Oscar Beat: How ‘Parasite’ Won Best Picture

     February 10, 2020

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Many hoped it would happen, but few thought it actually would. Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Parasite steamrolled the Oscars last night, winning Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature, Best Director, and of course Best Picture. It became the first-ever foreign language film to take the top Oscars prize, and flew in the face of statistics and precursor awards that had pegged 1917 the safe bet to take Best Picture and Best Director. So how did this happen? How did the best film of the year actually win Best Picture at the Oscars?

The simple answer is Parasite is a great movie that was easy to love. This masterfully crafted story of social immobility and wealth disparity plays more like a darkly comic thriller than a dramatic lecture, and it’s this meticulous command of genre that makes Bong one of the best directors working today. Parasite is no one-off—he’s been threading social commentary into entertaining, even spectacle-driven films like The Host and Snowpiercer for years. But Parasite is his most assured effort yet, and one that Academy voters enthusiastically recommended to one another throughout the season.

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Image via Neon/CJ Entertainment

Last year’s Roma was used as an example of why Parasite couldn’t win Best Picture, but these are two very different kinds of films. Similar only in that neither one is in English. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is a slow-burn, muted drama. It’s emotionally powerful, but it’s a sit. I still wonder how many Oscar voters actually saw Cuaron’s Spanish-language drama last year, and indeed while Cuaron won Best Director, last year’s top prize went to a more traditionally crafted film (we’ll get to that one in a minute).

Parasite, meanwhile, is a complete and total blast. The first half of the film plays like a con artist comedy almost, roping the audience into the enthralling maneuverings of the Kim family. Twists and turns abound, and while the film remains entertaining throughout, Bong threads emotional devastation into the final act to drill down class divisions and the myth of social mobility. It’s hauntingly beautiful, and somehow feels right in step with the rest of the movie. And it’s this easy handle on tone, and “entertainment” factor, that I think spurred many Oscar voters to actually watch this one. Which they clearly ultimately enjoyed.

But again, like, how did this film win Best Picture? Only last year, the top prize went to Green Book, a problematic dramedy about race in America as told from the point of view of a white, racist driver. It seemed to signal that despite efforts to diversify its voting body, the Academy was still predominantly white, old, and male. In effect, that shocking Moonlight win in 2016? It was a fluke.

Except maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Green Book was the fluke. Parasite upended pretty much every statistic that Oscar prognosticators use to predict what’s going to win Best Picture. 11 of the last 13 winners of the PGA award have gone on to score Best Picture at the Oscars. 1917 took that this year. 17 of the last 18 winners of the DGA award have gone on to win Best Director at the Oscars—it’s considered one of the most reliable predictors every year—and yet Sam Mendes took the DGA this year, but Bong Joon-ho won the Best Director Oscar. If you followed the stats this year, you were dead wrong.

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Image via Neon/CJ Entertainment

Moonlight similarly upended what your traditional Best Picture winner looks like, not just because it was a small-budget coming-of-age story of a gay black man, but because it too was the underdog heading into Oscars night. La La Land had won the PGA and was considered the frontrunner. Moonlight ended up winning Best Picture with only two other prizes, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Parasite went one better, scoring four Oscars in total, but it’s another sign that the days of a movie like Return of the King or Titanic winning double-digit Oscars are likely over.

The 8,469 individuals who make up the Academy prove that it’s not a monolith, and efforts to diversify the voting body may have made it unlike any other voting body out there. Which would explain why the PGAs, DGAs, and even the Golden Globes seem to be clinging to the more traditional movies—in this year’s case, the solid World War I dramatic thriller 1917—while the Academy had the guts to go for Parasite.

I’ll be curious to see what happens next year. Will I write another one of these convincing myself Parasite and Moonlight actually were flukes all along? Will the Academy go back to making safe picks, or are all bets off in terms of prognostications? Honestly, right now I don’t really care. Parasite’s wins were genuinely historical, Bong and his cast and crew could not have been more gracious, and it’s nice to see a legitimate masterpiece win Best Picture once in a while.

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