By Jonah Evarts
The much sought-after Best Picture Oscar was awarded to Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece “Parasite” this year, amid a flurry of strong opinions and controversial nominations for the films that fell to it. Now that the awards season is over, it’ll be a year until we see who will triumph over it next. This begs the question: how will we look back on this awards season a year from now? Historically, the perception of Best Picture winners takes shape over time, and some winners age well, while others flatten under the pressure of longevity.
Take a look at a winner like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” (1999), which was well-received at the time of its release but has become a movie that is very easily criticized and has faded in many people’s memories. Often it is simply because a film is temporal in its ability to hold up as a ‘good’ movie, such was the case for “American Beauty” among other factors. Other times a movie doesn’t age well because society continues to progress forward while a film stays within the belief system of its time.
Let’s look back at the 1990 winner, “Dances With Wolves,” the Kevin Costner starring and directed film that beat out “Goodfellas.” Much of the portrayal of Native Americans in the movie has come under fire since its release for its inaccuracies and reliance on stereotypes of Native American culture. Watching the film now, it’s almost painful to see how blissfully ignorant it was to a topic that we have come to be more sensitive towards. This temporality is a major part of how public perception shifts over time. Sometimes, however, a film is not remembered for winning the Best Picture award, it’s remembered for the films that it beat in the race.
Again, “Dances With Wolves” is a good example of a winner that beat out another film that has long outlived it. “Goodfellas” is still regarded as a classic and a staple in cinematic history, whereas “Dances With Wolves” is more of an afterthought when looking back on 1990. “Shakespeare in Love” beat out “Saving Private Ryan,” one of Spielberg’s best, and in retrospect has become sort of a throwaway winner. One of the most infamous wins was “The King’s Speech,” which has consistently been scrutinized for beating out “The Social Network” and “Inception.” Just look back on the last few decades, and there are examples of this littered throughout. Very rarely is the most popular movie also the Best Picture winner (I’m looking at you, “Titanic”). Even for a film such as “Moonlight,” an incredibly liked film that matched the progressive movements within the Academy, it may still be remembered in film history as the winner that upset “La La Land” at the Oscars fiasco. Perhaps another example of this would be “Forrest Gump,” which has remained beloved but is also known as the film that beat both “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” This isn’t all to say that being memorable is a popularity contest, rather that sometimes the winners are perceived as only counterparts to the films that lost.
Furthermore, the expectations of a Best Picture recipient are sometimes what alters public opinion on a film. Perhaps the winner was ‘just fine’ or ‘decent’ before its win, but because of the prestigious nature of the award, the film is now seen as unfit to have won and therefore, is trashed and hated for its win. An example from this past decade would be “Argo.” The film was well-reviewed across the board at the time of its initial release even though many felt it was essentially good, not great. After it won though, it received a great deal of negative attention that it might not have received had it remained just a nominee. Again, some of that may have come from those who were rooting for the other nominees that year, but as time has passed, there is still a staunch opposition to a winner such as “Argo” because it doesn’t seem to live up to the legacy of other winners as a movie that is ‘just fine’. In cases like this, the Best Picture win is a blessing and a curse.
Many of these hurdles can be applied to this year’s Best Picture winner, “Parasite.” Making history by being the first recipient of the award to be a foreign language film has placed it under a microscope. There’s no doubt it will hold up as a fantastically made movie with a powerful social message, but will it get lost in the muddle of public perception? While it is almost universally being praised, there is a worrying thought that in the years to come, it may be remembered as the movie that beat something else. With its passionate and enormous fanbase, “Joker” broke box office records and became the most talked about and controversial movie of the year. Already, there have been fans of “Joker” taking aim at “Parasite” to share their heated opinions. Is the following of Joaquin Phoenix’s clown large enough to overshadow this historic win in the years to come? It isn’t unheard of for a great movie that made history to be overshadowed. Take “The Hurt Locker,” which gave Kathryn Bigelow a win and the Best Director award, historic in that it was the first time in history it was given to a woman. It is still perceived well, but the film beat out “Avatar,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Blind Side,” all box office hits that have created their own dialogues in the years to come, while “The Hurt Locker” is rarely discussed anymore. As with all Best Picture winners, only time will tell where “Parasite” stands in history, but there is no question that its win was monumental and a great step forward for The Academy.
We have the privilege to be able to look back and see where there were perhaps missteps or movies that have long since faded from glory. Love or hate the winner of Best Picture, to win the award means to live on in film history in some form. The label has taken new shapes and forms over the years and will continue to mold itself with each year. In the end, the way any film is perceived will vary from person to person. For now, though, it’s time to take a step back and enjoy basking in the sun of “Parasite’s” win. Until next year’s race, there is peace.
You can follow Jonah and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @jonahevarts