Most right-leaning people don’t care about the Academy Awards. I know this because every Oscar night, I see a flurry of Facebook status updates and Twitter posts from my fellow conservatives boldly announcing their disinterest in the awards ceremony (often going out of their way to denounce liberal virtue signaling in a cringe-worthy display of irony).
The Oscars are not very well-regarded in film critic circles either. Many view it as an industry popularity contest in which, with rare exception, the mediocre studio offerings ultimately beat out the more influential and groundbreaking films. From “Citizen Kane” to “Apocalypse Now” to “Saving Private Ryan” to “The Social Network,” Oscar history is littered with unrewarded classics, leading people to wonder why an Academy Award is so important in the first place when it so regularly goes to films and performances of lesser quality.
I find the Oscars valuable mostly for academic purposes. The nominees and winners prove to be an interesting snapshot of their time. One need only look to the nominees from 1976 to get a picture of the changing American culture. “All the President’s Men,” Bound for Glory,” “Network,” and “Taxi Driver” – four films that turned a cynical eye toward the cultural landscape – lost to John G. Avildsen’s “Rocky,” an inspirational film that suggested the American dream was alive and well. The message was clear. After Vietnam and Watergate, the Academy seemed willing to acknowledge the divisions within the country while ultimately affirming its strength and inspiration.
This year has yielded an interesting crop of Best Picture nominees. Some are epic while others are intimate. Some are inspiring while others are cynical. It will be interesting to see what future Oscar historians are able to conclude about our current culture based on these nominees.
Ranked from worst to best – based on my own personal preferences, of course – these are the 2019 nominees for Best Picture.
Despite a truly remarkable performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Todd Philips’ “Joker” is a letdown. The film is directed with the gusto of somebody utterly convinced of his film’s importance, but whose every choice is as broad and obvious as a teenager’s one act play. A film that purports to explore mental illness, it instead exploits it, treating its main character’s sickness not as a genuine tragedy but as a way to morally subsidize his monstrous actions. Covering the well-trod ground of “Taxi Driver” and “Falling Down,” the film’s cliches are elevated by a committed and heartfelt performance from Phoenix, who proves once again that he is one of the most vital and exciting actors working today.
8. Ford v Ferrari
A rip-roaring good time from director James Mangold, “Ford v Ferrari” is a solidly-made – if overlong – film in the tradition of “Moneyball” and “The Martian.” Featuring enjoyable performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale, it’s a big budget mainstream American film for grown-ups that also contains subtle themes about uncompromising individualism in the face of corporate assimilation. To put it in car terms, it may not be flashy, but it is sturdy and reliable.
7. Jojo Rabbit
Director Taika Waititi dips his toe into the tumultuous waters of political satire and emerges with a film that is largely toothless but extremely endearing. With a refreshing manic energy and an appealing cast, Waititi tells the story of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a rabid young Nazi at the end of the war who is so dedicated to the cause that his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler himself. As the soldiers around him resign themselves to an eventual loss, Jojo befriends a young Jewish girl who forces him to question his entire belief system. What it lacks in edginess, it makes up for in heart.
Since his Oscar win twenty years ago for “American Beauty,” Sam Mendes has reinvented himself as a solid action director, having helmed the two most recent James Bond films. He brings those sensibilities to his real time World War I thriller “1917,” about two British soldiers crossing enemy lines to warn their fellow troops of an impending German trap. With virtuosic camerawork by the ever-exciting Roger Deakins, the film is a cinematic marvel. However, while this technical meticulousness is undeniably impressive, it can keep the viewer at arm’s length. Nonetheless, while so many movies fall into a predictable, by-the-numbers pattern, it’s nice to know there are still films like “1917” out there willing to be ambitious.
5. Little Women
It must be difficult adapting classic works of literature. Many such adaptations have a tendency to be stodgy and unengaging. Thankfully, Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is youthful and vibrant, bringing much-needed energy to Louisa May Alcott’s oft-adapted novel. With a likable ensemble of actors, including Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Timothee Chalamet, the film remains reverential to the original book while employing modern filmmaking techniques – such as non-linear editing – to make it relatable to the viewer. With now two solid films under her belt – 2017’s “Lady Bird” being her directorial debut – Greta Gerwig has emerged as refreshing new voice in filmmaking.
4. Marriage Story
It would be easy to watch Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and see it simply as a stagy, depressing family drama. It is those things, but it is also undeniably human, both in its goals and its execution. It does what too few films do these days; it approaches an all-too familiar aspect of our culture and asks why we’re all so comfortable with it. His story of a young couple’s divorce and bitter custody fight is told with the heartbreak that should accompany the dissolution of a marriage. In a country where divorce has become so commonplace, Baumbach – along with a stellar cast that includes Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson – chooses to reopen that wound to let the audience contemplate the daily tragedy that we’ve long since stopped mourning, but probably should.
3. The Irishman
For four decades now, Martin Scorsese’s mob films have crackled with exciting and dangerous energy. Scorsese always seemed more interested in recreating the sociopathic, ultraviolent appeal of the gangster lifestyle, choosing to leave the operatic tragedy to Francis Ford Coppola. With his new crime epic “The Irishman,” however, Scorsese has made a film that looks back at a life of crime with introspection and regret. Telling the story of real life mob enforcer Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his unlikely friendship with union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), “The Irishman” creates a sense of impending, inevitable doom. Gone is the gleeful, frat boy energy of “Goodfellas” or “Mean Streets”; Scorsese frames the events of Sheeran’s life with a tone of existential disgust. Not since Clint Eastwood made “Unforgiven” has a director worked so hard to recontextualize his previous work. A mature, somber, clear-eyed film from one of history’s best directors.
2. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino has always unapologetically told stories of lowlives and hitmen, underlining the appeal and coolness inherent in that lifestyle. The flashiness of his characters and dialogue has always been his hallmark. But, much like Scorsese, it would seem that Tarantino has chosen to look inward in 2019 and has, in turn, produced a film that is surprisingly meditative, and a bit melancholy. The story of an aging Hollywood star desperate for a comeback could be considered less-than-compelling to most Tarantino fans. But, set against the historical backdrop of the late 1960s and the imminent rise to prominence of Charles Manson, the film begins to take on the epic proportions suggested by its iconic title. In the end, the film is about the desperate, narcissistic, redemptive nature of art and its ability to provide a brief reprieve from the cold, brutal reality we inhabit. A beautiful, elegiac work from one of the unlikeliest of sources, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” marks an astonishing leap forward in Tarantino’s already-formidable career.
There is no perfection in art. How could there be? While concepts of aesthetic beauty, realistic fealty, and editing rhythms are tangible, the larger idea of emotional resonance is not. It’s all subjective. As such, critics tend not to use a word like “perfect” when describing a movie; it’s just too definitive. So when I write that Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is perfect, I recognize that it’s not a quantifiable term, but an instinctive one. Every choice that the director makes seems so complete in itself, yet such an intrinsic part of the larger whole, that it’s hard to discuss any single element of his film by itself. The deliberate editing and camerawork help to fully realize the story of a poor South Korean family meticulously infiltrating the home of a well-meaning rich family. This long con requires multiple layers of deceit, underneath which lies a deep-seated insecurity and fear, which the actors pull off beautifully. The film manages to operate as a thriller, a drama, and a comedy all at once, modulating these different components according to the requirements of each narrative beat. The final product is a film that is tremendously entertaining, coldly intelligent, and deeply emotional. It being a South Korean film, many Americans likely won’t watch it. Those who do, though, will be treated to a well-crafted, engaging film that, if not perfect, is still a genuine masterpiece.
So there you have it! My rankings of the Best Picture nominees. Of course, I can only rank the ones that are there. I’d gladly include “Uncut Gems,” “Ad Astra,” and “A Hidden Life” into the discussion, but I’m sadly prevented by the Academy from doing so. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty solid slate of films.
What are some of your favorite films of 2019? Whom are you rooting for – if anybody – at this year’s Oscars? Leave your comments below!