On Tuesday, February 9, the Academy will release shortlists for multiple categories, including Best International Feature Film. Just a mere few weeks ago, AMPAS decided to throw a new wrench into a race that’s already complex by doing away with the executive committee (which often was credited with ensuring more unique visions had a chance) and expanded the list from 10 to 15 titles. This year there are 93 entries vying for a nomination.
Without the smaller committee offsetting the broader taste of the larger group, we can expect less adventurous choices to advance. Still, the hope is that with more slots—even if the voting will skew in favor of more populist choices—there might be a diversity of regions represented. Unfortunately, the bulk of the shortlist will likely remain Eurocentric, as it’s almost always the case.
The list below features the 15 the films we consider the top contenders to make the cut on Tuesday, and a list of others that could surprise.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Engrossingly tense, this period drama from writer-director Jasmila Zbanic unfolds in the hours leading to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre where Serbian forces murdered thousands of Bosnian men. It centers Aida (Jasna Djuricic), an interpreter for the U.N. trying to get her family to safety amidst the chaos. Djuricic wears the character’s worry on every gesture making for a magnificent performance. Shockingly, despite being one of the most striking contenders, it’s is the one film on this list still without U.S. distribution.
The Mole Agent (Chile)
An elderly man becomes an informer for a private detective to investigate possible negligence inside a nursing home in Maite Alberdi’s endearing documentary. While committed to his mission, Sergio Chamy, the star of this heartwarming spy movie, becomes popular among the women in the institution. Those interactions enrich the narrative. Ultimately the film, which recently earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature, offers an insightful look at loneliness in old age.
Charlatan (Czech Republic)
The highly prolific Agnieszka Holland is back just two years after representing her native Poland with “Spoor.” Now, her latest historical effort (just a year after “Mr. Jones”) is in the running on behalf of the Czech Republic. The subject this time is Jan Mikolášek, a healer who used herbs to alleviate the suffering of many during wars and under communism. The biographical drama aims to imbue the story of this controversial figure with all its complicated layers. Strand Releasing will open “Charlatan” in the U.S. later this year.
Another Round (Denmark)
Thomas Vinterberg’s new collaboration with Mads Mikkelsen is the closest to a front-runner in this atypical year (at least on paper). The pair delivers a life-affirming treat following a group middle-aged teachers testing a theory: What if being just slightly drunk all the time could make people more functional. What ensures is a series of hilarious and moving revelations. Its rousing ending will forever be remembered as one of Mikkelsen’s most memorable movie moments.
Two of Us (France)
Modest in scope, this heartbreaking drama about an elderly lesbian couple torn apart by illness and fear beat out a number of high profile productions to represent France. This is the debut fiction feature from Italian filmmaker Filippo Meneghetti, and stars Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in distinctively challenging roles in a romance that sometimes feels like a thriller. “Two of Us” seems to be the quiet engine that could, as it has just received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Similar in offbeat tone to many other Greek films released over the last decade or so (the so-called “Greek Weird Wave”), Christos Nikou’s “Apples” is a peculiar exploration of the human condition during a pandemic. The ailment afflicting people here is amnesia. Through Aris (Aris Servetalis), one of those affected, we witness how people who can’t remember who they were undergo a process to replicate milestones and experiences in order to regain social skills for a new life. Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett serves as executive producer.
La Llorona (Guatemala)
Well on its way to becoming the most internationally recognized film from Central America ever, this tale of political horror repurposes the famous legend of a ghostly weeping woman crying for her dead children to talk about the Guatemalan genocide. Director Jayro Bustamante (“Ixcanul,” “Temblores”) masterfully succeeds at harnessing genre tropes to make a terrifying, yet thematically substantial story dealing with the atrocities committed against his country’s Mayan population. Aside from being the first Guatemalan movie nominated for a Golden Globe, it has also found support in major names like Jane Fonda.
Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast)
Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte observes the inherent power of storytelling in the microcosm that is La Maca, a prison nestled in a forest, where inmates rule. On the turbulent night destined for a transition of power, a recently incarcerated teen (Bakary Koné) becomes the Roman, the orator who will spin a tale of ancient kings and modern conflicts to save his own life. Already nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, this fascinating vision recently landed David Oyelowo as executive producer.
I’m No Longer Here (Mexico)
Set in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, Fernando Frías de la Parra’s coming-of-age film is a window into the Kolombia subculture known for its unique fashion and a love for slow-tempo cumbia music. In this odyssey across two countries, Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño) is forced to leave his hometown and migrate to New York. Away from everything he knows, the young protagonist is confronted with the notion of identity. Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuáron, two of Mexico’s most acclaimed filmmakers, have been vocal supporters of Frías de la Parra as a unique emerging voice.
Never Gonna Snow Again (Poland)
A quiet drama that borders on the supernatural, director Malgorzata Szumowska’s latest, and her first time co-directing with Michal Englert (also the movie’s dexterous cinematographer), maintains an alluring atmosphere throughout. The plot revolves around Zenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukrainian masseuse who becomes a sought-after confidant in a wealthy Polish gated-community. Without saying much, the mysterious figure changes the lives of all those he comes in contact with. Kino Lorber will release “Never Gonna Snow Again” in the U.S. later this year.
This riveting documentary from director Alexander Nanau chronicles how a group of dedicated investigative journalists uncovered the rampant corruption within the Romanian healthcare system. In the aftermath of a fire at a concert venue where multiple people lost their lives, not only as a result of the incident itself but later because of negligence involving adulterated cleaning supplies, finding out the ugly truth becomes critical. After last year’s nomination for “Honeyland” in the Best International Feature Film category, the Academy seems to be more open to nominating non-fiction in other categories.
Dear Comrades! (Russia)
From master director Andrey Konchalovskiy, this new black-and-white period piece set during the 1960s in post-WWII Soviet Union, dissects a disturbing cover-up from the perspective of a mother. As factory workers protest the scarcity and high-prices of food, a massacre is carried out. Loyal party woman Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) witnesses the bloody confrontation first-hand, but must comply with the official story even though her daughter went missing as a result. Anchored in Vysotskaya’s fury-fueled performance, this Venice Film Festival winner is at once intimate and epic.
You Will Die at Twenty (Sudan)
Sudan’s first-ever entry, and one of only a handful of films ever produced in the African country, is a visually confident gem. With his feature debut, Amjad Abu Alala captures the spiritual reckoning of a young man, Mzamil (Mustafa Shehata) who was cursed with a short life at birth. His mother wants him to accept his fate and prepare to die, but as he comes to terms with everything he’ll miss if the prophecy comes true, and angry desire to live and experience the world overcomes him.
My Little Sister (Switzerland)
German actress Nina Hoss commands the screen in Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s terminal-illness drama wrapped in the story of a woman seeking autonomy. When Lisa (Nina Hoss) devotes herself to helping her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) from cancer, those around her—husband, mother, and ex-partner—unveil their disregard for her opinion and ideas. Poignant without being overly sentimental, the movie allows Hoss to showcase her brilliant range as someone who’s fed up with being pushed around, even when going through a personal tragedy.
A Sun (Taiwan)
Asia’s most leading candidate this year is a multilayered family drama about two brothers on distinct paths: one has fallen into a life of crime, while the other is studious and responsible. Director Chung Mong-hong ensures the moral lines across the board are not clear, but blurred. Over the course of its extensive running time, “A Sun” evinces touching truths about the human existence for poetic effect. This is a case of a title that truly gained prominence thanks to vocal support from critics like Variety’s Peter Debruge and Indiewire’s David Ehrlich.
15 Others That Could Sneak In: “Sun Children” (Iran), “Song Without a Name” (Peru), “Atlantis” (Ukraine), “Beginning” (Georgia), “Vitalina Varela” (Portugal), “The Endless Trench” (Spain), “Jallikattu” (India), “The Man Who Sold His Skin” (Tunisia), “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die” (Brazil), “Hope” (Norway), “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” (Hungary), “Memories of My Father” (Colombia), “And Tomorrow the Entire World” (Germany), “Notturno” (Italy), “True Mothers” (Japan).