The Oscars have again surprised the world, and, this time, thankfully, not because they gave an award to the wrong film. Parasite, a South Korean movie, has officially become the first foreign-language film to win the most prestigious award – Best Picture, a fact that is especially remarkable given that it was also nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category and won there too. The Oscars have also been overly “white” this year, did not recognise some (more art-house) films and acting which are also deserving of praise and nominations (that acting in “The Lighthouse“!), and, for the year that is supposed to celebrate women in cinema-making and acting, did not acknowledge great acting and films made by women (for example, no women nominees in the category of Best Director). I will only very briefly comment on the 2020 wins in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actor in the Supporting Role and Best Cinematography.
- Best Picture – Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Other nominees: Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig), 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes), Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach), Ford v Ferrari (dir. James Mangold), The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino), Joker (dir. Todd Phillips) and Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taika Waititi).
I am very happy about “Parasite”‘s win, because I consider it truly to be the best film of the year. This is a good step forward by the Academy to finally and properly acknowledging foreign-language productions that have much artistic merit. However, I also cannot help but think about all the previous years and all the brilliant foreign-language films that, oddly, were never nominated in the Best Picture category. For example, why an Argentinian and Spanish-language film “The Secret in Their Eyes“ (2009) was not nominated in the main category, and why Italian “Life is Beautiful” (1997) was,….but lost to….”Shakespeare in Love” (1997)?
The South Korean cinema did not just fall from the sky suddenly and surprised everyone with its brilliance. For example, South Korean director Park Chan-wook has been making great films for more than two decades now, and his absolutely brilliant film “The Handmaiden” (2016) never even featured at the Oscars (because South Korea did not put it forward?). “The Handmaiden” is as intelligent, engrossing and well-crafted as “Parasite” – see it for yourself (they could even have cut out certain nudity in “The Handmaiden” for the Academy, and it would have still remained a great, worthy-of-an-Oscar movie). And, is more “artistic” and “challenging” work by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos really that different from “Parasite”, that also won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes? In my review of “Parasite”, I compared Bong Joon-ho’s latest work to the more “eccentric and art-house” work of Lanthimos, including to “The Lobster” (2015) and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017). Lanthimos had to go “more mainstream” for his “The Favourite” (2018) to receive a Best Picture nomination.
And what about such “artistic”, very thought-provoking and intelligent films as English-language “Melancholia” (2011) or “Mulholland Drive” (2002), or the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Our Little Sister” (2015), “The Third Murder” (2017))? All received none or just a single (at best) praise from the Academy. The randomness of the recognition of “Parasite” now is striking because it is so sudden and unexpected, and, thus, now seems even a little unjust in comparison to all other previous wonderful, Cannesque, “artistic” and eccentric film creations. Did Bon Joon-ho somehow strike a balance in his film between this “arthouse eccentricity and thought-provoking elements” and more understandable and linear narrative that is also fast-paced and appealing to mainstream audiences, and other similar directors did not? Was it also because “Parasite” is so fun and entertaining, and other more intelligent and “artistic” movies are generally “sad” or too “erotic” – recall the ignored “Shame” (2011) or “First Reformed” (2017)? No other worthy American movie shot this year to give the main award to?
The rule at the Oscars is usually this – if you don’t want some foreign-language film to win some main award – don’t nominate it. Japanese “Your Name” (2016), which is arguably one of the greatest animations of all time, was ignored by the Academy, so had no chance to compete or win any awards. It seems that, suddenly, the Academy is making another statement, but is it something coming too late? Was predominantly British “1917” “punished” by the Academy because of Brexit in some subconscious way? Is this thought really that ludicrous? If we consider that the Academy is an institution that likes to make its (political) statement via its nominations and wins, even the Brexit factor is not too far-fetched.
- Best Actor – Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Other nominees: Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes), Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Adam Driver (Marriage Story).
Is Phoenix’s win the most obvious, predicable and “comfortable” Best Actor win in the history of the Oscars? Was there anyone at all who doubted that Phoenix (“You Were Never Really Here” (2018)) would win this award? Especially since this role just begs for an Oscar and the late Heath Ledger won it posthumously for the very same role in 2009 (“The Dark Knight”). Phoenix was, indeed, simply brilliant in “Joker”, but it is also true that the whole movie was a “star-vehicle” to enable Phoenix just this privilege since the movie was nothing more than his acting and, let’s be frank? – there was no movie beyond the character study of Joker.
Talking about “Joker”, I am very pleased for the win of Hildur Guðnadóttir in the category of the Best Original Musical Score. Hildur Guðnadóttir also became the first person from Iceland to win an Oscar, as well as the fourth woman to win in the category.
- Best Supporting Actor – Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Other nominees: Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood), Al Pacino (The Irishman), Joe Pesci (The Irishman) and Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes).
I feel bad about the movie “The Irishman” and its cast. The movie received 10 nominations and was not able to win any of them. That reminded me of Scorsese’s 10 Academy Awards nominations for “Gangs of New York” (2002), when the film did not win any of its nominations either. The Irishman “snub” is particularly difficult to swallow since, I think, Martin Scorsese was also unjustly ignored by the Academy in his making of “Silence” (2016), his “passion-project”, which he wanted to make for so long. Similarly, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci did not receive their recognition at the ceremony (and Robert De Niro was not even nominated!).
Brad Pitt’s win is also curious. We are used to think about his acting in relation to his late 1990s and 2010s films, but he actually impressed me long before then in one now forgotten movie – “Kalifornia” (1993), where I realised that the man has always had that acting ability in him (and it did not suddenly emerge in “Moneyball” (2011), for example). I am happy for the recognition of his acting now.
- Best Cinematography – Roger Deakins (1917)
Other nominees: Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse), Lawrence Sher (Joker), Rodrigo Prieto (The Irishman) and Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
Winning, Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049” (2018)) also cements his reputation as one of the best cinematographers working in the industry today, and it is a deserved win. Still, I feel for Jarin Blaschke, and I thought the cinematography of “The Lighthouse” was just out-of- this-world. In fact, it was precisely the cinematography there that held people’s attention, alongside committed and superb performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
I think “Parasite” won because it was the best film of the year, and if the Academy suddenly decides that now is the time to finally give foreign-language or more “artistic” films what they have been denied for so long, it is also a good development – better late than never. Not that I think that the Academy will turn into any Cannes any day soon, but this year it certainly made its way into that direction. Have you watched the recent Academy Awards? Do let me know what surprised you the most at the ceremony.