Sunday, April 25, 2021

2021 Oscar Picks

Every year, I pick my winners among categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  In a decidedly off year for the movies, I've made picks in only fifteen categories because some categories were scatted among too many diverse options than I had the time nor desire to watch.  These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win (though I may talk a little bit about predictions as well).  In the past my picks sometimes coincided with the Academy's selections, but they can easily diverge.  Last year, my picks matched the Academy's in 10 of 17 categories.

It's stating the obvious to say that this year was strange.  The slate of films to review was comparatively weak due to a whole slew of issues revolving around the pandemic.  This resulted in me skipping my usual companion piece in which I rank the Best Picture nominees because quite frankly I didn't have a lot to say about many of the nominees.  But that's not to say there aren't gems among the artistry on display by the nominees.  Let's get to it.


BEST PICTURE


If I had posted my rank ordered Best Picture list, you'd have seen that I only considered three films to be real candidates for the top prize: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, and Nomadland.  Of the others, Sound of Metal is extremely overrated, The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes the most of an Aaron Sorkin script and a couple of very good performances, Mank has its moments but is mostly pedestrian Hollywood self-love, The Father surrounds an incredible Anthony Hopkins performance with an interesting concept that's executed in a flawed way, and Promising Young Woman would be a strong candidate for Best Picture if it had taken itself slightly more seriously.  (Now you see why my Best Picture ranking post would have been rather short.)

Judas and the Black Messiah features a pair of really powerful performances in a film that tells an important story and tells it well.  I'll talk more about the leading (supporting?) performances below.  The issue is with the rest of the cast's performances, which fall flat next to their charismatic and intense co-stars.  If the surrounding performances had been similarly elevated, this would have been my pick for Best Picture.

Minari is an excellent film, and the "foreign language film set in America" flavor feels experimental, even if it's been done in a few prior movies.  Given its focus on a Korean family dealing with poverty and the difficulty of attaining their dreams, with much of the dialogue in Korean with obligatory English subtitles, it's natural to link this with Parasite, which is unfortunate given it's nowhere close to being as great a film.  But it does tell a simpler, quieter story very well. I'd actually compare it to The Florida Project more. The performances are superb, and if the movie had expanded more beyond telling the personal family story to the societal implications that surround it (especially in this COVID year), it would have made an even stronger case for Best Picture.

Nomadland is the most complete film of the crop, marrying a good script and direction with great cinematography and performances.  While its use of real life nomads in its cast isn't the most amazing experimentation in recent Best Picture nominees, it does give the film a slight boost when regarding its craft.  The story it tells is a highly accessible one about life for especially older people in the wake of the Great Recession, as traditional unskilled jobs continue to dwindle in number and stature.  While Judas and the Black Messiah and Minari have both taken their turns atop my mental Best Picture list, Nomadland is the one that lives there the most, and I think it should be this year's Best Picture Oscar winner.


BEST DIRECTOR


I haven't seen Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round, so I'm really just deciding among four candidates.

Of those, I would eliminate David Fincher and Emerald Fennell from contention first.  Fincher does his usual fine job with a coherent stylistic point of view.  It's just that Mank doesn't come off as anything special, at least to someone outside Hollywood circles.  Fennell does a fantastic job in what is her feature film debut as a director, but while it's quite good, Promising Young Woman misses several opportunities for delivering even more gut punches.  But it's promising debut, and I would expect Fennell to appear among the nominees many more times in coming years.

I'd easily back a Lee Isaac Chung win here for his deft handling and ability to pull strong performances from a cast diverse in age and culture.  The film is well-constructed and a great example of the craft that needs to go into a film to successfully elevate it at the theater.  But I think that ultimately the high points of the film are muted enough that it pulls Chung back a bit compared to the job that Chloé Zhao put in.

Zhao's accomplishment with Nomadland was quite pronounced.  She ably blended the look and feel of scripted and documentary films into one wonderful hybrid.  You can expect great performances out of gifted, seasoned professionals like Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, but she also pulled great performances out of amateurs who are real-life nomads.  The feel I get watching those performances is similar to the sensation I had watching the first third of Moonlight, where Barry Jenkins elicited strong performances from kids making their feature debuts.  It's an incredible job, and Zhao deserves all the accolades she's won to date and will continue to win for this work of art.


BEST ACTRESS


Of the candidates, I have not yet seen The United States vs. Billie Holiday, so I can't consider Andra Day.  

Of the other candidates, Viola Davis is Viola Davis.  I don't think she's capable of a less than stellar performance, and this is coming from someone who did subject himself to Suicide Squad.  But her Ma Rainey, despite the title of her film, feels more like a supporting role (which is ironic since she previously won Best Supporting Actress for the same role she won a Tony for Best Actress).

Carey Mulligan does a wonderful job in Promising Young Woman, but it's not a role featuring the most range.  I actually think some of her previous performances were stronger.

Vanessa Kirby makes you believe every bit of her being a mother struggling with the loss of her newborn baby, but fails to make you believe she would ever have gotten married to Shia LaBeouf.

Frances McDormand, however, is Frances McDormand, and she Frances McDormands the heck out of her role as a widow struggling to figure out who she is and find her way in an America whose economy has passed her by.  Eventually we may get tired of honoring the "Frances McDormand-type character", that woman from the middle of America who must take control of her world in the face of potentially overwhelming challenge, but for now, I'm not sick of it at all.


BEST ACTOR


I fully expect this award to go to the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who was taken from us by cancer this past year.  His work in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is outstanding, especially when you know that he's dying while putting so much energy into making his Levee Green a memorable force of nature.  But while I'll applaud that selection and probably blink back a tear or two, he's not my selection for this year's Best Actor.  Anthony Hopkins is.

Hopkins plays a juicy role as an elderly man struggling to make sense of and re-establish some degree of control on his world as he falls victim to dementia.  It would be cliché to hand an award to the actor who plays "the old sick dude", but his performance is so much more than that.  His Anthony is at different times suave, brutal, loving, and vulnerable, and Hopkins excels in all.  It's the kind of varied and textured performance that Denzel Washington should have won for Fences had he not been robbed by the highly overrated Casey Affleck.  It's unfortunate that his work is up against Boseman, because he'll either lose to Boseman or he'll experience the backlash that will come toward anyone beating out Boseman for the award.  But taken in a vacuum, it truly was (by a nose) the best performance this year.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS


I watched neither Borat Subsequent Moviefilm nor Hillbilly Elegy, so I'm only considering three candidates here.  

Of the three, I find Youn Yuh-jung by far the most compelling, not because her fellow nominees didn't do great jobs, but because she was given more to work with.  As the daughter of a demented old man, Olivia Coleman had to be sad, confused, and afraid, and she does a wonderful job at each.  As Marion Davies, Amanda Seyfried had to be glamorous, quietly competent, and hurt, and she does a wonderful job at each.  

But Youn's grandmother was a force of nature in Minari, being at different times impish, matronly, out of control, vulnerable, and childlike.  And she does an amazing job at everything, often having to segue from one extreme to another mid-scene.  She does so deftly and smoothly.  Without her performance (as well as that of the severely underrated Alan Kim), I don't think Minari is as effective a film.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


I often grumble about what the industry calls "category fraud" when it comes to the supporting categories, and here we see it again.  Somehow, the actors playing the two roles that get by far the most screen time and, with one minor exception, are the viewpoint characters for Judas and the Black Messiah, are both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, for a movie with apparently no leads whatsoever.  

At least Daniel Kaluuya can make the better claim of the two as the supporting actor, playing the Black Messiah to Lekeith Stanfield's Judas.  Kaluuya's Fred Hampton is suave, driven, intelligent, and surprisingly vulnerable.  Kaluuya plays him with a restrained intensity that pops off the screen.  His performance was so good that I would pay to see him reprise the role in a biopic centered on the rise of Fred Hampton in the Black Power movement.

Lakeith Stanfield is no slouch either, as the FBI informant who eventually sets Hampton up to be assassinated at the hands of the authorities, and together the two men stand out completely from the rest of the pack.  Sacha Baron Cohen does the best acting job of his life as Abbie Hoffman, but can't seem to keep Hoffman's Worcester accent consistent.  Paul Raci does a fine job is a role that's far from dynamic in the overrated Sound of Metal.  And Leslie Odom Jr. gives a yeoman's effort in a film that literally put me to sleep.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY


Honestly, I could see almost any of these films taking the prize, and while my runner up is Judas and the Black Messiah, I'm giving it to its 60s sibling, The Trial of the Chicago 7.  It's Aaron Sorkin doing Aaron Sorkin-y things, which in a relatively weak year, is good enough to be the best of the group.  Sorkin's script does suffer a bit from self-righteousness, but it is funny, often poignant, and moves extremely well.  It fleshes out real characters for much of its sizeable cast (though it does suffer from leaving most of its villains as cardboard cutouts).  While flawed, there's a beauty to Sorkin's prose, and it's on display here.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY


This is even a weaker category than Original Screenplay this year.  I need someone to explain to me how a film that was largely improvised could get nominated for best script and feature no less than nine co-writers.  It's a joke.  Of the others, both The Father and Nomadland are memorable for things other than their scripts.  And let me repeat once more that One Night in Miami... put me to sleep, and that happens about once every decade or so.

That leaves The White Tiger, and I will be quite pleased if it wins.  It has a strong point of view, and its use of language is at times poetic.  Its perspective on the brainwashing of groups into subservience is important to hear and more universal than the casual observer might suspect.  I can imagine it being overlooked by a Hollywood that sometimes thinks that only two races exist or matter, but it has a message that needs to be heard.  


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM


While the slate of live action films suffered with the pandemic, this was one of animated features' best years, with three very strong works and two more that don't feel like list fillers (as opposed to any year featuring a Croods or How to Train a Dragon entry on the nominee list).

There's one runaway favorite, but let me talk about the others first.  Onward is probably the weakest of the five entries because it has that feeling of just another modern CGI animated feature, but it does have quite a bit of heart and builds an interesting world for itself.  The latest Shaun the Sheep film is not as good as its progenitor, but is endearing and poignant at times.  

Wolfwalkers really surprised me by spinning a wonderful legend of werewolves prowling the woods of Ireland and making its more traditional 2d animation stylish and strong.  

Over the Moon is a wonderful film exploring a part of Chinese legend with modern sensibilities.  Its first ten minutes isn't quite as powerful as the first ten minutes of Up, but it really tries to be.  If not for the quality of the winner, Over the Moon would easily be my pick.  It's too bad it didn't come out a year earlier, because I could see it beating out Toy Story 4.

I watched Soul without knowing anything about it beforehand, and my opinion was that it was the best Pixar movie since Inside Out.  Then I realized it was by the great Pete Docter, who's given us not only Inside Out but also the incredible Up and Monsters, Inc, as well as the screenplays for Toy Story and WALL-ESoul has a wonderful story, textured performances featuring both comedy and poignancy, and a great message.  It is one of the best animated films of the past decade (though it would have to beat out both Inside Out and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to be the best).


BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM


This was a runaway category for me.  Burrow and Yes-People are both well-done trifles.  Opera is extremely interesting, but aside from that intellectual curiosity, doesn't really present a powerful viewing experience.  Genius Loci is pretentious and underwhelming as only the French can make cinema.  

No, by far the most powerful experience is watching If Anything Happens I Love You.  Even without its topicality, it would win in my book for both its wonderful artistic style as well as its portrayal of two parents dealing with loss.  But then you couple it with a slow burn up to the reveal that the title keys into the modern danger of a school shooting spree and as a viewer you become torn asunder, needing to be put back together like the grieving couple must be.  If Anything Happens I Love You is one of those short films that I immediately start pointing all my friends to after watching it for the first time.  It's a strong work and stands out easily from its competitors.


BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM


Two Distant Strangers stands out from a relatively strong batch of contenders.  It's a Groundhog Day for the George Floyd era, as a young black man trying to every day escape his death at the hands of a quick-to-kill police officer.  It would almost be perfect if on one turn through the loop we didn't learn that the cop in question was a psychopath.  To me its more powerful when the cop is a slave to his own poorly-aimed training and personal prejudices and not just a stone cold killer.  But the hope that the character brings -- that no matter what, he's going to find a way to get home safely to his dog is one that's needed.

The others are quite well done as well.  Feeling Through and The Letter Room are both relatively feel-good movies in their own way, showing people who care about others even when they don't have to.  And The Present and White Eye both show, from different perspectives, what assholes the Israeli authorities are.  Together they make an unusually strong slate of short films.  But Two Distant Strangers will be the short film we talk about in years to come.


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT


As always, it was absolutely brutal getting through this year's slate of nominated short subject documentaries.  Only one of the five, the highly entertaining A Concerto is a Conversation, doesn't make you walk away feeling angry or sad, and for that it's worth viewing, especially to hear the stories of how composer Kris Bowers's grandfather moved to LA and created a good life for himself through a great deal of cunning.

Two other documentaries seem incredibly exploitative.  Colette takes a former member of the French Resistance to the concentration camp where her brother died.  Hunger Ward gives you the "opportunity" to watch young children in Yemen die of malnutrition on screen.  In particular, one scene in which a grieving grandmother has just killed her granddaughter by feeding her milk through her breathing tube and right into her lungs while the medical staff did nothing but say she shouldn't do that makes one want to throw everyone involved in prison.

Another short subject, A Love Song for Latasha, tells the tragic story of an African American girl who was shot and killed by a store owner while attempting to pay for a drink.  This film suffers two issues, one craft-related being the use of actors to play the parts of the subjects (which takes it somewhat out of the documentary category and toward the live action short film category) and one message-related being the lengths it takes to say that the incident "caused" the LA riots that took place a year later the day the Rodney King trial verdict was announced.  Latasha's murder was no doubt part of the context that made LA so incendiary at the time, but it's a real stretch to say it "caused" the riots given, you know, the fact that they happened directly after the King trial verdict was handed down.
 
That leaves Do Not Split, which is a powerful portrayal of the early days of the Hong Kong protests leading up to the COVID pandemic.  It's an important story for everyone to see what's been happening in Hong Kong, and it's done in a way that's extremely accessible.  Millennials will see in it echoes of the BLM protests that occurred last year.  Boomers will hear echoes of the kinds of protests and authoritarian reaction that resulted in Kent State and the events dramatized in The Trial of the Chicago 7.  It's a story that bears illumination, especially given how distracted we've been in America this past year.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE


I thought this would be a runaway for Soul given how effectively it mixes modern electronic scoring with classic jazz and a taste of hip-hop.  But then I listened to the score for Minari and was blown away by it, too.  I really won't mind if it wins, but I still put my selection with Reznor, Ross, and Batiste because I noticed Soul's score during the film and only came to appreciate Minari's during a separate listen.  They're both fantastic works that should be enjoyed.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY


This is a strong category, as all five nominated films look great.  News of the World in particular stands out as establishing a clear look-and-feel to its world.  However, my selection goes to Nomadland.  Joshua James Richards creates a visual landscape that is simultaneously gritty and hauntingly beautiful.  That's difficult to pull off.  Yet in almost every scene, you are treated with shots that somehow underscore both the struggles of the people involved as well as the grandeur of the country they're choosing to see instead of the four walls many of us are treated/subjected to.  I would be fascinated by a behind-the-scenes look at the decision making for slot selection and other elements.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN


I feel underqualified to comment on these nominees this year, but since I've seen all of them, I'll venture an opinion.  To me, it's a three-way race between Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, and News of the World.  Mank is helped out somewhat by the choice to film in black and white.  New of the World is helped out somewhat by the natural surroundings most scenes are shot in.  So I would go with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which generates a wholly believable, yet somewhat stylized, historical setting for its cast to do their work within.  The setting supports its characters ably, while almost being a character unto itself as well.  That puts it ahead of its fellow nominees in my book.



That wraps up my 2021 picks.  Here's hoping that 2022 brings with it a more traditional process and slate, indicating that we have been given the opportunity to return to something resembling normal.


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.