Oscars 2020: Breaking Records

Let it be known that I had thought out a lot of deep, introspective, memorable opening lines for this post but honestly, all I can really say is…

BOOOOOOONNGGGGGGGGGG HIIIIIIVEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

It’s been four days since the Oscars, and Parasite‘s win still makes me giddy with joy. Despite my personal belief that it is a literally perfect movie, its Best Picture win was in no way guaranteed or even expected. And yet. It became the first international film to win Best Picture. The first South Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and only the second Palme d’Or winner in history to also win Best Picture since Marty in 1955.

The first Korean film to ever even be nominated for Best Picture not only won Oscars’ top prize but also took home three other golden statues in International Film, Original Screenplay, and Director for Bong Joon-Ho (#BongHive).

So why does all this matter? Anyone who knows me knows how important representation in the entertainment industry is to me, and that is certainly a huge part of it. Hollywood has long been (rightly) criticized for not looking outside of themselves when rewarding cinema. There’s a reason that the last time the Oscars and Cannes agreed on the best movie of the year was 65 years ago.

But there is another element here that should be mentioned, and that is the theme of Parasite itself. A satirical black comedy about a poor family that schemes its way into the lives of a rich one, the movie is a genre-defying piece of work about class divides and tensions bundled into one neat, sharp critique of the capitalist system.

There are some years in film where, by chance or design, a common theme emerges amongst the movies released. 2019 was undoubtedly the year of the class war.

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out was critically acclaimed for its sharp script (which did earn a nomination for Original Screenplay) and its twist on the classic whodunnit murder mystery. Past the comedy of the self-absorbed characters is another incisive commentary on the class divide, a classic upstairs-downstairs struggle over the family estate. Without spoiling the ending, Knives Out crafts its story by making a statement more about virtue and moral superiority than radical politics, as is seen in Parasite.

Perhaps more similar to Parasite‘s radicalism was Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria’s black comedy crime film was sadly nowhere to be seen on Oscars night (disappointing to say the least), but it carried very similar messages to the night’s ultimate winner. One of the most clever movies about the 2008 economic crisis, it takes viewers through the bleak reality of the lengths people will go to in order to secure their own futures in a system that sets them up to fail.

Other Oscar-overlooked films this year made similar points about exploitative economic structures, including but not limited to The Last Black Man in San Francisco and even Uncut Gems. But for every sharp critique is a cinematic response. This year, films such as The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood both in their own way offered alternative lens.

While no one familiar with his work can say that Martin Scorcese is pro-capitalistic exploitation, The Irishman nevertheless puts forth a view in which unions and organized labor movements are greedy and corrupt. In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the nostalgic lamentation of aging in Hollywood can be doubly seen as the status quo fighting desperately to keep their way of life intact.

Our culture reflects our reality, and we are living in a time of political and economic uncertainty. It makes sense that our films would reflect that. Perhaps this more than anything helps explain why Parasite resonated so strongly across audiences and critics.

Of course it is doubly ironic when you consider some of the movie’s biggest fans are themselves part of Hollywood’s most upper-class elite. When I consider how the cast of Parasite received a standing ovation at the SAG Awards, and yet not a single one was nominated in any of the acting categories, I have to think there must be a certain level of guilt and performative activism there too.

Does any of this mean the Academy is finally moving in a progressive upward slope? That we will never again have to suffer through a Green Book debacle? Unfortunately, I think not. Progress, I have learned, does not tend to happen in a straight line, and there are so many factors that go into who wins these awards that any surge will almost always be counterbalanced.

That’s not to say however that this year did not provide hope. Parasite‘s level of global acclaim will hopefully open up moviegoers to more international cinema. The Academy’s ongoing push to diversify its members will continue to bring fresh perspectives and move the needle on votes. The more successful these films become, the more willing studios will be to invest and take chances on diverse filmmakers with unique stories.

For now, we can be beyond satisfied that for the first time in a long time, the best movie of the year was actually recognized domestically and internationally as the best movie of the year. We can be ecstatic for the diversity that was seen on screen, from Taika Waititi becoming the first person of Māori descent to win an Oscar to Matthew A. Cherry’s Hair Love taking home Best Animated Short Film to Zack Gottsagen becoming the first presenter with Down syndrome to take the stage.

We can continue hoping that next year will bring more of these moments. That the entire industry as a whole continues to shift and make space for new voices and unique stories. And that Bong Joon-Ho never ever stops smiling and making movies.

So friends. That wraps up another incredible Oscar season. Until next time…

“Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago.”

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