They did it! They actually did it!
Ah! Did that really happen? It's been over 24 hours since Parasite stunned the world, and I'm still in utter disbelief. Easily the biggest upset since Moonlight edged out La La Land in 2017, one year removed from the worst Best Picture winner of this century beating out another foreign film powerhouse in Roma, (not mentioning the former's name) and the (seemingly) unfathomable happened: Parasite took down 1917. The first Korean film to ever be nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars just won Best Picture, becoming the first film not in the English language to EVER win Hollywood's most prestigious award in the process. 92 years of precedent were shattered in an instant, and, at least for this year, the Academy looked at the winds of change and let it carry them to the best possible outcome any reasonable individual could've asked for. For at least this one shining moment, the cynicism in me is gone, replaced by jubilation and a delirious sense of pride and joy. This is why I am hopelessly in love with film, and with the Academy Awards. (Don't worry: that cynicism will return by the end of this post.)
Let's start by talking about the highest of highlights. Parasite, the 7th film from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, had been shaking the industry for months, ever since it unanimously won Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Shameless flex: I was actually at Cannes for this moment, after waiting several hours outside the Palais to get a prime seat to experience one of the first screenings of this provocative crowd-pleaser. Since then, the film has been raking in award after award, breaking countless boundaries along the way, but never did I think it actually stood a chance against the old guard of the Academy and their (unofficial) representative, 1917. After all, I will once again remind you that last year the Academy faced a similar decision, with a vastly inferior film that shall-not-be-named, no less, and embarrassingly whiffed on the opportunity. I fully expected a win for 1917, and had long since accepted this outcome. Even after the biggest upset of the night, Bong Joon Ho winning Best Director over Sam Mendes, I was ready (and waiting) to hear 1917's name called for Best Picture. But, the wave of momentum for Parasite at that point was very real after upsets in both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. (The later of which truly is a rarity - Sam Mendes won at the Director's Guild for 1917, and the last time the DGA and Best Director didn't line up when the DGA winner was on the Oscar ballot was in 2002.) And then, it happened. In the biggest shock of the night, and one of the biggest shocks in Oscar memory, for that matter, Parasite destroyed the status quo and became the first film not in the English language to ever win Best Picture. And made up for an otherwise relatively mediocre awards show in the process.
Before I talk about the rest of the show, I have to say that I simply adore Song Kang-ho in this video. The accomplished actor, and long-time collaborator with Bong Joon Ho is in the background towards the end of that acceptance speech, mostly during Miky Lee's speech, (which is wonderful) and you can tell he is truly enjoying the scene. He can barely hold back his emotions, but he's still in that moment, savoring every millisecond of it. Song Kang-ho is all of us who keep coming back to the Academy Awards, hoping they give Best Picture to deserving films like Parasite, and I love it. His genuinely overwhelmed emotional state of being when he holds that Best Picture Oscar for the first time (at 4:40 in the video) is exactly why we do this.
Ok, time for the cynic in me to slowly creep back in. As for the rest of the Oscars, it felt like something off an off year of questionable decisions and mediocre acceptance speeches. There was a bizarre "Impact of Music" montage, which felt rushed and unimportant for a 3.5 hour awards show, and it led into a performance of "Lose Yourself" by Eminem, who famously didn't show up to perform the song that won an Oscar 17 years ago. So, why is he here now? What relevancy does this performance have on anything? Who knows / cares, but it was offset by a wonderful montage to introduce each contender in Best Original Score, prominently featuring the Oscars' first female conductor, Eimear Noone, in the process. (Even though the speech prior from Brie Larson / Gal Gadot / Signourney Weaver felt a little too much like pandering to me.) This great montage was immediately followed by one of the better feel-good stories of the night, as Hildur Guðnadóttir completed her unprecedented rise to A-list status by winning Best Original Score, becoming only the fourth woman to win the category in the process. (And first since 1997.) Check out her speech below, easily the most wonderful / authentic moment of the night from anyone not involved with Parasite.
That said, Joker's other Oscar win, Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor, was easily the worst speech of the night, (biases towards the frustrating implications of that win aside, which I have previously mentioned here) as Joaquin stumbled through a borderline incomprehensible acceptance speech that highlighted the overarching idea of standing for something, (anything) before talking about animal rights, before thanking the Academy for giving people like him a second chance? (Which is a bit of a head-scratcher, coming from a straight white male who looked like a deer in the headlights the entire time he was up there.) Whatever. Joaquin got his Oscar, let's just move on.
Overall, the winner's list was pretty solid. I was sad when Little Women failed to win Best Adapted Screenplay, (it did win Costume Design, though!) but at least it lost to Taika Waititi, who joined a very small list of indigenous people to win at the Oscars in the process. (the first of his native Māori decent) Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature, which.... eh, but hey! Roger Deakins won his second Oscar for Cinematography! And it's all 1917 received, outside of a perplexing Oscar for Best Visual Effects, so yay! (How do you not give that to the literal thousands of people who worked on Avengers: Endgame?) But, for the most part, this ceremony was.... forgettable. Outside of the shock at Best Picture / Best Director (the later of which is, truly, one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. I can't overstate this enough) and the amazing speech that followed from director Bong Joon Ho, all the major categories were locked up, and none of the four stars had noteworthy speeches to follow up their expected wins. Outside of Guðnadóttir, there wasn't a triumphant moment from someone like Hannah Beachler or Ruth E. Carter that would lead to an inspirational moment, so the Academy is very fortunate they allowed Parasite to save the day.
I keep falling back to Best Picture, because it really baffles me that the Academy could rubber band as much as it did from last year to this year. In my opinion, the gap in quality between Parasite and 1917 was significantly smaller than the gap in quality between Roma and Green Book, so why did virtually the same Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences give Best Picture to freaking Green Book? (Yes, finally mentioning its name.) My hypothesis is the preferential ballot and the Netflix effect. There is serious resentment from many in the Academy towards Netflix, (on display again this year, as the studio walked away from its 24 Oscar nominations with a mere 2 trophies, highlighted by their rather stunning upset in Best Animated Feature, and The Irishman being the only film nominated for Best Picture to walk away from the night empty-handed) which, in my opinion, led many to put Roma dead last on their preferential Oscar ballot last year. However, this year, many of those same crusty old voters likely put Parasite somewhere in their top 3, which enabled it to be number one if they had films like Once Upon a Time and Ford v Ferrari above it. I may be completely off-base with that theory, but it's just so bizarre to me to see this kind of extreme whiplash otherwise. How did Roma not win Best Picture??? I'm still not over this, clearly!
That said, I am very glad Parasite happened, and it saved an otherwise (mostly) forgettable night. Parasite's unprecedented win is hopefully the sign that the east winds of change are truly sweeping through Hollywood, and the young guard really is coming to dethrone the old white men that have comfortably sat in their positions of power for decades. But, who knows. Steven Speilberg is remaking West Side Story, which is certainly a problematic remake with issues that I expect most old white men to overlook, so my hopes still aren't that high.
My Number: Parasite/Parasite
By: Joseph Kathmann, with a contribution in Best Animated Feature Film from Peter Kosanovich
I refuse to talk about Joker
Well, my favorite night of the year is fast approaching! While I am rather disappointed with this year's batch of Oscar nominees, (check out my initial reactions here) it caps off a rather mediocre year for Hollywood. I am starting to work on my year in review, which will be published later this week, and I'm discovering that there's a significant chance that my top 5 best films of 2019 will be composed entirely of foreign films. That, coupled with some studio Hollywood films receiving entirely too many nominations, (you know who you are) have led me to be quite "eh?" on this year's Academy Awards. (Also, the shortened awards circuit, which is being thankfully walked back for next year, has also significantly shortened the cultural conversation around these nominees, in my opinion.) That said, it's still my favorite night of the year, and I will still guide you through each category so you can throw down some knowledge around your friends, and tell you all the favorites so you can dominate those Oscar pools! Let's dive into it, shall we?
As usual, the "Who's the favorite" selection comes from betting odds in Vegas. The website I used as guidance can be found here.
Writing: Original Screenplay
Writing: Adapted Screenplay
Short Film (Live Action)
Short Film (Animated)
Makeup and Hairstyling
International Feature Film
Documentary (Short Subject)
Animated Feature Film
Best Supporting Actress
Best Supporting Actor
While I'm sincerely hoping for a shock with one of the major categories, I am expecting yet another victory for the old guard of Hollywood, and yet another year of wondering when the Academy will begin to award the films that are actually shaping our societal conversation on a yearly basis. While I will certainly continue to have fun with the Oscars, and do it with the stubborn conviction of Charlie Brown telling himself, "This is the time Lucy will not pull the football back," the chip on my shoulder is no doubt getting bigger and bigger. Just give me a split between Best Director and Best Picture, please! Is that too much to ask?
Wow, that's a pessimistic ending to this story. Since I'm sad and don't have a good pick-me-up ready, I'll just let Rocketman do it for me. Ah! This movie is SO good!
The Oscars have a legacy problem
It’s one of my favorite days of the year: Oscar nomination morning. I still can’t help but have a giddy sense of anticipation every year with that unnaturally early morning announcement. This year, it didn’t take long for that giddiness to fade away. These Oscar nominations are uncreative, unimaginative, and, worst of all, irresponsibly regressive, an ode to unnecessary legacy and a relic of a time that the movie industry can’t seem to put behind us. The movie industry should be at the forefront of diversity and change, with the Academy at the helm of this never-ending stream. Instead, the crusty old white people who still predominantly make up the Academy’s voting body continue to let nostalgia get the better of them, continue to highlight old white men who don’t deserve it, and continue to ignore the films that are leading this charge for societal change. Once again, the Academy had a chance to make a poignant statement, and once again, we were left disappointed.
The crux of this (depressingly yearly) disappointment is around the Best Director category. Once again, the Academy nominated 5 men, 4 of which are old and white, (represent, Bong Joon-ho) with 2 of them doing not much more than clocking in to receive their Oscar nod. Before you try and defend the nominations of Scorsese and Tarantino, (I love both of them, personally) ask yourself this: What does a nomination for Best Director mean? How does the old guard of Hollywood, Scorsese and Tarantino specifically in this case, (and to a lesser extent Sam Mendes, also nominated) benefit by receiving one of the 5 prestigious nods in this category? Receiving an Oscar nomination, particularly for Best Director, is something of a welcome party in Hollywood. A recognition from your peers that your work is distinctive enough to be celebrated one night in February. Yet, in the entire history of the Academy Awards, exactly 5 women have been nominated for Best Director. Scorsese and Tarantino have been nominated 10 times combined before this year. Why do they each need another Best Director nod?
That doesn’t even address the creative question of these films. What someone like Scorsese has to do to make The Irishman happen that’s more unique / exemplary than what Greta Gerwig had to do for Little Women? (She had to fight from the start just to be allowed to direct Little Women.) Or Arel Hal’el for Honey Boy? (She refused the helm the project if Shia didn't play his father.) We saw this credibility / creativity bump with Gerwig after the (sadly) unprecedented success of Lady Bird, which she openly admits gave her the creative leverage she needed with Sony to write / direct Little Women. Without the Oscar buzz generated around Lady Bird, Gerwig likely would not have even been given the opportunity to direct Little Women. Someone like Scorsese already enjoys a blank check on all his projects, free to (actually) spend millions of dollars to use CGI to change Robert De Niro’s eye color in The Irishman. He’s been celebrated for decades already, do we really need to celebrate him again simply because he made another mafia film? What did Tarantino do that is so exemplary? Wake up one morning and decide I should use the unlimited resources at my disposal to convince two members of the Hollywood elite to finally star in a film together? Wow, I need a minute to let the prestige wash over me.
While I do commend the inclusion of Bong Joon-ho, and the (also sadly) unprecedented awards success of Parasite, (first film from South Korea to ever be nominated for Best International Feature Film, let alone Best Picture) the rest of the category is such a dumpster fire it’s hard to get excited about that. Seriously, what’s Todd Phillips even doing in there? What did he do on Joker that’s exemplary over one of these more modern films with a 10 year+ production cycle? (Looking at you, Safdie Brothers and Uncut Gems.) If you don’t think this is a big deal for the industry, the prestige of winning Best Picture or being nominated for Best Director gives you a kind of clout that stays with you for years. Just ask Sam Mendes, who burst on to the scene 20 years ago with one of the most cringe films to ever win Best Picture, American Beauty, (yikes) and will, to this day, be given blank checks to make something like 1917. This isn’t meant to bash a film like 1917, but the only way the Academy will become more inclusive is by shining the spotlight on auteurs that are not in the “old guard.”
Also a trainwreck and a sign of the old guard still very much in control are the acting categories. The Academy narrowly avoided #OscarsSoWhite yet again, with exactly one black person receiving a nomination. (Sorry, Cynthia Erivio, for pulling the short straw and being this year’s token black person.) The Academy had a huge chance to make a statement on diversity and highlight some incredibly emotional / powerful / groundbreaking performances like Awkwafina’s in The Farewell, Jennifer Lopez’s in Hustlers, and Lupita Nyong’o in Us. Or the entire cast of Parasite. But, instead, we’re stuck starring at the perplexing / frustrating double nomination of ScarJo, (who is not someone we need to be celebrating in her own right) the dumbfounding inclusion of a Megyn Kelly impersonation, anything from Richard Jewell, (at least Kathy Bates is actually a supporting performance, but that is another conversation for another time) and, of course, Joaquim Phoenix in Joker.
Ugh, now we have to talk about Joker and its absurd 11 nominations. The inclusion of this film at all is as dangerous as it is frustrating. For a few weeks in late January / early February, the Oscars are at the forefront of our cultural conversation. They are some of my favorite weeks of the year because of the societal discussions we have relating to the films the Academy say are worth talking about. However this year, I will find myself answering entirely too many questions about Joker, a film that dangerously glorifies its main antagonist, a disgruntled white man who feels ignored by society and essentially responds by becoming a celebrated mass shooter. Joker’s vile lead has already directly inspired one mass shooting in our country, the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, and now to have a film glorifying this character go out and receive this much praise from the Academy? It’s nothing short of heinous and despicable. I just had the chance to see Arana, a Chilean film centered around that country’s 1973 coup, which has inspired a very similar conversation in Chile. Since the film’s release, the spider symbol of the Fatherland and Liberty party (the party at the center of that 1973 coup) has shown up all over the country ad seen an unfortunate uptick in popularity, a stark reminder that there’s a very fine line between glorification and rememberence of tragedy. A line which Joker flies past. Highlighted by its shameless hero imagery towards the end of the film, Joker arrogantly falls into the glorification category, and was a troubling entry into our cultural hivemind before it received eleven unnecessary Oscar nominations.
The Academy needs to understand that they have a rare, unique, and bright spotlight on our culture conversation every year for a few weeks in late January. However, at this point it's impossible to deny that this spotlight has decreased in recent years, highlighted by two years of #OscarsSoWhite and the constant, frustrating exclusion of female-led filmmaking. Every year, the Academy further ponders why its slowly and consistently losing its relevancy, while also continuing to nominate films that should never be relevant like Joker. The doomsday clock is approaching midnight on the importance of the Oscars, and as long as groundbreaking films like The Farewell, Little Women, Queen and Slim, Hustlers, Honey Boy, Just Mercy, and Us continue to be criminally overlooked, that clock will not stop. Sure, there are signs of change at the ground level, (2019 was a record-breaking year for female filmmaking, but also: low bar) however until the Academy decides that it's more important to highlight Lulu Wang's contributions to The Farewell over another Tarantino nomination, that change will come far slower than it should.
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