Sometimes good things happen

Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

This was supposed to be 1917’s night, but I came in with a sneaking suspicion. A suspicion that there would be, well, not quite an upset, but the Academy would go a different direction, that they would give 1917 its due in technical awards – which they didn’t – but that for Best Director and Picture, they would go for something with more soul, something that spoke to them on a deeper level, something that would surprise everyone.

I thought they’d give Best Director and Picture to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

1917 was the favorite, but that would be the Hollywood thing to do, pass up a better movie for one that’s more romantic about Hollywood itself. You could spend the few week interval between nomination announcements and the actual ceremony talking up about how director Quentin Tarantino is “due,” it’d be fine. It’d be a shock to draw viewers, a nice surprise for Tarantino fans and the Academy would get what it wanted anyway. It’s something Parasite director Bong Joon Ho said as he lay the groundwork for his inevitably winning Best International Picture and nothing else – “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.”

I’ve never really cared about the Academy. Sure, it’s objectively important what they choose, but like critics and audiences, filmmakers have completely different ideas about what makes movies good, and I’m quite alienated from all three of these groups anyway. I’ve stayed angry about sequential Best Actor snubs for Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Keaton and Michael Fassbender as they turned in lifetime performances in The Wolf of Wall Street, Birdman and Steve Jobs – and no, DiCaprio getting his “due” afterward doesn’t make up for it, that was Fassbender’s year.

Because of the way Academy voting is set up, movies that earn more nominations are at a heavy advantage on awards night itself, and the most-nominated movie does win Best Picture at a staggering rate historically, though it hasn’t played out this way as often in recent years. 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and Joker each earned 10 or more nominations, indicating they would split the lion’s share of the awards between them. They’re all wonderful movies, even if some are more flawed than others, so I came into the 92nd ceremony with a handful of strong downballot preferences, but mostly just confident that there wouldn’t be another travesty.

Image courtesy Neon.

I saw the black and white version of Parasite earlier in the weekend, and I guess now’s as good a time as any to talk about that. As with all black and white conversions, it’s a strange effect. Outside of a couple of bloody moments, the film doesn’t use much demonstrative color, but I only really noticed it was missing in the shot when Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) ascends the stairs to the Park family’s yard for the first time. The clear blue sky and rich, manicured green lawn are a sudden burst of natural beauty in the color version, which has been mired in subterranean Seoul slums to this point.

The film doesn’t often use color demonstratively, but it makes heavy symbolic use of bright light and deep shadow, and in black and white, bright light and deep shadow essentially take over color’s visual role. This scene of Kim ascending to the Park’s home, instead of being colorful and beautiful the way we would think of an upper-class home, is almost blindingly bright. Instead of the sudden serenity of a bright green lawn, we see a house that is still clearly part of the impoverished world we’ve been introduced to, just closer to the sun and almost malevolently clean.

Watching Parasite in black and white feels a lot like seeing it for the first time again. The black and white grading makes the first leg feel much more like a film noir, and the film’s constant shifts in genre all feel much more potent. Everything about it is much more sinister and somehow even less predictable.

I’ve never really cared about the Academy, but I was hooting and hollering like a wild man with every win for Bong and Parasite. Best International Picture was a lock and my outside hope was for it to win Best Editing – actual Best Editing victor Ford v Ferrari’s two-win night was probably the biggest expression of typical Academy biases of the evening.

But Parasite’s major wins at the end of the night were everything. They were a shock to draw viewers, and the hardcore cinephiles got what we wanted.

It’s tough to quantify why this means so much. There are so many reasons, but none of them capture the whole truth. This is obviously the first non-English feature to win the award, and while there are plenty of people who are saying “finally” on that topic now, it’s like Bong was already saying. The Oscars are fundamentally a local awards festival, and expecting them to be otherwise kind of misses the point. That’s why the side category Best Foreign Language, now Best International Film, exists – because the main goal was always to celebrate local film.

It’s not a matter of representation, though it was fun to watch Twitter racists get progressively more mad about it after Bong’s first win for Original Screenplay early in the evening. There’s been a lot of noise in recent years about nominating more actors of color and particularly this year about nominating more women directors, but that’s not how representation works. It’s not good enough to cram diverse nominations into year-end awards after another year of overwhelmingly white and male-directed movies. I don’t want a pity nomination for Greta Gerwig, I want more women in the director’s chair over the course of full years – and, incrementally, that’s happening.

It’s not even a matter of “the Academy finally getting it right,” because the best picture of a given year is still always up for debate. I think there’s still a lot more attention that needs to be paid to Ad Astra and The Current War, but those are just my pet causes.

Parasite is now written in stone. In gold. There will be no grumbling years from now over it not being recognized. “The best movie of the year” may always be up for debate, but Best Picture is not. The Academy, no matter how bad most of its decisions look in hindsight, no matter what the box office and Rotten Tomatoes scores and cross-referenced top 10 lists may indicate, has the last word here.

For 2019, the last word is Parasite, and it always will be.

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