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Oscars 2024: Who Will Win the International Feature Film Academy Award

"Perfect Days" team: producer Koji Yanai, actor Koji Yakuzo, and German director Wim Wenders at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon. / Photo by Al Seib, courtesy of ©A.M.P.A.S.

"Perfect Days" team: producer Koji Yanai, actor Koji Yakuzo, and German director Wim Wenders at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon. / Photo by Al Seib, courtesy of ©A.M.P.A.S.

The scope of this year's nominees for the Best International Feature Film Oscar is breathtaking. You get to travel to the past, experience the historical horror of Nazi Germany, and a spiritual recreation of a famous catastrophe. Straight from today's headlines comes an emphatic contemplation of African immigrants risking everything to get to Europe. In the urban cacophony of modern Tokyo, a man steps away from his family to find bliss in the simple things of life. Finally, a school teacher almost loses herself in the dilemmas that come out of navigating the ethical minefield of a progressive school. All five are worthy nominees. I can only lament the exclusion of Latin America, especially considering the beauty of Lila Avilés' "Tótem," selected by Mexico as its candidate.

This is a slate of candidates that would have been unthinkable years ago. The Academy's signifiers of national identity that used to rule this category fell by the wayside, prey to the harsh economic realities of the filmmaking business, globalization, and last but not least, the cosmopolitan sensibilities of artists whose achievements can't be denied. Once upon a time, the nationality of main creatives had to line up with the country submitting the movie for the Academy's consideration, most of the language spoken onscreen had to align as well, and funding had to come from inside sources. Those days are long gone. Pretty much all of the nominees transcend cultural barriers. We have an Italian telling the story of Senegalese kids, Wim Wenders fully immersed in Japan, and a Spaniard recreating a Uruguayan tragedy. Not a speck of the Queen's English is spoken in Nicholas Glazer's "The Zone of Interest." The only movie that would pass the old-timey test is "The Teacher's Lounge," even though the protagonist is a Polish immigrant in Germany.

This is a welcome development. After all, cinema is universal. Those culturally-centric rules deprived worthy contenders of recognition. Without straying too far from the current roster, imagine if Wim Wenders's American elegy "Paris, Texas" (1984) had been able to compete and win an Oscar to accompany its Palme d'Or. Sure, the movie does not need another award to validate its quality, but perhaps more people would have discovered if it had at least competed. 

And now, the Academy should go further. First, they could change the rules so that a foreign film that gets the Best Movie nomination cedes space in the Best International Movie to the next in line on the shortlist. That will be the case of "The Zone of Interest" this year. In 2020, Bong-Joon Ho's "Parasite" took the two awards. I love the movie, but that feels like overkill. Or better yet, Academy members could expand the number of nominations to 10 to match the Best Picture nominees. God knows foreign film needs all the help it can get.  

In the meantime, here's our take on the five movies competing for the Best International Feature Film in 2024.

Io Capitano, Italy

Matteo Garrone, an Italian filmmaker, displays unmeasurable empathy for immigrants through this compelling and heartbreaking look at two Senegalese teenage boys taking the most hazardous way to a new life in Europe. Youthful optimism crashes against the criminal network that turns migratory patterns into a ruthless business where life is cheap, and the path to the developed world is fraught with peril. The movie is anchored in two amazing performances by the newcomers, Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Falls.

Film festivals have not been shy about backing the movie. The 2023 Venice Film Festival gave it 13 prizes, including Best Director and Best Young Actor for Sarr, but stopped shy of taking the Golden Lion prize - it went to Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things." Still, it is unlikely that critical accolades on the topicality of the plot will push it to win the Oscar. Read our full review.

Perfect Days, Japan

If critical consensus is something to go by, Wim Wenders, one of the stars of the New German Cinema movement, might crown his late career with his first Oscar. He has been nominated three times in the past for the documentary features "Buena Vista Social Club" (2000), "Pina" (2012), and "The Salt of the Earth" (2015). Amazing, considering how obsessed he is with American culture. He won the Palm d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival for "Paris, Texas" (1984), a romantic drama with Harry Dean Stanton as an outcast trying to rebuild his life in the Southeast. His views of Monument Valley betray an adoration for John Ford and classic Hollywood.

The idea that he is overdue for recognition can work in his favor. Can you believe the late-XX century classic "Wings of Desire" (1987) was not even nominated? "Perfect Days" has an inviting, warm gentleness in its favor. The movie follows Hirayama (Koji Yakuso), a stoic, silent man who fills his days working as a janitor for Tokyo's public restrooms network. In his free time, he enjoys the little pleasures of life: eating a sandwich while watching the sun shining through the park trees, listening to Lou Reed on his car's tape deck, watering his plants, and reading before going to sleep. Just as we fall under the spell of his routine, the life he left behind encroaches.

"Perfect Days" avoids the trap of cultural appropriation by telling a tender, relatable fable about finding contentment and reconciliation with life's imperfections. Yakuso, winner of the Best Actor Award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, is riveting in his quietness. The movie also works as an urban audiovisual symphony of Tokyo. And last but not least, it will make you envious of their public restrooms. No wonder Hirayama is so zen while cleaning them!

Society of the Snow, Spain

The world was not necessarily clamoring for another movie about the airplane crash survivors who, in 1972, had to resort to cannibalism to survive the merciless conditions of the Andes mountains. Yet, that's just what Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has provided in this first-rate production financed by Netflix's deep pockets. It has many things in its favor. First, the life-affirming, inspirational tone feels novel in a story that seems fit for gruesome exploitation. Second, Bayona is a Hollywood insider, directing solid studio fare (The Impossible, 2012), blockbuster PI product (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, 2018), and prestige TV (Amazon's "The Lord of The Rings: The Rings of Power, 2023). Familiarity worked out fine for Argentinian director Juan Jose Campanella, who had a string of US-based TV and film credits by the time he won the Oscar for "The Secret in Their Eyes" (2009). 

There might be a bit of exhaustion with the subject matter. Older Academy members might still remember the Hollywood production "Alive" (1993), directed by legendary producer Frank Marshall, with Ethan Hawke and Vincent Spano. The grizzly plot point was recently appropriated by the hit TV series "Yellowjackets." A third season is set to premiere in 2025. 

On the awards trail, "Society of Snow" took over the Goya awards, amassing 11 wins out of 12 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bayona. Alas, it's unlikely that this show of support will make a dent. Most voters score inside Hollywood's bubble. The movie earned a second Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling, which shows appreciation for its craftsmanship. Alas, it missed out on editing and sound, two categories in which it excelled - the sound of bones crushing during the plane crash will haunt my dreams forever. Maybe you had to see it in theaters to appreciate it fully, but Netflix's famously scattershot theatrical release policy short-changed that source of support. 

The Teacher's Lounge, Germany

This stealth operator has been roaming film festivals since early 2023 and took a nomination for the strength of its relatable story. I dare you not to identify with Carla (Leonie Benesch), a well-intentioned teacher thrown into a labyrinth of ethical complications when she tries to entrap a petty thief wreaking havoc in her school. It plays like an edge-of-your-seat thriller while contemplating how contemporary sensitivity upends society as we know it. The marvelous trick is that writer-director Ilker Catak contemplates the dilemmas of this new world without turning reactionary. It's a gratifying film, but Academy voters might shy away from voting for it, still sore for the exasperation it produces. Read our full review.  

The Zone of Interest, United Kingdom

With the popular "Anatomy of a Fall" (Justine Triet, 2023) safely out of this particular contest - France submitted "The Taste of Things" (Anh Hung Tran, 2023), which went home sans nomination -Jonathan Glazer's scalding look at a Nazi family living blissfully in the shadow of Auschwitz is probably the one that will take the prize on Oscar Night. You can measure the overall admiration for it through its other four nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Director for Jonathan Glazer. 

Glazer consciously avoids showing the carnage because depiction would trivialize it. Yet, he does not shy away from letting us hear it. Just as Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig Hoss (Sandra Huller) and their family, we listen to the shots, the screams, and the ovens working overtime to incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. The relentless focus on their banal day-to-day lives sheds light on the pathology of all those who benefit or witness, with detachment, the extermination of others. Stark high-definition video registers life in the compound. We also see the nightly excursions of an unknown domestic employee who, protected by darkness, goes out to hide apples in the work site of the Jewish prisoners. These escapades are registered in images that ape the aesthetics of photographic negatives.

If I had my way, "The Zone of Interest" would walk away with the Best Adapted Screenplay. I don't say this out of some perverse pleasure about rewarding a work that discards most of the plot and incidents of the original novel by Martin Amis. It's admirable how it distills the book's ideas into a whole new work. You may have to reach out to the library or the internet to find out what happened to the Hosses, but like Martin Scorsese in "Killers of the Flower Moon," Glazer comes up with an outcome that speaks of how this historical tragedy lives on. We display tokens of pain in museums and commemorate martyrdom through art. Is it enough to prevent it from happening again?

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