A Brief History Of The Academy Award For Best International Feature Film

For Your Consideration: A look at the weird history of the Best International Film category at the Oscars.
February 10, 2020
A Brief History Of The Academy Award For Best International Feature Film

Ki-jung Kim (So-dam Park) and Ki-woo Park (Woo-sik Choi) in Parasite. Courtesy of NEON + CJ Entertainment

The annual Academy Awards ceremony, or the Oscars, is the biggest night in Hollywood. If you ask Americans, they might even say it’s the biggest film event in the world. Which is why some people were shocked when Bong Joon-ho, director of the 2019 film Parasite, told Vulture, “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” He has a point, though. The awards focus almost entirely on American films, and most other countries are siloed into an entirely different category: Best International Feature Film.

If the name of this category sounds a little off to you, it’s because up until 2020, the award was known as the Academy Award Best Foreign-Language Film. The Oscar committee decided to change the name of the category because the term “foreign” seemed more exclusionary than “international” (“foreign to whom?”). But the category is the same as before.

Looking at the Best International Feature Film category can tell you a bit about the United States’ reaction to international films as a whole. And when you dig into the eligibility requirements and winners of the award, you realize the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not the impartial judge of world cinema that it purports to be.

The Early Academy Awards

When the Academy Awards were first held in 1929, international films were not among the 12 categories represented. The event was also a bit toned down compared to the modern spectacle; there were only 270 attendees, it wasn’t broadcast anywhere and the ceremony was only 15 minutes long (which would be nice, honestly). The winner for Outstanding Picture was Wings (You know, that classic Wings? Surely we’ve all seen it.). And the Academy decided it would be unfair to let “talkies” compete with silent films, so films with sound were barred from the event. It’s kind of amazing that this event has managed to last almost a century.

The categories for the Academy Awards have been tinkered with from the start. After the 1929 ceremony, the categories were reduced to 7 for the following year. But it wasn’t until 1947 — the 20th Academy Awards — that an international film was first recognized. And even then, that was not an official category — there were no “nominees” — it was a special award given by the Academy. 

In 1956, the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film was awarded for the first time. (Federico Fellini’s La Strada beat out four others.) Since then, with minor adjustments, it’s been a staple of the ceremony. Winners are chosen like any other category, with members of the Academy watching the films and voting on their favorites.

How The Nominees Are Selected

In the past few years, the eligibility requirements for the Academy Awards have been under intense scrutiny. In most categories, films have to be released in the United States (Best International Feature Film is the one exception to this rule). The Academy also requires that a movie be shown in commercial theaters for at least seven days before it’s released in any other form, which is considered a slight to Netflix and other streaming services. 

The strange thing about the name change from “foreign-language” to “international” is that language is still the most important factor in these films’ eligibility. If a movie has too much English dialogue — like the 2019 Nigerian film Lionheartit can be disqualified, even if English is an official language in that country (like English is in Nigeria).

Another quirk of the category is that movies are submitted by the countries themselves, and the winner is the country. So when Roma won, technically Mexico as a whole was the winner. A country can only submit one film each year, which can cause controversy over which movie is most deserving. Plus, deciding what counts as a country is often contentious. Divine Intervention, a 2002 Palestinian film, was rejected because the Academy Awards didn’t recognize Palestine as a country. Yikes.

There was once a rule that a film had to be in one of the official languages of the submitting country, but that requirement was eliminated in 2006. Films produced in the United States are also ineligible, which means U.S. territories are also barred from entering (Puerto Rico hasn’t been allowed to submit a movie since 2011). The whole process is mired in bureaucracy and disagreement, leaving filmmakers around the world frustrated.

Can An International Film Win Best Picture? 

In the history of the Academy Awards, 11 non-English films have been nominated for Best Picture. Here are those films, in chronological order:

  1. Grand Illusion (1937, France)
  2. Z (1969, France)
  3. The Emigrants (1971, Sweden)
  4. Cries & Whispers (1972, Sweden)
  5. Il Postino (1994, Italy)
  6. Life is Beautiful (1997, Italy)
  7. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, China)
  8. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Japan)*
  9. Amour (2012, Austria, France, Germany)
  10. Roma (2018, Mexico)
  11. Parasite (2019, South Korea)

*Babel was also nominated in 2006 and features languages other than English, but it’s relatively American compared to the rest on the list, especially considering it stars Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.

As seen here, international films do qualify for Best Picture. And in 2020, Bong Joon-ho made history when his film Parasite was the very first non-English film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. So yes, international films can win, but it is so far pretty rare.

Who’s Won The Academy Awards For Best International Feature Film?

While any country is welcome to submit films to the Academy Awards, there are some clear winning trends. Of the 68 films that have won this award, 57 have been European, seven have been Asian, five have been North or South American (non-U.S.) and three have been African. At the least, there’s an unconscious bias there.

Even within Europe, certain countries do much better than others. Italy has won 14 times and France 12, both of which are way ahead of the next winning countries, Spain and Japan (which have four awards each). Part of this phenomenon is attributable to certain countries having submitted far more than others, but there are countries like Portugal that have submitted dozens of times but have never made it to the nominee stage.

Art is subjective, so it’s hard to pinpoint why some countries are so much more likely to win. But some people, like Steve Rose in The Guardian, have argued that the category for Best International Feature Film existing at all puts non-English films on a different playing field than the rest. And while non-English films may be eligible for the overall Best Picture category, they rarely make it there.

As of today, Parasite is the only non-English film that has been given the Academy Award for Best Picture. It has yet to be seen whether this is part of a trend toward international cinema or a standalone event. But what are the chances, really, that English films have been the best of the best for almost a century before now? Slim. So when Bong Joon-ho refers to the Oscars as being “very local,” it’s this that he’s referring to: a system that time and again awards English films over all others. 

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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