With two days to spare – and after many multi-movie nights – I finished watching the major Oscar nominees. Then I rushed some thoughts about the major categories into blog form. So apologies for any typos! And no apologies for controversial positions. Also, to be clear, these are not the movies that I necessarily think are going to win. I can never figure out the politics of this race. But they are my opinions about the ones that I think deserve to win.
This one is tough, but I think Adam Driver barely edges out Antonio Banderas for the best performance of the year. He did an incredibly consistent job of presenting a character who is always slightly disoriented by his crumbling but never out of control. Driver’s best talent, however, is his comedic timing. The razor scene felt like it had been transplanted from the Blake Edwards era.
Pain and Glory isn’t getting enough love. Maybe the Academy can only muster enough praise for one movie with subtitles per year. As a fading film director who is surprised to find glimmers of hope through the unexpected reconciliation of past traumas, Banderas gives the performance of his career.
Saiorse Ronan is in an every-other-year pattern. She was nominated for Best Actress in 2015 for Brooklyn, 2017 for Lady Bird, and 2019 for Little Women. This is the year she deserves it most. Under the direction of her collaborator Greta Gerwig – the pair is as perfect as the gold standard of Scorsese and DeNiro – Ronan gives us a profoundly interesting portrayal of a young woman learning how to be herself in a world that expects her to be otherwise.
Renee Zellweger seems to have the momentum in this category. She was good in Judy, but not great. Her performance was a bit monotonous, though a character trait of Judy Garland’s was that she was always performing her own character – on camera and off.
Best Supporting Actor
This is the toughest category, hands down. Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci are so great in their nominated roles that, in any other year – at least one where they weren’t competing against each other – they’d have the Oscar locked up.
But Brad Pitt was nothing less than mesmerizing in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His character, Cliff Booth, keeps us on our toes for nearly three hours because there are constant hints that he’s unpredictable and, maybe, dangerous. Or maybe he’s actually a loyal guy with a well-oriented moral compass. That tension is what makes the movie so compelling – and we get a clear enough answer about who he truly is in the end. The real injustice is that Pitt wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, because the movie was really his (just a bit) more than DiCaprio’s.
Best Supporting Actress*
And this was the weakest category. I haven’t heard name except Laura Dern’s mentioned for this award, but her performance in Marriage Story feels like it was recycled from her character on HBO’s Big Little Lies. She was much better in Little Women. Margot Robbie has one great scene in Bombshell, but her character is written to be an archetype rather than a person – and that comes across in the acting. Scarlett Johansson was brilliant in Jojo Rabbit. Her character’s empathy and warmth balanced the movie and authorized its absurdist other half. It was a stronger performance than her one in Marriage Story.
But the award should go to Florence Pugh. She’s about to be an A List star and she was excellent in Little Women. She stands out among her peers in this award category and had a commanding presence in a movie filled with great performances. Also, in a more just world, she would have been nominated for her even stronger leading role in Midsommar.
* Richard Jewell was out of theaters so quickly (and not available for streaming) that I didn’t get to see Kathy Bates’ performance. This annoys me greatly.
Roger Deakins is the most talented working cinematographer and seems like he’s got this award in the bag. But I wasn’t that impressed with his work on 1917. There are incredible shots – especially the night shots of the burning town – but the gimmick of the faux-single take limits the camera’s scope because the crew is always setting up the next sequence just out of frame. Deakins is a master of the long shot and he doesn’t have enough opportunities to employ it.
The best nominated cinematography – and it’s ridiculous that Parasite didn’t make the cut – is The Lighthouse. Every frame is exquisitely haunting. There’s a shot where Willem Dafoe opens the lantern pane is flooded with overwhelmingly brilliant light. It’s one of most visually stunning things ever put to film. Jarin Blaschke deserves this award.
Sam Mendes is a tremendously talented director. But 1917 was a safe movie, even in its ambitious production. It didn’t reveal anything new about war and the effect of a single tracking shot made the mission feel unreasonably manageable. Scorsese’s The Irishman was a massive labor of love and a spectacular accomplishment – a meditation on his own mortality and, perhaps, the futility of grand ambitions. Expectations for a Scorsese film are unfairly high. That’s because he’s set them so, and here, he delivers typical excellent and nothing more. Todd Phillips confused homage and plagiarism and made a Scorsese parody that wasn’t funny.
It’s a close call between Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon Ho. And as much as I love QT and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Bong Joon Ho deserves the award. With Parasite, he created something wholly original. It’s a sharp and wildly unpredictable movie that could have easily buckled under the weight of its own weirdness without a true visionary at the helm.
This category can have up to ten nominees and it makes no sense that the academy doesn’t just fill all of the available slots. This year, nine films were nominated. Pain and Glory wasn’t, but it should have been – especially since there was room for it. In fact, it should have replaced Joker, which isn’t even a good movie.
I could write for hours about this category. But then I would have to post this after the Oscars air, and it would be pointless. Instead, I’ll offer my rankings and a few thoughts.
9. Joker – This movie shouldn’t have been nominated for anything, unless the Academy wants to create a Worst Picture category.
8. Ford v Ferrari – Like Green Book, this is confidently made, feel good entertainment. It won’t be remembered as an example of great art, but that’s just fine.
7. 1917 – As I think more about this movie, I keep discovering new problems. Maybe I’m being unfairly critical – and don’t get me wrong, this is a very good movie – but the story feels oddly small. If the goal of the “single shot” approach is to create a heightened sense of realism, the effect is that the required technical gymnastics make the film seem more like a play.
6. Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach has a special skill for writing characters that say and do things that feel universally relatable, even if real humans rarely say or do those things.
5. The Irishman – Nothing feels unnecessary in this movie, which is a tremendous achievement considering its 3.5-hour runtime. If I have one small complaint, it’s that the supporting characters are all more interesting than the Irishman himself.
4. Jojo Rabbit – This will probably be the only escapist Nazi romp that ever gets nominated for Best Picture, but I can imagine that Taika Waititi will appear frequently in this category in the years ahead. “The clones need to be walked,” is the funniest and most dehumanizing things I’ve ever heard in a movie.
3. Little Women – This was in my second slot until two days ago, when I finally saw Parasite. It’s sweet and heartbreaking, fierce and funny.
2. Parasite – There is no other movie like this. It defies comparison and is a wickedly clever way to demonstrate the concept that there is always great suffering and desperation in the world that goes sadly unnoticed.
1. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – Every moment in this movie is a gift, but two things stand out the most. One is the Spahn Ranch sequence – an edge-of-your-seat horror vignette that unexpectedly shifts the tone of the movie in a matter of minutes. The other is the joyful final sequence, with its madcap graphic violence and cathartic cleansing of one of history’s most sinister moments.
- Daniel Craig deserved a Best Actor nomination for his work in Knives Out. Maybe even the award itself.
- Great Gerwig should have been nominated for Best Directing.
- Chris Cooper had two stellar performances in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Little Women. Can we give him a special award for being consistently great?
- John Lithgow should have been nominated for his role as Roger Ailes in Bombshell.
Okay, that’s it! Let’s see what happens.