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Quest for the Best (Picture): 2020 edition

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An annual feature of More to Come is my take on the movies nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar. However, it wasn’t until the 2019 Academy Awards show that I saw all of the nominees for the year in question. I was determined to do it again in 2020, and as of late yesterday evening, I’m pleased to say, “Mission Accomplished!”

I always remind readers that I make no claims to be a movie critic. These are personal views without any understanding of the nuances of filmmaking and without a deep well of knowledge of the movies of the late 20th and early 21st century. (I’ve come late to the joys of film.)

There is usually at least one movie I really loved that didn’t make the cut, and that’s the case again in 2020. I thought filming Aretha Franklin—at the height of her musical powers in 1972—singing 90 minutes of gospel music in a black Baptist church in Los Angeles, was transcendent cinema. As I wrote in my initial review of Amazing Grace, you have that voice, which is a national treasure, so what else do you need? But documentaries are not going to be considered for Best Picture awards.

As for other films that didn’t make the cut, I very much enjoyed The Farewell, would see it again, and would have ranked it high in the Best Picture category against the other competition. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Also, I loved A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This story of children’s television star Fred Rogers is a well-made and well-directed movie about an uplifting theme, focused on a hero that we desperately need in these times, and starring one of our most beloved actors of the era. While neither may be the year’s “best” picture, they are—spoiler alert—much more satisfying than Joker. I also found The Last Black Man in San Francisco to be a very thoughtful film, but I’m not arguing that it should have made the list.

(First Intermission: I apologize up front for the length of this post. The only thing longer is The Irishman. More on that in a bit. I usually break these reviews into 2-3 posts, but the fact that I saw five in the last seven days—all on the big screen, no less—pushed me to place all my reviews in this one post. However, the last week of binge movie watching was a lot of fun and made all the movies fresh in my mind, so I’m not too sorry about the length.*)

This was a tough year to pick a winner, as there were several very good films but no obvious standout for me. Plus, these movies were all over the place. However, three of the films separated themselves from the pack, so I’ll start with this top tier. And, much to my surprise, the ranking of those three changed with the movie I watched last evening.

The Irishman Movie Poster
My choice for Best Picture: The Irishman

I wasn’t sure how I was going to respond to The Irishmanother than assuming I would squirm (and worse) through the 3 hours and 29 minutes of runtime. But I was captivated right from the beginning and remained engrossed all the way until the end of Martin Scorsese’s mobster epic. The Irishman is a finely crafted character study of hit man Frank Sheeran—played in an incredible performance by Robert De Niro—who looks back on the choices he made that shattered his life and that of his family and friends.

De Niro, Al Pacino as the charismatic and temperamental Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as the ruthless and ruthlessly efficient crime boss Russell Bufalino are naturals for these roles. The immense talent both in front of and behind the camera comes through with every shot and scene. The movie also has excellent supporting actors as well, and I was especially taken with Kathrine Narducci as mob wife Carrie Bufalino, Ray Romano as Russell’s son Bill Bufalino, and Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter Peggy Sheeran. It is her estrangement from her father—with the final break coming after a gripping few seconds of locked eyes as the news of her beloved “Uncle Jimmy” Hoffa’s disappearance is announced on the news—that tears at Frank for the rest of his life.

The last forty-five minutes of the movie, when we are shown more of how Frank came to be telling this story, is a moving look at the end of life and how choices can lead to moral isolation that is crushing in its effect. This is clearly a film Scorsese wanted to make at this point in his life. And that final coda made the length not only bearable, but absolutely necessary.

Since someone has to win Best Picture, I’m going with The Irishman. I could happily support either of the next two on the list, but Scorsese has made a film that brings together so many pieces from his illustrious career and, I believe, will stand the test of time.

Parasite movie poster
Movie poster from “Parasite”

Before seeing The Irishman, my vote for Best Picture was headed toward Parasite, a strange dark comedy out of South Korea that is more than worthy of the Oscar. The story of the intertwined lives of the poor Kim and wealthy Park families is full of unexpected twists and turns, right down to the end. The contrast between the city slums where the Kim’s live and the Park’s beautiful architect-designed house hits at the inequality that is at the heart of this story. It also reminds you of how so many of us have no idea how others live and survive.

The ensemble acting in Parasite is very strong, and I appreciated how all the characters played off each other to great effect. The first half of the movie is a classic heist film, and you’re watching in fascination, wondering if the Kim family will get away with it. However, Parasite isn’t really a clash of classes (although many have suggested that it is), as the wealthy Park family are generally sympathetic characters and the Kim family certainly acts like a bunch of rogues. As the movie twists towards its unexpected, and unexpectedly violent, ending, the story of the suffocating nature of the system, and how it drives all of us into becoming parasites, pushes the viewer to think about uncomfortable issues. In spite of the fact that the ending violence is Tarantino-like, it seems to have more of a point within the movie as a whole. Parasite is, in my view, a terrific piece of film craft and I would recommend it highly.

I’ll note that the Academy had the chance to do the right thing last year. I picked what should have been the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture award in tapping Roma in my wrap-up before the awards ceremony. Alas, the Academy went with the safe—and not very good— buddy film Green Book. Maybe they’ll right that wrong this year. Of course, it may be best to remember what the director Bong Joon-ho has said: “’The Oscars are not an international film festival,’ he said airily when quizzed on the subject. ‘They’re very local.’”

1917 movie poster

Also high on my list is 1917. This story of two soldiers tasked with stopping a battalion’s march into a death trap during World War I grabs you right from the beginning and never lets go. We’re each pulled along with nary a chance to catch our breath. Much has been written, appropriately, about the “one-shot” filming technique to let you see the story as through the eyes of a soldier, and that perspective keeps you riveted. The depiction of the trench warfare of World War I was effective and gripping from an emotional perspective. We’ve seen so many movies about World War II and Vietnam, but many people do not know as much about this earlier conflict which set the world on a path of endless war. Without going into which side was right or wrong, the film, to me, focuses on the general horrors of war.

In that vein, I was also taken by how young our two heroes are, and how much we’ve sacrificed our youth for stupid ideology and power. 1917 reminded me again of how modern warfare began during the American Civil War, but the level of brutality and slaughter really came of age in the second decade of the 20th century. I also recommend this movie as one not to miss.

Following the top tier, I have bunched three other movies closely together in the middle. They are very different, all have problems, and while perhaps not Best Picture quality they are very good nonetheless. The order of these three could be picked out of a hat, from my perspective.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ford vs. Ferrari. I’ve never been a big car enthusiast, and I certainly do not follow auto racing as a sport. However, many reviewers commented that this was a classic “Dad movie,” so perhaps I liked it because I clearly fall into that category.

But seriously, there is so much to admire in this movie, beginning with Christian Bale, who plays the British-born race-car driver Ken Miles. Is there anyone Bale cannot play? (Trick question. The answer is no. Just look at his list of credits. I’m still amazed that this is the same actor who played Dick Chaney last year in Vice.) Bale and Matt Damon, who plays American race-car designer Carroll Shelby, have great chemistry throughout the film. Tracy Letts, as Henry Ford II, is another terrific addition to what makes this film work, as his insecurities come through the bluster. One of the best scenes I’ve viewed all year is when Shelby takes Ford (or The Deuce, as he’s called) out for a wild ride in the race car they are developing. After being scared out of his wits, the car stops and Ford cries for what seems like an eternity, and you wonder if the tears are of fear or joy. (Spoiler alert: they are both.) Oh, and did I mention the incredible race car scenes. While the ending is a bit weak (this is based on a real-life story, so you can Google it to see what happens), this is an excellent movie which I highly recommend. I’m glad I got to watch this in the theatre on the big screen. (Did I mention the race scenes are grip-your-seat good?!)

Little Women movie poster
Movie poster for Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Little Women probably won’t win Best Picture, but perhaps it should. It is a top notch film that tells a story which resonates beyond the 19th century setting. Full disclosure: I’ve never read the novel. However, I quickly picked up the story line and most of the time switches, and found it all very satisfying. Gerwig’s direction was superb, and yet she was inexplicably left out of the running for Best Director. That’s a shame, as her directorial choices here made this movie, much as they did with Lady Bird, another terrific film. I really enjoy the perspective women directors bring to their films and want to see more. And can I just say that the Academy is too damn white male dominated (and that’s coming from a white male)?

Saoirse Ronan as Jo Marsh, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Laura Dern as their mother Marmee shine throughout the two hours. Like Parasite, this entire ensemble works well together. The ending is surprising (which is a good thing) and, apparently, can be read in multiple ways depending on your perspective and knowledge of the book. For those who have read the book and seen the earlier movie adaptations, I can only call out the strong reviews from your peers. Highly recommended.

Jojo Rabbit is good but not great, and I place it this high with some trepidation. I generally do not like Nazi comedies, even when well done, but this movie seems to be less about Nazi’s in particular and more about hate. In fact, the movie bills itself as an anti-hate satire, and that strikes me as appropriate. Yet, the reality of the brutality of Nazi Germany—and the fact that so many Americans are now following a leader with strong authoritarian tendencies—strikes me as topics requiring more serious thought. You don’t get that type of reflection until the second half of the movie, when Jojo has to confront his own losses (as well as those of others). Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo is just about the cutest kid imaginable, and he does a great job with this part. Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother Rosie, and Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa Korr, a Jewish girl whom Rosie hides in her home, are also excellent. When one reviewer said this movie has a Wes Anderson vibe, I agreed completely. I love Wes Anderson movies, so this one comes recommended.

(Second intermission: I apologize at this point for the rants I’m about to make. I’m not a movie critic, but I do have opinions. Of course, opinions are like noses, in that everyone has them.**)

Marriage Storyfor me, has too many flaws to be a serious Best Picture contender. It is not a bad movie, just one that seems a little sloppy in the execution and too male-centric (there’s that vibe again), to merit serious consideration. First, let’s talk about what’s good in this movie. My first star vote goes to every scene where Laura Dern plays Nora, the divorce lawyer. She just takes over the screen when she’s involved. In fact, all three divorce lawyers—the husband goes through two, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta—are excellent. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, as Nicole and Charlie, the artistic couple living in New York City with their eight-year old son, are also excellent. So, there is a good bit to like.

The film lost me, however, in several ways.

First, it is sloppy. Who flies back and forth between LA and New York with a pocket knife on their key ring? Answer: No one…except, apparently Charlie who must have bribed the TSA agent with a lot of money. It doesn’t help that the knife plays a key role at one point in the film. Also, who still puts an eight-year-old kid in a car seat? Answer: Very few people.*** The child would have to be very small…so why is the car seat another big thing at one point in the film? And what is it with an eight-year-old who can barely read and has potty issues? I’ll just say that the child, Henry, doesn’t seem believable in this movie. He’s a device for the screenwriter, and the fact that he goes back and forth in terms of abilities and basic life skills is just plain frustrating.

On a more fundamental level, I have to agree with those who see this as another film about a man-child working his way through the horrors of divorce, while his equally talented wife has to cover for him with the child, family, friends, and others. One reviewer mentioned that Charlie gets to work through all his emotions on screen while Nicole’s character—with the exception of one very-moving monologue in Nora’s office—is written in a way where she’s either already dealt with her emotional challenges brought on by the separation, or has to hide them while Charlie gets to rant. I thought this movie, had it been written from a woman’s perspective, would have been very different and probably more satisfying for me. And while neither of the songs from Company at the end of the movie work for me (Nicole sings “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”), I especially found Charlie’s version of “Being Alive” hard to take. It just seemed so manufactured.

So I guess that I thought this movie was okay, but just not of the quality of many of the other nominees.

Finally, I have two films at the bottom of my list, but the order surprised me.

After seeing Inglourious Basterds several years ago, I have avoided (boycotted perhaps) Quentin Tarantino movies. I find them childish on one level and I really don’t like the bloody revenge fantasies that appropriate the pain of others for his box-office glory. Plus, the guy is a one-trick pony. Something bothering you that happened in the past? Nazi Germany? Slavery? The Manson murders? Well, just conjure up some fake history (which we have quite enough of now coming out of a certain residence in Washington) to change the outcome. Oh, and did I mention that Tarantino is a terrible misogynist?

Still, with all that, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood was better than my low bar expectations. Not great, but better than I would have predicted. First of all, the music from 1969 is incredible. And I get that everyone likes to watch Brad Pitt take off his shirt and shake out his hair (some of us just to go, “Damn…how does anyone look that good?”) and he does some fine acting in this movie (besides just playing “being Brad Pitt”). He really is good in this role as the aging stuntman. Leonardo DiCaprio as the washed-up actor Rick Dalton is a perfect match with Pitt, who plays his long-time body-double in the movie. Margaret Qualley, as one of the “Manson girls,” is also excellent. However, we don’t learn much about them as a group, and we certainly don’t explore the fact that they were brainwashed and victims of a sexual predator. I still don’t recommend the movie, but I didn’t go running out the door and I also thought parts of it were very good. And I understand that some people say that Tarantino is playing 12-dimensional chess and is making a great statement about how the movies always turn to violence to defeat evil and violence…but I’m not one of them.

However, I went into my reviews of this year’s nominees assuming nothing would rank lower than Once Upon a Time. Man, was I wrong!

Take Joker. Yes, please, just take it. There is no way this movie should be anywhere near the Best Picture award. Do we really need an origin story for a cartoon villain that tries so, so hard to be Taxi Driver but ends up looking like the lead actor and director just sat around and said, “what little vignette can we film that will take off on the internet?” I get it that some will say that Joaquin Phoenix gives an amazing performance, but it did not work for me. And as some have said, this movie isn’t nearly as edgy as it seems to think. There’s a lot worse just on the internet and in the news.

I agree with the reviewer who asserted that the Oscar the Grouch parody from Saturday Night Live tells you everything you need to know about how serious to take this movie.  And the SNL parody only takes three minutes instead of two hours. I’m just not going to say more. This was a terrible movie and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

So there you have it. If my luck holds, Joker will win all 11 categories for which it is nominated. And the wonderful movies I love—often made by women or looking at things in life other than violence—will end up getting no love from the Academy at the end of the night.

Oh well. C’est la vie.

More to come…

DJB

*I want to call out the wonderful decision of Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema to show all the Best Picture nominees in the 10 days or so before the Awards show, all for $5 each and with NO previews. Between our Landmark cinemas in DC and Maryland, as well as AFI Silver, we are well-served with thoughtful movie options all year long. Thank you!

**If you have something serious to say about my take on these last three (or any of the others), feel free to do so. But don’t try trolling me. This is especially true of those who love Joker. I get to approve all comments, and I’m sure I’ve already blocked worse trolls. So don’t waste your time (or mine).

***UPDATE: A careful reader came back and said his adult daughter had pointed out that the recommendations on car seats from the American Pediatrics Association had changed since I was dealing with them back in the 1990s. And there is some truth to that. The APA indicates that weight is what drives the decision about when to move from a car seat to a booster seat, so — at first I thought I was completely wrong on this point. Then I read more closely, and the APA said that booster seats are generally used for children ages 8-12. Ah ha! The filmmakers were clearly using a big car seat and not a booster! So I’m going to take points for being, perhaps, half-right. In any event, it didn’t change my perception of the movie.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Observation From…The City of the Future | More to Come...

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