From Decision to Leave (South Korea) to All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany), here’s my pick of the 5 likely nominations in the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category.
As the film world gears up for yet another season of the Academy Awards, the shortlists of eligible films in 10 important categories were recently revealed. Introduced in 1957 and formerly called Best Foreign Language Film until the Academy changed it in 2019, the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category has 15 films competing in the 95th Oscars race. Eligible films in the category must be made outside of the US and have dialogue that is predominately in languages other than English. This led to a controversy in 2019, when Lionheart (2018), Nigeria’s first-ever submission in the International Feature Film category, was ruled ineligible to participate because it was mostly in English, their official language.
European films have dominated the category in the past. Interestingly, this year half the selected titles are outside of Europe. It’s exciting to see a wider geographic distribution than normal. Contenders from Asia include Cambodia’s Return to Seoul, India’s Last Film Show, Pakistan’s Joyland, and South Korea’s Decision to Leave. The Blue Caftan, one of the year’s most acclaimed Arab films, is selected from Africa. It’s only the second film from Morocco ever shortlisted in the category. The last shortlisted Moroccan film, Roschdy Zem’s Omar Killed Me (2011), didn’t eventually get nominated.
Quickly then, here’s my pick of the 5 films in the category that are likely to make the cut this year. These films push the boundaries of conventional filmmaking and urge viewers to venture outside comfort zones.
1. Decision to Leave (South Korea)
Park Chan-wook’s latest offering is an intriguing, nuanced crime thriller in which a married investigator muses over a complicated love affair. Unlike Park’s earlier film, Decision to Leave does not have excessive and gory violence or eroticism. He takes the conventional genre of a police officer, Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), who develops a tense attraction with a suspect, Seo-rae (Tang Wei) and subverts it with a nuanced knock of twists and turns. The film provides an exquisite reflection on the intricacies of relationships in the contemporary society of Buan.
With a balanced dose of dark humor and moments of surprises, Park Chan-wook emphasizes more upon the decisions taken by the two primary characters, Hae-jun and Seo-rae, who veer away from the accepted social mores. Soon their life gets entangled in a web of manipulation, murder and puzzling riddles. Now, they are compelled to make difficult choices that turn the balance of their lives upside down. The exquisite cinematography and tonality of the editing help bring out the underlying emotions of the scenes. The background score also carefully guides us through the ups and downs of the story.
In 2003, Park Chang Wook astounded the world with his revenge drama Oldboy. But the Academy entirely overlooked it. I hope they rectify the shortsightedness of their predecessors this time around and give the director his due.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany)
My second pick is a war film that propagates the message of the futility of war and the emotional wreckage of its aftermath. After the 1930 and 1979 Hollywood adaptations, Edward Berger’s third film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a persuasive and assiduously captivating work. Paul (Felix Kammerer), a German teenager decides to join the army during the end of the First World War. He thought that the life of a soldier is filled with easy tasks. But soon he finds himself in a bloody chaotic disaster from which there is no respite.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a cinematic masterpiece. The battlefield sequences are skilfully designed and captured stylishly without losing the dramatic depth. The gruesome opening sequence has a chilling effect and will be a subject of discussion for posterity.
The film has also been shortlisted in the four other categories – visual effects, sound, original score and makeup and hairstyling. So, there is a high probability of the committee voting in favor of this tale of horrors of World War I. Not to forget the convincing performance from the lead actor and the creative camera work!
3. Argentina 1985 (Argentina)
Santiago Mitre’s Argentina 1985 casts a wider historical perspective through its story. The film successfully recreates Argentina’s renowned “Trial of the Juntas,” in which the military officials from the dictatorship years were put on trial. Ricardo Darn plays an upright lawyer Julio César Strassera in this courtroom drama. He is also one of the producers of the film. The dramatic courtroom scenes are captured in a conventional manner which makes it more approachable. The film has been promoted by Amazon Studios since its Venice premiere where it was widely discussed.
The key events of the film are structured with such simplicity that it easily familiarizes viewers with Argentinian politics. The costume and production design of the film is brilliantly filled with detailings specific to the period, inspiring authenticity.
The story has the potential to make the viewers aware of the improbable success of a nation taking its first tentative steps toward its newly-found democracy. It is a reassuring reminder that freedom can and will triumph in a nation through the strength and unity of its citizens.
The movie has a good possibility of reviving interest in Argentina’s worst fascist coup among the voting members of the award committee and a decent chance of being nominated.
4. Corsage (Austria)
Corsage is an innovative, visually arresting portrait of an anachronistic empress captivated in a complex vortex. Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer presents Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie (Vicky Krieps), the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, as a rebel who was married to Franz Joseph, the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the age of 16. Now she has two children, a staff of servants, and no apparent worries. She wears tight corsets and gorgeous dresses in order to keep her public image intact. She adheres to a strict programme of regular exercise and a diet that frequently consists of beef broth and orange slices. But she is fighting a battle of existential and emotional crisis within herself.
In many respects, the film is a study of rage. Vicky Krieps gives a masterful performance as Elizabeth. She is secretive, passionate, imperious and severe and Krieps brings an exhilarating feistiness to the character. She is also a lady of emotions and discontent who encounters frigid contempt from the court and the family of her adulterous husband.
The cinematic lavishness that such films offer has always attracted the attention of the Academy. From Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) to Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite (2018), period dramas about royals have always nabbed nominations at the Oscars. So, the makers can keep their fingers crossed. Even if the film doesn’t get nominated in the Best International Films category, Vicky Krieps’ performance totally deserves nomination for Best Actress.
5. Close (France)/The Blue Caftan (Morocco)/Joyland (Pakistan)
Lukas Dhont’s Close, Maryam Touzani’s Blue Caftan, and Saim Sadiq’s Joyland fall in the ‘queer films’ category. There’s a high possibility that one of these makes it to the nominations. But the homosexuality theme is not why I choose these films. All three ring with an emotional honesty and bear a cinematic finesse.
Close is a sentimental portrayal of friendship, identity, and love between two 13-year-old close friends Leo and Remi. In The Blue Caftan one of Morocco’s oldest medinas houses a traditional caftan shop managed by Halim and Mina employing a young boy Youssef to help them in their business. Mina gradually understands how her husband, Halim, is impacted by the young man’s presence. Whereas, Joyland depicts the plight of the youngest son of a contented patriarchal joint family in Karachi who secretly enrolls in an erotic dance company and develops feelings for a trans diva.
In the past, the voting members of the Academy have shown a kind of detachment from films based on themes of homosexuality and sexual identity. Despite their artistic potential, these films have never won a Best Picture trophy. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993) and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) are two glaring examples. But with Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) the biased perception seems to have altered. So, one of these films stands a good chance.
I skipped Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Mexico) and Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO (Poland) for their esoteric treatment that might not get them a nod from the voting committee. Similarly, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (France) and Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider (Denmark) have a complex form of storytelling that makes them popular in the film festival circuits. But a selection at the Academy Awards is a different ball game. Egyptian filmmaker Tarik Saleh also stands a good chance for Cairo Conspiracy (Sweden) but we’ll wait to find out when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 24, 2023.
Here’s the full list of selections in the International Feature Film category:
Argentina, Argentina, 1985
Cambodia, Return to Seoul
Denmark, Holy Spider
France, Saint Omer
Germany, All Quiet on the Western Front
India, Last Film Show
Ireland, The Quiet Girl
Mexico, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
Morocco, The Blue Caftan
South Korea, Decision to Leave
Sweden, Cairo Conspiracy
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.