For the second year in a row, I have managed to see every movie nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards before the ceremony, slated for February 9. Unlike last year, there is nothing like Vice or Bohemian Rhapsody that I actively dislike. Every one of this year’s Best Picture nominees is a movie I recommend. Are there movies that I think should be in this category that aren’t? Sure. Us and Avengers: Endgame are easily two of the best movies of the year, and I think their inclusion would have invigorated a lot of the awards discussion.
With that typed, here are my thoughts in regards to each of this year’s Best Picture nominees, starting from least deserving and ending with my choice for the movie I think should go home with the Oscar.
9. The Irishman
I was excited to see this. I’m a big fan of director Martin Scorsese, and this was listed as “in production” on his IMDB page for years. This was going to be his big reunion with not only Robert De Niro, but also Joe Pesci, two actors with whom he hadn’t worked in nearly a quarter century.
Unfortunately, my Facebook feed was littered with negative comments about the movie the second it was released on Netflix. Too long. Boring. Too slow. The de-aging technology is embarrassing. Not that any of these comments was going to deter me from seeing The Irishman. I just had to control how I was going to see it.
To me, movies made by masters like Martin Scorsese have to be approached respectfully. He doesn’t make movies with the intention of having them paused while you go to the washroom, or grab yourself a snack, or check your social media. I’m fortunate enough to live in Toronto, a city with a successful film festival which has its own building with its own cinemas operating separately from Cineplex. The month The Irishman was released, they launched a Scorsese retrospective, showing not only his latest, but his previous features throughout his career. I showed up, bought a ticket, went to the washroom, bought my popcorn and drink, took my seat, shut off my phone and watched the movie. I enjoyed it.
It’s not too long. Gone with the Wind, Titanic and Avengers: Endgame are three of the highest-grossing movies in history, and they’re all over three hours long. Each entry in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is around three hours long. You can focus your attention on a movie for more than three hours if you choose to. Yes, you can. Moviegoers have been doing it for decades. Scorsese’s previous Best Picture nominee, The Wolf of Wall Street, was three hours long. I don’t remember anybody complaining about the runtime. I think the difference is that The Irishman is being viewed through Netflix. People aren’t going out to a theatre to see it. People are watching it on their televisions or their computer screens, and that invites distractions they wouldn’t have in a theatre. Their phones are on. Their refrigerator may be calling out to them. There isn’t a row of people they have to climb over to get to the washroom. Scorsese doesn’t make movies for viewers only willing to devote part of their attention, and that’s why I think it was a mistake to release The Irishman through Netflix.
Having typed all that, I don’t think The Irishman comes close to representing Scorsese’s best work.
I think I may be a bigger Scorsese fan that most people. Anyone with even a passing interest in film can cite Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas as classics. I differ a little in that I think his forgotten 80s period produced some of his most daring, and some of my favourite, movies. King of Comedy, After Hours and The Last Temptation of Christ were seen as failures at the time, and the latter was seen as blasphemous, but I think time will be kind to them. However, even if I’m one of Scorsese’s most charitable fans, even I can’t ignore The Irishman’s flaws.
Robert De Niro is listed among the producers of this movie. Perhaps one of his conditions in producing this movie was that he get the starring role of mob enforcer Frank Sheeran. I don’t have a problem with that. De Niro is a legend. Perhaps another of his conditions was that Al Pacino get to play labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino is another acting legend. The only problem is that they are two of the most famous Italian-American actors of all time, and they are playing people of Irish and German descent respectively. There are times when people refer to Sheeran as being Irish, and I looked at De Niro who is unquestionably Italian, and I was momentarily taken out of the movie. The same thing happened when Hoffa would drop a derogatory slur against Italians, and I would look at Pacino’s Italian features. It may not have been the best idea to cast the film this way, even though I have no problem at all with De Niro and Pacino’s performances. Pacino, in particular, is very fun to watch and earned his nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
I also have to agree with the people who criticize this movie’s de-aging technology. For the most part, I do find it impressive, but it doesn’t always mask De Niro’s 76 years on this planet. The most egregious example is when Sheeran beats up a shop owner where his daughter was working. De Niro is playing a forty-year-old man in this scene, but moves like someone decades older. If they had cast a younger actor to play Sheeran at different points in his life, or used a stunt double for the fight scene and with the magic of motion-capture technology painted De Niro’s face on, that scene would have been more convincing.
Still, it’s another very good entry in Scorsese’s legendary filmography. It’s a powerful overview of the life of a man who placed his loyalty in the wrong hands. While he reaps rewards for it, in the end he pays a terrible price. While I have problems with the casting, it’s great to see De Niro, Pesci and Pacino sink their teeth into these meaty roles. The Irishman may not be remembered as one of Scorsese’s classics, but it’s well worth watching.
8. Ford v Ferrari
I’m not a car person. I appreciate their ability to take me from Point A to Point B, but I’m not overly fascinated with how they do it. I’ve never found cars, or speed, sexy. I have friends and relatives that do, and I’m happy for them. Having typed that, if a movie gets me invested in a subject matter for which I have no interest, it has to be doing something right.
Ford v Ferrari is the latest movie from James Mangold, who previously directed such gems as Logan, Walk the Line and Cop Land. His movies tend to be tough, unflinching and intense. He draws strong performances from his wonderful cast of actors, particularly Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas. It’s very surprising to me that Bale missed out on a nomination this year.
Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a popular race car driver who has left the sport due to his heart condition. Letts plays Henry Ford II, whose Ford Motor Company is at a low point and is seeking to get into racing as a way of raising his company’s profile. He seeks out Shelby to design the car, who recruits Ken Miles, played by Bale, to not only help him build it, but race it in Daytona and, climactically, Le Mans. Miles is a caustic and opinionated man who is better at pushing people away then drawing them to him. He makes an immediate enemy in Leo Beebe, one of Ford’s toadies played by Lucas, who takes every opportunity to try to wrest the project away from Shelby and Miles.
The main reason anyone would want to see this movie is for the racing, and Mangold makes it absolutely thrilling. These scenes had me squirming in my seat, and the actors did a fantastic job playing out the drama surrounding the race. Lucas is fantastic at playing the snake who never stops trying to undercut Shelby’s authority and screw Miles over, even when the race is at its peak. He is so despicable I actually flipped his on-screen image the bird.
What places Ford v Ferrari low on this list is its screenplay. Damon and Bale are given some wonderful monologues, but otherwise the script feels either butchered or haphazardly thrown together. There are too many scenes that happen off-screen. At one point, Miles is removed from the project, and Shelby tries to carry on without him, but there are too many mechanical errors leading to breakdowns on the track. We hear about that over a radio broadcast. Why not show us a scene? At another point we’re told that Beebe convinced Ford to have him oversee the project. Why not show us that in a scene? I don’t know if these scenes were originally written and then cut out for time, but these are bewildering creative choices. There are also characters, particularly Lee Iacocca, played by Jon Bernthal, who have a lot of screen time early on, but loiter awkwardly later with nothing to do. That seems like something that could have been remedied with another pass through the screenplay.
But, as I typed earlier, every film here is one I recommend. Some fans of Ford v Ferrari may find my criticisms nitpicky, and they may be right. It’s hard for me to watch movies without my writer hat on. This movie earned its place in this category with its talented cast, Mangold’s deft direction, and Phedon Papamichael’s camera work. In another year, this movie might have received more than four nominations (it’s also nominated for film editing, sound mixing and sound editing), but we’re blessed with a highly-competitive year.
I attribute this highly-competitive year for this crowd-favourite being so low on this list. It’s a great movie that has earned its acclaim, with its depiction of income inequality making its arrival on the scene very timely.
Parasite is the brainchild of writer/director Bong Joon-Ho and co-screenwriter Han Jin Wan. It opens on a basement apartment housing the Kims, a family of four scrambling for WiFi signals and whatever income they can muster from folding pizza boxes. The son, Ki-Woo, played by Choi Woo Shik, is referred by a friend to replace him as an English tutor for the daughter of a rich family. Ki-Woo lands the position, but the rich mother lets it slip that she is searching for an arts instructor for her son. Revealing his opportunistic streak, Ki-Woo mentions that he has a friend who studied in the United States that would be perfect for the job. He returns to the basement apartment and easily convinces his sister to pose as an arts instructor. It’s not long until all four members of the Kim family have infiltrated the rich family’s opulent home under false pretenses, going so far as to sabotage the livelihood of workers already employed there to do so.
However, this is only the first part of the movie, which is fun to watch, and loaded with humour. The rich family, named the Parks, are shockingly naïve, especially the mother, played by Cho Yeo Jong. She falls for every scheme the Kims pull, and because of the precarious circumstances in which the Kims live, and the excessive surroundings in which the Parks live, viewers can’t help but root for the poorer family to succeed.
But in stories like this, we know we don’t have long until the other shoe drops, and this is what causes Parasite to be as low as it is on this list.
Once all four Kims secure employment in the Park home, they quickly develop a false sense of security. The Parks all go away on a camping trip, leading the Kims to treat the mansion as their own. They lounge around a leave food everywhere, and I got an uneasy sense of déjà vu, since I’ve seen this set-up in episodes of Family Ties and Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Sure enough, Mother Park calls and says they’re returning early from the trip, and the Kims have to scramble to clean up and hide. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
Thankfully, there was another twist involving one of the workers the Kims displaced in their scheme. Once this worker disappears, Parasite shifts from class comedy to horror. Bong Joon-Ho maintains the theme of class conflict throughout, and makes masterful use of his settings, both the Park mansion and the Kims’ basement apartment. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, with a particularly great performance from Song Kang Ho as the patriarch of the Kim family, even if I don’t fully understand what motivated his shocking actions during Parasite’s climax.
I’ve seen Parasite singled out by many critics as the most deserving of the Best Picture, but I’m afraid there are six others I feel deserve it more.
This was the final Best Picture nominee I watched, and I only became aware of the movie’s existence in late December. I was in a pub watching the Toronto Maple Leafs with some friends, when the ad for 1917 came on the television.
“New videogame?” I guessed.
“No,” one of my friends shot back. “It’s a movie.”
My friends laughed at my inability to tell the difference between live actors and computer-generated ones, but I insisted that the footage looked digital. Having now seen the movie, I can say that 1917 is unquestionably an impressive feat of filmmaking, but there remains an air of digital assistance – perhaps not as much as I suspected from those television ads.
1917 is brought to us by Sam Mendes, who already has an Oscar for directing previous Best Picture winner American Beauty, and is also known for Skyfall and Spectre, two of my favourite James Bond films ever. As the title suggests, this movie takes place during the First World War. The production crew dug almost a mile of trench in a field in Scotland, and you can tell when watching the movie plenty of practical effects are used. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins went and walked around the Scottish fields months before filming began planning the shots and planting flags in the ground. Mendes began rehearsing with the actors six months before the first shooting date, so as to minimize too many lost takes. Clearly, 1917 was an enormous undertaking, but because this movie was inspired by Mendes’ grandfather Alfred who actually carried messages through No Man’s Land during the First World War, the director had a personal investment sparking the effort.
One of Mendes’ choices which made this such a challenging project was making the film appear to happen in a single camera shot, and I find his reasons compelling.
“Stories are nothing unless you’re emotionally engaged,” Mendes says. “You want an engagement with two characters for which you’re given very little exposition. You don’t really know who they are, and the one-shot technique allows you to live with them and breathe every breath. And that feeling of never seeing further than the characters, always being trapped in their immediate environment – that was a very important part of why we decided to shoot this way.”
I can certainly see how those are valid reasons for shooting 1917 in this manner, but I have to question whether we ended up with the intended result. With the camera following actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman so smoothly as they navigate their way through their hellscape, I couldn’t help but think of how similar this movement felt to depictions of war in videogames like Call of Duty or Hell Let Loose (a first-person shooter actually set in World War I). The truth is that this is not traditional feature film camera technique. A few movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Mike Figgis’ Timecode have used this continuous shot technique, but they’re such a rarity that it’s still seen as a novelty. Film audiences are accustomed to film language, which includes cuts and camera repositioning. 1917’s camera movement more closely resemble the digital first-person angle made famous in videogames like Doom and GoldenEye.
It wasn’t just the camera movement that made me think of videogames either – the story structure resembled a game’s script as well. MacKay and Chapman play Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake respectively. They get called into a meeting with their General, who tells them they have learned of sneak attack planned by the Germans for the next day, but their lines of communication with their fellow English soldiers have been severed. Schofield and Blake are ordered to hand deliver orders from their general to a commander far away on the opposite side of No Man’s Land. With their objectives given, they proceed to travel across dangerous territory from checkpoint to checkpoint. I couldn’t help but compare the experience to playing a videogame. I respect that 1917 is depicting actual historic events, but surely Mendes must have seen a videogame before.
Fortunately, I was shaken out of my videogame comparisons pretty quickly. 1917 doesn’t shy away from showing how horrific being a soldier in World War I was. It gripped me when I saw a soldier die, or when one of our protagonists was chased by an enemy soldier, or when he crawled over the corpses of dead soldiers to get to safety. It’s that level of visceral horror, more so than the single-shot trickery, that made 1917 an exceptional war movie – along with unforgettable moments like MacKay running through a flaming city in ruins, or coming upon a company of soldiers listening to a single voice singing “I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”
But there were still more aspects other than the smoothly following camera that made 1917 feel less real than it needed to be. At one point a soldier gets shot point blank, only to not only survive, but be able to run moments later. Even though he was shot from in front, his wound later on seems to be on the back of his neck. Our protagonist spends a section of the film in a river, but later on he digs a photograph out of his pocket, and not only is it dry, but the ink on the back of it is not smudged at all. I also have big questions about how quickly the earth passed around the sun as our soldiers carried out their mission. These may seem like nitpicks, and they are. These things to don’t prevent 1917 from being an engrossing cinematic experience. I have nothing but respect for everyone involved in this massive production, but I can’t help but call out the flaws when I see them.
War movies are often accused of glorifying warfare. I don’t think that criticism is always justified, but sometimes it is. I don’t think that criticism applies to 1917 either, however it does play up the heroism of the soldiers while never questioning whether or not the war was just. That’s fine – Mendes doesn’t have to make the movie I want, but I think this is a good opportunity for me to make a plea for a different kind of war movie – one I think society could greatly use right now.
As mentioned above, 1917 takes place during the First World War, a war I don’t think anyone today understands. People are aware that the war was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but there seem to be very few people who understand how that led to a World War. It’s worth noting that this war has still claimed more Canadian military casualties than any other. I would like a movie about World War I that questions why the war was needed. If we’re going to move forward as a culture and a people, we need to be able to question whether our young ancestors were sent into harm’s way for just reasons, so we don’t do it again.
5. Marriage Story
This is the only one of the Best Picture nominees I failed to see in a cinema. I watched it via Netflix with a friend on their very large television. It’s brought to us by Noah Baumbach, one of my favourite filmmakers working today. Like his previous efforts Greenberg and While We’re Young, Marriage Story is a small-seeming movie about interpersonal affairs, but he has clearly affected viewers more deeply than ever before with this effort.
I can’t imagine this movie starting off in a more powerful way. Adam Driver plays Charlie and Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole. (Both scored lead actor nominations for this movie.) They’re a married couple living in New York. He’s a theatre director and she’s an actress. They have a young son named Henry, played by Azhy Robinson. Marriage Story opens with a voice-over monologue from Charlie beginning with the phrase, “What I love about Nicole…” We see different scenes of Nicole going about her day, practicing her craft, while Charlie describes details about her in a way that only someone truly in love would. After Charlie’s monologue comes to an end, Nicole’s reciprocal monologue begins with the phrase, “What I love about Charlie…” It’s equally as intimate and lovely. It’s heartwarming in a way that honest artistic depictions of love are, and that makes what follows all the more crushing.
The next scene reveals that these declarations of love are part of a marriage counselling exercise. Even though we, the viewers, were just treated to it, Nicole is refusing to read hers aloud. She has made up her mind. She wants a divorce. Charlie is committed to making the dissolution of their marriage as amicable as possible, and to being the best father to Henry as possible. Nicole goes home to California, and quickly lands acting roles. When she mentions to a colleague her intention to divorce Charlie without getting lawyers involved, she is urged to contact Nora Fanshaw (an Oscar nominated performance from Laura Dern) one of the most aggressive divorce lawyers in the game. Fanshaw wins Nicole’s confidence, and everything changes.
Baumbach was inspired to write this screenplay from his own lived experience. His marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh came to an end in 2013. (He says she read the screenplay and liked it.) Based on Marriage Story, I can only surmise that Baumbach wishes they had kept the lawyers out of the proceedings. This movie is a complete indictment of the family law industry. What starts off as a sad yet amicable parting of ways gets perverted into an acrimonious schism, and it’s hard to see who benefits from it other than Charlie and Nicole’s lawyers.
Driver and Johansson landed two of the best roles of the year when they signed on for Marriage Story, and they made the most of the opportunity. The movie comes to a head when Charlie and Nicole finally meet without their lawyers. It’s glorious to see all of their issues come to the surface. Everything they’ve been repressing comes to the forefront. This is the type of scene of which actors dream. Both roles allow Driver and Johansson to stretch in ways we haven’t seen them before. Driver even sings “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. The movie seems to hold still while he does it, and I’m not sure what’s gained from putting it in, but he’s not bad.
It’s a beautifully constructed film. It’s clear that love still exists between Charlie and Nicole, but she has to move beyond the life he can provide for her so she can continue to grow, and it’s somewhere he’s unwilling to follow. Even as the divorce proceedings sink to their worst, we can still see how good they are together, and everyone watching has to be yearning for, somehow, their union to survive. Thankfully, Baumbach skirts the fairy-tale ending. Marriage Story is an honest and highly relatable portrayal of a crumbling partnership, and the result is bittersweet, just like real life.
4. Little Women
Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel has been adapted to both the big and small screens so many times, the appetite for a new version amongst studio heads must have been understandably limited. However, the goodwill Greta Gerwig generated with 2017’s Lady Bird gave her some leverage, and in Alcott’s dusty old tome she saw a vessel through which she could deliver her own voice. In a landscape where multiplexes are crowded with remakes and reboots made for no other reason than to suck in audiences attracted to the familiar, it’s fantastic to see an old story get retold for the right reason – the storyteller has something fresh to say.
For those unfamiliar with any version of Little Women, it follows the goings-on of the March family, which consists of sisters Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), along with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who has to raise the girls by herself while her husband is off fighting in the American Civil War. Unlike previous adaptations that hew close to the linear structure of Alcott’s novel, Gerwig has taken the liberty of deconstructing the book and reassembling it to hop back and forth between the years, allowing the narrative to dwell on the different issues the family encounters along the way. While I’ll admit this device confused me at first, and I was only able to figure out what was going on by using Ronan’s changing hairstyle as a guide, I did eventually become acclimatized to the film’s structure, and Gerwig managed some very powerful moments that would not have come about otherwise. The most obvious example to me is the reveal of Beth’s passing. With Gerwig’s deconstruction, she shows a scene of Jo unable to find Beth in her bed, so she runs down the stairs only to find her sister sitting up and comparatively healthy at the breakfast table with Marmee. Soon after Gerwig treats us to a similar scene of Jo unable to find Beth in her bed, then running down the stairs only to find Marmee alone and inconsolable at the breakfast table. The effect is absolutely devastating, not only for the grief Dern portrays, but the roller coaster of emotions Jo experiences throughout the course of her sister’s illness.
Gerwig has also purposely blurred the lines separating Louisa May Alcott and Jo March. Towards the end of the movie Jo is obsessively constructing a novel which is obviously Alcott’s Little Women, with the intention of presenting it to a publisher in New York named Mr. Dashwood (played by Tracy Letts, who, like Dern, did an exceptional job selecting their projects last year). Dashwood pressures Jo to change the ending so the heroine of the story gets married, which reflects what happened to Alcott in real life. She did not want Jo to get married, but under pressure from the publisher she dreamed up this older professor who was an intellectual match for Jo and they ended up husband and wife. Gerwig takes this and has fun with it, playing out Friedrich Bhaer’s courtship of Jo and the over-the-top happiness it brings to the Marches, then cutting suddenly to Dashwood’s satisfaction with Jo’s new ending for her novel.
While it’s sad that Jo has to concede to Dashwood and publish a novel that is less than true to her vision, she convinces her publisher that she owns the rights, and that goes to Gerwig’s main theme in this movie – the ability of women to stand on their own economically. That theme is played out even more explicitly in a scene where Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) visits Amy while she studies painting in Paris. They talk of love, and he contends that no one can control it; that it is something that must be left up to fate, just like all the poets wrote. She rejects that.
“Well. I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman,” Amy responds. “And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children they would belong to him not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.”
I don’t think men, historically, have appreciated how huge a factor economics have played in women’s decision to marry. It’s not something media have done a good job portraying throughout the centuries. A couple of years ago I read Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin, where the heroine married a rich older man under pressure from her aging father so to save the family business. I was struck by how unromantically Atwood wrote about the wedding and marriage, but I acknowledged that it was the truth for many women – that many didn’t marry for love, but for survival. Being unmarried was not an option.
The Academy Awards have once again become controversial this year, notably for having no female nominees in the Best Director category. I agree that Gerwig deserves to be included in that category this year. (I would give her Scorsese’s spot.) But the lack of women in the category is just a symptom of a larger problem. There have to be more opportunities for women to take the reins over big film productions. It’s happening, but slowly. And often when a woman does hold a position of power in media, she is subject to backlash. Look at Kathleen Kennedy, President of Lucasfilm, who produces the new Star Wars movies, or the immense amount of abuse Brie Larson received online for not only playing Captain Marvel, but for speaking to the lack of diversity among the film critics. Gerwig accomplished something amazing with her adaptation of Little Women; she took a 150 year old text and said something vital to 2020. I look forward to all of the statements she’ll make from this point onward.
Saturday Night Live’s Melissa Villaseñor recently sat at the “Weekend Update” desk and performed a little samba about this year’s Best Picture nominations, during which she dismissed two of the nominees as being products of “white male rage.” I found her position reductive, but I think I know how she got there. The Joker is a character from the past eighty years of Batman comics which, traditionally, are read by boys. For decades the characters in superhero comics have been overwhelmingly white. Both the predominantly male readership and the whiteness of characters is something that has been shifting in the comics medium over the last while, but that’s not the problem I have with Villaseñor’s samba. Joker is about something very serious that needs more attention paid to it: mental illness.
I can see how that point gets lost. The Joker is probably the most popular supervillain ever. There is such a mystique about him, as well as a complexity. He is bright and colourful on the outside, but he actually represents psychosis, malevolence and chaos. He works so well as an opposing force to Batman because he is his opposite in every way. Batman wears black and grey, is muscular, and is morally upright (or he should be). The Joker is a colourful clown, is rail thin, and cares nothing for morals or society. He just wants to see the world burn. The character’s legendary status was cemented by Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight, with many fans incorrectly saying the character drove him to fatal madness. So, with all this, I can see how the sheer size of the character may overpower the finer themes of director Todd Phillips’ Joker.
In an astounding performance, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, who has a condition where he breaks out into uncontrollable laughter in socially awkward situations. (He carries a card that reads “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition.”) His mental issues don’t even come close to ending there. He’s delusional, believing that entire life events happen to him when they don’t. Arthur needs a lot of professional help, but at the beginning of the movie he’s with a social worker who has bad news for him.
“They cut our funding,” she tells him. “They’re closing down our offices next week. The city’s cut funding across the board, social services is part of that. This is the last time we’ll be meeting. They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a shit about people like me either.”
Arthur asks her how he’s supposed to get by without his medication, but her only reply is, “I’m sorry, Arthur.”
When I saw that scene, I immediately thought of the American politicians whose response to every mass shooting is, “We need to do a better job addressing mental health,” but then vote to cut mental health resources. The sad fact is there are so many people who need help developing the mental resources to deal with the harshness of modern society, and this film is a powerful depiction of that.
It’s also an incredibly vivid one. I was astounded to find out that this film came from the director who brought us the Hangover movies, a series I never appreciated. (We already had Dude, Where’s My Car?, thank you very much.) Phillips has been accused over and over of just doing a fancy Scorsese imitation with this film, and he does go out of his way to pay homage to the master at times, but I have to give him full credit for the climactic scene.
Arthur is invited to appear on a late-night talk show, and he shows up in full Joker garb. Phillips switches from film look to a more garish television videotape look. This gives this scene an immediacy – as if it’s happening live. As the interview between Arthur and Robert De Niro’s Leno-esque talk show host grows more and more volatile, viewers can’t help but feel a sense of dread building in their guts, until the scene inevitably reaches a horrific explosion. It’s a truly nightmarish scene that does everything right.
But more than Phillips, Joker owes its success to Phoenix. He embodies Arthur with every twisted joint and tendon in his body. He has long been one of the most skilled actors in all of film, but I was not prepared for this performance’s thunderous impact. He is terrifying. He slams his head against walls. When he strives for acceptance only to get shot down, his rage is unnerving. It’s a note-perfect depiction of a mentally-ill person being denied the help they so desperately need.
Joker has gotten a lot of backlash, especially since it received its 11 Oscar nominations. It’s the only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees to rake in over a billion dollars at the global box office, and a lot of that is due to its pedigree as a DC Comics movie. As financially-successful as they are, comic book movies are subject to prejudice by people who don’t see them as “real cinema.” Black Panther’s nominations received similar backlash last year. While I don’t possess this prejudice against comic book movies, I wonder if the movie really needed to tie its story to Batman in the way that it did. When I look back at this movie, I really don’t see Arthur Fleck as the Joker I know so well from comic books and Batman: The Animated Series. I see him as his own unique character. I think this movie makes its rare stumbles when it’s going out of its way to bring in the Wayne family, and show us iconic Gotham City locales like Crime Alley and Arkham Asylum. I kind of wish they didn’t do that. Of course, if they didn’t, Joker would in no way have achieved the exposure and success that it did, so if box office is the goal, don’t listen to me. I’m just thinking of what a more honest film would look like.
Still, there weren’t many films that hit harder and were more visceral this year. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss Joker as “just another comic book movie,” or another product of “white male rage.” If you watch it with an open mind, you’ll not only see a towering performance from Phoenix, but you’ll see that it’s speaking to some incredibly important themes. If these themes are ignored, the problems depicted in movies like Joker will only grow worse.
2. Jojo Rabbit
I was nervous going into this one. It received a lot of buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a lot of my friends were singing its praises, but I still resisted, because I have a problem with Hitler humour.
The ads for Jojo Rabbit show its director Taika Waititi playing a cartoonish version of one of history’s greatest monsters, Adolf Hitler. On a rational level, I understand the human need to take a horrific event and turn it into a joke – you rob it of its power to continue to horrify you. However, I don’t think we should ever diminish the horror surrounding Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. I don’t think we should ever forget the level of evil of which the human species is capable.
Thankfully, Waititi seems to be on the same page as me, except he has way more guts.
Jojo Rabbit is the story of a young German boy, played by Roman Griffith Davis, during the Second World War. He has been completely indoctrinated by the Third Reich, to the point where he has made a cartoonish version of Adolf Hitler his imaginary friend. Waititi never portrays the historic Hitler, only the young Jojo’s imaginary version. The young boy is so drunk on the Nazi Kool-Aid – he is an active participant in the Hitler Youth and speaks of Jews as if they are sub-human monsters. He takes pride in spreading Nazi propaganda leaflets throughout his town.
Like the beginning of Little Women, I was somewhat confused at first. It took me a bit of time to realize that Waititi’s character existed only in Jojo’s imagination. It also took me a bit of time to figure out the character of Jojo’s mother, Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson (who landed a Supporting Actress nomination for Jojo Rabbit, giving her two nominations in one year, a rare feat). After her son suffers physical injury during a Hitler Youth training camp, she asks his commander, Captain Klenzendorf ,played by Sam Rockwell, to make him feel included, even flippantly inviting the Nazis to send him to war. She collects her son and, on the walk home, they pass by a row of dead people hanging from gallows in the town square. Rosie stops and looks at them. Jojo asks her what they did, and she replies, “They did what they could.”
That confused me. Was she a Nazi sympathizer or not? If she disapproved of the fascists, why was she allowing her son to take part in Nazi activities? It isn’t long before the movie makes it perfectly clear where Rosie stands. Jojo discovers a Jewish girl named Elsa living inside the walls of his house, and that his mother has taken it upon herself to hide her there. Horrified at first by what he found, Jojo is unwilling to confront his mother about it, but slowly gathers his courage to confront the Jewish girl head on.
Costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo gives Rosie a distinctive look, right down to a pair of brown and white lace-up shoes. As the film goes on, and Jojo’s feelings towards Elsa evolve, Rosie becomes more forthright in response to her son’s Nazi ramblings. Eventually the authorities come to suspect that Rosie is hiding a Jew in her house, and Waititi serves up a meticulously constructed scene where Jojo comes across his mother’s shoes one last time. That dialogue-free scene is prime evidence of what the medium of film is capable.
As the story progresses, Jojo’s relationship with his imaginary friend alters. Adolf’s polemics about the evils of the Jewish people grow less convincing to him. What he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t match up with what his eyes, ears and heart are showing him. At its core, that is what Jojo Rabbit is all about, unlearning the prejudice into which you’ve been indoctrinated. We live in politically fraught times, and we can all afford to do some examinations of the “truths” we accept as facts. We all have some prejudices we can afford to unlearn, and when we do, who knows how our lives will open up, and which enemies we’ll welcome to become our friends?
I have no idea how Waititi missed out on a Best Director nomination, but he deserves all the credit in the world for helming one of the gutsiest and boldest movies of the year. If you haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit, do yourself a favour and check it out.
And Dimetre would give the Oscar to… Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino is one of those filmmakers who will get me to a movie theatre on opening weekend with every new release, but it’s been a while since he released a movie I absolutely loved. That changed in 2019, and not in a way I expected.
Tarantino first won me over in 1994 with the release of Pulp Fiction. That movie gave me perhaps the most intense cinematic experience of my life. It’s a perfect cocktail of ultra-stylish dialogue, gratuitous violence and eclectic music, but it’s a cocktail no other filmmaker has been able to replicate, including Tarantino himself. His next features, From Dusk to Dawn and Jackie Brown, were fun but nothing of consequence. Then, after a long wait, Tarantino reemerged with a pair of films called Kill Bill, a glorious revenge fantasy built around a mind-blowing performance by Uma Thurman. A Kill Bill double feature is one of the greatest movie-watching evenings to which you can treat yourself. I absolutely adore those movies, but since then, he’s been hit and miss, even though his profile has remained high.
Grindhouse paired Tarantino’s Death Proof with Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror for a raucous double bill, and as kick-ass as Death Proof was, it suffered from Planet Terror’s idiotic camp. Then Tarantino won the Best Director Oscar for Inglorious Basterds, a movie everyone liked more than I did. It contained good scenes, but the parts never seemed to coalesce into a seamless whole. I enjoyed Django Unchained more, but then came The Hateful Eight, his most disappointing effort yet. Again, he had good scenes, but obviously he was in need of someone to tell him, “No, Quentin. The film is already overstuffed, and that scene needs to be cut.” So, with the memory of The Hateful Eight fresh in my head, I lined up on opening weekend last year and bought a ticket to Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. I ended up with a movie greater than I had any right to expect.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood shows a more mature Tarantino. Yes, he still seems to have a fetish for women’s bare feet, but he now seems more willing to relax and let his camera linger in a location. Like The Irishman, Tarantino’s latest has been criticized for being overlong. I wouldn’t shave a single frame from its two hours and 41 minutes. Because the film is so relaxed, I felt like I was able to immerse myself in the environments set up within the movie. I love it when I watch a movie and feel like I can navigate the world within it. One of the reasons I love Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo so much is because I feel like I know my way around the Spanish Mission. Similarly, after watching Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, I felt I knew my way around Cielo Drive and Spahn Ranch. Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson took the necessary amount of time to allow me to feel my way around the world they created. That allowed this movie to become the only one of the nine nominees I would call a truly great movie.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood has also been criticized for not being about anything, and I contend that it’s using the spectre of the Manson family and Sharon Tate as a way to generate an experience. Tarantino has made the movie to explore a Hollywood that was lost so long ago, an era that held so much promise but was scuttled in a gory massacre. This is a movie that’s light on story, but some of my favourite movies are. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 masterpiece The Passenger completely transformed the way I watch movies, yet it’s a very slow piece that’s light on plot. Similarly, Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director last year for Roma, which was an equally contemplative and relaxed exploration of its Mexican landscape, and one of the most celebrated films of 2018. Personally, I find that Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood shares the pacing of those masterpieces, but adds in Tarantino’s quirkiness and sense of transgression in a way that’s irresistible to me.
I typed about that scene in Jojo Rabbit that shows what can be done with film. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood does that with its entirety. This is a film that’s begging to be studied. Brad Pitt’s character’s dog is a prime lesson in set up and pay off. Enough can’t be said about Richardson’s cinematography. Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are both at their best in this movie. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is one for the ages. If you can’t find it in a cinema, then make sure to put aside the time, make yourself comfortable, lower the lights and rid yourself of all distractions. It’s a movie that invites you to lose yourself inside of it, as the greatest movies do.
All nine of these movies deserve to be celebrated, but Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood possesses a greatness that is truly rare. I hope the Oscars have brought it to the attention to a group of people it might not have found it otherwise, and that it changes the way some of them watch movies. I’m certain it has that power.