Film News

Oscars 2020 Reaction: Hope Restored?

In a field that included an ode to Hollywood, a Scorsese gangster picture, a period piece drama, a sports movie starring two big movie stars, and both a WWI AND WWII movie, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences went with the social satire thriller from South Korea. So typical, right? Same old borin…

Hold on. Did I just say “South Korea”? Holy shit. Parasite won! (Head here for a full list of winners.)

Up against a bunch of other nominees that could have easily taken Best Picture in a more typical year, Parasite triumphed, becoming the first foreign-language film to take home the Academy’s top honor. (Slumdog Millionaire contains stretches of dialogue in Hindi but is predominantly English and was produced by an American company.) No South Korean film had ever even been nominated for a single Oscar before. Now, Bong Joon-ho is bringing home four total Oscars – International Feature, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.

Before now, casual Oscar viewers probably assumed foreign films weren’t even eligible in the main categories. When something hasn’t happened before, it’s understandable to assume it must not be possible. However, to those paying closer attention, there’s been plenty of evidence of foreign film eligibility. To name the first examples that come to mind:

  • In 2012, Michael Haneke’s masterful French-language drama Amour was nominated for Picture, Lead Actress, Original Screenplay, and Director. (It lost all four but did win for Foreign Film.)
  • In 2007, Marion Cotillard became the first actress to win Best Actress for a French-language film, La Vie En Rose, which also won the Oscar for Best Makeup but lost in the Costume Design category.
  • In 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Ang Lee’s martial arts epic with Mandarin dialogue – scored 10 nominations, trailing only Gladiator for most of any film that year. It ultimately lost in all of the marquee categories – Picture, Director, Screenplay – but won 3 technical awards (Art Direction, Score, Cinematography) and another for Foreign Film.

So, yes, international features have been Oscar eligible for quite some time now. However, considering the ever-rising cost of Oscar campaigns the films best positioned to make awards runs have been those produced by American companies. The Oscars, as Bong Joon-ho once joked, is really just a regional awards show for people who either work in or are supported by Hollywood. (Heck, the show was originally spearheaded by Louis B. Mayer back in the 20s to combat the winds of unionization. Epic fail on his part.)

Anyone who falls outside of that ecosystem can certainly win awards for short films or documentaries. Otherwise, they have their own category, Best International Feature, formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film. No foreign-language film had a shot at Best Picture for the same reason no animated film did: Academy voters would be too hesitant to double-dip. “I already voted for Up in the Animated Film category. Do I really want to do that again for Best Picture?” is one example.

Or so traditional logic dictated.

Parasite just proved all of that wrong. It’s an inspiring moment, a faith-restoring gesture for all those cinephiles who felt burned by Green Book’s big win last year, and likely further confirmation of something we already knew: the Academy is morphing into a more international body.

The post-#OscarsSoWhite membership drive to add more women and people of color also resulted in an influx of new international voters. How many new voters and what’s their exact impact on voting? We can’t tell for sure. However, the Best Director category, for example, is consistently pointed to as sexist for consistently failing to nominate woman filmmakers. What’s gone somewhat underappreciated is that 7 of the last 8 awards have gone to people of color – Ang Lee, Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro G. Inarritu twice, Alfonso Cuaron twice, and Bong Joon-ho.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by at least one anonymous voter who told The Hollywood Reporter before this year’s show, “I want an American director to win. The Oscars is an American thing; English things win BAFTAs and the French vote for the French.” If she was in attendance, I doubt she was part of the countless standing ovations Bong Joon-ho received throughout the night.

There seemed to be so much love for Parasite in the room that as the telecast wore on you could sense the upset win was on the way. 1917 – the presumptive front-runner for Picture and Director – was on notice. It ultimately took home just 3 below-the-line awards (Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects.) Other heavily nominated flicks like Joker and Once Upon a Time In Hollywood settled for two wins apiece while The Irishman went 0/10. Ouch. Netflix at least won Best Documentary (American Factory) and Supporting Actress (Laura Dern, Marriage Story).

I can see the headlines now: “What Does $100m in Oscar Campaigning Get You? Not Nearly Enough, Netflix Discovers.”

Indeed, prior to the telecast there were whispers that some Oscar voters had actually been turned off by Netflix’s aggressiveness, tirelessly pushing Irishman, Marriage Story, and Two Popes, as well as several others like Dolemite Is My Name which didn’t even get nominated. It reeked of Harvey Weinstein’s old playbook for winning an Oscar, partially because Netflix hired an old Weinstein employee to be its chief awards strategist. That’s a playbook Tom Quinn knows as well. Prior to co-founding the indie distributor Neon, he headed a specialty indie division for The Weinstein Co., and part of what led him out the door was when Harvey gave up on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and gave it to Quinn to deal with.

Reunited with Joon-ho for Parasite, Quinn’s Neon didn’t have the kind of money Netflix uses to gobble up billboards or mass-produce collector’s edition coffee table books sent out for free to Oscar voters. His best weapon was Joon-ho himself. Although the director’s grasp of the English language is limited, he is a supremely charming figure – intelligent, amusing, just the right amount of self-deprecating, and very reverential to his fellow filmmakers. Thus, Quinn’s team got Joon-ho in front of as many microphones and meet-and-greets as possible, sending the director out for a six-month publicity tour to stir up interest in Parasite and hopefully nudge it into the awards conversation.

The fans took it from there, organically building word of mouth around Parasite before eventually something called #BongHive formed on Twitter and set about spreading the gospel of Joon-ho. In prior awards seasons, that’s exactly the kind of adorable movement that would ultimately amount to nothing more than just film fans raving about a movie they like. After all, the Academy doesn’t give a shit about #FilmTwitter.

Yet, here we are with Parasite as a Best Picture winner. As I watched the film’s team accept the award from the Dolby Theater stage, I thought back to Moonlight. That, too, was a faith-restoring Best Picture win that told cinephiles, “See, sometimes the Academy does get it right.” (Well, gets it right after accidentally trying to give the award to La La Land.) That, however, was also a movie hardly anyone had seen, with a domestic take of just $22m prior to its Oscar win. If anything in 2017 could have used the boost from the Best Picture win, it was Moonlight.

Parasite is a little different, but also kind of the same. At a current domestic tally of $35m, it is easily one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films in US history, and long ago became Joon-ho’s most successful title in South Korea. Combine the two and you have a current worldwide total of $165m. However, of the rest of the competition in the Best Picture category only Jojo Rabbit has sold fewer tickets domestically. The rest of the nominees were either box office hits or put out by Netflix. Parasite is more likely to benefit from this than them. By virtue of the historic nature of its win, perhaps more people will actually see it now because for as much as film culture has revolved around Parasite for months it’s still something few have seen relative to the other nominees.

That probably reads as a rather cold reaction. After all, Korean people instantly flooded Twitter with stories about how much Parasite’s win meant to them, describing themselves as openly weeping for joy. I’m happy for them and happy that the Academy picked something not only historic but also a film that speaks about class and what’s going on in the world right now. This is certainly a better winner than 1917. It’s just, Parasite wasn’t my favorite film of the year, and even though I knew it was coming now that we definitely live in a world in which Marriage Story and Little Women each only won a single Oscar I’m a little bummed.

On the flipside, Laura Dern has an Oscar! And the consensus pick for film of the year actually won Best Picture. That’s rare. Skol!

Stray Thoughts About the Show

  1. So funny to me that Janelle Monet’s opening performance relied so heavily on imagery from Midsommar, a film that didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. As a Midsommar stan, I didn’t mind. The people watching the show with me were utterly confused.
  2. The telecast had new producers this year and, again, no host. I noticed the lack of an MC more than I did last year, particularly with some of the unexplained segues into musical numbers.
  3. There is only so much the Academy can do to inject new life into the Oscars ceremony. This isn’t the Grammys! You can’t have performances every 10 minutes. What, is Roger Deakins going to come on stage and show us how to be a cinematographer? Obviously not. The producers, however, seemed to be doing their best to bring some Grammys energy to the show, hanging a lot on performances. Noble effort, if sometimes confusing.
  4. I had no idea why Emimen was there performing his 8 Mile song from 18 years ago until I was reminded he won Best Original Song back then but didn’t show up at the ceremony to accept the award.
  5. Poor Renee Zellweger has been lapped all season by Laura Dern, Joaquin Phoenix, and Brad Pitt in the “who gave the best acceptance speech?” derby. Tonight was no different.
  6. That being said, Phoenix and Pitt delivered better speeches at earlier awards shows.
  7. Elton John really, really, really wanted to win for Best Song. Almost none of the other winners dared to be so open about that.
  8. Even on a night which saw Parasite make history, I still feel cynical, mostly about the ability of the night’s speeches and endless references to social causes and diversity to truly make a difference. Just feels like an echo chamber to me.
  9. I went 14/21 on my predictions. Biggest gripe: I correctly guessed 1917 and Ford v Ferrari would split the Sound Editing/Sound Mixing awards. I just got it wrong about which film would win which one.

8 comments

    1. That is kind of like Pixar’s on-going taunt against you, isn’t it? You’re an animation fan who doesn’t love the Toy Story franchise, yet around once a decade Pixar makes a new Toy Story movie for no discernible reason and then it promptly goes on to win the Oscar.

      That being said, I enjoyed Toy Story 4 fine enough. I don’t mind seeing it win. I would have, however, been genuinely excited if Klaus had taken the top prize.

      1. Yeah pretty much…though in this case, I genuinely felt that it should have gone to Klaus, because while the story was pretty cookie cutter (but that was true for most animated movies this year, it was kind of meh), but the animation was something which deserved some praise. Plus, it might have spurned Disney to look into traditional animation again.

        Plus, I really HATE it when all those who claim that Disney has supposedly “bought” the Oscars are proven right. Because I don’t think that this is really the case, I think most of the voters just don’t care about animation enough to truly look at the alternatives when voting.

      2. The BAFTA and Annie Award people at least agree with you about Klaus. In totality, Klaus won more awards than Toy Story 4 this year, but obviously, the Oscar pulls all the focus.

        “Because I don’t think that this is really the case, I think most of the voters just don’t care about animation enough to truly look at the alternatives when voting.”

        I’d say you are entirely right about that. Animated films seem to strike many voters as pleasant little diversions, balance sheet stuffers for studios and time-fillers for kids but ultimately not something worth thinking about for longer than the time it takes you to leave the theater and get in your car. So, unless something truly extraordinary comes along they just rubber-stamp the Pixar/Disney film. It’s not just them, though. I see movie blogs and listen to movie podcasts that treat animated film much the same way. I lost track of the number of Oscar-related conversations I read/heard where the people had no idea what Klaus was and didn’t care to find out.

  1. You are absolutely spot on Kelly, ‘Parasites’ Best Picture win is a TRIUMPH! I honestly thought it would come close but to win, what an incredible achievement! Equally so, this is a triumph for those who love world movies. Interestingly, it doesn’t surprises me that ‘The Irishman’ went 0/10 at the Oscars. Mind you I really thought it had a shot at winning the Best Adapted Screenplay award. Finally, I know you predicted Klaus, but I’m glad Toy Story 4 got the nod. Woody, Buzz and the gang have been favourites in my household forever.

    1. It’s madness to ever pick against Pixar at the Oscars, but I placed my bets on Netflix’s big money pushing “hand-drawn animation nostalgia” hard enough to get Klaus over the finish line. Didn’t happen. Don’t mind, though. I quite enjoyed both movies, Toy Story 4 and Klaus.

      How we all react to Parasite’s win is rather revealing. If you’re a glass half full person, this is a triumphant, transformative moment, a line in the sand signaling the long-delayed widening of the Oscar’s opinion about what truly qualified to be discussed as “important cinema.” Add that together with the recent run of wins for Moonlight and Shape of Water and high level nominations for formerly snubbed genres like horror (Get Out) and comic books (Black Panther, Joker), and you have an Academy adjusting tot he times as quickly as it can – which is to say, not fast enough for some, but still quicker than usual by historical standards. Green Book was just a weird aberration. Glass half empty, however, and it’s more like Parasite is the abberation, a once-in-a-generation movement that sparked a movement that would not be denied. However, that is completely irreplicable, and the Academy’s old white male guard will surely swing things back to the boring middle next year because that’s just what the Academy does.

      Neon and Bong Joon-ho’s producers, however, probably don’t care which group we fall into. They’re just counting that sweet, sweet coin.As per THR yesterday, Parasite is now on track for at least $50m domestic, nearly double the amount it had made prior to its Best Picture win. The film now has that “I have to see what everyone’s talking about” vibe, much as it’s always s had, really, but supercharged now thanks to the Academy. Compared to all the other Best Picture nominees, Parasite is the one that needed the boost the most – well, it and JoJo Rabbit. They made the right choice.

      There’s been an inordinate amount of thought given to why exactly The Irishman flopped at the Oscars and, really, at nearly every awards show. Marty, sadly, has now been to two different Oscar ceremonies where he walked into the building with 10 nominations and walked out with zero awards. The first time, Gangs of New York; now, The Irishman. One convincing argument is that much of this is due to the fundamental difference between the way we watch movies on Netflix versus the way we watch them in theaters, particularly the way The Irishman’s pop culture zeitgeist moment pretty much lasted for a single weekend before being reduced to “it’s too long” jokes, so much so that the film’s length is now the only thing most people know about it.

      Another, however, is that this kind of thing just happens sometimes. In some years, the clearest piece of Oscar bait finds itself overshadowed by the flashier competition. Marty made his career opus; he also made it the same year that Tarantino made his penultimate film, Baumbach made the best film of his career, Phillips and Phoenix made a comic book movie the Academy actually liked, Mendes and Deakins made a stellar war movie, and a guy out of South Korea made his breakthrough film, crossing borders and cultures like unlike anything else in film history.

      There is something to be said for Parasite doing this the old-fashioned way: organic word of mouth and tireless gladhanding by an amiable director. The Irishman, however, had the air of the obvious front-runner and presumptive winner the moment it was announced. Then it had like a month to build word of mouth in theaters/at festivals, was on Netflix, and then become just another thing the internet joked about it memes while Academy voters (based on those anonymous ballots publisedh overat THR and IndieWire) puzzled over, “I don’t why everyone insists this is a masterpiece. It’s too long. Pacino is just doing the Pacino thing. The VFX is iffy.” It losing after that seemed a tad far-fetched – surely the movie would net at least a single Oscar – but not impossible. Then once De Niro started getting snubbed by every nominating body, the writing was onthe wall. OH, shit, the Academy respects this movie, but it doesn’t love it. The misshapen nominations/wins reflect that.

  2. Kudos to the Academy voters getting it right but… I am still not going to watch 3 hours of self-congratulations when I can spend 5 minutes reading your article and 2 minutes reading the results. 🙂

    I always like it when Leo doesn’t win. It would have been cool for ScoJo to win a double.

    1. Yes, when the ratings came in and set yet another record low I saw a snarky internet comment along the lines of “maybe the world lost its appetite for three hours of famous people airing grievances about their industry,” and that sounds about right.

      This is one of those counterfactuals we’ll never know the answer to, but it is interesting to ponder how this Oscar race might have looked if Leo hadn’t won his gold for The Revenant in 2016. Joaquin’s Oscar march was like an unstoppable force of nature, but it ran largely unopposed, up against a bunch of people who were either just happy to be nominated for the first time ever (Banderas, Price), probably have to wait a little longer to get their win (Adam Driver), or already have an Oscar (DiCaprio). There was no counter to the narrative Joaquin was telling: I am due my win, and I am humbled by it. The truth is, though, broadly speaking Phoenix does in the Joker the same kind of performance he’s done multiple times before, even just a year ago in You Were Never Really Here. DiCaprio, in Once Upon a Time…, on the other hand, is a more pathetic, emotionally vulnerable shade than Leo is usually willing to play. If he’d been snubbed for The Revenant, maybe people would have thought more seriously about giving it to him for Once Upon a Time. I think Phoenix still would have won, but it would have added some intrigue at least. Either way, I take it you would have been happy because in both scenarios Leo ultimately loses.

      Only 11 other actors have done what ScarJo pulled off: nominated for 2 different acting Oscars in the same year. She, of course, lost both. The other actors to do that – nominated twice, lose both nominations – are: Sigourney Weaver (lost for Working Girl and Gorillas in the Mist), Emma Thompson (lost for Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father, but she’d won a year earlier for Howard’s End), Julianne Moore (lost for Far From Heaven and The Hours; later won for Still Alice), and Cate Blanchette (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, I’m Not There; she’d already won 3 years earlier for The Aviator and would later win again for Blue Jasmine).

      All other actors to receive multiple nominations in the same year won at least one award. For example, the year Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman he also lost Best Supporting for Glengarry Glen Ross. Only one actor has ever actually won two acting Oscars in the same year, but that was because he was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting for the same performance. His dual win is what led the Academy to change the rules and mandate that individual acting performances are only eligible to be nominate in one category, either Lead or Supporting. (source: https://variety.com/2020/film/awards/scarlett-johansson-two-oscar-nominations-1203463697/).

      So, ultimately, ScarJo is in pretty good company there. If she’s like Julianne Moore, she’ll get her Oscar eventually. If she’s more like Sigourney Weaver, she might never got nominated again.

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