Parasite wins Best Picture… but does it matter?

OSCAR history was made last night with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite victorious as the first Best Picture winner in a language other than English. Bong also netted Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, to waylay any doubts about the Academy consensus: Parasite is the Oscar champion of 2019. Against the gargantuan and immersive accomplishments of war epic 1917 (which was given its due for Cinematography, Visual Effects and Sound Mixing) Parasite seemed destined to be a critical darling failed by the notoriously insular Academy when it counted.

Other award ceremonies, including the Golden Globes at the start of the season and the BAFTAs just last week, generally sided with 1917 and its director Sam Mendes, while Parasite took home the awards reserved for foreign films which get a fraction of the media attention. However, in a moment reminiscent of Moonlight’s upset over La La Land three years ago (luckily under less embarrassing circumstances!) the critic’s pick and the audience pick aligned to prove the bookies wrong.

In a lesser year, Parasite and 1917 would have been the only horses in the race, but the competition was considerable this year. Living legends Tarantino and Scorsese added new masterworks to their considerable canons; the hugely profitable and controversial Joker unexpectedly netted the most nominations of any film, and Little Women breathed new life into a nostalgic literary classic. There didn’t seem to be much momentum in the top categories for Ford v Ferrari or Jojo Rabbit, but both were acclaimed and worthy nominees which would have had a better chance in weaker years. One could reasonably argue that every nominee this year was better than Argo or The Departed. This was a damn good year for Hollywood. And yet, here we are: the nominee furthest from Hollywood was chosen as Hollywood’s champion.

As much as we pontificate about the Best Picture formula of weepy historical melodramas, best exemplified by the likes of The King’s Speech and The English Patient, there’s more variety in the actual winners list than we tend to make out. Sweeping romantic period pieces often triumph (see: Titanic, Braveheart, Out of Africa), and they’ve disproportionately favoured extravagant musicals and enormous war epics in the past, but just as often you’ll see a Silence of the Lambs or a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dominate all the major categories through superlative acting and direction.

A surprising number of dark and tragic films about humanity’s greatest failures (see: Schindler’s List, 12 Years a Slave, The Deer Hunter) have won, and also a surprising number of dialogue-driven films which humanise emotionally resonant issues (see: Spotlight, American Beauty, Rain Man). It also can’t hurt to have a gimmick, like the long take(s) of Birdman or the silent era throwback The Artist. The Shape of Water won Best Picture two years ago, and that was a fairy tale in which a mute lady has sex with a fish-man. Surely we can agree there’s no real formula?

The Academy Award for Best Picture can be a mercurial little fellow in terms of legacy. Either it cements the winning film as an all-time classic, protected from the inevitable obscurity of its almost-as-exalted contemporaries, or it forever brands undeserving winners with a backlash which will be dragged up year after year. Some years you get The Godfather or Casablanca and the shine never comes off them: they’ll be synonymous with peak filmmaking until the heat death of the universe. When the Academy gets it right, we tend to overlook it: it’s the times they end up on the wrong side of history which will be talked about forever. There’s a widely accepted consensus of which films are the “Worst Best Pictures”, and once you’ve got that reputation you’ll never shake it.

It’s generally agreed that Crash stole Best Picture from Brokeback Mountain in 2005. Harvey Weinstein campaigned aggressively for Shakespeare in Love in 1998, leading to an unforgiveable theft from Saving Private Ryan. Forrest Gump was a juggernaut in 1994, but Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption have aged better. Dances with Wolves is a bland white saviour narrative with little value to modern audiences, and it beat god-damn Goodfellas!

It’s pretty consistent that the most influential and daring films of their time were either not nominated or lost to a more conventional and less controversial flick. The Exorcist lost to The Sting. A Clockwork Orange lost to The French Connection. Apocalypse Now lost to Kramer Vs Kramer. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lost to A Man For All Seasons. Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley. None of the films I’ve just listed are bad, but a pattern is clear. Some films grow in esteem with time, while others feel quaint before long.

1976 is a particularly weird case. I’ll not hear a bad word about the original Rocky under most circumstances, but when you weigh him up against Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men and Network, the Italian Stallion just doesn’t feel like a worthy champion. This is with the curse of hindsight though; Rocky had a low budget, a struggling up-and-coming star and a bittersweet ending, but went on to become the highest grosser of the year and was more of a sombre character piece than a typical fist-pumping sports movie. With all the goofy sequels, the ballooning of Stallone’s reliance on machismo trash and the parodied-to-death iconography of Rocky it’s easy to forget that, in its time, Rocky was the underdog. Had they left it at just one Rocky, the win wouldn’t be as contested by critics, but the original would have been largely forgotten.

The number of times the Academy have got it truly, horribly wrong tends to be rather exaggerated as a convenient anti-awards narrative. The most egregious recent sinner is last year’s Green Book, a charming and well-acted but also shallow and untruthful biopic of how African-American pianist Don Shirley learns to appreciate black popular culture from his racist (but just “politically incorrect uncle” racist, not Klan racist so it’s nothin’ fugeddabowit) Italian chauffeur. If you’re wondering whether there’s a scene where a white man teaches a black man how to eat fried chicken and appreciate the music of Sam Cooke, then boy have I got the movie for you!

That said, looking back on the 2018 list, Green Book likely excelled from being in a race with no obvious consensus pick. Roma is a beautiful and haunting film and rightly won Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, but struggled to overcome the hurdles natural to a methodical black-and-white foreign-language film distributed by Netflix with no famous stars. BlacKkKlansman won Spike Lee his first Oscar for its screenplay, but, as we’ve come to expect from Lee, the handling of racial tension is perhaps too confrontational for some. Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice rode the wave of their lead performances (Rami Malek and Christian Bale respectively) but were far from great cinema.

The Favourite was one of the strangest films ever to be nominated; a scandalous period drama it may be, but it’s shot and scripted with such idiosyncratic oddity that those not immediately on-board are unlikely to catch up with it. With Black Panther holding the token nomination of “Yes, superheroes can be considered but we’re sure as hell not going to let them win” and A Star is Born peaking early in its frontrunner status… I guess that just leaves Green Book as the one the least voters hated. It might not be a great movie, but at least it’s one voters of all ages are likely to be able to finish.

So: what does it really mean to be Best Picture? If we can never agree on a worthy winner and those which do win are held to an unreasonable standard in retrospect, are they better off not winning? 1917 is still playing in cinemas and experiencing terrific word-of-mouth, and now anyone who watches it will have the reaction, “Wait, this DIDN’T WIN?” while Parasite now has to live up to the reputation of “the film which beat 1917”.

Had they been the other way around, it would be a comfortable and traditional state of play. Now they’ve flipped the narrative, and Parasite has shed its label as an underappreciated international breakthrough film. Most casual audiences haven’t seen Parasite yet, and likely won’t have the chance until after the hype has died down a little. Which film will the next ten years be kinder to? I hope that with this mainstream prestige boost Parasite is screened more widely in its ongoing cinema campaign and picked up by Netflix or Amazon for widespread exposure. There have been few screenings in the UK so far, even after it performed impressively at the US box office. I saw it at an advance screening for Cineworld Unlimited members a few weeks ago and as of this morning they haven’t yet scheduled any more screenings in the same venue.

My fear is that Parasite won’t stick around and will vanish into trivia. How often does your copy of Million Dollar Baby or A Beautiful Mind come out of its case? Will it linger forever on the list of films you’ll get around to eventually, but because it’s subtitled you’ll never quite have the attention span to watch it at home? Only time will tell. All I know is that for a few glorious days we can celebrate the Academy getting it right. Unless you’re a Joker fanboy, in which case… I’m just sorry.

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