Film festivals have been the primary hatching-ground for Oscar contenders ever since the Academy’s tastes shifted predominantly from studio to independent cinema earlier this century — though in the international feature category, this has been the case for far longer. Rare is the non-English-language nominee that captures voters’ imaginations without a profile boost from one of the major fests — you have to go back to 2008’s Japanese sleeper “Departures” to find a film that won without an assist from Cannes, Venice, Berlin or Toronto.
This year, with the festival circuit largely back to business as usual after the disruptions of the pandemic, a vast number of submissions in the category are hot with festival buzz, with Cannes — making up for lost time after last year’s canceled edition — leading the way.
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The French festival has long been a kingmaker in this category, with such recent Oscar winners as “Parasite,” “Son of Saul,” “The Great Beauty” and “Amour” all having begun their journey with a Croisette premiere. (Reigning champ “Another Round” was selected for Cannes last year, but wound up bowing in Toronto.)
At this stage, no fewer than 18 submissions debuted at the festival, including the wildest card of all: Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning body-horror dazzler “Titane,” which beat out acclaimed abortion drama “Happening,” the Venice Golden Lion winner, to be selected as France’s entry.
One of the year’s most divisive art films, “Titane” has the heat, but some of the films it pipped to the Palme might be safer bets for a place on the Academy’s shortlist. Those include Norway’s entry, Joachim Trier’s bittersweet millennial character study “The Worst Person in the World,” with its broadly appealing blend of wit and pathos; and the two films that shared the festival’s runner-up Grand Prix: Iran’s submission, Asghar Farhadi’s restrained moral drama “A Hero,” has what it takes to win the filmmaker a third Oscar after “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” while Finland’s entry, the quirky, train-set boy-meets-girl comedy “Compartment No. 6” is a charmer to watch.
Other Cannes winners to watch out for include Japan’s entry, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s lengthy but captivating Murakami adaptation “Drive My Car,” and Colombia’s multinational selection “Memoria,” a haunting, experimental feature from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, starring arthouse queen Tilda Swinton. (Whether it’s helped or hindered by Neon’s novel, much-discussed U.S. release strategy for the film — it will only ever be in theaters, never on streaming — remains to be seen.)
Russia’s entry, Kira Kovalenko’s jagged, energetic coming-of-age drama “Unclenching the Fists,” won the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes; the film it beat into second place, Austria’s powerful queer prison drama “Great Freedom,” should not be underestimated. Iceland’s submission “Lamb,” an oddball folk-horror tale benefiting from A24’s publicity and Noomi Rapace’s star presence, was also an Un Certain Regard prizewinner; ditto Mexico’s “Prayers for the Stolen,” a devastating fiction debut from docmaker Tatiana Huezo about growing up under the gun of the cartels. And while Belgium’s “Playground,” a wrenching child’s-eye view of schoolyard bullying, left Cannes empty-handed, it’s been steadily building acclaim at other festivals: most recently winning the first film award at London.
Over to Venice, whose top prizewinner may have lost out to “Titane” in the Oscar stakes, but whose runner-up is looking like a strong contender: Italy’s “The Hand of God,” a grand, swaggering autobiographical memory piece from former Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino, will be getting a hefty push from Netflix. Other Venice-premiered submissions are looking like longer shots, though Poland’s “Leave No Traces,” a solemn reflection on police violence and its fallout, has topicality on its side. Bolivia’s dreamily surreal “The Great Movement” and Slovakia’s unusual feminist docufiction blend “107 Mothers” have critics on their side, but might be a challenge for Academy voters.
This year’s Berlin festival took place digitally, though its Golden Bear winner is making real-world noise: “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” Radu Jude’s rude, raucous satire of contemporary social and sexual mores, is a daring pick from Romania after the country finally scored its first nomination this year with the documentary “Collective.” Perhaps the Academy will be in a playful mood, but another Berlin entry might have broader appeal: Germany’s “I’m Your Man,” a wry, perceptive human-android romcom from Emmy-winning director Maria Schrader, with a superb (and, yes, German-speaking) Dan Stevens in the lead.
Also taking place digitally this year was the Sundance Film Festival, though that hasn’t lowered the profile of two of its big winners: Denmark’s “Flee,” a stirring refugee story with striking rotoscoped visuals, took top honors in the festival’s international documentary section, and lands in the Oscar race with three shots on goal: if it doesn’t score here, it also has strong shots in the documentary and animated races. Meanwhile, Kosovo’s entry “Hive,” a rousing story of female bonding and entrepreneurship, became the first film in Sundance history to win the Grand Jury Prize, director and the audience awards in its section: it’s a low-key crowd-pleaser that could go far.
Other festival standouts to reckon with include: Georgia’s entry “Brighton 4th,” a warm-hearted, Brooklyn-set father-son story that won three top awards at Tribeca; India’s “Pebbles,” a stark, gritty tale of village hardship that won the top award at Rotterdam this year; and Indonesia’s “Yuni,” a sensitive study of a teenage girl facing arranged marriage that beat several higher-profile titles to the Platform Award at Toronto.
Finally, the San Sebastian festival premiered the biggest surprise entry in the race so far: while most pundits assumed Pedro Almodóvar’s Penelope Cruz-starring “Parallel Mothers” would easily be the Spanish submission, it was pipped by the dark corporate farce “The Good Boss,” a fine comic showcase for Cruz’s partner Javier Bardem. Almodóvar’s film may have been a Venice hit, but this was a reminder that even the major fests can’t have it all their way.