The films that are strongest heading into the race now are the same films that started out the season as strongest, with the exception of Todd Phillips’ Joker which has proved itself a formidable contender. The films that seem to be hitting with the guilds and the Globes at the moment are these:
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – The guilds champ. Quentin Tarantino, arguably among the most influential film directors America has ever produced (I mean, is there any other way to say it?) who has never won an Oscar for directing or for best picture, despite his films being among the most beloved and important in terms of shaping modern cinema, the language of cinema, and the way movies are made. He is his own very big chapter. And yet, because the Oscars are the Oscars, and we know what that usually means, he has yet to be recognized. Well, this might finally be his year. With nominations expected across the board, Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Production Design, Costumes, Editing, Sound, Cinematography – that’s 10 so far, maybe there will be more – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is what we call an “Oscar beast.” I can also see Tarantino easily winning the DGA, and for the first time, folks. That’s a kind of magic that you only see a few times in the history of a career. That was Martin Scorsese for the Departed, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, the Coens for No Country for Old Men — when the match is lit, the flame burns bright and hot. Add to all of that, Tarantino’s commitment to preserving Hollywood the old way – real film, real theaters, real actors, real visual effects. His film is a nostalgic love letter to the America of old, the Hollywood of old, and a world re-imagined had the Manson family never followed through on their threat to murder all of the piggies that hot summer night in the Hollywood Hills. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the finale of a fantasy revenge trilogy that Tarantino has invented out of his awake and lively imagination. First, it was killing Nazis and Hitler. Then it was a bloody, satisfying slave revolt in the Deep South. And finally, it’s preventing the Manson murders – these horrors of history that cling to our collective soul with an eternal ache. Tarantino gifts us with a “what if.” Clint Eastwood says that every film begins with that: a “what if.” Tarantino has taken that premise to the extreme. If there is a frontrunner in this race, which there isn’t, it would be this film.
- The Irishman – Remixing an exciting blend of the cinema of old and the Netflix model of the new comes another installment of a series of movies by the great Martin Scorsese. If Tarantino represents an entire school of filmmaking, Martin Scorsese does it double. And it could be argued that Tarantino comes from a branch of that school of filmmaking. Nobody does it like the master and the master is better than ever with The Irishman. Yet another Oscar beast, this one is hitting all of the guilds and critics awards too. It should easily slide into the Oscar race possibly with the most nominations, or close to. With Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor times two, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Costume, Visual Effects, Sound… at the very minimum. The Irishman is a mournful look back at what was mostly a brutal, wasted life where the best of things are sacrificed to do an often amoral job. That job ultimately led to the murder of a friend. One of the most emotionally resonant things about The Irishman is the through-line of his observant daughter — highlighting her relationship with Jimmy Hoffa as the only old dude who could break through her shell. One of the most touching scenes in the film is when Hoffa buys her an ice cream and he says “It’s just for Peggy and me.” He is so overjoyed just to see her smile. Then when Frank kills Hoffa and neglects to phone his wife, Peggy only asks “Why?” — though she knows the answer. And that is the end of their relationship and the end of any kind of meaningful normal relationship for Frank. What a screenplay. What a movie. Is it the frontrunner? Who knows. But I do know that the sometimes sketchy effects of the de-aging overlay will be a wee bit of a ding for many actors. No one yet knows what the final verdict will be for this Great Leap Forward for Netflix.
- Parasite – Also hitting the guilds in all the right ways, like boom boom boom, is Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece Parasite. A movie, like so many of his movies, that starts in one reality, then takes you through a portal to another reality, and finally takes you to yet another portal. It is such a brilliant film that it has very nearly swept the critics awards. Parasite is a universal cautionary tale about being trapped in your class or your station. Either way you are trapped, whether rich or poor. The explosion of violence at the end, just as with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman, is like a bomb being dropped on reality to break it all wide apart. What a scene, while the hopeful son carries around a heavy stone relic as a promise for a better life, <spoiler> only to have the poor trapped man under the house use that stone to bludgeon him unconscious.</spoiler> The smell of poverty that disgusts the rich, but is the final straw for the father who would rather be a fugitive than live in such a world where a man can be disgusted by the smell of the guy who banged his head against the light switch to light up the stairs so that he could see his way as he walked up them. THAT is brilliant writing and brilliant filmmaking and the high bar every film must match or surpass this year. THAT. Who has the luxury of love in such a world. Who has the luxury of civility. Who has the luxury of survival. And oh my god, the scene where it rains and rains and rains and rains and floods the basement home of the underclass family. Parasite is a film conceived, written and directed by a master of cinema. It is a threat across the board to win in any category it’s nominated in. However, I would caution one thing to those tempted to choose it for Best Picture. Are voters going to love it so much they choose it for both categories Best Picture and Best International Film? I do not know. But all I do know is that actors rule the Academy and whatever wins Best Picture will be the one they like the best. For Parasite’s fate, watch the PGA and DGA.
- 1917 – Because the film is a late-breaker, that puts it a slight disadvantage out of the gate, but make no mistake, this breathtaking Oscar beast is a formidable contender across the board. Exactly 20 years after winning Picture and Director for American Beauty Sam Mendes raises the high bar for films that endeavor appear as one-continuous-take. Here, with a carefully constructed screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Mendes, we see war — World War I — like we never have before. With a breathtaking performance at the film’s center by George Mackay, Mendes took a chance on an a mostly unknown. Why would he do that? Because this war, like every other war, was one where a multitude of virtually anonymous citizens were sacrificed in the Sisyphean effort to win. If it had been cast as a big star, just as with Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, that would telegraph the ending for the audience. They had to think this young man might die and, thus, the suspense of the movie is wondering if he’ll make it. Mendes as a theater director rehearsed his actors to give flawless performances, from the smallest to the largest. It is a feat of cinema, a celebration of the art of acting, and illustrates beautifully the collaborative effort of film. Some say, why do it? Want to bet there is a whisper campaign out right now that “it’s a gimmick.” Sorry, this film is more than that. I found the same technique to be a gimmick in Birdman, that’s for sure, but here I never thought about the camera or the invisible editing. I was 100% immersed in the experience of this story. Never have I seen a war film that reflects both the abstract expressionism of the art of the time, as well as the poetry — most notably T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. I suppose you have to know your history to see those reference in this but wow, what a work of art, this. It is without a doubt one of the best films of the year and should easily earn nominations across the board for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Score, Visual Effects – and it should earn a lead acting nod for MacKay.
- Joker – Todd Phillips upended the superhero genre in as sense with Joker, with a film about the hollowed-out despair so pervasive right now. In fact, each of these five films is a long and frightening scream into the abyss about one thing or another. If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood dances lightly around it, Joker howls it loudly, violently and in a way that’s hard to sit with. Both Parasite and Joker feature men who can’t stop laughing after tragic events. And isn’t that so like right now? We laugh so that we may not cry. Joker is anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant performance as Arthur Fleck — never have we seen this villain so vulnerable. We live in a time of carefully curating our Utopian diorama of what our world should be. But here’s Joker on the outside of that, a reject of that, with nowhere really to turn except towards violence. Violence marks each of these top five movies — the violence of men who do terrible, terrible things to the world. Joker is a template for rage and despair. Different people see different things in it. It is disturbing at at time where it’s hard to be find any art made in the mainstream that is. In the 1950s films depicted a similar kind of Utopia, detached from the America that existed in reality. In a sense, the same was true of the 1970s when Nixon’s silent majority rose up to seize power. And so now it’s coming from the Left. But out from underneath it all comes Joker. It’s a mocking of the lies we tell ourselves about the world we live in. I may never watch the movie again but I appreciate it and can understand why it is an Oscar beast. That’s your top five. Then we have the following films that are also strong contenders:
- Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach’s film seems to have struck a chord with people. Really and truly all over the world. It just won the Dublin film critics award. It’s a film that will certainly deliver nominations in acting and writing, and possibly director and score, depending on how well the actors like it. It is a story about “conscious uncoupling” where two people strive to maintain friendship and respect as they sort out the best way to raise their son during and after an ugly divorce. The message of the film seems to be that they are just much better off not being a couple than they ever were as a couple. It doesn’t exactly speak to right now as the top five films do but for whatever reason it is resonating in the right now in a big way.
- Jojo Rabbit – With a SAG Ensemble nod and a Globe nod for Picture, Jojo Rabbit is one of the few films that offers something bright and hopeful at the end. Yes, it asks us to laugh in the face of Fascism, and it depicts horrible scenes of violence framed by satire — but it is utterly brilliant frame to frame. And yes, it requires a certain level of sophistication to get it, and that makes it divisive, but it should easily land a Best Picture nomination, along with Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Editing, Score, and perhaps Director, depending on whether the DGA likes the film or if the Directors branch does.
- Bombshell – With its prominence at SAG, this now seems like potentially a formidable contender, what with the actors driving its rise. It seems also safe, as the others do, for a PGA nod. Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress maybe times two, maybe screenplay.
- Ford v Ferrari – Voters will have to remember to boost this film to number one on their ballots if they want it to get in because being broadly likable in a field this packed just won’t cut it. It will have to be deliberately pushed to the top of the top of the ballot.
- Little Women – It should have enough activist support and Alcott/Gerwig fans to push it to the top but, given that, it is surprising that it was entirely shut out at the SAG awards.
These movies are also in it, and may come from behind if any of the 10 films above falter:
Dolemite Is My Name
The Two Popes
Pain and Glory
This is how I see the Best Picture race right now, and it’s all we can say until we hear from the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild.