Oscars 2020 – Best Picture: Our Rundown

1917 – David Alkhed

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Since I’ve already reviewed this film just recently, I’m gonna try to not repeat myself too much here. But my thoughts on 1917 remains pretty much the same; an incredible technical achievement that is deserving of praise, but a surprisingly hollow film. It’s not like I think it’s a bad movie, I would still give it a 7 or 8 out of 10, but I think it’s a case where the bad stuff sticks out more or a case of me perhaps wanting to like a movie more than I actually do because I like the setting. In the end, I think Sam Mendes’ approach was more interesting in theory than in execution, and doesn’t rise to the occasion. And it also displays some of the lesser tendencies in Mendes’ filmmaking, in that it feels more like a piece of theatre than a piece of cinema. So in other words it’s got more to do with Revolutionary Road than with Road to Perdition. What I mean by this is that Revolutionary Road, an otherwise good movie, felt a little stagy at times and not particularly cinematic, whereas Road to Perdition manages to be both cinematic and very emotional. By shooting 1917 in one take, Mendes somehow makes it less cinematic than if it had been shot more traditionally, which I know wasn’t the intention but that’s how it came across to me anyways. That said, I want to say something which I couldn’t get across in my review, and that is that I think the best moment in the film is towards the end of the film when a platoon of soldiers impending their death listen to a soldier singing in the trees as the wind blows is almost Tarkovskian in its beauty. If only the rest of the film could’ve had that level of emotion about it I would’ve declared it a masterpiece, but I sadly can’t.

Ford v Ferrari – Amos Lamb

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James Mangold uses the surface level story of Ford v Ferrari to explore a modern conception of the American Dream and the resilience of blue collar workers in a really interesting way. Telling the real life story of Ken Miles’s 24-Hour Le Mans victory, with the help of his team of engineers & designers led by Carroll Shelby, Mangold not only creates a gripping sense of tension and intrigue through the story, but also uses some fantastically dynamic filming techniques to craft some high-octane racing sequences. Alongside frequent collaborator, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, the racing scenes are shot in such a way that gives them the frenetic and bombastic energy they require, without sacrificing the composition of the shots. Which leads to these gorgeous racing sequences that maintain the great shots and compositions of the slower, more poignant scenes in the film. Leading the film with two great performances, are Christian Bale & Matt Damon, as Miles & Shelby respectively, their characterisations and performances compliment and clash with each other in all the best ways possible. Both actors, who are two of the best contemporary actors of our time, are both on their A-game in this film, Matt Damon portrays a past-his prime Shelby grappling with his love for the sport, but lack of ability to compete so well, matching his characters passion with his hesitancy in a superb way. Whereas Christian Bale’s Ken Miles has a love and passion for the sport that veers into dangerous territory, which Bale performs expertly through the fiery intensity he brings. This creates a really interesting relationship between the two, as Damon’s character acts as a friend, colleague and ultimately mentor to Bale’s Miles. Surrounding these two main performances, the whole supporting cast gives really good performances; from Jon Bernthal, to Caitriona Balfe, to Remo Girone, these actors create memorable characters in their own right, all with memorable scenes that leave a lasting impression. With a bittersweet ending, Ford v Ferrari is very different from the other films nominated for Best Picture, but it stands firm on its own right as a solid film. 

The Irishman – David Alkhed

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One of the most fascinating aspects when looking at the career of American film director Martin Scorsese is that, in a way, his films are representative of the stage of his career at the time. Mean Streets is the work of a young punk rock’n’roller with a feverish obsession with cinema, Goodfellas is someone returning to the same world but through an adrenaline rush after a few lukewarm (yet exceptional) years, Casino is someone with all the glamour and excess of 1990s Hollywood at their feet and The Departed is someone making a solid crime feature in mid-2000s Hollywood. But if Mean Streets was a film that Scorsese could only have made at the tender age of 31, then The Irishman is most definitely a film that he could only have made at the age of 77. Mean Streets is about the everyday life of lowlife criminals, Goodfellas and Casino are about the excesses of a mob lifestyle and The Departed is about identity and the line between cops and criminals, but The Irishman is about death. All the characters are surrounded by death, as we both see depicted on screen but also on text that appears on screen describing their various demises. But Scorsese isn’t only doing this to show the emptiness of a criminal lifestyle but he simply wants to tell us that death comes for us all, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. By seeing these types of characters we’d normally see mostly in their youth played by younger actors, the fact that they’re played by the same actors throughout the film in their various ages somehow makes the point hit home even harder. So on top of being very funny and being very entertaining, it’s a very sad and existential film, and could perhaps, for me anyways, be Scorsese’s most thought-provoking and emotional film since Raging Bull. Perhaps the best way to describe my thoughts on The Irishman would be to quote a repeated line in the film: “it is what it is.” And it is a masterpiece.

Jojo Rabbit – Jacob Calta

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Taika Waititi brought forth a film in 2019 that I myself, and likely many others, were not expecting. Jojo Rabbit explores the twilight of the Third Reich, and the Second World War, through the eyes of a totally indoctrinated adolescent. It is a fascinating clash of tones. We find ourselves identifying with a child who believes in a reprehensible ideology, and simultaneously the “antagonist” of a Jewish girl stowed away in the walls of his own home. I fear this dichotomy alone will turn a few off, let alone Waititi’s own manic and buffoonish performance as Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.

And yet, this film works in such a beautiful way. A top-tier cast, including two of the finest youth performances in recent memory from Roman Griffin Davis and Archie Yates (Jojo Betzler and Yorki respectively), under the guidance of the veteran director bring the story to life in such a sweet, charming, yet earth-shattering way. There is a real earnest drama that contrasts the Wes Anderson-like flair with which the darkly satirical aspects of the film are presented. Bonus points for showcasing stunning turns from Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother, Rosie, and Thomasin McKenzie as the Jewish girl Elsa.

Between Mihai Mălaimare Jr’s marvelously composed camerawork and Michael Giacchino’s infectious score, Jojo Rabbit is stacked with talent to execute a story of a kind of redemption. I find it particularly fascinating that the film showcases a child’s worldview genuinely falling apart in the wake of so many things going wrong, concentrating the whole downfall of Hitler’s Germany in the mid-40s through Jojo’s life. The best way to understand the way this film functions comes from one of the most notorious creators of Nazi satire, one Mel Brooks. 

In 2001, he said in an interview, “I was never crazy about Hitler…If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win…That’s what they do so well: they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.” In my humble opinion, Waititi has accomplished such a feat with Jojo Rabbit

Joker – Jacob Calta 

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For all the media-manufactured controversy, divisiveness amongst critic and audiences alike, and its blunt, rough edges, Joker acts in much the same way as films like Dirty Harry or Death Wish; it puts a pulse on a certain element of the social conscious and resonates in a unique way for so many. From there, the audience is left wondering what to do with what has been shown.

Joaquin Phoenix is a tour de force as the titular antagonist-in-the-making. His alienation, physical degeneration, and subsequent surge into a macabre stardom are filled with nuances owed more to Phoenix than to the film’s screenplay. The physicality, the vocalization; Phoenix brought the troubled and tormented Arthur Fleck into the world of an equally disturbed Gotham intelligently.

The ideas it pulls from various films, ranging from the explicit influence of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy to the implicit similarities to films such as Death Wish, are all pulled together into an odd cocktail of narrative beats that, while fine on paper, really should have received some semblance of embellishment. In layman’s terms: Joker needed some rewrites to flesh out what is here.

However, amidst the tightly wound turn by Phoenix, the stunning camerawork by Lawrence Sher, and the haunting ambience of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, there exists a comic book film of an acute amorality that has rightly brought scorn and praise upon the film. The acts of Fleck in the final third of the picture are startling in their brutality and their irreverence. And yet, for all the qualms taken with the dialogue for the scene, Phoenix’s appearance on the talk show of Murray Franklin (played with incredible class by Robert DeNiro) is still chilling. It is a rage that is not unintelligible but is coming from a place of sympathetic simple-mindedness. The line “Nobody’s civil anymore” has lingered with me. It’s probably something you’ve said, your parents or relatives maybe, or possibly even friends. There is something universal about these sentiments, and to have the mouthpiece of them be such a horrifying character is a frightening concept.

What Joker has created is, as The Jacobin’s Eileen Jones has put it, “the perfect Rorschach inkblot.” There are so many things you can see in Joker, for better or for worst. Maybe you see an “involuntary celibate” who snaps, whose fragile ego has been so irreparably damaged, nihilistic criminality seems the only route to alleviate the pain. Maybe you see a troubled man with a dream who’s been kicked down for so long, he finally decides to kick back with the combined fury of all the physical attacks and mental torment he has been dealt over the years. Whatever you see, there is now doubt that Joker brought a dimension to commercial pop cinema that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.

Little Women – Amos Lamb

Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig's LITTLE WOMEN.

Following on from an impressive feature film debut with Lady Bird, director Greta Gerwig proved her nay-sayers wrong by delivering a simultaneously faithful & reinvigorating adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel. One of the many great choices Gerwig chose for this film when writing the script is the non-linear narrative; it creates these wonderful moments where Gerwig pairs the heartwarming with the heartbreaking, and instills a melancholy feeling of lost youth, that permeates throughout the film. Working with Gerwig on this film are her previous collaborators; Saorise Ronan & Timotheé Chalamet, who give great performances as Jo March & Laurie, respectively. But the rest of the main cast is fleshed out by a whole range of wonderful actresses like; Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern & Eliza Scanlen. All of whom give brilliant performances, and provide wonderful characterisation in their roles as the March sisters (and mother for Dern’s role). Pugh especially shines through as a very interesting contrast to Ronan’s Jo, but what I really love about this specific relationship is that Gerwig doesn’t pick a side between the two, they’re both presented as equally valid in their dreams and attitude to life. The production design and attention to detail in this film is amazing, all the costumes and sets feel like they’ve been lifted directly out of the time-period itself. Gerwig’s directorial style works so well with Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography, as they come together to create some gorgeous shots; despite seeing the film just after Christmas, scenes like both Beach sequences, and the wedding are so easy to recall from how those shots were composed and directed. It is more than clear that so much care and attention to detail was clearly put into this film by the crew, and it pays off in abundance. As the film matches the nostalgic heart of an American Classic, with a tinge of 21st Century cynicism, to create something that will stand as a tour de force in what I hope will be a long and fruitful career for Gerwig going forward. 

Marriage Story – Akram Herrak

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Noah Baumbach’s latest effort gives new meaning to the expression tour de force. It starts off with a beautifully painted image of a romance that revolves around acknowledging what makes one’s counterpart so special, then completely rips it apart, and us with it, and embarks on a journey of painful separation. The plot may be nothing revolutionary but the performances of a cast that consists of nothing but heavy weights gives it its devastating strength, especially those of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson (Laura Dern is also amazing in this). The scene that is most memorable, and the one everybody keeps discussing and complimenting, is the argument scene right in the middle of the film, a scene that reflects the different tones of the film and the transitions between them: Melancholy, anger, frustration, peace, and hope. 

Marriage Story is a very emotional film. Noah Baumbach crafted not only a stellar script with some of the most intricate dialogue of the year, but also two incredibly complex characters that feel very alive, and that, most importantly, feel extremely relatable. They do not develop through the story, they unravel, and as they clash, both in past and present, we see more of them, the existence of one, in their beautifully complex way, requires the existence of the other. The pacing of the film also greatly helps with how the two protagonists are portrayed, it constantly painfully shoots us from the bitter present to the sweet past, the transitions are seamless and often provide a much-welcomed change of pace. Even among this year’s nominees, most of which are notorious for their fatally intense blows, Marriage Story stands out as a devastatingly strong film, and one to not be missed. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Akram Herrak/Amos Lamb

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Quentin Tarantino at his best, portraying passion for film on film, with a lot of rock n’ roll, and a generous amount of feet. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was unexpectedly different than anything he has ever made before, and that, for me, made it his best work to date. It tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they explore 1969’s Hollywood and encounter alterations of people and events that happened during that time, the one about the Manson murders being the most interesting and the most fun (the film’s alteration, not the event itself, of course). The film is unusually meditative for Tarantino, we only see his usual blood-soaked style during the climax of the film, but this change of pace allows for a very reflective story that acts as a love letter to Tarantino’s home town and passions. Tarantino worked on this film for many years, originally planned to be a novel, and he even referred to it as Magnum Opus before it was officially named. So it’s no surprise that this film feels like Tarantino’s most personal and intimate film. The two leading stars are absolutely brilliant, both Dicaprio & Pitt give phenomenal performances both individually but also through their on-screen chemistry together. The two play off of each other so well, that their character’s friendship is infectious, leading to some amazing scenes like where the two watch TV together. The film itself looks gorgeous, with some great cinematography by Robert Richardson, who manages to capture the beauty of Los Angeles while also evoking the feeling of the time period. While it’s stunning throughout, one of the best examples of Richardson’s work in this film comes in the scene where we see the various neon lights of the city turn on; it’s easily one of the most beautifully shot sequences in the film and highlights his proficiency. Despite the divisive reception this film received upon release, there’s no doubt about the passion that went into this film, and will always stand out in Tarantino’s filmography because of it.

Parasite – Saorise Selway

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The fact is, is that Parasite is stupendously, amazingly good. In the UK at least 2020 has so far produced Uncut Gems, Parasite, The True History Of The Kelly Gang, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, and What Did Jack Do?, therefore, how bad can this year even really be when we ALREADY have multiple masterpieces. 

Parasite is a superbly acted, electrifyingly tense and exciting thriller with a really unique comic/tragic tone. Something a lot of people have noticed about Korean films is that they just don’t allow themselves to be one genre. Anyone who’s seen The Villainess or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance will know exactly what I mean. The thing about Parasite though is just that it just seems to constantly weave a lot of very unique tones together. It’s interesting that Bong Joon-ho’s last few movies, (Okja, Snowpeircer, The Host), have all been pretty broadly accessible blockbusters. It’s like he’s earned his chops, so now he can break on the market with this really strange arthouse thriller. 

The film has been revered for its shocking twists, which it has in spades, but the film never feels like it’s leading you up to a big reveal, they just happen. It’s structured a lot more like the unpeeling on an onion. The twists feel a lot less like twists, but they feel like Bong showing a new layer, a new nuance, to the film’s subtext. This is how I think the film gets away with its actually somewhat blaze attitude to its violence. It is by far the strangest film to get best picture nominations and it’s so clearly because even though the film is surprising and fresh and different and strange, you never feel like you’re in shaky hands. You feel like you’re being lead, purposefully, slowly, down a very long and winding pathway, and it leads you to an absolutely perfect conclusion. I mean it, an absolutely perfect conclusion. 

Parasite is a shock to the system, a sharp-eyed leap forward with absolute surety and clarity of purpose, and all the nincompoops both-sidesing the whole thing can absolutely fuck right off. 

You can also read our full reviews of some of these nominees here:

1917 (2019): A Highly Flawed Yet Ambitious War Epic

Little Women (2019): A Fresh Take on a Classic Story

Joker (2019): Please Don’t Give This Awards

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