Best PictureI'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 DirectorUp 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 ActressThis 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 ActorThe 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 ActressFor 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 ActorBrad 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 ScreenplayThis 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 ScreenplayJojo 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 FilmA few years ago, I formalized my Best Animated Feature Film criteria:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.