Thursday, February 6, 2020

2020 Oscar Picks

Every year, I pick my winners among categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  This year, I've made picks in 17 categories.  These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win.  In the past, my picks sometimes coincided with the Academy's selections, but they can easily diverge.  For example, last year's picks only matched the Academy's on 8 of 17 categories.  This year is a little different from other recent years in terms of which categories have been particularly strong or weak.  I'll talk about that as I get into each category.

Best Picture

I've already posted by Best Picture rankings, so it should be no surprise that I picked 1917.  In a great year for cinema, any of my top 4 (Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Parasite, and 1917) would please me with a win, but even with the quality of those top films, 1917 stands out.  Some feel that the movie is derivative due to Birdman famously using a faux one-shot motif, but while Birdman's use was a technical trifle that didn't have a tangible effect on the film, 1917's use of the technique adds serious suspense to the movie.  It's so perfect in its use that I hope everyone agrees to retire it for awhile.

On top of its technical advantages, 1917 wins for me because of its vivid depiction of a horrible war in a way that's not exploitative.  It's a terribly gorgeous film that earned every bit of its cinematography, production design, and visual effects nominations.  It's the kind of movie that will find itself screened regularly both on patriotic holidays and on Netflix Friday nights; in history classes as well as film classes.  It's that good.


Best Director

Up until I forced myself to make a selection, I literally had this sitting on my screen: Sam Mendes?  Bong Joon-ho?  Todd Phillips?  This year is very difficult to pick a top director.  Mendes spun a technically superb film building off the stories of his grandfather.  Bong Joon-ho created a modern fable on class struggle in Parasite.  And Todd Phillips took insanity to new lengths in Joker.  And that's not even mentioning Quentin Tarantino doing Quentin Tarantino things and Martin Scorsese nabbing a wholly unearned nomination that should have been Greta Gerwig's.

Since I'm not allowing myself a tie, I'm going to go with Bong Joon-ho, who accomplished the truly impressive, which was to create a film that transcends language.  Last year, Alfonzo Cuarón crafted a terrific movie in Roma, but the viewer never lost sight of its setting as a central feature of the film.  With Parasite, Bong provides us a film that is directly accessible to almost any culture, because it centers around the universal realities of class struggle.  If the viewer can, in Bong's own words, get past that one inch high row of text, they'll find an all too familiar tale with its all too familiar pains and fears.


Best Actress

This is one of a couple very easy selections for me.  In Bombshell, Charlize Theron does a pretty dead on impersonation of Megyn Kelly, it gets in the way of her acting -- watch carefully and you'll note that all Kelly mannerisms and vocal tics disappear when Theron has to emote.  Cynthia Erivo does a lovely job as Harriet Tubman, embodying her courage and strength, but she's handicapped a bit by a script that decided to turn this very real American hero into something of a fantastic superhero.  Scarlett Johansson has a couple of wonderful scenes in Marriage Story, but much of the film hides her away in quiet and innocuous scenes.  Saorise Ronan is brilliant and spirited as Jo March in Little Women, and is quickly becoming the next Great Actress in American cinema, but while I loved her performance, I think she still takes second place.

For me, the obvious winner is Renée Zellweger who completely melts into her role as Judy Garland.  Judy manages to walk a fine line between going to easy on its subject and being too harsh, and I think it's the deftness Zellweger displays that saves it.  She pumps an incredible humanity into Judy Garland that manages to simultaneously undercut and bolster Judy's inherent stardom.  She makes it easy to see why the people around her couldn't take Judy Garland for long and why they couldn't stop falling in love with her again.  And I hope she makes her acceptance speech sipping a cocktail.


Best Actor

The Best Actor and Actress categories are supposed to provide some of the biggest suspense on Oscars night, but this year, both were easy picks for me.  This year's Best Actor crop is relatively weak compared to most years, with one key exception.  Antonio Banderas, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jonathan Pryce did wonderful jobs in their films, but I can't help but think they'd be left out of the category in a strong year, and honestly, I wouldn't have blinked if any of them were swapped out for Matt Damon.  Adam Driver did a great job in Marriage Story, and even has some picking him for an upset, but his handful of strong scenes I don't think makes up for the pedestrian material he has to work with the rest of the time.

Which brings the Best Actor category to Joaquin Phoenix, who went beyond just providing the best performance of the group to really putting in a historically great job on one of the toughest roles to really get right.  He joins Heath Ledger (and the voice acting of Mark Hamill) on the rarefied stage of great Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto only staring in envy.  While it's easy to make a psychotic interesting, it's tough to make one relatable, and it's even tougher to make one into someone the audience can root for.  Joaquin Phoenix did that, and he deserves every award for pulling that off that he's getting.


Best Supporting Actress

For me, the relatively easy pick is Laura Dern for her tour de force as a divorce attorney simultaneously protecting her client and completely ruining what's left of the relationship between her client and her client's husband.  Dern's lawyer is calm and friendly yet still completely a shark.  Very well done.

Of the other nominees, I did not see Kathy Bates in Richard Jewell, but by all accounts, her performance is not at risk of knocking Dern off.  I didn't even think Margot Robbie's work in Bombshell was her best Supporting Actress work this year (I thought she should have been nominated for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood instead).  Florence Pugh was wonderful in Little Women, but Amy March is not exactly the most noticeable of the roles in that film.  And I absolutely loved Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit as the mom everyone wishes they had, but I think I'd put her behind Dern.  It helps that Dern wasn't forced to speak English in a German accent all movie.


Best Supporting Actor

Brad Pitt is this year's Viola Davis -- the "supporting" actor who is really an equal co-star relegated to "supporting" status primarily to maximize awards chances.  When in doubt, pick the performer who should have been nominated in Best Actor (or Actress), and in this case it's Pitt, who does a stellar job starring in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as stuntman/driver/best friend/tough guy Cliff Booth.  It's a great job, and one that should have come in second place to Joaquin Phoenix in the Best Actor category.

If I were to remove Pitt over to his proper category, the pick here would be Joe Pesci, who does a remarkable job exuding an unusually quiet menace as Russell Bufalino in The Irishman.  Pesci's performance really stands out when compared to his co-star Al Pacino and The Two Popes' Anthony Hopkins.  Tom Hanks does a great job in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and would otherwise be right up there among the nominees, but it takes a little while for his Fred Rogers to hit consistency.


Best Original Screenplay

This is a really strong category this year, and I can laud any of the five nominees.  Ultimately though, it came down to a battle between Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  I ended up deciding that Parasite's success comes from its direction, cinematography, design, and acting as much as it comes from its script, whereas Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Tarantino script, which means the dialogue that flows and the pacing it provides is half the entertainment value.  I will not be upset at all if Parasite wins, and I could make reasonable cases as well for 1917, Knives Out (which maybe should have received a Best Picture nomination), and Marriage Story.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Jojo Rabbit is a surprisingly solid candidate here, and The Two Popes is a powerful play adaptation, but for me, Little Women stands above all others.  Greta Gerwig made the brilliant decision to turn the early parts of the novel into flashbacks for the later parts of the novel, and that updated structure really works well.  The dialogue flows nicely and the pacing is rather wonderful.  Little Women became a strong Best Picture candidate for me due in no small part to the brilliance of its script.


Best Animated Feature Film

A few years ago, I formalized my Best Animated Feature Film criteria:

  1. A nominated film should have seen wide release to win.  The larger populace that votes for the eventual winner in Animated Feature seems to not do the same level of homework that it might do for the bigger awards like Best Picture, so to have a real shot, a contender has to be one the voters already know something about.
  2. Innovation helps, at least to some extent.  Some animated nominees were the first to really try some major new technique.  I don't think this criteria trumps the first one, but it may help break a tie.
  3. The winner is often the one that, if shot as a live action film, would still have significant merit.  If the story transcends the animation, you may have a winner.

From this criteria, it was a pretty weak year, especially when compared to last year, when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse trumped everyone, including a strong Isle of Dogs nominee.  From an artistic perspective, I Lost My Body (an inventive film featuring a love story and a disembodied hand seeking its body) is the best of the films, but it's the only one of the nominees not to see wide release and while its story is fascinating, if shot as a live action film, it would probably come off as kind of hokey.  Given no film that clearly satisfies all three criteria, I think I'll tentatively give my vote to Toy Story 4, which manages to be a relatively taut and somewhat emotional film despite not having a real villain, which is a feature I love seeing in so many Pixar films.  My hope is that 2020 animated films will give us more of the creativity and innovation 2018 gave us to enjoy, because I don't want to see another weak slate like this.


Best Animated Short Film

Another easy call.  While Memorable is a wonderful French film with an interesting way of visualizing Alzheimer's, Hair Love is by far the most technically sound, artistically original, and deeply moving of the five nominees.  It's amazing that it was funded through Kickstarter, because it has the feel of having a major studio behind it.  Very well done look at a dad trying to help his daughter through a tough situation during tough times.


Best Live Action Short Film

This category was tougher to pick, as each nominee has its unique merits and drawbacks.  For example, Saria told a wonderful and important story, but really should have been written as a full length feature to give its story the room to breathe it needed.  Nefta Football Club was incredibly endearing but probably the least important of the nominees.  I think for me it comes down to A Sister, which features a taught 911 call, and The Neighbors' Window, which takes a heart wrenching look at the "grass is not always greener" lesson we frequently need reminding of.  I think I'll select The Neighbors' Window, but really almost any of the nominees is deserving (I could even make a reasonable case for Brotherhood, which really didn't do much for me.)


Best Documentary Short Subject

This year's crop of documentary shorts are not as depressing as last year's but not by a whole lot.  Given last year's win of Period. End of Sentence, one might predict a win by Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), which covers related ground.  But for me the winner is In the Absence, a powerful dissection of the complete ineptitude of decision making and subsequent coverup of the tragic, senseless loss of three hundred ferry passengers -- most of them children -- in Korea, a failure of the system of staggering proportions that toppled a presidency and ruined countless lives.


Best Original Score

Hildur Guonadottir is the heavy favorite here for her work on Joker, but I just can't get myself into it.  Too much of the score feels like generic atmospherics.  I found both the 1917 and Little Women scores much more intrinsic to their films, and of those two, I much prefer Alexandre Desplat's work on Little Women.  I may have become a Desplat fanboy (I think I've picked his work in most years), but it just feels stronger than the others in terms of support of the feel and flavor of its film.


Best Original Song

It's likely that "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again", the Elton John/Bernie Taupin collaboration from Rocketman will win because it's tough to take anything away from Elton John.  But to me the clear winner of this category is "Stand Up", the anthem from Harriet.  It's powerful, inspiring stuff, with a structure somewhat taken from the spirituals that slaves used to surreptitiously communicate with each other on the plantation. It is one of those songs that only appears over the end credits of a film, which has historically been a pet peeve of mine when it comes to this category, but I've decided to surrender that battle.  Besides, "Stand Up" is a worthy successor to 2014's "Glory".


Best Cinematography

Of the films I've seen in this category (I've not yet screened The Lighthouse), Joker, 1917, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood really stand out.  Sadly, instead of acknowledging the stunning work on Parasite, they decided to give The Irishman another under-deserved nomination.  Of the three viable candidates, I lean toward Roger Deakins for 1917.  It's gorgeously shot (if the horrors of war is allowed to be gorgeous) and the camera work is amazing, made all the harder by the challenges presented by the single shot approach.  Without the cinematography of Deakins, 1917 would be a much poorer film, which puts him over the top in my book.


Best Production Design

All of the nominees are deserving, but for me the winner is Parasite.  When you consider that not only the Parks' house but also the city block the Kims live in were all built on a set, it's the obvious choice.  Parasite feels like it's shot on location but that's only true when you allow for inventing the location.  It feels completely organic, which is exactly what you want from your Production Design.


Best Visual Effects

I almost left this out of my selections this year because I didn't have a standout film to point to.  You can tell it's a down year for the category when The Irishman with its horrible deaging effects gets a nomination.  Of the others, I've not seen The Lion King, which I could see winning for giving us realistic talking animals.  Of the ones I have seen, I'm going to surprise even myself and go with 1917.  Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker are both effects-laden films, but there's no need to have the effects be terribly realistic as there's already a healthy suspension of disbelief going on.  As a result those films don't stand out beyond all the other effects-heavy films.  However, 1917 really impresses in that you know effects had to be used (for example, otherwise how did they make the plane crash scene work without any cuts), but it's unclear at all how they did it.  When you're looking forward to a Behind the Scenes feature to see how they pulled off their effects, you are experiencing great visual effects.  For me, that trumps any obvious green screen effects.



Wednesday, February 5, 2020

2019 Best Picture Rankings

Every year, after viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award.  Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans.  After a couple of down years, I was really excited by 2019's top pictures.  While the bottom of the list is a little weak (and could arguably be replaced by any number of other strong but not spectacular films), I think any of the Top 4 could warrant Best Picture status, and even number 5 could make a strong Best Picture case in other years.

9. The Irishman


Honestly, I think that the fact that it's a Scorsese flick populated by A-listers is the reason why The Irishman was nominated.  It has a long list of negatives (which I'll get to momentarily) that overcome its long list of positives (which I'll also get to in a moment).  There are any number of less-flawed films that merited consideration instead.  I'd suggest Ad Astra, Pain and Glory, The Two Popes, or Knives Out among those snubs I've seen or Hustlers, Uncut Gems, Dolemite is My Name, The Farewell, or Us among popular snub takes I haven't seen. Overall, The Irishman is a good but not remarkable Scorsese flick. It’s really long, yet doesn't close on all of its story threads.  It embraces new technology, yet allows it to subvert its viewer experience to a degree that its stellar cast can't make up for.

Joe Pesci is an amazingly nuanced actor, and he really should have had more parts like this over the years.
And it is a stellar cast.  If you say nothing else about a film, saying it's a Scorsese production in which De Niro and Pesci (resurrecting all those feels from Casino) and De Niro and Pacino (who managed to be in the greatest mob movie ever without ever appearing in a scene together) spend appreciable amounts of time together onscreen, it sounds like a winner.  And the cast is great.  De Niro is De Niro as Frank Sheeren in this, and Pacino is Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino) really stands out though, because he plays a way quieter, calmer character than he used to, though impressively no less malevolent. If he weren't up against an actor who really should have been nominated for Best Actor, he'd be my pick for Best Supporting Actor, and just may be it anyway.  All the usual mob actors do their usual mob acting jobs.

The story itself is interesting, and Frank’s introduction to the mob and union politics are covered well. The use of voice over narration is still effective and brings a through line from Goodfellas and Casino as if it were the Scorsese calling card, even though he's really only used it on his big mafia movies.  If there weren't so many missteps, this would be an easy Best Picture nomination, and maybe even a realistic candidate to take the award home.  And there were plenty of mistakes.

The Irishman gets bogged down in several places, especially diving too deep into detail with Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa.  Hoffa is written not as a sentimental victim nor as a villain, but rather as a force of chaos that causes Frank no end of grief.  But this part of the story can be told in a much shorter form in order to tighten the action and cut down on the four hour run time.  No one watching this film is suddenly going to forget Hoffa's destined to disappear under a cloud of suspicion and mystery -- that legend is too ingrained in the American psyche.  The relationship between Frank and Jimmy could be established and defined in much less time than the film spends, and those savings could have either been used to cut running time or shore up other weak points.

Seriously, how do you cast an Oscar winning actress and then give her nothing to do?
A key example of one of those weak points is Frank's relationship with his family.  The film spends valuable minutes establishing Frank as a family man on his second marriage.  But aside from defining him as someone with a family, their presence does little.  His wife is around as a background character who doesn't impact the plot at all.  His oldest daughter, played as an adult by Anna Paquin, has an estranged relationship with her father, but aside from one inciting incident as a child, we don't see how this estrangement evolves, we're just told about it.  As a result, Paquin gets nothing to do onscreen besides look wide eyed as people walk in the door or have conversations.  Scorsese should have either paid off this thread or eliminated it entirely, thus saving even more runtime.

While the voiceover narration works, the framing scenes with elderly Frank talking to some unseen listener is a little offputting. Sometimes it seems like he’s addressing the audience like the narrators in the other two films did, but other times it seems like he’s talking to someone in the scene, like the author of the book or just to himself.  The film never clarifies this, so it just seems like a case of poor craftsmanship.  Really, The Irishman might have been better served never having those framing scenes (except maybe one silent one with voiceover establishing how he's grown old alone and unloved), again cutting runtime.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about The Irishman without addressing the deaging it puts its stars through. Hollywood really needs to stop using the deaging video manipulation until it makes it over the uncanny valley. This is not just a graphics problem but one of fundamental film making with respect to the art of illusion.  In The Irishman, 40 year old Frank doesn’t appear like a 40 year old Robert De Niro. Instead, he moves and speaks like a 70 year old De Niro, except he’s wearing a rubber mask of younger De Niro. The movie works much better once Frank ages to the point of De Niro not needing video manipulation, though of course by then the film had other issues as described above.

Perhaps The Irishman would have been better served being split up into an episodic miniseries vying for Emmys rather than a holistic film.  Sadly, it's too late to figure that out.

8. Ford v Ferrari


Ford v Ferrari follows in the illustrious footsteps of Rush as a high quality, artistic achievement of a modern racing film.  It holds up well on multiple viewings, bringing excitement and emotion to every major beat every time, which is hard for a film to do.  I like to gush over this film.  But it earns its place near the bottom of the list by not telling a fully fleshed out story.

Bale and Damon make a formidable combo.
The key to this movie's success is its first line actors.  Christian Bale is amazing in anything not involving the Terminator franchise, and he earned every bit of his Supporting nomination for playing doomed racer Ken Miles.  Matt Damon is criminally underrated in this film starring as racing savant Carroll Shelby, and in my opinion should have received the nomination that either Antonio Banderas or Leonardo DiCaprio received for their fine but unremarkable portrayals this year.  When you see Shelby stressed, you become stressed.  When you see him cry, your cheeks get wet.  When he does something cheeky or full of gamesmanship, you're ready to high five him.  Damon is Shelby, and he plays the part with a degree of swagger that precious few of his characters ever had.

In addition, Ciatriona Balfe is excellent and fully realized as Mollie Miles, Ken's wife.  And Noah Jupe does a fine job playing Ken and Mollie's son, Peter.  If the film had been limited in scope to this family core (along with great bit parts played by Ray KcKinnon and others) and the excellent racing scenes, this could make a believable Best Picture winner.  However, there's unfortunately more to this movie than just those moments, and that's where the film's craft suffers.

The title of the film is not Shelby v Ferrari, nor is it Miles v the Other Nameless Racers.  Ford (the company) looms large here, and sadly, this is where the movie underperforms.  It's got a great cast for the suits involved, including Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe, and Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II.  Unfortunately, none of their characters have the depth to warrant their considerable acting talents.

Henry Ford II represents a major wasted opportunity to explore serious questions.
Iacocca sets things in motion, and Bernthal plays him as remarkably bright and likable.  But once Shelby and Miles are on board, Iacocca disappears into an abyss from which he can only repeatedly ask Shelby to keep taking on for the team and looking concerned.  Beebe is the primary roadblock to success for Shelby and Miles, but he comes off as a one-dimensional cheap suit bad guy, every move seemingly made to undercut Shelby and Miles despite the fact that he gains nothing from doing so.  A better movie would have presented Beebe's motivations in a rational manner, making the film be about the continual struggle between big business conservatism and garage-bred maverick culture.  Showing Beebe having real reasons for making the moves and suggestions he makes elevates the conflict above a cartoonish "he just sucks" level.

But the biggest disappointment is HFII, "The Deuce".  He maddeningly bounces between being the ironfisted ruler of a major manufacturer and the put-upon CEO held hostage by the whims of his executives, whichever the plot requires.  The film makes a half-hearted attempt to portray the culture war between innovation and big business that lived prior to the computer age, but by making the star of big business a dullard whenever it suited its purposes, it robs that culture war of any real drama or intellectual heft.  The film could have been so much more if it had only taken this aspect seriously.

7. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood


Much as The Irishman may have unfairly been nominated because of the names of its director and stars, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood gets unearned advantage from both those factors as well as being a film revolving around the entertainment industry, which the Academy just eats up (see La La Land).  Looking at it purely as the film that hit the screen, Once Upon a Time is a worthwhile film that has its fair share of flaws that keeps it toward the bottom of this list.

As with pretty much every Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time has a great script, with everything you expect from dialogue in a Tarantino film.  Tarantino does a great job of building tension multiple times throughout the film, but also introduces some quintessential madcap scenes, and at times mixes them with inspiration.  The buildup to the home invasion scene gets you on the edge of your seat, but then it almost immediately turns into a burlesque of a fight scene, culminating with Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton spraying a swimming pool with a flame thrower while inside Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth wreaks havoc on his would-be attackers.  It's a great sudden release of energy that causes an interesting whiplash in the audience, but it's never paid off with a serious denouement, which the film could really use.  As a result, the ending feels a little empty, with not one major character completing a full character arc.

The rest of the film is quite like this, as it shifts its focus slowly from being a portrait of the professional ups and downs of Hollywood's lean and mean days in the late 60s to being an unwinding of the Manson Family's attack on Sharon Tate.  Perhaps the objective all along was to disguise the true point of the film to surprise the audience, but in the end, it feels like a lot of the time spent early on Hollywood's inner workings was just a waste of attention.

Aside from a couple of fun parts like his fight with Bruce Lee, the movie doesn't really sing until the Mansons appear.
That's not to say the film overall is a waste of time.  A Tarantino script is never a waste of time, and many of the performances are top notch.  Brad Pitt earned his Best Supporting nomination primarily by being a leading actor miscategorized into an "easier" category (a practice I absolutely abhor).  DiCaprio is his usual solid self, even if I can think of a performance or two that maybe should have had his nomination.  The best performance though, is Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, and it should have been Once Upon a Time that Robbie received her Best Supporting nomination for (though perhaps Tarantino could have done her a favor by giving Tate a little more screen time with a little more to do).

Her scene with Tate watching herself on screen beats anything she was asked to do in Bombshell.
Overall, while Tarantino does a very good job on Once Upon a Time, I’d put it behind Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill in his oeuvre, probably on the same tier as Django Unchained.

6. Marriage Story


It seems like every year a film gets nominated that doesn't stand out because of technical merit (One shot! Filmed over 20 years! An unfilmable story filmed!), novelty (An honest to goodness great genre flick! Black and white!  Whatever it is Terrence Malick does!), or importance (A dark part of our history explored! An incredible adaptation! A once in a lifetime performance!) but instead is just a solid movie with great performances, a good script, and excellent craftsmanship. Often they're films on the lighter side that manage to still be poignant (Philomena is a favorite example).  Marriage Story is this year's yeoman nominee.

It's a story of divorce that takes the perspective of making both parties to the divorce both villain and victim.  Adam Driver's Charlie Barber is distant and controlling, at least from the perspective of Scarlett Johansson's Nicole.  She takes the steps to leave, rocking Charlie's world.  That prompts Charlie to have an affair with someone from his theater company, which pushes them further apart.  They try to work through the divorce process themselves, but soon one of them contacts a divorce attorney (Laura Dern in a powerhouse supporting role) and things just spiral out of control from there.

She is a powerhouse. Should I ever get divorced, I want Laura Dern to get her law degree and represent me.
The movie is as engaging as its marriage is in trouble.  When things are doing okay between Charlie and Nicole, Marriage Story doesn't really stand out.  But when things go poorly, that's when its stars really seem to shine.  Nicole is at her best when trying to get someone to take her side against Charlie, the genius everyone loves, and finds it in Dern.  Charlie starts as almost a supporting role in the beginning but then takes center stage when he must fight to keep some semblance of his family's normalcy back.  The film's Best Picture nomination (and the Best Actor and Actress nominations of its leads) may stem entirely from the confrontational scene the pair have one night when they just finally can't take it anymore.  It's the pivotal moment in their relationship as well as the film.  Everything else is either prelude or aftermath.  And that's okay for a nomination, but not enough to get it Best Picture.

They do get over it.
Part of Marriage Story's challenges come from the fact that it's tilling soil that was already farmed by Kramer vs. Kramer, which also featured the story of a couple dissolving into divorce with a young boy left in the middle.  Even when done well, it's hard to distinguish yourself in the shadow of Hoffman, Streep, and Richard Benton.

But even beyond that, the film suffers from not really having an identity outside of the stars' relationship (as well as their relationship to their son).  All the supporting roles aside from Dern's are either soft comedic ones (Nicole's mother and sister, the always talking elder statesman of Charlie's acting troupe) or one note dramatic fillers (Alan Alda's soft, "give her what she wants" divorce attorney or Ray Liotta's loud firebrand divorce attorney).  The world seems to just exist to give context to Charlie and Nicole's marriage and divorce.  That makes Marriage Story a little too insular to be Best Picture, regardless of how otherwise well-crafted it is.

5. Joker


Joker is a film that almost could be Best Picture.  It's got an interesting angle in taking on insanity and the culture that it both arises from and that arises from it.  It takes the path of providing an unreliable viewpoint character to the extreme.  And it has a performance for the ages by Joaquin Phoenix.  So where does it go wrong?  It ties itself to a major comic book villain.  One whose mythos (to a degree) is well known and anchors the film into a context that interferes with some of the storytelling mechanisms it tries to set for its foundation.

The film paces Arthur Fleck as he more and more rapidly descends from just being a troubled man with a quirky psychobehavioral condition to being a full on psychotic who has killed some number of people (how many of them real versus imagined is part of the concept of Joker).  Arthur creates an outsized persona for himself, partly to allow him to live as the kind of man he wants to be but also partly driven by the public's (perceived or real) response to his initial crimes.

In this respect, Joker starts to tell a societal tale, showing how the great unwashed masses of Gotham City, living in a cesspool of a city filled with uncollected garbage and everyday crimes while being lectured as to what is best for them by the Gotham rich elite.  It's a powder keg reminiscent of the tail of the train in Snowpiercer, and Arthur's murder of some rich assholes on the subway one night is what they need to start acting out.

In a city this cruddy, it's amazing everyone's not insane.
If the film had left its Batman ties to just being called Joker and being set in a gritty city called Gotham, this would work quite well.  Unfortunately, it instead ties itself even further to the comic books, and this ends up being a downfall for the movie.  Joker brings in Thomas Wayne and his son Bruce into the story, and this creates several problems.  By making Arthur that Joker, the movie undercuts the character because he pales in comparison to the brilliant monster that the comic book villain (and the Heath Ledger film role) is.  The comic book (and Dark Knight) villain is a madman, but he's a brilliant madman who repeatedly proves himself a danger to Batman because he's a creative tactician unfettered by logic or sense of self-preservation.  This film's Joker instead is a regular schmo who makes very little of the action around him happen, instead reacting to situations as best he can.  It's difficult to picture this Joker posing that much of a threat to Batman.  From that perspective, Joker is a poor origin for the supervillain.

He doesn't cause much of the action, but boy does he get his steps in.
Tying the film into the Batman mythos causes structural issues as well.  The film shows the death of the Waynes.  We know it happens (versus being a part of Arthur's psychosis) because we know it has to happen.  But as a result, there's an anchor point to reality suddenly inserted into Arthur's madness where the audience never really knows whether an event really happened the way they saw it or not.  The murder happened, so the riot surrounding the murder had to happen, which means most of the other events surrounding the riot had to happen, which suddenly removes the question of whether this is all just a madman's fantasy.  That robs the film of much of its power because the audience, once left to drift through uncertainty over what's really happening and what's just in Arthur's head, suddenly has solid footing on which to stand.  And that just makes all the little inconsistencies and missteps stand out as problems instead of evidence to weigh in the real vs. fantasy debate.

But even with these issues, Joker is a must-watch movie because of the performance Joaquin Phoenix produces.  He's shown he can play crazy (The Master).  He's shown he can play vulnerable (Her).  He's shown he can play broken (Walk the Line).  He's shown he can play malevolent (Gladiator).  This Joker is all four.  Arthur Fleck (yes, this film gives Joker a real name) manages to be pitiable and despicable at the same time.  It's a role that gives an actor a lot to work with, and Phoenix knocks his performance out of the park.  It's just not a great Joker.

4. Jojo Rabbit


If you had told me at the beginning of 2019 that one of the films with realistic chances at a Best Picture Oscar was the tale of a young German lad who goes through the travails of living in Nazi Germany with Hitler as his imaginary friend, I would have not believed you.  Yet somehow Taika Waititi pulls it off, and manages to be subversive even in a satire as blatant as this.  Contrary to critics who have called Joker the film of our times in 2019, Jojo Rabbit really deserves that title as it features someone excusing the awful decisions and actions of a leader by ascribing imaginary wonderful traits to him while attempting every mental gymnastic required to find his policies logical. The encouraging message of the movie is that, after much wrong has been done, young Johannes Betzler is woke.  Sort of.

To accomplish this feat, Waititi throttles his worst film making instincts.  I've been on record as despising Thor: Ragnarok for taking several very serious comic book epics and turning them into a tone deaf sitcom of an action flick.  Marvel movies (Black Panther a major exception) often fall prey to bathos, the undercutting of drama with poorly placed comedy, and Ragnarok was the poster child of this.  In this outing, Waititi lets the drama breathe when it needs to, and that brings Jojo Rabbit a power that was completely missing from his Marvel work. Jojo Rabbit is definitely a comedy, and a very funny one at that, but the most of the moments the audience takes with them from the theater are the small moments between Jojo and his mother (especially the final one, which needs to be seen rather than described), the tension when Thomasin McKenzie's Jew-in-hiding Elsa is almost discovered, and the brave sacrifice of Sam Rockwell's Captain Klenzendorf.  It's a movie that will live with you as you leave the theater, and it manages to get better with time and memory.

The scene featuring Stephen Merchant's Gestapo brigade manages to be hilarious and stressful at the same time.
The film is further lifted by stellar performances by most of its cast.  The kids in the cast do a great job, especially Roman Griffin Davis, who has to carry much of the film. Scarlett Johansson is the German mother we all wish we had, earning every bit of her Oscar nod. Sam Rockwell is Sam Fucking Rockwell. Even Alfie Allen manages to be incredibly endearing as a not so closeted Nazi. Really, the only problem in the cast is (naturally) Rebel Wilson, and thankfully she’s not on screen much.

I would totally watch a Sam Rockwell Alfie Allen buddy movie.
I don't know if Waititi can bring this kind of craft to his next Marvel movie, but if he can, Black Panther may not be the only Marvel film to earn a Best Picture nomination.

3. Little Women


Little Women is not the first adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel, but it's certainly the most intriguing.  Greta Gerwig's script reshuffles the book, telling the childhood parts of the film as flashbacks as the adult parts unwind.  It results in a taut narrative that keeps the viewer engaged, as the bouncing between time periods creates little mysteries for the uninitiated before later tying together all the threads.  It makes for a wonderful introduction to the book, but more importantly, it's a masterwork of film making.

Greta Gerwig received a highly deserved nomination for her script, but for the life of me I'll never understand how she didn't get nominated for Best Director.  You'll never convince me that Scorsese's job directing The Irishman was more deserving than Gerwig's on Little Women, and if she'd been nominated, she'd have a legitimate shot at winning, even with the stellar jobs put in by the directors of the films in front of Little Women on this list.

This movie is magical.  How could its director get ignored like she was?
Of course, she has a lot to work with.  The story is a classic one, creating a vivid world that its meaty characters inhabit, providing a setting for its cast to succeed, which they do in spades.  Saorise Ronan seems utterly incapable of putting in anything less than a Best Actress performance, and she shines in a movie that also has Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep.  Florence Pugh earns her Best Supporting Actress nomination as Amy, the March sister with perhaps the most fully formed character arc.  Eliza Scanlan brings pathos to the screen as the sickly and doomed sister Beth. Chris Cooper plays against type as the kindly grandfather of Chalamet's Laurie.  The weakest link in the cast is oddly enough it's most recognizable star (behind Meryl), Emma Watson, who puts in a solid but unremarkable job as wannabe social climber Meg.  The entire cast shines and as a unit to a degree that no film other than Parasite can claim.

Saorise Ronan is on her way to becoming her generation's Meryl Streep.  She may already be.
Really, there's little not to like about Little Women.  If you’re a purist, you may object to the modifications to the story done for this film, but honestly, it modernizes the sensibilities of the work while honoring its author. It’s beautifully shot and makes excellent use of Alexandre Desplat's lively score.  It's imminently rewatchable and, I think, destined to be a cherished classic as it ages.

2. Parasite


For many, Parasite was that little foreign language film that everyone thought was great but aside from generally being great, you didn't hear much about.  That's a shame, because a film as wonderfully created as Parasite needed to be hyped in detail.  Fortunately, with its Oscar hype, more details are being propagated of how it's funny, poignant, and tense at the same time.  Unfortunately, the fact that it has subtitles (that one inch height of text, as director Bong Joon-ho put it) will keep many away even still.  But they shouldn't stay away, because this film is brilliantly written, brilliantly shot, and brilliantly executed.

At its heart, the film is about the relationships among the classes: rich with poor, poor with each other.  We’ve fortunately not seen the kind of unemployment alluded to in the film here in the US in many decades, but Parasite makes that kind of despair and need to hustle still ring true. It provides us a snapshot of three families: one rich business class and two poor service class.  The rich family for the most part looks down on the poor families: there is a line that the poor should not cross, as patriarch Park Dong-ik states.  One poor family worships the rich family as people they can never be.  The other poor family looks down on the rich ("The rich are naive," says patriarch Kim Ki-taek) while still wishing they were them ("They are nice because they are rich," says his wife Chung-sook).  The poor families, on the other hand, see each other as important only when the other can be used for gain or threaten their desires.  The poor vastly outnumber the rich, but they can't get ahead because they work against each other instead of with each other.

The rich Parks are often trying to make sense of the situation of their employees.
Great acting and a twisting and turning plot really make Parasite a joy to watch, the 2 hour 12 minute run time feeling much, much shorter.  Bong Joon-ho had already established himself as a gifted, stylish director with a lot to say (particularly about class) in films such as Snowpiercer.  With Parasite, he takes his craft to a completely different level.  Every bit of the craft in this film is brilliant, from set design to cinematography to the script to the acting.  In one classic example, the poor families are always in a situation of being physically below the rich family (whether living in a semi-basement apartment in a low-lying area of the city and having to walk consistently uphill to reach the rich family or hiding out in a hidden sub-basement of the rich family's house), providing a stark visual reminder of the different status of the families involved.

This is shown even in a small way when the Kims have to climb to a raised toilet in order to find a wifi signal they can mooch.
Throughout, Parasite handles the strife between classes far more deftly than Joker could ever hope to.  The movie successfully gets you to root for the people perpetrating crimes and root against the innocent.  When tragedy strikes the poor family who have been weaseling their way into the rich family's lives through lying, cheating, and stealing, you still somehow don't feel it's deserved. That's artistic skill.  Parasite should win Best Foreign Language film and I would not be unhappy if it managed to beat my number one pick for Best Picture.


1. 1917


1917 is simply the most impressively constructed film I've seen since Boyhood.  Filmed as a one shot movie, it uses this technique to great effect.  While the one shot motif provided a nice filmmaking quirk to Birdman, Sam Mendes's use of the technique here ratchets up the suspense as its two main characters are sent out on a nearly impossible mission, navigating their way through No Man's Land and occupied territory in order to save another unit from certain destruction.  The best way I've come to describe it is to remember how awe-inspiring the Normandy landing scene was in Saving Private Ryan, except now it's a full feature length film with that feeling.  With no cuts chopping the action, there's a real sense of danger as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake round each corner, enter each building, and slip through each segment of wire, as you never know what the camera will suddenly swing around to show.  As a result, you palpably feel the danger of the moment while seated comfortably at your local theater.

The crossing of No Man's Land was enough to create a sense of dread peril.
This sense of tense danger is aided by the taught Thomas Newman score, which captures the mood of each scene expertly.  This level of craft can be seen in pretty much all aspects of the film.  It’s gorgeously shot if you can consider the awful landscape of war a canvas for beautiful cinematography. The performances by the main actors are stellar, if offset slightly by more workmanlike performances of everyone else, with Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch particularly wooden in their portrayals of British officers met along the way. The action progresses nicely, even if there are a couple of tidy coincidences along the way, such as Schofield running into a hungry baby not long after filling his canteen with some conveniently found fresh milk.  Still, everything is done in service to the story it tells.

So many of the scenes exhibit a type of terrible beauty.
And what a story it tells.  According to Mendes, 1917 was inspired by tales told by his grandfather, who served as a messenger in the Great War.  I don't know how much of 1917 is directly lifted from those tales and how much is manufactured whole cloth, but there's enough realism to the feel of the movie that it's quite engrossing.  1917 tells an important story about war and the sacrifices it requires of its participants.  It does honor to all who fought, showing the bravery and camaraderie of both the men who died and those who survived.  It teaches lessons we'd do best never to forget.

While not attempting to predict the actual Oscar winner, it seems likely that 1917 will win the actual Best Picture award.  However, the top four films are all deserving, and I would not be upset if any of them takes the prize.  But I need to pick one, and for me, 1917 was the Best Picture of 2019.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

2019 Oscar Picks

Every year, I pick my winners among the categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  This year, that makes 17 categories I've made my selections in.  These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win. In the past my picks have largely coincided with the Academy's selections, but they can easily diverge, especially this year, where the nominees are wide ranging and clear winners aren't apparent in many categories.

Best Picture

As usual, I already posted my rankings of the nominated film and my top pick is Vice. This was kind of a weak year for Best Picture, as I would put the each of the last few runners-up over all of this year's entries.  But from an imperfect set, I'll go with the work that I feel tried something new and fresh.

I'll be happy if any of my top five get the statue, which since it's only an eight film slate, is not saying much for this year's quality.


Best Director

I really struggled with this category because of the same imperfections that made selecting a Best Picture this year a little tough.  Honestly, if Ryan Coogler had been nominated, I might have picked him because he truly made a great film starring a superhero, which is not easy, or else everyone would be doing it.  As it is, I think I'll go with Alfonzo Cuarón, who made an assortment of very unconventional casting choices work pretty well in a well-structured film.  I did not pick Roma for Best Picture, but I kind of see this being a situation like Life of Pi, where the craft of a film that far surpassed expectations was too much to not recognize.

Best Actor

To me, this is a slugfest between Christian Bale and Rami Malek, with Bradley Cooper coming in third.  Both Bale and Malek truly immersed themselves into their real-life characters, with Bale doing another one of his extreme transformations for a role.  I think I have to give my selection to Malek, as he seemed to have more heavy lifting to do and absolutely leapt off the screen as Freddie Mercury.  I don't think the Academy can go wrong either way.


Best Actress

There's not a lot to separate this year's nominees, though I think the climactic scenes of The Wife have earned Glenn Close her first Oscar in seven tries.  I was not thinking this during most of the film, but then she went from enigmatic to slow burn to this stunning combination of fury and sadness and fear.  Honestly, if she's not going to win this year, I don't know what she has to do.  None of the other nominees really did it for me, though if I were to pick a runner up, it would be Lady Gaga, who coupled her extraordinary musical talents with some very solid acting chops.  If we tend to over-reward actors who sing these days, should we over-reward singers who act?


Best Supporting Actress

I would have gone for my perennial favorite actress Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in Vice, but then Regina King went and had one of those Oscar-winning moments in a breakdown after a failed attempt to negotiate for her daughter's baby daddy's future during a mission to Puerto Rico in If Beale Street Could Talk.  Watching that I immediately thought she'd vaulted into the Oscar discussion.


Best Supporting Actor

Why don't we just name this award after Mahershala Ali?  Or better yet, make him only take leading roles from now on?  Because man, he is too good to just be the perennial supporting actor nominee.  His Don Shirley is worldly, erudite, and vulnerable.  Green Book would be a poorer movie with almost anyone else in that role.  If for some reason Ali doesn't win, I'm hoping that Richard E. Grant wins for his ne'er do well Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a classic rogue who's joyful to watch in action.


Best Original Screenplay

I have not seen First Reformed.  Of the others, I think I'd lean toward The Favourite, which really has some delightful moments and has a few things to say about class differences.  I put that slightly in front of Green Book, which also has a way with its words.


Best Adapted Screenplay

I've not seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  Of the others, I think it's hard to beat the lyrical combination that is Barry Jenkins interpreting James Baldwin's words in If Beale Street Could Talk.  The entire movie is almost prose poetry, and blends nicely with the film's masterful score.


Best Animated Feature

I'll just remind you of my rules about assessing Best Animated Feature nominees:
  1. A nominated film should have seen wide release to win.  The larger populace that votes for the eventual winner in Animated Feature seems to not do the same level of homework that it might do for the bigger awards like Best Picture, so to have a real shot, a contender has to be one the voters already know something about.
  2. Innovation helps, at least to some extent.  Some animated nominees were the first to really try some major new technique.  I don't think this criteria trumps the first one, but it may help break a tie.
  3. The winner is often the one that, if shot as a live action film, would still have significant merit.  If the story transcends the animation, you may have a winner.
With that, I went into the last couple weeks expecting Isle of Dogs as my choice, as it's hard to top a Wes Anderson animated concept.  But then I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Wow.  It is the best animated film I've seen since probably Up.  And it certainly checks the boxes.  Released widely, it is a movie whose direct story would make for a pretty decent live action superhero movie.  But what really does it for me is the effective mixing of different animation styles into a cohesive whole.  It's truly a stunning film, and well deserving of this honor.  Well done!


Best Cinematography

I've not seen Never Look Away, but it would have to be spectacular to beat Alfonzo Cuarón.  His black and white work on Roma is stunning.  The setup of shots in locations both rural and urban are rock solid, and his nighttime work is some of the clearest I've seen without seeming unnatural, and the fact that he's done this in black and white is amazing.  I don't even know who I would put second behind him.


Best Production Design

I could easily see Fiona Crombie and Alice Fenton winning for The Favourite, but my pick is Black Panther's Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart.  Black Panther brought Wakanda to life, and their mixing of traditional African texture to high tech features is nearly perfect.  Making an environment seem ancient and futuristic at the same time without coming off alien is a significant feat.


Best Visual Effects

I really would love for the folks behind bringing Winnie the Pooh to life in Christopher Robin to win because that movie really hit me square in the feels, but if I'm being honest with myself, I have to give the nod to Avengers: Infinity War.  That movie was epic to the max, and the sheer amount of combat, space adventure, and mysticism it made immersive has to be recognized.  Ready Player One also looked great, but when the entire world is supposed to be artificial, it's kind of like cheating.


Best Animated Short

Thankfully there's no Kobe Bryant career masturbation video here to ruin my day like at last year's Oscars, and none of this year's nominees seems undeserving.  Bao will probably win because Pixar, but my pick is Late Afternoon.  The way the film depicts dementia is effective and imaginative, and the story it tells made the theater quite dusty.


Best Live Action Short

This was not the feel-good slate of the year.  Wow, was this (and the documentary slate) depressing to watch.  I think there's something to be said for the chances of Skin to win the Oscar because of its subject matter, but it felt a little too revenge fantasy for me.  Instead, the film I thought was most well done was Detainment.  Detainment has received some negative press because the mother of the victim of the crime complained about the film's making, but I found the dive into how evil can come from even the youngest minds and the story of how the police handled the case quite engrossing.


Best Documentary Short Subject

A Night at the Garden has gotten a ton of press, and it very well could win because of today's political environment, but I can't get behind that decision.  To me, it takes very little art to dig around and find some archival footage that shows a couple minutes of a Nazi rally in New York, slap a text piece at the end, and release it.  I don't see the craft there.  It's a glorified YouTube video that doesn't even bother to provide context or tell the full story (what else was said at this rally?  what were these people's concrete aims?  what was the crowd doing when they were not saluting?).  I want to reward a film that actually put some work into it and had something directly to say.  From that perspective, I loved End Game, the story of doctors and therapists who handle palliative care, the patients who are facing their own imminent deaths, and the families who are left to struggle with these end of life decisions.  End Game is powerful watching, as evidenced by the sheer volume of tears I witnessed all around me in the theater.


Best Original Score

I thought this was a great year for creative scores.  For me, it becomes a toss up between Black Panther and Isle of Dogs, though Nicholas Britell's incredible atmospherics in If Beale Street Could Talk are a close third and quite worthy of recognition.  Of the two cultural appropriation nominees, I think I have to give Frenchman Alexandre Desplat's Japanese drums and string work on Isle of Dogs just a slight nod over Swede Ludwig Göransson's African fusion.  I fully expect the Academy to reward Göransson since Black Panther is a bit of a darling at this year's Oscars and Desplat already has more than one statue, and I won't feel bad about it.  But in a neck and neck race for my vote, I'll go with the defending champ.



Best Original Song

Sorry Kendrick Lamar, you made a great song in "All the Stars" for Black Panther, but you're up against Lady Gaga and the song that was almost a character unto itself in A Star is Born.  "Shallow" is a very solid tune and has been racking up the awards, and I fully expect it to continue its run at the Oscars, deservedly.