Warning: Spoilers Ahead. The 92nd Academy Awards aired February 9, 2020, bringing all of their usual red carpet glamour and glitter. Emotional acceptance speeches and musical performances entertained audiences in Dolby Theater and at home, but what everyone truly awaited was the show’s highly coveted final award, Best Picture. This year, nine films were nominated: The Irishman, Little Women, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, 1917, Parasite and Ford v Ferrari. Jane Fonda announced Parasite the winner, bringing them up on stage for their sixth acceptance of the night. It was a victorious evening for the cast and crew, and even more exciting to see the first ever foreign-language film take home Best Picture, but there was a question left lingering. How did Parasite win with other movies such as Little Women in the running?
There is an infinitely large number of factors that go into creating a film: director, cinematography, actor, score, the list goes on. Knowing this, it’s difficult to even decide what it is that makes “The Best” movie. It seems logical to say that a strong combination of many of these elements is what elevates a film to a level worthy of an Academy Award nomination, but after seeing some of 2019’s top picks, I began to wonder. Vanity Fair describes the voting system as the “equivalent of the electoral college,” complete with a board run by governors and elected members from 17 different branches. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Academy Awards are not as all-powerful as they appear. The movies are simply voted on by some 8,469 voters picking their favorite. So, to decide whether they made the right choice, I watched as many of the nominees as I could in a couple weekends and did the same.
By the end of the viewing marathon, there still wasn’t an obvious winner. The top films of 2019 brought a variety of emotions, themes and messages to the table, but after much thought it felt right to put Little Women as number one. Firstly, it achieved that balance of many strong points, with acting, writing, and directing all playing a part to immerse audiences in the life of the March sisters. Not only was the cast full of A-listers, but their performances show that the casting was deliberate and effective. “About 20 minutes in, the characters cease to be characters; they are now flesh and blood, our sisters,” said top Tomato Meter critic Paul Byrnes. “We feel their happiness and despond[ency], their cold feet and warm hearts, their slights and loves.” Timothée Chalamet brought nuance to the kind, passionate Laurie that we all remembered from Alcott’s novel, as well as a palpable chemistry with Saoirse Ronan that further enhanced the deep sibling-like love between Laurie and Jo. Florence Pugh gave us a darling version of Amy that was a fan favorite, though perhaps not entirely faithful to her insufferable nature as was in the book. And of course, Ronan shined in her role as fiery Jo March, skillfully portraying a modern twist to her story that without a doubt came from the genius of writer and director Greta Gerwig.
In fact, Gerwig was behind one of the most captivating, distinctive details of Little Women. Her take on the classic story hardly alters the events, but instead examines the characters and their struggles through a more contemporary eye and rearranges the timeline to give a fresh perspective. Rotten Tomatoes describes it as, “In Gerwig’s take, the beloved story of the March sisters… is both timeless and timely.” We see in greater detail the difficulties Jo faces coming out of the comfort and shelter of young life with her family into a industry where publishers do not display the same eager attitude towards her writing as she’s accustomed to. She grapples with feelings of isolation and despair, fighting to retain her spirit as the independent woman she’s always been while making her way in the world.
While we see Jo fight on the frontline of a war against conventionality, Meg’s life and more domestic dreams are addressed with just as much reverence. She is not made out to be submissive or too weak to pursue her interest in acting, but rather as a woman who knows what it is she desires from life and doesn’t worry that it’s not good enough. To drive it home, Gerwig never fails at crafting striking, memorable lines that underscore the messages of each sister, such as Jo’s monologue: “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.”
Little Women was a breath of fresh air amid a group of nerve grating, bloody or otherwise saddening films. While of course everyone’s heart wrenched seeing Marmee sob into Jo’s skirts in grief over Beth, and Jo’s struggles with the loneliness of her life and dream resonated deeply, the film was also full of joy and love. From Laurie and Jo’s adventures, to Aunt March’s stern yet endearing character, to the various squabbles and endless laughs of the four girls, it was a movie from which you left the theater with your heart warmed.
However, no matter how exceptional Little Women was, Parasite is still not a movie to be ignored. The story kept you engaged, if not biting your nails to the bed, from the minute Ki-woo entered the Park household to the wild end of its 132 minute run time. “It did an amazing job of building intensity and was shot beautifully,” said Henry Phillips, a Parasite enthusiast.
He’s right to also note the cinematography, as it was perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the movie. Scenes throughout the film wove directly into a central theme, a theme made to be the center of attention before it even began: the idea of the parasite. As members of the Kim family became more and more entwined with the wealthy Parks, director Bong Joon-ho clearly was intentional in his imagery. The family fleeing and scattering like roaches in light, the flooded apartment like an extermination. It’s a masterful, inventive way of storytelling and showing people exactly what he wants them to see.
For these reasons, it’s without a doubt that it was simply better than several other nominees. Such tension or plot was never even located in Joker. Though Joaquin Phoenix was undeniably excellent in his chilling, anxiety-inducing leading role, the comment on society that the film was reaching for wasn’t enough to make everything else bearable. Essentially, the film hauled viewers through two hours of meaningless yet disturbing violence that ended more chaotically, but otherwise not much differently from where it started. I could have told you about Joker in about thirteen words: Mentally-ill Arthur Fleck goes off the deep end and dyes his hair green. Ford v Ferrari, while successful in connecting audiences to racer Ken Miles and his best friend and business partner Carroll Shelby, also fell short when it came to creating a truly gripping story.
In the end, it really can all be chalked up to what in a movie matters most or has the greatest impact on each person who watches. Little Women won me over with its heartfelt story, engaging performances and writing that fused past and present in an intentional, thought provoking way. For others, Parasite’s thrill ride of a plot and underlying themes through cinematography made it deserving of the Best Picture title. Some were even sold on Joker’s dark look at society and Phoenix’s triumphant performance. The truth is, there is no right answer. The Academy Awards, like everything else, provides just another take on the films of any given year. It’s up to each viewer to decide whether to take it or leave it.