After months of high-profile film festivals, flesh-pressing promotional events and rampant speculation, the final Infinity Stone of awards season will soon complete the gauntlet: the 92nd Academy Awards. Yes, the Oscars have arrived to slap the punctuation on the end of the season and usher in a new year of filmmaking. But on what note will this past year of cinema go out?
The 2020 Oscars sport nine Best Picture nominees, giving Academy members a full-length menu to choose from when bestowing immortal honors. Following Green Book‘s disappointing upset over Roma last year, the ceremony’s narrative sprawl has taken more twists and turns than the track at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (that’s a Ford v Ferrari joke for all you dads out there). Fair or not, both industry insiders and casual observers attach representative meaning to Best Picture contenders. Intentional or not, each winner provides insight into the mindset of Hollywood and the greater pop culture conversation.
These movies were manufactured to create conversation, so what would a win for each film actually say about Hollywood?
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Unlike years past, the presumptive Best Picture frontrunner doesn’t have many enemies. Sam Mendes’ voracious, immersive, and technically immaculate tale of World War I has generated no serious controversies to ignite Film Twitter nor drawn a series of scathing think pieces to dismantle its candidacy. That does not mean, however, that it has achieved unanimity in its campaign for support.
Many argue that 1917 is a thrilling, unnerving and ambitious swing that actualizes the horrors of war and provides audiences with a unique movie-going experience unparalleled among 2020’s contenders. The technical craftsmanship alone is worth the price of admission and a testament to the power of theatrical cinema in an age of streaming. Others counter that 1917 is a patched-together narrative excuse for a series of video game-like set pieces that is emotionally hollow, gimmicky, and a pale imitation of Christopher Nolan’s 2017 feature Dunkirk. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins display vivid imagination, yet hardly any emotional authenticity.
A win for 1917 would be a win for the Old Guard of Hollywood. The war genre has long been popular among the Academy’s mostly older, mostly white and mostly male voting body. Its victory would be the safe choice and, while not undeserving, a sign that the Academy has not changed to the degree that it likes to trumpet. The status quo would remain unchanged as a fascinating feat of flashy filmmaking is deemed a more valuable contribution to the form than a more intimately-focused human story.
The Irishman garnered more pre-release attention than any film in recent memory thanks to its legendary roster (Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci), carnivorous budget ($160 million), technological de-aging ambitions, and Netflix’s battle with theater chains. It was earmarked as a heavyweight contender long before it debuted a single frame of footage.
But hype is dangerous. It can launch you to new heights or send you careening out of control like a hot air balloon in gale force winds. The Irishman is not quite Scorsese’s magnum opus, as many hoped, and it has lost pole position in the Best Picture race as a result. That’s not to say it’s unworthy of the contest—its meditative and profound focus on regret is a thoughtful reminder that our choices in the present directly shape our future. It’s profound and melancholy even as it burrows into familiar thematic territory.
But the Academy has yet to fully come around to Netflix’s fire-hose approach to content (see: 2019’s Best Picture race). The Irishman has made up much-needed ground for the streamer in its quest for validation from the incumbent gatekeepers of cinema. Yet it remains at arm’s length from its true ambitions barring a stunning reversal this year.
Filmmaker Taika Waititi’s unique style isn’t so much recognizable as it is unmistakable. The proud weirdo, who has directed lovely smaller fare such as The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, is not the most immediate name you associate with Best Picture contenders. But here we are with the anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit, in which Waititi plays the imaginary friend version of Adolf Hitler to a little boy in Nazi Germany.
At its core, Jojo Rabbit is about empathy, especially in a time of hateful rhetoric. It’s a prescient message in today’s tumultuous political climate and it’s delivered in a uniquely packaged dramedy that favors optimism over cynicism. Yet critical conversation surrounding the film has been divided since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. There is a contingent of fans and critics who have taken issue with its light treatment of the Holocaust and labeled its good intentions as irresponsible.
Humanizing Nazis isn’t exactly a widely celebrated strategy and Jojo Rabbit‘s tonal shifts undercut its intended purpose at times. An unlikely win for Jojo Rabbit would be polarizing and immediately set off a cavalcade of arguments about intention vs. execution in cinema. But a victory here would signify a forward-thinking shift in Academy viewpoints, especially as it relates to comedy. Rarely is a film so unabashedly strange and humorous celebrated at this level.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino and his oeuvre will always stir up mixed reactions during awards season. His films are either the paragon of originality (or, at least, borrowed uniqueness) saturated with rich subtext or manipulative and indulgent flashes that fail to ignite like soggy driftwood, depending on who you ask.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sits right behind 1917 and alongside Parasite as a contender this year, but its momentum is tenuous. The rare critically acclaimed box office hit dropped all the way back in July, leaving voters an eternity to fall in love with the next cinematic flavor of the season. Many were also turned off with the film’s controversial depictions of Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee.
Yet Hollywood has persevered with a strong awards season performance. We all know how much the Academy loves a tale about the entertainment industry and Tarantino’s latest is viewed as an old-school, star-driven, adult-skewing Hollywood-set drama. A victory would swing the pendulum of power back in favor of the auteur—singular filmmakers continuing to thrive at a time when shared cinematic universes and blockbuster franchises have monopolized the minds of movie-goers. A self-indulgent victory perhaps, but a reassuring one in the age of IP.
Ah, Joker, the year’s most controversial, conversation-generating film that nonetheless leads all entrants in Oscar nominations this year with 11. A not-insignificant contingent of the critical community has painted Joker as this year’s Academy Awards villain in the vein of Green Book, Crash and American Beauty. Conversely, it is a worldwide box office smash hit with more than $1 billion in ticket sales and a much-needed departure from the standard on-screen comic book dynamic.
In reality, Joker is neither the incel-celebrating, violence-galvanizing threat to society nor the elevated masterpiece either side believes it to be. There are dozens of films with more dangerous messaging than that of the sad sack Arthur Fleck while there are dozens of films that deliver a better version of what Joker is aiming for (watch basically any Scorsese movie from the 1970s and ’80s).
Awarding Joker, a psychological character study masquerading as a superhero movie, the Best Picture nomination in a year of such eclectic and deserving challengers will further validate comic book material while alienating the Scorseses of the world. It’ll also open the doors for continued genre takeovers, which will have the benefit of supporting mid-budget dramas but the drawback of marrying the medium to comic book IP for the foreseeable future. There’s also the stark question of merit: does the verisimilitude of deepness suffices for real meaning? The subsequent discourse fallout will feel like rafting with a lacrosse stick.
Writer-director Bong Joon Ho expertly marries timely social themes about economic disparity with masterfully clear storytelling in this dilation of genres. What begins as a comedy soon devolves into a cutting social satire as the film alternatively entertains and uncomfortably obliterates like an NFL game with numerous head injuries.
Parasite has traversed the minefield of awards season with unmatched aplomb, drawing neither the controversy of Joker nor the negative backlash of 1917 or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though it might be a bit tone-deaf for members of Hollywood to champion a tale of class divide, it’s a starting point toward any semblance of progress.
Standing in Parasite‘s way is the stubborn reality that no foreign language film has ever won Best Picture. Should it do so, it will usher in a new era of Oscars voting in which a wider range of stories and creators receive time in the spotlight. Breaking barriers is not the Academy’s forte. But a win for Parasite could return Hollywood to the optimistic period that followed Moonlight‘s victory in which it felt that real change was on the horizon.
Noah Baumbach’s latest is a love story that revolves around an uncoupling rather that the standard boy-meet-girl formula. In starting with the relationship’s ending, Baumbach manages to invert the traditional smiles and celluloid conclusion for something more realistic and emotionally honest. What’s beautiful about Marriage Story is that it never ventures to condemn romance or the institution of marriage (though divorce law is certainly made out to be devastatingly vile). Instead, its primary ambition is to provide a snapshot of people at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. How we treat each other, especially in failure, helps to define who we really are.
Some have squabbled over whose “side” the film takes—Adam Driver’s Charlie or Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole—but the scoreboard deliberately reaches an even tie by the time the credits role. As far as Oscars controversy goes, this one is a rather minor kerfuffle.
Marriage Story differs from traditional Oscars winners in terms of scope and weight. The mundane lives and relative happiness of a small, white, middle-class American family is a comparatively smaller subject than, say, sexuality and identity (Moonlight) or institutional religious scandal (Spotlight). We often prematurely peg a film as “Oscar bait” if it meets certain criteria of what is generally accepted to be an “Oscar movie” i.e. adult-skewing dramas, period pieces, physical transformations, etc. Marriage Story is refreshingly normal and small-stakes and would help to dispel the idea of “Oscar bait” altogether.
Author Louisa May Alcott’s seminal 1868 novel has proven to be a timeless tale. Yet filmmaker Greta Gerwig boldly reinvents the story in her 2019 adaptation in a way in which her risky changes land as needed innovations in retrospect. The film’s multiple timelines sharpen each character’s individual growth and the empathy Gerwig shows to the entire cast of characters alters long-held perceptions. It also helps when Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep and Florence Pugh absolutely crush their respective roles in unison.
Much like Parasite, Little Women hasn’t generated a single iota of controversy or backlash. People plainly just enjoy this movie. But there isn’t that fevered fandom support behind it that other leading contenders possess and it’s a longshot to win Best Picture. Should it defy the odds, however, it would be the rare winner that unites voters in common acceptance. It would also become just the second Best Picture winner ever directed by a woman. The Academy sadly still lacks in diversity.
Ford v Ferrari
James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is a throwback to a simpler time in Hollywood. It’s an earth-bound, human drama led by two legit movie stars in Matt Damon and Christian Bale with nary a Jedi, alien or dinosaur to be found. It’s a wholly conventional ride, but one that excellently executes those conventions.
Ford v Ferrari is based on the remarkable true story of the visionary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and the fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Bale), who together battled corporate interference, the laws of physics, and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966.
It’s too much of a standard Dad flick to take home the top prize at the Oscars—that’s not a knock, just an acknowledgment that the Oscars tend to side with films that boast some worldly edginess. But an unexpected victory would be a rally cry for craftsman of Hollywood that support logistically and technically impressive filmmaking feats. If you haven’t seen Ford v Ferrari, its racing scenes are nothing short of scintillating.