The trail that Parasite blazed ought to have been trod sooner…
The 2020 Oscars featured the groundbreaking success of Bong Joon-Ho’s movie Parasite, marking the first time the winner of Best International Feature Film also won Best Picture.
Since the Academy began recognising foreign-language films in the 1950s, the winner of the international category has only been nominated for Best Picture six times – that’s six times out of 70!
It seems clear that Parasite‘s milestone ought to have been reached long ago, and perhaps many times over – and might have done were it not for the “one-inch barrier”, as Joon-ho refers to subtitles.
So, to redress this (admittedly insignificant) slight upon the international filmmaking community, International Oscar Showdown compares each year’s best film with its best foreign-language film to identify which ones unjustly lost out.
Hollywood 6 – 5 International
Last updated: 20/10/2020
2009 – Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
Winning eight awards on the night, Slumdog Millionaire was one of the most successful movies in Oscars history. Teeming with Indian talent, culture and source material, it’s also the most recognition Bollywood has ever garnered from the Academy, after decades of disappointment attempting to break into the Best Foreign-Language Film category.
Against it is Japanese film Departures, a sweet and solemn comedy-drama about death, shame, pride and respect. With a masterfully handled tone somewhere between fish-out-of-water high-jinx and a sombre reflection of grief, the movie has you laughing one moment and regretting it the next.
2010 – The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
The Hurt Locker was a hit among audiences and critics alike, blending nail-biting suspense and gritty action with a troubled heroism that drove the plot. And its director, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first woman (and lamentably only woman as of 2020) to win Best Director. But its message of patriotism is a muddled one, and Iraq War veterans were displeased with the unprofessionalism of its protagonist in a film that purported to be as realistic as possible.
Up against it should have been The Secret In Their Eyes, an Argentinian crime thriller based predominantly in the 1970s during the rise of President Isabel Perón and the ensuing Dirty War, which saw tens of thousands of left-leaning activists and civilians arrested and killed. Part judicial procedure movie, part romantic melodrama, part political allegory, the film became one of Argentina’s most successful movies ever.
2011 – The King’s Speech vs In A Better World
Cynics will suggest the Academy played it safe when awarding The King’s Speech with Best Picture – it features British acting stalwarts playing British royalty, an unlikely underdog, and a backdrop of looming war with Nazi Germany. It doesn’t ask too much of its audience, but nor does it evoke much emotion – it’s just a good film, with a fascinating true story.
On the other end of the spectrum is the entirely fictional melodrama In A Better World, a Danish film about violence and pacifism, and how we teach the innocent to reject confrontation whenever possible. Set mostly in Denmark, the film also follows one of its main characters to an African aid camp, where the theme of revenge is explored to within an inch of its life. It’s a belting drama, but is it too contrived to win the showdown for the international filmmakers?
2012 – The Artist vs A Separation
For the sake of the series, we’ll consider The Artist an English-language film, despite it only including a dozen words of spoken dialogue and having been produced by French filmmakers. The pastiche of silent cinema was lauded by critics and was practically a shoe-in for Best Picture in 2012, which isn’t too surprising considering it glorifies Hollywood(land) with palpable admiration.
Up against it in 2012’s International Oscar Showdown was Iranian film A Separation – the first film from Iran to win Best Foreign-Language Film. Its director, Asghar Farhadi, would go on to win again for Iran in 2017, with The Salesman, and both pieces portray a complex drama in religiously conservative Iran in which no single character is evil or entirely at fault. They are ethical muddles, and rich with tension – a remarkable achievement considering the nation’s overbearing censorship laws, which have landed many an Iranian filmmaker in jail.
2013 – Argo vs Amour
Hollywood picked Hollywood-saves-the-day for its Best Picture award in 2013. Argo was Ben Affleck’s crack at a lofty thriller, in which a fake movie production is put on by the CIA to extricate six stranded Americans in the Canadian embassy in Tehran. One of the more forgettable Best Picture winners of the last few decades, it has its good moments, and its uninspiring ones, but did it do enough to beat its Foreign-Language peer?
Up against it was French film Amour, one of the few international films to get a nomination for the top gong. This heartbreaking drama sees a woman suffer a stroke while her partner of 50 years struggles to cope with her deteriorating health. It’s a small film, shot almost entirely in one apartment, but the characters are so brilliantly portrayed, and their chemistry effortlessly believable that the two-hour running time is a surprise rather than a chore.
2014 – 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
The Academy ended its three-year run of handing Best Picture to films that featured acting as a heroic pursuit (only to reinstate the trend the following year for Birdman) and gave it to a gruelling depiction of slavery in pre-civil-war America, 12 Years A Slave. Its director, Steve McQueen, presented a harrowing indictment of a cruel system, but fell short of casting slave owners as universally evil, which we might have found more comfortable to watch. The result is a gruelling two hours of torture and dashed hopes.
On the other end of the spectrum, Best Foreign Language Film was awarded to The Great Beauty, an Italian movie about a hedonistic art critic, who spends most of his time at parties, preposterous art installations and strip clubs, as he mourns the loss of his youthful creativity. It is a strange film, beautifully shot if perplexingly avant-garde, with a charismatic lead playing second fiddle to the film’s most overbearing character of all: Rome itself.
2015 – Birdman vs Ida
After its brief foray with the more heady stuff in 2014, the Academy returned to form with Birdman, a film by actors, for actors, about actors. With an underlying concept that pits meaningful art against blockbuster thrills, the film is as self-deprecating as it is wildly self-absorbed, but delivered with perfect comic timing and excellent performances.
Almost in direct juxtaposition was Foreign Language Film winner Ida, a black and white movie from Poland exploring the fallout of the Holocaust. Filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio, with extremely stylised cinematography that persistently emphasises negative space, Ida is a slow-paced drama about a nun who discovers she had Jewish parents, murdered by Polish peasants at the behest of the Nazis. Featuring a supporting character who is more interesting than the lead, Ida is a poignant little film.
2016 – Spotlight vs Son of Saul
The most dauntingly serious match-up of the International Oscar Showdown was undoubtedly 2016’s, in which the sexual predation of children among Catholic priests was up against the single most horrifying depiction of the Holocaust I’ve ever witnessed.
Spotlight was an interesting pick for Best Picture – it’s a methodical, journalistic film with all the high stakes well in the past as the team of investigative reporters slowly uncover the truth. The presiding emotion is one of disbelief that the church covered up so many systemic abuses over decades without the public grasping the prevalence of these crimes. Mark Ruffalo has a good stab at an Oscar delivery (which reminded me of Tyler Durden lying to the police about how much he loved his condo – “I’d like to thank the Academy”), but the film is quite dry in comparison to previous winners.
Meanwhile, Son of Saul takes place in Auschwitz… The film follows Saul, a Hungarian Jew who works in the gas chambers as a “Sonderkommando”, a class of prisoner forced to usher the camp’s victims to their doom, strip them, collect their belongings and, once exterminated, clear the bodies. With the camera tight to Saul as he works, all the horrors of genocide are blurred in the background – and all the more horrifying for their bokeh omnipresence. A deeply affecting experience.
2017 – Moonlight vs The Salesman
2018’s International Oscar Showdown featured one of the rare, and perhaps the finest, LGBT movies to win Best Picture: Moonlight. Told in three chapters that chronicle the coming of age of a black boy growing up in poverty, Moonlight is a study of repressed sexuality, rampant homophobia, and performative identity. But most of all, it is about yearning to be loved.
Meanwhile, Asghar Farhadi won Best Foreign-Language Film for the second time for Iran in 2017 with The Salesman, a powerful tale of masculine frustration, undermined revenge and societal insouciance that exposes Iran’s conservative culture. When Emad’s wife Rana is raped, the husband attempts to hunt down the perpetrator and exact the most heinous revenge upon them that he can conceivably and legally inflict — namely: familial shame. This is a far cry from American revenge movies.
2018 – The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
Once in a while the two films in a Showdown carry the same theme, and in 2018 it was forbidden love – though two very different takes on that idea. Taking Best Picture was Guillermo del Toro’s atomic-age sci-fi The Shape of Water, an homage to Beauty & The Beast with a Bioshock-aesthetic. It’s a visually glorious film, from the set design to the costumes, with some terrific performances. You just need to get past the monstrous fish sex…
Against it was A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean tale of transphobia from Sebastián Lelio. The movie is about Marina, a trans waitress and nightclub singer whose much older boyfriend suffers an aneurysm in the night and does not recover. Dealing with a probing murder investigation and the prejudices of her lover’s bereaved family, Marina endures psychological and physical abuse as she processes her own grief. It’s a gripping story, and a worthy winner, but should it have beaten del Toro’s gothic horror?
2019 – Green Book vs Roma
International Oscar Showdown began in reverse chronological order to find Foreign-Language Film winners that were superior to their (predominantly American) Best Picture peers, and Roma provided immediate vindication in that endeavour. Indeed, there stretches such a gulf of class between it and Green Book it is comical to compare them at all.
Inescapably compared to ridiculed Oscar alumni Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book has the same racial tension but with the roles reversed, as a white working-class person forms an unlikely bond driving a rich black person around the Deep South. Unfortunately, the film suffers from underdeveloped sub-plots, unearned character arcs and a deeply confused commentary on class in America. The best thing about the film is picking it apart.
And then there’s Roma – Alfonso Cuarón’s labour of love devoted to the nanny who brought him up as a child in the suburbs of Mexico City. Full of remarkable cinematography, brimming with love and loss, and cast with actors of remarkable authenticity, Roma is a modern masterpiece.