The best films this year or any year are films that serve two functions — they offer us the truth or they offer us a way out. No one can be faulted for gravitating towards those stories that offer us a way out, those stories that show us the struggle between lightness and dark, or good and evil, how the lightness can sometimes win out.
The story of Best Director 2020 can’t be fully told yet, not without seeing Sam Mendes‘ war epic that takes place in real time with a seamless semblance of one continuous take, and not without Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. We do know that 1917 is about WWI — a war so apocalyptic that T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland and likened it to the end of everything. Indeed, maybe humanity has never come back from that. Maybe we are still reeling from what we learned about our species. Not to mention the way WWII reaffirmed just how monstrous we can be, what people will go along with when captivated by a charismatic lunatic.
Frontrunners – Top Five
The directors high bar this year has to be Bong Joon-Ho whose Parasite won the Palme d’or and continues to be the film topping most of the list of favorites at festivals. Bong Joon-Ho’s films typically depict a world in collapse. With Snowpiercer the poor people fought to get to the front of the train where the rich and powerful dominated. In Okja, the future wrought by a meat-eating population has brought about the horrors of massive oversized pigs just to meet demand. And in Parasite the Sisyphean futility of late stage capitalism that illustrates how hard it is to climb out of poverty in a system that is rigged from the start. In this magnificent film a hard rain is gonna fall and fall. It is a cautionary tale, perhaps, of how extreme wealth and extreme poverty cannot co-exist for the long run, not in a world that is collapsing under the weight of the cravings of the human race. Every shot in Parasite is composed by a master of the form. Gone is the claustrophobic chaos of Snowpiercer. Gone are the big Hollywood stars. There is not a wasted shot. The pain in those who suffer is palpable. The beauty and heartbreak of a character holding onto a heavy stone as a talisman that promises him the good life someday. Two nuclear families living very separate lives that maneuver themselves through most of the film. But then a hatch is opened, and a portal revealed, and suddenly the film becomes something else. Parasite is so easily one of the best films of the year and as Jenelle Reilly said today on Twitter, he’s the safest call for a Best Director nomination.
Martin Scorsese is probably the greatest living American director. I can’t think of anyone else who has made as many films as he has that have been as great — or if they fell short of greatness, the risks they took were awe-inspiring. He never does it half-way. He hits the gas and he doesn’t stop. With The Irishman he’s taken his trademark flair down a notch or two to depict a more somber contemplation at the end of life. Making the film Silence must have altered his sensibilities somewhat because The Irishman is a film that isn’t afraid of quiet contemplation. More than that, it is a film about searching for the biggest answers and perhaps the whole meaning of one’s life. The Irishman is about a cold-blooded killer who pretended, as wise guys often do, that he was just a regular family man. But it is also a movie made by a director who has set aside his brand of showing off for his fans. He knows what they expect and this time he didn’t give it to them — because, as he so often does throughout his career, he went off script. He did it for a reason. The Irishman, oddly enough, turns out to be a personal film for Scorsese as much as Silence was. In Silence there is contemplation of the existence of God and the internal struggle to reconcile God’s indifference. In The Irishman it is perhaps a long look back at the kinds of films he’s made, the kinds of monsters he’s showcased in those films, and what his lasting legacy as a director will be.
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Tarantino closes out his revenge trilogy of re-written history with not just the best of the three but maybe the best film of his whole career. Sure, you’ll never get many of his fans to accept that. Like Scorsese, he carries his own legacy behind him. He doesn’t just have to best the other films in the race this year but he has to best his own work. In particular, Pulp Fiction looms large in the Tarantino canon. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like Parasite, like The Irishman is the work of a practiced master at the top of his game. Assured and steady, he lays out a story he wants to tell, his most personal, about the world that made him. Lovingly detailed but also ridiculously entertaining, he caps off the trilogy that started with lighting Nazis on fire, then followed up with slaughtering slavers and now, by giving the Manson family the violent retribution they so badly had coming in defense. Yes, defense. Anyone complaining about this movie’s violence must understand that it’s done in self defense. It is easily one of the best films of the year. Believe it or not, Tarantino has only been nominated for Best Director twice and that was for Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. All of the rest of his Oscar nominations have been for writing. He is not only overdue for directing nominations, he’s overdue for a directing win.
Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit – Rather than tell a serious story about an infamous monster like Hitler, Waititi lampoons him, reduces him to clownish caricature, which is not only what Hitler deserves, but it’s the best way to confront monstrous evil. Jojo Rabbit is an auteur’s piece and springs from the mind and sense of humor of its director. It is not a film that is meant to be separate from that vision. Like Tarantino, Bong Joon-Ho, and Scorsese, Waititi’s thumbprint is all over the film. It is like stepping inside his head. It is funny and silly and campy and absurd, but when it aims and fires it hits its target straight through the heart. If we go to the movies for catharsis, if it’s a reason to believe that we seek, this film doesn’t want to spit you out into the world awash in misery. It wants us to recognize and appreciate what we have right now — for those of us lucky enough to have it: freedom. Freedom of thought from those who would try to poison our minds with hate, freedom to love, freedom to look a tiger in the eye, freedom to make art, and yes, freedom to dance. He chooses none other than the beloved David Bowie to seal the deal. Jojo Rabbit is an easy sell, as long as people realize that yes, we can laugh at monsters, especially if their control over you exists in our own heads.
Sam Mendes, 1917 has to be considered in the top five for the feat of his WWI film that occurs in real time and transpires before our eyes with the wizardry of a single continuous take. We can’t write about it until we see it — but I can only say that it’s fitting there should be a film about WWI, considering where humanity stood at the end of that precipice and where it stands now. Bookends of the apocalypse.
James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari corners like its on rails. The first thing to know about this film is that it is easy and rather quietly not only one of the best films of 2019, but of Mangold’s entire career. In fact, I dare say it’s his best film — his tightest, his funniest, his most moving. I was a big fan of 3:10 to Yuma (as longtime readers of this site might remember) but Ford v Ferrari takes the clockwork suspense of that film and expands it. I can’t remember a more thrilling experience this year than watching Christian Bale drive those races in the film. And it would be one thing if it was just racing. It’s not — it goes deep into the characters, especially the two leads Matt Damon and Christian Bale, but also the drop dead brilliant turn by Tracy Letts. If you want to know what acting is all about, watch Letts in the scene where he’s asking Lee Iococa to tell him what Ferrari said about him. Insult after insult he doesn’t flinch. Then Iococa says, “…you’re not Henry Ford. You’re Henry Ford the II.” And in a moment Letts’ eyes flash in anger — THAT is what gets him. Mangold is famously a director’s actor but Ford v Ferrari proves he’s a visual master holding this film together through race after race, involving us in this wonderful story about the qualities that make a talent like Ken Miles. The script is crackling good but Mangold has full control of this film and has turned out a winner.
Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story – Where he once worked tightly and fairly abstractly (but always with humor and warmth) here Baumbach has made something brightly colored, broad and expansive — a chronicle that is meant to be the definitive story about divorce. But it isn’t about a father learning to be a father, like Kramer vs. Kramer – it’s more about admitting the truth that a relationship isn’t working and rather than remaining unhappy and frustrated they decide to break apart. Marriage Story is an actor’s film, without a doubt. It’s driven by the performances of actors who seem to have an almost improvisational approach to the work. Baumbach’s trademark wit is woven throughout. Marriage Story hits some people more strongly than others but even those who can’t directly relate will find it in a masterful film full of great performances.
One of the reasons Todd Phillips’ Joker is so hard to shake off is that it has proved itself a reflecting pool for those looking for answers and for those twisted with anxiety, rage, and grief. The part of my brain that doesn’t want to give into that despair and hopelessness wants to find the film offensive. I want to say no, I reject that we are a species that spawns misfits so damaged or deranged that they can pick up a gun and shoot people out of anger or rage or helplessness. I will always reject feeling any sympathy for the main character because the route he chooses to take is the same one Charles Manson took. But in terms of a work of art — what it says about the worst of who we are — WHO WE REALLY ARE – it is undeniably remarkable. It is a film about being right here, right now. In a hellscape of our own making. And it’s one you can’t shake.
To me, that means something. Nobody quite knows what to make of it because it feels so new. Yes, it comes from the comic book universe and we can deal with it on those terms, or I can. But once we macro out from that, we’re able to look at how it’s reached so many people who have elevated the character into the same kind of iconic phenom that the film itself depicts. Phillips has mirrored back what would happen, and it did actually happen — not the violence part that many people were predicting, but the part where Joker is turned into a reluctant hero. The film doesn’t ask that from you – in fact, if anything, it does the opposite and yet people responded the same way the screenplay predicts they will. I will admit that I wrestle with my feelings about this movie but I don’t think anyone can deny, in the movie landscape of 2019, Joker had one of the biggest impacts. It might just be a film about who we are rather than who we want to be.
Craig Brewer, Dolemite is My Name – Dolemite Is My Name has fast become a favorite for movie-lovers looking for a story that addresses something other than the angst of the white experience. Here, for once, is the angst of the black experience – an inspirational and aspirational tribute to a visionary talent who started life as a potato peeler and built an enduring monument to himself and the suppressible creative spirit. With a multitude of wild ideas about where he wants to go with no known road to get there, step by step he carves out an uncharted path for himself that circumvents the uptight world of white taste-makers. He soon figures out that the elusive market he seeks is all around him — an urban audience that has grown tired of films that only show white America and crave to see an unruly reflection of their own myths and legends onscreen. The dazzling cast brings the era back to life in all it’s fluorescent day-glo splendor. It’s a rowdy array of balls-out talent, top-to-bottom jaw-dropping. Eddie Murphy nails the role of his career, depicting Rudy Ray Moore as a man whose boundless ego never overwhelms the compassion he feels for others he sees have been discarded — like the brilliant Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed. The fly-by-night excitement of that subversive turning point in American cinema is what thrums beneath the surface of Dolemite is My Name — but that’s not the only reason people love it. They love it the same way audiences loved the original Dolemite in 1975 — because it’s a fucking good movie that’s fun to discover and just as fun to re-watch, again and again, moving and grooving to its own funky drumbeat.
A dozen other directors also have a shot this year – some more than others. We won’t know where they stand until the nominations come down.
Jay Roach, Bombshell
Jordan Peele, Us
Greta Gerwig, Little Women – writer
Todd Haynes, Dark Waters – writer
Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers
Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim
Trey Edward Shults, Waves
Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes
Marielle Heller, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn
Lulu Wang, The Farewell
Scott Z Burns, The Report