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‘Parasite’ made Oscar history. Even better? ‘Parasite’ struck a blow for Oscar quality.

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

LOS ANGELES — I never thought I’d say this un-ironically, but: I’d like to thank the Academy.

Thank you for picking the South Korean film “Parasite.” It was the most vital, most elegant, most unpredictable and best film of 2019, and you picked it.

You picked the best film of the year, the way you did three years ago with Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and precious few other times in the 92 years of the film industry’s annual company picnic.

You picked it, and not in a patronizing, obligatory fashion. You realized Boon Joon Ho’scrafty marvel of a social thriller, about one family’s furtive, unpredictable entry into another family’s universe free from want, deserved the original screenplay award (for Ho and Han Jin-won), as well as the best director prize, en route to the gratifying surprise at the end.

Everybody knew “Parasite” had the international feature film award in the bag and ready for pickup. But when the “Parasite” ensemble won the Screen Actors Guild prize the other night, it felt like a portent of good things to come.

And they came.

Roar of joy: “Parasite” became the first film in a language other than English to win the best picture award in Oscar history, as well as the first South Korean title. One year after Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” lost the top Oscar to a ramshackle, well-acted fraud of a Civil Rights-era buddy act, things have temporarily course-corrected.

Had director and co-writer Sam Mendes’ “1917” won the prize, instead of “Parasite,” I’m sure a lot of folks inside Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre would’ve been perfectly content and reasonably enthused. But the spontaneous roar of joy greeting the ultimate win for “Parasite” Sunday didn’t sound like dutiful enthusiasm. It sounded like ecstatic relief — like the right kind of history was being made, for once, in this country.

In fact that’s what “Parasite” producer Kwak Sin-ae said on stage, standing at the microphone, surrounded by cast and crew. “I feel like a very opportune moment in history is happening right now,” she said.

Let’s not be naive about Bong’s splendid domination of the key Oscar categories. “Parasite” is an economic miracle and an international box office smash. Bong made it for roughly $11 million in U.S. dollars, and the movie has grossed $165 million worldwide. That’s a fine fat profit, and a likely factor in why it got six nominations in the first place. Quality only gets you so far around Oscar time.

But you could hear it building, as you watched the 3.5-hour ceremony, nearly identical to the running time of “The Irishman” (winner of the unofficial “best film to get zero Oscars” award for 2019). The big wins for “Parasite” jacked up the crowd, because something strange was happening right before everyone’s eyes: The right film, the sharpest, most assured, most intriguing genre mashup, was taking care of business.

The rest: As for the rest of the evening, well, you know. Fine. The opening musical number, headlined by Janelle Monae, slipped the knife in, deftly, with characters evoking conspicuously overlooked non-nominees (from “Us,” “Dolemite is My Name” and others).

I did pretty well on my ballot: 19 out of 24. The acting wins were pretty easy calls this year.

There was a swell local angle to Sunday’s Oscars. Along with Karen Rupert Toliver, Chicago native and former NFL wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry won the animated short film award for “Hair Love,” a beguiling story of a father, a daughter, a morning ritual and the importance of meeting every challenge on its own terms.

Now available online, the movie, Cherry said, was made in part to “normalize black hair.” At the Oscars Sunday was DeAndre Arnold,the Texas high school student recently suspended for wearing dreadlocks.

A couple of galling missteps threw me off, notably Taika Waititi’s adapted screenplay win for his coy Holocaust heartwarmer “Jojo Rabbit” over Greta Gerwig’s remarkable adaptation of “Little Women.”

The speeches: The acceptance speeches ran a wilder gamut than the plotting of “Parasite.” After a terrific BAFTA speech in London the other night, Joaquin Phoenix (picking up his best actor statuette for “Joker”) took on the world and then some. He covered the waterfront, from the “egocentric worldview” of contemporary America to the planet’s more selfish inhabitants, i.e., those who “plunder (for) its resources.” It’s time, Phoenix said, to “guide each other toward redemption.” He mentioned also that he’d been “cruel at times” and “hard to work with.”

Once again, the Oscars did without an official host. Yet in the early going, the ideal hosts were right there, all four of them, staring all of us in the face and getting some serious laughs. I’m talking about Steve Martin and Chris Rock, and Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. Two double acts, equally fabulous.

Those are your 2021 hosts right there.

This year, more than most, history caught up with the Oscars, and the Oscars had its eyes open. The jokes and speeches were plenty political, because our time is out of joint (thank you, William Shakespeare). If one presenter or awards recipient after another glanced on climate change, or (per supporting actor winner Brad Pitt) the John Bolton-free impeachment, well, that’s America right now.

History, already in the rear-view mirror, even popped up in the sound editing category. “Ford v Ferrari” won that one. Since the pricey gamble came out under the 20th Century Fox banner, and Fox is now owned by Disney, as Donald Sylvester said in his acceptance speech: The movie is/was “probably the last film ever made by 20th Century Fox.” Another acquisition, another round of layoffs. Another op’nin, another show.

That’s one example of history, steamrolling the past and erasing part of Hollywood history. But the triumph of “Parasite” symbolizes another.

The academy chose the way forward. Next year, Oscar can break our hearts again. This year the academy did right by Bong Joon Ho, and the filmmaker did right by the academy.

I really would like to thank the academy. This nearly makes up for “Green Book.”