Oscar Deep Dive: Best Picture

NOMINEES: The Irishman, Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Ford v. Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Parasite, Marriage Story

 

The Short Take

What at first seemed like a wide open race back in the fall now appears to be relatively set, and in the most boring of ways. For what will be the 17th time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will bestow its highest honor, Best Picture, on a war movie. This time around it will be awarded to Sam Mendes’ (or, arguably, Roger Deakins’) 1917, a World War I story focused on the most dangerous mail delivery mission ever put to film. It is inarguably a gorgeous film, and a triumph of cinematography that displays all of the hallmarks that have made Deakins into the cinematic legend that he is. Yet, I find that the longer I am away from it, the hollower I feel about it (more on that later), which seems to be the exact opposite response of every voting body with an award to give out. Mendes won the DGA’s top prize, Deakins is a lock for cinematography (again, well deserved), and the film already has two Best Picture adjacent prizes under its belt; the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture: Drama, and the BAFTA for Best Picture. Odds are very much in the favor of 1917 completing the offensive on Oscar night.

Nonetheless, if there is a sliver of justice in the world, 1917 will fold to the unmitigated brilliance that is Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. If the logic behind a Best Picture award is to reward the movie that is the all-around high point of filmmaking for the preceding year, there should be no questioning that Parasite is the film most worthy of such an honor. If you believe as I do that all great movies begin with great scripts, Parasite began with a head start, the writing circling out into tantalizing stretches of uncategorizable humor and discomfort as it unveils the competing but entrenched stories of the Park and Kim families. From there, Ho’s directorial flourishes spread the story onto a captivating tapestry of long takes, disconcerting vantage points, and all the gothic power an overbearing house can impart. I could go on and on, but suffice to say that Parasite is a masterclass in cinematic art. It has had its fair share of awards love, getting key nods at the SAG and WGA awards, but it now seems like an also-ran in comparison to 1917’s awards power. I won’t hold my breath, but nonetheless I would love to be wrong and see Parasite win out. 

 

The Long Take

Before launching into the actual nominees, I feel compelled to take a moment and spotlight three films that deserve inclusion in the Best Picture running but were unceremoniously shut out of the Academy Awards altogether. 

The first of this bunch is The Farewell. Lulu Wang’s moving and comical portrait of a family trying to say goodbye to their matriarch without letting her know she is dying of cancer is a lovely variation on the family dramedy. Shuzhen Zhao and Awkwafina deliver stellar performances, and one scene of Awkwafina giving a strained toast in front of a blue backdrop has stuck around as one of my favorite shots of the year. 

Second is Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ New York gambling caper that gave the world the underappreciated gift of the most delightfully unhinged Adam Sandler performance imaginable. It is a story of pride, arrogance, and addiction filtered through the Safdie’s particular panache for dense sound design and surrealism. The movie pushes cinematic style forward in dynamic ways, and should have been celebrated for doing so. 

Finally, we come to Hustlers. Rightly propelled into the conversation by Jennifer Lopez’s magnetic supporting performance, Lorene Scafaria’s Goodfellas-esque story of a group of strippers who band together in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis to Robin Hood their Wall Street clients out of money is everything you want from a movie. It is hilarious, moving, and calls into question all sorts of ideas about morality and empathy. Plus, Constance Wu fully announces herself as a talent worthy of greater stardom. Hustlers is a heady examination of wealth, loneliness, and friendship masquerading as a sexy and stylish crime movie, and we are all better for its existence. Now, onto the actual nominees.

I wrote a review on Ford v. Ferrari earlier in the year and I was quite positive about the movie, a feeling I still have. James Mangold’s race car story is a feat of athletic filmmaking and sound design that also makes way for a number of compelling comments on mid-century American and British masculinities. However, this is not Mangold’s best movie, and it is surely not more accomplished than any of the three omissions listed above. It is a Hollywood movie in the classical style, a style I am grateful is still employed at times, but it seems to be in the mix more due to the nostalgia it can induce than its actual accomplishments. The nomination is as far as this one will get in Best Picture. 

Jojo Rabbit was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Taika Waititi consistently displays a sense of humor and directorial style that speaks to me, whether it be on the small scale of The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) or the heights of Thor Ragnarok (2017). Even so, a farcical comedy by coming of age story set during the height of World War II is a tenuous balancing act. Jojo Rabbit gives us a lot to love. The comedy is largely top notch, much of it coming from Waititi’s own bonkers portrayal of Hitler, and in newcomer Roman Griffin Davis’ work in the title role. Plus, it introduces broader audiences to Thomasin McKenzie who provides the movies most resonant performance as Elsa, the Jewish teenager hiding in Jojo’s house. Nonetheless, the movie has a number of moments where the humor, dark backdrop, and heartfeltness strain against each other, making it feel more than a touch disjointed. I quite enjoyed the movie, but it is not Waititi’s strongest work, and it is not even the most accomplished comedy of the year (that nod goes to the stupendous Booksmart). Yet, it is a huge audience favorite, having won the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award, and racked up more public than critical support. It won’t win Best Picture, but its inclusion brings Waititi into the Oscar fold where he will most likely remain for the coming years. 

Marriage Story is a superbly written acting showcase that should rightfully entrench the idea that Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson are two of their generation’s most interesting performers. Noah Baumbach’s story of divorce joins a long line of movies focusing on the dissolution of the family unit, but does so with unexpected wit and tenderness. Baumbach’s directorial work seems to emerge more in his guidance of his talented cast than any flashy mise-en-scene, but this appears to be a reflection of him working with what he knew he had. Driver and Johannson are captivating across the emotional spectrum, and Baumbach knows precisely when to bring the camera tight into their pain, or let it sit back and observe their joint fury. Marriage Story is a great movie, and could be a serious contender in another year, but with the heavy-hitters toplining above it this year, it never really made it into the Best Picture conversation. It will win other awards, but this is not one of them. It is far too measured to break through among the more obviously dynamic moves around it. 

At this time, I will take a few sentences to give my final thoughts on Joker. There was a time, right around when it scored 11 nominations, that it seemed I would have to wrap my head around the potential of a Joker Best Picture win. Thankfully, it seems we’ve dodged that particular madcap chance, but the fact remains that it is a Best Picture nominee. A movie that functions as an amoral fetishization of white male rage is included where other far superior movies about and told by women are excluded. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix is impressive, but it is another in-your-face-physical-transformation-role that is precisely the Oscar’s sweet spot, and therefore a probable win that I cannot get myself excited about. Joker is so indebted to Martin Scorsese’s body of work that director Todd Phillips seems to have never bothered with bringing his own thoughts to it. Taxi Driver (1976) this is not, as hard as it tries, and I hope against hope it recedes into the recesses of cinematic memory as quickly as possible. 

On the precise opposite end of my feelings sits Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s loving adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel. Little Women is the fulfilling of the cinematic promise that Gerwig gave us with Lady Bird (2017), that with a big enough budget and a stellar cast she can make a movie as daring and touching as anyone in the game. Gerwig’s take on the March sisters crackles with energy, intercutting timelines with ease, and displaying a mastery of how to use shadows and color to amplify any emotion you might have on screen. The cast is stupendous, mixing the longtime talents of Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep with the relative prodigies Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet. The movie features a lush production design and beautiful period costumes, and in a perfect world would be in a dead heat with Parasite for the top prize. Little Women won’t win, a reality amplified by Gerwig’s exclusion from the Best Director category, but if nothing else, Little Women is a testament to the fact that she may well become one of this generation’s defining cinematic voices. 

Changing pace now to consider two of the nominees at once, I turn to The Irishman and Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. I choose to bring these together because they exist in a similar spot by way of Oscar narratives: two recognized masters, albeit of different periods of experience, bring their talents to a story they have felt passionate about for a long time. Martin Scorsese spent years trying to bring his story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his association with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) to the big screen, and now that he has we have been treated to a meditative look into what happens when mobsters grow up. Similarly, Quentin Tarantino’s cinephilic tendencies have always seen him circling different levels of pastiche and it feels inevitable that he would turn to a Hollywood story, and so his movie is born out of longstanding interest melded with his recent turn to Westerns. The story of fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and how they exist just outside Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie’s) and Charles Manson’s (Damon Herriman) orbits is funny and poignant. I quite enjoyed both movies, and both feel like a quieter vision of filmmakers who are often known more for their flashiness, grappling with the end of power. They also both feature great performances by movie stars, and Pitt will no doubt win an Oscar of his own. Going into the year, it seemed like it would be a Tarantino v. Scorsese showdown for all the awards, but awards season has shown a general turning away from the pair. Both may have scored 10 nominations, but outside of Pitt, Tarantino’s screenplay, and some below-the-line recognition for The Irishman, there has been little traction for either to win Best Picture. As it stands, don’t expect either to win.

This, of course, brings us to the two frontrunners I highlighted at the beginning of this piece, now oh so very long ago. As I wrote above, this is 1917’s category to lose. It has all the momentum, which I find a little disheartening. I say this not to take away from the cinematic achievement that is Roger Deakins’ cinematography or George Mackay’s moving lead performance, but rather to bemoan the easily identifiable markers of a movie that the Academy fawns over. 1917 is a flashily-made war movie, no matter that it has a non-existent plot and is hamstrung by its needs to commit to the one-take style. It is a good movie, but it is not worthy of a Best Picture win, as opposed to Parasite whose win would mark that rare and glorious moment when the Academy gets it right. I won’t bother repeating all the ways that Parasite is a superb example of filmmaking, other than to say if you have not had the pleasure of seeing it, head over to a theater or Amazon and get on it before Oscar night. You owe it to yourself, and to Bong Joon Ho, to see the best movie of 2019.

 

The Bottom Line

WILL WIN: 1917

SHOULD WIN: Parasite

 


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