On Sunday night, you may have heard, Parasite made history — as the first Korean film to win an Oscar, the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, the first title for indie distributor Neon to go all the way. The film went in as the underdog, the culmination of its fairy-tale awards season, but EW set its sights on the history-making moment, having spoken with voters entranced by the film and, over months, attended event after event in Hollywood where it felt like all anyone wanted to talk about was the genius of Bong Joon Ho. And so most surprising, perhaps, is not that Parasite won the big award, ultimately, but that it dominated. In fact, it’s the first Best Picture winner in five years to sweep across Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
This underlines a fundamental shift in the Academy, which has diversified considerably in recent years, particularly among international voters. Parasite’s victory will and should be compared to Moonlight, another upset that didn’t have guild prizes to foretell success, exactly, only an extraordinarily worthy candidacy with the potential to change the way we think about who the Academy Awards are for, and what they could mean. But by winning where it counts again and again, beating Quentin Tarantino for writing and Sam Mendes for directing — the heavyweight contenders that, most years, would walk away with the thing — Bong proved this body of voters could take things a step further. He got to flex a little.
Since the fall, we’ve seen icons Renée Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, and Laura Dern take the stage again and again, reflecting on their decades in the business. They spoke candidly of their careers, sometimes obliquely referencing their darker days in the business — Zellweger almost taken aback by the first major embrace on the trail, at the Golden Globes, or Phoenix reflecting on being given a second chance at the Oscars — but more frequently, marveling at how many people in every room they’d worked with, how many movies they’d made together, and why this felt like just the right time for their big moment. Dern bringing her mother, actress Diane Ladd, to tears in the Dolby Theatre as she paid her tribute on stage felt like the best kind of culmination to this theme, a signifier of Hollywood’s enduring glory.
Over the course of this curiously condensed awards season, the industry veered between its most nostalgic self and its most radical. The slate of near-entirely white acting nominees was plainly unacceptable, if sadly predictable. And yes, a genre-bending Korean-language thriller confronting the realities of class with bloody intensity doesn’t quite scream “Oscar bait.” Make no mistake, this was no political vote (Parasite is beloved), but the choice, inevitably, speaks volumes. Especially just a year after roughly this exact same group named Green Book the best movie of 2018 — certainly the most conservative and, to many, the most regressive pick they’d made in awhile — the Academy proved they could take a definitive, if hardly irreversible, step toward relevancy.
Indeed, this wasn’t just a Cannes-born arthouse sensation beating Oscar champs like Mendes and Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Three-year-old Neon, whose best-known mainstream success was previously I, Tonya, slayed the studio behemoths of Netflix (The Irishman, Marriage Story) and Universal (1917), who threw every dollar they could into the campaigns of their worthy, handsomely mounted contenders. Moonlight marked a similar triumph for A24, but the savvy company had already emerged as a major upstart in the game, having won trophies for Best Actress (Brie Larson, Room) and Documentary (Amy) the year before. Plus, the unknown Netflix factor this cycle — remember when they were going to run the table? — had some wondering whether smaller companies could have a place at all here going forward. No one could beat them in campaign flourish, that’s for sure.
Netflix only winning two awards — Laura Dern, for Marriage Story but really for a lot more, and American Factory, backed by the Obamas — despite their bevy of worthy nominees speaks to the streamer’s continued difficulties in this space. The Academy disproved a great deal of the conventional wisdom surrounding them this year. They did not quiet any murmurs that there remains reluctance around welcoming Netflix, fully, as a serious player. I wouldn’t compare the phenomenon around Parasite to that of Roma, Netflix’s 2018 darling, but it’s worth noting that while the latter got very close — a leading nominations tally, recognition for two of its previously-unknown (to U.S. audiences at least) actors, unmatched critical acclaim — Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexican drama could not go all the way.
What we love and hate about the Oscars is that, now, things reset. Coming off a year like Green Book’s, the tradition can be cleansing, relieving, the necessary opportunity for a do-over. This moment, conversely, feels exhilarating. The Academy has done something it has never done before. And the fact that some of us saw it coming? Here’s an affirmation that, even as they can still profoundly disappoint and stay out of step with the times, the Oscars are changing. They’re worth putting a little faith in. Remember that in a few months, when we get started all over again.