'Drive My Car' — the Oscars finally gives international cinema its dues

Drive My Car
Oscar nominee Drive my car (Image credit: Sideshow/Janus Films)

This year's Oscar nominees included something of a surprise. Among the more traditional, predicted films like Belfast and Don’t Look Up was Drive My Car, the Japanese drama from Ryusuke Hamaguchi — beloved by film critics. 

Drive My Car received four nominations overall, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay — which, historically, is unusual for a film not in the English language. It became the first Japanese movie to get a Best Picture nomination, a feat that not even famed directors Akira Kurosawa or Yasujirō Ozu achieved.

Also nominated outside of the Best International Film category — the silo for non-English-language films — was The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier’s Cannes Award-winning drama, which features in the Best Original Screenplay category. Pedro Almodovar's Parallel Mothers was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay and its star Penelope Cruz was nominated for Best Actress, though the movie wasn’t even selected by Spain for Best International Film contention. To cap off 2022 nominations, Flee (from Denmark) was nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Documentary, in addition to Best International Film.

For movie fans, it’s been exciting to see the Oscars pay more attention to titles outside of the Hollywood machine in languages other than English. Yet the journey towards such recognition has been maddeningly incremental, hindered by industry-wide biases that have shut audiences out of some of the richest, most challenging and rewarding films of the past century. So, are things changing now?

Parasite director Bong Joon-ho once famously noted that the Oscars are a “local” competition. Historically speaking, he wasn’t wrong. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded to represent the interests of the American movie industry in Hollywood at a time when movies were popular but seen as a frivolity. The Oscars were a way for the business to reward its own. 

In the early days, there was even some hesitation among Oscar voters when non-American titles were nominated. For the first 18 years of the Oscars, no films not in the English language received any awards and, following that, such titles were awarded on an honorary basis. The category for non-English-language films was only created in 1956. To be eligible, the country itself must submit just one film for consideration. The idea behind this was that it would level the playing field and stop more established filmmaking nations from dominating the category.

An unmissable four-time Oscar-winner

Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite.' (Image credit: C4)

Since then, films not in the English language tend to be awarded almost exclusively in the Best International Film category (formerly Best Foreign Language Film). It remains dishearteningly rare for even the most acclaimed international movies to make waves in other categories. 

Some of the most legendary filmmakers of our time — from Ingmar Bergman to Federico Fellini — received much-deserved nominations for Best Director, but never won. Only 13 non-English language films have been nominated for Best Picture (two of those were American productions.) Only 10 films wholly financed outside the United States have won Best Picture, eight of which were financed, in part or in whole, by the United Kingdom.

That's about as international as the Academy likes to get. This is why it was such an astounding moment to see Parasite become a multi-Oscar-winning film and a mainstream cultural phenomenon. The film took home four awards, beating supposed frontrunners from more traditional Oscar fare, like 1917

It took over 90 years for the Academy to give its biggest prize to a film not in the English language, which is pretty depressing when you consider the sheer breadth of cinematic history, from Jean Renoir to Kurosawa to Lina Wertmuller to Mira Nair. How can you claim to represent the full power and creative beauty of film when you only focus on what amounts to a small sliver of its offerings? It’s a display of artistic incuriosity as well as a view of the art form defined by the west and language biases.

Biases have also defined which kind of international movies get recognized. African films are seldom nominated. South Korea didn't get any sort of attention until Parasite, which is slightly ridiculous when you consider their rich film history. For many decades, the Academy's rules offered stifling restrictions in terms of language eligibility. This meant that many indigenous languages, of countries like Canada, were not considered eligible, nor were films where English was the nation’s primary language, such as Nigeria.

Bong Joon-ho at the 2020 Academy Awards.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Politics also plays a messy part in proceedings. A Palestinian-Arab film, Paradise Now, landed a nomination but faced criticism from pro-Israeli groups in the United States, which objected to the Academy's use of the name Palestine on its official website as the film's country designation. 

Because the countries submit the film, there have been concerns over artistic censorship. This is especially notable with China's submissions over the past few years, with patriotic action titles like Wolf Warrior 2 being put forward over works that are considered less suitable. Given how tough it is for the Academy to get out of its comfort zone, this category's stifling demands impact the long-term potential of international cinema.

That’s why it matters when the Academy moves away from the status quo and acknowledges international films. For all of the grumbling that the Oscars don’t really matter (and we could be here all day discussing its myriad issues), for films outside of the mainstream such recognition has a tangible impact. After receiving its four nominations, Drive My Car’s box office revenues exploded and the movie has now made over $1 million in America. That’s impressive for a three-hour relationship drama about trauma, language barriers and the pain of generational secrets. 

The Academy has made great strides over the past few years to diversify its membership along lines of gender, race and age and you can see the beginnings of that take effect with the recognition for Parasite and Drive My Car. It’s a small step but progress happens when lots of small steps push things forward. It’s unlikely Drive My Car will win Best Picture, but its presence ensures that international cinema can be at the forefront of the prestige conversation, as it should be.

Kayleigh Donaldson

Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.