For the past two years, the Oscar race for international feature hasn’t been a race at all. With Mexico’s “Roma” and South Korea’s “Parasite” heavyweight contenders for best picture, the lower-profile award became a done deal. Disappointingly, early buzz doesn’t point to any equivalent crossover between the two categories this year. The flip side of that, however, is as excitingly competitive an international field as the Oscars have seen in years, while a pandemic-disrupted festival and arthouse scene has made for fewer advance-hyped contenders than usual.

In these topsy-turvy circumstances then, it remains to be seen whether members of the Academy’s international feature branch cleave to the familiar, or delve into the relatively unknown. If old habits prevail, look for Europe to dominate the field: the continent accounted for eight of last year’s 10 shortlisted titles. Over a third of this year’s 93 submissions, meanwhile, are European, with some substantial festival hits among them.

Top of that list, and the de facto frontrunner at this early stage in the race, is Denmark’s “Another Round,” an official selection of last year’s cancelled Cannes festival that went on to sweep December’s European Film Awards. Thomas Vinterberg’s tragicomedy showcases a powerhouse performance from Mads Mikkelsen as a frustrated teacher embarking on a dangerous experiment in controlled alcoholism. The subject is provocative, but the treatment is warm and humane; that combination, along with the crossover name appeal of Mikkelsen and Vinterberg (whose last collaboration, “The Hunt,” was nominated in the 2012 race), should find broad support in the branch. Denmark has made the shortlist seven times in the past decade; a miss this year would be a shock.

Speaking of the Academy’s most-favored nations, Italy holds the record for most wins in the category’s history, though it hasn’t cracked the shortlist since “The Great Beauty” won seven years ago. This year, for the second time, the Italians pinned their hopes on a documentary by Gianfranco Rosi: “Notturno” powerfully examines the impact of war on ordinary lives in several Middle Eastern countries, following 2016’s vastly acclaimed, Italian-based migrant crisis study “Fire at Sea.” That film netted an Oscar nod in the documentary field, but was shut out in the international race. A similar fate could await its successor, though this branch has become more open to non-fiction in recent years: North Macedonia’s “Honeyland” made Oscar history by landing in both categories last year.

If any doc can repeat that feat this year, however, it’s likelier to be Romania’s “Collective.” Alexander Nanau’s blistering journalistic exposé of institutional corruption scooped the National Society of Film Critics’ foreign-language award, as well as docu prizes from multiple critics’ groups. Despite a celebrated “new wave” of national cinema beginning in the mid-2000s, Romania is still awaiting its first Oscar nod; “Collective” is the country’s best shot in some time, not least because it’s universally topical at a time of international political crisis. (On the same basis, don’t count out Germany’s submission: Julia von Heinz’s “And Tomorrow the Entire World,” an accessible, engrossing study of student protesters fighting a resurgent far right.)
Greece is another country as yet unrewarded by the Academy: though Yorgos Lanthimos’ profoundly dark-hearted comedy “Dogtooth” surprised many by landing the country its only nomination of the past 40 years, the much-touted “weird wave” it kick-started hasn’t made the same impression on the branch. Many are betting on Christos Nikos’ debut “Apples” to be, well, more fruitful: reminiscent of early Lanthimos in its deadpan absurdism, this tale of a man trying to recover his memory in the midst of an amnesia-causing pandemic (more topicality points) was a surprise hit of the fall festival season. (It would make a fine companion piece to Hungary’s striking entry, Lili Horvat’s “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time,” a memory-based modern noir that could be a dark horse to watch.)

Other auspicious European debuts angling for attention include Georgia’s entry, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s “Beginning,” a startling study of religious fanaticism that bowled over Luca Guadagnino’s jury in San Sebastian last year. From Slovenia, Gregor Bozic’s Toronto standout “Stories From the Chestnut Woods” has been a favorite of global festival programmers with its poetic blend of post-WWII realism and fairy-tale-like storytelling.

But the race isn’t short on formidable veterans either. After a long career spanning Russia and Hollywood, 83-year-old Andrei Konchalovsky has made one of his most vital films in “Dear Comrades!,” a muscular, uncompromising dramatization of the Novocherkassk massacre that could nab the nomination his previous film, 2016’s shortlisted Holocaust drama “Paradise,” narrowly missed out on. Portugal’s revered formalist Pedro Costa enters the race by the skin of his teeth: his critically revered, Locarno-winning docufiction “Vitalina Varela” was initially passed over by Portuguese selectors, and entered only when their first pick, “Listen,” was disqualified on language grounds. They made the stronger choice in the end.

Leading Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland, meanwhile, has previously scored nominations for her native country (“In Darkness”) and the former West Germany (“Angry Harvest”); this time, she’s hoping to do the same for the Czech Republic with her Berlin-selected film “Charlatan,” a classically styled biopic of gay Czech faith healer Jan Mikolášek that could win over more traditionalist voters in the branch. Her homeland is not to be counted out this year either: representing Poland, Małgorzata Szumowska’s “Never Gonna Snow Again” is a beguiling, quasi-spiritual class satire that was a hot seller at Venice last year.

Others to consider from Europe: Bosnia’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” a searing portrayal of genocide with a strong female point of view, from director Jasmila Zbanic; Spain’s “The Endless Trench,” an involving, Netflix-acquired Francoist saga; Kosovo’s Sundance-selected “Exile,” a tense psychodrama in which immigrant prejudice and paranoia overlap; and, should voters be in a more warmly intimate mood, Switzerland’s “My Little Sister,” a tearjerking sibling relationship drama anchored by a superb Nina Hoss perf.

“Night of the Kings”

In contrast to Europe, African cinema is consistently underrepresented in this field: contenders from sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, are a relative rarity in the race. Ivory Coast, however, has high hopes this year for “Night of the Kings,” an electrifying, mythology-infused prison drama from director Philippe Lacote — whose two features are the only ones entered by the country since a surprise 1976 win for “Black and White in Color.” The film was a fall fest breakout, scoring a distribution deal with “Parasite” kingmakers Neon; with Lacote (one of this year’s Variety Directors to Watch) poised for an international success, an Oscar nomination would seal the deal.

For two African countries, this is their first time in the running. That’s a bittersweet milestone for Nigeria, which was disqualified on its first attempt last year when “Lionheart” failed to meet the Academy’s non-English language requirements — prompting an industry-wide outcry from such champions as Ava DuVernay. This year’s entry, the Hausa-language missing-person quest drama “The Milkmaid,” will struggle to overcome its low profile, but at least it has a seat at the table.

A buzzier newcomer to the race is Lesotho: landlocked entirely by South Africa (whose own submission, handsome period romance “Toorbos,” is a longer shot), the tiny kingdom has entered Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection,” which earned a special award at Sundance last year for “visionary filmmaking.” That’s no hyperbole: the story of an octogenarian widow (indelibly played by the late Mary Tawala) trying to save her ancestral land from government developers, Mosese’s dazzling blend of rural realism and dream imagery looks and feels like nothing else in the race, and should be high on the executive committee’s radar.

Over to Asia, where South Korea may be the reigning champion, but is rather less likely to figure in the race with low-key political thriller “The Man Standing Next.”

With a better chance at a shortlist slot is Taiwan: Chung Mong-hong’s superb, delicately drawn but epically scaled family drama “A Sun” has quietly been building a word-of-mouth fanbase since its Netflix release a year ago: Variety critic Peter Debruge named it the best film of 2020.

Derek Tsang’s Hong Kong entry “Better Days,” could parlay its phenomenal global box office success — more than $225 million — into a place on the shortlist, thanks to the effective emotional punch of its anti-bullying narrative. China’s “Leap” made headlines by outgrossing Disney’s “Mulan” upon its local release in September, but notwithstanding the star presence of Gong Li, this biographical drama about China’s women’s volleyball team is less likely to cross over. Japan’s “True Mothers” is the kind of tender, soft-edged human melodrama that often finds favor with the branch: exploring the issue of adoption from multiple female perspectives, it’s the first film by Cannes selectors’ favorite Naomi Kawase to be entered by the country.

But the Asian submission making the most noise in the race — in every sense of the term — is something altogether different. India’s brash, eccentric, wildly entertaining “Jallikattu” has earned itself an instant cult following with its bonkers blend of horror and action, following a rogue rampaging buffalo as it lays waste to a terrified rural community. Despite having the world’s largest film industry, India has been nominated only three times in the category’s history, so “Jallikattu” represents a radical change of approach: Though the Academy rarely plumps for genre cinema this unhinged, it’s exactly the kind of unconventional outsider the branch’s executive committee was designed to recognize — and has the true bull-in-a-china-shop energy that this race needs.

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