It was a night where Hollywood royalty was handsomely rewarded: no one was surprised to see actors Laura Dern, Brad Pitt, Renee Zellweger and even Joaquin Phoenix win Academy Awards for their outstanding performances in Marriage Story, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, Judy and Joker, respectively. Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s win for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” wasn’t a shock either, although it kind of felt like a “Lifetime Achievement” award more than an acknowledgment of greatness of their latest song (would anyone going to see Elton’s farewell tour really request to hear “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” over any of his other classics?).
Still, it was a night with plenty of surprises; Sam Mendes’ World War I drama, 1917, seemed like an obvious choice for Best Picture and Best Director. It was amazingly shot – it gave the impression that the movie was filmed by one camera in one long take. Like Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan (among other war movies), it conveyed the horror and the randomness of combat. George MacKay should have gotten an acting nomination for his stellar performance.
1917 provided a clear sense of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” — we’re clearly rooting for the British soldiers to complete their dangerous mission. Anyone in their way is an obvious villain. It’s an easy movie to get drawn into, and seemed to be an easy movie for voters to get behind.
Which makes the awards won by Parasite — Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay (for Bong Joon-ho), Best Director (also for Bon Joon-Ho) and Best Picture — a shock. Parasite is a South Korean film, subtitled in English; it’s the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture. That’s all the more impressive since it is the first South Korean film to receive Academy Award recognition.
On top of that, it’s a film that is fundamentally about class war, and your reaction to the film may be connected to your economic status. Whether you relate to the destitute Kim family or the wealthy Park family, none of the characters are especially honorable or admirable. There’s no real redemption, which is also something that Hollywood tends to favor.
During the Oscars, Renee Zellweger’s speech was about admiring the heroes who unite us. She mentioned astronaut Neil Armstrong, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, Venus and Serena Williams, Mexican singer Selena Quintanilla, Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese, Fred Rogers and Harriet Tubman, as well as “the courageous men and women in uniform who serve… [and] our first responders and firefighters.” Parasite doesn’t have those types of unifying characters. It doesn’t unify us.
What it does — brilliantly — is inspire us to think about why the characters behave the way that they do. Whether or not you approve, it might inspire you to understand their motivations and to think about how you would behave in their shoes. It’s a conversation starter, and in this divided era, that’s one of the most important things a film can do.