The two foreign language films that I know of in the era I’ve been covering the Oscar race that came close to winning Best Picture were Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in the era of the five nominee ballot, and Roma, in the era of the preferential ballot. Both were split years at the Oscars, meaning one film won Best Picture and a different film won Best Director.
The first thing to consider before we look at the stats is the macro view of the Oscars themselves. Why else wouldn’t a foreign language film win Best Picture, besides that it has its own category? Well, think about what the Oscars are. They are an awards body invented to promote and drive profits for the American studio system. While it’s true that cinema is becoming much more international (and our products make the most money when exported to other countries, especially South Korea and China), the people who vote on the Oscars primarily work in the film industry that built Hollywood and keeps it afloat. That financial factor was either once or is presently their bread and butter.
Why even have a foreign language category at all if the objective is to obliterate that dividing line? Is it unfair to films like Crouching Tiger, Roma or Parasite to be “ghettoized,” as some believe, in the foreign language category, or does it give them an unfair advantage against the other films in the International Feature category since it automatically amounts to a win? Will voters say yes, it’s the best film made of all of these films from other countries — but not only that, it’s also the best film of any film made in the Hollywood studio system (which isn’t just about the five families anymore but can also now include streaming platforms or independent studios, though all still feed into the same talent pool at the end of the day)?
To take a year like this one and hand Best Picture to a film made outside that system is to admit that even in one of the best possible years for American films, Hollywood can’t surpass a film made outside this country. And indeed it has sort of been moving in that direction, as the majority of Best Director winners since 2009 have been directors who came from other countries, who learned how to make movies outside the American studio system:
2010 — Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
2011 — Michel Hazavicious, The Artist
2012 — Ang Lee, Life of Pi
2013 — Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
2014 — Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
2015 — Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
2016 — Damien Chazelle, La La Land
2017 — Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
2018 — Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
For the most part, these films that won Best Director did not also win Best Picture. The only one of these that didn’t win the DGA was Ang Lee for Life of Pi, because Ben Affleck won it for Argo.
But moving back to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was a much bigger movie that Parasite (in terms of box office) and just as beloved, so much so that I predicted it to WIN Best Picture: Crouching Tiger did not have the same number of guild awards as Parasite does now.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:
10 Oscar nominations, including Director + Screenplay + Editing
Golden Globe — Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film
Five Oscar nominations, including Director + Screenplay + Acting + Editing
WGA Adapted Screenplay
12 Oscar nominations, including Director + Screenplay + Acting + Editing
Golden Globe — Best Film (Drama)
End result: Gladiator — Best Picture + Best Actor, Traffic — Best Director + Best Adapted Screenplay, Crouching Tiger — Best Foreign Language Film
For the Roma year, it went like this:
Result: Green Book — Best Picture + Best Supporting Actor + Best Original Screenplay, Roma — Best Director + Best Foreign Language Film
After winning the WGA and the ADG last night, Parasite has won enough guild awards now to be considered a very strong contender to win Best Picture. It can’t be underestimated that Parasite has done what no other foreign language or international film has done when it won the ACE Eddie, the SAG ensemble, and the WGA. That is, historically speaking, a very very big deal.
Five Oscar nominations, including Director + Screenplay + Editing
ACE Eddies (beat The Irishman, Joker in Drama)
Art Directors Guild — Contemporary Film (no competition in the Oscar race)
SAG ensemble (beat The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit)
WGA Original Screenplay (beat Marriage Story, 1917)
Six Oscar nominations, including Screenplay + Acting + Editing
ACE Eddies (beat Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Comedy)
WGA Adapted Screenplay (beat Little Women, The Irishman, Joker)
Costume Designers Guild — Period Film (beat Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
10 Oscar nominations, including Directing + Screenplay
PGA (beat Parasite, Jojo Rabbit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, Joker, Ford v Ferrari, Marriage Story, Little Women)
DGA (beat Parasite, Jojo Rabbit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman)
ASC (beat Ford v Ferrari, Irishman, Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
MPSE (shared with Ford v Ferrari)
All guilds don’t carry the same weight in the era of the preferential ballot, and our previous beliefs about guild prerequisites have been adjusted. But we’ve also seen strange one-off combinations in the era of the preferential ballot.
Globe Film (Drama) + WGA + Best Picture
SAG ensemble + WGA + Best Picture
In general, though, the PGA and the DGA have ruled.
So then you wonder about those two categories at the Oscars. Why have a separate category at all if a film like that is so much bigger — and why would it be in both? Shouldn’t the Academy decide it should be in one or the other? Maybe?
Like Animated and Documentary features, they are films that represent a portion of the Academy — actors, writers, directors, producers — made their careers on. And indeed, marginalized groups — Asian filmmakers, black filmmakers, female filmmakers — are likewise by and large not as represented as the white male filmmakers are.
Things are really changing — and they’re changing fast. Does Hollywood want to batten down the hatches and protect what has been traditionally their bread and butter? The studio system, the film industry? Or are they ready to simply say — you know what? Screw it. Let’s just open it wider and anything goes. Streaming goes, international film goes — let’s be a global enterprise instead of a local (national) one.
The problem with Parasite, and with Roma last year, is that forcing the Academy to change because fans or critics want them to might not produce the desired result. I say that as someone who has spent a very long time trying to do just that.
Because we live in a climate fueled by online tribalism and shaming, however, this can’t be simply about survival of an industry. It has to be turned into questions of xenophobia and unfairness, because that is what it has to be about. If anything but Parasite wins Best Picture, the same thing that happened last year will likely happen this year: admonishments like Justin Chang’s in the LA Times, whose post Oscar column last year when Green Book won was “Green Book is the Worst Best Picture Winner Since Crash.”
He has already warned the Academy this year with his piece, “The Oscars Need Parasite More Than Parasite Needs the Oscars.” and if Parasite doesn’t win — will there be a scathing follow-up piece? Probably. Does that matter? Probably not. People have been complaining about the Academy forever and they’re largely immune to it. It is what it is.
By the way. Chang admitted to me on Twitter that Roma wasn’t even his top choice. If it wasn’t Green Book, it should have been something better, like Black Panther or BlacKkKlansman. Unfortunately, the critics did not back these films — they backed Roma 100%, giving the Academy basically two choices: the PGA winner or the DGA winner, which was a “foreign language” film.
Parasite might score a historic victory, and it’s certainly a film that can stand alongside the best of the Best Picture winnners. But if it wins the top honor, I’m pretty sure part of the reason will be an effort by some voters to avoid criticism of not awarding a foreign language film last year. Remember, the Academy changed the category name this year to “Best International Feature,” in part to erase that imposed shame — and by conceding that the word “foreign” as something “other” was inappropriate when the Academy membership itself had so many new international voters. Because we can’t really change the xenophobic place America has actually become under Trump, we keep finding news way to project a more perfect image.
I can promise you that just because a film wins Best Picture in a given year, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything has really changed. It just means a precedent has been knocked down. It will also make a lot of people feel good for a little while. But just ask Halle Berry if her winning Best Actress in 2001 as the first (and still only) black woman to win in the category in 92 years really changed anything.
No, I think the reason Parasite might win — other than it being a great movie — is its hard hitting socio-political message. There is a reason Parasite, Jojo Rabbit, and 1917 are rising above the other films RIGHT NOW. They remind us who we are, what we fight for every day. Parasite is about the trap we are born into and can’t escape. Jojo Rabbit is about being freed from the trap and celebrating that freedom. 1917 is about surviving the trap of humanity’s brutality against itself. These are all great movies. Any of them is worthy of a Best Picture win.