When I was an adolescent just developing my passion for film, the Academy Awards seemed the definitive imprimatur of quality, significance, and enduring legacy. I have no defense except Paul’s in First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child.”
Now that I’m older and know about the impact of money, and “For Your Consideration Campaigns,” and race/gender, and connections – and money – on who gets nominated and who wins, I watch the Oscars not to find out what I should appreciate but to root for the achievements of films and people that moved me in the previous year. And to shout at my television when ridiculous results are announced (Green Book wins Best Picture last year; If Beale Street Could Talk wasn’t even nominated, for example).
Here then is not a prediction of which film will win, but my opinion of which are most worthy of winning. The most fun is disagreeing with the Academy and with each other, so please consider this an invitation to vigorously contest my opinions.
Let’s start with this:
I have not loathed a film as much as I detest Joker since Oliver’s Stone’s Natural Born Killers was released in 1994.
My response to both films was the same: I needed a shower to wash off the cynical manipulative heartless hypocrisy that glorifies the very nihilistic violence they pretend (or hamhandedly attempt) to decry.
As I posted on Facebook after I saw Joker, it’s not that I don’t like dark films. But unremitting darkness is easy; suffusing that gloom with just enough light (hope) so that sentimentality and bathos are avoided is hard. Anyone can create a one-note dystopia of endless despair, but few can compose a complex symphony of meaning and emotion without diminishing the danger and darkness. (See Children of Men for a stellar example.)
I went through an adolescent phase of nihilism; everything and everyone was awful. Joker‘s stance is just as juvenile and simplistic.
It might go without saying that I disagree with Todd Phillips’ nomination for Best Director.
And, to give you plenty with which to argue, while Juaquin Phoenix’ performance certainly grabs one’s attention, attention-grabbing is as far as it goes and there are far better choices for Best Actor this year. (I know this is a minority opinion; it will be a shock if Phoenix does not win the award Sunday.)
Don’t worry, this is not a list of unremitting darkness. Joker was the only nominated film I did not like at least a little.
8. Ford v Ferrari
Ford v Ferrari is a lot of fun. It’s a well-made buddy movie with some exhilarating race car footage. Both Matt Damon and especially Christian Bale turn in charismatic performances. It’s hard to believe it was just last year when the now rail-thin Bale was Oscar-nominated for portraying jowly Dick Cheney. I was surprised by some of the twists and turns of the story that did not take place on the racetrack. There is even some nuance to the “villains” in the film – both the corporate suits and the Italian car makers get some things done.
Ford v Ferrari is a very good, perhaps even excellent, genre film. You should see it on the big screen if you can find it if only for the scenes that put you inside a car moving at 200+ miles per hour.
But Ford v Ferrari is not the Best Picture of this or any other year. It’s nice that it was nominated, but it’s the “Eight of these things are like the others, just one of them doesn’t belong” of this year’s nominees. (Even Joker has big – although unrealized – ambitions.)
7. The Irishman
I admit, I am not the right kind of Martin Scorsese fan. My favorite Scorsese films are not his gangster pictures, but a dark comedy (After Hours) and a spiritual epic (Silence), with another dark comedy – King of Comedy, ineptly imitated by Joker – close behind. (I promise, no more knocks on Joker.)
What The Irishman does have going for it is its honesty about the destructive reality of the gangster fraternity that could be viewed as glamorized in some of Scorsese’s earlier films. That’s not his intent, but hanging with DeNiro and Pacino and especially Joe Pesci can look pretty appealing.
But not in The Irishman, at least not after you get through its three hours. In some ways, it is an effective answer to those earlier films or even clarification of perspective as we imagine Scorsese looking back over his legacy.
It is an epic film with if not incredible, incredibly expensive (150 million dollars!), special effects that youthen its elderly leads in a way that is believable after you get used to it.
But on my list – and this is my list – there are five other films more worthy of the Best Picture Oscar. In those other films it is hard to find a wasted line of dialogue or shot; The Irishman would have benefited from a more ruthless editor or been presented as a miniseries.
6. Jojo Rabbit
Jojo Rabbit was one of my three or four favorite films of 2019. I am a big fan of Taika Waititi’s sensibility. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of my favorite 21st century comedies (do yourself a favor and watch it if you have not).
Jojo Rabbit has divided moviegoers and has divided my house. I loved it; Karen (my wife) found it inappropriate. Her complaint, a common one of those who dislike the film, is that making Hitler funny may serve to encourage rather than discourage those who admire his hate-filled legacy.
For me, Jojo Rabbit was indeed funny, but it was effective satire. I learned pretty early in my life that one of the best ways to defuse bullies is to laugh at them. That’s why comics are constantly under threat in totalitarian countries, and why Saturday Night Live and nightly talk show monologues are important beyond making us laugh.
There is a difference between making someone funny and making fun of them. I thought Jojo Rabbit accomplished the latter when it came to Hitler.
Jojo Rabbit made me cry as well as laugh. I won’t spoil that heartbreaking scene, but it gives the satire gravity and leaves no doubt about whose side it is on.
Scarlet Johansson plays Jojo’s mom with just the right amount of love and protectiveness mixed with sadness about her son’s faith in Nazis. Her patient hope that he will figure out the error of his ways is the heart of the film. If Laura Dern was not nominated for Marriage Story, Johansson would be my choice for Best Supporting Actress.
Reactions to Jojo Rabbit are too divisive for it to have a shot at Best Picture. Obviously, it’s not my first (or fifth) choice, either.
If this was a prediction list, 1917 would be number one or two. But for me, there were enough problems with 1917 that it drops to number five.
There was plenty I liked and appreciated about the film. The tension is unrelenting, and the cinematography is often beautiful in spite of the violence portrayed. I was surprised often in what could have been a formulaic action story. Thomas Newman’s excellent disquieting score expertly enhanced the suspense. And Sam Mendes should probably be awarded Best Director on Sunday for the intricate real-time choreography of the action that is edited to look like it was filmed in two long shots.
But . . . that illusion for me became distracting as I looked for the “seams.” What was intended to be immersive at times had the opposite effect of taking me out of the world of the film. I was also distracted by the repeated failure of the Germans to shoot our heroes – they were protected by what someone has coined “plot armor.” (I wish I knew where I read that term so I could give attribution – it is a perfect description of too many action films.)
I will include this caveat of my placing of 1917, though: At the showing I attended, someone behind and to the left of me had bronchitis or some other kind of condition that caused them repeated violent coughing fits. Their phlegm-excavating outbursts undoubtedly contributed to my challenge with staying engrossed in the film.
Please, dear reader, if you find yourself similarly sick, please stay home and watch Netflix until your condition improves.
4. Little Women
“Oh great, another version of Little Women.”
That was my reaction, and undoubtedly the response of many, to hearing about this film.
But Greta Gerwig has created something beyond just another version. This is a unique and profound vision of the source material. Gerwig accomplishes what might seem impossible – staying true to Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century book while making a film relevant to our 21st century reality.
She does this primarily by mixing up the chronology. It is like a magic trick centered on shuffling the cards; something wonderful and unexpected happens out of the rearranging. Gerwig’s failure to be nominated for Best Director is indicative of the Academy’s lack of judgment as well as its sexism.
Of course the director is helped by wonderful performances by . . . everyone in this film. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are deservedly nominated, but there is not a stronger ensemble in a film released last year. Laura Dern and Timothy Chalamet are particularly excellent.
Although it’s not my first choice, it would be great if Little Women won Best Picture as a makeup to Gerwig, but more likely is that she will win for Best Adapted Screenplay. If that happens, it will be a worthy award.
3. Marriage Story
I agonized over the placement of these last three films. I’d be fine with any of them winning Best Picture and, if I had a real vote, could see myself voting for any of them depending on my mood when it was time to mark the ballot.
Even in a three-way tie someone has to be awarded the victory (a reference to a previous film which I won’t be any more specific about so as not to spoil it).
Although it is my number three, at least for now, Marriage Story is an almost perfect film that starts with the Best Original Screenplay of the year by director Noah Baumbach. This film just feels real, surely in large part because it is based on Baumbach’s own disintegrating marriage.
Baumbach cast the picture perfectly as well. Adam Driver is my pick for Best Actor (although Juaquin Phoenix will win . . . biting my tongue), not least for his surprisingly competent performance of a Sondheim song. Scarlet Johansson holds her own with Driver, making it impossible for the viewer (at least this one) to make a choice about which of the sparring couple to prefer in their battle.
The supporting cast shines as well, particularly Laura Dern (as I said above, Best Supporting Actress) and Alan Alda as very different types of attorneys.
Marriage Story will probably not follow its spiritual forerunner, Kramer vs Kramer, to a Best Picture win, but this Netflix production should be similarly remembered as a stellar example of this genre of film, perhaps best described as the mirror-image of a romantic comedy.
I’ve written before that my primary test for a great film is one that I wake up thinking about the next day. Parasite is such a film.
I knew going in that there were going to be surprises, but was still gobsmacked when they happened. After the intricate setup of the first third or so, I had no idea where this film was going and how it was going to get there. Parasite would be my choice for Best Original Screenplay if not for my strong desire for Knives Out to win something (more about Knives Out below).
Not only is Parasite immensely entertaining, it is also a wry commentary on class and wealth. The scene where the family walks in the rain from the rich neighborhood to their own impoverished district is a masterpiece – down, down, down, down many flights of steps they go as they descend not just geographically but socially.
Speaking of surprises, it will be a big one if Parasite does not win Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday. And although it will be the first foreign language film to do so, it will only be a slight surprise if Parasite is awarded Best Picture.
If you have not seen Parasite because you “don’t like to read movies,” ignore the fact that it is subtitled and GO. You won’t even notice that you’re reading once the plot takes off.
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I can’t improve on the Facebook post I made about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood right after seeing it. I was in a hurry to get down my thoughts about this exhilarating movie experience. It’s the only film on the list I’ve gone out of my way to watch more than once. This movie about the movies would be the perfect winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Here’s that post:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is definitely worth seeing on the big screen. There is so much DETAIL that would be missed even on a larger TV at home. Quentin Tarantino has recreated 1969 LA not just in the sets and costumes but in little things like movie posters and magazine covers.
The soundtrack is incredible and sounds awesome on theater speakers.
I’ve read reviews that have problems with Leonardo DiCaprio’s casting/performance, but it is an Oscar-worthy turn demanding a range of emotions, sometimes within seconds of each other. Brad Pitt is also very good, as is Margot Robbie. Dakota Fanning is just plain scary.
I thoroughly enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but it is not without its flaws. Although I was never bored, it indulges some of Tarantino’s most irritating excesses (feet!). The 2:38 running time could have been reduced by cutting some scenes of cars driving around winding LA roads (ETA There’s almost as much driving in this film as in Ford v Ferrari!)
And about the ending (without spoilers) . . . There is no way it should have worked, but it did for me. I left the theater having experienced a surprising catharsis and that alone makes this film a success.
And puts it over the others to get my theoretical vote for Best Picture
BONUS: The Film I Enjoyed Most in 2019
(And should have been nominated for Best Picture! It would have been in the top five on my list.)
BONUS 2: My Picks for the Acting Awards
Best Actress – Renée Zellweger (Judy)
Best Actor – Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Best Supporting Actress – Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Best Supporting Actor – Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
Zellweger and Dern will probably win.
Driver will lose to Juaquin Phoenix and Hanks will be beaten by Brad Pitt.