Oscars 2020 – Catching the Best Films, Round 92

Still no Oscar host (who misses them?), still no end to my Winter race to catch all the Oscar contenders… Here’s my take on (most of) this year’s best.

TIME’S THE ENEMY WHEN IT COMES TO CATCHING OSCAR-NOMINATED FILMS. The last-minute dash to catch a glut of last-minute releases wasn’t so bad this year. Shipping the ceremony forward a few weeks didn’t help, but the film schedule was fairly even and the Palme D’or and Cannes helpfully signposted some frontrunners in 2019. Still, there’s always one that comes a cropper. No, not another remake of A Star Is Born, but Ford vs Ferrari. It wasn’t a shortlist guarantee, despite it’s lauded line-up of cast and creatives, but it limped out in mid-November in the UK – an unusually disruptive time – and come February 2020 was nowhere to be found in the capital. 

Maybe that tale of rivalry bucked a trend among this year’s best picture nominees, but I doubt it.

There are often clear themes to be dug out from the nominees, whether an idea, emphasis or unsubtle point, formed a few years ago in the pitch meetings. It’s fascinating to see those consolidated in a usually divisive shortlist, and this year’s no different. But there’s a different feeling to year’s pick of the best compared to the past few years. The protests against populism, and in America the mooted wave of films responding to Trump’s Presidency at the edges of Hollywood’s Democratic heartland, has failed to appear. Two years ago, Spielberg’s The Post was too rushed and pointed to have an effect. Last year’s Vice was superb, but its canvas was too broad to the point of obscuring the relevance to today’s GOP.

Greys

Instead, there’s a legion shade of greys in this year’s shortlist, with fairness and unfairness playing such major parts they may as well have received some nods themselves. It’s not surprising that the most satirical and powerful film is an all-too-rare foreign language entrant (smashing records during its recent release), or that its nearest rival comes from New Zealand’s new leading light. 

Controversies

This year the controversies weren’t exactly fewer than last year, but more focussed. None of the leading pictures tripped like the old-fashioned but likeable Green Book did last year (which in spite of, or thanks to, its rocky promotion stole the big prize). Instead the front-runners appear to have been overtaking each other with increasing frequency. A late entrant, 1917’s one-take mastery powered it into the award season poll position. This year’s criticisms were more general, as even the streaming versus studio argument fizzled away when many predicted a peak. Perhaps that’s an issue most likely to surface in the festivals of Europe now. Hollywood seems to have held its hands up as Anglo-American directors are more likely to gang together to create a filmmaker mode for viewing on giant TVs while scolding streaming on mobiles, rather than hunkering down in the Studio system.

Relatable Criticisms

The subject matters were easily relatable to the criticisms. Joaquin Phoenix passionately called out the inarguable shameful lack of diversity while collecting his Best Actor BAFTA at last week’s ceremony, for a role that plays strongly on white extremism, elitism and populism. Yes, the BAFTAs were as bad as the OSCARS at ensuring proactive shortlists. Some omissions are more than jaw-dropping.

As Joker shows, the Me Too and Diversity protests of the past half-decade have formulated into the plotlines of the films themselves and found a strong voice in powerful speeches. The political outbursts that have grown in speeches over the past three years have now morphed into something different, more focused, and hopefully more powerful. 

From the couple at the heart of Marriage Story to the circumstances and decisions that set the narrative of Little Women spiralling, there are few heroes and villains, set against a notable fabric of societal upheaval. There’s a new type of maturity there. Here are my one-shot takes… 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“The fusion of Tarantino’s earlier films with his latter ‘historical’ pictures was worth the wait” 

OUATIHOne of the first out the blocks this award season, this is a Hollywood fairytale, (almost) pure and simple. Dismissed by many as the Tarantino film where nothing happens, perhaps conjuring that impression was its greatest move. Emerging in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal, and still riding the wake, recasting some of the darkest days of Hollywood (when a golden age was brutally ended by one of its greatest tragedies) with a fairytale ending, while meandering through the era and taking time for some slyly brilliant nods to film itself, wasn’t the easiest option. The usual opprobrium met Hollywood, mainly focussed on the oversaturation of Margot Robbie’s feet, and undersaturation of her dialogue, long before it was released. But for me, Hollywood is an immediate entrant to QT’s top five. If anything, it recalls the easy, loungey feel of Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s only adaptation to date. The fusion of his earlier films with his latter ‘historical’ pictures was worth the wait. A lot of Hollywood’s swagger is down to Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two of Tinsel Town’s all-time greats. Pitt’s easy riding turn may have led to some Bruce Lee controversy, but gliding around town with his buddy or on his own – his walk to the heart of the Manson Family, and George Spahn’s cabin, a role sadly left open by Burt Reynold’s death just before filming, is THE Tarantino moment in a film that ducks Tarantinoisms. DiCaprio proves once again that he’s a major star as he fails to put a step wrong. He’s unlikely to win from this list, but he’ll be back many times. Mainly, I’d happily spend hours in the company of those two, just driving around town…

The Irishman

“Perhaps a well-deserved farewell to the sub-genre Scorsese crafted.”

The IrishmanMore than a little concerned? Perhaps how Hollywood felt about The Irishman before its release, but things soon settled down, bar a few (well thought out) Marvel comments.  

Talking of spending some quality time with Hollywood legends, Al Pacino’s second film on the Best Picture list is the real catch-up of the year. The Irishman comes with significant heft, but its most important step may be pushing Netflix over the line into respectability (supported by Roma’s triumph last year). While The Irishman took to cinemas for the window required for Academy consideration, it’s 3.5 hour runtime is more suited to an indulgent home experience. Scorsese may have tutted at the idea of streaming on phones, but few directors of his stature are as aware of the changing canvas. Up to the final coda, with the Irishman left lonely and last, this feels like the final hurrah we never knew could happen. It’s certainly in the vein of Goodfellas, how could it not be, but Scorsese’s latest is a curious one. The score is eclectic, though it works. It’s a film steeped in melancholy and foreshadowing (far more than Goodfellas), from historical fact to the screen pop-ups that carry Scorsese’s trademark and understated irony (the Tony Jack label halfway through is laugh out loud funny). 

The use of de-ageing CGI techniques attracted the most attention. It’s certainly distracting at the start but while it oddly works less well for DeNiro than others, its main problem is that it distracts from acting. The big three at the centre of the film are cast against background and type. Joe Pesci, lured back to acting by his old friends, is notably and masterfully quiet and menacingly cool. In the accompanying roundtable, he stated his preference for playing Tony Pro – who he knew and legendarily gave Stephen Graham a gleeful bout of cold feet about playing. Those who find the slowness or stuttering of young De Niro’s Frank off-putting may be missing a point. De Niro’s performance is quite extraordinary. Compared to the hectic, nervous performances of his youth, particularly in Scorsese films, his older, quieter presence is unsettling and almost reptilian. This Frank is a hulking, quiet presence, the steps both sure and uncertain are the character’s not the septuagenarian actor’s. The scene where his eyes dart between the camera and Pesci’s Bufalino when he realises what’s to be done – what he has to do – is incredible. Perhaps this film, the one Scorsese said waited until the central three actors were the right age, is a well-deserved farewell to the sub-genre he crafted. The problem is, it requires absolute attention and may well have done better away from its streaming home.

Parasite

“This is is a film best seen unaware”

ParasiteThe shock admission, by dint of foreign language, but it deserves its place. Cutting satire and social commentary shot through with black comedy, slapstick and horror. Its overriding triumph is showing the world that these massages are, if not universal, international. Driven by Bong Joon-ho, whose previous films have had mixed-success (2003’s Snowpiercer has only just earned a UK release) has an incredible hit on his hands here and it’s well deserved, even if history suggests that the Academy will dispatch him with an Original Screenplay and Foreign Language alone. Some of Parasite plays like an episode of Inside Number 9, perhaps filmed through the lens of Yorgos Lanthimos (this has taken his slot in the shortlist), but when the injustice of class moves from laughs and chilling exploitation to social action it’s clear that Parasite’s effect has been stunningly persuasive. Cyclical, escapist and packed with stunning imagery (the cigarette on top of the raised sewage-spewing toilet is one), we may be entering a time readymade for pretence, unmasking, and the prominent return of Highsmith’s Ripley, but Parasite has set a very high bar. And duly this is a film best seen unaware. Cannot wait to see Joon-Ho’s inevitable speech (see the Oscar hidden under the table on one of the latest posters) as much as his next film.

1917

“A new era of war film-making is either ending or opening”

1917There’s no doubt that 1917 is an intense and gripping cinematic experience. Both heart and horror are exposed and slightly impeded by its ambitious mechanic. Few could leave the cinema believing that this is one-take (it’s not hidden by the production crew), but Roger Deakins’ feat in blending long takes into one is extraordinary. The cameos from top-ranking (and box office buoying) British talent is a little segmented and distracting, but it’s made up for by some genuinely shocking moments (the aftermath of the plane crash, in particular, perhaps the most shocking and unexpected in this list – and that’s saying something) and its full-on realisation of the grimness and gruesomeness of one of Europe’s darkest days. The cut hand going through the chest is the clearest and most brilliant undercutting of Checkov’s gun in this shortlist. It’s almost ridiculous to mention that the concept is a little too overbearing considering its success in bringing that horror and intensity to life, but then this is film. The recent imprint of Dunkirk is unshakeable too. It’s not diminishing of Sam Mendes’s achievement that 1917 seems like Christopher Nolan’s strongest contender for Oscar glory. A new era of war film-making is either ending or opening.

Little Women

“I’ll be interested to see how the Academy makes it up to the director”

Little Women posterThe BBFC rating due to ‘mild threat’ should reflect this film’s threat to these Awards, or so you might think. Greta Gerwig’s omission from the Academy’s directing shortlist is a major fault. Her direction is certainly at the top of this class. Little Women, with its central focus on four white sisters may not shout diversity, but this can’t be dismissed as a narrow, feminist calling card either. The cast is impeccable (Saoirse Ronan is more than a queen of period drama, but she shines here), responding to its naturalistic mix of the 21st and 19th centuries. But there’s more here than the incredible achievement of finding and owning that authentic resonance. What Gerwig manages to do in adapting one of the contenders for Great American Novel is nothing short of astonishing. Time merges through flashbacks and flash-forwards until it’s irrelevant. Only the line between childhood and adulthood is relevant, everything else is a cyclical repeat. Scenes throughout the sisters’ coming of age can echo or merge to become one and the same. It’s a narrative breakdown that serves the themes of the plot unlike most other films I can think of. You’re almost unaware that the narrative’s been skillfully broken down until an ending that rips the carpet from under it while solving one of the novel’s great problems. Schrödinger’s Jo March. This film absolutely blew me away and I’ll be interested to see how the Academy makes it up to the director as history realises that, even if she does have the chance to nab the adapted screenplay baldie from Taika Waititi.

Marriage Story

“May show where Netflix will have its greatest cinematic impact”

Marriage Story posterI saw Marriage Story a half-day after Little Women, and that was more than a nod of respect to the first couple to have different films up for top awards at the same Academy Awards. Noah Baumbach’s Netflix success plays some of the same narrative tricks as his partner’s adaptation of an all-time American classic, if not as many. His is similarly brilliant trickery though, surfing the fine line of peak cringe and crippling emotion. There’s no easy ending here, there’s also no sides drawn. Perhaps it’s the exemplar of this year’s theme of heroes and villains, or a lack thereof. Marriage Story’s concept resigns them to the periphery. There are some great jokes, and some scenes (like plaster and towel) are utterly relatable. Scarlett Johansson has deservedly picked up two noms, as Lead Actress here and Supporting in JoJo Rabbit, but in so many ways this is the inestimable Adam Driver’s picture. My shout to challenge Parasite’s screenplay award, though its greatest hope lies with Laura Dern – a quite remarkable performance, utterly unlikeable, and thanks to Little Women, another of this year’s double-hits. The climactic song and a fine Randy Newman score round out a package that, along with The Two Popes (see below), and away from the great concept of The Irishman (see above), may show where Netflix will have its greatest cinematic impact. 

Jojo Rabbit

“It’s not what you think”

JoJo RabbitWhat can I say? It’s not what you think, and what you think isn’t really the question. The question is whether it works. Satire is as good at subtly covering the truth as it is at powerfully exposing it. As satire it falls short of Parasite’s power and success. As writer and director, it shows Taika Waititi has come on leaps and bounds in a very short time and there’s immense drama and emotion to be wrought from his well-honed comedy. Although, there’s a nag that this doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Like Parasite, It’s best to run in unaware, because it’s certainly not what the publicity hubbub has suggested: It’s not all about a boy in 1940s Berlin with Hitler for an imaginary friend, although that’s part of it. When the cathartic ‘kick’ comes it’s with the same, if slightly less destructive, wallop as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The joke is on Hitler here, clearly an important weapon against fascism in all its guises, but it’s not quite as effective as it could have been. Even a fine Bowie-tuned ending, guaranteed to engender my goodwill, and the presence of Sam Rockwell who can elevate almost anything (and Scarlett Johansson, who is remarkable), can’t knock it to the top of this pile. 

Joker

“Villainous clowns… If there’s one thing immune to Disney’s irrepressible expansion.”

JokerAnd now… What to say about the film I wanted to make for three decades? The Clown Prince of Crime, the Harlequin of Hate, freed from the confines of his comic book roots, as much as key tales like Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s A Killing Joke leave their mark. In his definitive form, the Joker is one of fiction’s great villains, dragged from the simple innate contradiction at the heart of clowns, from the doorstep at midnight, and here proven to stand apart from his nemesis and in society’s nightmares. Bob Kane’s introduction of this Japester in April 1940, betrayed deeper depths than many of his forays into popular culture have afforded him – but if there’s one character that lends itself to multiple portrayals, he is it. This is not Kane’s origin or any other. It’s one born of the late 2010s and traced onto the 1980s. The muddled and downplayed performance of DC’s recent attempts to fuse a shared universe of cinematic superheroes allowed this to happen. Martin Scorsese was attached as producer for a while, before The Irishman and a few likely other complications drew him away. But the intention was already set. Drawing heavy links to his 1970s New York, this Elseworlds’ (DC’s term for non-canon what ifs) Arthur Fleck follows on from The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin or more darkly, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. But what those films have, and Scorsese carried in abundance in the early part of his career is subtlety. Todd Philips doesn’t have that and the ambiguity in Joker doesn’t reach the bar it should. It’s a beautiful film, true. It’s a gruelling film too. It’s overshadowed by Phoenix’s performance just as 1917 is overshadowed by its one-shot production. In both cases, it hinders and helps. Joker could have been more, but it’s still a chilling and undeniable triumph – not least for its record-setting box office. Criticism of its incel and populist edge deserves an airing, but for me, much of it has missed the point. Becoming Joker is eternal damnation, not aspirational hedonism. Typically and naturally, its success sets a huge problem for DC and Warners. To think the latter studio has been buoyed through the past year or so by returns generated by villainous clowns. If there’s one thing immune to Disney’s irrepressible expansion…

Ford v Ferrari

“Couldn’t anyone have picked it up recently?”

There’s always one that gets away. Mangold, Damon, Bale – I really wanted to catch it, but it wasn’t to be before the ceremony. Couldn’t anyone have picked it up for another short run in London between BAFTAs and OSCARS? A really short one? Yes, the name change didn’t help any, it’s still carrying its original name across the web, but I could certainly have boosted its box office. Verdict TBC…

The Two Popes

“The third Netflix modern classic”

The Two PopesSpecial mention for another Netflix modern classic, this time form Fernando Meirelles, adapting Anthony McCarten’s play. I never thought I’d have as much fun watching Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on screen, but the gentle, barbed duelling and acceptance that unfolds between Popes Benedict and Francis make for an incredible film. It’s stunningly shot, beautifully colourful, a stunning achievement and quite the coup for Netflix. If anything contributes to its success though, it’s the casting. Two Welsh giants of stage and screen, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are riveting in the lead roles, or for the purpose of Academies, lead and supporting roles. Although the film hasn’t made the major categories, The Two Popes is one film I can piously recommend.

See you next year!

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