Tough Decisions, Close Calls and Quiet Victories: Why This Years International Oscar Race is An Agent of Chaos

Tough Decisions, Close Calls and Quiet Victories: Why This Years International Oscar Race is An Agent of Chaos


This year’s 15-film shortlist for the best international feature Oscar was, by Academy standards, a reasonably diverse one. Four Asian films, two from the Americas and one from Africa helped to counter the branch’s traditional Eurocentric bias; of the remaining European selections, meanwhile, three came from filmmakers of color.

So, there was some disappointment today that the final nominees were somewhat less varied, with Santiago Mitre’s Argentine entry “Argentina, 1985” the only exception in a field of European titles from white male directors. That South Korea’s entry, Park Chan-wook’s critically adored romantic noir “Decision to Leave,” failed to make the cut was one of the morning’s biggest eyebrow-raisers; that the three female-directed titles on the shortlist, Marie Kreutzer’s BAFTA-nominated “Corsage,” Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer” and Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan,” were also passed over was a further disappointment.

This was as competitive a shortlist as has ever been seen in the category, and it was always going to yield some of the day’s unkindest cuts. The five films that made it include some of the year’s most celebrated festival hits, including two child-oriented narratives that go straight for the heart — often a surer path to Oscar glory than cooler, more cerebral works like “Decision to Leave.”

At Cannes last May, A24’s Belgian submission “Close” was declared an early frontrunner in the race by many industry pundits: Lukas Dhont’s wrenching story of an intimate bond between two 13-year-old boys severed by sudden tragedy tends to leave audiences thoroughly red-eyed. “Close” seemed at risk of losing steam in the weeks before the nominations, largely failing to show up in the major critics’ awards, losing at the Golden Globes and surprisingly failing to score a BAFTA nod. Today’s nomination, however, proves that Dhont’s blend of elegant aesthetics and pummelling emotional force has plenty of fans in the Academy, even if the film — Belgium’s eighth nominee in the category’s history — looks a long shot to score the country its first win.

If “Close” had heavy expectations placed on it from the beginning, Ireland’s “The Quiet Girl,” true to its title, instead got to sneak up on people. Premiering modestly but to glowing reviews at Berlin last year, Colm Bairéad’s debut feature, about a shy, neglected country girl who blossoms under the care of bereaved relatives, went on to win viewers’ affections at one fest after another, and distributor Super (an offshoot of Neon) capitalized on strong word of mouth in awards-voting circles. A good showing at BAFTA (where it additionally landed an adapted screenplay nod) was the first clue as to its popularity; its nomination here — a first for Ireland — caps a sterling year for the Emerald Isle in the Oscar race, from “The Banshees of Inisherin” to Paul Mescal.

Also having a good year at the Oscars? Donkeys. The humble mule plays a memorable part in two best picture nominees (“Banshees” and “Triangle of Sadness”) but gets the starring role in Poland’s nominee in this category, “EO,” an altogether radical experiment from 84-year-old veteran Jerzy Skolimowski, distributed by Janus Films and Sideshow — who worked wonders with last year’s winner “Drive My Car.”

Inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic “Au Hasard Balthasar,” this immersive, iridescently shot chronicle of a donkey’s cross-European journey through an assortment of owners and abusers makes a devastating animal-rights statement, and was a favorite of U.S. critics, winning at the New York Film Critics’ Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association and the National Society of Film Critics’ awards. Poland’s 13th nominee in this category, it’s likely too offbeat to transcend that unlucky number, but the category is livelier for its presence.

In another year, “Argentina, 1985” might have been the one to beat. Mitre’s rousing true-life courtroom drama for Prime Video centered on the country’s landmark post-dictatorship Trial of the Juntas has proven a consistent crowdpleaser since premiering in competition at Venice. Bringing a hint of Aaron Sorkin to South American history, this Amazon Studios entry might be the most straightforwardly entertaining and accessible of the nominees — a factor that landed the Oscar for Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” in 2010 — and duly beat some tough competition to the Golden Globes.

But there it wasn’t up against a best picture nominee with a whopping nine nominations overall. Back in the fall, Netflix’s campaign for Germany’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” got off to a relatively low-key start. Critics weren’t going out of their way to champion Edward Berger’s technically dazzling adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War novel, and it had no major festival hardware on its mantel — but industry peers were wowed by its craft and its epic-scale storytelling, and it steadily rose up the ranks. No film nominated in both the best picture and best international feature categories has ever lost the latter award. And, if history weren’t sufficiently on Berger’s side, the 1930 American version of “All Quiet” won best picture back in the day. Everyone loves a David-versus-Goliath story, but few will bet against Germany scoring its fourth win on March 12.

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