Sometimes the Oscars get things spectacularly right. Last night was one of those times. They had a lot to be proud of in both the awards they doled out as well as the show in general. And in recognizing PARASITE with four big Oscars, most notably Best Picture, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences furthered its reputation more than they’ve done in years.
Filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the director, co-producer, and co-writer of PARASITE set a record last night with his four awards in one night, tying the record previously set by Walt Disney back in 1954. His dark comedy, about a poor family of four conning its way into the home and lives of a rich family of four, made further history as well. The film was the first South Korean film to be nominated in the Best International Feature category, the first to win it, the first South Korean director to take the Best Director prize, and most significantly, the first film in a foreign language to win the Academy’s top of prize of the best film of the year.
And PARASITE was wholly worthy. It was the best-reviewed of all of the films up for Best Picture this year. It won a slew of critics’ awards the world over, including my group’s pick for Best Independent Feature at the Chicago Indie Critics’ Awards this past January. Plus, it was clearly the strong favorite of the Hollywood community, if the deafening applause in the Dolby Theater was any indication. The film received a similar ovation when it nabbed Best Cast at the SAG Awards last month too, clearly foreshadowing the support the movie had.
Often times, the Oscars play out more like a popularity contest. Other times, the awards seem more like make-up prizes for ignoring an artist’s work in previous years. This year neither was the case. Most every winner could easily be argued was worthy, and very often, the most so in their category. Granted, the Academy always ignores a slew of worthy nominees in the nominating process, but this was the first time in a long time where there weren’t any truly cringe-worthy nominees.
The WWI film 1917 was expected to prevail in the category of Best Picture and Best Director after winning at the PGA, DGA, and BAFTA, but the Academy voters went their own way this time. As good as 1917 is, PARASITE certainly was more reflective of our modern world. War films are always relevant in one way or another, but other than its technique of making the film look like it’s all one take, it didn’t feel any more immediate than many of the other war films that have prevailed in the past. PARASITE, with its themes of economic disparity, class systems, and the gulf between the 1% and everyone else in the world, couldn’t have been timelier.
Still, most importantly, PARASITE was a masterfully-done film, full of twists and turns, great acting, not to mention precise editing and cinematography. It was funny, tragic, sad, and harrowing – – it played like a comedy of manners until it turned into a horror show. Few films were as surprising this year, even with Quentin Tarantino’s rewrite of the Tate murders at the end of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. And for all those worthy reasons, the film won on a preferential ballot that awards nominees that have broad support across all branches, from the actors to the editors to the writers to the costumers. PARASITE prevailed with all of them, and in doing so, the Oscars became more immediate, relevant and even cool. Expanding Academy membership a few years back to include newer voters to shake off some of the dust of traditional tropes proved last night that it’s working.
As for the actual show, it started out somewhat stridently, overcompensating for the lack of diversity in this year’s nominees. Janelle Monae gave the opening number her all, but with lyrics about “Oscars So White”, it started from a negative and wasn’t helped by some of the digs at the Academy by the stand-up of Steve Martin and Chris Rock that followed. Thankfully, the rest of the show, driven by the joy of the awards being handed out, turned the rest of the show into something positive and laudatory. Here were some of the highlights:
• Brad Pitt gave another great speech when he won Best Supporting Actor, as expected, for ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. It was heartfelt, witty, and even managed to be political, as is his tendency. (He remarked that the Academy only gave him 45 seconds to say his piece, which was 45 seconds more than John Bolton received at President Trump’s impeachment trial the past week.)
• Most of the comedy bits amongst the presenters were clever, from Salma Hayek’s embracing of fellow presenter Oscar Isaac and her remark about “Finally getting to hold an Oscar onstage” to the misread of two category meanings by Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
• The music didn’t have to play anyone off this year, and almost all the winners were on-point and brief.
• The Academy spread the wealth around with eight of the nine Best Picture nominees winning at least one Oscar. Only THE IRISHMAN went home empty-handed.
• Even so, Bong Joon Ho called out that film’s director Martin Scorsese for his influence on his career. He also thanked Tarantino for championing his work and expressed a desire to take a “Texas chainsaw” to his director award so he could share it with all four of his fellow nominees in that category.
• The Best Song performances were tight, simply presented by and large, and entertaining.
• There was a lot of gorgeous fashion, without anything too egregious. Special praise to 82-year-old Jane Fonda for rocking her gray hair and a sequined red dress.
• Showing extended clips of the acting nominees really showcased them better than in almost any other year, and it was nice to see the original score nominees get their own musical number as well.
• There was diversity and cleverness in the pairing of the presenters all night. A particular standout was Brie Larson and Gal Gadot with Sigourney Weaver to represent heroines in action films.
• Kudos to James Corden and Rebel Wilson for mocking their CATS catastrophe by coming out in assimilations of their film costumes. Their catty batting at the mic stand was particularly amusing.
• Joaquin Phoenix gave a very political speech, one that raised a lot of good points about forgiveness, sharing, and entitlement, and he was self-effacing too calling out his own bad behavior and thank those who gave him second chances.
• The show didn’t cut off bigger names from finishing their speeches, even if Elton John did go on a little too long, and Renee Zellweger definitely rambled.
• The one silly technical move that could’ve been booed occurred when the show’s technical director started to dim the lights on the PARASITE producers’ speeches at the end. By then, the show was long already, so what are a few more minutes? Thankfully, the lights came up again in short order.F
Of course, the Oscar telecast can always be a better show and here are some necessary gripes:
• If you’re going to dress dancers up in 2019 film costumes to back up Monae in the opening number, they should assign one film to each dancer. We didn’t need five JOKER dancers and five MIDSOMMAR ones.
• Billie Eilish did a wonderful job singing “Yesterday” during the In Memoriam tribute, though as always, the Academy managed to exclude some worthy mentions. Granted, they doubled up some of the slides, yet still managed to leave off Luke Perry, Sid Haig, Orson Bean, and Robert Conrad, among others.
• As funny as Mya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig are, their bit went on too long. That’s especially egregious when you think about some parts of the show that could’ve used more time.
• To that point, the biggest blunder the Academy continues to make is to not properly honor the recipients of the special Oscars at the Governors Awards that are held in November. There should be clips as every honoree there should be heard from. I’d rather hear what David Lynch, Lina Wertmuller, Wes Studi, and Geena Davis had to say than hear Eminem sing his Oscar-winning Best Song for EIGHT MILE from 17 years ago.
Incidentally, I correctly predicted 21 of the 24 categories this time out, my best record in years. I got Sound Editing wrong, as well as Best Picture and Best Director. I went with the numbers on those last two, predicting 1917, and couldn’t have been happier to be wrong. Heart and art prevailed at this year’s ceremony, not stats, and that helped make this year’s Oscars one to savor as well. Bravo, Academy, and kudos to PARASITE and all the other winners.