Best Picture thoughts, 2019 edition
For the last few years, I've managed to see all of the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards ceremony. Looks like I didn't bother writing anything about them last year, but I did two years ago and four years ago, so let's do it again this year!
Quick summary: my favorites were Little Women and Parasite, but I wouldn't be disappointed if any of them won, except for Jojo Rabbit and Ford v Ferrari.
As usual, I'll go in the order I saw them:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I still count myself a Quentin Tarantino fan, and I've enjoyed all his movies to date, but after Pulp Fiction they've all had caveats, and this is no different. It's a fun, moody, meandering ride through Hollywood at the end of the '60s, but the violent climax is so cartoonishly over-the-top, even for him, that it took me completely out of the movie. Unlike Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the revenge fantasy here isn't punching up; in fact the overall message is practically pro-Establishment. Maybe it's partly a condemnation of audiences' appetite for wish-fulfillment, but by now I've lost confidence that Tarantino is that nuanced.
Yes, I am a Joker apologist. There is so much hate for this movie, but I think it's genuinely great, though certainly "a tough hang". It's only tenuously a Batman movie, but the ambiguity that I think people have a problem with is ultimately resolved by the fact that the Joker is, like always, a supervillain. This is a portrait of evil, and a demonstration of how propaganda can make evil seem sympathetic. Don't fall for it.
I managed to so successfully avoid spoilers for this that I thought it was going to be a horror movie. It has some thriller elements, but it's really just ("just") a dark comedy about class and ambition. The only other Bong Joon-ho movie I've seen is Snowpiercer, and this is far more grown-up and real. And also an incredibly fun ride. I still can't imagine a foreign-language film winning Best Picture, but this seems to be in the conversation still, so, fingers crossed!
Initially I had no interest in seeing this—do I need to see yet another Martin Scorcese mob movie?—but the buzz was positive and I heard someone say it ought to be seen in a theater where you'd have to sit through the whole 3½ hour thing continuously, so I followed that advice. I did enjoy the experience, but I've also heard people say it works fine as a Netflix miniseries broken into episodes, so whatever. And yeah, ultimately it is yet another Scorcese mob movie, but being based on a true(ish?) story with historical significance kept me more engaged than I expected. And yeah, it's about a lot more than just the depicted events: aging, regret, self-delusion, morality. I hope someone eventually convinces Scorcese to watch Joker!
I haven't followed the discourse about this movie but I imagine a lot of it is about "whose side are you on". I am definitely on neither side—both characters are unsympathetic. But it manages to be an engaging and moving story anyway. My fourth favorite Adam Driver movie of the year (I didn't see The Report but I am counting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as 2019 because its 2018 release was so limited).
I mentioned my Greta Gerwig fanboyness in my writeup for Lady Bird, but I wasn't sure it would translate to a period-film adaptation like this. Plus I've never read the book or seen any of the previous adaptations, so I was completely missing whatever context it might be assuming its audience would have. Turns out it works just fine without that context: I loved it! It's not just a coming-of-age story about family and sisterhood, it's about self-determination and artistic expression, not to mention class and ambition (much like Parasite, in fact). The out-of-order storytelling structure isn't a Christopher Nolan-like puzzlebox, but underlines the echoes and contrasts that are (presumably) there in the original story. As I've said before, I am not really a fan of Saoirse Ronan, but I was really impressed by her performance here, for once, and she would be my pick for Best Actress (though I have yet to see Judy).
It was particularly wild to see this right after Marriage Story. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are, in real life, seemingly happily partnered (though not technically married), while both movies are very much statements against partnership, or at best begrudgingly accepting. The character Jo ends up with (or does she...?) even bears a certain resemblance to Baumbach.
I had skipped this when it came out; unlike everyone else I know, I did not enjoy Taiko Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok—I found the humor really grating. And, meh, did I really need to see a comedy about Hitler? But when the nominations were announced, I figured I ought to give it a shot. Fortunately I caught it on the last day it was playing in Boston (at the brand-new Arclight cinema by North Station, which I heartily recommend!). Unfortunately it was not much different from what I expected—I still found the humor really grating. I did quite like Scarlett Johansson's character, at least, but as always with ScarJo's performances, I could never quite forget it was her (and her fake German accent didn't help). Instead I'd pick Laura Dern for Best Supporting Actress (though I have yet to see Richard Jewell).
I was originally not too interested in this, expecting it to be yet another grim "war is hell" slogs, but then I heard how beautiful and dreamlike it was, so, yeah, sure. Even more surprising is how much it felt like a D&D adventure: a party (okay, just two guys) are assigned a quest, and they venture into the unknown to explore various strange locations and encounter various traps and enemies, collecting various items that become useful later. It's almost light-hearted, in a tense, fatalist way. Improbably, there's even a miniature love story. And singing. But, also, there is a lot of blood, dead bodies, dead animals, fire, and darkness. My only real quibble is that I was constantly snapping out of the spell to wonder "how the heck did they film that?" Not to mention running across both Moriarty and Sherlock.
Ford v Ferrari
This flew way under my radar, so much so that I wasn't even sure it wasn't about either a court case or a duel between two superheroes who just happened to be named after car companies. After the nominations were announced I just missed the last showing on its way out of local theaters, but luckily it came back (to the Arclight) in the week before the Oscars so I finally got to complete the set. Turns out it is literally about a car race between a Ford and a Ferrari (well technically teams of cars but whatever). And, sure, it's fine, staying squarely in the bounds of the usual underdog-triumph sports-movie tropes. The best thing about it is all the great mid-'60s garage-rock music on the soundtrack, which sadly is replaced midway by a pretty generic movie score. The worst thing about it is the way it glorifies all the ways that the protagonist American team cheats and plays dirty against those clueless Italians. And somehow Christian Bale's British accent manages to sound fake.
For the record, my favorites from 2018 were Black Panther, The Favourite, and Roma, but I didn't hate Green Book—it got kind of a bad rap.