Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard-bearer for the current moment.
And so, the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.
Each year’s slate of nominees roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.
2019’s most-nominated film overall is also one of the year’s most successful commercially, and one of its most controversial. A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.
In the run-up to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Below, Vox senior correspondents Dylan Matthews and Alex Abad-Santos and film critic Alissa Wilkinson talk about Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s universally acclaimed social thriller, which won the Palme d’Or at its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last May.
Alissa: I have trouble not reverting to a vocabulary comprised entirely of superlatives when I’m talking about Parasite, and to be honest, I was worried it would suffer with audiences from sky-high expectations once it finally came out.
But no! Parasite seems to be almost universally adored, which is especially surprising given the general American audience doesn’t always cop to a movie that requires them to read subtitles.
I could go on and on about what I think, but I want to know first: Why do you think Parasite was such a hit with both critics and audiences? And why did it work for you?
Alex: I’m going to say that the twist is the engine of this movie, but it isn’t the only fantastic thing about this movie.
For the entire first half of Parasite, it’s an absolutely crisp heist movie. Can the Kim family, a band of rogues essentially, pull off the ultimate caper to better their lives and wiggle themselves into indispensable parts of the wealthier Park family? Bong Joon-ho and his talented cast say yes, nimbly taking the viewer into this world that’s brimming with affluence, possibility, and freedom. And then, on one fateful dark and stormy night, Parasite unfurls its true self — a tense and rigid experience that steals your breath away, as the Kims’ plan slowly unspools into an inevitable tragedy.
The performance of the cast (justice for Park so-Dam’s “Jessica from Illinois”!!!), Bong’s meticulous and absolutely intricate camera work and composition, the themes of inequality and lavishness peppered into such a complex plot all work to make that twist crackle and split the film open. And you’re left thinking about the movie long after the story’s been told.
Dylan: In general, I think foreign-language movies are an easier awards sell if they fit into a fast-paced, mass-appeal genre: Parasite is a taut thriller/heist; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a wuxia film of a kind somewhat familiar to American audiences; City of God was (among many other attributes) a gangster movie; Life is Beautiful was a farce. Roma is the exception that proves the rule: If anyone but Cuarón (or his buddies del Toro and Iñárritu) had directed it, and it hadn’t had a massive Netflix campaign, I think Roma would’ve been judged too slow and deliberate and ignored.
I do want to ask you guys about interpreting Parasite as a class metaphor. That’s obviously the huge theme of the movie, just as it was the dominant theme in Snowpiercer, but you could easily imagine an interpretation that’s almost Rand-ian in its libertarianism. In this view, the Kim family are literal, uh, parasites, conning and feeding off the success of the more moral and civic-minded Parks, and destroying the lives of innocent people like Mr. Park’s driver or the housekeeper Moon-gwang in the process. Even Moon-gwang, in this reading, is eventually revealed to be a parasite, stealing the basement of the Parks’ home out from under them.
This is a purposefully wrong interpretation, but the reasons why it’s wrong are surprisingly hard to articulate. The Parks aren’t bad people, and the Kims aren’t good people. This is not a simple morality tale of rich depravity and the dignified suffering of the underclasses. So how do you guys read its class politics, and fit it into Bong’s well-established egalitarian worldview?
Alissa: You know, I thought it was pretty clear-cut when I first saw it, but I started to waffle once I began writing about it. As you said, it really is not about the rich and depraved and unhappy. Like, say, Succession.
In fact, I think one of the most radical things about Parasite is that the rich people are not particularly bad. They’re pretty moral and nice, and they’re not miserable. Even the teenage daughter is more just a teenager than a monster, which is honestly what I feel like I’ve been trained to expect from the movies.
Similarly, the poor (and then even the poor-er) are not righteous heroes, and the movie also is at pains to make it clear that they even still have some happiness. The Kim family enjoys time together, even under terrible circumstances. And when yet another, even poorer family is revealed, the movie pointedly makes it extremely clear to us that that family has, and enjoys, sex. That is wild! Imagine an American film that did that!
I came to the conclusion (correctly, I think) that the movie is actually about an economic and social system that turns everyone into parasites because it itself is parasitic, attaching itself to people’s humanity and turning them into pawns in a game of its own devising. This put me in mind of Shoplifters, last year’s Palme d’Or winner, which I think has a very similar conclusion. (The two are an inspired pairing, and I definitely recommend that Parasite fans go back and watch Shoplifters now.)
What did you think, Alex?
Alex: I do think the film is a critique of how inequality is ingrained into our social and financial lives. While the Parks are actually “good” people, I think there’s a skewering there of how parasitic — er, dependent — they are on the lives of their domestic workers. They can’t drive anywhere, cook for themselves, or take proper care of their children and instead outsource these things to other people, never once thinking that they might be taken advantage of or manipulated. The Parks aren’t any smarter, savvier, or harder-working than the Kims, which makes it feel like the only difference between living life in choking poverty and abundant wealth is how your cards were dealt, who your parents are, and what their parents and the parents of their parents did.
When Mr. Kim kills Mr. Park, it’s not because he’s a bad person. It’s because he realizes that no matter what he does, or what his family does, they can’t escape the system. And when you try and break it, you’ll be sent careening down a set of stairs, like poor Moon-gwang.
While Shoplifters is a good parallel, I actually kept thinking of Jordan Peele’s Us. I mean, it’s about another set of parallel families, one ready to take the other’s place complete with subterranean horrors, secret, and forgotten ghosts. But it’s also deeply about the economic system put in place and the desperation to break it.
It’s curious this year that we have a few movies, with Parasite leading the way, that explicitly attack our ideas of inequality and wealth. 2019 movies like Hustlers, Knives Out, Ready or Not, and Us are all about the villainy and corruption of the rich and how wealth becomes a shield for consequence. The rub, I suppose, is that all these movies are making piles and piles of money (some have bigger piles than others; Parasite’s worldwide box office is at $143 million compared to its reported budget of $11 million) and making producers and studio heads very happy. Instead of breaking free and opening our minds to these ideas of inequality, are we just part of the system? Are these movies cashing in on the fantasy of revenge? And is that so wrong?
Dylan: In a way, the popularity of films about inequality reminds me of the many, many shots that The Simpsons liked to take at Fox back in its glory years. The charge of the jokes was heightened by the fact that the writers were biting the hand that fed them, but at the same time it had a taste of what pro wrestling fans would call kayfabe. Fox was allowing its wards to get a few shots in precisely because it felt safe from a really serious critique, and in fact the insults from inside the house helped bolster the institution’s reputation as self-critiquing, not impossibly self-serious, and thus ultimately benign.
There’s an argument to be made that movies like Parasite and Knives Out do the same thing: They let movie studios profit from critiquing a class system that is ultimately the source of their power, and do so without challenging aspects of the system that benefit Hollywood specifically. You can make fun of dumb rich racists like the Don Johnson character in Knives Out, but God help you if you want to repeal the Sonny Bono copyright law.
But I think Parasite ultimately falls out of that trap, especially compared to a movie like Knives Out, precisely because of how interpersonally kind its wealthy characters are. The Thrombeys are far too easy to hate: They’re bigoted, selfish, vengeful, and openly cruel to Ana de Armas’s hero. They let the liberal rich watching the film off the hook by giving them a mean döppelganger, allowing them to look fantastically moral by comparison.
Parasite, though, implicates a nice wealthy family with whom many viewers might identify in the pain of class oppression. That feels more radical.
I did want to ask about a specific scene that I haven’t seen discussed much. The flood that destroys the Kims’ apartment was by far the most affecting scene of the film to me, and I’ve barely read any commentary on it. What does their misfortune in that moment mean? Is it cosmic payback? An ironic bookend to the “scholar’s rock” that the son’s successful friend Min-hyuk gives them at the beginning of the film? An illustration of the relative physical safety of the Parks?
Alissa: Good question. The most obvious answer to me is that the flood isn’t just a mess that doesn’t harm the Parks but wreaks havoc on the Kims, but it also carries sewage — like, the Parks’ literal shit is in the Kims’ house now, along with everything else. The system turns us all into parasites, but not everyone pays the same price. And so on. Alex, what do you think?
Alex: I saw it similarly to Alissa, and took it as the inevitability of the system. The flood ruins the Parks’ plans to go camping and having a nice time, but to the Kims, it ruins their lives. It also smears them with that smell, the smell that irritates the Parks’ noses when they think about it too hard and the smell that the Kims can’t wash off of themselves.
So, is this the Best Picture of the year? Because Parasite is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite movie of the year.
Dylan: Absolutely. I’m sure you’ve both seen many more 2019 movies than me, but Us is the only movie that really came close to Parasite in my book. It’s telling that they’re both thrillers about class conflict and inequality.
Alissa: Yep, I agree. I tied Parasite at No. 1 with Marriage Story on my best films of the year list, but I would be a little happier to see Parasite win — not only because it would be an awesome coup and make Oscar history, but because it really, truly embodies an important thread in world cinema this year: that inequality is rampant, and a revolution is brewing. I can’t imagine a better way to remember that year than through Parasite.
Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees:
1917 | Ford v Ferrari | The Irishman | Jojo Rabbit | Joker | Little Women | Marriage Story | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Parasite
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