By John H. Foote
There were nine films nominated for the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture this year, though there was room for one more given this silly rule of increasing the nominees to up to 10. Oddly in the years since they have had this increase, there has never been 10 nominees.
This year the Academy nominated five genuine cinematic masterworks – The Irishman, Jo Jo Rabbit, 1917, the electrifying Joker and the austere Marriage Story. Along with those superb films we had Quentin Tarantino’s wildly entertaining, much loved and haunting Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Greta Gerwig’s handsome adaptation of Little Women, the wildly successful South Korean film Parasite, and the race car drama Ford vs. Ferrari. Joker was a surprise leader with eleven nominations, building momentum since the festival run back in September.
Here is a look at each film with its chances of winning on the big night. Understand they are in order of their chances to win the top prize. And never forget, the Oscars have little to do with what is best.
With shocking wins from the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America, along with the Golden Globe win for Best Dramatic film, 1917 is without question the film to beat. It has everything the Academy has historically loved – it is historical, a war epic, beautifully crafted by gifted and passionate artists, and was deeply moving. Sam Mendes, the director of the film is making a comeback, not having been to the Oscar race since his win for American Beauty exactly 20 years ago and we know Hollywood loves a comeback. Could there be an upset in the making? Rarely have we had such a stunning film about the First World War, a savage conflict in which the Industrial Military complex first flexed its muscles with war machines. It led to unspeakable horrors done to the human body and lashed scars never to be erased on the human mind. Mendes captures all of this in a masterful way, in this stunning film. Sure, but I doubt it.
No, I kid you not, the Academy loves this film, most of Hollywood has had parties for director Bong Joon Ho, toasting his genius, embracing the film and director in a manner not seen since Life is Beautiful (1998) and Roberto Benigni. Parasite could very well sneak in and nab the big prize, stunning the film world. Personally, I found Parasite average and all the fuss makes it the years most overrated film of the year for me. I liked it, admired the artistry and the story but I cannot believe people in the industry cannot poke huge holes in the silly plot. I thought his previous film, the delightful Okja, was vastly superior. Despite my griping, like it or not, Parasite is seriously in the race and if there is any other film going to top 1917, this could be it. Incredibly.
3. ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD
Quentin Tarantino’s huge enjoyable love letter to Hollywood, the sixties and television is also about the end of innocence in that decade and how things might have gone differently. Yes, the film explores with creepy realism the Manson family and the strange loyalty several young men and women had for Charles Manson, seen fleetingly in the picture. Much of the film focuses on the friendship between fading TV star Rick (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt), both brilliant performances in a film filled with them. Margot Robbie is a bright light of goodness as doomed Sharon Tate, giggling with glee watching herself on a movie screen with paying customers, and Dakota Fanning is chilling as Squeaky Fromme, one of Manson’s most dangerous minions. The film alternates between funny, deeply dramatic and eventually terrifying as the Manson clan do indeed make their visit to a home, but they get more than they bargained for encountering an acid tripping Cliff. Really a pleasure to watch, a superb film from a director still intoxicated by cinema. It could pull off an upset, the film has a loyal following.
Never discount the film with the most nominations, though Joker has no chance of winning the big award. Its reward has been the rave reviews, the complete overhaul of the comic book superhero genre, and the more than one billion the film took in at the box office. Todd Phillips merged his origin story of the Joker with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the Scorsese films Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983) in his rattling exploration of a descent into madness. The film is a searing study of how being lonely, feeling isolated and apart from other people can lead one to do madness and unspeakable things. At the centre of this hurricane of a film is Joaquin Phoenix who commands the screen with a towering performance as Arthur Fleck, who becomes known to all as Joker. Who would have thought Phillips, after The Hangover films, would direct a film such as this, take such risks and emerge with a stunning work of art? And 11 nominations? Not to be trifled with, this is the real deal. The final moments with Robert De Niro onscreen are startling in their realism and the cold manner in which Joker ends him, without batting an eye. We suspect it is coming, but when it does … whoa. A lacerating work with a performance for the ages.
5. THE IRISHMAN
What happened? In November Martin Scorsese’s astonishing study of Frank Sheeran’s life as Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard, hitman, best friend and executioner was THE film to beat, a lock to win Scorsese his second Academy Award and easily take Best Picture. The New York Film Critics Circle, once called the conscience of American cinema by actor George C. Scott, honoured The Irishman with their Best Film award and Joe Pesci with Best Supporting Actor, the path seemed set. But then the whispers began followed by the backlash about the film being produced by Netflix, the streaming company who broke through at the Oscars last year, winning three major awards for Roma (2018). This year Netflix had no less than five films competing in the Oscar race, with two of them securing Best Picture nominations and they lead all studios with 24 nominations. Hollywood is not yet prepared for a streaming company to be awarded Best Picture, even if that film is the year’s best, even if it is directed by the planet’s greatest living director, even if it unites three of the most gifted actors in film history. The Irishman is a bonafide masterpiece, a film that will be discussed and hailed for 50 years, and easily among Scorsese’s best five films. The performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and especially Joe Pesci are first rate, the latter two nominated for supporting actor. Beautifully crafted, I am still reeling that any other film will win this year but this one. Shameful. Another director other than Scorsese will win his second Academy Award for Best Director … think on that. The Irishman and nothing else was the year’s greatest cinematic achievement, Oscar or not.
6. JO JO RABBIT
A rollicking, wild, irreverent black comedy that is also satire about Nazis and Hitler as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy who worships both because he does not yet understand. Jo Jo is like the German people, showing blind faith in Hitler and following him, like sheep, down the rabbit hole. He lives happily with his Nazi hating mother who cannot understand her child’s devotion to Hitler, but also understands the danger of trying to change him. His imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler, but a Hitler unlike any we have seen before, a cuddly, bright eyed Hitler who leaps through the air and plays with Jo Jo but makes his disdain of the Jews clear. When the boy finds his mother is hiding a young girl in her closet, his world is turned upside down because she is nothing like Jews have been described. Then a shattering tragedy shakes his entire world and his devotion to Hitler begins to fade. He sees the madman for what he is and, in an action that brought the house down, does what all of us would love to do to Hitler, given the chance. Taika Waititi brilliantly directed the film and gives a lovely performance as Hitler, but the film belongs to Scarlett Johansson who is a comic delight as the boy’s beautiful, intelligent mother, who loathes everything about the Nazis. How did the Academy miss nominating young Roman Griffin Davis for one of the year’s finest performances? Though I was thrilled it was nominated, it has no chance of a win.
7. MARRIAGE STORY
Marriage Story is a scalding, often seething study of the end of a marriage between a red hot stage director, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a one-time rising film actress who gave up her career to come to New York and build a theatre company with Charlie. Married for years now, with a young son, Nicole leaves him in New York, takes her child and files for divorce when offered a TV job in Los Angeles. Reeling in shock Charlie fights back, wanting his boy to know he at least fought for him, but he cannot really believe she gave up on him. In astonishing performances, Driver and Johansson capture the love, the anguish, the deep rage and disbelief of two people coming apart who still love each other but cannot be together anymore. One argument shows the depth of their confusion, they say terrible things to one another and finally Charlie tells her he wishes her dead, before sobbing and dropping to the floor ashamed, at which point she comforts him. The two actors are astonishing throughout and Noah Baumbach brilliantly directed and wrote the film basing it on his own parting with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. The courage and pain are on every frame. Netflix again, so no hope.
8. LITTLE WOMEN
Beloved by some, a big old shoulder shrug by others, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Wolcott book was a fine, well made and handsome production filled with lovely performances. Nothing really new was offered by Gerwig, though the broken narrative was interesting. Fine performances from Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, and Florence Pugh are highlights of this beautifully crafted film. Gerwig might win the Screenplay award, which would be silly, but the outcry was huge when she was not nominated as Best Director (even though she did not deserve it). As far as Best Picture, not happening.
9. FORD VS. FERRARI
The finest film James Mangold has ever directed, a thrilling, high octane movie about the Ford motor company and their efforts to build a race car fast enough to defeat Ferrari at the Le Mans race in 1966. Outstanding performances from Christian Bale and Matt Damon highlight the film, along with a lovely supporting turn by Tracey Letts as Henry Ford II elevated the film to a new level, and Mangold put the audience in the race car during the tests and races. Outstanding, but its reward was being nominated for an award it cannot win.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.