As Bong Joon-ho said a few years back when accepting his Golden Globe for Parasite, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” In the years since Parasite won not only the International Feature Oscar but Best Picture, more international films have continued to break through to the ceremony’s biggest categories.
But the International Feature category remains an imperfect vessel for showcasing non-American films to American audiences. Of the 88 films (half of which I’ve seen) submitted from around the globe, the Academy shortlisted just 15 (seen them all!), which are now eligible for a nomination. Because of the Academy’s rule that only one film per country may be submitted to compete in the category, some of the year’s very best international films won’t actually compete for that Oscar.
So what were the year’s best international films? Here’s my list, a mix of the best of what the Academy shortlisted and might nominate—as well as the best of what they didn’t…
The greatest victim this year of the Academy’s one-film-per-country rule is one of the year’s best films from anywhere on the globe, Alice Rohrwacher’s masterpiece fable La Chimera. With The Crown’s Josh O’Connor at its center, the film follows a gang of tombaroli—grave robbers who unearth Etruscan tombs in order to sell the sacred artifacts buried inside. Rohrwacher crafts something bespoke and gloriously tactile (you can all but smell the dirt that peppers O’Connor’s fashionably filthy cream suit) while interweaving slippery themes of love, death, and moral gray areas born out of economic need. Italy instead chose to submit Matteo Garrone’s Venice-winner Io Capitano, an expansive but cliched migrant story with a great lead performance by young actor Seydou Sarr. That film was shortlisted.
Anatomy of a Fall
Another casualty of the one-film-per-country rule is also this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival. Justine Triet’s courtroom drama about a German novelist suspected of killing her French husband has been one of the most talked about arthouse films all year, aided by Sandra Hüller’s engrossing and inscrutable lead performance. France’s decision to not select the film could be a strategic one—roughly half of the film is in English—but no matter: It still is in play for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, along with Hüller’s bonafide shot at Best Actress.
The Taste of Things
France instead chose another Cannes prize winner (Best Director for French-Vietnamese maestro Trần Anh Hùng), The Taste of Things, and it’s a shrewd and mouthwatering film. Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel play a 19th-century cook and restaurateur whose years-long professional relationship has evolved into a will-they-or-won’t-they romantic flirtation. The cooking sequences are so meticulous and thrilling that it feels more like you are watching a bank heist movie, but its melancholy romance makes The Taste of Things among the likeliest to satisfy not only a wide audience (your parents are going to love it), but the Academy. If that happens, it will be France’s first win in over 30 years. I guess it might only take a little food porn.
Instead of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron or the devastating Cannes winner Monster, Japan selected German director Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days, which follows the everyday trials of a kindhearted Tokyo toilet cleaner played by Kōji Yakusho. While it frequently teeters towards becoming too precious and cutesy in its appreciation of everyday human interaction, its protagonist’s internal tug-of-war between the life he chose for himself and the one that might have been is quite moving. With its warmheartedness and bursting soundtrack of familiar songs from the likes of Nina Simone and Lou Reed, the film has winning potential—though in a perfect world, Kōji Yakusho would be among the Best Actor contenders, as well.
Argentina’s Oscar submission follows two bank employees: Morán, who steals a small fortune large enough to abandon the prison of everyday life once he finishes the short jail sentence for his crime, and Román, the coworker that Morán tasks to keep watch over his half of the money. What follows is a funny but not fatalistic musing on the confines we make for ourselves and how freedom can be its own cage. Clearly the Academy wasn’t on board for this three-hour existential comedy and it missed the shortlist, but trust me on this one: adventurous viewers will find it to be one of the year’s most exquisite movies.
Christian Petzold’s Afire is a tragicomic Rohmer homage, following a writer as he works on the manuscript for a terrible novel (hilariously titled “Club Sandwich”) at his friend’s family home. Challenging him with unexpected guests and an encroaching forest fire, the film is a slim but densely observed study of self-absorption, and is unexpectedly sexy. Germany instead chose the shortlisted The Teachers’ Lounge, a slightly muddled allegory on our fragile social order, but a likely nominee given its enthusiastic response by critics.
Godland follows a Danish priest who ventures into remote 19th-century Iceland to establish a church in the then-Danish territory, with the danger and psychological isolation along the way presenting a cinematically breathtaking perspective on the futility of religious colonialism. Gorgeously unsparing in its depiction of the harsh landscape (if you told me someone died making this movie, I would believe you!), the film is a mix between Days of Heaven and The Revenant in its punishing visual rapture.
In Omen, a man returns to Congo with his pregnant Belgian wife at her insistence, reuniting him with the mother who rejected him under suspicions of witchcraft. What follows is a bold, visually thrilling examination of tradition and superstition, expanding its story beyond its protagonist to an ensemble of characters that show that family, home, and community are not the haven that social orders define them to be. Belgium submitted the film but it missed the shortlist.
The sophomore feature from Mexican director Lila Avilés, Tótem is a free-flowing and incredibly moving family drama, and in my estimation, the absolute best film advancing in the International Feature race. Told largely through the eyes of seven-year-old Sol, the film witnesses a celebration for Sol’s father as the family prepares for his imminent death, charting the shift in Sol and her loved ones as their bond prepares to irrevocably change. With storytelling so potently alive, Avilés is a talent to keep our eyes on–one that the Academy will hopefully recognize this year.
The Mother of All Lies
In an audacious blend of documentary, fictionalized elements, and pseudo-animation, The Mother of All Lies powerfully reflects on how a single home or nation can contain multiple perspectives on politics and the past. Moroccan debut director Asmae El Moudir creates a clay model workshop to explore her family’s history and political context, resulting in an unforgettable reckoning with her grandmother Zahra, who forbade any family photos and conversation on past events. One of many non-fiction films that were submitted for the International Feature category, Mother missed the Documentary Feature shortlist, but made it onto the shortlist for International Feature.
Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World
There isn’t a movie I’ve seen all year that has broken as many movie rules as this, Romanian director Radu Jude’s follow-up to COVID-era Berlin winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. At a sprawling and unpredictable 163 minutes, Jude presents gig worker Angela as she drives around interviewing candidates for a corporately produced work safety video and performing as a caustic alter ego on social media. With cameos from Tár’s Nina Hoss and reviled genre director Uwe Boll, the film wildly balances whiplash-inducing gonzo laughs with dead serious rage for corporate oppression. We did not expect Do Not Expect to entice squarer Oscar voters, and alas, its brashness was left off the shortlist.
Among the films that played Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar this year, Goodbye Julia tracks the relationship between two women on either side of Sudan’s northern and southern divide, one of whom is secretly responsible for the death of the other’s husband. If the premise sounds like a potentially manipulative polemic a la Crash, Mohamed Kordofani’s debut film instead delivers a delicate and complex character drama, one that will hopefully resonate with viewers amidst Sudan’s ongoing conflict—even though it didn’t make the Oscar shortlist.
The Zone of Interest
British auteur Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel about the commandant of Auschwitz and his domestic life adjacent to the death camp has been one of the most discussed films of the year, ever since its Grand Prix-winning Cannes debut. Glazer is not typically an artist suited to the Academy’s taste (he previously made the brilliant but bizarre Scarlett Johansson alien film Under the Skin), but this controversial and formalist stunner may be hard to deny. Anatomy’s Hüller is also excellent in the film, and like Anatomy, Glazer’s film could show up in Best Picture and Director. However, much like the aforementioned Omen and Perfect Days, the multinational film—a Polish/U.K. production shot in the German language, but submitted by the U.K.—reflects the somewhat arbitrariness of the Academy’s process of having films submitted by a single country.
About Dry Grasses
Look, I can hear your groans about the growing number of long films on this list, but noted maker of butt-numbing marathon movies Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made yet another one that is worth your time! His Cannes winner About Dry Grasses follows two Anatolian teachers accused of inappropriate behavior and another teacher who becomes romantically involved with one of them. Its sprawling, dense conversations are trademark Ceylan, and its three-plus hour runtime rewards with visual austerity and a deep well of philosophical and character detail.
Among the most widely respected and safest bets to be nominated by the Academy is Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves. A deadpan romantic comedy about a lonely grocery worker who begins a relationship with an equally lonely alcoholic, lead Alma Pöysti earned a surprise Best Actress nomination by the typically star-hungry Golden Globes. The enthusiasm for the film may be a little lost on me, but if nothing else, consider this respite from the lengthier films I’ve offered elsewhere: Fallen Leaves clocks in at just 80 minutes.
Other films of interest that made the International Feature shortlist: Spain’s Society of the Snow is Netflix’s contender, a retelling of the Uruguayan flight disaster previously sensationalized in Alive, is handsomely made but doesn’t make us feel we’ve learned much new from a story we already know; Bhutan’s Pawo Choyning Dorji might again be nominated for The Monk and the Gun, after his surprise nominee Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom a few years ago; Mads Mikkelsen’s star power could fuel the flat, soggy The Promised Land from Denmark, also directed by a previous nominee Nicolaj Arcel; Life is Beautiful-esque Amerikatsi from Armenia; and powerful films also shortlisted for Documentary Feature Four Daughters and 20 Days in Mariupol.