Okay, so, after ranking every best picture nominee for an entire decade, ranking this year’s crop should be easy, yeah?
Let’s see, gimmicks, gimmicks, what are this year’s gimmicks… well, let’s bring back some Out of Context Mulaneys, in protest of the fact that the Oscars have no host for a second year running when John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were an option…
…but in place of last year’s Hot Takes, I’m-a do something more positive. You see, a few of the better movies I saw last year didn’t get best picture nominations, which would mean I can’t talk about them in a Best Picture ranking blog… but I’m going to. I’m throwing in some “Things that got snubbed” sections. Plus one little question that kept coming up while watching these… in terms of rewatchability (not necessarily vital for a best picture, he said, nodding at 12 Years a Slave), how does this movie stack up to 2019’s most fascinating utter trainwreck? Simply put… Would I rather rewatch this or Cats?
It should have been a much easier bar to clear.
The Basics: Frank Sheeran has a long, long career with the mob, during which he had a close friendship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa… right up until Hoffa and the mob’s relationship sours. And then there’s still about 45 minutes of movie left as he gets old and contemplates mortality. Damn this movie’s long.
Here’s what you need to know about The Irishman. Two hours and forty minutes in, the central character and two others go to pick Jimmy Hoffa up for a drive because the mob has decided he has to go. The back seat of the car is damp because Hoffa’s son had transported a fish earlier, but didn’t know what kind it was. They discuss this for about five minutes. It should be a turning point of the movie but we’re talking about this fish for way longer than is warranted.
Every scene is like that.
This movie is easily an hour too long, and I know this because nearly every scene feels padded. A screenwriter was never told to reign in the filler dialogue, Martin Scorcese was obviously never told to bring down the run time. It’s languidly paced, overly indulgent in its bland dialogue riffs, it somehow feels longer than it is, and while the CG effects can make Robert Deniro’s face look younger, they skipped his hands and arms and it cannot make him walk or move like he isn’t over 70… there are elements of Scorcese’s better works in here but it’s all too long and too slow. About two hours in I was desperate for a cat to pop in and sing about how much he loves trains for seven minutes.
There’s a recurring bit where the film introduces characters, then pauses for a caption explaining how they died. In all but two cases, they died violently in 1979 or 1980, and I eventually kept thinking… where’s that movie? Clearly some shit went down between ’79 and ’80, and it sounds way more interesting than what we’re actually watching.
At least this year’s faux-Scorcese movie was faster and more eventful.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I could rewatch Cats twice in the amount of time it takes to watch The Irishman, and I goddamn would.
Snubbed: So Get Out gets a bunch of Oscar nominations but Us gets ignored? It’s like that, Academy? Mm-hm. So noted.
8. Worse Taxi Driver
The Basics: Arthur Fleck suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, but dreams of being a comedian. The world treats him poorly, however, and he eventually finds that hitting back is the one thing that grants him true satisfaction… setting him on a road to becoming Gotham’s greatest villain. Or he made the whole thing up, I don’t know, it’s not entirely clear. If you’re going to go the “unreliable narrator” route, you should have some visual storytelling tricks up your sleeve to help sell it.
It’s… fine, in places. It’s gorgeously shot, very well acted… but it’s… it’s a souffle. It’s a bunch of pretty cinematography and good performance fluffed up with “This Is Important” music beats and Scorcese references so that it looks filling but is mostly just air. You can’t dissect it, because there’s nothing to it. Like a souffle, it will collapse if you poke at it. So instead of trying to pick it apart, here is a brief list of movies I saw in 2019 that I think deserve a best picture nominee more than this… Knives Out. Dolemite Is My Name. Rocketman. John Wick: Chapter Three Parabellum. Shazam! Yeah I said it, Joker wasn’t even the best DC Comics movie of 2019. Movies I’m assured I would think deserve the nomination more: Uncut Gems. The Lighthouse. Booksmart. The Farewell, apparently?
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? You know what, there are stretches of both movies where I think “This is the fever dream of a madman and nothing is happening for a reason,” stretches where I think “Why didn’t society stop this scene from happening,” and moments where I think “This bit’s actually okay if you don’t think about it much or at all.” Sure Cats leans more often into full-blown nightmare territory, so if I could replace Joker dancing down the stairs to Rock and Roll Part 2 (I’m not kidding, that was a weird choice that they definitely made) with Skimbleshanks*, it’d be Joker, but as it is… well, it depends a little on mood, but odds favour us grabbing a bottle of Jameson’s and watching Ian McKellan go HAM on a bowl of milk.
*The Railway Cat.**
**The Cat of the Raaaaiiiilwaaaaay Traaaaaiiiiiin
Snubbed: That Todd Philips has an Oscar nomination for this mediocrity and Greta Gerwig doesn’t for her sublime work on Little Women is a travesty. Her framing, sense of timing, visual storytelling, use of colour palette and saturation, and ability to create divine, beautiful chaos out of the four March sisters talking all over each other speak to a gift for directing that a bargain-bin Scorcese simulacrum just doesn’t.
7. Fast and Furious: Origins
The Basics: Lee Iacocca convinces Henry Ford Jr. that to end a sales slump, Ford Motors needs to win Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious race, one typically dominated by Enzo Ferrari. And so former champion driver Carroll Shelby and current low-tier, non-professional champion driver Ken Miles set out to build Ford a car that can bring down Ferrari… if only those damn suits would get out of their way.
This one hadn’t been getting much buzz, but it seemed right in the wheelhouse of voters who gave the top prize to Green Book, so I liked its odds.
This is a solid little movie, anchored around strong performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Sure asking us to see Ford Motors as a scrappy underdog is a bit of a stretch, but they get around that by making the actual scrappy underdogs Shelby (Damon) and Miles (Bale), whose attempts to win Le Mans for Ford are constantly held back by interference from a weaselly VP played by A-grade (if C-list) weasel character actor
Less Likeable Aaron Eckhart Josh Lucas. Which… the whole “men of action held back by the suits at corporate” is a little paint-by-numbers, even if it is accurate.
Bale and Damon and are good, the racing scenes are very well done… but when actual “great” is on the table, “good” ends up back here, a notch over “fine.”
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I’d probably pick this one, unless I was in a mood for copious whiskey and self-destruction.
Snubbed: Imagine if The Disaster Artist was about making a movie that, while low budget and cheesy as all hell, people legitimately enjoyed and were proud to work on. Imagine if the attempt to make this weird, low-budget, ridiculous movie was actually uplifting and moving while also really funny to watch. That, friends, is Dolemite is My Name. Eddie Murphy plays comedian and “godfather of rap” Rudy Ray Moore, depicting how he rose to comedy stardom via his Dolemite character, and his attempts to forge his own Hollywood career by self-financing a Dolemite movie. I don’t necessarily want to be the guy shouting “The Academy doesn’t care about black people,” but Eddie Murphy shines in what’s probably the year’s best biopic which is also about movies, which they normally love, and yet nothing, so…
I guess you can’t be a movie about black people and on a streaming service and get award love.
6. Oscar Season’s Most Ironic Title
The Basics: Actress Nicole and director Charlie were married, and collaborators in Charlie’s beloved Brooklyn theatre company, but the marriage has ended. A process complicated by the fact that Nicole wants to move back to LA to get back into film and television (and landed a lead role in a pilot to help make that happen), Charlie thinks they’re a New York family and expects everyone to keep living there divorced or not, and their son can’t live in both places at once. Throw in some lawyers who see the divorce proceedings as a battle to be won, and what had been a sad but amicable split turns vicious.
Noah Baumbach has created a moving story here, with amazing performances from Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver as the collapsing couple, and Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as the various lawyers brought in to the process. Baumbach also does a great job of showing both sides… we see how Charlie can be self-centred and how Nicole is fed up with being just an extension of his ambitions; we also see how Charlie feels ambushed when the divorce process turns into a vicious street fight over custody, and it seems like Nicole has been laying groundwork for this fight for weeks, engineering the process to force him to choose between his life and career in New York and actually getting to see his son ever. And while it’s an inherently sad story, it’s also funny in places, mostly thanks to the lawyers. I also love that Baumbach trusted his cast enough to go with some long takes, really let the monologues play out, rather than fill scenes with quick cuts. It’s a very well done and engaging character piece that only occasionally made me worry one of these people would be dead before it was over. (Maybe one of them is, I ain’t telling.)
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Whoof. Hard to say. Marriage Story is demonstrably better but was a rough ride in places. Not “Aaaah no why is Judi Dench singing right at me about cats not being dogs” rough, no, but still…
Snubbed: You know what else is a perfectly crafted piece of filmmaking? Knives Out. A whodunnit with multiple perfectly executed twists, a stellar cast, and every-frame-a-painting direction from writer Rian Johnson. And the twists are honest: the clues are all there if you can piece them together. It’s an original mystery in every sense that revels in the classic tropes, subverts whichever ones it feels like, and is even more satisfying the second time. Knives Out was a treasure of a movie, and while I’m sure it’ll lose Original Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino, I’m just glad that it exists. See it immediately. Find a way.
5. Obligatory Hollywood Handjob Movie
The Basics: Another character study that, in its closing act, ventures into Tarantino’s historical-revenge-fantasy territory. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) used to be big in television and movies, but times are changing. Rick’s gone from leading man to special guest star villain-of-the-week, and Cliff’s barely getting by as Rick’s driver and general assistant, since some… allegations about his past have made it tricky to get work. Also that time he picked a fight with Bruce Lee. Rick’s trying to hold his career together, Cliff’s trying to put a calm face on a lot of anger and frustration… and they and their famous neighbour Sharon Tate are on a collision course with a cult that’s taken up residence in an abandoned backlot, a cult following one Charlie Manson.
They say that the Manson Family murders, most notably Sharon Tate, were the end of an era for Hollywood, an era that’s clearly one of Tarantino’s favourites given this lavish tribute to it… but does it really need a historical revenge flick as much as slavery or the holocaust? No, obviously not, but that’s not a big problem. The bulk of the movie is two men facing the end of an era, and wondering where if anywhere they fit in what’s to come, and that works very well. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are excellent, Cliff’s run-in with the Manson Family (answering in Charlie’s absence to Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme) is perfectly tense. The movie takes some flak for not really giving Margot Robbie all that much to do as Sharon Tate, but she accomplishes her most important task… make Tate seem lovable enough that her fate matters, and the climax has some stakes to it. We don’t need to be told why slavery is bad* and Django is right to get all Unchained on it, but while every death is a tragedy, “Doesn’t it suck that someone murdered Sharon Tate” needed a little push.
Just a couple notes… why did Quentin think Bruce Lee needed to be taken down a notch; I get that this particular Manson girl is using her sexuality to honeytrap possible rides around town and/or recruits for the family, but once you tell us she’s a minor it’s very uncomfortable how aggressively horny the camerawork around her is; and wow Tarantino was filming feet like it was his last chance to do it this time, I mean even for Tarantino it was just a lot.
Still… good flick overall. It might win and you know what, fine, whatever, that is very Oscars.
*Well, most of us… well, some of us… less than I’d like.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Given how much my opinion of this film improved after I let it marinate in my brain for a while, I’d like to give it a second watch at some point.
Snubbed: I have not seen Hustlers or The Farewell so I can’t speak to their exclusion from the awards, but if you’re looking for POC who deserved acting nominations, Dolemite is My Name (yeah we’re back on that one) has some obvious picks. Eddie Murphy was great as Rudy Ray Moore, sure, but Da’Vine Joy Randolph also brought a lot of heart to the movie as Lady Reed, a single mother that Rudy makes his partner in comedy. She, above even Rudy Ray himself, sells why making Dolemite was such a worthy endeavour… “I’m so grateful for what you did for me, cause I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” Inclusion matters. Also Wesley Snipes gives probably his best performance in… I want to say over twenty years.
4. The Help 2: The Revenge
We are now into “Any of these would make a good Best Picture choice” territory.
The Basics: In South Korea, a poor family gradually infiltrates the lives of a wealthy family through a series of forged identities and grifts, figuring “Why eat the rich like a lion when you can just subtly feed off their resources like a tapeworm.” Hence the title. And just when you’re thinking “Hey, maybe this is gonna work out,” things take a turn. But not the one you’d expect.
Am I the only one who gets the song “Parasite” by 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door stuck in my head when I hear this title?
Am I the only one who’s actually heard of 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door?
Because the song in general is a bit of an up-tempo incel anthem but the chorus is weirdly somewhat germane to this–stop talking about 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door now? Yeah, you bet.
So. Parasite. First, I refuse to allow the fact that my inability to parse other languages keep me from praising the cast, who deliver a bunch of compelling characters that, for the first half to two thirds of the movie, make it hard to say that either the rich or poor characters are inherently good or bad. Anxiety-ridden wealthy mother Park Yeon-kyo is just as interesting as grifter patriarch Kim Ki-taek. Although if I had to pick a favourite… the cool, commanding confidence that actress Park So-dam brings to Ki-taek’s daughter Kim Ki-jung makes her my new favourite con artist this side of the Ocean siblings.
And it all goes chaotic and it’s still great.
It’s very clever, and juxtaposes the lives of the rich and poor in a really effective way (the two families experience very different inconveniences during a torrential rainfall). There are elements of good con movies, farces, and suspense thrillers here. Absolutely worth your time.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? This times fifty.
Snubbed? What the hell did they have against Frozen 2? I mean I don’t want to complain about lesser-known animated films getting a nod, but if the third (fourth? I lost count) How to Train Your Dragon was good enough, why not the return of Elsa, Anna, and company? It was emotional, funny, inventive, and delightfully anti-imperialist. Even if you could kind of see the seams from where “Let’s give Elsa a girlfriend” was yanked out of the story.
3. A Walk to Remember
The Basics: In spring of 1917, two British soldiers are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land to deliver orders calling off an impending attack before the battalion (including one of the soldiers’ older brother) charges into a German trap and is slaughtered. It does not go smoothly.
Anyone who’s read my choices for Best Fight Scene in the annual comic TV awards knows I love a good long shot. So an entire movie crafted to imitate a single, unbroken shot? That has my attention. It’s not a new gimmick, it was done as recently as Birdman, but 1917 doesn’t have any of Birdman’s fantasy elements or unreliable narration or time jumps (okay, one time jump) to give us distance from what’s happening. What we have is a (mostly) real-time trek through the horrors of No Man’s Land that manages a perfect amount of tension, only somewhat broken by the quintet of Notable British Actors doing cameos along the way (also Mr. Young from Good Omens). Every swing of the camera (and the camera movement alone is masterful) seems to reveal some new terror, either a horror that was or a menace yet to come. George MacKay does a perfect job conveying how the weight of everything he sees and experiences during the mission is gradually crushing him, until all that’s left of him is the need to see the mission through, an ember of duty glowing in eyes deadened by trauma. It’s an incredible, gripping ride on top of being an amazing achievement in technical film making.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I mean… it’s bound to be less tense now that I know exactly what happens to who and when and how hard, like how no rewatch of The Fugitive ever matched that first time when it felt like I’d been holding my breath for two straight hours, but I might want to give it a second look just to appreciate the technical skill of the staging and camerawork. And that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Tom “Digital Fur Technology” Hooper film.
Snubbed: With Bombshell,the screenwriter of previous best picture nominee The Big Short tackles another infamous scandal… the sexual harassment accusations that managed to dethrone the head of the anti-feminist right-wing-propaganda engine Fox News. Sure it’s not as narratively clever as The Big Short or its director’s follow-up Vice, both of which used fourth wall breaks and meta-elements as a chocolate coating for their difficult messages… moreso Big Short, which was the best of the three… maybe director Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph work better together than apart on this subject matter, I don’t know. McKay seemed to have a livelier style withThe Big Short and Vice than Jay Roach, the director of the Austin Powers trilogy, does here. Still, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Kate McKinnon are quite powerful, and it’s very engaging… another year I might say “Sure, I can see not nominating it for best picture,” but… [gestures emphatically at the bottom of the list]
2. The One Where Women Have Thoughts and Feelings and Also Dialogue
The Basics: In case I’m not the only one who didn’t read the book… At the tail end of the US Civil War, the four March sisters juggle their dreams, responsibilities, and the harsh sting of reality. Jo wants to be a writer, Amy wants to marry rich, Meg wants love and family but would also love not to be poor, and Beth just wants to do right by the world and maybe play the piano when she can. And their rich neighbour Laurie just wants to be part of the gang… especially if it gets him closer to Jo. Things go bad, things go well, and it’s all so delightful.
Elephant in the room… at this point if Greta Gerwig were directing Cats 2: Way More Creepy Milk Parties and cast Saoirse Ronan in the lead I’d be there opening night.
Gerwig has written a superb adaptation of a classic novel, cutting back and forth between past and future (well, slightly more recent past, to us), and giving Jo an incredible new ending that I don’t want to spoil. The young cast playing the four sisters are all so good that I occasionally forget that Meryl Streep is also in this movie. Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep all came to play, but Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen still own every scene… fine, also Timothée Chalamet. The four sisters bounce off each other magnificently, their individual arcs are all touching in different ways… this movie is a delight.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Not even a choice. Not even Skimbleshanks (who, you might recall, is The Railway Cat, which is to say The Cat of The Railway Trains) can compete with this one.
Snubbed: Look. Obviously a lot of people, including every award show, seriously overvalued Bohemian Rhapsody last year. No question. That paint-by-numbers toothless biopic hit every worn-out trope of the genre you could name, we all know that now. But Rocketman didn’t deserve the bill for that. Rocketman, a warts-and-all biography of Elton John, succeeds in every way that Bohemian Rhapsody fell flat. It’s visually gorgeous, uses Elton’s hits to turn the story into a musical rather than a way to pad a soundtrack; has a much better framing device than “Don’t you know that before he sings,
Dewey Cox Freddie Mercury has to remember his entire life?” as Elton tells his story to a support group, gradually stripping away the glitz and glamour of Elton until all that’s left is a man grappling with his pain; star Taron Egerton actually sings and sings well (Rami Malek’s big clip for last year’s ceremony was a scene of him lip syncing, what the hell); and the movie has a gripping central theme. To paraphrase The End of the F***ing World… when a person is raised without love, they don’t know what it looks like… and that makes them easy to trick. Elton is chasing the love that he’s never known, and in its place he finds a lot of bad choices, and it can be heartbreaking to watch.
1. Calvin and Hitler
The Basics: It’s 1945 in Berlin, and young Johann, Jojo to his mother and one close friend, is excited for his first day in the Nazi Youth, with hopes of making it into Hitler’s personal guard and being best friends… just like he is with his imaginary friend Hitler (writer/director Taika Waititi). But when a… mishap with a grenade demotes him to poster duty, his loving mother tries to nudge him away from Nazi life… just in time for him to discover there’s a Jewish girl secretly living in their walls. Jojo and Imaginary Hitler are in quite the pickle, and it’s hilarious right until it very much isn’t, it’s incredibly moving and I’m mad that I’m not watching it right now.
Jojo Rabbit is basically perfect. As a satire of the Nazis and other dictatorships, it’s spot-on, insightful, and hilarious. Taika Waiti expertly juggles amazing comedy, genuine suspense, powerful emotions, and perfectly shoots the scene where young Jojo meets his secret houseguest like a horror movie. Also the cast is phenomenal, from leads Roman Griffith Davies and Thomasin McKenzie, to Scarlett Johansson killing it as Jojo’s kindhearted but energetic mother, Sam Rockwell’s hilarious turn as the one Nazi soldier who seems to know he’s on the losing side (strategically and, perhaps, morally), Stephen Merchant’s simultaneously funny and terrifying appearance as an SS agent, and Taika Waititi’s amazing work as Imaginary Hitler. It’s great, it’s just great, I could watch this one over and over, I love it so much.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? If I’ve pulled out the Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray I will inevitably own, and you say “Or we could watch Cats instead,” I’ll punch you in your face. Well, no, but I’d be real tempted. I’m definitely not giving you any of the good whiskey.
Snubbed: I got so spun up about Greta Gerwig getting snubbed for best director, it took me all that morning to notice that Taika Waititi didn’t get nominated either, and that is also a shame. Jojo Rabbit is phenomenally put together. There is more artistry in the scene were Jojo discovers his houseguest than all of Joker put together.
So that’s the rankings for this year. Once again, my personal favourite is unlikely to take the top trophy, but I guess I’m just more into new, different, and interesting movies than the Academy. Also I like female directors and dislike “Yay for this white dude from history” biopics and for some reason the Academy just won’t get on board with the former or give up the latter.
It’s disappointing that my Big Annual Event Thing that I get excited about the way other people get excited about sports has to have such a narrow idea of what Good Film looks like, but…
You’re right of course, John.
Catch you next time.