Oscar Marathon 2020, Pt. 13: ‘Parasite,’ ‘Ad Astra,’ ‘The Two Popes,’ ‘Les Miserables’

Continuing today with one of the year’s absolute best, one overlooked powerhouse, a gripping French drama and a real clunker.

Parasite: No film surprised me more in 2019 than this South Korean masterpiece — and the reception it found was equally as surprising.

I’m still catching up on director Bong Joon Ho’s earliest films, but I’m a major fan of his English-language debut Snowpiercer, and his wacky Okja is a sentimental favorite, as well. But even seeing those great films didn’t prepare me for the perfectly crafted pleasures and wildly thought-provoking premise of Parasite.

In this dark, dark comedy, a scrappy family finds jobs, one by one and under assumed identities, with a spectacularly wealthy family. The audience, particularly after seeing the poor family’s near-subterranean hovel, sympathizes with them, but Bong never makes the wealthy family overtly villainous. He’s too clever for that.

A major twist midway through the film sends the narrative in shocking new directions, but in case you didn’t catch the film either time it screened here, I’ll avoid discussing the particulars. The first time I watched the film, I was blown away by the ending. And when I watched it a second time, I was thrilled to see how smartly everything clicked into place. Just brilliant work.

It’s heartening to see how well the film did with American audiences, those willing (to paraphrase Bong’s Golden Globe speech) to get over their terror of inch-high subtitles. After Roma‘s near-miss last year, I’m really hoping Parasite will become the first international film to win Best Picture. (But really, it should have scored some acting nominations, as well. Do better, Oscar.)

(Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Film, Best Production Design and Best Film Editing)

Ad Astra: Brad Pitt’s other 2019 cinematic triumph was one of the year’s most visually and narratively ambitious films, but did you actually see it?

Likely not. It underperformed at the box office and, as memory serves, only screened here for a couple of weeks at most.

I’m glad I caught it when I did. Watching it at home would have robbed director James Gray’s sensational visuals of their impact, but the power of Pitt’s phenomenal performance would still shine through. He’s one of the most famous men in the world, and certainly one of the most handsome, yet somehow we always forget just how talented he is. His nuanced, graceful performance here should wake us up — and when he wins the Oscar for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I have to believe that many voters will have this performance in mind, too.

Do yourself a favor and seek this one out. Don’t go in expecting a rollicking space adventure (though there are a couple of thrilling sequences). Watch it for the thoughfulness with which it approaches themes of masculinity and even religion.

(Nominated for Best Sound Mixing)

The Two Popes: The appeal of this Netflix original (the first such film to screen in Amarillo, I believe) is almost entirely lost upon me.

Sure, I almost never mind seeing Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins perform, and Pryce is particularly good here. It’s just that I never once bought the premise, that Pope Benedict (Hopkins) and his soon-to-be successor Bergoglio (Pryce) would have had what amounts to a long Lincoln-Douglas debate on matters of faith and charity and papal power.

Director Fernando Meirelles was an odd choice, and Anthony McCarten’s career still has a giant Bohemian Rhapsody-sized black mark on it, so his screenplay nomination is a particular puzzler for me. Even two acting powerhouses couldn’t make this one work.

(Nominated for Best Actor [Pryce], Best Supporting Actor [Hopkins] and Best Adapted Screenplay)

Les Misérables: I wonder how many folks started humming “One Day More” when they heard this French film scored a nomination this year.

Well, it’s certainly not a musical, and it’s not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, though they’re thematically quite similar, particularly in showing the roiling tensions of life in the underclass. But director Ladj Ly’s tense film about one eventful day on the streets of Paris reminded me even more of a mix between The Wire and Do the Right Thing.

I saw this one on a studio-provided screener, but it was acquired by Amazon after its debut at Cannes, so watch for it on Prime at some point.

(Nominated for Best International Feature)

Up next: Breakthrough, Little Women, Jojo Rabbit and Corpus Christi

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