Oscar in 2020: Predicting the Winners

E: The list of films I loved this year was pretty small.  The overlap with Oscar was even smaller.  But hey, it is what it is, right?  I’ve been doing this long enough to know I need to find joy where ever I can.

Aside from not being my favorite, this is also not a year with a lot of room for surprise.  The acting frontrunners have won every single chance they’ve had – not even a tiny wiggle like last year’s unexpected BAFTA win for Olivia Coleman foretelling her criminal upset of Glenn Close.  Nope, they’re all solid locks – the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice, the Screen Actors awards and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and Sciences all picked the same four people.  Best Picture was literally up for grabs until about a week ago, but BAFTA, the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild have solidified that race pretty nicely, too.  Sure, there’s a little wiggle room, but not a lot.  Let’s talk about what we already know, shall we?

Best Supporting Actor:

Your Winner: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

How Sure Am I?: 99%

If Not Him, Then Who?:  Joe Pesci, The Irishman

It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated:

Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes

Al Pacino, The Irishman

If I Had a Vote: Anthony Hopkins

Worst Snubs: Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell; John Lithgow, Bombshell; Chris Evans, Knives Out; Christopher Plummer, Knives Out

To put it kindly, I’m bemused by this list.  Really, more the I look at it the more I hate this category.  I don’t, frankly, understand why either Pesci or Pitt is here.  Pitt, I suppose, because his stunt man character exudes a certain kind of macho cool, whether it’s driving around Hollywood squinting at young girls or needlessly beating up Bruce Lee (and anyone else he wants).  What a thing to win an Oscar for!  The role is neither deep, insightful, nor realistic, but hey, whatever.  And Pesci.  My God, what a little cartoon mafioso he was. I have such issues with The Irishman, not least in that there’s no moment where middleman Pesci or hitman DeNiro reads as a convincing 20-something (or 30, 40 or even 50-something).  It’s nothing we haven’t seen a million times before, from Pesci and others.  I do think the other three turned in worthy enough performances and would really have been okay with any of them, but that’s not this year.

At least Al Pacino’s bombastic (what else?) turn as labor leader Jimmy Hoffa felt more lived in. At least his character had motivations that made sense; while Pesci’s Russell Bufalino was motivated solely by loyalty to largely unseen bosses, Hoffa wants his legacy, wants control for himself.  Sure, he was violent and amoral, with a preposterously exaggerated sense of his own importance. And I didn’t enjoy his movie at all, but at least he felt recognizably human.

I have friends who were deeply offended by Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Pope Benedict in The Two Popes, or rather, by a script they felt dishonored and caricatured the real man.  Historical fidelity is a thing I struggle with.  I loved The Two Popes, but it’s clearly colored with a particular political view of the two men involved.  Whether or not you agree with that stance, however, I found Anthony Hopkin’s acting superlative.  Is his finicky, ambitious (and then post-ambitious) clergyman a true reflection of Joseph Ratzinger?  I can’t say.  I can say that he was human, and moving, flawed and kind.  I can say that I found his interactions with Pryce’s Jorge Bergoglio a genuine conversation of equals, of different men who see each other (spoken, fittingly, across multiple languages).  I know it’s an imaginary dialogue, but it felt truthful, and what I learned from it was more about what it is to be human and to try and live a faithful Christian life as any piece of actual history.   Honestly,  my biggest problem with his nomination is probably that he ought to be considered a colead; his role is only missing a bit of the humanizing backstory afforded to Bergoglio, but the two men share equal billing and significance.

I’m absolutely delighted to see Tom Hanks back in Oscar’s pantheon after a 19 year drought.  He nails the iconic speech patterns and the gentle delivery of children’s television host Fred Rogers, and helps weave a spell of decency and kindness so contrary to the current national mood.  Rogers, through Hanks, is absolutely the hero we need right now, reminding us to connect, with ourselves, with our better angels, and with those around us.  We need a place to put our negative emotions so we can deal with them, he teaches, and if America could do with better advice today I’m not sure what it is.  Maybe that’s why Hanks isn’t on track to win: we have an inkling that we ought to be doing better, but AMPAS is more interested in punching back against the world.

As ever, there are so very many options the Academy didn’t honor for supporting male roles. Any long time reader of this space might be forgiven some shock at the site of Sam Rockwell’s name in this space.  I found his Oscar winning turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri repulsively cartoonish and unilluminating – but he’s entertaining and deeply nuanced as a brash, smart lawyer who takes a genuine shine to an oddball stock room employee and comes to his aid many years later.  It’s the interaction between those two men that opens up the world of Richard Jewell, another problematic yet brilliant historical film.

The men of Parasite all turned in impressive performances – Kang-ho Song has received the most press as the Kim clan’s underdog patriarch, but Sun-kyun Lee and Woo-sik Choi keep the well calibrated machine moving as a superior business tycoon and an ambitious, clever con artist. Their film lives in a feral underbelly of stark class distinctions, but they at least show a more human side than the over-lauded mobsters of The Irishman, living out their stereotypes without blinking.

John Lithgow stuns as Roger Ailes: he’s avuncular, protective, domineering and also vilely predatory, a spider enthroned in his web, a villain, but not only a villain.  Bombshell gave you a vision of Ailes as a leader – someone that underlings could respect and follow, but also fear and compromise themselves for.  I have no idea why his performance wasn’t buzzed about.  I can see not wanting to reward someone for playing a predator,  but considering the slate of characters we have, that delicacy is definitely not on display.

Honestly, I’d nominate the entire male supporting cast of Knives Out – Evans, Plummer, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, LaKeith Stanfield – before nearly everyone who did make the cut.  Knives Out was a brilliant and endlessly challenging romp through classic mystery tropes, skewering self serving types on all sides of the political spectrum.  I can’t think when I’ve enjoyed being at the movies so much.  It hit every sweet spot.

I haven’t found Pitt’s speeches particularly memorable this year; let’s see if he’s been saving up something particular to say tonight.  His words tend to be on the brief and self-deprecating side.

Best Supporting Actress:

Your Winner: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

How Sure Am I?: 99%

If Not Her, Then Who? Margo Robbie, Bombshell

There for the Party:

Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell

Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit 

Florence Pugh, Little Women

If I Had a Vote: Florence Pugh (with a close second to Scarlett Johansson)

Worst Snubs: Yeo-jeong Jo, Parasite; Jamie Lee Curtis, Knives Out; Nicole Kidman, Bombshell

I’m a fan of Laura Dern, but I wouldn’t have guessed that her theatrical lawyer – stalking prospective clients as well as the opposition with a mesmerizing, panther-like sexuality – would be the role that’s finally going to win her an Oscar.  Gliding into a room, tucking her legs beneath her and purring with sympathy, offering water and a slit throat to her enemies, Dern certainly made herself hard to ignore. A child of stars Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Dern has grown up in the Hollywood community, appearing on screen first at the edge of 6 and working pretty steadily since 1980.  First nominated in 1992 for her work as a sweet transgressive wild child/nanny in Rambling Rose, Dern has been a steady presence for a long time.  She’s certainly paid her dues in both film and television, and that’s something AMPAS approves.  Like Sam Rockwell, Dern also appears in another Oscar nominee this year – she’s the saintly (yet occasionally tart) Marmee in Little Women.

Margo Robbie turned in yet another good performance in Bombshell, a closeted lesbian who’s also a true believer at FOX News, gathered in toward Roger Ailes’s folds through her ambition, her innocence broken under his heel. Unlike Nicole Kidman’s clipped Gretchen Carlson (oddly overlooked) and Charlize Theron’s hardcore anchor Megyn Kelly, Robbie plays a composite character, our way in to the story, a peek at Ailes’ predation in action.

Kathy Bates always impresses; her press conference in Richard Jewell is especially affecting, as is her confused plea and outrage when FBI agents serving a warrant take away her underwear.  It’s a slight role, however, and not a particularly nuanced one; she’s excited and pleased for her boy when he’s viewed as a hero, and quietly devastated when he’s reduced to being a terrorism suspect.  I’m not offended by her presence here, but she wouldn’t make the list of my top five supporting actresses from this year.

Scarlett Johansson, squaring off against her Marriage Story costar, turned in one of my favorite performances as the charming and courageous Rosie, mother of the title character in Jojo Rabbit, a playful but also steel-spined resistance fighter in Nazi Germany.  (For what it’s worth, Tomasin McKenzie also turned in a fantastic performance as the young Jewish girl Rosie hides in the crawl space of her dead daughter’s bedroom; I wouldn’t have been sorry to see her name on this list.)

I was wowed, however, by Florence Pugh as Amy March in Little Women.  She made a mark on audiences in Midsommar, a horror movie released this summer, and continues a breakthrough year with a bravura performance, redeeming the most controversial character in the classic novel.  Louisa May Alcott’s Amy reads as brash, bratty and selfish, including in previous film versions where she’s played by Elizabeth Taylor and Kirsten Dunst, but in Greta Gerwig’s rewrite we see a young woman trying to live a life of talent and dignity as best she can.  We see her striving; we see her intelligence rather than just her vanity, partly because Gerwig highlights Amy’s depth beneath the carefully calculated decorative veneer.  I found myself enchanted by her humanity, seeing the character through a new lens.

Most people will tell you that Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers was the biggest snub of the year.  Certainly she was expected to be nominated, and had gathered the most attention besides Dern in precursor awards.  Her exclusion reduced by half the number of nominees of color in this year’s field.  I haven’t seen the film yet, however, so I can’t answer whether or not I personally think she deserved the slot.  Critics generally have seemed fascinated and impressed by her performance, however atypical the film feels for AMPAS.

I have of course seen Parasite, however, and don’t know why the Academy’s overwhelming love for the film failed to translate into nominations for any of the cast. I didn’t love the film the way I wanted to, but there’s certainly a lot to celebrate, starting with the structural mechanics of the  script.  The stand out to me, among many terrific performances, was naive, genteel wife Yeo-jeong Jo., curating a privileged, perfect life for her husband and children, pushing out anything that soils her preferred gracious image, not imagining the world outside her limited view.  Is she a good person, the film asks, or can she merely afford to be nice?  I was similarly impressed with Jamie Lee Curtis as the nail-tough business woman, the only loving and decent child of Knives Out‘s patriarch Harlan Thrombley, though I also appreciated the work of Toni Collette as her self-serving, simpering sister-in-law, and Katherine Langford as Collette’s willfully ignorant daughter, whose openness doesn’t stand up against her family’s avarice.  That’s another film that didn’t get the acting support from AMPAS it richly deserved.

My biggest take away from Ms. Dern’s speeches has been her surprising respect for divorce attorneys; perhaps you have to take that stance to play one, but if there’s a villain in Marriage Story, she’s it, escalating the tension between the main characters and dragging out all their worst fears and impulses.  I’m curious what she’s going to say this time, and whether it might have more universal implications.

Best Actor:

Your Winner: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

How Sure Am I? 99%

If Not Him, Then Who?: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

How Good Are You at Masking Your Disappointment:

Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

I Would Have Voted For: Adam Driver

Biggest Snubs: Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell; Taron Egerton, Rocketman; Daniel Craig, Knives Out; Christian Bale, Ford v. Ferrari;, Eddie Murphy, Dolemite is my Name; Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit

All hail Emperor Commodus!  Joaquin Phoenix reigns supreme over this category.  The craven and capering villain obliterates all in his path.  I’ve never been a fan of the whole “good guy turns bad” storyline, and while I understand how the film’s stylistic vision captured viewers’ imagination (Phoenix’s twisted frame being a big part of that), it really seemed like a big toxic entitlement party to me.  It’s not so much that I disliked the character, however, as I disliked the way his story was played for sympathy.  This joker is owed, don’t you see?  He’s been let down.  He deserves to take what he wants.  Anyone who disappoints him, treats him in a way that’s flawed, rightly pays with their death.  I wasn’t on board for letting him off the hook, no matter how far the deck is truly stacked against the little guy.

But hey, I don’t get to pick ’em. It’s certainly an iconic role, and it fits a profile. At 45 Phoenix’s the right age.  He’s certainly paid his dues.  After four tries, and a genuinely impressive career in which he disappears wholly into his roles, Joachim Phoenix will cement his status as an actor’s actor by winning his first Oscar.

I’d have been happy to vote for The Two Pope‘s Jonathan Pryce, though I’m thrilled he was at least nominated this year after being snubbed for his gorgeous work as the cocksure husband in last year’s The Wife.  Humble, personable and gentle, Pryce’s Pope Frances was so present in every moment, so persistent and engaging.  Driver, though.  I’ve often found his work overrated (I was underwhelmed by his dry, droll nominated turn in Blackkklansman) but his self-absorbed, well-meaning director is so real, so true, so right in his wrongness; he passes the test as a real, flawed person, thoughtful and blind at once in the way we’re often blind to our faults.   He earned every accolade for this one, and he’s been given them, being nominated everywhere.  It just won’t take him over the line.  He’s too young, and his character is too thoughtful, too concerned with doing what’s true and good and right.

I’m sure that it’s clear how little I cared for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; I’m as unimpressed with Leonardo DiCaprio’s cartoony failing actor as I am with everything else.  We spend a long time with Pitt and DiCaprio, watching them clutch at their failing positions in society, watching their lives fall apart, watching them try poorly for stardom and fail, before the film’s climax offers them a shot at a sort of bloody redemption; for me the journey just wasn’t interesting because the men and their agendas weren’t interesting, and the climax was overly gross.

First time nominee Antonio Banderas is the only one of Phoenix’s competitors who even had a whisper of comparative buzz,  winning an acting prize at the Cannes film festival, but his movie was so comparatively unseen, I can’t see him having a genuine chance.  And obviously it doesn’t help with AMPAS that the film is in Spanish. Pain and Glory doesn’t have a particularly exciting narrative arc, but as a director whose chronic pain stifles his will to work Banderas plays believably against type.  It’s a nice, lived-in performance, but it’s not going to fight the Joker’s spittle and gore.

If you haven’t seen it – and let’s face it, you probably haven’t seen it – let me recommend Richard Jewell.  Now that’s a story about a man society decides is a loser, another man living with his mother who’s judged and scorned for it, and dragged more through the depths of shame than Arthur Fleck ever dreamed of being.  The complexities of Hauser’s performance, and the believability of every moment, stands in stark contrast to Joker, with its physical contortions and moral emptiness.  (The film does come under fire for a vile piece of dramatic license which stands out more given the meticulous authenticity of the rest.) Many would consider Taron Egerton’s Elton John, a performance I certainly enjoyed, as the biggest snub of the year, a reasonable response since he was widely expected to be a nominee.  Personally I found Richard Jewell to be a smarter script than Rocketman, and Hauser’s performance more nuanced, but either man could have appeared on this list with out me complaining.  If Egerton’s career lasts longer than his looks, he ought to have another shot at Oscar gold; I’m less sanguine about Hauser’s chances.

Daniel Craig, like Hauser and Egerton, has never been nominated, but his droll Southern detective with a deceptively flashy style steers an extraordinary film through its brilliantly tricky plot.  I’d have loved to see him get a little credit for that.  Eddie Murphy (nominated for once for Dreamgirls) had a decent amount of buzz for his colorful role in Dolemite is My Name – but both men remind us that comedy doesn’t find appreciation at the Oscars anymore.  Four time nominee and Supporting Actor winner Christian Bale also had a great shot at a nomination, as a maverick race car driver in Ford v. Ferrari, playing a beloved or at least well respected figure in that sport, that classic Hollywood trope of a man whose bad behavior must be overlooked because he’s so damn good at his job.  The movie had enough juice to make the Best Picture list, but not enough to get Bale over the line.  Like Bale, Craig and Murphy, Roman Griffin Davis snagged a Golden Globe nomination for as the title character in Jojo Rabbit.  AMPAS almost never nominated kids, and even less often boys in lead roles, but Davis’ reluctant good guy would have my vote over DiCaprio or Phoenix in a heart beat.

Rather to my shock, but certainly to my pleasure, Phoenix has followed his drunken disaster of a Golden Globes acceptance speech with two generous, smart and funny speeches at the SAG and BAFTA awards.  For the HFPA, he was barely able to string together a sentence; he’s since redeemed himself, proving he can be thoughtful and worth listening to.  His appreciation for his fellow nominees feels sincere and even moving.  Hopefully the trend will continue as he wins his first Oscar Sunday night.

Best Actress: 

Your Winner: Renee Zellweger, Judy

How Sure Am I? 100%

If Not Her, Then Who? no one

Getting Ready to Clap Politely:

Cynthia Erivo, Harriet

Scarlett Johannson, Marriage Story

Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

Charlize Theron, Bombshell

If They Let Me Vote: Renee Zellweger (close second, again, goes to Scarlett Johansson)

Biggest Snubs.  Awkwafina, The Farewell; Ana De Armas, Knives Out

Here’s the one category I really feel good about, and not in the sense that I’m sure I’ve called it correctly.  Zellweger devastates as Judy Garland, just months away from her death, struggling with the horrible damage inflicted on her by the studio system, wanting to be taken care of, wishing she knew how to take care of herself.

Alone among the presumptive winners, Zellweger isn’t an Oscar virgin: she won a supporting actress statuette for her work in Cold Mountain nearly 20 years ago.  This award will mark not only a resurgent career, but a career pinnacle for an excellent actress at the top of her form.  Zellweger is enormously moving, and the film smartly gives us a real understanding of what causes the star to misbehave – her insecurities, her addictions, her crippling doubt at war with her overwhelming talent.  She’s the downtrodden everywoman as surely as Arthur Fleck wishes to be seen as the downtrodden everyman, but we see her actually live with the consequences of her complicated behaviors.  This is what really happens when humans behave badly.  The least of what Zellweger has achieves is a brilliant imitation of Garland’s well known ticks and specific performance style, though that itself inspire awe. This movie didn’t get anywhere near the acclaim it deserves: do yourself a favor and see it.

Before their movies bowed many Oscar watchers thought that the race would come down to Zellweger and British actress Cynthia Erivo, who won the role of American hero Harriet Tubman.  It’s beyond time Harriet had her own movie (if you think you know her story, you’re probably wrong) and definitely something to celebrate.  Erivo navigates the challenging territory of the film – slavery, disability, action and emotion – with aplomb.   In some ways it’s an unusual role for Oscar (she leads troops into battle!) and in others (yet another black woman playing a slave), right in their comfort zone.  Much has been written about the fact that’s the only actor of color in this year’s race; as I’ve noted before, a big difference between this year and 1940 (beside the quality of the films) is that the one actress of color nominated 80 years ago for playing a slave actually won her award.

Despite its amazing source material, Harriet isn’t as insightfully written a film as Judy, and so doesn’t give it’s star the same level of material to work with; having seen both films, I think for once AMPAS is making the right choice.  Like Judy, however, Harriet isn’t as well seen as it deserves to be, due in part to a smear campaign against a choice that writer/director Kasi Lemmons made to complicate the storyline with a minor plot that was historically consistent with the times but not accurate to Ms. Tubman’s life.  Did this deserve to be discussed? Yes.  Is it a reason to avoid the film? No.

Fun fact: 33 year old Erivo has a second chance to win an Oscar tonight.  She’s also nominated for best song, having written “Stand Up” for her film.  She joins a prominent list of singer-songwriters with that distinction in the last several years, Mary J. Blige and Lady Gaga.  If she were to win either award (which is to say, if her song wins, and unlike last year there’s no clear favorite or cultural touchstone in that category) she would complete an EGOT – that is, add an Oscar to the Tony, Grammy and Emmy she’s already won.  (Musical theater fans will remember her for beating Phillipa Soo as lead actress in a musical the year that Hamilton swept every other Tony.)  If that happens, Erivo will become the youngest EGOT winner in history.

The other three actresses have always been in the hunt for a nomination, but never truly contenders for the win.  Previous winner Charlize Theron picks up her third nomination, and her first since 2005’s North Country; previously she’d be acknowledged for glammed down roles first as a serial killer in Monster, and then as a laborer in filing a civil rights suit for sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace.   Here, she’s being lauded for going full glam as former FOX News anchor Megyn Kelly, changing her voice to Kelly’s signature low growl, having her face subtilely altered with prosthetics, successfully inhabiting a highly recognizable reporter when the privileged life she’s worked so hard for threatens to upend itself during the start of #MeToo.

Four time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan lends her clear-eyed intelligence and humor to the role of Jo Marsh, played before her by June Allyson and (Oscar nominated) Winona Ryder.  She’s luminous, as she was in Lady Bird and Brooklyn and Atonement; it’s hard not to feel that it’s only a matter of time before it’s her turn. This is her second collaboration with Gerwig and Timothee Chalamet, and not coincidentally her second nomination for that work; one hopes their working relationship has even more to give us (and them).  The two actors, at least, star in an upcoming Wes Anderson film, The French Dispatch, so we may not have long to find out. 

After a solid fifteen years of being on the outside of awards consideration, Scarlett Johansson has made it to the big dance in truly unforgettable style.  More known, perhaps, for her action roles (especially that of Black Widow, who will finally get her own movie this spring – costarring 2019’s breakout star Florence Pugh!), she first drew attention for her work in 1998’s The Horse Whisperer, going on awards season buzz in roles from The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Lost in Translation, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point and Her.  It’s justly deserved that she would achieve the rare feat of two acting nominations in a single year once she finally broke through that barrier – a year, too, where she provided the emotional core of Endgame, the international box office champ .  It must be noted that it took two resolutely unsexy roles to get her here. Nicole Barber, particularly, is a celebrated actress, but spends Marriage Story without make up and with short, natural hair, worrying over her decision to end her marriage, worrying how to live her life, how protect her son and herself from harm without causing compensatory harm to her soon-to-be ex-husband Charlie.  Her work is extraordinary.

Though it’s far harder to find lead performances by women to award, there are several that got passed over this year which are worthy of note.  Ana De Armas anchored Knives Out with decency, brains and heart; she’s the audiences’ entry point into the colorful Thrombley family and their ambitious, contentious world.  She was justly nominated for a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice award, and it’s a shame not to see her here; hopefully that film will open up career opportunities for a promising new talent.  The lead actress with surely the greatest breakout of the year, however, was comedienne Awkwafina, so memorable in Crazy Rich Asians.  In fact, she and John Mulvaney fangirl and fanboyed themselves to one of my favorite Oscar moments of 2019 (right up their with Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry presenting best costume).    In 2020, she turned on our expectations as the lead in the emotional culture-clash dramedy The Farewell, about a young woman dealing with her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis, and the choice her family makes to conceal the diagnosis.  In a year severely lacking representation, Awkwafina had sustained buzz – even winning the Golden Globe award for lead actress in a musical or comedy –  and had the chance of becoming the first Asian woman nominated for best actress.  Hopefully she’ll have other chances.

During her Cold Mountain award season, Ms. Zellweger gave essentially the same speech at every venue, which became rather annoying (not to mention seeming insincere) after the fourth award show.  She’s better at it now, more thoughtful about being specific to her venue.  I’m not sure it will be a memorable speech, but I don’t expect to be bothered by it, either.

Best Director:

Your Winner: Sam Mendes, 1917

How Sure Am I? 65%

If Not Him, Then Who? Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

The Rest of the Honorees:

Todd Phillips, Joker

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

If They Let Me Vote: Sam Mendes

Worst Snubs: Greta Gerwig, Little Women; Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story,; Rian Johnson, Knives Out;  Rupert Goold, Judy; Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit; Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes; Mariel Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Here’s the breakdown.  The Golden Globes gave their award to British director Sam Mendes, who won 20 years ago for the tragicomic American Beauty; his searing war epic appears to be shot in a single take, following the action of soldiers taking a message across lines in World War 1.  At the Critics Choice, he tied with Bong Joon-ho.   At the British Academy awards, Mendes won.  He also picked up the Directors Guild award.  Taken altogether, those ought to be pretty clear indicators of a victory lap. Though there seems to be far less agreement about his movie, Mendes’ technical virtuosity, the clarity of his vision and the  should take him over the top.

Oscar pretty much always notices when Quentin Tarantino makes a film, though the Academy much prefers to award him as a writer.  Though the multi-hyphenate has been nominated a total of 8 times in 3 different categories, this is only his second nomination as a director since Pulp Fiction in 1995.  He’s far more likely to be rewarded with the Original Screenplay award here than a directing win; it seems likely that day will be come, but I’m happy to report it’s not likely to be today.  (No offense to him – I enjoy his work, but his joy in toxic masculinity and his tendency to swim in gore bore me.)

The topic of toxic masculinity brings us very naturally to The Irishman. Though I’ve definitely enjoyed a share of 14 time nominee Martin Scorsese’s work, and was happy to see him win the directing award for The Departed, his return to mob roots left me more than cold.  Honestly, the music is the only thing I enjoyed in this film, not least because of Scorsese’s choice to have the same actors play their characters over nearly 50 years with minimal make up and CGI assistance, or his settling on a protagonist who neither grows nor changes in those 50 years.   That the Academy gave this movie 10 nominations continues to shock me, and I can only be grateful that it’s unlikely to win more than a few, if any.

Though perhaps unknown to the casual American audience member,  Bong Joon-ho has delighted international cinephiles with previous works like Mother,  Okja, and of course Snowpiercer, and South Korean audiences for even longer. This is his first nomination, the first such nomination for a South Korean filmmaker.  The film is stylish and modern, and its inventive look at what constitutes a parasite speaks to our class conscious times.  The acting is top notch, though in my estimation the film suffering from the unremitting unpleasantness of it’s characters; I need a rooting interest, and the film intentionally doesn’t give you one.  The character doesn’t have to be a good person for me to empathize with them – Judy Garland is deeply flawed and indeed barely functional – but still, I need that window.  I understand this as an artistic statement, and unlike The Irishman I see it’s complexity and change and growth in the characters, but I didn’t enjoy it. Whether it’s here, in Best Picture, or simply in International Film (the renamed foreign film category), we’ll get to hear Bong Joon-ho speak tonight.

And speaking of films I didn’t enjoy, Todd Philips Joker is right up on that list.  Critics were pretty violently split on this film; it’s by far the worst reviewed film of the Best Picture nominees, as one of those films people either love or hate.  I understand the Academy’s embrace of Philips’ stylized vision; there’s a particular panache to his grimy Gotham city, and a bold mix of modern style with vintage 70s vibes, polyester and plastic dimmed by dirt and then illuminated in a shady neon glow.  Philips took the slot many hoped would go to Greta Gerwig.

To sum up, I like one of these movies, and I’m really glad that’s likely to be the winner.  I could respect an award to Bong Joon-ho, but generally, this list is not my favorite.  There are so many films this year that burst with gorgeous acting, like The Two Popes, Judy and Marriage Story, and others that impressed with acting, substance and especially style like Jojo Rabbit‘s heartfelt satire, Little Women‘s wildly inventive narrative re-structuring of an American classic, or Knives Out‘s brilliant re-invisioning of mystery genre tropes.  AMPAS could have done us so much better.

Best Picture:

Your Winner: 1917

How Sure Am I? 70%

If Not, Then What? Parasite

Forever Branded Best Picture Nominees:

Ford v. Ferrari

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

Marriage Story

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Parasite

If I Had a Vote: Little Women

Biggest Snubs: Knives Out, Judy

Next Biggest Snubs: Two Popes, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

God, this category.  Out of these 9 films, I quite liked four: 1917, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women and Marriage Story were all fantastic.  I can appreciate the artistry of Parasite, even though its nihilism and cynicism made me sick.  Ford v. Ferrari literally put me to sleep, and I flat out loathed The Irishman, Joker and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.   In short, this is not my year.  Really, the lauding of awful movies and the sidelining of excellent films this year baffles and depresses me.

I am not ruling out a surprise win for SAG ensemble champion Parasite.  Oscar for some time now has eschewed the traditional pairing of Best Direction with Best Picture, and if they’re looking for a split, they have it here.  If there’s any surprise, I think that’s going to be it.  Parasite is not only the first South Korean film nominated for Best Picture, it’s the first time a South Korean film received a nomination in the foreign or international film category, despite submitting nominees from a very strong film industry since 1962. Of course if it wins, it won’t be because it’s the only ethnically diverse entry on this slate; it will be because it’s modern and smart and industry insiders love it.

Here’s the thing about Joker for me – not that the movie is going to win, despite its high nomination count.  Long ago I read an article about the appeal of rap music to white middle class teenage boys, which argued that those privileged teens (who buy more of that music than anyone else) railed against authority precisely because they felt entitled to be in authority and were angered by the idea they would have to wait for adulthood to get it.  Like Simba in The Lion King, in other words, they just can’t wait to be king.  Philip’s Joker is that entitlement writ large.  Its class politics are far more dubious than Parasite‘s; in the South Korean movie, we see the rich having no more sense of honor, and no more brains than the desperate poor, only a monopoly on opportunity.  Parasite posits that talent and violence are distributed equally among the classes; Joker seems to argue against the very existence and merit of virtue. Arthur Fleck doesn’t earn our sympathy with his cleverness or kindness or talent; those virtues don’t exist in his world.  It’s only a struggle between those who have, and those who have not.  We are and should be sorry to seem him lied to, beaten and mistreated, but the movie goes further; it uses that mistreatment to suspend morality.  Kill the police!  Eat the rich!  Kill those who disappoint you!  Joker is a howling orgy of entitled (white, male) rage.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood doesn’t fare much better in my estimation. It’s an oblique take on a horrific true crime, but instead of attempting to illuminate Charles Manson and his so called Family, or Sharon Tate and her friends, Tarantino invents a TV star protesting his fade into obscurity, and the murderous ex-stunt man who chauffeurs him around LA, and posits an alternate reality in which these two buffoons get let loose their innate violence to defeat Manson’s psychotic hippies and save the adorably cheerful, free-spirited and highly decorative Tate.   That’s a neat idea, or at least it would be if Tarantino had chosen to populate this world with interesting fictional characters.  Whether or not you liked the movie depends on whether or not you think he succeeded.

I wanted to like Ford v. Ferrari – I expected to like it very much, even.  I adore true stories, and the story of Ford tweaking one of it’s cars to beat Ferrari in an international race seemed like a winner to me. But what I thought was going to be a scrappy underdog tale felt more like an excuse to justify the bad temper and bad acting of driver Ken Miles, who gets one more chance to turn his life around.  I can’t even say how tired I am of a story type that Hollywood clearly loves, and how quickly I soured on the film once it established that plot.  I’m sure it didn’t help that I’d just read Ronan Farrow’s captivating Catch and Kill, and was full up on stories of men whose appalling behavior was justified by their ability to get results.

The rest of the movies leave me with a much better feeling. I’ve read a critique of tragi-comedy Jojo Rabbit, which claims it humanizes Nazis to the point that they all seem like good or charming people.  I would dispute that both as a criticism (some might say that humanization of the other – letting us live inside each other’s realities – is the entire point of art) and an interpretation, since the film does focus on good individuals without remotely justifying the outrages and crimes of the Nazi regime.

Fans of the book Little Women – who are legion – include many frustrated by the book’s romantic pairings.  Team Laurie is probably nearly as big as the book’s fandom. Greta Gerwig’s genius in inverting the structure of the movie is we never feel like Laurie and Jo will work out, which makes it much easier to bear when they don’t.  Indeed, the romances are never really the point in Gerwig’s version; sisterhood and self-actualization are. And that’s only a few of the striking features of this heartfelt adaption.

Gerwig’s husband Noah Baumbach usually makes smart films, often darkly funny ones, but nothing he’s done has hit with the punch of Marriage Story, which describes a fictionalized version of the end of his first marriage.  It brings us two fully realized human beings, and is generous its vision of them; they’re both wrong and right, both alternately good and bad, and you feel for them both deeply.  It’s an intimate story, personal and detailed and expansive in its understanding that our intentions can be one thing and the results of our actions, yet another.

I’m hoping that this year’s winner is 1917, not because it’s my favorite on the list but because it’s the only one in contention that I actually enjoyed.  Typically, the frontrunner used to be counted as the movie with the most nominations; this year that’s Joker with one nod more than The Irishman, 1917 and Once Upon a Time, but I don’t think that’s enough of a lead to matter in the face of 1917‘s many precursor wins.  I do find it a worthy winner, however; I don’t expect my preferences to line up with Oscar, but I hope for a film I can respect.  Though dark, 1917‘s intense action and illuminating look at the drudgery and intermittent terrors of war highlight the humanity of the soldiers stuck in a nightmare beyond their control.  It also shines a light on the way an individual can serve with honor, and what lengths one might go to in order to win, or simply survive, and the emotional consequences of those choices.

In his many chances at the microphone, Sam Mendes hasn’t proven a memorable speaker so far, but we’ll see what he might be able to do if given a chance or two tonight.

As you might be able to tell, Knives Out tops my personal list for this year.  As a life long fan of the mystery genre, I was invigorated and amazed by the way the film plays with audience expectations, and the way it clever deploys the location and the fabulous cast of colorful characters.  Judy, for it’s painstakingly detailed anatomy of a breakdown, comes in a close second.  The Two Popes gives us a serious look at lives focused with prayerful attention on the betterment of humanity, and how differently that can look, but how deeply that desire binds us together; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, while less of an examination of faith, also brings us a hero who lived each moment as fully aware and as filled with kindness as he could.

It’s pretty easy to know what film 2019 will be remembered for: Avengers: Endgame.  Now, before you get hoity toity on me, and say that a blockbuster and comic book movie couldn’t possibly be as serious and important and meaningful as, say, a bunch of old men shooting each other for no reason in The Irishman, let me remind you of this.  Marvel orchestrated an entire 22 film mega-story to culminate in an epic showdown that balanced dozens of beloved characters in a thrilling adventure, an emotional heart-ringer, and at the same time a complicated heist flick.  Star Wars might have punted its 9 film saga’s ending, but critics and fans alike found Endgame an intellectually and emotionally satisfying finish.  Think about the effort that required.  And let’s not forget that it scored a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes fresh tomato meter (the site, if you don’t know it, collects movie review to show the response at large to a film or TV show) compared to Joker‘s 68%, Jojo Rabbit‘s 80%, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood‘s 85%, and 1917‘s 89%.

Endgame alone not only won the year’s box office with more than 858 million dollars in domestic intake and nearly 2 billion internationally, but sits in second position on the all time domestic box list for unadjusted grosses.  And Endgame is a far deeper movie than, say, James Cameron’s Oscar nominated Avatar.  I’ve said it a million times: there’s nothing wrong with a movie being entertaining. Oscar shouldn’t ignore a movie just because of its genre, or because people liked it, or because they’re jealous of how much money it made. AMPAS once again has gotten in its own way, showing its prejudice against audiences’ preferences, wanting to take down the man because they all feel entitled to BE the man. It’s an embarrassment to the industry that this juggernaut of a movie didn’t have one iota of buzz.

And that’s what I have to say about all that!  I’m hoping to enjoy the little things tonight –  certainly Renee Zellweger, hopefully the song performances, maybe a win for Toy Story 4, or a win in Adapted Screenplay for either Taika Waititi or (please!) Greta Gerwig.  I’ll be watching Best Song to see if Cynthia Erivo can snag her EGOT.  I already have my fingers crossed for Hair Love, an utterly charming cartoon short; a win for that will definitely make my night. And I’ll just be hoping for the best in general – an impassioned speech, some exciting fashion, a funny bit from a presenter.  Enjoy your Oscars, and I’ll be back in the morning with final thoughts on it all.

 

 

 

 

 

This entry was posted in TV.

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