Voices: Best International Feature deserves to be more than the Oscars’ consolation prize

Best International Feature is still seen as something of an Oscars afterthought. It doesn’t generate a lot of media buzz. It’s away from the centre of the conversation, which amps up ahead of Sunday’s Oscars night.

It’s the subtitle award – entrants have to be filmed in a language other than English, which means there isn’t always a UK submission despite the fact that many languages other than English are spoken on these islands.

Part of the problem this year is that there is almost no intrigue. Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front is the shortest-priced favourite with the bookies of any category.

Small wonder. It also has a Best Picture nod. The only one of the eight previous films to be nominated in both categories and not win a golden statuette for Best International Feature was Sweden’s The Emigrants, but it was something of an oddity. Thanks to a quirk of the eligibility rules, it was up for Best International Feature in 1972 and Best Picture in 1973.

It would be one of the shocks of the evening were All Quiet not to continue the trend. If so, its win may be seen as something of a consolation prize (not that Netflix needs one, having picked up a hatful of awards for its properties, including multiple Baftas).

However, the category deserves better than second-fiddle status. So does “world” cinema more generally. Perhaps that will change. Subtitles have become much more common in the Best Film category in recent years. It used to be a once-in-a-decade event; sometimes even less than that (there were none at all in the 1980s).

That is no longer the case. The 2012 French language hit Amour was followed by Roma (2018) and then the all-conquering Parasite (2019), which smashed what director Bong Joon-ho described as the “one-inch-tall barrier” by becoming the first film to win both in 2020.

All Quiet’s recognition follows that of Japan’s Drive My Car (2021), which won Best International Feature but lost out to CODA for Best Picture last year.

The fact that there are now usually 10 nominees for the main event helps the subtitled cause.

Is All Quiet the best of the international feature contenders? The Quiet Girl, filmed mostly in Irish, is quietly devastating. Belgium’s Close, about the friendship of two adolescent boys, is a less subtle tear-jerker but features some astonishingly naturalistic performances from the two young leads. Argentina, 1985 is a tense courtroom drama of the type you just don’t see in cinemas anymore. Then there’s Poland’s EO, which follows the journey of a circus donkey through thick and mostly thin, and is by far the category’s quirkiest offering this year. You’ll want to donate to a donkey sanctuary by the time the credits roll.

These aren’t as hard to find as they once were. All Quiet is obviously on Netflx, while Argentina, 1985 is available with an Amazon subscription. Close will arrive on Mubi next month (it’s still on its cinematic run) when EO also comes to BFI player. The BFI player already hosts The Quiet Girl, which is additionally available to rent on multiple platforms. If I had a vote, that would be my pick, although Argentina, 1985 would be close behind it. I’m a sucker for that type of movie. But I’d urge you to see any or all of them.

“World” cinema broadens the mind; maybe as much as travel. Maybe more so. It serves as a much-needed antidote to the bellicose nationalism currently blighting the world.

Perhaps it could help to kill it off. Younger people have grown up surrounded by subtitles. They don’t seem to see them as any sort of barrier; not even a one-inch-tall one.