Oscars 2020: Parasite’s Best Picture win might have just saved the Academy Awards

Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the Oscars yet.

Ninety-two years ago, the Academy Awards was set up to champion bold, original and elite filmmaking. Last night it did exactly that as Parasite became the first non-English language Best Film in its history, besting 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It was the culmination of an oddball ceremony, the first genuinely enjoyable one in years, and by awarding this strange, sublime South Korean movie Best Picture – and not just Best International Feature Film, which it also picked up – the Oscars made itself unpredictable again. It comes not a moment too soon.

Parasite’s win is a worthy one. It’s a visceral social satire and black comedy, set in Seoul and following a poor family’s journey as they enter into an insidious relationship with a rich family who has everything. Parasite is the kind of movie that comes around once in a lifetime, embedding itself in the mind just as the title aptly hints. The Standard’s David Sexton was one of the critics to award the movie five stars, praising its “purposefulness, relevance, energy and impact”. As director Bong Joon-ho said at the Golden Globes: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” This win goes a long way to providing a leg-up over that barrier.

For all the critical adoration, few could have truly believed it would bag the biggest prize of them all: most fans likely expected a Roma Mk. II, where a win for Best International Feature Film (then Best Foreign Language Film) seemed to hamper its chances for Best Picture. Instead, Sam Mendes’s war epic 1917 was heavily fancied by the bookies and despite winning the Palme d’Or in the summer, Parasite’s win comes as one of the biggest surprises in Oscars history – something the awards badly needed.

Last night was shaping up to be a car crash of a year. There was a glaring lack of diversity in the list of nominations, with only one person of colour nominated in the acting categories. Natalie Portman also perfectly illustrated the lack of women filmmakers recognised this year on the red carpet by wearing a cape emblazoned with the name of the women snubbed in the Best Director category (though Portman’s protest didn’t extend as far as declining her invite).

The audience’s patience for the awards themselves has been waning for years too. The 2018 ratings were the lowest in a decade, and last year was only slightly better. It’s been six years since Ellen’s Oscars selfie in 2014. We haven’t had a moment which caught imaginations online like it since – and even then, it had more to do with glimpsing backstage, and less to do with the ceremony itself. While plenty of critics were still engaging and writing about the ceremony, it was nearly all negative. We ourselves ran a piece predicting the Oscars would let us down, while the New Yorker predicted a warped set of results and the Guardian ran a scathing piece about the lack of recognition for female directors.

Viewing figures have yet to be announced this year – but you sense more eyes will now be on the ceremony in 2021, with the Oscars already seeming a different proposition. The lack of diversity in the list of nominations cannot be overlooked, but Parasite is the most progressive choice the Academy could have made.

The win was the late highpoint – a last minute salvo in an otherwise mixed evening. The ceremony itself was stranger than ever and all the better for it – while it still felt rudderless without a host at times, it was packed with talking points. Janelle Monae opened the awards with a bang, performing her song Come Alive dressing as the May Queen from Midsommar and telling the room how proud she was to be opening the ceremony as a “black, queer artist telling stories”. Already, the Oscars had taken things up a notch.

There was a nice moment when Idina Menzel took to the stage with actresses and performers who had voiced Frozen’s Elsa in the film’s international releases, while later James Corden and Rebel Wilson turned up in Cats outfits, shamelessly lampooning their own disaster of a movie with a guest presenting spot. It was a far cry from the stuffy ceremonies of recent times.

There were some predictable winners. Heavy favourites Renee Zellwegger, Laura Dern and Joaquin Phoenix came out on top in Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor respectively, as everyone knew they would. But Taika Waititi’s status as one of the most original voices in Hollywood was recognised with a Best Adapted Screenplay win for Jojo Rabbit, beating Greta Gerwig’s excellent Little Women, even if the former divided audiences and critics. There was also an overdue win for Brad Pitt, who scooped the award for Best Supporting Actor – his first Oscar, unless you count the Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave.

But the climax of the night was undoubtedly Parasite’s victory, and it is a film worthy of making history. Of course, the win doesn’t excuse the lack of diversity in the nominations list this year, and the lack of women filmmakers being celebrated simply has to change. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the last time we had a surprise winner, 2017’s Moonlight, it was followed by two years of dull, unimaginative and unrepresentative choices. We won’t hold our breath just yet, but in a broad sense, the win made the outlook from last night’s ceremony one of hope and promise. The Oscars made itself an blockbuster event again – one that still has the power to shock and delight fans all over the world, regardless of what language they speak.

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