The Oscar year started at Cannes, when Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite won the Palme d’Or. Already renowned for his ability to cut deep into the failings of society, with Memories of Murder, Mother, Okja, and Snowpiercer as his calling cards, he toned everything way down for Parasite and made the kind of tight, perfectly rendered film that could easily be set on the shelf next to Hitchcock and Kubrick. It is exacting in every aspect of its storytelling, infused with wry symbolism and bleeding with longing, despair, and hopelessness — much like his other films that catch you in that place of the bottom dropping out of human existence. He doesn’t choose to tell this story in an overly dramatic fashion. Rather, he uses his keen eye for human foibles and satire before plunging you headlong into the truth about who and what we are. Parasite is as funny as it is sad, as ugly as it is beautiful. Although Bong probably did not set out to make it a universal story, it somehow ends up there, especially to those who are worried about the state of the modern world. It is sad that it ends not with hope but with the futility of hope — a glimpse into a bountiful world so few are invited to enjoy. It is Gatsby yearning for the Green Light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the promise of the good life. It is Mark Zuckerberg at the end of The Social Network hitting refresh again and again, hoping for a girl to accept his friend request. It is Charles Foster Kane at the end of the Citizen Kane whispering Rosebud just before he dies. The last gasp of Parasite reminds us that hope, for far too many, is pointless in a rigged system.
Parasite easily won Cannes and then became the most talked about film at every festival it visited. Like Roma the year before, then came the talk about whether it would sweep the critics and then be nominated for Best Picture. It was an easy call that it would be. Then came Venice, which premiered Joker as its Golden Lion winner. Joker would become a lightning rod for critics and other beard-strokers because of its perceived ambivalent attitude toward violence as retribution. It made a billion dollars worldwide and became a phenomenon. Would it be nominated for Best Picture, or was Twitter right — that it was too dark, too divisive to win. I can promise you one thing about Joker: it is one of the darkest films to be nominated for Best Picture since the preferential ballot was put into place.
Joker is defined by the inward pain of its main character — not a villain born, but a villain made. Phillips delivers him to us without apology, without pasting band-aids over the ugliness of what our culture actually is to make us all feel better and pretend it’s not a place where people are cruel, lonely, desperate — and yes, violent. Many of us don’t want that kind of movie because we need movies to reflect back to us our better selves, the lie that humans always need to believe to keep going every day. The lie that is a mirror mirror on the wall, who is the greatest of them all? Joker is a daring, horrifying, wholly unique work, absolutely deserving of its accolades.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood had opened in Cannes and right on the heels of Joker got saddled with its own odd narrative as Tarantino got hit every which way, from his treatment of female characters in his past films to his treatment of Uma Thurman. The mob was eager to chase him for … reason to be named later. Just because. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film you have to see a few times to really fully get. One viewing isn’t enough because it is packed with so much detail, both in its look and in its storytelling. It’s the kind of film that has a background you need to understand or else it won’t seem as good to you. But if you know the history of the Manson murders, if you know what it felt like to live through it, then this film will touch you deeply. And for me, it has — in a way no other film has this year. It is about a lost era. It is about endings. It is about saying goodbye. It is also about what if. Tarantino is so heartbreakingly talented, Hollywood has never quite known what to do with him. Like Bong Joon Ho, his films are whole universes full of make-believe situations that feel more real than reality itself. Once is a film that does not end tragically, but rather is a respite from the truth. When I want to get happy, this is the film I watch.
Next came Telluride, with the premieres of Marriage Story and Ford v Ferrari, followed by Toronto, where Jojo Rabbit surprised everyone and won the People’s Choice Award. We now had two directors this year working from or within graphic novel/comic book franchises with formidable Oscar contenders: Todd Phillips and Taika Waititi. Both were met with some consternation by the hive mind that covers film online, but both brought movies that would prove to be too adored to ignore. So far, it was looking like there was indeed a visible disconnect between what the online film community thought and what the film industry at large thought.
Jojo Rabbit makes light of Nazis, or so the criticism went. I guess we’re not supposed to make fun of Nazis for fear that people might not understand how bad Nazis were. Well, I think if you don’t know how bad Nazis were, you should not be relying on one movie to teach you history. No one can watch Jojo Rabbit and not get the pervasive underlying horror of it all. From the sickening ways Jews are depicted in propaganda, to the death of a major character, to the bodies of executed Jews left hanging on display in the town square, Jojo Rabbit doesn’t flinch from the horrors of the Third Reich. The point of it is to remember how to remain free and regain your freedom, in spite of those horrors. There has to be room for films like this, not just in the world but in the Oscar race — films that grab your heart and make you feel something. THAT matters.
Along with Marriage Story, Netflix also gave us The Two Popes, two films seemed tailor-made for the Oscar race. Another would join the pack, Dolemite Is My Name, but it never got the attention some of us hoped. Most were waiting on a very big fish, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which looked like a major Oscar contender out of the gate. Scorsese’s coda to the end of a long, distinguished phase of his career, a lovely ode to the mobsters he made famous. Netflix looked like it was ready for the big time with four — count ’em, four — Oscar contenders. They ultimately did land with the most nominations of any studio, but The Irishman, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, could not find any traction in an era that needed the films to be more “important,” taking a bite of bigger issues. No matter how great The Irishman is, it was never going to be a winner because of its somber narrative. But wow, what a movie. If you can get beyond the film’s slightly problematic first half hour, you see what a masterful filmmaker Scorsese is.
There were so many other fine films that were seen earlier in the year, films by women and filmmakers of color, like Queen & Slim, Late Night, Blinded by the Light, and The Farewell. As the year was coming to a close and the late breaking films were about to hit, it was clear that no film by a woman was going to get into the race unless Greta Gerwig’s Little Women could do it. Both Little Women and Sam Mendes’ 1917 came to theaters in the last moments of 2019 and indeed were put before Oscar voters not long before either of them opened. Both made it onto AFI’s top ten list and were nominated by the Producers Guild, but only one would land at the Golden Globes, the DGA, and the BAFTA and that was 1917.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 really should never have been as good as it is. By design, the big-tech late breaker is not supposed to be something that is pure art, as this film is. It was expected to be everything that it isn’t: a gimmick, a video game. Instead, it is nothing less than a magnificent tribute to the ordinary people who do extraordinary things to live through and survive wars, but not just actual wars, but any kind of difficult moment in history that feels like a threat looms around every corner. What I love so much about 1917 is that it is so tightly constructed, so masterfully written, directed, and acted that, as Dylan would say, it never stumbles — it’s got no place to fall. Any film that could beat Parasite would have to be that good. Because Parasite was the film all others were measured against. But 1917 is that good. It’s haunting and even if you know George McKay’s Corporal Schofield is going to make it in the end, that doesn’t matter because great stories aren’t necessarily those that upend your expectations. Rather, they give you what you expect but just not in the way that you expect it.
It’s always hard to get through these last days of the Oscar race, when everyone takes it all so seriously. We want to get it right, and we want it to BE RIGHT. But in the end, the preferential ballot is a tricky thing. It doesn’t do what film awards SHOULD do. It doesn’t simply select the film that gets the most votes. Rather, it honors the film that is liked broadly rather than passionately. I don’t think this is the best way to decide best, but it is what it is. And what it is is a carefully calculated math formula.
Today is the last day of Oscar voting. This year’s race, like every year’s race, really just wants to be five movies. It doesn’t want to be nine. But there are nine. Only five, maybe six, have a shot at the big prize. Theoretically any of them can win, but the consensus, even in a very competitive year like this one, revolves around five because Oscar voters have only five nomination slots, as do the DGA and the SAG. Only the PGA has ten.
In a competitive year, the noise is deafening around the Oscar race. From critics to bloggers, even now Academy members are on Twitter and Facebook advocating for movies to win. With their hundreds of thousands of followers and major influence, Academy voters themselves are now in the Oscar game as though it were all one big caucus. And it kind of is. With all of that and a preferential ballot, it feels like it could end up any which way.
We know that there are unpredictable factors in play this year that will impact how the race turns out, but the biggest of these is the time frame for watching and voting. It was so fast it went like this for final balloting:
Oscar voters know two things going in: 1) what the frontrunner is, and 2) what their favorite movie is. That means they’re either going to go with 1917 at the top or they’re going to go in with a degree of resentment toward 1917. All of the top contenders, like 1917, Parasite, Jojo Rabbit, and Once Upon a Time, are films that the preferential ballot likes. If Parasite prevails with a huge lead in the first round — which it might considering the advocacy all over the internet for it — then that’s that. If voting continues for multiple rounds where ballots are redistributed, it’s likely that both Parasite and 1917 will be the top two. So it will just depend on how many other voters put these two films close to the top. The more divisive the film, the harder it will be to win.
That helps Parasite probably more than any other movie. But look at the calendar above. Look at how crunched the time is. Given a couple more weeks, a competing narrative might form, but 1917’s wins overall with a consensus (except for SAG) seem to indicate that this voting body won’t be any different.
One thing is for sure: whatever wins, a great movie is winning Best Picture in 2020.