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.|
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?|
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.|
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.|
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.|
|Her scene with Tate watching herself on screen beats anything she was asked to do in Bombshell.|
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.
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.
|She is a powerhouse. Should I ever get divorced, I want Laura Dern to get her law degree and represent me.|
|They do get over it.|
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.
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.|
|He doesn't cause much of the action, but boy does he get his steps in.|
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.|
|I would totally watch a Sam Rockwell Alfie Allen buddy movie.|
3. Little Women
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?|
|Saorise Ronan is on her way to becoming her generation's Meryl Streep. She may already be.|
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.|
|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.|
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.|
|So many of the scenes exhibit a type of terrible beauty.|
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.