“Parasite’s” upset of presumed front-runner “1917” represented a rare surprise on Oscar night, which had otherwise succumbed to a ho-hum feeling of inevitability. All of the shoo-ins in the acting categories — Brad Pitt, Laura Dern, Renée Zellweger and Joaquin Phoenix — took Oscars that, as culminations of a crowded awards season that had already richly rewarded them, felt like formalities more than anything else. Each of them deserved an Oscar, not only for their canny and committed performances, but for acting the least bit shocked when their big moments came.
It was “Parasite” that made the biggest news, with its victory representing an encouraging step forward on the part of an industry that has eagerly tailored its movies to foreign markets without always acknowledging that those regions produce vibrant contributions of their own.
Last year, the Mexican film “Roma” tried and failed to cross that Rubicon; this year, it felt as if the notoriously change-averse Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was finally ready to embrace the fact that movies come in all shapes, sizes and languages. Bong Joon-ho made note of this when he won the newly named international feature film award. “I applaud and support the new direction that this change symbolizes,” he said in his acceptance speech.
An art house phenomenon, “Parasite” has earned more than $165 million at the box office, clearly striking a nerve with viewers at a time when the world seems mired in the dispossession, inequality and mutual incomprehension it dramatized. As far as the Academy was concerned, it surely didn’t hurt that Bong’s mash-up of noirish tones and stylized mayhem bore the unmistakable influence of such forebears as Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino (a cynic might say that Hitchcock and Tarantino finally got the directing Oscars they never won). Bong acknowledged his debt to fellow nominees Tarantino and especially Martin Scorsese, who stood to give the younger filmmaker his benediction to thundering applause.
It was a moving moment, but also a revealing one in terms of the mutual influences that made themselves felt between this year’s nominees. The techniques and tropes Bong repurposes so adroitly in “Parasite” make the film feel both original and oddly familiar, the product of the male gaze that still holds sway in Hollywood.
Throughout the evening, clips from the best picture nominees played out like so many boys-with-their-toys wish-fulfillment fantasies, complete with swagger, cars that go vroom and women who are either silenced or virtually absent. Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” was the rare movie directed by a woman in the mix, but what realistic chance did it have against so many films that mythologized Big Men?
The failure of the Academy to nominate Gerwig for best director launched legions of think pieces on Hollywood’s recalcitrance when it comes to accepting women as auteurs. (“Little Women” won for best costumes.) Many observers thought that the recent expansion of the academy to include hundreds of new members — many of them women and filmmakers from a variety of ethnic and geographic backgrounds — would result in a more inclusive Oscars ceremony.
A younger, more globally attuned membership surely accounts for “Parasite’s” success at the Oscars, and it was cheering to see the number of women, people of color and international artists who were represented across several categories, including costume and production design, hairstyling and makeup, documentaries, animated short film and original and adapted screenplay.
But the movies themselves reflected entrenched ideas about seriousness and quality that will take much longer to dislodge.
It’s not that “Parasite” or “Joker,” which received 11 nominations and won two awards, weren’t well-made or exquisitely acted. They just felt derivative and insular, a self-referential grab bag of “cool” visual style — often involving bloody violence — in service to narratives that were either flimsy or just plain shallow. At one point, Bong joked about using a “Texas Chainsaw” to chop up his directing Oscar and share the pieces with his co-nominees. That might be easier than upending ideas that have evolved over 100 years about the stories and characters worth valorizing.