What went down at the Oscars

By JOHN VAALER

At the Oscars last Sunday night, “Parasite” became the first non-English foreign movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. In addition, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho won the Oscars for Best International Feature Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for his work on the film.

The film’s quadruple victory was unexpected. Awards prediction website Gold Derby projected that “1917” would take the ceremony’s top prize. I estimated that the Academy’s narcissistic wing would sway towards the new Quentin Tarantino movie, “Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood.” Aging mafiosos probably placed their bets on “The Irishman.”

In the end, though,“Parasite” won big, making history for international films. 

There is even more for “Parasite” to celebrate: Joon-ho’s thriller is the most entertaining film to win Best Picture in quite some time. Consider the award’s recent winners, including “Spotlight,” “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water.” These movies have incredible acting, display beautiful shots and deal with serious themes. However, if the above qualities are the only components of great cinema, then “The Notebook” (2004) is a masterpiece.

“Parasite,” unlike the recent Best Picture winners, has spunk to boot. The most violent scenes in “Parasite” owe as much to the Marx Brothers as the Coen Brothers, while the film’s slap-stick sequences still play out in a strangely elegiac key. “Parasite” exudes the same moodiness that makes David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986) so fun: You feel as if the filmmakers are taking actual risks.

Joon-ho’s thriller is the most entertaining film to win Best Picture in quite some time.”

Below are some of my other notes on the Academy Awards. Before I proceed, though, I must point out that I haven’t seen the following Oscar-nominated films: “Pain and Glory,” “Harriet,” “A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Little Women” and “Ford v Ferrari.” I will not pass judgement on these movies, with the exception of “Ford v. Ferrari”: does the world really need a grittier, somber, longer version of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006)?

The nominees for Best Actress had my two favorite performances of the year. Charlize Theron impeccably mimics Meghan Kelly’s voice and mannerisms in “Bombshell,” but, more importantly, she conveys her character’s complexity with aplomb. Theron’s finest performance to date is still her Academy Award-winning role as Ailleen Wuornos in the serial-killer drama “Monster” (2003), but her take on Kelly is a close second. I walked out of “Bombshell” with a feeling most of us experience just once or twice in our lives: genuine sympathy for a Fox News anchor. All things considered, Renée Zellwegger truly did deserve an Oscar for her performance in “Judy,” which tells the story of Judy Garland’s late-career London performances in 1969. Half the scenes in “Judy” involve the protagonist popping pills and sipping spirits, and Zellwegger never pulls punches. Near the film’s end, a doctor asks Garland: “do you take anything for depression?” She replies, “four husbands…. it didn’t work.” Uff da, Judy. On top of it all, Zellwegger sings beautifully.

I only saw two nominated performances for Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Margot Robbie in “Bombshell” and Laura Dern in “Marriage Story.” In “Bombshell,” Robbie portrays a news analyst who is sexually harassed by Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. Especially impressive is how the 29-year old Australian actress quietly conveys her character’s grief without much verbal expression.

Laura Dern plays a divorce attorney in “Marriage Story.” It’s a showier performance than Robbie’s, and one sees why the Academy gave her the award.

I walked out of ‘Bombshell’ with a feeling most of us experience just once or twice in our lives: genuine sympathy for a Fox News anchor.”

What gives Robbie’s performance my endorsement is that “Bombshell” tells a more enjoyable narrative than “Marriage Story.” My general issue with the latter film is that it’s so uncompromisingly sad. The action of “Marriage Story” centers around a playwright (Adam Driver) divorcing an actress (Scarlett Johannson). The culminating scene involves one spouse telling another, “every morning I wake up and I wish you were dead.” Eeyore The Blue Donkey did not receive a co-writing credit for “Marriage Story,” but one can certainly see his gloomy hoofprints all over the film’s script. 

Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” was a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar. Phoenix’s performance reminded me of Forest Whittaker’s take on Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland’’ (2006), which is about as scary as things get.

Brad Pitt’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” surprised me. For most of my life, I’ve considered Pitt a so-so leading man. Consider “Troy” (2004), wherein Pitt’s ambiguously accented Achilles looks as if he’d rather go surfing than lay waste the hills of Illium (“Let no mahn foeget hah menahcing we ah; we are lions!”)

But that same laid-back attitude is perhaps why the 56-year-old actor works so well in “Once Upon a Time.. in Hollywood”: Pitt’s portrayal of a chilled-out stuntman trucks along effortlessly. Take the scene where a bare-chested Pitt fixes a TV antenna while enjoying a cigarette. Pitt stops and takes a swig of beer. He smiles at the clouds. Life, one imagines, is quite nice when your six-pack abs are soaking up the California sun. 

Meanwhile in the theater, I was seriously regretting my purchase of an extra large popcorn and Junior Mints. Any performance that gets me to hit the gym deserves an Oscar in my book.