Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.
**** This article contains spoilers! ****
You can count on your hands the number of actors who have appeared in consecutive Best Picture winners, a list that features Michael Peña (Million Dollar Baby and Crash), John Goodman (Argo and The Artist) and Victoria Spencer (The Shape Of Water and Green Book). But the most striking double-hitter was Russell Crowe back in 2002, who not only appeared in, but played the central role in both A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator the year before.
Directed by Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind is a biopic about John Forbes Nash Jr, a Nobel-prize-winning mathematician whose work in game theory became a fundamental system of economics. It’s fair to say, the film has a big twist in its narrative, which is hard to avoid in a review — so if you’ve not watched the film, I’d recommend doing so before reading on!
All caught up? Great…
Incredibly, Nash achieved his academic breakthroughs while suffering from schizophrenia, spending many years in psychiatric hospitals receiving insulin shock therapy. In the film, his mental illness initially manifests in paranoia, but quickly develops into a delusional psychosis featuring imaginary characters.
The twist is a narrative deception: we are invited to believe that the film is about Cold War espionage, and that Nash is breaking Russian codes embedded in the pages of the New York Times. We discover that what we have seen for the first 45 minutes has been Nash’s overactive imagination, when he is dramatically institutionalised (with Christopher Plummer’s menacing presence enough to keep us in doubt about what’s real and what’s not).
Nash’s most prominent delusions are government spook Parcher, played by Ed Harris, and drunk university roommate Charles, played by Paul Bettany. There’s more than a hint of Fight Club’s legacy here, though rather than manifesting in toxic masculinity, Nash’s hallucinations fuel his paranoia and convince him to forego his medication. Indeed, Charles and Marcee (the hallucinated niece of one of Nash’s hallucinations) provide support and love throughout his life, so that when he finally commits to ignoring these figments of imagination, there is a strange sadness to it.
The film begins early on in Nash’s life, as he attends Princeton university, and jostles with his peers for intellectual superiority like a West Virginian Will Hunting (if you missed the similarities, it’s not your fault). It is here that Nash — after months of searching for inspiration — has his game-theory epiphany, though in an agonisingly old-fashioned scheme to sleep with some women.
This informs my main criticism of the film: the only explanation of Nash’s apparently ingenious theories is this targeted sexual conquest, and is left unexplored while the film establishes Nash’s Cold War fantasies. By the end of the film, we learn that his work at university, developing game theory, has become a new cornerstone of economic analysis, and out of the blue he is awarded the Nobel prize.
For a movie that purports to celebrate a beautiful mathematical mind, the actual maths is given a perfunctory mention. It is either portrayed poetically in Nash’s implausible diagrams mapping the movements of pigeons and kids playing football, or is gaudily animated to establish his perception of patterns in the stars, or binary code, or newspaper clippings. It’s all so vague. I wanted to come out of the film not just emotionally uplifted, but intellectually, too — but I was none the wiser.
I’d like to thank the Academy
Howard coaxes decent performances from his talented cast — particularly Nash’s love interest, Alicia, played by Jennifer Connelly — but I found Crowe’s stunted introversion unnatural and at times a little silly. There’s a moment later in the film when Nash has returned to academia, and walks through the university campus with a strange gait, which one of the students imitates behind his back to make his friends laugh. To me, it looked like the extra was taking the mick out of Crowe’s performance — I kept thinking of Tropic Thunder, and the infamous “Never go full retard” speech, referencing how the Academy has often rewarded depictions of mental illness as long as the characters are palatably exceptional in some way.
After the genre-defining success of Gladiator, it was an enormous departure for Crowe to leap from brawn to brains, and felt like a conscious refusal to be typecast, to take on something challenging and nuanced, to prove he could do more than gruffly bark threats of vengeance. To win an Oscar for acting, perhaps? Alas, for me, the performance remains unconvincing.
A Beautiful Mind, then, is a decent film — with an unexpected mid-movie twist that actually makes its second half more interesting — and a fitting tribute to a man of extraordinary intelligence and a debilitating mental illness.
No man’s landmine
From one man’s madness imagining a war, to a war compounded by the mad, the Foreign-Language Film winner was Bosnian-Herzegovinian movie No Man’s Land. This battlefield drama is set during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, when the breakup of federal Yugoslavia led to separatists from its individual states fighting for ethnic nationalism.
When a Bosniak relief troop gets lost in a dense fog on their way to the front line, they wake to the bright sunshine and find themselves directly between enemy lines. The Serbs open fire and the unit is almost entirely killed, but for one soldier, Čiki, who wakes in a trench with a bullet wound in his shoulder.
Two Bosnian Serbs are sent to investigate, but when they can’t find any survivors, the older of the two drags a body of a Bosniak into the trench and plants a devious jumping mine under him, so that whoever comes to bury the dead will be ripped to shreds. Čiki opens fire on the two Serbs, killing the man who made the mine, and wounding the younger of the two, Nino.
Unfortunately, the body that the Serbs booby-trapped is not yet a corpse, but rather unconscious. That’s when Cera wakes up, and they realise they’ll all be killed if he moves.
It sounds chilling — and the film certainly has its flinch-inducing moments — but the emphasis is on the absurdity of the situation rather than the violence. When Čiki and Nino are being shelled by the Serbs, they cower in a hovel and berate each other for starting the war, like two men in a sports bar arguing over a penalty decision. Only, at this point, Čiki has the gun, and so Nino is forced into admitting culpability. When the tables are turned later, Nino ensures Čiki admits his side started it — both making admissions under duress without the faintest glimpse of progress, and taking turns to be the bully.
When both sides call the UN to extract the men from no man’s land, an English war reporter (Katrin Cartlidge doing a somewhat sketchy impression of Kate Adie) tunes into the UN’s radio frequency and wants to chase the story. Meanwhile, the UN high command (played by Simon Callow) forbids his sergeant, Marchand (Georges Siatidis), from helping, arguing that their objectives are only to provide humanitarian aid, and not to take sides.
The world’s news media licks its lips at the prospect of such an unfortunate tale, and their TV crews are allowed onto the site to document the rescue. Marchand’s superior officer addresses the news crews like a tour guide about to point out the wild animals on safari. A media frenzy ensues, and by the end absolutely everyone involved looks like an utter prick (apart from Marchand, who does everything he can to save the soldiers).
It’s a tragicomic parable, and sits uncomfortably in its own no-man’s-land between jokes on one side and the horrors of war on the other. One moment, you’ve got this wonderful miscommunication joke going, where Marchand is talking to a guard at a Serb checkpoint who replies “Yes, yes, yes,” to everything, and then gets a slap from his commander when he admits he’s no idea what the Frenchman is saying… but then you’ve got Čiki and Nino repeatedly shooting and stabbing each other while Marchand struggles to keep them apart.
A couple of things do niggle — for one, the reporter, Kate Livingstone, is incredibly annoying, and when she gets the chance to interview the soldiers, she asks banal questions like “How do you feel?” Admittedly, there is an interesting element seeing her being managed from a TV studio back home, but otherwise she’s a weak parody of war journalism.
Then there’s Callow’s character, Colonel Soft. It’s not a bad performance, and adequately illustrates the mad bureaucracy of the UN and its toothless objectives during the war — but for some reason the director decided to include a nameless secretary draping herself over his desk, alluringly showing some leg. Worse still, she gets brought to the warzone in her skirt and heels, with a pale blue UN helmet plonked on her head. She has no lines, she’s just there. Before she was introduced, my wife was lamenting how few women are in the film. By the end, she was groaning every time this woman was on screen.
There’s a lot going for both these movies, but neither is perfect. Where Howard produced another competent but ultimately uninspiring character study, No Man’s Land was a slightly rough-around-the-edges debut for Danis Tanović, more concerned with theme than authenticity.
While I preferred the subject matter of No Man’s Land, its British characters undermined the story with irritating accents, silly side-kicks and unconvincing dialogue. So I’m tentatively giving this round to A Beautiful Mind, for its interesting take on mental illness, and that narrative blindside.
Finally, the Anglosphere stops the rot, and pull one back after six straight losses. That brings the series to 7–11, which means the International film community have a convincing lead going into 2001’s ultimate showdown between Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’m looking forward to that, as I’m sure you are too. Until next time!
A Beautiful Mind
No Man’s Land
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2015: Birdman vs Ida
- 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
- 2013: Argo vs Amour
- 2012: The Artist vs A Separation
- 2011: The King’s Speech vs In A Better World
- 2010: The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
- 2009: Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
- 2008: No Country For Old Men vs The Counterfeiters
- 2007: The Departed vs The Lives Of Others
- 2006: Crash vs Tsotsi
- 2005: Million Dollar Baby vs The Sea Inside
- 2004: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King vs The Barbarian Invasions
- 2003: Chicago vs Nowhere In Africa