To put it in the most purely academic term I can think of, it has been a stupid good year for film. This year’s Academy Awards features categories overflowing with strong choices, so much so that a whole separate show could be cobbled together featuring all the overlooked nominees. There are still some snubs that hurt, and the Academy’s diversity problem is still a much too slow work in progress, but it also feels as if the Academy’s Best Picture lineup is the strongest its been in a long time. It was 2009 when The Academy decided to open the Best Picture up to accommodate as many as 10 nominees, and for the first time, it has produced a slate of movies justifying the decision. And that’s not including films like Rocketman, The Two Popes, Knives Out, Uncut Gems, Dolemite is My Name, and Avengers: Endgame – films that in any other year might’ve been shoo-ins.
That leaves us with one decision left: who should win? In addition to expanding the nominees, The Academy chooses it’s Best Picture with a ranked ballot system. Voters rank their choices and the film with the lowest number of 1st place votes are eliminated and 1st place votes are re-allocated to the 2nd choice of those whose number one choice has been eliminated. This process continues until one film has earned 50% of all 1st place votes and is declared Best Picture. I don’t envy voters this year, as I found something to like about all of the films this year and there are at least 4 out of the 9 that would make me very happy to see take home the industry’s most coveted prize and only one that would truly disappoint me. So, for your consideration, I submit by ballot for Best Picture, ranked from lowest to highest.
Has a performance ever been so good as to ruin a movie? That may be the case with Todd Phillips’ Joker. Much has been made of Joaquin Phoenix’s go-for-broke performance as Arthur Fleck - the tortured, marginalized man who transforms into the iconic villain by the film’s end – and all of it is true. The only problem with it is that Phoenix gives Fleck such a complex psychological profile, it exposes the shallowness of Phillips’ script. Through some vague pontification about cuts to mental health services (Fleck’s illness is never specified) and some easy to hate rich assholes for Fleck to dispatch and find his inner sociopath, Philips’ message seems to be that the powerful in society turn the Flecks of the world into Jokers. Yet that idea is muddled when you realize that everyone in Phillips’ Gotham is an asshole. Fleck’s hero publicly humiliates him, his mother abuses him, and the people of Gotham cheer on his murderous rampage. The only person in the film who shows any decency is a figment of Fleck’s imagination. This abject nihilism would be fine (if overbearing) if the film ended with a condemnation of, well, anything. But instead, Fleck’s transformation is complete and the film ends with Arthur gleefully dancing to the strains of Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” Oddly, that may be Phillips’ message: the world sucks and produces monsters, but (shrug emoji). It’s one thing for a film to be intentionally vague as to promote conversation, it’s another for it just to give up and escape culpability. Many people have been clamoring for a comic book adaptation to be considered amongst the industry’s most celebrated works. Joker, with Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance, haunting score, yet toothless social commentary is perhaps the embodiment of “be careful what you wish for.”
8. Jojo Rabbit
Taika Watiti is certainly one of the most unique voices in film right now. Whether or not his voice resonates with me specifically remains to be seen. Jojo Rabbit sees Watiti examine Nazi groupthink and its violent consequences through the eyes of a child whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. If that sounds heavy, it is. If it also sounds darkly whimsical…well, it is. The ideas Watiti plays with are fascinating and the performances and production design are first-rate. And yet, the humor of the film often seems too cute by a half given the subject matter. Of course, I thought the same thing the first time I watched Fargo, a movie I adore more after repeat viewings. I don’t know if Jojo Rabbit will meet that high bar, but I’m willing to watch it a couple more times to be certain.
7. Ford v. Ferrari
Hands down, the most crowd-pleasing movie on this list. James Mangold’s racing drama follows the typical sports movie beats, but also shows how effective those beats are when paired with first-rate talent. Mangold has spent most of his career creating intriguing stories by mining the concept of masculinity and it certainly doesn’t get more stereotypically manly than sports cars and the men who race them. But at its core is an effective friendship story of two men who have each other’s backs when no one else will. It doesn’t hurt that those two men are played by Matt Damon, who can have chemistry with a phone book, and Christian Bale, who seems to be having a blast applying his commitment to verbal and physical tics in service of a mostly lightweight genre film. Mangold’s racing scenes are thrilling and fun and the movie provides the kind of mainstream satisfaction that’s hard to resist. It won’t win Best Picture (and shouldn’t), but it undoubtedly wins “Most Likely to be Run on TNT Saturday Afternoons in Perpetuity”. Watch your back, Shawshank.
Here’s a bit of trivia you can use to impress people at your Oscar party: If 1917 or Parasite win Best Picture (and I think 1917 will), they will be only the 4th film (joining Slumdog Millionaire, Braveheart and The Last Emperor) in the past 60 years and 10th in the entire 92-year history of the Academy Awards to do so without receiving a single acting nomination. While in the case of Parasite, I can chalk this up to the language barrier, this fact gets to the heart of my experience watching this technically masterful but personally hollow film. Much has been made about Sam Mendes’ concept of editing the film to make it feel like one consistent shot, so much so that it has become the star of the film itself. While the film boasts two talented young actors as its leads, the main character is really the unrelenting nature of the film’s presentation. It is so unrelenting that when a central character meets a sudden end, it barely registers. No time to mourn for people we barely know when we have the next set piece to get to! The most reasonable defense of this is to infer that Mendes’ point is to show the unrelenting nature of war that doesn’t allow time to mourn, think, or do much of anything other than survive. A less charitable (and perhaps more accurate) assessment is that Mendes assumes the audience will bring a predisposed emotional investment to the subject matter (similar to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) that he feels providing depth to his characters is unnecessary. If he’s right, this built-in attachment results in the audience projecting their feelings on to characters that are fairly blank slates (if you already love the troops, he doesn’t need to convince you to love these specific troops), allowing Mendes to care more about his spectacle than his characters or his narrative and ultimately sacrificing both to give us a thrill ride with a prestige sheen. Regardless, it would be sour grapes to deny the technical achievements on display. Mendes stages some thrilling sequences, enhanced by Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography. It won’t be my least favorite Best Picture winner ever and it’s certainly more preferable to last year’s winner Green Book, but with all of the films nominated this year that gave us such rich characters and themes, it’s a bit of a bummer to see them ignored for a film that has neither.
5. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
While it’s no surprise to see a Quentin Tarantino movie amongst the list of Best Picture nominees (this is the 4th film he’s directed to be nominated), it is a pleasant surprise to see his be the breeziest film on this list. Tarantino’s ode to late-60’s Hollywood and the mid-life crisis is anchored by yet another fully lived-in performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. While his co-star Brad Pitt is racking up the statues for his supporting role (and deservedly so), DiCaprio’s portrayal of an aging actor wrestling with his own insecurities in a changing landscape gives pathos to what is also a luxurious hangout movie. On first viewing the tension of wondering what will happen to real-life victim Sharon Tate looms over the fun-and-sun vibe Tarantino creates. But upon repeat viewings, the more playful aspects of the film are on full display. It’s the most upbeat film from a filmmaker known for his darker elements. I once described it as “the Tarantino movie for people who don’t like Tarantino,” and I stand by that, mostly because I don’t know of anyone that wouldn’t like this movie.
4. Little Women
The challenge of adapting any beloved piece is to strike the precise balance of honoring what made the source material so beloved with finding what the piece has to say to a modern audience. Many great filmmakers have tried and failed to strike this balance and film history is littered with mediocre adaptations of classics. That is one of many reasons that makes Greta Gerwig’s Little Women so special. By shaking up the narrative format and showing the stories of the March sisters via the lens of past and present tense, Gerwig doesn’t change the events of the books (minus one fairly big change at the end), but rather re-contextualizes character moments most of the audience knows by heart. This not only provides new perspectives to the famous characters, but creates a presentation for an audience that has become more accustomed to non-linear storytelling. Truthfully, the presentation isn’t completely successful all of the time, particularly in the opening scenes. But whatever bumps might exist are overcome by one of the strongest ensembles of the year and Gerwig’s pitch perfect dialogue that sounds both classical and modern at the same time. And certainly a story of women defying society’s expectations of them while enduring unending hardships will never not be relevant, but in 2020, it feels as vital as ever.
3. Marriage Story
I said on our Oscar Spotlight series that Marriage Story feels like a movie that would’ve swept the Academy Awards in the 1980’s. It’s placement on my list should clarify that I meant that as a compliment. In the vein of family-based dramas (and Best Picture winners) such as Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, On Golden Pond and, of course, Kramer vs. Kramer, Noah Baumbach’s achingly personal film sees the relationship of two likeable, sympathetic characters slowly bottom out as they wade through a divorce. The miracle of this movie is the balancing act Baumbach navigates to be clear there is no “side” to take here. While each character wades through the brutal minutiae of the divorce process, we’re never meant to feel sorrier for one than the other. Much of this is owed to the performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Both are given your typical “Oscar clip” scenes, but they are perhaps most effective in the films quieter moments, of which there are many. Frustrating, heartbreaking, funny and warm, Marriage Story may be the smallest film on this list, but easily the most human.
2. The Irishman
If the preceding award shows are any indication (they usually are), The Irishman seems poised to be the one film on this list that may go home completely empty-handed on Oscar night. There are plenty of reasons for that, but since it hasn’t happened yet, I won’t eulogize The Irishman just yet. What I will say is that in a career filled with highlights, Martin Scorsese’s meditation on the passage of time feels like the perfect capstone. Eschewing the traditional tropes of the Gangster genre Scorsese perfected, The Irishmen feels like a perfect fit amongst the likes of Goodfellas and Casino, while also rebuking many of those films’ memorable traits. The Irishman is Scorsese reckoning with his own role in romanticizing the lives of career criminals and the result is one of his most moving films ever. Joe Pesci has never been more understated, Robert DeNiro never more vulnerable, and Al Pacino’s bluster harnessed in a way we haven’t seen in decades. Epic, sprawling, yet surprisingly intimate, The Irishman earns every minute of its much talked about runtime. The final 40 minutes is not so much of a gut punch as a twisting and tightening of a knot that’s built up over years. It is a masterpiece by a filmmaker who has already given more than his fair share.
How does one choose a “Best Picture,” particularly when the choices are so disparate? As much as we dunk on the Academy (and deservedly so), quantifying what makes a “Best Picture” amongst an entire voting body is neigh impossible. I’d like to think that if I were given the opportunity to cast my vote, I might look slightly beyond just picking the movie I personally liked the best and go with the movie that I also thinks serves as a window into our present moment as well as a film that will hold up and inspire future filmmakers for years to come. For those reasons, I’d put Parasite at the top of my ballot. As someone who watches a lot of movies, it takes quite a bit for a film to knock me for a loop. But Bong Joon-ho’s perfect blend of genres did just that. It would be one thing for the film merely to be exquisitely crafted piece of entertainment and shift tones so seamlessly. It would be even another for the film to boast a strong ensemble and meticulously designed set pieces. But to do all of this in service of a message that speaks so much to the cultural climate of today without feeling preachy or judgmental is perhaps the films greatest achievement. Many films this year hovered around the idea of class warfare and how the ever-widening gaps of wealth and status impact our daily lives. But no other film captures the desperation of the lower class and the brutal results that ensue. Did I mention the movie is also really funny? There are more accessible films on this list, and films I’m more likely to revisit with greater frequency. But no other film this year feels like a true game-changer the way Parasite does.