And finally we come to the end of movie awards season with the ever-endless presentation of the Academy Awards by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which isn’t really an academy at all.
Once again this year there is no host, just a procession of presenters wearing some of the ugliest and most expensive outfits and hairdos ever invented. The best part is the jewelry that the women wear, which is largely borrowed from major jewelry distributors as part of the award for Best Publicity Scheme.
Now, on to the awards:
Best Picture: Let’s get right to the big one. Nine movies made the finals this year, which is probably too many. But it serves the purpose of getting people to the theaters (or to the streaming services) to see movies they missed the first time around.
The films with no chance include Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Marriage Story or Little Women. FvF features Christian Bale leaning left and right in the cockpit of race cars while Matt Damon adopts a southern accent and lets Bale steal their scenes. Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner – whoops, that was a Beatles song. The movie is a parody of Nazis, always a fun topic. It’s better than you think … but not as good as I had hoped. Marriage Story is a made-for-TV depress-a-thon about two show business people divorcing, another fun topic. Fine performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver can’t overcome a very “talky” script. Little Women was made by women for women and is the seventh iteration of Louisa May Alcott’s story of four sisters and their family. It’s a well done period piece with good acting but it is pretty boring.
That leaves the five that would have been nominated had this been the old days when only a handful were nominated:
Joker – Talk about “dark” stories, Joker is a comic book movie with no comic. Joaquin Phoenix is fabulous as the man who evolved into a psychotic killer. This isn’t the Caesar Romero Joker of the TV Batman series or even the Jack Nicholson movie version. The movie is the back story of how a misfit was mistreated by society and became the scourge of Gotham. Directed expertly and with fantastic production value, Joker probably won’t win but Phoenix will.
Parasite – The hardest movie to describe, Korea’s Parasite is a horror film, a class story, a comedy, and a thriller all in one. A poor family slowly infiltrates a rich family, which results in twists and turns where no one is all good or all bad. All you have to do is figure out who is the parasite. This is a foreign language film, which probably excludes it from serious consideration as Best Picture. But it is the “IT” picture of this past year.
The Irishman – A really good gangster film, The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s long-form story about a mobster, a mob boss, and Jimmy Hoffa. Starring three legends — Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino — The Irishman is a deep dive into the underworld. At 3 1/2 hours and developed for Netflix, this film is very long but expertly crafted. As the audience, you get to see the Director’s Cut and not a studio’s abbreviated version. It won’t win Best Picture but it is great to see these legends of film.
1917 – I think it will win. It is a massive war story that feels very personal as two soldiers are sent to the front lines to warn their brethren that they are headed into a trap. With amazing technical wizardry and a story that sucks you in and takes you to war, it is shot in a single action style that feels oh so real.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – This was my favorite film of the year. Quentin Tarantino produced a brilliant, realistic period piece about Hollywood at the time of the Manson murders. Leonardo DeCaprio and Brad Pitt highlight this fantastic buddy film about a has-been movie star and his stunt double that rewrites the history of its time in an entertaining and surprisingly not violent (for Tarantino) way. Nothing Hollywood likes better than a movie about itself. So it has a shot at winning.
Best Actress: Renee Zellweger has won this competition everywhere so she should win the Best Actress Oscar for her uncanny portrayal of Judy Garland in the disappointing Judy. Everything about her performance seemed genuine. There is no denying that she is perfect for the part. I, for one, couldn’t see any other actress playing Garland once I saw Zellweger.
For my money, Charlize Theron deserves to win this award for her portrayal of Megyn Kelly in Bombshell. Zellweger plays Garland; Theron IS Kelly. Amazing.
It is impossible not to be impressed with Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Harriet Tubman in Harriet. She is positively fantastic in chronicling this brave, pioneering abolitionist. But no one saw the film. Saoirse Ronan never gives a bad performance, and she is memorable as Jo March, the central character in Little Women. While she is only 25 years old, this is her fourth Oscar nomination. Wow, but she will lose again.
Finally, Scarlett Johansson is double nominated this year for Marriage Story and in the Supporting Actress category for Jojo Rabbit. That puts her in rare company. In Marriage Story, her performance is memorable but not much of a stretch. She plays an actress caught in a deteriorating marriage. But there is one monologue she delivers that is absolutely amazing. That alone might have gotten her this nomination.
Best Actor: Case closed. Joaquin Phoenix may be weird, enigmatic, and reclusive but he also is positively amazing in Joker. He has won every other award, and he will win here. He shows amazing range, a flair for craziness, and a willingness to be both solitary and flamboyant.
Leo is great in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but he is eclipsed by Brad Pitt and he has won this award before. Tarantino didn’t have to coax an excellent performance out of him, and his performance is more subtle than Phoenix.
Adam Driver wasn’t particularly special in Marriage Story compared to his performance in BlacKkKlansman. He plays a theatrical director whose goal is getting to Broadway while his favorite actress and wife seeks greater fame in Hollywood. He takes a backseat to Lady Scarlett here but is very deft and could surprise.
Jonathan Price was hand-selected by the studio to play Pope Francis in The Two Popes. He is almost perfect as the reluctant choice to follow the retiring Pope Benedict. This is a wonderful performance by a dedicated veteran who deserves his first Oscar nomination.
Finally, Antonio Banderas really shows off his acting chops in Pain and Glory, the Spanish film about an aging movie director who is asked to reunite with his former star to present a remastered version of one of his most famous films. His journey of rediscovery will either lead him to total destruction or rejuvenation. It is a nice nomination for a fine actor.
Best Supporting Actor – What a category this is: Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Brad Pitt. Every one of these performances is worthy.
Al Pacino has only won one Oscar out of his nine nominations. That’s a sin. As Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, he is more restrained than usual, which is a good thing. But he won’t win because this film hasn’t won much of anything. Likewise, Joe Pesci’s mob boss is memorable but this is not Goodfellas where he won the Oscar in his only other nomination. Both were Scorsese films. He won’t win for the same reason as Pacino plus they will split the votes for lovers of this movie.
Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict in The Two Popes opposite Jonathan Pryce. As usual, he is excellent, a touch understated, and reverential. The conversations they have are invented but the story is quite interesting, and these two actors pull it off beautifully. No Oscar but a fitting tribute to a five-time nominee with one previous win (for Silence of the Lambs). Hello Clarice.
That brings us down to Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt. Hanks, everyone’s favorite, is amazing as Fred Rogers in Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. He has the mannerisms and speech cadence down cold. It is a wonderful performance for a two-time Oscar winner who hadn’t been nominated in 19 years. The nomination is recognition enough.
That leaves Brad Pitt as the winner. He is so laid back and perfect in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that you couldn’t see any other actor playing this part. Part sage, part airhead, Pitt is the perfect complement to DeCaprio in a Tarantino film. Bravo!
Best Supporting Actress – This is the category that has provided the most surprises over the years. This year, it seems that all of the other awards organizations have anointed Laura Dern the hands-down winner. Her performance in Marriage Story plays a bit against type as she portrays the ruthless lawyer handling Scarlett Johansson’s character’s divorce. You will hate her almost from the moment you meet her. She deserves the Oscar.
Kathy Bates was riveting as Richard Jewell’s mother in … wait for it … Richard Jewell. She is supportive, loving, and destroyed by the accusations about her coddled son. Margot Robbie played a fictional character in Bombshell, which took away from her performance from my perspective. As a cunning accomplice who became a victim, she was quite believable but just wasn’t in the same league as Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman.
Scarlett Johansson was flighty and smart in Jojo Rabbit, a character I haven’t seen her play before. While teaching her Nazi-loving son the realities of the world while harboring a Jewish girl inside the walls of her house, Rosie (her character) isn’t on screen much but made a bigger impression on me than Johansson’s self-absorbed character in Marriage Story. She could sneak up in this category in this consolation prize for not getting Best Actress.
Florence Pugh is the prototypical upsetter in this category this year. She played Amy March in Little Women in what I thought was a forgettable performance. Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Laura Dern outperformed her by a large margin, in my opinion.
Best Director – Talk about wide open categories. I can make a case for each of the nominees. Todd Phillips won the Director’s Guild award for his stunning work on Joker. This acknowledges his exceptional blend of character and dark Gotham setting plus his ability to coax a performance of a lifetime out of Joaquin Phoenix. He is the favorite in this category but not my first choice.
Martin Scorsese is the dean of Hollywood directors. The Irishman is a big achievement for Marty, getting the chance to produce a 3 1/2 hour epic. But what he gains in character development by going that long, he loses in audience entrancement. Everyone will bow to Marty’s expertise but not give him the Best Director award, which he has won only once (for The Departed) before in eight previous nominations.
I am pulling for Quentin Tarantino for his amazing recreation of Hollywood in the late 1960s. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is so creative and so nostalgic that it makes you care about the characters and the times. Tarantino dialed his own violent instincts back yet made the movie so absurd (see: flamethrower) and enjoyable that I just marveled. It may hurt that Tarantino seems so lacking in humility but he has been nominated three times for the directing Oscar but has not won. His two Oscars are for writing Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction.
For director Bong Joon-ho, Parasite was considered a comeback after his well-reviewed 2013 film Snowpiercer. The story is very complex and (perhaps) socially relevant. But the direction moves from comedy to drama to mystery to horror, creating a riveting character study. It is not unusual for foreign language film directors to win this category without the movie winning Best Picture. Thus, Bong Joon-ho may pull off the upset here.
Sam Mendes created the most complex technical film of the year: 1917. With legendary director of photography Roger Deakins, he created a movie that puts the audience on the battleground while making this “big” film feel very personal. It isn’t the best war film you have ever seen but it is a technical triumph. This is a great period piece that keeps you on the edge of your chair, which is no small task for a movie set in World War I.
Other categories — I already sent out my thoughts on Live Action Short Films. I really liked four of the five nominated movies. While I would choose the only English-speaking film, The Neighbors’ Window, I think the winner will be the highly relevant film, Saria, the story of girls in an orphanage in Guatemala.
I haven’t seen all of the Foreign Language films nominated. But that doesn’t matter because Parasite will win.
Even though I spent much of my career writing and have seen all of the nominated films, I rarely try to guess the winners of Original Screenplay or Adapted Screenplay. The original screenplays include Parasite, Marriage Story, Knives Out, 1917, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I am hoping that Tarantino wins in this category. Noah Baumbach wrote a dialog-heavy film in Marriage Story so he could win. But this is a logical place for the Academy to reward Parasite writer/director Bong Joon-ho, who won the Writers Guild Award.
In the adapted film category is Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, The Irishman, Joker, and The Two Popes. Jojo Rabbit writer Taika Waititi won the Writers Guild award and he should win here, too. It certainly was the most creative script of the year. My long shot would be Two Popes’ writer Anthony McCarten but he wasn’t even nominated by the Writers Guild.