IT HAS been four years since South Korean director Bong Joon-ho told a mostly Western crowd at the Oscars (and those watching at home): “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” He was accepting the Best Picture award for his social class thriller Parasite, set in Seoul with Korean actors: a very entertaining example of what is available for anyone who can be bothered to read along while they watch a film. It was hard not to cheer alongside Bong, whose statement felt pleasingly patronising and blindingly obvious. Of course, it is absolutely nuts to limit your screen consumption to English-speaking films. The world is big, and cinema should reflect that, and really, have you tried watching a film with subtitles? You forget about them by the second scene.

Hard to think of an awards season when Bong has been proven more correct than this one. You will likely need them for slippery legal thriller Anatomy of a Fall, which unravels in French and English (and if you have seen this Oscar-nominated picture, you can read about its ambiguous ending here). You will also require them for the sweet, tear-jerking ode to lost love and the lives of immigrantsPast Lives, which plays out in Korean and English. Ditto if you want to enjoy this season’s best international films, often the most exciting picks, like director Jonathan Glazer’s German-language nominee The Zone of Interest or Spanish-language survival thriller Society of the Snow, available now on Netflix. Anatomy of a Fall, The Zone of Interest and Past Lives all earned a Best Picture nomination at the 2024 Oscars.

And one of the best things about these films, if you are watching them at home (as so many of us statistically now do)? Having to follow along with subtitles means that you cannot browse your friends’ Instagram stories or desperately make restaurant reservations at the same time. We all like to think of ourselves as serious, attention-paying people, but who can really claim they do not occasionally “second-screen” – that is, watch television while also browsing another screen – as we are sprawled on the sofa? Following along with subtitles is the easiest way to recreate the hallowed hush of a cinema at home. No one talks, no face is suddenly illuminated up by a phone notification, everyone focuses. Even better, there are no strangers chewing too loudly in the second row.

Because, god, it was looking patchy for our attention spans there. While viewers have embraced subtitles in recent years—63% of American adults under 30 keep them on while watching television in a language they know—the reasoning is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is nice to believe that younger generations are just very detail-orientated, and 40% say they keep subtitles rolling for “enhanced comprehension” and to “understand accents”. Certainly, I switch them on for most shows and films because you pick up on dialogue and, in some cases, you can just understand what actors are saying under muffled breath. But on the other hand (no doubt the one that is busy doom-scrolling), 16% of people say it’s to “enable multitasking”. If you are watching television while also browsing for new bath towels on your laptop or making Friday night plans in the group chat, subtitles are a vital way to not miss out.

So let us be thankful for these foreign films. After I watched Society of the Snow in my living room recently, I bathed in my phone’s glow, delighted by the digital detox and the distraction-free viewing experience (had I learnt any Spanish? ¡No senor!). Something strange happened in the following days: I watched an episode of Mr. and Mrs. Smith without checking my phone once. Then I caught a film on Netflix without so much as thinking about Instagram. Could it be that subtitles have trained my brain to filter out distractions? Perhaps it is too early to tell, but that one-inch-barrier looks increasingly like a lifeline for streaming – and our attention spans.

This story originally appeared on Esquire UK.


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