Around this time every year, I list my picks for the Best Picture nominees (see these links for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 awards). I’ve endured the usual rush to see as many nominated films as possible before the awards. I managed to catch all the Best Picture nominees with about 10 days to go and have seen 90% of the rest of the films nominated in the other major categories.
This year is definitely the populist Oscars, with mainly big tent-pole films nominated for Best Picture, and movie stars nominated in the acting categories. The winners on the night might end up being safe bets, but I’m looking forward to some surprises. Just hopefully not Green Book-levels of surprise.
As usual, my annual quest leads me to watch films that might otherwise pass me by. I haven’t seen a new Almodovar film since Broken Embraces (2009), but really enjoyed Pain & Glory (2019), for which Antonio Banderas is nominated for Best Actor. Similarly, I wouldn’t usually have watched The Two Popes, but was blown away by Anthony Hopkins (Best Supporting Actor nominee) and Jonathan Pryce (Best Actor nominee) spending a good portion of the first act speaking a range of languages including Latin! I’d be happy for a win by Adam Driver in the Best Actor category, but the award is Joaquin Phoenix’s to lose.
Harriet (2019) was another film I probably wouldn’t have sought out, but learning of Harriet Tubman’s actions in mid-19th century America was mind-blowing. Just like Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), Harriet involves long journeys behind enemy lines. Judy was the dictionary definition of ‘not my sort of film’ but it had its moments, and Renée Zellweger more than deserves her Best Actress nomination. I’m hoping Saoirse Ronan strikes it lucky with her fourth acting nomination, but I think Zellweger’s got it in the bag.
Before we get to my pick of the year’s 10 honourable mentions, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees, from worst to best:
9th: Le Mans ’66 / Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, 2019)
The natural successor to Green Book (2018), last year’s Best Picture winning film about racism for stupid people, Ford v Ferrari was created in a lab for boomers hungry for a hit of Jeremy Clarkson-era Top Gear. It’s not a terrible film but it feels pedestrian, pun very much intended. Trope after trope after motherfucking trope. Matt Damon and Christian Bale chew the scenery, as Bale’s accent drifts from Birmingham to Yorkshire to Derbyshire (his character, Ken Miles, grew up in Birmingham so he was right first time). Tracy Letts is as fantastic as always as the hard to please Henry Ford II, while Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas take turns being slimeballs.
Originally shot under the title Le Mans ’66, and released as such in some European countries, the film was retitled Ford v Ferrari in the USA, presumably to prevent Americas from thinking it was a foreign film. It’s unfortunate as Le Mans ’66 is a far better title and the situation reminds me of The Avengers (2012) being retitled Avengers Assemble in a ridiculous attempt to prevent the UK elderly from confusing it with the ‘60s TV show.
The most unpleasant element of James Mangold’s film is its striking lack of diversity in the cast. In another year of #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Ford v Ferrari exists as the whitest picture of them all.
8th: Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)
This first of this year’s two nominated films from Netflix, Marriage Story is a retread of the subject matter covered in Robert Benton’s Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). Middle-class theatre couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are in the middle of a messy divorce and their young song Henry (Azhy Robertson) is caught in the middle. It feels like a step back for Baumbach, with little of the post-Woody Allen humour that his films are usually known for. It’s surprising that Johansson picked up a Best Actress nomination for her role. She’s usually great, but not here; she seems to recite her lines with no feeling, as though she’s in a school production. Driver earns his Best Actor nomination, as does Laura Dern in the Best Supporting Actress category, but Ray Liotta also shines as the tenacious lawyer butting heads with Dern. A nice little film, but we’ve seen it all before.
7th: The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
I looked forward to this film as soon as I heard it announced back in 2014. Scorsese directing De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel, with a supporting cast including Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, Jessie Plemons and Anna Paquin? On paper, it sounds like the perfect film. But it has too much fighting against it.
First of all, the length at 3 hours 29 minutes feels self-indulgent. I was too excited to wait for its release on Netflix and caught the film at my local arthouse cinema. Not surprisingly, a man in the row behind me fell asleep and started snoring in the film’s final act. I can’t really blame him. Goodfellas (1990) was the perfect length at 2 hours 25 minutes, but its spiritual follow-up Casino (1995) felt bloated at 2 hours 58 minutes. The Irishman feels like next-level excess, and while the first act was relatively snappy, the pacing, like Casino before it, severely slowed the film’s second half.
Secondly, the much-admired digital de-aging of the principle cast was too much of a distraction. It felt like the beginning of a technology that will ultimately be perfected, but just like George Lucas’s CGI additions to the Star Wars Special Editions of 1997, it doesn’t quite work yet. Yes, there may be fewer wrinkles on De Niro’s face, but he still has the fuller face of present-day De Niro, and he physically moved like a 75-year old. The one thing to take you out of the picture was his weirdly blue glinting eyes, and you have to wonder if some of these digital effects artists truly understand the value of subtlety and nuance. Most won’t agree, but I thought the de-aging on Will Smith in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man (2019) worked much better.
Technology aside, both Pesci and Pacino were outstanding and truly deserve their Best Supporting Actor nominations. Pacino in particular would have been a worthy contender in the Best Acting category, given his amount of screen-time, but Pesci’s performance was my favourite of the three leads. It’s just a shame that Harvey Keitel’s role was little more than a cameo appearance.
6th: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
I’ve already written at length of my disappointment with Tarantino’s ninth and penultimate film. I don’t think it’s a bad film, it’s just nowhere near the best picture of the year, and nowhere near the best of Tarantino’s work. In fact, I’d put it near the bottom of the list above Death Proof (2007), and Django Unchained (2012), another popular film I didn’t care for.
One of my major dislikes of the film is its casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead protagonist. I have been a fan of Leo, particularly since he smashed that glass ashtray into somebody’s head in The Departed (2006), but in recent years his star has seemed to eclipse his talents.
His performance in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) seems to have been the peak of his career, but he’s been playing up to the camera ever since, particularly in J. Edgar (2011), Django Unchained and The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013). When he tones it down, he’s great, but in Tarantino’s latest, he’s a burden. His character Rick Dalton shares a scene in the middle of the picture with the 8-year old Julia Butters, and that one particular moment slowed everything down so much, I couldn’t get back on board.
The latter half of Tarantino’s career has seen the director focus on revisionist history. First, we had Jews murdering Hitler in Inglourious Basterds (2009), followed by a black slave rising up against his former owners in Django Unchained. Now we have Tarantino applying that same logic to the horrible story of Sharon Tate. But for all its well-meaning camaraderie with Roman Polanski (in my film, brother, she lives to see another day), the fairy-tale ending comes off as a failure to give us the nuts and bolts of what happened. And that’s something I never thought the director of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) would shy away from.
I still stand by my alternate ending: the crane shot showing Dalton and Tate meeting on the driveway would pan back across the house…to show another black cruiser full of Manson children slowly edging up the drive, suggesting that fate cannot be stopped.
5th: Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
If there was an Academy Award for Best Cast, this film would have easily won. And they’re all brilliant: Meryl Streep passing on her acting crown to Saoirse Ronan (aged 25 with four Oscar nominations under her belt), Emma Watson now almost unrecognizable from the world of Harry Potter, Timothée Chalamet and Forence Pugh continuing their world dominance, Laura Dern adding to her late-career renaissance, and terrific turns from Tracy Letts, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk and James Norton.
The trouble is that Greta Gerwig’s second feature feels a tad overly-ambitious. I spotted a couple of minor continuity errors, which could easily have been remedied in the edit, and the cinematography was all over the place. There was a particular shot early in the film, showing Jo (Ronan) writing in her New York lodgings, and she was ever so slightly out of focus (and not intentionally either). Gerwig’s aim is admirable, but the nuts and bolts of it are just not up to Best Picture standards (nor Best Director standards, I’m sorry to say).
The script was great. Pugh’s line ‘Jo, your one beauty!’ really made me chuckle, and I really need to incorporate ‘Capital!’ and ‘Cristopher Columbus!’ into my range of exclamations. But despite the fizz of the dialogue, the narrative was overly clunky. The time jumps were handled poorly, and I found myself rushing to catch up (not being familiar with the source material didn’t help). Being an adaptation of a literary classic, the film felt a lot less personal than Gerwig’s debut Lady Bird (2017), and while I was hoping she might return with something truly original with her next project, she’s announced to be directing a live-action film in the world of Barbie.
4th: Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)
Another film I was looking forward to, since it was initially linked to Martin Scorsese producing. He has since distanced himself from the project, comparing comic-book superhero films to theme park rides, but Todd Phillips’ eventual film is steeped in references to Scorsese’s work, notably Taxi Driver (1976) and King Of Comedy (1983). Weirdly, it’s more of a homage to late-1970s American cinema than the supervillain origin story it should be.
I didn’t particularly like some of the narrative choices in the script, co-written by Phillips with Scott Silver. The lead character’s change of name from Jack Napier to Arthur Fleck was unnecessary, and the connection between Fleck and Bruce Wayne felt forced, particularly in the wake of Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE (2015) pulling the same trick in the James Bond universe.
But Joaquin Phoenix’s central performance is deserving of all the accolades that come his way. As bat-shit crazy as Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the role in The Dark Knight (2008), it would be fitting if the Oscar went to Phoenix. While many actors and actresses have been nominated for playing the same character, only one such instance has led to a winning pair – Marlon Brando won Best Actor for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) while Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for the same role two years later in The Godfather Part II (1974).
3rd: Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)
Waititi’s sixth feature, like many of his films, was marketed as a screwball comedy. The trailer couldn’t look any more like a Wes Anderson film if it tried, and the marketing team even spelled out that it was ‘an anti-hate satire’ just in case any Americans took it too seriously. But just like Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016), What We Do In The Shadows (2014) and Boy (2010), Waititi’s new picture is a slow-burning character piece with a huge, huge heart.
Thankfully, almost everything revealed in the trailer occurs in the first ten minutes of the film, and rather than the outdoors comedy we’re promised, the film mainly takes place within the confines of
the lead character’s home. Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old Hitler fanatic, living alone with his doting mother (Scarlett Johansson) and struggling to fit in in his local chapter of the Hitler Youth.
The comic relief mainly comes from Waititi’s deliciously camp turn as Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, and it’s this lightness of touch that has attracted the film’s only criticism. In much the same way Steven Spielberg was hounded by critics for treating Nazis as comic fodder in the Indiana Jones films, Waititi too has face similar accusations. It must be difficult to not understand satire. God knows what these dunderheads would have thought of The Great Dictator (1940).
Featuring an excellent Wes Anderson-level ensemble cast of Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, the film is carried by Roman Griffin Davis’ central performance and New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie’s turn as the mysterious Elsa Korr. McKenzie landed onto everybody’s radar’s in 2018’s Leave No Trace, but her turn in Jojo Rabbit suggests she’s still on course for bigger, brighter things.
The cinema got a little dusty in the film’s final scene, and the inclusion of that song just floored me. I wish that Waititi had given us a longer sequence – hell, I’d forgive him for turning it into a full song and dance number – but the director’s deft touch holds the film back from oversentimentality and mawkishness. Those last shots intercutting between Davis and McKenzie are cinematic gold. Bravo!
2nd: Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, 2019)
Having recently seen Bong Joon-Ho’s breakthrough Memories Of Murder (2003), I’ve been itching to see Parasite. Snowpiercer (2013) had some interesting ideas, but I never imagined the director of that high-concept thriller would be capable of this level of genius filmmaking.
Casual viewers may be put off by Parasite’s opening scenes, which come off as a run of the mill family drama, but most foreign-language films don’t abide by Hollywood conventions. The drama quickly turns into a slow-burning thriller, with dark, dark shades of black humour until the rug is pulled from under us and it’s suddenly a film about something else. To describe the film any further would give too much away.
Last year it became the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and stands a good chance of becoming the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. My only reservations were in the denouement of the film, which felt disappointingly weak after such a thrill-ride of a second and third act.
1st: 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)
Mark Kermode calls cinema an empathy machine, and that description is none more fitting than with this masterpiece from Sam Mendes. Fresh from his double-dip Bond adventure (2012’s Skyfall and 2015’s SPECTRE), Mendes has co-written the screenplay, which he describes as ‘enlarged’ from his Grandfather’s experiences in the first World War.
The last big-budget war film from a big-name director, Christopher Nolan’s emotionally distant Dunkirk (2017), left me cold and wanting for human interaction. It was visually stunning and unbelievably tense but lacked any emotional depth given its scarcity of dialogue and arms-length characterisation.
1917 may be from a different war, but the short script and bleakness of the situation feels very similar to Nolan’s film. Much has been written about the film’s one continuous shot (effectively a series of long takes stitched together), and while it’s hardly an original idea – Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) set the standard and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) was the most recent example – Mendes has confirmed that the idea felt like a natural progression from the Mexico City pre-credits sequence in SPECTRE, also shot in ‘one-take’.
It’s not just a technical achievement though. Mendes, aided by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, uses the limitations of the one-shot device to put us right in the middle of the action. The camera doesn’t stray too far from the faces of our two protagonists, the plucky, happy-go-lucky Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and the more reticent Schofield (George MacKay). It’s a framing device similar to László Nemes’ Son Of Saul (2015), the Auschwitz-set Best Foreign Language winner. But where Son Of Saul was shot on long lenses, with the frame barely leaving the shoulder and head of the titular character, to shield the viewer from the horror of the events that are unfolding around him, 1917 takes a different approach. We get sweeping vistas, of no-man’s land or the deserted fields of France, but the camera always comes back to the rising terror on the faces of our two leads.
How George MacKay was overlooked for an acting nomination, I’m not sure. Not famous enough maybe? The Best Actor nominees this year all seem to be movie stars – Antonio Banderas, Leonard DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, Jonathan Pryce – but I’d put MacKay ahead of Banderas and Pryce’s more understated performances, and miles ahead of DiCaprio’s typically gurning turn.
Hopefully Deakins wins his second Oscar (after 2017’s Blade Runner 2049) for the cinematography, if only for the night-time sequence in the fire-lit French town. This is also the moment Thomas Newman’s score spills over into a glorious crescendo. Having coasted along with his two Bond scores for Mendes, Newman seems to have hit his stride again with his trademark ethereal pathos.
1917 is brave filmmaking dealing with the very subject of bravery. I’d be thrilled if Parasite or Jojo Rabbit won Best Picture, but Mendes’ film really deserves it. The only film that would come close to a repeat of last year’s Green Book farce would be Ford v Ferrari, and I think Marriage Story is only in there to make up the numbers. The rule-change in 2009, to at least five Best Picture nominees and no more than ten, feels silly this year with so many mediocre films propping up the bottom of the list.
* As a special postscript, I’d like to laugh in the face of all the Marvel fans who campaigned over the last year to get Robert Downey Jr. a Best Actor nomination for his turn as, well, Robert Downey Jr. in the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame. Didn’t quite work out, did it? *
Here are my other favourite (eligible) films from the year (in alphabetical order):
Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019) – An absolute knock-out documentary in terms of visuals (NASA have been sitting on crystal-clear 70mm footage of the mission all this time) and sound (composer Matt Morton wrote and recorded the soundtrack on period-era synths). It’s a film and a soundtrack that builds and builds in tension, with disaster lurking around every corner, to celebrate mankind’s greatest achievement. Just spellbinding. This year’s answer to 2018’s Free Solo.
Blinded By The Light (Gurinder Chadha,2019) – We’re really into boomer rock biopic territory now: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Rocketman (2019) and related films like Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019). This Bruce Springsteen-centred film has been my favourite pick of the bunch so far. Part coming-of-age / immigration drama and part musical, it tells the true story of Javed, a Pakistani schoolboy growing up in Luton, who finds unexpected solace in the music of The Boss. Inspired by the book Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll by Sarfraz Manzoor, the film’s script was co-written by Manzoor, with director Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. Joyous!
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019) – A teen-comedy, pitched as the female equivalent of the genre’s gold standard Superbad (2007) from actor / first-time director Olivia Wilde. The Superbad comparisons are hard to shake off – one of the leads, Beanie Feldstein, is the sister of Jonah Hill – but they make it their own film. A brilliant debut by Wilde, with nice supporting turns by Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte and Billie Lourd, but it’s the central performance by Kaitlyn Dever which steals the show.
Diego Maradona (Asif Kapadia, 2019) – The master documentary filmmaker behind Senna (2010) and Amy (2015) turns his focus this time onto a subject who is still very much alive and kicking. This film was a hard watch, considering that I associate Maradona with the devil for breaking my 7-year old heart back in 1986. It could have been a character assassination of the Argentinian, but Kapadia wrong-foots the audience and delivers a stunningly balanced approach celebrating both his stratospheric rise, and his stratospheric downfall at the hands of the Naples mafia (and just a little bit of cocaine). Antonio Pinto’s Latin American-infused score was perhaps my favourite of the year, the perfect accompaniment to a film almost made me feel sorry for Maradona. Almost.
Maiden (Alex Holmes, 2019) – I love a good documentary, especially if it covers a subject I don’t know anything about. Sailing, and in particular women’s sailing, is a major blind-spot of mine, and so I welcomed this film from Alex Holmes. Telling the story of Tracy Edwards and the crew of the first all-woman crew in the Whitbread Round The World Race in 1989-1990, it’s a traditional documentary, narrated by talking heads with the crew themselves. A fascinating peek into a world I knew nothing about.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, 2019) – Just a sweet little movie. Shia LaBeouf has been criticised in the past for not picking his roles very well, and hopefully this is the start of a minor renaissance for him. He plays ne’er-do-well Tyler, a fisherman who befriends Zak, a young man with Downs Syndrome, who is on the run from the retirement home where he lives. With an interesting supporting cast – Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern and Jon Bernthal – I was most delighted to see former WWF superstar Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in a small but pivotal role.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese (Martin Scorsese, 2019) – I’m not the biggest Dylan-head, but I really enjoyed this documentary from Scorsese. This period of Dylan’s career is another black hole for me, so it made for a revealing watch. Joan Baez telling tales about disguising herself as Dylan, Joni Mitchell playing an embryonic version of Coyote, and a post-Bowie Mick Ronson rocking out on stage. Just a blast.
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams, 2019) – Finally, the nine films in the Skywalker saga have come to an end. I’m not sure how history will view these three latest sequels. I enjoyed all three, but some people just can’t take them for what they are. Richard Marquand’s Return Of The Jedi (1983) is a weak film compared to its two predecessors, but I enjoy it just as much. Abrams’ new trilogy is the same – it has some stunning high points and some unfortunate lows (with Carrie Fisher’s premature death being the absolute worst).
Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie, 2019) – A headache-inducing film about a compulsive gambler, with an against-type turn by Adam Sandler. Paul Tomas Anderson-levels of anxiety are mixed with Scorsese-esque naturalistic dialogue, under a weirdly hypnotic synth score by Daniel Lopatin. Uncut Gems is one of those films that you must see but will probably never want to revisit.
Wild Rose (Tom Harper, 2018) – While the rest of the world continues to coo over Saoirse Ronan, one of Ireland’s other exports remains relatively unnoticed. But not for long. Jessie Buckley’s first role in the largely unseen Beast (2017) showed a captivating actress with heaps of potential. She followed this with a key role in the Chernobyl (2019) TV mini-series, a small role opposite Renée Zellweger in Judy, and is next cast in the upcoming fourth series of Fargo. In Wild Rose, she plays eternal fuck-up Rose-Lynn Harlan, a country-singing single mother from Glasgow. Beast is a better film but her performance in Wild Rose suggests Saoirse Ronan might not be the only Irish girl winning Oscars in the near future.
My Picks For The 24
Finally, here are my picks for what the Academy will actually vote for on the night. I didn’t do too well last year, only picking 10 (42%) of the 24 winners, so I’ll be happy to crack 50% this year.
Best Picture: 1917
Best Director: Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite)
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Best Actress: Renée Zellweger (Judy)
Best Supporting Actor: Al Pacino (The Irishman)
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Best Original Screenplay: Knives Out – Rian Johnson
Best Adapted Screenplay: Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi
Best Animated Feature Film: Missing Link
Best Foreign Language Film: Parasite
Best Documentary – Feature: American Factory
Best Documentary – Short Subject: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Best Live Action Short Film: Nefta Football Club
Best Animated Short Film: Kitbull
Best Original Score: Joker – Hildur Guðnadóttir
Best Original Song: I’m Gonna Love Me Again (Rocketman) – Elton John & Bernie Taupin
Best Sound Editing: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker
Best Sound Mixing: Ford v Ferrari
Best Production Design: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (1917)
Best Makeup And Hairstyling: Bombshell
Best Costume Design: Little Women
Best Film Editing: Parasite
Best Visual Effects: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker