A scattershot Oscars had some pleasant surprises: Review
It's Parasite's world, and we're just living in it.
The 2020 Academy Awards turned into a one-for-the-books hero’s journey for Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho. The wonderful filmmaker — once merely beloved by most South Korean moviegoers and some Americans with exquisite video-store taste — took the stage early Sunday evening to accept the Best Original Screenplay trophy. Then he was back for Best International Film, and again for Best Director. Finally he could only grin, anticipating a long night of celebratory drinks, when he won Best Picture with the whole Parasite team.
What a night for him — and for his perfect movie, which my critical colleague Leah Greenblatt declared her favorite film of 2019. Parasite is the first foreign film to ever take the top prize, and shoutout to EW’s Oscar experts David Canfield and Joey Nolfi, who called the victory when other prognosticators were worrying that 1917 would dominate. 1917 certainly is five pretty okay levels of Call of Duty, and though I try to set aside my own preferences with these awards ceremony reviews, I’d feel very different if the climactic Best Picture win didn’t feel so earned, so essential, so right.
Because this was a strange show, unhosted by anyone but anarchy, another Oscar show desperate to win back Oscar skeptics. Janelle Monáe must have agreed to perform the opening number on the condition of final-cut control over costuming. Her dancers paid stylistic homage to Us, Queen & Slim, and Dolemite Is My Name: movies that forefronted the African American experience, earned a collective zero nominations, and were uniformly better than 1917. Monáe proudly announced herself “a black queer artist” and promised: “We celebrate all the women who directed phenomenal films.”
That “we” did not, of course, include Academy voters. A brilliant artist begins the Oscars by spraying choreographic graffiti over the Oscars: Cool! But the Mr. Rogers prologue felt like leftover Billy Crystal schtick — and why were we making such a big deal of tipping our hats towards A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie that only earned one nomination? Ah, I see, Tom Hanks was elected this year’s Jack Nicholson/Meryl Streep/Denzel Washington archetype, the lovable icon in the front row! Fair enough; still random. Also, if we’re analyzing the cultural meaning of her dancers’ outfits, should we worry that Monáe might be a Joker bro?
Chris Rock and Steve Martin came out for a hit-or-miss joke parade, before introducing presenter Regina King. Lacking a single host, there must apparently be infinite introducers. Thus did Beanie Feldstein introduce Mindy Kaling. Thus did Kelly Marie Tran introduce Keanu Reeves and Diane Keaton, which is unfortunately still more than Tran got to do in Rise of Skywalker. George MacKay introduced Olivia Colman, making a joke about all the introducing. Anthony Ramos introduced Lin-Manuel Miranda, who introduced a montage introducing Eminem.
Wait. But first, I do understand the introducing instinct. The producers had to find some way to feature up-and-coming talent. (See also: Utkarsh Ambudkar, joking “I do not belong here” in his dangerously random mid-show rap recap.) Maybe they sensed a generational rift. The acting awards all felt like legacy prizes, overdue first Oscars for career achievers plus a comeback trophy for a past winner. Splendid to see the unsinkable Laura Dern use her Supporting Actress acceptance speech to salute her parents Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (the latter weeping in the crowd). Groovy that Brad Pitt won, even groovier that he knows Cliff Booth would be nothing without Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. Renée Zellweger and Joaquin Phoenix have thoughts: Confirmed.
Perhaps in counterbalance, certain elements seemed to be awkwardly straining for youth appeal. There was the plague of introducers. And the camera cut frequently to Billie Eilish, as if the promise of her eventual musical number would snare some teens. At least Eilish didn’t need to struggle through busy production design and overwrought choreography, issues that dogged the already-not-great Best Original Songs performed throughout the night.
There were other hiccups in the production that felt like problems somebody decided to invent. When nominees were announced, the camera would film the giant curved screen onstage, turning every name roll into a jumbled third-screen-experience. Just play consecutive clips from nominated movies, please. And all the acting categories came with a prologue hyperlinking the performances in increasingly ludicrous ways: Saoirse Ronan in Little Women saying “No one will forget Jo March,” followed by Zellweger pleading “You won’t forget me, will you?” in Judy. Just play consecutive clips from nominated movies, please.
And now I’m done complaining, because this year’s show was full of montages, and there’s nothing I love more at an Oscar ceremony than a random collection of cinematic moments. We had an ode to, um, Foreign Cinema: Truffaut, Fellini, was that freaking Amour, holy wow actual lines of dialogue from A Separation! There was the aforementioned video celebrating Famous Songs Written For Movies Wait Nevermind Just Cool Songs That Were In Movies: “Mrs. Robinson” from The Graduate, Michael Madsen dancing to “Stuck In The Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs, Bill Nunn blasting “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing, wow they’re really giving this clip from 8 Mile a lot of real estate, is that Eminem???? At one point the Oscars announcer promised “a special look at the timeless art of filmmaking,” and I just died. Thank god the look was special.
The speeches could be moving, and urgent. Hair Love director Matthew A. Cherry asked viewers to consider supporting the CROWN Act, and dedicated his Animated Short win to the late Kobe Bryant (whose Dear Basketball claimed the prize two years ago). American Factory co-director Julia Reichert, currently undergoing chemotherapy, quoted the Communist Manifesto in her acceptance speech for Best Documentary Feature: “We believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite.” Pitt had a nice line about how the time limit for his speech was “45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week.” Political stuff, but you sensed a fear of naming names. Surely I’m not the only person disappointed that Jane Fonda kept her Best Picture presentation, well, presentable. (Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger are pro-commonality: Confirmed.)
Meanwhile, Donald Sylvester choked me up in his Sound Editing speech by noting that Ford v Ferrari was “probably the last film ever made by 20th Century Fox.” That studio was purchased by Disney, which is why Disney can technically claim four victories from the night: Two for FvF, one for Fox Searchlight’s Jojo Rabbit, and only one for a full-fledged Disney product, Toy Story 4. The latter was one of seven 2019 Disney films that grossed a billion dollars, an unthinkably massive demonstration of box office power didn’t lead to much prize glory on Sunday.
Which is quite right on qualitative grounds! Still, there was a slight head-in-the-sand quality to this year’s ceremony. You felt like, so long as nobody mentioned Disney or comic books or cinematic universes, we could all inhabit this happy reality where an original contemporary foreign film about class consciousness is a megablockbuster, and everyone is very much in favor of female directors no matter what the Best Director lineup looks like, and the presenters are very diverse even if the nominees aren’t. Late in the show, Brie Larson and Gal Gadot presented with Sigourney Weaver — Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman hanging out with Ellen Ripley! — which led, I believe, to the only mention of superheroes all night. (And Weaver’s statement that “All women are superheroes” felt too canned; I preferred Gadot’s lacerating line about being asked “how it feels to be a woman in Hollywood.”)
I guess what I’m saying is: The 2020 Oscars embraced a slightly hermetic quality. Understandable, maybe, with (by my count) five masterpieces nominated for Best Picture. Beyond Parasite, wins spread around Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Little Women, and Marriage Story. Scorsese received enough goodwill to counterbalance a winless night for Irishman.
Meanwhile, Olivia Colman noted that her Best Actress win last year turned into “The best night of my husband’s life.” (“I’ve given birth three times,” she elaborated.) James Corden and Rebel Wilson gave us the last Cats joke anyone ever needs, swearing that “nobody understands more than us the importance of good visual effects.” Cynthia Erivo offered the camera a knowing gaze at the end of her “Stand Up” performance. You caught the telepathic-missile message: She’ll be back.
Also, yes: Eminem rapped. Why? Why not? There must have been so many other important things to do: longer speeches, better apologies, perhaps a sensitive montage about Good Production Design in Cinema? When Eminem arrived, the camera cut to Idina Menzel looking baffled. I was right there with her. And yet, I was also right there with Anthony Ramos, rapping along, remembering how to rhyme “Pied Piper” with “Mekhi Phifer.” The 2020 Oscars were a bit of a shambles, and we can definitely lose all the introducers next year. But the last hour had the quality of a well-deserved coronation. Four wins for Parasite? I was so happy that I lost myself. Grade: B+