Unlike last year, I thought all of this year’s best picture nominees were good films. That said, I found ranking them more difficult than last year; I didn’t really love any of them, and there were a few that I respect and can see other people enjoying, but that just didn’t speak to me. (My classic example of such films are Blade Runner, which I just don’t enjoy, and 2001, which I adore, but which I can see boring reasonable people with good taste.)
The film I actually enjoyed the most in 2019 was Knives Out. It’s a remarkably conventional movie (my favorite the prior year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, was far more daring), but it was smart, provided rich characters despite offering each very limited screen time, and was just amazingly well put together. I’m not at all surprised it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (those nominees are typically expected to be more ambitious than an old-school whodunnit thriller), but it’s the one film from 2019 that I’d recommend to just about anyone.
My thoughts on the actual nominees, from worst to best:
The Godfather was an all-time great film. So was its sequel. And Goodfellas. Casino, The Departed, Reservoir Dogs, and Heat were engrossing and entertaining.
The Irishman offered nostalgia for all of those films, but none of their meat. Worse, it seems like nothing was left on the cutting-room floor. While better films sometimes take a breath for a few quiet moments to build tension or flesh out some character development, this film crept along at glacial pace purely because the director was given carte blanche to do so.
All credit to everyone involved who has done great work in the past…but this is not work any of them should be remembered for.
Ford v Ferrari
Credit to this film for one thing: despite being very long considering the simple story it was telling, the last hour was paced well enough to carry me through without boring me. It was well-shot and well-edited.
The script itself, however, sucked. In two and a half hours, we never got any real depth from any of the characters, and there was no discernable development for any of them. The whole film was set up to tell the story of a man who could never follow rules he didn’t agree with, but who finally and famously did so at great expense…and yet there was not a single beat in the narrative to explain where this change came from. We get similarly unmotivated, inconsistent behavior from his wife (which just made her look nutty). And the cardboard cut-out villain of the piece doesn’t seem to have any particular motivations at all.
What really upset me personally, however, was that there seemed to be a legitimately interesting engineering story going on in the background while the script focused entirely on an invented and irrelevant story in the fore. Ford suddenly took all three top spots in a gruelling race that Ferrari had dominated for years—this is conclusive proof that the win was more about the cars than the drivers. Was it a matter of out-spending Ferrari? Was it a tale of a set-in-its-ways incumbent unseated by a more innovative upstart taking more risks? Were there philosophical differences in how the two approached the sport? We’ll never know, because instead we spent 150 minutes being told that it was all about the magic this one gifted driver brought to the table.
This foreground story doesn’t even work in its own right, because the film gives us only one driver to follow. We know nothing about his partner (who did half of the driving in that winning race), nor any of the Ferrari drivers who are just shown as expressionless baddies in helmets, nor any of the four other Ford drivers who also beat the Ferraris. 2013’s Rush worked because we had a marked character contrast and rivalry between the drivers; Ford v Ferrari is just a series of scenes in which we’re told this one driver is the best ever, and everyone agrees but they don’t all like him, and he proves them…pretty much right.
This was about as compelling and relatable a “descent into madness” film as I’ve seen. What’s more, it’s the first film I’ve seen that comments on modern economic inequality in a genuinely thought-provoking way.
While this is by far the best DC universe film in years, it suffers from exactly the same problem that made the Zack Snyder films unwatchable: there is absolutely no sense of fun. The greatest strength of the Batman rogues gallery has always been their whimsy. The Joker is at his best when you believe that he genuinely enjoys his capering (and his cat-and-mouse games with Batman); this is exemplified by both Nicholson in 1989 and Hamill in the animated series. Here we’re taught that every laugh is a shriek of pain.
It’s good filmmaking in that I think it accomplished what it was trying to do. I just didn’t appreciate that goal.
This is easily the favorite to take the Oscar: the Academy loves war movies, it has a novel style that sets an incredibly high technical bar, it has no bad scenes, and it’s often absolutely beautiful. (Of those I’ve seen, I think this would be my pick for cinematography.)
It doesn’t fall into the trap that 2017’s Dunkirk did of pretending that only one side in the war suffered, and it’s not nearly as sappy as 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge.
All that said, this film has a lot of problems. As a script, it’s nothing but a long string of tired war-movie clichés strung one after the other, with nothing new to say about any of them. The details of the plot itself are absurdly contrived to hit those beats even when they don’t really make sense. Time and space are so absurdly compressed that we can only take what we’re seeing as metaphor which eviscerates any “gritty reality” it’s trying to convey. The inhuman exhaustion that conventional war movies struggle to portray, for example, collapses when it’s drawn from under two hours of real-time moderate exertion. And while the sequence with the French girl isn’t bad in its own right, it makes absolutely no sense in the context of this film, which pretends to be driven by a constant sense of urgency and mission. (Check out 1998’s Run Lola Run for a great example of that on film.) Worst, it was clear from the very start that the message would make it to its destination, so there never seemed to be any meaningful stakes.
But the biggest problem is that while the one-shot thing was executed incredibly well technically, I don’t think it worked at all artistically: the meticulous choreography shows through at every stage. The camera obscures the next plot point just a few feet away until the current plot point finishes playing out. The actors’ performances are delivered with a certainty in where they are going and what will happen next that just doesn’t jibe with the confusion of war on unfamiliar terrain. The entire film is on rails, and you can feel the rails.
In short, 1917 felt more like a ride at Disney World than it did a film.
The highest praise I can offer is this: despite me having no interest in the subject matter and being bored beyond belief for the first forty minutes or so, this was well-enough made to get me invested and allow me to enjoy the last hour.
What I personally appreciated most was the explicit acknowledgement at the end that this really is sappy tripe designed to tug on the audience’s heartstrings, and anyone treating it as high art is way overthinking things. The characters are all cardboard cut-outs, and none of them develop in any substantial way. There’s nothing wrong with tripe, but please don’t tell me that this story necessarily has more depth than a comic-book film merely because it was written a long time ago.
(Yes I read the book. I get the appeal. But it has nothing like the self-awareness or wit of Jane Austen. Who I also don’t enjoy.)
Parasite is a very mixed bag. It’s a very different take on inequality than we got from Joker: far less sympathetic, with plenty of overt sneering, capped by an ambiguous nod to the kind of optimism in mobility that just doesn’t fly in serious American fare any more. It’s fascinating to get a perspective on the issue from Korea while knowing next to nothing about how it’s currently playing out in Korean culture.
There were bad scenes. The plot kind of meanders, and it lacks the driving force that carries most movies along: things just kind of happen, and whenever it starts to get dull something arrives out of nowhere to spice it up. That’s usually death to a movie, but somehow it works here. It’s fun.
This is the first of the nominees that I found engrossing from beginning to end. It’s amazing how little media we have that focuses on divorce, considering how commonplace and yet how heart-wrenching and life-changing it is. This is a rare film that made me really think about an experience I hadn’t considered closely before.
Adam Driver’s performance is the real standout, and I’d rank him above Joaqin Pheonix’s Joker in the Best Actor category. (I didn’t think Scarlett Johansson really delivered in her role, and I’m not sure how much of that was performance and how much was script. I never felt like we saw the difference between the front the character was putting up and what she was actually feeling; this made it very hard to like her, particularly given that she seemed to be the one who precipitated the main tension in the plot.)
I don’t have much bad to say about this film. The only reason it’s not higher on my list is that it wasn’t quirky enough to truly stand out.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
This film had more good stuff in it than any other nominee: rich, complex characters; excellent dialog; lots of that great simmering tension that Tarantino does so well; and Brad Pitt just unapologetically turning his charisma up to 11. (I haven’t seen most of the other nominees, but Pitt’s performance definitely meets the Oscar bar for a supporting role.)
Unfortunately, I don’t think Once holds together as a film. I guess Tarantino just assumed that the presence of Sharon Tate would establish a ticking clock to drive everything forward…but I didn’t feel it. It was just one (excellent!) scene after another, with no resolution (or even underlying conflict to resolve) in sight.
It’s a shame, because I’m a big Tarantino fan, and this time it seems like the screenplay was written more to support his indulgent filmmaking than to tell a story. I don’t think this is Best Picture, but perhaps it will finally get him the Directing Oscar?
I didn’t know anything about this film going in, and it had me from the moment Hitler showed himself. It’s quirky. It has interesting characters. It embraces the incomplete, unreliable point of view to keep reality from bogging things down. It says something relevant and meaningful about frightening trends in modern society. And Sam Rockwell steals every scene he’s in, as he so often does. (I thought he deserved at least a nomination for supporting role.)
I can’t say that Jojo Rabbit is an all-time great; there weren’t any films this year that I can see myself going back to again and again in the years to come. But I got more out of it than any of the other nominees. It would get my vote.