After years of upholding the values of mainstream-prestige dullness and having cultivated a habit of rewarding mediocrity and conformity, the Oscars have made a bold and brilliant choice. Hooray for the good taste of Hollywood. Best picture, best director and best international feature have gone to a movie that really deserves it, a film from beyond the Los Angeles parish pump. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite from South Korea is the stunningly clever and powerful upstairs-downstairs satire of a predatory family moving into a wealthy household, and in so doing revealing the dual dysfunction of both the master and servant family groups and the unhappiness of wider society, disclosing a new 21st-century serfdom.
I admit that on a purely subjective level, I had been rooting for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which sadly went home with nothing. I also thought it was odd that the awards establishment was behaving as if Parasite was the only foreign-language movie worthy of praise, overlooking films like Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son and Kantemir Balagovs Beanpole.
But who could possibly complain about this? The victory for Parasite is the first time a foreign-language film has won best picture and the first time since Marty in 1955 that the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes has gone on to win best picture at the Oscars. On his victory tour of awards ceremonies leading up to this, Bong had playfully told audiences: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The Academy just hopped over that barrier, catching up with audiences who have long shown that it isn’t too high a hurdle: Parasite is doing some gangbusters business, especially in the UK.
Perhaps it is telling that the film has done so well in the anglophone world. Here is a movie that launches its fierce satirical missile at class and makes clearthat the issue hasn’t gone away. It is still a live-wire subject. Bong Joon-ho’s film is about inequality, the toxic injustice that builds pain into the household of the state.
Joaquin Phoenix got his widely anticipated best actor Oscar for Todd Phillips’ supervillain origin story Joker. I am sceptical, and I feel that what Phoenix gave us was a less interesting variant on the performances he produced in films such as The Master and You Were Never Really Here. But he has undoubtedly revealed himself to be a serious and thoughtful public figure in the speeches he has been giving. For best actress, my vote would have gone to Cynthia Erivo for Harriet or Saoirse Ronan for Little Women, but Renée Zellweger’s heartfelt portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy is a perfectly worthy winner. (Although it’s worth remembering Garland herself never got much Oscar love in her adult life, winning the now defunct “juvenile award” in 1940, but being painfully passed over as a nominee for A Star Is Born in favour of Grace Kelly.
Brad Pitt is a thoroughly satisfying winner as best supporting actor as the laidback but sinister stuntman in Quentin Tarantino’s macabre cinephile black comedy Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, and the same goes for Laura Dern for her excellent turn as the canny divorce lawyer in Marriage Story. Dern has ascended to cult-hero status this awards season, particularly with the tribute from the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Elsewhere, it is great to see Roger Deakins to get the best cinematography Oscar for Sam Mendes’ thrilling first world war drama 1917, which has (perhaps sadly) gone relatively unnoticed after its triumph at the Baftas. But this excellent film, which goes way beyond its technical achievements, will continue to resonate.
All of the worries about the Academy Awards and awards ceremonies still persist. It is a conceited white boys’ club. But the triumph of Parasite has done a lot to counteract this: a portent of change.