Remember last year when I thought that maybe, just maybe, the movie that won the international feature Oscar would go on to make history and become the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for best picture?
That prediction didn’t turn out so well. But perhaps all the attention “Roma” received paved the way for “Parasite” to triumph this year. Probably not. But since “Parasite,” a darkly funny, genre-bending roller coaster ride, is a more accessible film than “Roma,” and since we’re still at the point where we can wish for good things from the Oscars, I’ll hold onto a measure of hope before that final envelope is opened on Feb. 9.
In the meantime, here’s a look at the races for documentary, animated feature and international film.
“Pain and Glory”
I belong to the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and when we vote, we choose best picture first and then select a winner for foreign-language feature. And, inevitably, if we give our best picture prize to an international film, as we did with “Parasite” this year, we reward a second superb film in the foreign-language category. (“Pain and Glory” won that LAFCA honor this year.)
Certainly, I can’t expect the film academy to match our, ahem, vision and taste. And, of course, Oscar voters don’t gather together in a room (though a balloting party sounds kind of fun) with a tacit understanding that spreading the love is a good thing. Oscar balloting is a solitary exercise, done, these days, predominantly online — provided voters can remember their passwords.
As two of the year’s very best movies come from overseas, I can’t help but wish that the academy found a way to honor both Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” as LAFCA did. Then again, it wasn’t that long ago (though it feels like about a decade) when I worried that “Parasite” wouldn’t win any Oscars. Maybe I should just zip it and take this gimme for Bong’s dark masterpiece.
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”
“I Lost My Body”
“Toy Story 4"
Winner: “Toy Story 4"
Jérémy Clapin’s inventive “I Lost My Body,” which follows a severed hand looking to reunite with its host, has won a clutch of critics group prizes since premiering at Cannes last year. But it didn’t pick up a nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, a bad sign as no animated feature has won the Oscar without that precursor. Some academy members have told me they find it nauseating — I’m guessing the ending of “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” didn’t sit well with them either — and it’s likely too weird to win.
Truth be told, “Toy Story 4" was kind of strange too, what with the sweetly grotesque Forky, that creepy baby doll Gabby Gabby with her army of speechless ventriloquist dummies and our hero Woody suffering through an existential crisis. It wasn’t necessary, but it didn’t sully the storied franchise, which is about the best we can hope for these days when it comes to sequels.
“The Edge of Democracy”
Winner: “American Factory”
Documentary branch voters have to power through a lot of movies. Going by what they’ve nominated — and, more precisely, what they haven’t — this is a serious-minded bunch, more inclined to reward topical movies than documentaries that have caught on with the public.
Last year, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers” were overlooked. “Apollo 11,” a thrilling, magnificent movie about the spaceflight that first put men on the moon, didn’t make the cut this year.
But now that voting is open to the entire academy membership, the category becomes more of a popularity contest. The heart-stopping, widely seen climbing movie “Free Solo” prevailed last year, the latest in a line of publicly feted documentaries to win this Oscar.
This year’s class, though, lacks a popular favorite. “American Factory” and “The Edge of Democracy” aired on Netflix, and the other three haven’t cracked $1 million at the box office. (They’re all worth watching.)
As the Netflix titles are easier to access, I’d imagine that “American Factory,” a revealing look at the culture clashes at an American automotive factory acquired by a Chinese industrialist, is the favorite. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s movie is an even-handed, eye-opening look at the evolution of labor issues told with empathy. It’s sobering and humane and essential.