Column: International Oscar category brings surprises and controversies, as usual
Among the Academy Award nominations announced this week, the one that generally gets a lot more attention abroad than it does Stateside is the International Oscar.
The category receives its fair share of criticism. For starters, its name switch in 2019 to "International" was an admission that its former title – "Foreign-language" – was outdated and ethnocentric.
But the language component of "international" is still sticky – the requirement that dialogue be "predominantly non-English" has elicited frustration in countries where English is an official language, like Nigeria, whose 2019 entry was disqualified on this basis.
Some have also critiqued the Academy's policy that each country – even autocratic ones that might repress critical voices – appoint its own nominating jury or committee.
Those committees are tasked with choosing one film meant to represent their entire country and film industry at the global awards ceremony.
When South Korea's "Parasite" became the first non-English-language movie to win Best Film (as well as Best International Film and four other Oscars) in 2020, it seemed the tide might be turning.
This year, several "foreign-language" films earned nominations in other main categories, including Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Drive My Car," Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers" and Norway's "The Worst Person in The World."
The final five nominees for the International Oscar this year were largely predicted, with critical darling "Drive My Car" competing alongside three films from Europe – Joachim Trier's "Worst Person," Italian Paolo Sorrentino's "The Hand of God," and Danish animated feature "Flee."
The fifth nominee was more of a wildcard: from Bhutan, "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom."
From "Yak" to "Flee"
The first film from Bhutan to be nominated in 23 years, according to Variety (the same film was disqualified last year over a committee technicality), "Yak" knocked other, more likely choices out of the running – like two-time Oscar-winner Ashgar Farhadi's "A Hero."
This feel-good film by director Pawo Choyning Dorji is about a cynical man who learns life lessons when he is assigned to teach in a rural location among a yak-herding community.
Meanwhile, "Flee" could be a surprise strong contender, even though last year's International Oscar winner was also Danish (the tour-de-force dramedy "Another Round," about a group of men experimenting with daily drinking).
The real-life tale of a gay Afghan refugee recounting his journey to Denmark, "Flee" is an animated documentary, unusual for this Oscar category. It also garnered nominations for Best Animated Feature and Documentary Feature. The use of animation allowed anonymity for the film's subject, a high school friend of director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, but the voice is his. The filmmakers told The New York Times they are hopeful the movie's positive reception could impact the divisive immigration debate in Denmark and elsewhere.
"Worst Person" / Best Actress
Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve was widely expected to get a nomination in the Best Actress category for her first feature leading role in "The Worst Person in the World," but she did not.
Reinsve is in nearly every scene of this captivating film, about a young woman facing weighty decisions in life's small moments. Her demeanor and look shift subtly as her character grows and ages, and the film presents her as fully human and alive, neither perfect nor the "worst."
Split into chapters, the story packs a lot of commentary about aging, life, death, relationships, and finding one's place in the world. Director Joachim Trier considers it the third in a trilogy, which started with "Reprise" and 'Oslo, August 21."
A Japanese "Masterpiece" and "God's Hand" in Italy
The four Oscar nominations "Drive" earned are a testimony to how well it's been received, from three awards at the Cannes film festival to topping "best of" lists from a handful of critics' associations and multiple reviews calling the three-hour drama a "masterpiece."
The minutely staged piece, full of poignant silences and interwoven stories, turns on a theater director's process of bereaving his wife and the people who come into his life after her death.
Italy's Oscar entry also revolves around relationships and loss. In this case, the autobiographical tale concerns a young man who must piece his life back together after losing his parents. Soccer, films and family play outsized roles in his life.
It's a tough but uplifting story in a beautiful setting, and it has more of a clear-cut story that Sorrentino's previous Oscar winner, 2014's "The Great Beauty." Sorrentino likes to explore human contradictions, forcing us to grapple with our own moral discrepancies.
All of this year's contenders for the International Oscar ask us to confront some of life's harder realities, but they do it in ways that are surprisingly uplifting -- and varied, as the category deserves.
Click on the image below to see original coverage in The Daily Record.