Oscars 2020 Show Academy in State of Change

What is an “Oscar movie?” After Sunday it’s a suspense thriller from South Korea named Parasite.

The 92nd Academy Awards have passed into the history books and, fittingly, this year’s ceremony made significant breakthroughs that will be talked about for years to come. Going into the night, the odds-on favorite from office voting pools to Las Vegas casinos was Sam Mendes’ sterling, if somewhat traditional, World War I epic, 1917. Yet come the Oscars, it was Bong Joon-ho’s Korean thriller about income inequality, Parasite, that took home top prizes for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Parasite’s victory marked the first time a foreign language film won the Best Picture trophy.

And just like that, the idea of what an “Oscar movie” can be was forever changed, along with our understanding of the Academy.

“We never imagined this to happen, we are so happy,” producer Kwak Sin-ae said when she accepted Parasite’s Best Picture Oscar. “I feel a very opportune moment in history is happening right now.” Her speech was followed by the Hollywood gentry assembled in the Kodak Theatre chanting the name “Bong,” hoping to draw an already visibly astonished director back to the microphone. (He said earlier during his Best Director acceptance speech that “after winning Best International Feature, I thought I was done for the day and ready to relax.”)

It is a rare thing to see the underdog upset the apparent Best Picture frontrunner, and it’s taken much of the media coverage around the Oscars and the entertainment industry by surprise. But why are we so shocked that the untraditional pick won?

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To be sure, this year’s awards season brought renewed and justified criticism about a lack of diversity in who Academy voters choose to recognize. Five years after the “#OscarsSoWhite” hashtag was invented, only one person of color was nominated among the Academy’s 20 recognized acting contenders. And despite living in a time of great social upheaval after the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements began—in part due to egregious sexual abuse in the entertainment industry—the Academy’s collective directors wing still did not see any women worthy of being nominated among the year’s five best. This was all the more baffling given that the Academy specifically recognized Greta Gerwig’s Little Women for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and for several acting awards. The movie even went on to win Best Costume Design.

Hence the growing media (and social media) narrative that the Academy has not really changed despite an increasingly diverse membership. For even though great strides were made to build a more multicultural voting body with hundreds of new women and people of color being admitted in the last half-decade, the Academy remains over 80 percent white and over 65 percent male.

Still, it was a bit depressing, if unsurprising, that an industry wide whisper campaign began suggesting that 1917 is just another movie about white male violence. That is a reductive critique of Mendes’ war film in which the protagonists actively avoid confrontation and warfare in order to save lives. It also proved to be pointless, because 1917 and all the other white male-dominated films lost out to Parasite.

Undoubtedly, there will be some speculation that this was a political vote and a means to appease some viewers outraged by the year’s regressive nominations. But while there may be a kernel of truth to this, all Oscars are political and about how the industry sees itself in any given year. And for those paying attention, the Academy is seeing itself quite differently than it did five years ago.

Over at least the last half-decade, the Academy has generally drifted away from what we usually define as an “Oscar movie” or Oscar bait. Even that narrow perception of the type of movies Oscar honors is a relatively recent phenomenon. As we documented here, it wasn’t until Harvey Weinstein introduced the modern aggressive Oscar campaign that a very specific type of little-seen “bait” began leaping over studios’ epics and box office triumphs.

And things transitioned again over the last decade. This period arguably began when a Hollywood epic that was also a masterclass in populist storytelling, The Dark Knight, was snubbed for Best Picture in favor of another Weinstein-produced, and little seen, drama made to win Oscars: The Reader. As a consequence, ABC and the Academy made a utilitarian decision to increase the number of movies eligible to be nominated for Best Picture from five to 10 movies. This was a naked attempt to drive up viewership of the ceremony, but it also forced a more inclusive and diverse array of movies to be nominated.

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In the short-term that included token blockbusters getting Best Picture nominations, such as Christopher Nolan’s next film, Inception, but over time it has allowed a range of outside-the-box movies to be recognized. This includes more foreign language films like Amour and Roma, and more blockbuster and genre fare, such as the highly nominated Mad Max: Fury Road, Joker, and Get Out, and Best Picture winner The Shape of Water.

In fact, if you look at the last decade, beginning around 2015 with the deviously idiosyncratic Birdman, most of the Best Picture winners have been non-traditional choices. Birdman did the one-take illusion before 1917 and in a movie that actively indulged in narcissism while mocking modern Hollywood commercialism; Moonlight was a true indie and cinematic poem about the hardships faced by a young gay black man in America; The Shape of Water was a science fiction fantasy inspired by pulpy Universal Monsters horror in which a deaf woman bangs the Creature from the Black Lagoon; and now there’s Parasite.

The only exceptions in this pattern are Spotlight, a hardboiled and harrowing study of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s child abuse cover-up, and Green Book. The former is an old school muckraker drama in the vein of All the President’s Men that’s generally well liked by most viewers; the other was… well, Green Book. Which is to say Green Book is a feel-good movie about race in America told from the point-of-view of a white man who learns to be a little less racist by saving a black man on multiple occasions during a road trip. It’s undeniably entertaining as a buddy comedy, and it is also regressive in its white savior tropes, especially in a year that saw challenging films about race from actual black filmmakers, such as BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk.

While it is hard to fathom how the same voting body can give top honors to Moonlight, Parasite, The Shape of Water, and also Green Book in a handful of years, the latter is looking less and less like the conventional choice. Green Book still very much represents the classic Hollywood establishment pick for a movie about race, following in the footsteps of other non-challenging works like Driving Miss Daisy and The Help, but it also might just be the older guard of the Academy pushing back against the changing of the times.

The year that Green Book won, its closest competitor was Roma, another non-English nominee that couldn’t break that final ceiling like Parasite did. But Roma, as beautiful and ponderous as it is, was also a victim of its lethargic pacing. Meanwhile Parasite is svelte and propelled by an exciting, twisty narrative. Roma was also a Netflix film, which in retrospect has proven to be an even greater barrier for modern Academy voters than subtitles (just ask The Irishman which was nominated 10 times and lost them all).

While 2018 had other gems I adored, such as The Favourite, movies like that might be too sardonic and mean-spirited to pull a consensus vote from an Academy that usually favors aspiration. And nothing is more aspirational than Green Book showing how a few laughs on the road can apparently heal all differences. So yes, the movie was a throwback to traditional Oscar movies, but it is also an exception that proves the rule.

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And the rule is that the Academy is in a state of change. Eleven years ago, The Dark Knight couldn’t get a Best Picture nomination, now its heir apparent in Joker picked up nods there and in Best Director while winning Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix and Best Original Score. And it did so in a year that also saw offbeat selections like Taika Waititi’s Best Adapted Screenplay win for a comedy that involved an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler, and of course Parasite.

This occurred for no single reason, but a confluence of variables: a publicity conscious Academy, a more diverse and younger voting bloc than even a few years ago, and a larger acceptance of outside-the-box nominees in a broadened (and ultimately more interesting) field. It was unexpected, but shouldn’t really come as a surprise as the definition of what an Oscar movie is will always be in flux. So remember that next year when someone laments how the Oscars always pick the same type of movies. 

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of both the Critics Choice Association and the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.