Before the Oscars, I was flirting with the idea of writing something contrarian. Those anonymous Oscar voter pieces are, as Darren Rovell might have said, “tremendous content,” and the one that went viral this year was the one that basically said that foreign-language movies should not win Oscars. In the week or so leading up to those Oscars, that idea was pilloried roundly on the Internet, and then it was refuted in glorious fashion last night, when Parasite became the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, the second movie in a foreign language to win Best Director for its head honcho, the first movie in a foreign language to win a screenplay award since Talk to Her, and, well, the winner for Best International Film. Parasite has broken ground that, frankly, I didn’t think could be broken. There is simply no precedent for the Oscars awarding a movie not in English with this much gusto, and frankly, it’s hard to argue that among the movies nominated, Parasite should not have added Editing and Production Design and gone six-for-six. It is tempting to see this as a new day in the Academy Awards, in much the same way that it must have been tempting to view Moonlight as such a new day. Not to make another Iowa caucus joke, but maybe it’s not crazy to think that the clean presentation of the award could give Parasite the Obama boost in the way that Moonlight got the Buttigieg boost, such as it is. I’m an old man, though. I remember Green Book. And as happy as I am about Parasite winning (so happy!), I can’t help but think the process for “foreign movies should win Oscars” is almost as hopeless as the Academy itself.
Here’s my list of the ten best movies I saw with a 2018 release date. (The Other Side of the Wind would be in the conversation, but it’s weird to me to include that when it is not really a 2018 movie in spirit.) Four of those are true American releases; Widows is really a British film, if we’re being honest, though the English-language aspect and the Chicago setting flattens anything “foreign” about it.
- Sorry to Bother You
- Cold War
- First Reformed
- If Beale Street Could Talk
I’m starting with me because I can’t help myself, but I also won’t pretend to be the arbiter of all that is good and right. Here’s Film Comment‘s top 11 of 2018 (again, I’m cutting The Other Side of the Wind):
- First Reformed
- Let the Sunshine In
- The Other Side of the Wind
- Happy as Lazzaro
- Hale County, This Morning, This Evening
- Sorry to Bother You
I count three American films. And just for good measure, here’s another periodical of note, Sight and Sound, without Phantom Thread, which they have second, and its presence there just isn’t quite right:
- Cold War
- First Reformed
- Leave No Trace
- The Favourite
- You Were Never Really Here
- Tie- Happy as Lazzaro and Zama
- The Image Book
More Anglo than American for English-language movies, but the majority still belongs to stuff outside of English. Finally, here’s what the Academy Awards chose that year as its eight best movies. Oh, the whiplash—the pizzas—the bad faith AIDS timelines.
- Green Book
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Black Panther
- The Favourite
- A Star Is Born
The point here isn’t that the Academy frequently fails at choosing the right movies deserving of recognition, a point that one hardly needs to dig into year-end rankings to discuss. The point here is that the Academy, diversified and globalized as it is becoming, fails to understand that the best movies of a given year are almost certainly in a language other than English. Oscar’s ears perk up when he hears English, and he is generally indifferent to other languages. (A few breakthroughs are permissible here and there: an actor giving a performance in Italian or French, Fellini and Bergman contributing almost a quarter of the nominations for foreign-language nods for Best Director, etc., but these are truly few and far between. The Bergman example, as Bergman examples tend to be for me, is extremely instructive. With his name attached, Fanny and Alexander wins four Oscars; even if this is previous Academy darling Jan Troell, or future Academy darling Lasse Hallstrom, I doubt that it brings in such a haul. So many stories have come out about how charming Bong Joon-ho is, frequently calling him “Director Bong,” and I think we must weigh the praise of personality significantly when it comes to foreign language pictures at the Oscars; it goes without saying that this is the case in English, too, but it seems that the charisma or legend of the director must play some exceptional part to put a foreign language movie over the edge when that might not necessarily be the key factor for a natural born Anglophone.) When people protest that good movies should get Oscar nominations no matter where they come from, what I can’t help hearing is a failure to understand just how much foreign film there is – that its quality is high, high, high – that in a just world where all the movies are judged the majority of them in our time would come from outside the United States or Great Britain. The really open-minded ones note that Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Pain and Glory should get more play from the Oscars, but surely more than one movie apiece from France and Spain has premiered in the past year?
This isn’t preciousness, quite. It’s about a failure of imagination more than it is about naivete, that if your world is not much bigger than the newest Scorsese or Tarantino flick and only has space for a token foreign picture at a time, then yes, it will be obvious that Parasite should be an Oscar movie. (I don’t mean to be too harsh here. As easy as it is now, relatively speaking, to see a contemporary movie from another country, it can still be dashed difficult to do on a regular basis.) Again, you would have a hard time getting just about anyone to suggest that the Oscars have a good eye for quality, but I think you would also have a hard time convincing most people that an Oscars that were really about rewarding the best movies would need to go so frequently and so unreservedly outside of America to reward the honest-to-goodness Best Pictures. This is of a piece with the complaint every time a movie that is “too small” or “too niche” wins Best Picture; let The Hurt Locker win Best Picture and there will be a rousing complaint about the poor business it did at the box office, but the inferior Titanic wins and the crowds cheer. Let’s play a game of make-believe. Imagine that Parasite won Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards, but then let’s also imagine that the Foreign Language winner had been the Best Picture winner for the past five ceremonies before that: Roma, A Fantastic Woman, The Salesman, Son of Saul, Ida. (…is there a way we could do this?) Would the Parasite joy be diminished somewhat? Would we hear the clamoring for something safer, more middlebrow, perhaps even “closer to home” in lieu of the dulcet and decidedly Korean tones of Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago? Maybe this is excessively cynical, but I can’t help but think that we’d be inundated with thinkpieces about why Oscar can’t come home again, about how a good piece of American cinema like Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could be the movie of the moment. I hear Philip Lopate in my head describing moviegoers on the search for critics they’d like to listen to: “In part, we are looking for a mirror, someone like ourselves who is reasonably tasteful and not too picky.” Parasite is exactly what a foreign language movie had to be to win Best Picture: it had to be boffo entertainment, magisterially made, and a fat wad of cash for the distributor. None of that takes away from the accomplishment, which is to say that it is the most richly deserving Best Picture winner since Amadeus. But all the same, Roma was too “artistic” (yeah, we know what the problem was) to pull this off last year, just as The Salesman would have not been the right combination, or Amour wasn’t enough compared to Argo, or Grand Illusion wasn’t right so long ago.
When Bong Joon-ho called the Oscars a “local film festival,” he was not wrong. He was nudging AMPAS in the ribs a little bit, but he certainly wasn’t wrong. He was describing a feature and not a bug, no matter what happened last night or how affirming it was. (Frequent Seeing Things Secondhand appearer Matt wondered last night how much we would have to pay for Parasite winning, a question that I am surely not alone as describing as a “Moonlight effect.”) In much the same way that America’s military ought not to be the world’s police force, its preeminent film awards ought not to be the world’s preeminent arbiter of film quality. If Parasite showed us anything, it’s that a great movie will, given enough room to stretch out, speak its greatness for itself. I heard it on podcasts; I heard it from friends; I heard it in my home. Parasite is one of the great, perhaps the superlative, accomplishment in moving images this past year. People knew it even if the Academy Awards didn’t know it, and happily, it turned out that they did. But the people got to it first, and would have crowed it for years to come. In its own way, Parasite has fulfilled the Oscars, justifying their decision-making while at the same time showing that we need an Academy to tell us what is great less than we ever did. Let the local film festival keep giving out its prizes to movies which are rather less than the best pictures, and let it award American and Commonwealth movies with the same vigor it’s always had in so doing. The one aristocracy in cinema is made up of masterpieces, no matter how they sound or where they come from, and the bloodlines of that aristocracy needn’t mingle too much with whatever watery, pretend ichor sloshes around in an Oscar statuette.