Oscar 2021: Academy’s Selection Process of Best International Features

The reason: Most of the people who volunteered to watch dozens of subtitled films within a period of few months were retirees. “We were really famous for voting for anything that had to do with a grandparent and grandchild or the Holocaust,” recalls Mark Johnson, who chaired the committee for 17 years.

But with each nomination snub by the committee–such as Brazil’s City of God (2002), China’s House of Flying Daggers (2004), Spain’s Volver (2006), France’s Persepolis (2007) and Romania’s Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (2007–pressures grew on the Academy to make changes.

Johnson introduced new process: The general committee would pick six titles; the executive committee would then determine three overlooked titles; and then there would be a list with the nine shortlisted features.

At a “phase two committee” of several dozen distinguished Academy members in L.A., New York and London, handpicked by Johnson or his successor, would binge 3 movies a day during 3 consecutive days and determine the final 5 nominees.

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From left: Tilda Swinton in Colombia submission Memoria; Amin, the subject of the animated documentary Flee, which is representing Denmark. COURTESY OF NEON 

Italy’s Gomorrah (2008), Thailand’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Belgium’s Two Days, One Night (2014), France’s Elle (2016) and Germany’s In the Fade (2017) were still left out of the final five–but more daring movies began to make it onto the shortlist and were even nominated–including Greece’s Dogtooth (2010), which Larry Karaszewski, one of Johnson’s successors as foreign-language film award executive committee chair, remembers as “the watershed film” that made countries feel confident enough to submit edgier films.”

This paved the way for increase inn such outside-the-box nominees as Cambodia’s The Missing Picture (2013) and North Macedonia’s Honeyland (2019) and winners including Chile’s A Fantastic Woman (2017) and South Korea’s Parasite (2019).

Since the pandemic, the selection process has become more democratic than ever. The Academy uploaded all official international submissions onto its secure, members-only Screening Room app and invited all members to sign up to serve on the general committee.

Though theaters have since reopened in L.A., the Academy has decided to retain that selection process this season and, in all likelihood, indefinitely.

In 2008, the animated doc Waltz With Bashir was Israel’s submission and was nominated but lost to a traditional Japanese melodrama, Departures.

This season, another animated doc has been submitted–Flee by Denmark–and it stands as strong a chance as any film at landing not only a nomination.

Drawing upon conversations he conducted with an Afghan refugee he befriended as a child, and using animation to protect the man’s identity, Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen brings to vivid  life the immigrant experience. The docu won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prizein the World Cinema Documentary.

France has chosen Titane, the second feature from Julia Ducournau, which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or and Toronto’s Midnight Madness People’s Choice awards.

It tells the story of a woman who becomes a nonverbal, violent serial killer and has sex with cars but is jarred by exposure to unconditional love when a man accepts her as his long-lost son. As bizarre as the film sounds, it is also exciting and provocative,  which probably explains why it had the biggest opening weekend at the U.S. box office of any Palme winner in 17 years.

Italy submitted Paolo Sorrentino’s Venice winner The Hand of God, which seems like a straight autobiographical drama until it takes a shocking turn about halfway through.

Asghar Farhadi, with A Hero, is once again representing Iran — two of his films in the past decade won the non-English-language Oscar — but this time, the moral morass he’s tackling has to do with social media.

And the film with which A Hero tied for Cannes’ Grand Prize, Finland’s Compartment Number 6, from Juho Kuosmanen, is a reminder of the charms and complications of  love before smartphones and other new technologies.