While it may feel like a lifetime ago, only one year has passed since the winners of the 92nd Academy Awards were announced and Parasite ended up taking home the Best Picture award. 2020 was a very strange year for film releases, and the race towards the 93rd Academy Awards feels unpredictable at this moment in time. However, there is a lingering question: could Parasite’s win last year depict a change within the Academy, giving us another bold choice for the Best Picture winner in 2021?
Parasite’s win was one that will go down in history. It was the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture award, and managed to sneak into the race last minute after front-runner 1917 took the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for their respective Best Picture awards. It signalled a potential change within the Academy, showing a group of voters who were finally willing to recognise foreign cinema and award it, rather than simply saying a nomination was enough.
Only eleven foreign language films have ever been nominated for the Best Picture category, with five of them being in the past twenty years. Many also had major names attached to them, such as Ingmar Bergman (1972’s Cries and Whispers), Roberto Benigni (1997’s Life is Beautiful), and Ang Lee (2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). For the 90th Academy Awards, many people thought that Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) was going to be the Best Picture winner, but it was not meant to be.
The discussion between Roma and Parasite is interesting, as it becomes clear why one was able to take home the big prize. Many people fell in love with Roma for the technical aspects, such as the direction and cinematography – two awards that it won on the night. However, it is clear that the slow and simple narrative was a turn-off for some people, making it hard to connect with. It also felt like a personal story connected to Cuarón and his upbringing, something that American voters might not personally relate to. By contrast, Parasite is not only universal with its themes and narrative, telling the story of the divide between the rich and poor, but it is incredibly entertaining. In a Hitchcockian-inspired thriller, the story is smart, the editing is sharp and the direction from Bong Joon-ho keeps the audience engaged for the duration of the film. It had a great start by winning the Palme D’or at Cannes in June 2019, and continued to gain momentum and win awards throughout the season.
With the residual buzz for Korean cinema from Parasite still remaining prevalent, the Academy may embrace Minari from Lee Isaac Chung, an American film focused on the American dream, but centred around the experiences of a Korean family. The A24 film studio had awards success back in the 2016-2017 race with Moonlight, but has been unable to create another solid campaign like that due to having an overcrowded roster. This year, Minari is their strongest contender, and they will be able to focus all of their campaigning on this one film, which is already looking promising, given the three SAG Award nominations it received.
Many critics are glad that the Academy is changing perceptions in terms of foreign cinema, but they also recognise that there is a long way to go until representation is truly seen from the voters. One of the main areas of concern is related to the representation of women, particularly in the Best Director category. In total, only five women have been nominated in the Best Director race over 92 years, and only Kathryn Bigelow has gone on to win the award for 2009’s The Hurt Locker. Last year had so many strong female-directed stories contending, and yet not even Greta Gerwig could get in for her Best Picture nominated film Little Women. This year seems to be even more promising for women, with Nomadland’s Chloe Zhao in position to potentially win the big award after winning at the Golden Globes. It will be interesting to see if the Academy is willing to follow suit and nominate more than one woman this year – if they don’t, it certainly won’t be because the films didn’t exist in 2020.
One of these films directed by a woman is Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, which first showed at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and has since been sweeping nominations. Having very strong showings at the Golden Globes – including a Best Director nomination for Fennell’s directorial debut – it is clear that this film may not just be a critic pick, but one that is popular across the board. For a film that is much bolder thematically and narratively than the Academy usually chooses, it will be interesting to see if it maintains such a dominant presence at this year’s awards.
The Academy has shown that they love Regina King, giving her the award for Best Supporting Actress for 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk. With her directorial debut One Night in Miami set to do well on Oscar night with potential nominations in Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Original Song, there is a chance for her to make it into the Best Director line-up. While the Academy typically avoids nominating actors-turned-directors for their debut, leaving both Bradley Cooper and Ben Affleck off the nominations for their respective debuts A Star is Born and Argo (a Best Picture winner), King is already an Oscar winner and the film is certainly enough of a contender to warrant a Best Director nomination for her.
Of course, the Academy could just stay safe and choose the filmmakers and stories that they typically like to support. Many film fans loved that the Academy was starting to embrace stories such as 2016’s Moonlight when it won Best Picture, telling a story about both the Black community and the LGBTQ+ community. However, the reveal of 2018’s Green Book as the Best Picture winner a few years later made many doubt the changes in the organisation, seeing that less progress was made than anticipated.
While critics may not love these films as much, it is hard to argue against Aaron Sorkin or David Fincher getting recognition for their latest films – The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank. They are focused on stories that the Academy loves to support, starring actors that the Academy already has connections, and made by filmmakers who have numerous nominations and wins under their belts. With them both getting the most nominations at the Golden Globes, a trend is already beginning to appear for potential successes on the awards circuit.
This year has become one of the most unpredictable, given the delayed awards season and a number of wild nominations thrown in. While some films have reached the height of their popularity and already begun to decline over the past few weeks, there are some that are gaining momentum, and there is certainly the potential to have another Parasite-level win come April. Whether something predictable does win or not, there is reason for optimism. We can see signs that change is happening within the Academy, and for the better.