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What are the Oscars for?

| Friday, February 14, 2020

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

I thought this was going to be an angry column.

Of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture, I was very worried and very certain that “Ford vs Ferrari,” or “Marriage Story,” or “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” would win. It’s no secret the Oscars have struggled to capture audiences in recent years, due at least partially to awarding “arthouse” films that few casual moviegoers had seen. Last year, the Academy tried to get around that accusation, and in one of the more controversial moments in Oscars history, awarded Best Picture to “Green Book.”

“Green Book” is a good movie. It’s got a good cast. Good directing. A good story. It’s also probably the safest movie I’ve ever seen. It takes no risks. It never surprises you, and it never tries to. It is perhaps one of the more formulaic movies I have ever seen. And that is why its winning in 2019 generated such shock. Spike Lee, whose “BlacKKKlansman” was nominated, tried to storm out of the Dolby Theatre. Jordan Peele refused to applaud. Across entertainment publications, “Green Book” was hailed as the worst Best Picture winner in nearly 15 years.

I had a feeling, for some reason, that 2020 would see a repeat of this decision. “Ford vs Ferrari” and “Marriage Story” and “Hollywood” are all good movies. But there’s nothing groundbreaking about them. They rely mostly on big name actors and directors who have built up tremendous good will in previous outings and can afford to, at least occasionally, phone it in.

I thought any of those movies had more than a fighting chance to defeat Best Picture favorite and my own personal choice, “1917.” Sam Mendes’ World War I epic is an undeniable technical masterpiece. It uses the one-shot technique better than any movie I’d seen. It deserved to win — but I thought the Academy would play it safe again. And I thought I’d have to write an angry column.

So when “Parasite,” a low-budget South Korean film, was announced as the winner, I was a little more than surprised. I had heard of the movie, sure. I thought it was a lock for Best International Feature. But Best Picture? No way. Not with the Academy trying to appeal to a wider audience.

So then I got angry for a different reason. The Academy, I thought, had decided to go in the completely opposite direction. They wouldn’t give us a good, but safe pick. And they certainly wouldn’t give us the expected winner. Instead, they’d go for shock value — they would make “Parasite” the first international film to ever win the award, even if it was entirely undeserving.

But when the production team, cast and crew came up to receive the award, I was reminded of Bong Joon-ho’s Best Director (another surprise victory) acceptance speech that came just moments earlier. He said: “Thank you. After winning best international feature, I thought I was done for the day and was ready to relax. … When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that, ‘The most personal is the most creative.’ That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese. … When people in the U.S. were not familiar with my films, Quentin [Tarantino] always put my films on his list. He’s here, thank you so much. Quentin, I love you. And Todd [Phillips] and Sam [Mendes], great directors that I admire. If the Academy allows, I would like to get a Texas chainsaw, split the award into five and share it with all of you. Thank you. I will drink until next morning.”

It was very hard to be angry. Even if I thought Mendes deserved the award — the humility, the honesty, the humor with which Joon-ho conducted himself made it impossible to not be happy for “Parasite.” To see him accept the award in front of his heroes was perhaps the most endearing moment in recent Oscars memory.

And then I decided to watch his movie. “Parasite” is not the technical achievement “1917” is. Its cast boasts no American celebrities. It had a budget of just $11 million. It can’t really be placed in any classic genre; I can’t really give you a synopsis. It’s just a really, really good movie. A great movie. And that alone is what merits its victory at the Oscars. I realized that my pseudo-anger, my frustration with the Academy, was because I missed the point of the awards entirely. It’s not about awarding new styles or fancy camerawork. It’s not about funny hosts or political speeches. The Oscars is (at least supposed to be) about good movies. It’s about stories that make us laugh, or cry, or think or all of these. That’s where “Parasite” shines — and it does so more than any movie of 2019. I was wrong. But the Academy got it right.


Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American studies and classics and will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @PatKelves17 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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