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The case for nixing the Oscars' best international feature category

This year's Oscar nominees for best international feature film: <em>Hand of God; Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom; Flee; The Worst Person in the World; Drive My Car</em>
Gianni Fiorito/Netflix; Samuel Goldwyn Films; EF Neon; Neon; Janus Films
This year's Oscar nominees for best international feature film: <em>Hand of God; Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom; Flee; The Worst Person in the World; Drive My Car</em>

There's one category among the Oscar nominations that already includes five bona fide winners: best international feature film. Lest that elicit eye rolls or sighs of subtitled boredom, let me assure you that none of this year's nominated films are remotely staid or pretentious "foreign cinema." From Denmark to Japan and the Kingdom of Bhutan, the five nominated finalists are already among the most vibrant, electric and moving films of the year.

Like an outdated beauty pageant's prequalifying regional competition, they first defeated their fellow nationals to earn their submission. Then, they were winnowed down into longlists and shortlists. But two years since Parasite's triumph at the Oscars, winning both best picture and best international feature, several of this year's nominees have also broken boundaries to become fully integrated competitors in multiple categories. Flee from Denmark is the first film ever to be nominated for best documentary, animated feature and international feature film. Drive My Car from Japan is nominated for best picture, director and adapted screenplay. Norway's Worst Person in the World is among the original screenplay nominees. Yet the stigma and centrality of their "foreignness" remains.

The five nominated films for best international feature film have no legitimate artistic reason to be measured against each other for one Oscar. Their only qualification (and misfortune) to be judged this way is their non-Englishness. In the extraordinary new age of subtitled streaming and globalized filmmaking, this is a category that is becoming a caricature of itself as a relic of the past. Cinema today deserves better than an award for "best global miscellanea."

I acknowledge I'm biased; this has always been my favorite category among the Oscars. I've reported on many of the nominees and filmmakers over the years for NPR, and have always loved the sense of discovery that accompanies the creativity happening outside Hollywood. On a personal note, I'm also one among millions of immigrant Americans who grew up speaking multiple languages and seamlessly toggling between films from Bollywood to Sundance. This kind of viewing has never been easier and more widespread than in this age of (mostly) boundary-free Netflix. The success of Squid Game and its concurrent release and binging across continents is just one recent example.

That said, the Oscar for best international feature film is still usually stuffed into lesser hours of the ceremony and rarely covered as breathlessly as the higher-profile and more glamorous awards for categories like best Actor or actress. But what happens when we finally have a film culture that's becoming more inclusive of difference, of representation and of a multiplicity of storytelling styles? This year's nominees are a dazzling testament to what is both becoming a problem — and an opportunity — for Oscars consideration.

Among the five nominees, Worst Person in the World by Joachim Trier is a moving and stylish story of young adulthood — of the hot mess of relationships and career indecision — that would be familiar to fans of Girls or Love Life. It is not the typical arthouse film or historical drama that reflects the Scandinavian "Old World" in the cliché American imagination. This is a story about modern Oslo that feels insightful and relevant to what it means to be a young woman in the world today. (But yes, it was made and co-written by a male director.)

In The Hand of God, the Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, The Young Pope) has made a personal story of losing his parents as a teenager in the lush seaside neighborhoods of Naples. It feels both smaller and more precise than Sorrentino's usually grand and operatic films, and one crafted with the interiority and sensitivity drawn from this fragile age of social distancing and loss.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is the first nominee ever from the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Filmed in the most remote school in the world with solar-powered cameras, it is a searching story about a young man with dreams of moving abroad but who is forced to go teach in a remote mountain village by function of the government's development agenda. As he confronts his country's less "developed" peoples amid a widescreen mountain landscape for the ages — and yes, real-life yaks — he comes to recognize his own limitations.

Flee is the definition of a 2022 intersectional masterpiece. It is an animated Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee's journey to Europe across real-life wars, terrifying illegal crossings and the search for home.

Drive My Car is a three-hour epic about grief and art, as a theater director comes to terms with his wife's death through the production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at a theater festival in Hiroshima.

Each of these films is rich, expansive and properly diverse in the typical theater of award-season fare. Even if they are united by their ambition and excellence, these films are too distinct from one another to form a coherent collective. They deserve to be judged by their artistry rather than their nationality.

I may be biased toward foreign films come Oscars night, but I am neither interested nor looking forward to the eventual winner. The best service this award offers is to grant these "unfamiliar films" and filmmakers greater visibility and distribution for American audiences. In the past, that meant specialty studios could release them into cinemas for short runs or they would become available for purchase on services like iTunes. This year is already different. The broken model for theatrical distribution for smaller films has been a windfall for access to international cinema. Flee is already streaming on Hulu, Drive My Car is on HBO Max, Hand of God was produced by and is on Netflix, and both Worst Person in the World and Lunana: A Yak In the Classroom are available via video on demand.

It's never been easier as a film fan to see "foreign cinema" outside its confined borders. Hopefully, the Oscars will also follow suit.

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