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Oscar Shortlists Are Coming: Here’s What to Expect, Especially in International Film and Doc Categories

10 categories are about to dramatically narrow their field of contenders


This Tuesday should bring the last bit of big news from the Academy in 2021: the list of films that have made Oscar shortlists.

While most of the Oscars categories go straight to nomination voting, which will take place from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1, 10 categories use this intermediate step: Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short, Best Original Song, Best Original Score, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound and Best Animated and Live Action Shorts.

This year, there are 93 international films, 138 documentary features, 84 songs and 137 scores in contention. The shortlists will consist of 10 films in the visual-effects, sound and makeup categories, and 15 in all the others.

Here are some thoughts on what might advance to the next round in some of the categories:

Best International Feature Film

For the second consecutive year, you shouldn’t really expect the most challenging, disturbing films to make the international shortlist. Those films were typically added to the shortlist by a hand-picked executive committee that would look at the top choices among general voters and add three (typically adventurous) picks to complete the list – but when the list was expanded from 10 to 15 films last year, these executive committee “saves” were eliminated. Voting is now entirely in the hands of the so-called general committee, members who volunteer to watch at least 12 of the 93 entries and score them on a 6-to-10 scale.

We don’t know how many members volunteered for this duty (rumors put the number at around 900) or how many will follow through and see enough films for their scores to count (one-third to one-half of them, maybe?). But the system means that dark and uncompromising movies may well have a tough go of it.

Scandinavia, on the other hand, figures to go very well in the voting. Denmark’s animated documentary “Flee” and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” are all but certain to advance, while Finland’s “Compartment No. 6” is likely as well. Iceland’s “Lamb” is more divisive, but the presence of Noomi Rapace and a distribution deal with A24 could give it an extra push, while Sweden’s sports drama “Tigers” is the region’s longest shot.

Joining Denmark and Norway at the top of the likelies are Iran’s “A Hero,” from two-time winner Asghar Farhadi, and Japan’s “Drive My Car,” which was recently named the year’s best film by the New York Film Critics Circle. Italy’s “The Hand of God,” seems likely as well, despite persistent murmurs that director Paolo Sorrentino’s last Oscar submission, “The Great Beauty” (which won), only made the shortlist through the intercession of the executive committee

One of the most widely seen contenders is Germany’s “I’m Your Man,” a romantic comedy starring British actor Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as an android programmed to be an ideal mate for a workaholic German woman. If you just go by the fact that it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, France’s “Titane” seems like a slam dunk for the shortlist – but the deeply transgressive and violent film about a young woman (disguised as a man) who becomes pregnant after having sex with a car may need (and will likely get) strong support from adventurous voters and the Academy’s overseas contingent. And Mexico’s “Prayers for the Stolen” has gotten some high-profile support, including an L.A. screening hosted by Guillermo del Toro; it also doesn’t hurt that it’s available on Netflix.

Entries from the Czech Republic (“Zatopek”) and South Korea (“Escape From Mogadishu”) are more crowd-pleasing, while Bhutan’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” will probably edge out India’s more challenging “Pebbles” (a Golden Globe nominee) as the strongest entry from Southern Asia. Georgia’s “Brighton 4th” could be the other Asian film with a decent shot at the shortlist.

It’s a safe bet that the list will be predominantly European, with other solid contenders from that continent including Austria’s “Great Freedom,” Belgium’s “Playground,” Spain’s “The Good Boss” (a Javier Bardem black comedy chosen over Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”), Switzerland’s “Olga” and Kosovo’s “Hive.”

Finally, two African films – Chad’s “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” and Somalia’s “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” its country’s first-ever submission – could remain in the running to be only the fourth African nominee in the last decade.

And while Colombia’s “Memoria” and Romania’s “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” have gotten plenty of attention,  they’re the kind of films that were tailor made for those now-defunct executive committee saves.

Best Documentary Feature

Back when every eligible film was viewed and ranked by small committees, the Documentary Branch routinely produced baffling shortlists that left off many of the year’s most notable nonfiction films. That rarely happens now that voting is more open, but the increased democratization also makes it harder for under-the-radar films to sneak onto the shortlist. Mostly, the ones that make the final 15 are the year’s highest profile docs.

This year, that means that “Summer of Soul,” “Ascension,” “The First Wave,” “In the Same Breath,” “The Rescue,” “Attica,” “Fayi Dayi” and Flee” are in good shape. As of  2019, no film had ever been nominated in both the documentary and international categories, but “Flee” will probably follow “Honeyland” and “Collective” to become the third consecutive film to do so.

The next rank of contenders includes “Simple as Water,” “Not Going Quietly,” “The Lost Leonardo” and three films focused on religion, “Procession,” “Rebel Hearts” and “Francesco.”  

A wide variety of high-profile music documentaries were released in 2021 — but despite the wins for “Searching for Sugar Man,” “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Amy,” the Academy has a history of ignoring most music films, at least when it comes to nominations. Todd Haynes’ immersive “The Velvet Underground” will likely join “Summer of Soul” as an exception to that rule, while the odds are a little longer for Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers,” R.J. Cutler’s “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” and Penny Lane’s “Listening to Kenny G.”

Character studies also tend to be less prevalent among nominees and shortlisted films than more issue-oriented work, but this year had a strong crop and could find slots for “Introducing, Selma Blair,” “Becoming Cousteau,” “Julia,” “Citizen Ashe,” “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” “Ailey,” “Val” and, if voters want to send a message, “Fauci.” Oscar-winner Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” could be hurt by the controversy over the use of an A.I. voice to create a couple of Bourdain quotes.

Other films possibly in the running include “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” “President,” “Cusp” and “Bring Your Own Brigade” – though, to be honest, even a field of 138 eligible films (100 fewer than last year) is large enough to contain lots of potential surprises, if enough voters see them.

Other categories

The 84 songs that qualified in the Best Original Song category include entries from a lot of big names: Billie Eilish (“No Time to Die”), Beyoncé (“King Richard”), U2 (“Sing 2”), Van Morrison (“Belfast”), Ariana Grande (“Don’t Look Up”), Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Encanto,” “Vivo” and “In the Heights”), Jennifer Hudson and Carole King (“Respect”), H.E.R. (“Bruised”), Jay-Z (“The Harder They Fall”) and Brian Wilson and Mary J. Blige, two legends who wrote new songs for documentaries about themselves (“Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” and “Mary J. Blige’s My Life”). Plus of course, 12-time nominee Diane Warren.

Their visibility wouldn’t have meant as much in the past, when voters had to attend special screenings and watch clips of the eligible films, scoring each song on a scale of 6-to-10; that system made it easier for left-field entries to come along, since the only votes that counted were the ones that listened to and scored every song. But these days, voters have access to the clips but only have to list their five favorites, which means the highest-profile songs probably have the most views and quite possibly the most votes.

Best Original Score should include two spots for Jonny Greenwood (“The Power of the Dog” and “Spencer”) and possibly two for Hans Zimmer (“Dune” and “No Time to Die”); they’ll likely be joined by the likes of Nicholas Britell (“Don’t Look Up”), Carter Burwell (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), Alexandre Desplat (“The French Dispatch”), Alberto Iglesias (“Parallel Mothers”) and Nathan Johnson (“Nightmare Alley”).

Other shortlist categories include makeup and hairstyling, where “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” has nothing to worry about; visual effects, which should include “Dune” and “Eternals”; and the live-action, animated and documentary shorts.

After the shortlists are announced on Tuesday, Dec. 21, voters will have more than five weeks to catch up on the semi-finalists before nomination voting begins on Jan. 27.

FOR THE RECORD: The original version of this story said that nine categories used shortlists. The Best Sound category was added to the list of shortlisted categories for the first time this year, adding a 10th category to use the step.