On Trial [Parasite] vs [1917] (Best Picture)

One of the best conversations in film is debating ‘who should have won.’ We are going to revisit the great award debates, and decide, in hindsight, who should’ve won.

Maybe enough time has not passed to adequately judge Parasite and 1917. But then again it is amazing how quickly we gain perspective on films after leaving the grandiosity of the theater and award’s season. 

So let’s start with the most recent installment of the on-going debates about who should have won Best Picture, keeping in mind that there exists a debate only because these two movies are so awesome. 

Never convince yourself a movie is bad as you defend why you like another better.

The Case for 1917

1917 is a directorial clinic. The entire film is a giant oner, which turned me off at first. The concept felt gimmicky and self-serving (i.e. The Revenant), but man it worked… It was an integral part of the time-dependent plot and story and created an intensity in its unbrokenness that needs to be experienced. 

Sam Mendes (the director), in an interview with IMDB, explained, “Stories are nothing if you are not emotionally engaged. The two characters are given very little exposition, you don’t really know who they are and the one-shot technique, I think, allows you to live with them and breathe every breath and watch the clock ticking down.” Because of this decision, everything else necessary in a war movie fell into place. 

The set needed to be phenomenal because there was a lot of walking and sneaking around with no cut and reset. As a plot/narrative/story guy, I am rarely captured by the setting and the cinematography when I first watch a movie, but in 1917 wanted the camera to slow down or pause so I could look at every detail. It didn’t. It constantly moved forward, pressing the narrative and the tension. The trenches alone are worth multiple viewings before we even see the green fields of France

They also had to be efficient in their storytelling, which they were. Mendes mentioned the character’s lack of exposition, so they took small moments, like the terrific opening scene, to efficiently establish the characters and their relationships to each other. 

He also mentioned ‘breath[ing] every breath’ with the characters as a means of connecting with them, and by the end, when Lance Corporal Schofield, sat beneath a tree and brought out a picture of his wife and child, the viewer realizes just how big of an emotional impact the technique had. 

None of this considers the scope of the story and the telling. The film is shot over broad swaths of land and open country, and then dives into underground tunnels and bunkers as it tells a story of WWI, a massive epic in human history, as experienced through just two men. It has the up-close and the afar, the human and the humanity, the personal and the universal. As Schofield ran across no-mans-land to save the lives of those men, my heart ached for his bravery, and I believed he was making a difference. And when Colonel Mackenzie basically told him all those lives would just be wasted another day, and to “Fuck off.” I realized the needless waste of war, and the futility of one man. There are no heroes in war. Just men doing brave acts that no one will know about. 1917 shows us this.

There is a unity in the comprehensive scope of 1917 based on its one-shot technique, that demands all facets of the film work together. It shows the cost of war on humanity and humans, over fields and in trenches, through the setting and the story.

The Case for Parasite

Parasite, in comparison to 1917’s broad sweep, is crammed into the nooks and crannies of existence. It digs into the ground to unearth the truth in a specific social dynamic, and by-god it does it well. Each shot feels intentional, and often are up close and cramped, like a life in a semi-basement. 

Stories are nothing if they don’t get us to empathize and comprehend those different than us, and I think the Parasite-demonium (Did that work? I think I like it) came from how easily it was for us to feel empathy for a group of people that we are unlikely to meet in person. That speaks to the directing of Bong Joon Ho. 

But it also speaks to a universality to the story. Americans are familiar with the social ladder and, through this understanding, felt a connection with a country across the world from our own. Seems like the reason we watch movies.

But this foreign language film is not a documentary. There is plot for days. Some of it fun, some of it haunting, all of it killer. Parasite moves fast, getting from one place to the next believably but quickly, and the story layers on itself, the characters continually complicate their relationships with each other, the setting becomes more and more crowded, until everything culminates in the scene at the backyard barbecue that had my hands on my head and my jaw on the floor. 

Parasite, through this story and these amazing and well-rounded characters, runs the gamut of emotions, not focusing on being any one thing, but allowing humans to interact as we do, sometimes hilariously, sometimes seriously, sometimes horrifically.

This is where Parasite does its best work. It portrays a human so well, puts a bunch of them in a film in close quarters, and then puts the viewer right in the middle of it as they careen off of each other.

But Parasite also has the X-factor that often gets downplayed in the film critic world: re-watchability. I want to go back and see the funny jokes and the clever moments, when they get in a fight with the alley-pisser and the Jessica Jingle (I find myself doing that thing she does with her fingers all the time). It’s not the most rewatchable, but I can see myself hitting play on this one a few times more.

Parasite surprised everyone as a foreign language film that was relatable because of Bong Joon Ho’s framing of every scene for the max amount of significance and humanity. Story’s pile on top of stories in a movie that builds on itself the way humans build on each other like…parasites.

The Rebuttal for 1917

Isn’t the whole oner thing just a little self-serving? Just because a director can do something doesn’t mean it needs to be done. Couldn’t he have cut and changed perspective a couple times? Would that really have prevented us from feeling the same connection to the characters? Were we less connected to Saving Private Ryan because they used more traditional methods of filming?

And this story hits like a Mack Truck, but I am a sucker for a story that makes me want to rewind and watch it again. I may need a year of recovery before watching 1917 again. 

And there is such a thing as trying to be about too much, and a movie that tries to bring us themes like the price of war and the loss of humanity can find itself overwhelming an audience.

The Rebuttal for Parasite

If this movie was in English, would it have won? This felt like one of those ‘brave’ moves by the Academy to honor a foreign language film for the first time in 93 years because one finally found its way into the mainstream (how brave). 

Meanwhile, the film world ‘hipstered’ it into local theaters, by liking that film that is entirely in Korean. Nothing amazes your casual movie going buddies than by saying your favorite movie of the year is in Korean, am-I-right?

Verdict

In my biased, subjective, very personal opinion the winner of the 2019 Best Picture Award should have been…

1917

Watching this movie in theaters was an experience that I don’t expect to have again. I was locked in for every second because of the reasons stated above. One way to measure stories is in their emotional currency, and this movie broke my bank.

Meanwhile I see the impact of Parasite fading with time. Forever a great movie, but I think a large reason it won Best Picture was because it was a foreign language film, which will stop being amazing after a while. 

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