Some surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant
The time between the end of the year and the end of the award season is pretty thin for new releases, and even more so this year. So, while we wait for some new 2020 movies, let’s take a look back at 2019 films through the lens of the Academy Awards, which were presented on Feb. 9. The Oscars get a lot of grief, much of it deserved, for being out of touch, fusty, or predictable. This season’s controversies focused on the underrepresentation of people of color in the acting categories (only one of 20 performances) and the complete absence of female directors. Nevertheless, the Academy Awards are still the bellwether for film achievement and worthy of analysis for trends in the industry and the artform.
Best Picture, Director: Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
A genuine surprise this year was Parasite winning Best Film, as well as Director, International Film, and Original Screenplay. Not only was the Korean comedy thriller the first foreign language film to win Best Picture in 92 years (read ever), the film is also distinctive for being an atypical choice regardless of the use of subtitles. Parasite boldly mixes genres; has a contemporary yet unfamiliar setting; is brutally honest about the disparities in capitalistic economies; and ends on a note of moral ambiguity. It is, in short, not the prototype uplifting melodrama that traditionally collects statuettes. The haul of Oscars and the rapturous reception that director Joon-ho received the night of the ceremony seem to hint of a shift. The recent expansion and diversification of Academy membership may be beginning to pay off in terms of diversity of nominees and winners, as well as subject matter and form. The lack of diversity in actors and the neglect of female directors, however, demonstrates that there is still a long way to go.
Best Actor and Actress: Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger
There was an air of inevitability about all four actor recipients, all of whom had racked up a number of previous award wins during the season. Conventional wisdom is that to win an acting trophy, the performance must involve one of the following: playing a real
person; playing a royal or a celebrity; or playing someone with an affliction or disability. Try to remember an acting winner in recent years who didn’t have one or several of those characteristics.
Phoenix won his first acting Oscar for Joker, the origin story for one of Batman’s most popular adversaries. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is not a garden-variety bad guy or even a sociopath, but instead is clearly, straight-forwardly mentally ill. It is a bold and strange choice to make a comic-book villain a sympathetic character. That sympathy makes the film’s violence all the more unsettling. I found the movie deeply disturbing, and Phoenix’s performance—though well played—was difficult to watch. I found Adam Driver’s acting in Marriage Story more compelling, but nevertheless, Phoenix has had a long and accomplished career. This award, like all of the acting wins, seemed like an acknowledgement of a body of work.
So too with Zellweger, who won for her portrayal of the actress-entertainer Judy Garland in Judy. Zellweger, the only acting winner this year with a previous Oscar (Cold Mountain, 2003), does not so much imitate Garland during a difficult period toward the end of the star’s life as she does capture her essence. Stripped of her wealth and celebrity by a lifetime of booze, drugs and bad choices, Zellweger’s Judy embodies the entertainer’s contradictions: fragility and determination, pizzazz on stage and pathos off. For Zellweger, who has been out of the limelight herself for a number of years, the verve of this performance was a welcome return, embraced by her movie colleagues. I would have given the statuette to her as well.
Best Supporting Actress and Actor: Laura Dern and Brad Pitt
Stunningly, neither Dern nor Pitt have ever won an Oscar, though both have been nominated. Dern finally won for playing a polished but manipulative divorce lawyer in Marriage Story. Although she has had stronger performances in other films, her work here is still worthy. Pitt, a winner for the role of Cliff in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was eminently worthy for this performance as well as many prior ones. His character, an underappreciated errand boy and friend to a washed-up TV cowboy (Leonardo DiCaprio), was fully realized, and corresponded well with Pitt’s relaxed, lived-in acting style. A great merging of character and performer.
Best Adapted and Original Screenplay: Jojo Rabbit and Parasite
Parasite’s final Oscar was for Original Screenplay, an obvious choice for the freshness of its perspective and mixing of genre. Jojo Rabbit was another unconventional film this year, telling the story of a young boy in wartime Germany whose imaginary best friend is Adolph Hitler (truly weird, but it works). New Zealand director and movie iconoclast Taika Waititi wrote the adapted screenplay from Christine Leunens’ novel, and he also directed the film and played the faux Fuhrer. Waititi also made Oscar history by being the first indigenous person to win a major Academy Award.
The general impression from this year’s ceremony is that the Academy appreciates the vital need for change in order to remain relevant in a rapidly-evolving industry. Some of the 2020 awards demonstrate an ability to adapt, but a more inclusive, representative tent in Hollywood is still a work in progress.