As somebody who has long considered himself to be in a dysfunctional relationship with the Academy Awards, it pains me to say: I’m back on my bullshit. This year, without even really making any special effort to do so, I’ve seen all of the nominees for Best Picture. I surrender my Oscar-hating credentials to nobody, but I have to say, this is one of the first years in which I’m not extraordinarily outraged by a decent chunk of the nominees. Of course, that’s mostly because I’m outraged at the shut-out of Uncut Gems, but that’s an entirely different post.
Without further ado, a run-down, dare I say, some CAPSULE REVIEWS of each Best Picture nominee, presented in ascending order of personal preference:
Directed by Taika Waititi
Ugh. I may have to walk back my claim of not being “outraged” a little bit. I guess I’m not mad, I’m just…disappointed. Full disclosure of biases here: I kind of loathe Taika Waititi. I’m sure he’s a nice guy and all, and I’m glad he’s a new face making original films in a landscape so bereft of them, but…sigh. I haven’t seen Hunt For the Wilderpeople (some Taika-stan on twitter threw this in my face as though it were some ancient, obscure lost film that nobody’s ever heard of), but Thor: Ragnaraok is easily one of the most tedious and annoying films in an entire universe of similarly tedious and annoying films. Waititi’s sense of humor is gratingly childish, screamingly unfunny, and brings to mind the worst kind of Redditors in its arrogant self-satisfaction. ZOMG GUYS HE MADE A COMEDY ABOUT NAZIS CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!?!? Snore.
A lot of hay has been made on film twitter lately concerning Jojo Rabbit and its humanization of Nazis, as the film seems to put forth the theory that those who are radicalized into right-wing death cults can be saved, and should be applauded for doing so. That’s not an especially appealing premise to me personally, but it’s made all the worse because Jojo Rabbit is just as grating and eye-roll worthy as the director’s previous outing. Hey, at least he managed to sandwich this in between Disney movies! Anyhow, once the initial “omg twee Nazis lol” thrill fades, there’s very little else to like about Jojo, until the third act, when Waititi absolutely bows the opportunity to turn everything on its head by showing the horrors and atrocities of the Nazi regime and treating its collaborators with unflinching judgement, but our man isn’t interested in anything that deep or cutting. Why not? It’s just about the fuckin’ holocaust, after all. That last scene with the dancing…I just…I can’t.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
We’re still firmly in “ugh” territory for now, though now the muck’s only up to our chests instead of our eyeballs. The smarmy David Spade character in me wants to say I liked this movie better when it was called The Squid and the Whale. That may seem like a simplistic read, but a semi-autobiographical movie about Baumbach as a child of divorce is much more interesting and far less irritating than Baumbach making a movie about himself in the Jeff Daniels role. Marriage Story isn’t a terrible movie, it just doesn’t really amount to much, mainly because it’s so heavily centered around characters (I think) we’re supposed to love, who are boring, irritating, and have zero chemistry with one another. When this movie hit, everybody was talking about the infamous “wall punching” scene in breathless tones. I watched the movie, steeling myself for trauma (I don’t handle interpersonal toxicity well in movies), but I just thought it was pretty overwrought and silly. Honestly, it made me feel like Noah Baumbach has never actually been in a nasty fight with anybody he loved.
Speaking of things Noah Baumbach doesn’t know about, I’m not sure he knows the ages of his own children. That’s the only possible explanation I can come up with for some of the insane details buried within the stand-in son character in Marriage Story, who is eight years old but needs a car seat, isn’t 100% toilet-trained, and can’t read. Sorry Noah, either you have no idea how old your kid is, or they’re one of those Brooklyn weirdo kids (hair down to ankles, named Leviticus, favorite activity is eating rice cakes while reading Chomsky for kids).
Anyways, I often dry-heave when people object to a movie because there’s “nobody to root for,” but in this case Baumbach builds the entire premise of his film around the idea that divorce is a messy and awful that happens to people with the best of intentions, and that we all can come away from it as changed, and hopefully better people. But Driver and Johannsson do little to communicate the goodness implied by such a reading, nor does Baumbach ever do much to make us think these people ever liked or even cared much at all about one another. It’s a flat, unremarkable story about the drama in the business of being alive and falling in and out of love, but Baumbach seems to think there’s a drama inherent in the telling. He’s sadly mistaken, in my opinion.
Directed by Todd Phillips
The hits start comin’ and they don’t stop comin’. What else is to be said about this movie that hasn’t already been said to death? I count myself firmly in the “Joker Centrist” camp. The movie is entertaining enough, I’m a sucker for the Batman universe, and I like the Joker a lot. Joaquin Phoenix turns in an incredible performance as sad sack Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable, shakily employed man who aspires to be a comedian. In a lot of ways, Joker is back to basics for Gotham, transposing the comic book universe onto a slice of gritty nostalgia for the New York of Death Wish and Taxi Driver. As many have pointed out, Joker seems to borrow liberally from both movies, as well as King of Comedy, but most of the mainstream press coverage leading up to and after the film’s release involve lots of fretting and hand-wringing, if not outright finger-wagging that a movie about a down-and-out mentally ill man could be interpreted as a paen to the would-be Incel massacres.
That concern is plainly hogwash, as Joker is a film about a man who feels left behind by society and gradually comes to focus his resentment on an appropriate target: the aristocratic Wayne family, as well as the less-deserving talk show host he idolizes, who mocks him on live TV at Fleck’s nadir. Never does Fleck shift his anger towards minorities or women, who are the universal targets of the abhorrent individuals the anti-Joker crowd claims will be emboldened by this film.
The problem with Joker is that Phillips has less insight into the themes his movie purports to deal in, and he’s not terribly interested (or perhaps not up to the task) of wrestling with them in any meaningful way. It’s remarkable and telling that a movie like Joker has gotten the widespread commercial appeal and critical recognition that it has, considering the subject matter, but it feels like a wasted opportunity in the hands of the guy who brought us the hard-hitting social commentary of The Hangover.
OK, we’re safely out of the woods now. Take a deep breath, and relax. Wait, who’s that, in the distance, is it…BOB ODENKIRK?!?!?
So aside from having the most delightful bit part of any movie this season, Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women does interesting work with the source material, couching the whole thing in a sort of meta-narrative that centers the agency of all the women involved, both fictional and “real.” A few Academy dunder-heads have admitted on voting exit surveys that they got confused by the time jumps, which is proof that we shouldn’t be giving any sort of critical award power to folks who can’t stay off their phones for a solid two hours at a time, particularly when those folks work in the MOVIE BUSINESS.
Ahem Anyways, I have nothing particularly negative to say about Little Women. Oh wait, actually, Emma Watson is a bad actress, and that’s never been made clearer than by sticking her next to Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Laura Dern for two hours. Whew, she is awful. Just absolutely wooden, behaving at times like an animated porcelain doll. It’s hard to tell if she was always this bad and used her young age as a cover, but man, she is following the trajectory of a Heisman-winner that goes bust in the pros. Stay tuned for my next blog entry, entitled “Why Emma Watson is the Baker Mayfield of Hollywood.” Ha, I’ve managed to alienate people who hate sporpsball and silenced women’s voices in one fell swoop. Take THAT, libs! (mostly joking)
Gerwig deserves a lot of credit for bringing this movie to life. I’ve never read the book, but watching the movie mirrors the experience of falling in love with an incredible novel at just the right age, a fact I’m sure was not lost on the many people who hold this story near and dear to their hearts. Suffice it to say, I’m not exactly the target audience for Little Women, but I saw it anyways (please acknowledge my bravery), and I’m only more eager to see what Gerwig’s going to do in the future.
Directed by Sam Mendes
A particularly annoying subset of Left-twitter have been haranguing 1917 for the crime of being a war movie that is not sufficiently anti-war, which is something I usually roll my eyes at. In this case, however, I’ve got to come down a bit on the naysayers’ side, only because the movie makes the cardinal sin of pretending to very much be an “anti-war” movie with a few lines of lip service coming from a 1.5 minute long Benedict Cumberbatch performance. If you’re not going to commit to the bit, just move on, in my opinion.
Anyways, Roger Deakins is Roger Deakins, and our visually-stunning King has found new ways to challenge himself here, creating incredibly immersive, unbroken panoramas that make all the senseless bloodshed and heart-pounding fear feel all the more real. Unfortunately, with an absence of any real character development, I was pretty detached from the movie’s events as they unfolded, outside of marveling at the sheer technical artistry on display. In that regard, watching 1917 is a little like watching somebody else play a very beautiful video game. Not altogether unpleasant, but nothing particularly mind-blowing or connective either.
Ford V Ferarri
Directed by James Mangold
OK, now we’re into the hot takes. I will defend James Mangold to the death. His movies are good. They aren’t jaw-dropping, they aren’t life-changing, but dammit, he does a certain kind of prestige picture better than almost anybody in the game, and at this point, competency and a commitment to craft is more than I expect about most things that make boomers and/or nerds wet themselves, so I’m all in. I mean, Mangold is the guy who always turns in the best iteration of a thing that’s been played out. He did it with Walk the Line, Logan, and now he triples down with Ford V Ferrarri, a movie that’s sure to satisfy your elderly parents who “just want a nice story,” that annoying friend of a friend who never shuts up about cars even though you live in New York and haven’t owned a car in almost a decade, and the sniveling whiner who thinks filmmakers should try new things, even when their staying safely within a tried and tested formula (it me!)
Nobody’s reinventing the wheel here (pun intended, thanks very much), but if it ain’t broke, well shit. Damon does a very passable Texas accent, and it’s a delight to watch him and Christian Bale carom off each other as stubborn car-racing aficionados whose job it is to convince a big fat idiot with tons of money he needs to trust the experts he hired to win him a race. It’s interesting that this movie was one of the last huge projects produced at Fox prior to the huge Disney acquisition, as the movie has a tragic coda, and struggles with what it means to try and think outside the box within a tightly controlled assembly line.
Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Mmm…that’s the good stuff. I’m something of a QT-stan, but The Hateful Eight left me feeling pretty cold (no pun intended, thank you), and I was wary of the hype going into this one, but…man, what a movie, and what a movie for Tarantino to make. All of his calling cards are there, but the director’s ninth film feels very restrained compared to the rest of his catalog, even the slow-burn, neo-noir 70s throwback Jackie Brown. OUATIH is shot through with Tarantino’s aching love of movies, and of Los Angeles itself, a city that looks grimy and impossible until those magical moments when it looks perfect.
The movie unfolds at a languid place, telling the intertwining stories of the aging has-been Rick Dalton, his long-time stunt double and friend Cliff Booth, and Rick’s next-door neighbor, actress Sharon Tate. The fiction Tarantino weaves into the true story that many cultural historians label as the death of the 1960s is one of two men watching the world around them change before their eyes. Dalton goes practically kicking and screaming, while Booth tends to stoically take everything in stride, as he’s the man Dalton only pretends to be. All of this adds up to a revisionist history showdown, the likes of which Tarantino’s become fond of, both in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, but there’s more going on than historical catharsis here.
OUATIH is about friendships, community, values, art, love, and expression, and how all of those things crash together in the chaotic frenzy we call life. It’s an ultimately uplifting movie, telling us all we have the power to change our present and our future, if not our past. Featuring stellar performances from a stacked ensemble cast, beautiful, scorched earth photography, and Tarantino’s typically flawless musical selections and crackling wit, OUATIH is a movie I’d be content to keep watching over and over for a very long time.
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
I saw this at this past year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin. Prior to this I had only seen Memories of Murder and Snowpiercer, both of which I enjoyed. I had heard nothing but incredible approval come out of every festival where it had screened, so I kept to my usual playbook and resolved to not learn anything about the movie until I could see it for myself.
The offerings at Fantastic Fest 2019 were already stacked, but Parasite stole the show for me, and it almost doesn’t seem fair to have this one hanging around in competition with genre indie hopefuls that might never get distribution. In a new era of pronounced class agitation, existential anxiety, impotent rage, isolation, and hopelessness, this is the movie that people were just begging for, whether they knew it or not. I’m not the first or only person to make this point, but Parasite achieves what Joker sets out to do, and it does so with humor, beauty, and a vibrant love for humanity and cinema shining through. The usual crowd of folks who need to find something wrong with the thing everybody loves have occasionally remarked that it’s too “on the nose,” but I really feel that would only be a problem if it felt deeply self-important or didactic. While the film is very clear in its politics, Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece is less of a polemic than it is a tragic wail of grief.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Well…here we are.
I’m not sure if you could count me as Scorsese-stan, but the best of his films are ones I go to again and again. Even his most commercial and mainstream films are achingly personal, and as mentioned in Bong Joon Ho’s victory speech for Best Director on Oscar Night, “the most personal is the most creative.”
As somebody who was deeply moved, even enthralled by The Irishman, I’ve been increasingly put off by the sneering contempt people seem to have for Scorsese’s epic, presumably because they’ve resolved to stop glorifying “old white guys,” or perhaps it’s because they’re put off by his completely restrained, publicly shared opinion that he doesn’t like Marvel movies and thinks they are bad for cinema (King).This came to a head when the crowd I was watching the Oscars with on Sunday night felt the need to continuously share just how little they cared about the movie, despite the fact that most of them hadn’t seen a frame of it.
When I offered that I thought it was perhaps Scorsese’s best movie…you would have thought I threw the cat out the window. It’s certainly his most achingly personal, and if you have been a fan of Scorsese the artist and followed his career, it’s hard to not be moved by this movie, which is something of sorrowful reflection on emptiness. Moments like these are when I wonder how much I actually share with other people in terms of how we look at the world. How can anybody watch the final third of The Irishman and not be devastated, or worse yet, continue to write this film off as “another mob movie?” This is the coda Scorsese has been gesturing at for all of his career, beautifully realized. It’s a coda not just to the movie, but perhaps to his own life, an exaggeration of his own complicated feelings about his Catholicism, his fascination with the swaggering tough guys of his neighborhood growing up and their swanky, glamorous lifestyles. It’s an aching plea to do something bigger instead of making yourself small and insignificant by making every compromise in order to reach the stars.
Frank Sheeran gave away everything, because he lived in fear of authority, but came to respect and find salvation in it. His entire life was based around the steadfast conviction that attaching himself to the right people would be his salvation, and in the end, as one FBI agent tells him outside his nursing home, “they’re all gone.” All the more heartbreaking, the “they” here isn’t just the mobsters and the union reps, it’s his family, his friends, everybody who exists to make one’s life more than waiting around to die. And so The Irishman ends, with an old man, so completely emptied of any meaning that he can’t even bring himself to feel sorrow or remorse for all the blood he’s shed, all the people he’s hurt. He only feels nothing, as the end draws near.