(4.5 / 5)
Update after the ceremony:
This might be one of the first years where I completed the Oscar Best Picture nominees before the ceremony starts. Well, it just proves how out of touch I am when it comes to awards season. I’ve long passed the stage where I anticipating every single Oscar’s hopeful films, and those that are made specifically for Oscar aren’t my cup of tea anyways. 2019 Best Pictures crop is solid in general.
2019 Best Pictures race will be mostly remembered for Parasite winning the Best Film. This not only marks the first time a film in foreign language wins the top prize (the One-Inch Barrier as Bong himself put it – the subtitles), the Academy voters pick out one of the best choices in recent years. And the field of 2019 BP nominees was already solid to begin with, but with Parasite as the winner, it is on another level. For me the Best Picture and Best Director picks this year justify everything else they had made, and my rating up there reflects that. Except from the last spot (which I still enjoyed), the remains are worthy choice for the top race, and there isn’t a film that I am personally against (unlike Green Book last year).
I’m holding up the overall rating for now until we get the actual winner, Check out below for my thoughts on these Oscar-nominated films, from worst to best:
Obvious Snubs: none
Too edgy/ artsy for Oscar: Uncut Gems, The Farewell, Us (the lack of hype regarding Us’s chance really baffled me, as I consider Us just as good and inventive as Get Out)
9. Ford v Ferrari
Every year there is at least one Oscar-friendly title that makes the list – usually a handsome biopic or films that are based on true events – and this year Ford v Ferrari fits that bill, but hey, I had a good time watching it. The main strengths of this film lie in the solid performances in Christian Bale and Matt Damon, and many of the race sequences are thrilling to watch and listen (like many have said, the sound of the engine revving up in car racing can take your breath away). The film is also not really about Ford v Ferrari, but more about the battle inside Ford company between the love for race driving vs commercial aspect of it. In one of its best moments, the owner of Ford is taken for a drive and then sobs uncontrollably, being overwhelmed by the speed and the dangers of speed car. But what happens afterwards kind of defeats the purpose, and that when the film goes a bit manipulative. The film bashes over your head how unfair Ken Miles endures, and paints him as a tragic hero and that is when the film lost me. The development of Jon Bernthal’s character is a bit strange as he doesn’t have any real role in the latter half of the story. It runs a bit too long as well, but considered how it keeps my attention for the majority of its run, it’s still an enjoyable ride to say the very least.
8. Jojo Rabbit
Well, it says a lot for the quality of this year’s nominees that my second least favorite is already a film that I enjoyed, Jojo Rabbit. While it receives mixed reception from critics circle – and I can see why – Waikiki’s brand of humor still delivers some sharp touches. Yep, Jojo Rabbit simplifies the horror of war and its satire can be silly at times, but its heart is in the right place. The film at its core is about a boy whose ideal is challenged by the appearance of this Jewish refugee, and in that regards Jojo Rabbit succeeds by drawing a strong chemistry between him and Elsa, played wonderfully by Thomasin McKenzie. Scarlett Johanson as his mother also serves as a strong link to the film. Her character is playful, strong and she brightens the screen whenever she’s on screen. As for negatives, Waititi clearly overplays his Hitler role, and what the heck do Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen do in this movie? It’s a waste of talented actors if you ask me. But the film ends well with its rather low-key but emotional resonance payoff. Jojo Rabbit is a family-friendly film (despite some its more gruesome moments) that while stumble at places, I don’t mind to watch it again.
7. The Irishman
This pick here is gonna be my hot takes. And don’t get me wrong, The Irishman is a well crafted film with some powerful performances, and if there’s anyone who can make a 3 and a half hours film immersing and entertaining, it’s Scorsese. But I always have issues with his run-length (I feel most of his films are overlong), and do I feel the Irishman deserves its 3 ½ hour length? Absolutely not. And I do have many small concerns regarding the film that keeps me from putting it higher on the list. First, I feel The Irishman play out like a lesser version of Goodfellas: they have many of the same core cast, they play in the same settings (like the murder of Crazy Joe is mentioned in Goodfellas), and the 1990 film also has an Irishman character as well. Well, “lesser version” is a bit of a strong statement as many would agree that The Irishman is more like spiritual successor of Goodfellas, but I can’t help but feel this film is pale in comparison to his 1990 masterpiece. Which comes to my second concern, the CG de-aging effect for Robert De Niro. The result is mixed for me. While his face looks the part of someone in the 40s, his posture gives away the actual age, and the CG eyes effect feels so unnatural to me. Last, the inclusion of Anna Paquin’s role as Frank’s daughter is under-developed, contrived and I don’t remember she has any real dialogue at all. The Irishman is still epic and details in its rise and fall of the subject matters and the price they eventually have to pay, and I find the way it ends perfectly sums up its themes, but I won’t regard it being amongst Scorsese’s best.
Since its debut in Venice, Joker the film (like its main character) has become a controversial figure. Some call it “appalling nihilism”, some regard it as a promoter for violence, others feel it an intimation to Scorsese’s seedy 70s films, it’s rather ironic that I put Joker above an actual Scorsese film here. And the truth is that I find Joker powerful. The film rides everything on Joaquin Phoenix’s shoulder, and he delivers one of his rawest and his best, in a career full of raw performances. Joker in this version is not merely a victim of this mad world, he’s mentally unstable, he’s pitiable,he loathes the world but he is not all these at the same time. For me the trick here is that the film draws Joker as someone who is not easily defined, making his descend to madness feels real and destined to the character. Some winks to its inspiration (like the “shoot myself” symbolism or Robert De Niro’s cameo) and to the original Batman I can live without, but Athur Fleck’s transformation into a titular character brings out some real sadness, and surprisingly humane moments for me. The Joker’s dance in a stairway is a highlight for me, as it embraces the Joker’s unstableness, while at the same time signals a moment of true freedom for him. Phoenix gives out a performance for the ages, that’s for sure.
5. Little Women
I’m not familiar with the source, or many of its screen adaptation at all, so this is my very first trip to Little Women, and immediately I can understand why this source has such an enduring impact since its first release. The story is written from a female perspective about the female lives in a female-centric cast dominated by male society. It’s such a structure that is within my field of interest. From what I heard, Greta Grewig shuffles the order and adds new bit of them growing up as adults, and based on what I see the decision pays off nicely. It’s a criticism to a “happy ending” story that betrays the internal growth of its female characters so that cynical way of ending (play by the rule of men, while still stand firm on their feet) fits the spirit of the source the best. In the film, all these little women have experienced the hardness of social and gender status dictate their lives, and these March girls are all portrayed with depth that they breathe and talk and struggle like real people. Saoirse Ronan is great (as always) in her lead role, but it’s Pugh that is a real breakthrough.
The next 3 spots are extremely close here, to the point that until I wrote this line did I settle on the order. 1917 might be known as a single-shot movie, but it’s much more than that. The one-shot gimmick allows the audience to follow the characters in real life, and with its literal life-and-death mission we can get right into the characters’ shoes and their situations. It might seem lacking in terms of story or characterization, but the 1917 is meant to be an account of a first hand experience, and for that it more than succeeds what it set out to do. Some really neat camera tricks (I’m so against the found-footage cinematography), most notably during the sequences where he jumps off the cliff and scenes involving explosions. In a sense, it feels as if we are following a Virtual Reality game. By design, the structure of 1917 lacks real character depth, so the cast makes up for it by relies on small moments – they mostly pull it off, but as a whole 1917 is more memorable for its technical craft than engaging characters or story.
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
In one of his interviews, Tarantino remarks how he always felt like an outsider of Hollywood, until just recently did he reflect and feel that he is a part of it. This film, as a result, feels like a celebration of the Hollywood he loves and cares for, not necessary the showbiz aspect but more of the old Hollywood portrayed on screen, with added terrorist cult in the mix. “Hollywood” does require some basic knowledge of the true events though, as the film builds on our own expectations from the events. “Hollywood” is certainly Tarantino at his most mainstream appeal, in a good way. There’s certainly the love for this rich settings and its assemble cast, and the movie shifts in tones with ease. It’s just like “Hollywood” has its own rhythm. The film moves from one scene to another effortlessly, characters dance and act and drive around through the picture.Leonardo Di Carprio is hilarious in his role, so does Brad Pitt and Pitt delivers some of the best scenes in a film that has many iconic moments. I’m not too worried about the negative depiction of Bruce Lee, this is after all a heavily saturalized Hollywood version through Tarantino’s cinephile lense.
2. Marriage Story
As opposed to 1917, Marriage Story’s main weapon is in its character writing and killer dialogues. Divorce is a long and painful process, one that is too personal to have a truly objective perspective, or a middle ground so to speak. Marriage Story comes close to provide that middle ground, by exploring both sides of him and her as they go through that their breakdown. I’m always scared by the thought that unlike parental or sibling love where you’re bonded by blood, for romantic relationship where you were strangers before you meet, you can always become strangers again when the commitment breakdowns. That is where Nicole and Charlie come in, as they just move to a different stage of their relationship, as they are in the middle of still hanging up for their emotions, despise each others’ faults and trying to move on with their lives. In other words, it’s messy and Marriage Story perfectly captures that messiness. I have always enjoyed Baumbach’s personal and sensitive writing, and Marriage Story is up there his best written script yet. Boasted by strong performance by both Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver and many supporting ones, Marriage Story is funny, touching and even hurtful when the Barbers say all the worst to each other even though they don’t truly mean it. It’s just a shame that Baumbach was snubbed for Best Director as he certainly does a great job staging all these wonderful moments.
1. Parasite (Oscar-winner)
And finally Parasite stands firmly at the top by a wide margin. It’s a film that I watched and greatly enjoyed back in Cannes, but it seems to gain acclaim everywhere it goes. Everybody I asked who have seen Parasite are enthusiastic about it, and it speaks to the strange appeal of Parasite. From the minute it starts it grabs your attention and never lets go. I still don’t regard it as Bong’s masterpieces. As a guy who followed his works since Memories of Murders / The Host period, it just doesn’t feel right to consider something 6-month old his greatest work, especially since he hasn’t yet made a bad movie, and since my heart is always with his terrific Mother. Anyways, back to Parasite. Like many of his works, it’s unpredictable and the way it fuses many genres to become its own thing (and own genre) is unique, but it has many layers that the more you watch/ re-watch, the more you pick up little details and the more everything holds up. Add to that, the cast is superb (and deservedly won Best Ensemble Cast of the SAG awards). Parasite is also a satire and its jab on the nuclear war and most notably the class is strangely relevant. It’s the rare film that works on almost all levels: as an enjoyable piece of entertainment, as an auteur-driven unique film and as a film that has substance and has something to say about the the clash of the social class it satires on.