How I learned to stop worrying and ... ahem ... love the Oscars’ best picture choice
I remember the last time my favorite movie won the Oscar for best picture.
It was a hot summer day, and I was playing with my grandfather in his garden. He gave me a can filled with DDT so I could spray his tomato plants, which, thinking back on it, was really kind of irresponsible of him. That stuff is dangerous! Then he put an orange slice in his mouth to make me laugh, but I didn’t like it. Actually, it really scared me! After that, he keeled over and died.
Hold on a minute ...
It has been so unbelievably long since a favorite movie of mine won the Oscar for best picture that the memory of the whole thing has become a little twisted. Now that I think about it, that was Anthony Corleone in the garden, not me. I did not gas my grandfather to death with pesticides, which, again, should not have been in the hands of a young child. (The Don spent his whole life trying not to be careless and then gives his grandson a leaky, metal can of poison? What was that about?)
But I do remember watching the Oscars that year, not when “The Godfather” won the motion picture academy’s top prize, but when Sacheen Littlefeather came onstage for Marlon Brando, declined to accept his Oscar for lead actor and regretfully, respectfully, told everyone in the room to stuff it.
That was a great Oscar moment. An all-timer. And, again, it happened in a year when the movie I would have gone to the mattresses for won best picture. (Only, I was a tot, far too young to actually see the film and understand why you would leave the gun but take the cannoli.)
Since then, sure, a couple of other favorites have prevailed. Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Maybe the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men,” though I’m more of a sucker for the sound and fury of Paul Thomas Anderson’s searing “There Will Be Blood.” Mark that a 1A/1B year, dude.
To adore “Moonlight” ... was to dismiss “La La Land.” A daring and sublime work of art ... became ... a white-savior movie that mansplained jazz.
Which brings us to this year and Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, “Parasite,” a movie I’ve been writing about since seeing it a second time at the Toronto International Film Festival and then, later, after downing three pints of Bong Joon Hops (love those peach accents) on a lazy weekday afternoon at the Alamo Drafthouse downtown, and then, I don’t know, you tell me, a dozen or more times after that. It’s all a blur. By this point in the Oscar season, I’ve entered a fifth dimension and, trust me, the pit of my fears is far greater than the summit of my knowledge.
I would love nothing more than to see “Parasite” win best picture. It’s superbly crafted, constantly surprising and speaks to societal inequities with equal measures of empathy and unsparing outrage. It’s a movie for the moment. It’s a movie that will stand the test of time.
“Parasite” would also be the first non-English-language movie to win the Oscars’ top honor, a long overdue acknowledgment from the academy that cinema is and has always been a global medium. The film academy used to make the ridiculous claim, year in and year out, that a billion people watched the Academy Awards ceremony. Yeah, sure. And a million people line Colorado Boulevard for the Rose Parade too.
But there was a purpose behind the Oscars’ audience embellishment. Everyone, everywhere, loves movies. And a historic victory for “Parasite” would perhaps prompt the uninitiated to, in the words of Bong, “overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles” and discover a whole new world of superb cinema.
But the pessimist in me fears that “Parasite” probably isn’t going to win best picture. And I’ve made my peace with that. I wrote about “Parasite.” I voted for it when it won best picture for my critics group, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., along with honors for Bong’s direction and supporting actor Song Kang Ho. It’s out of my hands.
But mostly, I’ve made my peace with it because we’ve reached that wretched point in the awards season when, for many zealots, supporting one movie requires them to hate, or at least find grievous fault with, every other film in its path — even if they enjoyed that movie when they first saw it.
If you loved “Black Panther” or “Roma” last year, then “Green Book” was an Evil That Must Not Be Named instead of what it was: a corny, crowd-pleasing, racially reversed “Driving Miss Daisy” boosted by the enormously entertaining performances of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
To adore “Moonlight” three years ago was to dismiss “La La Land,” a daring and sublime work of art that was celebrated ... until it became the Oscar front-runner. Then it was a white-savior movie that mansplained jazz.
This year’s race includes Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” movies made by treasured filmmakers working at the top of their craft, exploring and expanding themes that have long obsessed them.
Speaking at an Oscars-related event recently, I started offering a thought about “The Irishman,” noting that I had watched it a second time at home. And before I could finish, a woman in the audience shouted, “WHY?” It was perfectly timed and it made me laugh and it also pithily summarized a running complaint about both “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”
They’re too damn long!
But at least she didn’t accuse me of pretending to like the movie, as has been the case with Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” a film its detractors say has been championed only because it was directed by a woman. It couldn’t possibly be because it’s a daring, urgent and joyous interpretation of a great American classic, superbly realized enough that the National Society of Film Critics named Gerwig its best director.
No, that esteemed group was just pretending to love “Little Women,” its support calculated to ... I don’t know ... earn a discounted admission to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House?
To quote my dear, late, wholly imagined grandfather, Vito Corleone: “How did things ever get so far?”
So filter out the noise and just enjoy the Oscars. Brad Pitt’s going to deliver another great speech. Joaquin Phoenix will probably say something provocative. And maybe your favorite movie will win the night’s last award. I hope it does.
Even if it’s “Joker.”
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