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! ****
Argo was the surprise winner at the 2013 Oscars — indeed, if you listened to the audience as Jack Nicholson read out the nominees, Argo was the only one that didn’t inspire a cheer.
Its director, Ben Affleck, was up against stiff competition: Ang Lee had already won Best Director for Life of Pi, and Quentin Tarantino took home the Best Screenplay award for his cathartically violent slavery picture Django: Unchained. Meanwhile, Silver Linings Playbook and Les Misérables had come to the awards with eight nominations apiece, and movie legend Steven Spielberg was in the running with Lincoln.
Notably, also nominated was the winner of Best Foreign-Language Film — gasp!
That’s right: for only the fifth time — and only twice since — a nominee for best international film was given a crack at the big time. In 2013, that was five times out of 63 awards ceremonies. The shame!
People have deliberated extensively on why Argo won the award — was it because having no front-runner can lead to strange results?; was the award a corrective for Affleck’s absence form the Best Director nominees, despite winning similar awards elsewhere?; or could the Academy ever have snubbed a film in which Hollywood literally saves the day?
Whatever the reason, rarely do critics wonder if Argo was really — genuinely — truly — better than that little French film with the two pensioners, shot entirely in one apartment.
Argo fuck yourself
Affleck was enjoying something of a renaissance in the late 2000s. After his lamentable turn in 2003 as Daredevil, followed by the romantic lead in the laughably bad Gigli, he re-emerged a confident and competent director, first with Gone Baby Gone in 2007 and then The Town in 2010, both of which were Box Office successes.
His following project was Argo, a true story (adroitly marketed as “declassified”) about an elaborate CIA ruse in the 1970s to pose as Hollywood movie producers scouting for locations in Iran, in order to smuggle out six American operatives hiding in the Canadian embassy from revolutionary guards.
Affleck plays the real-life CIA consultant Tony Mendez, who cooked up the plan and flew into Tehran to retrieve his compatriots. He makes contact with the survivors, briefs them on the plan, gives them new identities, and, after taking them to conspicuously explore a bazaar with camera viewfinders and notepads, escorts the crew to the airport for some breath-taking escape tension.
Elements of style
The film has three elements: 1) glorified 70s Hollywood kitsch, featuring some of the best lines of dialogue and a gloriously misanthropic performance from Alan Arkin; 2) some human drama among the stranded Americans; and 3) the will-they-won’t-they rush to flee at the end.
Unfortunately, Argo only nails one of these: the Hollywood scenes. Watching Arkin and John Goodman critique trashy sci-fi movie scripts is great fun, and the meetings with grimy producers and eager, costume-clad actors reveals the seedy side behind the silver screen. There’s also the gentle ribbing of Affleck himself, as Arkin says to him: “You can train a rhesus monkey to direct a movie in a day.”
But all that comes in the first act.
Meanwhile, in Iran, there’s an attempt at drama between the six stranded Americans, but it falls flat, not least because they resemble Scoobydoo cosplay. I can’t honestly tell you any of their names, nor recall which were in relationships, or what they did at the agency. They’re just there, in rather pleasant environs, enjoying red wine at the Canadian embassy, listening to records and grumbling about their predicament. They would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those pesky revolutionaries.
(There’s also a flimsy sub-plot about Mendez’s relationship with his son, but it’s so underdeveloped I refuse to mention it beyond these parentheses.)
Argo’s third element is the tension-building escape. The ticking clock is set when Mendez decides to go against orders and carry out the aborted mission, recklessly taking the crew to the airport knowing their tickets have not yet been approved. “Somebody’s responsible when things happen, Jack,” Mendez says in mumbled solemnity to his boss, played by Bryan Cranston. “I’m responsible. I’m taking them through.” Sure, it’s the most irresponsible action he could take, but at least it gives something for Cranston to do.
As Cranston rushes to get the team’s tickets approved by the president, Affleck talks about the levels of security they’ll encounter at the airport — in a sequence reminiscent of the original Mission: Impossible movie, where Ethan Hunt outlines the ludicrously sensitive security systems that his IMF team must overcome. But instead of state-of-the-art temperature gauges, laser grids and pressure sensors, Affleck explains that the checkpoints will include a passport check, a brief question from a customs officer, and finally a potentially grilling interview with an educated Iranian revolutionary guard.
Take a look again at Mission: Impossible, and note Brian De Palma’s masterful grasp of tension.
So: Ethan has explained the security systems on the train. Inside Langley, he and Krieger disarm the first system — a laser grid over an air vent. Meanwhile, their colleague Claire has poisoned the target CIA analyst’s coffee, which forces him to the bathroom.
While Ethan is lowered into the vault, several elements come together to raise the tension: there’s the temperature gauge, which if it rises one degree will set off the alarm. There’s the analyst, who valiantly tries to return to work, despite having vomited repeatedly in the men’s room. There’s the rat scuttling towards Krieger. There’s sudden disaster as Krieger strikes the rat but drops Ethan barely a hair’s breadth from the floor, where he dangles, desperate not to touch the ground’s pressure sensors.
The analyst is coming back. The temperature has risen 0.9 of a degree. A bead of sweat rolls down the lens of Ethan’s glasses, and another slides in its trail to join it, threatening to drip and trigger the pressure sensors. But — with breath held — Ethan catches the bead of sweat on his glove.
With some brief reprieve, Ethan resumes his ascent. But their rope has come loose from its pulley and is scraping loudly against the frame of the vent, dangerously close to triggering the audio alarm. And the analyst is at the retinal scan right outside the door.
Krieger pulls Ethan up to the vent, but drops his knife — the audience holds their breath as it falls, there’s nothing that can stop it, the alarm must surely be triggered, it’s over… But at the last moment, the analyst opens the door, the systems shut off, white to black, and the knife thuds harmlessly into his desk.
It’s funny and frightening and thrilling, the whole sequence — rat, rope, sweat and sick — and it is no surprise that directors have tried to replicate it repeatedly in the decades since.
Does Argo have any of that?
In a word: No.
You see, this is a true story — or as true as Tony Mendez says it is — and the denouement in real life was altogether less hair-raising. The crew managed to get through the airport without too much of a hitch, boarded the plane and flew away.
To inject this drab finale with some suspense, the film confects tension with cheap — at times laughable — obstacles. There’s the bus driver who fumbles with the gear stick for no reason — as though he’s never driven a bus before — and takes an age to drive off.
Or there’s the nonsensical moment Arkin and Goodman can’t return to their office because it’s on the other side of a film set that’s shooting a cop movie — the Argo script seems to forget Arkin and Goodman have been told the mission is off, so they have no reason to be impatient, let alone any desire to go back to their fake production office, and certainly no idea the Iranian guard will be calling to verify the existence of their concocted movie.
There’s also no improvisation from Affleck and his party, besides one of the nameless Americans getting into character and annotating the movie’s storyboard in Farsi to the guards. Other than that, there’s no quick thinking, no life-saving action; it’s just a succession of increasingly hostile queues.
Without going into detail, I suggest you watch the Denzel Washington film Out Of Time — no, I’m being serious, watch it. There’s a scene in that film that I love, and it illustrates this point beautifully: in it, Denzel has to think on his feet to stop Eva Mendes receiving a fax. It’s the same agency — protagonist doesn’t want to get identified — but in Argo it’s passive and insipid.
Amour sullen affair
I was excited to watch Amour– one of the few fabled foreign-language films to get a Best Picture nomination — and I was not disappointed. Michael Haneke’s intimate little film is about a sweet retired couple, Anne and Georges, who must cope with Anne’s sudden semi-paralysing stroke, and her gradually deteriorating mental capacity.
It’s a film of frightening frailty, and an enduring love that is stretched to its limits by ill health. Shot entirely in the couple’s apartment — apart from an early sojourn to the concert of one of Anne’s ex pupils — the couple carry the film impressively with warmth, humour and devastating tragedy.
There’s not much to say about its plot — Anne endures a gradual, inevitable and heartbreaking decline in health, with all the thousand humiliations that accompany such an affliction, while Georges watches his companion of six decades slowly lose her mind. It’s a tragic story, and I felt compelled to hold my wife closer as we watched.
Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the film’s protracted shots of mundanity: the shot of the concert auditorium filling up; the inexplicably long shot of the maid vacuuming; the sequence of paintings; Georges doing the washing up. I get why they’re all included, but why so long? I suppose they force you to dwell on what you’re watching…
Amour does carry a couple of surprises — which I shan’t spoil, in case you’ve not seen it. But they are gasp-worthy moments of drama that are as thoughtful as they are abrupt.
The film is definitely a thinker — as most of these foreign-language winners tend to be — in that it affects you in ways a blockbuster never could. Like a perfect novel, it very gently changes something in you, and makes you perceive the world a little differently.
Vitally, the performances are exquisite, especially that from Emmanuelle Riva, who was nominated for best actress — and who still holds the record for being the oldest actor, male and female, to be nominated for such an award. The chemistry between the two leads is like watching a real couple in love; every time Georges helps Anne to her wheelchair, it looks like another dance they shared.
It’s quite the feat of storytelling and character development to confine a film entirely to one set and still keep the viewer engaged throughout, but Amour accomplishes it. Its greatest strength is in its mixture of tragedy and hope, but all things must end as they do.
Of all the International Oscar Showdowns so far, this one has featured two films more unalike than any of the others — even 12 Years A Slave and The Great Beauty. So, how to judge them against one another? With genres so contrasting, the only way I think that is fair is to ask: did they accomplish what they set out to do?
The answer, plainly, is “No” for Argo — it wanted to be something more, but underwhelmed in its thrills, its drama and its characters. The suspense is cheap, and its fun moments are too loaded at the front of the film. And the protagonist is as dull as dishwater.
But Amour does exactly what it sets out to do: it makes you empathise, forces you to consider a harrowing ethical dilemma, and paints a picture of love that makes you want to weep. It’s a lovely little film, and that’s why I’m giving this Showdown to the International filmmakers.
Hollywood’s lead is thus narrowed once more, to a nail-biting 4–3 score. Next time we have an altogether confusing edition, in which the Best Foreign-Language film, Iran’s A Separation, goes up against a Best Picture winner with no language at all — The Artist, made by French filmmakers, no less.
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
- 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