Monday, February 3, 2020

Oscar 2020: The More Things Change…

The Oscar ratings were in the toilet, so the Motion Picture Academy increased the nominated films from the traditional five to as many as ten. The ratings tanked again last year.

Oscar nominees were so devoid of people of color that the president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (herself a woman of color), actively raised the number of female and minority members. One effect was that Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins, won the best picture award in an upset. But this year, no women or men of color were nominated as directors, and nineteen of the twenty acting nominees were white.

Are we in a feedback loop here? These are the things that make my friends wonder why I bother with this exercise every year (and believe me, I question it myself). One woman pointed out to me that this year’s crop of nominees generally reflects a male bias toward violence, battle and guns. Considering 1917, Ford vs. Ferrari, The Irishman, Joker, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Parasite, I agree, sadly. So why should I bother to continue promoting such a system? Well, if there are many other years like this, I will have to admit that the Oscars are an anachronism and don’t deserve attention. But for now, I’d rather honor the tradition I started more than 10 years ago. In the meantime, here’s hoping things get better.

Looking at this year’s nominees, I like many of the films on the Best Picture list. I think at least two are actually great. All but one are worthy of consideration.
As past readers know, this list is not my prediction who will win the Oscar. It’s my judgment as to who should win among the nominees. I’m just giving you some talking points at your annual Oscar party.

I rank these according to my perception of the following qualities: their entertainment value, the attention to craft, and most important, innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. I am looking for works that challenge long-held notions of cinema. As the great Roger Ebert used to put it in his annual best of list, “Which film made me look at film a new way?”
Here is my ranking, in ascending order.

The Outlier

9. JOKER — I admit that when I first saw Todd Phillips’s Joker, I found it to be powerful. Not merely a comic book "origin" story on the birth of an archvillain, it also seems to examine how the mentally ill are treated in our society. On closer scrutiny, the movie is revealed to be a superficial descent into violence. Often revolting, I had to turn my head several times, rare for this lifelong moviegoer. Due to that, I cannot understand how it is nominated as one of the best films of the year. Still, Joker has a saving grace in Joaquin Phoenix. His expressive and tortured face, coupled with his yoga-like physicality, tells the interior story of madman Arthur Fleck. (Even the way Arthur smokes his cigarettes is painful.) It is a truly great performance for the ages, filling virtually every frame of this film. Otherwise be warned: Joker is not for the faint of heart.

Worthy Competitors (and some greatness)

8. MARRIAGE STORY — Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (which he wrote and directed) is really a divorce story about theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and  wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress just short of her full potential. She comes to blame the self-centered, philandering Charlie for that, and this conflict drives the film. While neither the story nor its cinematic treatment is groundbreaking, the three lead performances are works to behold. Johansson abandons her comic-book roles in this nuanced portrayal. Laura Dern commands the screen as Nora Fanshaw, the divorce lawyer committed to serving her clients. Adam Driver was a particular revelation to me, conveying Charlie with a versatility I never expected. (This includes breaking into a Sondheim song at one introspective moment.) These three actors, and others in the cast, help raise this to one of the most engaging adult films of 2019.

7. FORD VS. FERRARI — In the tradition of testosterone-driven films geared to adolescent boys (e.g., The Great Escape, Bullitt, Winning), and set in an era of post-war American Male confidence, competence, dominance and arrogance, Ford Vs. Ferrari emerges as The Right Stuff for auto racing. But instead of a space race between two political superpowers, it tells how American auto magnate Henry Ford II and his Italian counterpart, Enzo Ferrari, got into a dick-wagging contest on whose cars would be the fastest. It boasts pitch-perfect performances by Matt Damon as auto designer Carroll Shelby, Christian Bale as madcap driver Ken Miles, and the overlooked Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) as Miles’s long-suffering wife. Fast, fun and furiously edited, the film is not only thoroughly entertaining, but it is one of the most technically competent of the year. 

6. ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD — Quentin Tarentino can be so meticulous, creating words and images so vivid that they stay with you for ages. Yet he can also overstay his welcome on a scene or in his dialogue, making his films at least a third too long in the end. Once Upon a Time… contains that duplicity. It centers on cowboy star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, in a career performance). As these “guys” face the ends of their film careers, they eke out work in TV and spaghetti Westerns. But the subtext is also the end of innocence in LA that came with the 1969 Manson Murders of Sharon Tate and other poor souls. As with Inglourious Basterds,  Tarentino creates a parallel universe with an alternate ending (a conceit I did not appreciate this time; once was enough). His craft is all right there for you to savor: the production design, cinematography, casting & performances. If Tarentino had exercised some judicious winnowing in the final result, this could have been a really great film.

5. JOJO RABBIT  — I heard this once: “Just because no one understands you doesn’t make you a genius.” Similarly, just because Jojo Rabbit is offbeat doesn’t necessarily make it a great film. But, damn, it sure is wonderful to see writer/director Taika Waititi be so audacious. On its face, Rabbit is about a young boy in the waning days of Nazi Germany whose mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. But it’s also a magical-realism fantasy about the absurdities of that time, as seen through the cockeye of our sensitive hero, Jojo. Ultimately, this film is a beautifully crafted production that has a unique vision, but labors under a substandard screenplay. (Weird, because it’s scarfing up various “adapted screenplay” awards ahead of the more deserving Little Women.) All told, it’s heartening to see the Academy recognize a quirky and imaginative movie like this.

4. THE IRISHMAN The Irishman is the latest example of Martin Scorsese’s artistry as a cinematic storyteller. Philadelphia truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) meets crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) at a roadside stop, and their ensuing journey together forms this sweeping story. Scorsese draws fine performances from his expansive cast, especially DeNiro, who does his best work in years. Pesci delivers a particularly fine and skillful performance. (One exception: I never once found Al Pacino convincing as Jimmy Hoffa.) While The Irishman is epic in a way that we have forgotten, Scorsese breaks no new ground here. It rings too much like Goodfellas or his inferior Casino. Still, the film becomes a moving elegy on the plight of many mid-20th century American men. Excluded from the opulent high life they saw from afar, they look back on their empty lives with regrets.

3. LITTLE WOMEN — Very few films have affected me as this gem from Greta Gerwig. I was skeptical, thinking we didn’t need yet one more version of this classic book. But I did not anticipate Gerwig’s innovative screenplay, which plays with time & space to reveal the inner thoughts and dreams of the main character, Jo. Combined with Gerwig’s graceful direction, the film turns out as bright and sun-drenched as a shelf of sepia photos. Kudos goes also to the cast, who flourished under Gerwig’s direction. Laura Dern glides effortlessly through the matriarchal role of Marmee (a sidebar that complements her no-nonsense lawyer in Marriage Story). Saoirse Ronan is absolutely luminous as Jo, tying together the film’s narrative with her warmth and intelligence. While I don’t normally favor adaptations, Gerwig achieves the near-impossible, breathing new life into an old, familiar standard.

2. PARASITE — Nothing prepared me for this frame-breaking masterpiece from Korea’s Bong Joon Ho. The family of patriarch Kim Ki-taek comprises poor and unemployed con artists who live in a filthy basement (literally substandard). As luck has it for them, they seize upon an opportunity to insinuate themselves in the wealthy family of Geun-se through a series of manipulations and deceits. Once ensconced in the Guen-se home, they begin living the high life that has eluded them. Then, without giving too much away, a variety of scenarios ensue, which resemble flim-flam films (e.g., The Grifters), comic redirection (e.g., Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and escape films (e.g., Stalag 17, Cool Hand Luke) before it transforms unexpectedly into a tragic Grand Guignol. Parasite achieves what Joker attempted: a look at the have’s vs. the have-not’s, but with equally tragic results.

1. 1917 —  It is April 5, 1917, the day United States will enter Word War I (WWI). The German forces have severed communication lines between British platoons. British Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given a seemingly impossible mission. They must cross No-Man’s Land (the unoccupied land between British and German trenches) to deliver a message that will halt a planned battle. If they don’t, 1,600 men will unwittingly fall prey to an ambush by the Germans.

Sam Mendes was inspired by similar stories of bravery from his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who fought for Britain in the WWI. The result is the film 1917, which Mendes directed and co-wrote. It is both a tensely thrilling military adventure and a superior technical, and it is my choice as the best of the Oscar-nominated films from 2019.

To achieve this feat, Mendes’s team had to build approximately one mile of trenches to simulate the environment of the day. He also simulated the quotidian problems that plagued the soldiers in that time: Rats that spread disease and bit the men. Lice. Constant water that caused the condition known as “trench foot.” Perhaps worst of all, boredom. Stultifying, soul-sucking boredom.

To help give the audience the same experience as Blake and Schofield, 1917 appears to be shot in one single take of the camera (absent a period of unconsciousness, which buys some time). As used so brilliantly by Alejandro G. Iñárritu in the 2014 Best Picture, Birdman, this single-shot technique adds urgency to the film, as the viewer experiences it seemingly in real time and without filters. We witness the horrors of this first modern war with the two young men. We see a tank immobile in a ditch, soldiers who have died in the grip of barbed wire, and citizen casualties who are washed silently against the shores of a dam. We also witness some of the simple pleasures of the day, such as an unexpected rendering of sacred music that serves to entertain and calm the enervated solders.

1917 is notable on two different levels. The film itself is a testament to the human spirit and the never-say-die attitude that has made so many man and woman victors over seemingly insurmountable barriers. When the film concluded, so much tension was expelled from me that I wept.

The production of 1917 supports the notion that film is collaborative, belying the premise that it all rests on the director (the so-called auteur theory). This movie could not have been completed without the myriad contributions of production designers & art directors, the costumers, cinematographer Roger Deakin (who is likely to win his second Oscar in a long distinguished career), editor Lee Smith (oddly unnominated), and the long line of designers for the prosthetics. Even cameos by strong actors like Colin Firth, Marc Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are integral to the success of the final product.  And the soldiers were accompanied the whole way by the relentless score of Thomas Newman.  (Note: This movie marks Newman’s 15th  (!) Oscar nomination. After 115 movie scores, who does he need to pay off to get a statue?)

For the coordination of a wide variety of techniques to support Sam Mendes’s personal vision, and for the emotional wallop achieved by this film, I choose 1917 as the best Oscar-nominated film of 2019. I believe it, and Parasite, will be remembered as masterpieces that will influence filmmaking for years to come.

As usual, I will be firmly on my couch this weekend to watch. We live in interesting times, where the visual media are blurring the difference between theaters and online (as evidenced by Martin Scorsese’s deal with Netflix to produce The Irishman). Also, the Oscars have evolved somewhat like college football bowls; there used to be four, and now there seem to be A HUNDRED-AND-four. Similarly, the Oscars used to stand alone; now they’re the granddaddy of them all (as Keith Jackson used to call The Rose Bowl). Let’s see what happens in the long run with that time-honored tradition. In the meantime, love the movies. There is nothing like them.