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! ****
The 2015 Oscar nominations for Best Picture were read out by Sean Penn, and, before announcing the winner — in a moment that underscores the point of this series — he made a joke about the director’s immigration status: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”
Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu worked closely with Penn on 21 Grams, so presumably they were friends, but the very notion that a foreigner could win Hollywood’s most coveted prize was still preposterous enough for it to be joked about.
In his acceptance speech, Iñárritu mentioned being the second Mexican in a row to win best director (Alfonso Cuarón took it the year before with Gravity). He joked: “Maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules to the academy — two Mexicans in a row? That’s suspicious.” Little did he know he’d be back the following year to accept the award again for his work on The Revenant – the fourth win in a row for a non-white director, a run that began with Ang Lee for Life of Pi. And yet, it would take another five years for the Academy to award Best Picture to a film in a language besides English.
In my view, the Best Foreign-Language Film ought always to have received a wildcard nomination for Best Picture. But, since the Foreign-Language winners have only received a nomination for Best Picture six times in the entire history of the Oscars, here we are…
A movie to Marvel at
Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the story of washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson, seeking to reinvent himself from his waning commercial success as a superhero icon into an artistic and meaningful Broadway performer. His play is blighted by hilarious and humiliating mishaps, money worries and a mischievous replacement cast member. Meanwhile, Riggan struggles to appease his disaffected daughter, a drifting girlfriend, a brutally honest ex-wife and his subconscious manifesting as Birdman himself.
Michael Keaton plays the lead role, drawing natural parallels with his stint as Batman in the campy Tim Burton movies of the 90s — as though the film is saying Keaton’s career was similarly stunted by reaching such dizzying heights. Still, the performance is more reminiscent of Christian Bale’s thoroughly more mean, gravel-voiced performance in the Chistopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, but there are swipes, too, at Marvel superstar Robert Downey Jr — the “tin man”.
Birdman revels in that age-old conflict between commercial success and artistic merit, between blockbusters and arthouse, between Marvel and Martin Scorsese.
Notably, the film does not fall on either side of the debate — yes, it exposes the triviality of hugely successful popcorn movies, but it also openly laughs at the pomposity of self-aggrandising theatre and its conceited critics, ridiculing ostentatious actors and the kind of material that try-hard directors pick to perform. Riggan’s play is an obscure adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, replete with garish, abstract dream sequences and mid-conversation soliloquys. It is only a failed suicide attempt on stage that wins the play acclaim.
What’s immediately striking about the movie is its use of single-take steady-cam shots, with wide-angle lenses making the backstage corridors seem deep, narrow and claustrophobic. There are ingenious scenes that pan from present day to flashback and back again without a cut, and some marvellous mirror compositions. The soundtrack, too, is a frenetic joy — alongside fellow nominee Whiplash, 2015 was all about jazz drummers.
The performances are phenomenal, from Keatons’ frustrated lead, to Emma Stone as his disgruntled daughter and Edward Norton as the infuriatingly impressive theatre lovey Mike Shiner. Sometimes a play within a play can be a little tiresome, or trite, but watching Shiner coach Riggan through his lines and stumble upon a delivery that surprises them both is a little bit of (albeit pretentious) magic.
Birdman, Or (I Don’t Know How To Use Brackets)
The convention to give something two titles is as old as science fiction itself, though the misuse of parentheses is an obscure choice. Mary Shelley — widely credited with inventing sci-fi in the early 1800s — titled her magnum opus Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Indeed, books of that era were not shy of doubling up on titles: Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded; Moby-Dick: or, The Whale; even Charles Darwin was at it with On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Generally, though, the short title/long title form allows for something snappy to be followed by something thematic. In cinema, the most prominent example is Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb – we all refer to it simply as Dr Strangelove, and we glean it is a comedy about the bomb.
However, superfluous brackets aside, it is slightly different with Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)– we just call it Birdman, of course, but are we to infer it is a comedy about ignorance? Or — and I prefer this meta reading — is it simply a pretentious title for a comedy about being pretentious?
I’ve no Ida
The 2015 winner of Best Foreign-Language Film was widely tipped to be Russian drama Leviathan, but Paweł Pawlikowski’s drama Ida– about a Polish nun discovering her Jewish heritage — ultimately struck the hearts of the judges.
This is a very different film to Birdman.
Set in 1960s Poland, Anna is an orphaned nun a week away from taking her final vows, when she is informed by the mother superior that she has a living relative. Anna is told to speak with this aunt and only return once she has come to terms with her roots. Having lived her entire life sheltered inside the convent, her shock is muted when Aunt Wanda informs her she was originally named Ida Lebenstein, and her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation.
Ida is a meek, quiet and innocent girl, and if it weren’t for her striking features, she would be completely outshone by her companion, her aunt, Wanda Gruz — an ex-Soviet Judge and promiscuous alcoholic. Where Ida is innocence personified, Wanda has spent a lifetime confronting her past and silencing her grief with sex and booze. She has a fascinating history, intrinsically involved in the Communist resistance against the Nazis, later sending men “to their deaths” as a state prosecutor. However, Ida’s sudden appearance compels Wanda to face the terrible consequence of that past, and she suggests a road trip to search for the graves of Ida’s parents.
The relationship — and juxtaposition — between Wanda and Ida forms the backbone of the film, as the elder tempts the teenage nun to sample life’s sinful joys before she rejects them forever with her vows. Wanda even attempts to kindle a romance between her niece and a hitchhiking saxophonist they pick up, and entreaties Ida to join a dance in the local conference hall. But Ida remains resolutely stoic and pious — until the abrupt absence of her aunt in the last act of the film.
Here for the ratio
Pawlikowski chose to shoot the film in the old television aspect ratio of 4:3, which, though an unusual choice, lends itself well to the 1960s era, but also to the stylised cinematography. Filmed in black and white with mostly static angles, the subject of the frame tends to be in the bottom fifth of the screen, which, coupled with the narrower image, makes Ida appear small and less in control of her story. She is constantly diminished by the cold, bleak reality above and around her, as though she is but a footnote in her own life. She is most commanding of the screen when she is alone, her habit removed, either lying awake in bed or contemplating her face in the mirror.
The style makes for some striking compositions, though the originality of it has waned in recent years with many a cinematographer exaggerating negative space, even in popular shows like Luther or Mr Robot.
There’s also some expert sound design, most strikingly the scenes at dinner in the convent, when silence precedes the cacophonous clatter of cutlery and crockery as the nuns eat their soup. It’s oddly disconcerting.
Despite the standout performance from Agata Kulesza as Wanda, and indeed the revelations regarding her character, the film feels slightly underwhelming. Perhaps it’s the focus on the taciturn nun that blunts its edge, or the distractingly obfuscated cinematography, but I was left wishing it was a film called Wanda…
It’s an interesting duel, this week, between a film that mocks cerebral art, and a cerebral film.
I must admit, the first few scenes of Ida reminded me of the French & Saunders Ingmar Bergman spoof — a serious piece in black and white; bleak images, frigid atmosphere — just without the punch lines. It is the kind of film a philistine would deride for being too stereotypically bloody foreign – too slow, nothing happens, no screaming denouement or frenzied revenge. It is the perfect foil to Birdman’s irreverence towards artistry.
It’s difficult to decide which is superior when they’re such polar opposites, but ultimately Ida left me hoping for more. Meanwhile, Birdman achieves what it sets out to do: entertain, beguile and befuddle. Plus, I’m a fan of its self-referential meta humour. So I’ll give this round to the Americans.
That gives Hollywood a narrow lead in this International Oscar Showdown series: 3 – 2. Check back next time for a comparison of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and Italian drama The Great Beauty.
Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
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
- 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