Streaming Changes Audience Tastes and Opens up International Film Category

Peter Debruge
·6-min read

Last year, “Parasite” made Oscar history by becoming the first non-English-language film to win best picture, which should have signaled a new, more internationally open-minded attitude at the Academy.

Ninety-two years in, an org founded with the strategic purpose of benefiting the American film industry had demonstrated that it had, as “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho put it, “overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.”

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Back in the ’60s, there existed a thriving market for foreign cinema, as audiences and film societies flocked to the latest offerings from Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni, et al. In 1970, Costa-Gavras’ political thriller “Z” was nominated for best picture.

Miramax gave that sector a revival in the ’90s, turning a few titles (such as “Amélie” and “Life Is Beautiful”) into bonafide blockbusters. Lately, a new phenomenon — an appetite for international television, available through streaming platforms — has boosted U.S. audiences’ willingness to watch foreign-language content. From “Borgen” to “My Brilliant Friend” and “La Casa de los Flores” to “Narcos,” many non-English-language series perform better than their domestic competition and pave the way for audiences to be more adventurous with the films they watch as well.

Combine those evolving viewing habits in the culture at large with changes to the Academy itself, and we should expect to see more non-English-language achievements at the Oscars.
Through an aggressive expansion of its membership (22% of which is now non-American, nearly three times where it was in 2015) and a re-centering of its core values around diversity, the Academy has declared itself to be the preeminent international film prize.

That puts the Academy’s “international feature film” category in a tricky position. If movies made in languages other than English now stand a realistic chance of being nominated for — and winning — best picture, does that reduce the recently rechristened “international feature” Oscar to a kind of ghetto? Or was “Parasite” a black swan event, unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime?

Further complicating our outlook on the category is that the film industry was hit by a global pandemic, which forced the cancellation of some of the most prominent showcases for world cinema — namely, the Cannes Film Festival. Others (such as Toronto) shrank to such a degree that American critics, distributors and cinephiles haven’t been able to keep track of those international achievements as they normally would.

It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see another foreign-language film nominated for the Oscar’s top award this year, and it could be years before that happens again. That means “Parasite” sent a message of possibility to the international film community upon which the Academy has no immediate intention of following through. That’s especially frustrating to this critic, who feels that the best film of 2020 is the epic Taiwanese family saga “A Sun.”

The winner of six Golden Horse Awards, “A Sun” examines a working-class family of four in which the parents show a clear preference for their eldest son, all but disowning his black-sheep younger sibling after he’s sent to juvie for his involvement in a violent crime.

The film spans a period of several years and unfolds with the heft of such past best picture winners as “Ordinary People” and “The Godfather,” surprising audiences as the characters evolve and upend one another’s expectations.

Though the film was released in the U.S. by Netflix, it has barely been seen by American audiences (there are only eight English-language reviews registered on Rotten Tomatoes), so I don’t realistically expect that “A Sun” will be considered for best picture. But it could — and should — be short-listed for the international feature category.

This has been a year without an obvious frontrunner (whereas last year served up two, with Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain & Glory” competing alongside “Parasite,” and a host of other Cannes and Venice favorites in the mix).

Without the usual support of festivals, foreign films have a hard time establishing the clout they need to be taken seriously. And it’s hard for voters to know where to begin in terms of screening films for consideration.

This year, the Academy eliminated in-person screenings, and has opened its shortlist selection process to the general membership, which should ensure greater participation.
In addition to screening a pre-set cross-section of submissions, the site allows voters to rate other foreign films they’ve seen.

That boosts the few that had U.S. distribution, such as Indonesian horror film “Impetigore” and Romanian corruption exposé “Collective” — one of several docs in the mix, along with “The Mole Agent,” “Babenco” and Italian Oscar submission, Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno.”

Netflix has released threee submissions — from Spain, Austria and Mexico, in addition to “A Sun.”

The Mexican film, “I’m No Longer Here,” has attracted such champions as Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, who recorded a special segment to promote the film on Netflix — the kind of endorsement that matters in a year when publicists can’t coordinate special screening events for Academy members.

A few titles have been successful enough to generate their own noise. A Cannes Label title (the distinction given films that would have premiered at the French festival in May), Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” debuted in Toronto and went on to become a hit across Europe, where it was one of the few films in wide release.

The film stars Mads Mikkelsen and features the kind of hook that transcends language barriers: A group of Danish high school teachers test the theory that they are better at their jobs with a bit of booze in their systems.

With no Cannes, the Venice film festival (which succeeded in pulling off an in-person event) and virtual editions of Toronto and New York have added power in giving several of this year’s international contenders a real boost.

Julia von Heinz’s German-language political drama “And Tomorrow the Entire World,” Poland’s “Never Gonna Snow Again,” Russian submission “Dear Comrades!” and Jasmila Zbanic’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” all got a big boost from their premieres on the Lido.

Other breakouts of the Venice lineup include Philippe Lacôte’s visionary Ivory Coast prison parable “Night of the Kings” and Greek director Christos Nikou’s debut, “Apples,” a Charlie Kaufman-esque character study set amid a global pandemic, which was set to play all the key fall fests. France’s well-regarded lesbian drama “Two of Us” (or “Deux”) has benefited from a year-long festival run, reaching from Toronto 2019 to Outfest, while Berlinale breakout “Charlatan” puts Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa”) back in the mix.

But scan the rest of the list of submissions — from just shy of 90 countries — and you may be surprised how few of the films you’ve heard of. That needn’t be an obstacle.

With Oscar members who might normally be too busy to screen 20 or so contenders now confined to their homes, many more may take the opportunity to participate in round one of voting. That could be the silver lining on a challenging year: With fewer big English-language releases to catch up on, why not binge-watch the international feature submissions?

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