentation of government-mandated cinema closure dates, previously planned theatrical release and streaming distribution or VOD agreements.
Participation in an impacted festival’s online/virtual platform does not affect a film’s eligibility for awards consideration, provided the festival has a transactional pay wall or password-protected entry.
When theaters reopen in accordance with national and local specified guidelines and criteria, and on a date to be determined by the Academy, this exemption will no longer apply.