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! ****
There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Wesley Crusher is visiting the Enterprise on vacation from Starfleet Academy only to find the crew are all debilitatingly enamoured with an addictive alien game. Everyone plays it constantly, talks about nothing else, and persistently pushes it on Wesley (even his own mother) — but he’s just not interested.
(It transpires that the game is in fact a psychotropic drug employed as a mind-control device by aliens intent on taking over Starfleet.)
That’s how I felt about The Lord Of The Rings. Suddenly everyone was addicted to this cultural interloper, talked of nothing else, and pleaded for the experience to be repeated, and unreasonably lengthened. The only difference between me and Wesley was that I partook of this narcotic — although I clearly didn’t inhale.
Skip forward two decades, and I find myself compelled to review The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King Part 3: Tolkien Drift. I have not been looking forward to this.
To briefly articulate my misgivings: I find the franchise a tiresome slog, weighed down by a medley of boring, invincible characters, embarking upon slow, meandering quests, in a tedious battle between good and evil.
Remarkably, the third film in the Rings trilogy has the least going for it, and even among fans, the saga’s culminating chapter is scarcely considered the best in the series.
Nevertheless, The Return Of The King to this day holds the Oscar record for the biggest clean sweep — winning every one of the 11 categories for which it was nominated. This was achieved without a single acting nomination.
The Return Of The King won Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Original Song, Visual Effects, Art Direction, Costume Design, Make-up, Sound Mixing and Film Editing. By comparison, its two preceding instalments — filmed with the same crew, mixed and edited by the same production team, directed by the same man, and brought to life by the same artists — won just Make-up, Cinematography, Original Score and Visual Effects for The Fellowship of the Ring, and only Sound Editing and Visual Effects for The Two Towers.
It’s clear the third film was honoured as a proxy for the series as a whole, to appreciate the sheer scale of the entire project — which was admittedly considerable. At the time, the trilogy was the most expensive group of films to be made back-to-back. They were also phenomenally successful, costing an estimated $281m to make and taking ten times that worldwide.
Too bad for 2004 contenders Mystic River, Lost In Translation, Seabiscuit and Master & Commander (not a sensational line-up, admittedly). However, justice may yet be served here, under the judgemental gaze of the International Oscar Showdown…
To recap, Frodo — a dimnuitive, hairy-footed Hobbit — must carry a magic ring to a volcano in order to destroy an evil, all-seeing eye named Sauron. Of course, he’s not that all-seeing, since Frodo’s friends hatch a plan to distract the eye by turning up on its doorstep and shouting. Meanwhile, Frodo is guided by irredeemably evil schizophrenic Golem, who Frodo nevertheless sides with against his infinitely loyal and trusted friend Samwise. After a lot of fighting, a woman gets fatally mistaken for a man (in a MacDuff-like prophecy loophole) and then it ends.
And then it ends again.
And then there’s some more talking, and, finally, it ends. Properly this time.
Just one, quick, epliogue? Ends.
A retrospective review of Lord Of The Rings is inescapably influenced by the unflattering comparison with fellow swords-and-sorcery fantasy Game Of Thrones, which enjoyed phenomenal success in the 2010s with its mixture of political intrigue, brutality and abundance of sex. Yes, it is well documented how GoT botched its ending, but prior to the final few seasons, it represented a fresh take on what felt a tepid genre.
The best parts of GoT were the back-stabbing and cloak-and-dagger statesmanship, all thrust forward by characters with their own agency, each implacable on either side of the good/bad spectrum. It was shades of grey throughout (though with the odd, sausage-wiggling psychopath, let’s be fair).
Arguably, GoT became tedious as its focus drew solely on the Night’s King and his Whitewalkers; the equivalent of Sauron and his orcish hordes. Certainly, it made for epic battles, but in the run up to that storyline, we had collectively discovered that “epic” doesn’t mean “better” — in fact, going epic removes choice, severely hampering agency, nuance, subtlety and complexity. Epic is: “Do this thing or everything will perish”.
Compare that with, say, Tyrion Lannister, whose wants and desires change with his progression as a character. There is growth. Choice. He is affected by events, and changes. It makes for compelling storytelling.
By the third film in the LOTR trilogy, the only conflict left among the human (and human-adjacent) characters is provided by maniacs — because, with the dark lord on the doorstep of civilisation, and the destruction of all life seemingly assured, of course you’d have to be a maniac to oppose unity in opposition. These characters are the steward king Denethor, played by John Noble, and snarling CGI schizo Golem, famously captured by Andy Serkis.
The precious plot
Serkis appears on screen for the first time in Return of the King, in a flashback to Golem’s past, when he was innocent Smeagol the Hobbit, discovering the One Ring at the bottom of a lake. And so begins my first problem with Peter Jackson’s direction: when Smeagol and his Hobbit friend retrieve the evil ring, it instantly turns their hearts black with greed, and they fight each other to the death over its ownership.
While fans may be interested in this backstory, it made me doubt the very premise of the film — that anyone could withstand the ring’s nefarious influence long enough to destroy it. Frodo (Elijah Wood) carries the ring from his home to the seat of darkness, Mordor, over the course of three uncompromisingly long films, and only falters at the last. But when Smeagol finds it, he’s evil before you can say “Precious”.
Golem’s obsession with the ring is his driving force, and he takes no notice of the existential threat presented by the armies of darkness. Fair enough, I suppose. Meanwhile, the only other character not on board is Denethor, whose grim outlook and sullen pride dissuade him from joining forces with his human allies. Every decision he makes is clouded by a madness, and it’s intensely frustrating that the invincible wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) doesn’t remove him from the throne with a flash from his staff — I mean, it is for the sake of ALL MANKIND.
You can belittle the plot of this film with abandon — one famous criticism references the giant eagles retrieving Frodo from Mordor after all the battles are over (why didn’t they take him there?) — but I’ve no doubt there are Tolkien scholars who can point to passages in the books that fill the holes in its reason.
What I can’t excuse is how boring everyone is. The “true king” Aragon (played by a perpetually greasy-haired Viggo Mortensen) nips off on a quest to meet some green ghosts to deliver the exact same reinforcements sub-plot that the tree people provided in The Two Towers. Meanwhile, Legolas and Gimly have deteriorated into catch-phrase in-jokes, whose gamification of war (counting their downed foes) undermines the peril they face —they make defending MiddleEarth feel no more dangerous than a hunting excursion. And Liv Tyler’s character does something or other, I can’t remember, but it has no bearing on the story, so who cares? Is it any wonder the film didn’t get a single acting nomination?
And then there’s the Hobbits. I know they’re supposed to be sweet, but I hate them. I hate their little dances and their fanciful heroism and that slow-motion reunion where they all jump around on Frodo’s cot, bathed in warm light like a terrible dream sequence. God, they’re annoying.
Hey, LOTR fans — if any of you are still reading — here’s some things I did like: the way the big spider silently approaches its pray is creepy as hell; the elephant charge is exciting, though a little too reminiscent of the ATATs attacking Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back; and… well… I can’t think of anything else. Maybe it could have been improved with one more ending? Just one more ending? One more?
Barbarians at the gates
Up against this sluggish behemoth is Canadian drama The Barbarian Invasions, a tale of an old man named Remy, on his deathbed, reunited with old friends and estranged family members. Remy is a socialist, a retired history teacher, a perpetual womaniser, and a terminally ill cancer patient, with mere weeks left to live.
Written and directed by Denys Arcand, the film is the only sequel ever to win Best Foreign-Language Film, revisiting many of the characters from Arcand’s 1986 picture The Decline Of The American Empire, although (fortunately for me) it does not rely on the audience’s knowledge of prior events.
The central conflict in the film is between Remy and his son, Sébastien, who is summoned by his mother (Remy’s ex-wife) from London to Montreal to see his dying father. Sébastien is reluctant because he barely speaks with Remy, blaming the breakup of their family on his father’s adultery, while Remy disapproves of his son’s wealth and vocation in international finance.
In a departure from the cultural norm of depicting left-leaning people as empathetic and selfless, and capitalists as irredeemable leeches, The Barbarian Invasions has no time for such stereotypes, instead portraying lefty Remy as an unapologetic womaniser, a lousy teacher and a politically sanctimonious bore, while “puritanical capitalist” Sébastien is seen as kind-hearted and reasonable.
That’s not to say the film is proudly right-wing, or pro-capitalism, but it does go to great pains to depict socialist projects as inefficient, bureaucratic and underfunded. In a long shot during the opening credits, a pastor makes her way through a crowded public hospital — with patients and doctors spilling out into the corridors, and the cries of anguish among sobbing relatives interjected with the hollow beeps of medical monitors — as the pastor delivers the body of Christ to those souls on death’s door.
It’s bleak, as is the cinematography — everything is a sickly green. Meanwhile, the pastor gets everyone’s names wrong because the hospital’s computer system is on the blink. What’s more, Remy must be driven to a distant clinic for radiotharapy because the hospital’s facilities are too old.
Regardless, the stubborn old socialist won’t accept a move to an American private hospital because he “voted for Medicare and will accept the consequences”.
Later, as Sébastien attempts to make his father more comfortable by organising a private room on a disused floor of the hospital, he encounters bureaucratic hospital administrators, and unionised labourers, who he bribes into complicity. To get an idea of what the director thinks of unionisation, the foreman enters a lift with Sébastien, and tells a patient in a wheelchair to take the next one. Sébastien looks at him in disgust.
Similarly, Sébastien’s laptop is stolen, and only returned when he goes to the trade union, and (having paid them handsomely for their work on the private room) asks politely for them to keep an eye out for it. Lo and behold, they “find” it.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to relate to Remy and his smug friends. When the group finally converge at Remy’s (newly refurbished) private room, they all share a joke about Claude’s job as director of the Canadian University Institute of Rome, and titter over how tax payers’ money is squandered on this meaningless position, buried “in the budgetary quagmire” of the Foreign Affairs department, furnishing Claude and his boyfriend with fancy accommodation, a wage, and very little to do. It’s like listening to MPs boasting about their expenses claims.
There is some attempt to balance the film’s political commentary with condemnation of the right through Sébastien, who greases every palm, and considers himself wealthy enough to be above the law. When Sébastien is told by a doctor friend that heroin is 800% more effective as pain relief than morphine, he walks into a police station to ask the cops for information on where he can find high-quality heroin.
When Sébastien succeeds in finding a dealer, the police officer with whom he spoke discovers him and… they have a friendly chat. He’s not arrested, nor cautioned — it provides merely an opportunity for the narc to lament the invasion of immigrants taking up residence in the criminal underworld, and the futility of busting one gang of drug-dealing foreigners only for another nationality to fill the void.
It’s hard to ascertain what Arcand is trying to say regarding the title of the film. Does he consider immigrants the barbarians besmirching the purity of Québec, or — as referenced in an abrupt cut to a documentary about 9/11 — are the attacks upon the American “empire” the barbarian invasions?
The smug, intellectual elitism among Remy’s friends, and their misogyny — displayed as much by the men as the women in the film — make The Barbarian Invasions an uncomfortable watch — but not in a self-reflective way; more like watching reruns of Jim’ll Fix It.
However, the film is elevated by the performance of Marie-Josée Croze as drug addict Nathalie, a young relative of one of Remy’s friends who Sébastien pays to score heroin for his father (and in the process bankrolls her own addiction). She is the most sympathetic character in the film, quietly self-deprecating while worldly wise, and scenes featuring Croze are consistently more engaging.
The conclusion of The Barbarian Invasions is somewhat saccharine, but after the cynicism of the first half of the film, and the self-satisfied reminiscences of the middle section, some sentimentality is a welcome reprieve.
It’s hard to pick a winner when you don’t like either film, but even harder when neither of them is particularly offensive (unlike in Crash versus Tsotsi). The Return Of The King has a spattering of fun moments, but is mostly dull, pointless and inevitable; while The Barbarian Invasions makes you feel a bit sick until the end, when you suddenly have a warm glow.
I hate to say it, but I’m giving this one to The Barbarian Invasions based solely on the runtime — it is exactly half as long as the Tolkien epic, and twice as sweet for it, thank you very much. I will never comprehend the desire for Return Of The King’s extended edition, which slopped another 50 minutes on top of that 3-hour 20-minute slog.
What were you people smoking?
The series lead is extended by the international filmmakers to 6–10, the largest lead we’ve seen for either side.
Next time, can Hollywood narrow the gap with its Broadway adaptation of Chicago up against Germany’s diasporic drama Nowhere In Africa?
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
The Barbarian Invasions
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 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
- 2003: Chicago vs Nowhere In Africa
- 2002: A Beautiful Mind vs No Man’s Land