Jack Mathews: ‘Parasite’ can’t win Best Picture, can it? Hmmm, maybe.

The question has been asked and answered 11 times. Can a foreign language film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar actually win it? Eleven times over eight decades, beginning with Jean Renoir’s 1938 “Grand Illusion” and ending with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” last year, the answer has been no.

The question is now being asked a 12th time and though the academy’s pattern of voting behavior suggests another negative answer, the passion for Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” has its fans and a lot of us navel-gazing prognosticators thinking “Hmmm, maybe.”

If it weren’t for the Christmas release of Sam Mendes’ “1917,” which had the temerity to be both a terrific movie and perfectly timed, “Parasite” might well be the front-runner for picture and director. Remember, it was gaining momentum while early favorites “Marriage Story,” “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” were fading.

But “2017,” favored to win by the majority of Gold Derby experts, now has the momentum and the “big look” gravitas that academy members often cannot resist. Yet, “Parasite” is pretty irresistible itself.

The problem for any foreign language movie getting enough first, second and third place votes on the preferential ballot to win is the assumption that most voters will think they’ve done their job voting for it for best international film. But that has not always been the case. Of the eleven previous foreign films nominated for best picture, only five won their foreign category.

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What a travesty it would be if “Parasite” were to lose both. It’s not likely that it will lose the international film Oscar, but the strong sentiment for Pedro Almodovar’s exquisite “Pain & Glory” makes it conceivable.

On paper, “Parasite” seems a longer shot than previous contenders. “Roma” had a total of 10 nominations, as did “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” suggesting across-the-board support, but both came up short.

I remember introducing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to a film club audience in Scarsdale, New York and when I told them it was going to be a major contender for Oscars, they nearly booed me out of the theater.

Such was the fate of Asian films for reasonably sophisticated American audiences. “Parasite” changes that dynamic.

The X factor in predicting Oscars is the passion folks have for the nominees and I don’t sense any of them having inspired the level of passion that exists for “Parasite.” The rousing standing ovation its cast received at the SAG awards summed its overall reaction pretty well.

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I’m not quite ready to pick “Parasite” over “1917” for Best Picture, or “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” which I believe still has a chance, but I believe voters will give it more than a token international film Oscar. The likeliest place for them to show their appreciation is to vote the best director Oscar to Bong.

The directors of 10 of the previous 11 such Best Picture nominees were also nominated, and last year, Cuaron became the first director of a foreign language film to win. So, there’s that.

No question, Bong’s breakout film puts him in elite company on a director ballot that includes Mendes, Scorsese and Tarantino, each of who’s movies would be a worthy winner of best picture. I’ve seen all five of the nominated directors’ movies twice, and Bong’s is the one I still want to see again.

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