Wait, did that just actually happen? Did “Parasite,” the best picture of 2019, really win the Oscar for best picture of 2019? You’ll excuse me and hundreds of other pro and semi-pro prognosticators for thinking that voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might have admired Bong Joon Ho’s wickedly twisty social satire — might even have loved it — but would stop well short of handing a foreign-language film the evening’s big prize.
Some people got it right — the ones who sensed momentum shifting in the final days of Oscar season. I still say that if the ballots had been due a week earlier, “1917” would have taken best picture. But maybe I’m wrong about that, too. Maybe the ground rules really are changing. With that in mind, let’s examine some of the conventional wisdom being spun out in the wake of what New York Times critic A.O. Scott has dubbed “the Bongslide.”
Recent efforts to diversify the Academy are paying off. Yes and no. It’s true that since the #OscarSoWhite debacle of 2016, the increased push to induct new and more diverse members has resulted in double the number of film professionals of color who can vote for an Academy Award — from 8 percent of the total AMPAS body four years ago to 16 percent in 2019. That’s progress, but that’s also still a lot of old white guys. And the fact that half the 842 new members in 2019 were women didn’t keep Greta Gerwig from being shut out of the best director category.
And yet — note that six of the past 10 best picture winners have come from directors of color or from other nations: “The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Moonlight,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Parasite.” And only one best director of the past decade — Damien Chazelle of “La La Land” — was born in this country. In fact, three Mexican filmmakers, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón, pretty much own the directing category. Suddenly it’s last year’s “Green Book” that’s looking like the outlier.
It’s time to retire the Oscar for “international film” — or at least cancel it when a foreign film wins best picture. Nonsense. While it’s great that “Parasite” has broken a 91-year tradition of best picture winners speaking English (or, as in the case of “The Artist,” not speaking at all), it’s highly unlikely that the trick will be repeated any time soon. The “international” category remains controversial, in that one and only one movie from any given country is allowed to be submitted — which benefits smaller countries while punishing worthy films. Without it, though, the awards would seem awfully parochial. And to the people complaining about “double-dipping” because “Parasite” won both best international picture and best picture, well, guess what. It was.
Bong Joon Ho is ready for his reward: a big-budget Hollywood movie. That’s how it used to go, anyway: Director from another land scores big, cashes in his chips with a US studio deal. But Bong, who has puckishly referred to the Oscars as a “local” competition, doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone at this point — not with “Parasite” grossing $165 million worldwide. If anything, it’s US audiences who will be exploring the director’s backlist: not just well-known recent titles like “Okja” (2017) and “Snowpiercer” (2013), but the psycho-mama drama “Mother” (2009), the monster-movie goof “The Host” (2006), and the terrific but hard-to-find “Memories of Murder” (2003), currently streaming for free on popcornflix.com.
The “Parasite” win is why mass audiences don’t watch the Oscars anymore. Nah. It was widely reported that this year’s Academy Awards reached the smallest audience in the broadcast’s history. So what? It’s still the most-watched of the major awards shows, by far. The show’s diminishing ratings point instead to larger, more complex forces: the fact that movies no longer lead the pop-culture discussion (TV shows do) as they did for decades; the widening split between corporate fantasy-franchise filmmaking and the kind of movies we deem worthy of awards; the ever-proliferating choices of things to watch and platforms on which to watch them. The days of “Titanic” uniting an entire country behind it are gone forever.
US audiences are finally ready to handle movies with subtitles. True, I think. It’s long been a cliche that many Americans don’t like “furrin films” because they don’t like reading subtitles (or can’t read them fast enough). What has moved the needle, I think, has been the ready availability of closed captioning on TV shows from other lands, many of which can be found on Netflix or other, more dedicated streaming platforms. It’s not just foreign languages, either — hands up, anyone who has turned on the subtitles when the British accents get too bloody 'ard to parse. And once you’ve gained the habit, a whole world of new content opens up.
“Parasite” won because it’s an exotic trip to a foreign culture. Nope. “Parasite” won because its outrageously funny/scary dramatization of the corruptive split between haves and have-nots makes as much sense to American audiences in the early 21st century as to the folks back home in South Korea, where the movie was a smash hit and a lightning rod for debate. Who are the real parasites, the clan of poor con artists or the privileged rich family? Once the dust has settled and your senses have stopped tingling, you’re invited to think about such questions, and about a system that enables the situation in the first place. One only wonders if Oscar voters watching the movie realized Bong’s pitiless calculus applies to them as well.
A win for “Parasite” means a loss for “1917.” “1917” will be just fine. While it certainly must have taken the wind out of Sam Mendes’s sails to go from the consensus leader heading into the night to his film’s winning three Oscars for cinematography, visual effects, and sound mixing, it was overall the kind of evening that felt inclusive and fun rather than competitive. The decision to go host-less for a second year turned out to be a smart decision: The evening moved along with brisk fellow feeling and even wrapped up on schedule, which has to be a first. The fact that every best picture nominee except “The Irishman” won something told the world not that the Academy was handing out participation trophies but that the breadth and depth of filmmaking in 2019 is something to be celebrated (even if voters didn’t know what to do this year about women filmmakers or actors of color). In this context, “Parasite” was a reminder that a movie can be fiendishly entertaining while making you think and feel things you never have before. That’s pretty much a definition of the form right there.