Soul (Review)

Soul

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Pete Docter 
Starring: (voices of) Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi 
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 100 mins

Soul is the second of two Pixar offerings this year, having meant to have originally release back in June but Disney witheld the film and have now chose to debut it on their Disney+ platform. Onward was their first and unfortunately set a new low for the studio. Pixar mastermind Pete Docter is in the director’s chair here, who has previously directed Monsters Inc and Up, two of Pixar’s top tier offerings, Up being my personal favourite out of all their films. He most recently was behind Inside Out which was also a very good effort and attracted unanimous critical acclaim, even if it’s not quite up there with his first two features.

Soul treads similar ground to Inside Out in that both explore cerebral concepts – this feature focusses on Joe Gardner (a passionate Jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) who needs to reunite his soul with his body after they are separated in a seemingly fatal incident. Joe cannot quite find his place in society and is always trying to get his big break, to fulfil his lifelong ambition of being a successful musician. Joe finds himself on an ominous escalator on the way to ‘The Great Beyond’ but deciding that he isn’t ready to accept his fate, manages to escape to ‘The Great Before’, a realm where souls create their personality before they are dispatched to Earth to live life. There, he meets an uproarious soul called 22 (Tina Fey) who has no desire to go to Earth (in many hilarious cutaways, we see her brush off famous historical figures who act as her mentor such as Mother Theresa and Albert Einstein) and Joe befriends her, seeing an opportunity to use her to return to Earth.

Soul is another winning original creation from Pixar and after a slightly shaky opening act on first viewing, finds its footing and often soars. Docter skilfully interrogates existential themes of what it means to be alive and all the emotions associated with it including anxiety and depression. This is a far more adult film than some of Pixar’s other offerings but the characters and gags here should still enthrall younger viewings, even if the loftier themes go over their heads.

Technically, as with most Pixar films, Soul continues to further the art of animation with some breathtaking sequences. Joe’s home city of New York appears startlingly life-like, particularly an establishing shot of the city towards the end of the film that is just mesmerising. The minute attention to detail in Joe’s numerous piano renditions is also awe-inspiring. Docter juxtaposes the beautiful real world animation with the ethereal ‘Great Before’ and ‘Great Beyond’ landscapes, which are more abstract and unsettling. Soul is beautifully complimented by an excellent score, Jon Batiste behind the original jazz arrangements and score of the real world and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross behind the more atmostpheric and celestial themes of ‘The Great Before’ and ‘The Great Beyond’.

Ultimately, Soul is another very strong addition to the Pixar canon. It’s a shame this film couldn’t make it to the big screen and whilst its release on Disney+ seems rather unceremonious, it’s just what audiences need this Christmas in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. This is another heady film by Pete Docter and whilst its somewhat scattershot structuring doesn’t quite reach Pixar’s very best work, this is still one of the best films of the year.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Fatman (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Eshom Nelms & Ian Nelms
Starring: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 100 mins

Fatman is an adult dark comedy infused with some violent action sequences starring Mel Gibson as an unorthodox Santa Claus. Whilst this sounds like an outlandish concept, the trailer really pulled off the concept of this perverted and hyperviolent Christmas film with glee. Fatman is directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, both of whom have made very low profile films to date. On Christmas Eve, a mature yet spoiled 12-year-old called Billy receives a lump of coal from Santa and in retalliation, Billy hires a hitman, Jonathan Miller (Walton Goggins) to take out the festive icon. But does Fatman’s high concept translate as well as it does in theory to a feature length film?

Fatman is generally a success and the film has a lot more heart than its trailer suggests. It is always entertaining and for its budget, has surprisingly high quality production values. That said, the tone of the film doesn’t quite gel and the film isn’t quite as deviant as it should be. Although the film carries a 15 rating, its violence is also surprisingly toothless. The film also has some valuable commentary on Christmas which is surprising and there is emotional heft in the interplay between its characters.

Gibson is very well cast and carries the baggage of his world-weariness extremely convincingly. He is well supported by Marianne Jean-Baptiste as his wife and Walton Goggins as the hitman tasked to assassinate Santa, who both put in solid performances. Chance Hurstfield as the twisted pre-teen Billy is excellent – an early scene where he takes revenge on one of his peers for beating him in a competition is carried out with twisted, sadistic glee.

Overall, Fatman is successful for what it is even if it doesn’t quite have the guts to turn the tone up to eleven like it seemed to promise. This is a sound and original Christmas film and is far better than it has any right to be and is only further elevated by the strong performances. It will be interesting to see where the directorial duo go next but Fatman proves they have talent and can conjure wholly original concepts.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Mank (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: David Fincher 
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Charles Dance 
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 131 mins

It has been an uncomfortably long wait for another David Fincher feature film, six years since his gripping and refreshingly unconventional adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl. Since Gone Girl, Fincher has dabbled in television with the Netflix series Manhunter and was attached for a while to direct the now on hold sequel to World War Z.

Mank represents a passion project for the esteemed director and his father penned the screenplay before Fincher’s under-appreciated and infamous directorial debut Alien 3, a film that he has since famously disowned. Mank chronicles Fincher’s interpretation of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, an alcoholic and unstable literary genius and his process of writing the screenplay. This would then go on to cause controversy over authorship of the script between Mankiewicz and director Orson Welles.

Mank is certainly not for everyone but given my fascination of the subject matter, I found a lot to admire here. Gary Oldman is superb as the titular character and this is a much more fitting and natural performance for him to win any Awards compared to his Oscar-winning turn in Darkest Hour a couple of years ago. Mankiewicz is a fascinating character and Fincher manages to perfectly encapsulate his genius, juxtaposed with his messy, incoherent descents into alcoholism.

Critics have also raved about Amanda Seyfried’s performance but both Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton give far more nuanced performances as Mank’s secretary who he dictates the script to and his wife. Fincher’s depiction of women is particularly interesting, portraying them as motherly and sympathetic to Mank here, very much his voice of conscience. Charles Dance also features briefly as William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon that Citizen Kane’s Robert Foster Kane is based on and Tom Burke is mesmerising as Orson Welles, perfectly embodying the director’s towering and temperamental aura.

David Fincher’s films typically involve murder and grisly violence as a narrative and this represents a radical departure from his usual subject matter. The script has an Aaron Sorkin-like talky nature and the dialogue is razor-sharp and rich. Like Citizen Kane, Mank is also non-linear in its storytelling and on a first viewing, its structure rather messy and clouded.

Technically, this film feels like it’s straight out of the Hollywood Golden Age from the black-and-white photography to the carefully crafted cigarette burns of the film at certain moments. This is complimented by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ sympathetic, swooning score and there are multiple shots here by Erik Messerschmidt that are beautiful to behold. Citizen Kane is famous for its shot early on with the young Robert Foster Kane playing outside in the snow, unaware of his impending fate as the camera tracks to inside the house where his parents are sealing his fate, the window behind acting as the young Kane’s prison.  Mank also does this to a degree and it will be interesting to rewatch this film to see what else can be discovered visually.

Ultimately, Mank is a different type of film for Fincher but one that retains a lot of his artistic qualities. It will be divisive amongst audiences but if the subject matter appeals and you appreciate Citizen Kane, this is a very fine companion piece to what is considered one of the most iconic and memorable films ever made. I’m not sure at this point how well Mank will do in the upcoming Awards season but despite its messy structure, this is a film that often soars more than it misses.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Witches (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 106 mins

The Witches is the second film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s fantasy horror 1983 novel about a young orphan who lives with his wise grandmother who is entangled with a coven of witches in a hotel, who are hell-bent on eradicating all children from the world by turning them into mice. The combination of Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro is a strange, yet exciting choice to adapt Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, mirroring the strange fit of Steven Spielberg for The BFG. Zemeckis has had a generally strong career with heights such as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, although his last couple of films Allied and Welcome to Marwen weren’t as well received as his other filmography. I found both to be very interesting and a refreshing departure from his normal visual-effects heavy work. Of course, Dahl’s novel was also adapted by Nicolas Roeg back in 1990 and Angelica Huston’s portrayal of The Grand High Witch was very memorable, especially the sequence where she reveals her true appearance, which is a mastery of puppetry work from Jim Henson.

Robert Zemeckis’ rendition of The Witches is entertaining and its heart is in the right place but this could have been directed by anyone – it doesn’t feel like Zemeckis at all. There doesn’t really seem to be much of Del Toro here either, which is odd, as his films are very heavily framed by his authorship.

This version relocates the narrative to the US state of Alabama and changes the race of the main protagonist to African American. This is an interesting choice and contrasts the cold and stark European setting of Dahl’s novel and Roeg’s adaptation. However, the concept is thinly explored and more could have been done here. The opening of the film is strong in that we witness the car accident that orphaned our main protagonist, allowing the audience to emotionally invest in him. There is also a particularly chilling flasback sequence to the Grandmother’s childhood where she crosses paths with The Grand High Witch, although its effect is undone with a juvenile choice of action and sub-par effects.

In fact, rather embarrassingly for a 2020 release, the visual effects generally aren’t particularly convincing. They feel dated, particularly a scene in which a group of mice navigate their way around some vents which feels straight out of an early noughties kids film. This is all the more surprising given that Zemeckis is renowned as a visual director.

The performances are energetic here with Octavia Spencer the highlight as the wise Grandmother but peppered with sass and humour. Anne Hathaway is far more pantomime-like in her performance as The Grand High Witch. She’s rather cringey in parts but there’s no denying that she’s a plausible threat to the main characters. It’s a shame that Stanley Tucci and Chris Rock are under-utilised in their roles, given how they are normally both able to elevate the material.

Overall, The Witches is an entertaining remake and the departures it takes from the book and original film validates its existence. But its lack of authorship and hesitance to further the material by exploring its themes never allow the film to soar when it should. There is probably enough here for younger children to enjoy but for its adult audience, there could have been more substance here to make this a more definitive take on Roald Dahl’s novel.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Pinocchio (Review)

Pinocchio-2019

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Matteo Garrone 
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Federico Ielapi, Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Marine Vacth, Gigi Proietti
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 125 mins

At face value, Pinocchio seems a departure for Italian director Matteo Garonne in that this is his first film to be aimed more for children than his adult offerings. Garrone found fame with his gangster film, Gomorrah and has most recently made the excellent Dogman, a film about a timid dog groomer who sells drugs on the side who is bullied by a thug that terrorises his community. However, Garrone making Pinocchio makes him a perfect fit as he directed Tale of Tales which was a satisfyingly grotesque adult fantasy feature. Can Garrone sucessfully add his signature to this well-told property?

Pinocchio is a visually arresting and generally interesting adaptation that is far more in line with Carlo Collidi’s 1883 children’s tale than the Disney version. The performances are excellent across the board and Pinocchio is well developed as a character in how he is subject to bad luck time and time again after he doesn’t learn from his previous mistakes.

The use of prosthetic make-up and practical effects rather than CGI is a bold choice and the film is all the better for it. There are numerous shots here which are haunting and awe-inspiring to behold, a shot of birds restoring Pinocchio’s grown nose back to its original length particularly mesmerising and creative.

However, Garrone’s crucial misstep is that the film is overlong and it feels like it’s ticking a checklist in its storyline. Trimming the film by half an hour or so would have really been for the better. The other big problem here is the tone. Certain sequences of the film are clearly aimed for more mature audiences. There is a scene of drowning and one of hanging that really shouldn’t belong in a PG-rated film and the film is all the better for it. However, there are sequences where Pinocchio is child-like which totally are more in keeping with Disney. If Garrone had stuck to his guns to make the film consistently more mature, this would have furthered this take on the material and given it more of a unique spin.

Ultimately, Garrone’s rendition of Pinocchio is a successful venture but one that would have benefitted from some tighter pacing and more conviction in its aim to be more for mature audiences. With two further adapatations in the pipeline by esteemed directors Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro that are sure to be on the opposite ends of the scales themselves, it will be interesting to see how they compare and further the famous Collodi tale.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The New Mutants (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Josh Boone 
Starring: Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 94 mins

It feels rather surreal that The New Mutants has actually been released in cinemas (more like unceremoniously dumped) in a pandemic no less, considering the endless delays this film has faced. The New Mutants was originally to release in April 2018, prior to Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix in the X-Men canon. This film kept getting delayed, first for additional reshoots, then as Fox was acquired by Disney and finally just because of bad luck due to the coronavirus pandemic. At one point, rumours started to spread that it would be released directly to streaming. As always, when a film faces delays to this extent and is then quietly released, the fact that the film is not very good springs into mind and the producers just want to wash their hands of it, a la Fantastic Four. Directed by Josh Boone, who found success with the teenage weepie The Fault In Our Stars, this film sees five teenage mutants find themselves in a secret hospital facility together. They are overseen by Doctor Reyes (Alice Braga), who is tasked with curing them and encouraging them to control their newfound powers. However, sinister events start to occur sending the hospital and the group into disarray.

The New Mutants is a far better film than it has any right to be or as the delays would suggest. The notion of Boone melding a comic-book film with the horror genre is an interesting decision and whilst the film isn’t particularly scary, there are some unsettling images of some of the team’s greatest fears. The smaller scale works wonders for the film, with Boone successfully establishing and developing its close-knit characters. By the time the film reaches the third act, all of the characters make compelling cases to really care for them. Unfortunately, The New Mutants commits the classic comic-film sin with its last 15 mins as it descends into a bit of a CGI-fest but it’s relatively short-lived. It does undo the sense of intrigue somewhat but it needs to integrate into the genre somehow, I suppose.

The performances across the board are strong. Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy are both great as Wolfsbane and Magik respectively. Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane) is a young and reserved Scottish mutant who can transform into a wolf and struggles with her mutant nature in its juxtaposition with her religion. The ever-versatile Anya Taylor-Joy plays Illyana Rasputin (Magik) who has sorcery powers and can teleport, who has a strong, bullish personality. Blu Hunt plays Danielle Moonstar, who is the main character of the film, which opens with her escaping a tornado, which she loses the entirety of her family in. Other than a short film, this is Blu Hunt’s feature film debut and she is excellent. The interplay between Moonstar and Wolfsbane and Magik is excellent, their relationships developing throughout the film. Charlie Heaton and Henry Zaga play the two males in the group, Cannonball and Sunspot, but they have less to do than the females but they are established well enough. Alice Braga is also compelling as Dr Reyes who is the mentor of the facility, whose true nature is revealed slowly through the film.

Technically, The New Mutants is up to scratch for its small budget. Peter Deming crafts some interesting images with his cinematography and the score by Mark Snow is fitting and subdued, but not particularly memorable. Despite the climax being flawed, the CGI in it is not bad and it’s certainly not unconvincing.

Josh Boone had plans to create a trilogy with this film and had included a post-credits stinger with Jon Hamm’s introduction as the villain Mister Sinister. That was then scrapped following the cataclysmic failure of X-Men: Apocalypse with a new scene with Antonio Banderas as Sunspot’s father which would also tease a second film. Unfortunately, no such thing exists in the final product and it’s a real shame as this is a different, but successful direction which the X-Men franchise could have gone in.

The X-Men will next be seen when they are integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon and it is a tall order to exceed the Fox canon, which has generally been pretty consistently solid. Despite the ambitions for The New Mutants to start a new series, this standalone film is a valiant effort in its final form and is worth watching for viewers of the series. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Unhinged (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Derrick Borte 
Starring: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 93 mins

Unhinged is the first notable theatrical release to come into UK cinemas since they have partially reopened after the Coronavirus lockdown. Directed by Derrick Borte, it tells the story of Rachel, a young, recently divorced mother who is terrorised by Tom Cooper, a mentally deranged stranger, after a road rage incident between the two. Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius play the duo, Crowe putting on a significant amount of weight to fit the macho and aggressive nature of Tom. The film opens with Crowe coolly walking into his ex-wife’s house, brutally slaughtering her and her boyfriend with a hammer. This is a very effective opening as we know we’re in for trouble straightaway as an audience!

Unhinged is surprisingly far better than this type of film ought to be and it goes surprisingly far in terms of its violence and subject matter in how Tom terrorises Rachel. She is sent to hell and back with Tom’s torment and he is unrelenting in dishing out his revenge, satisfying his moral righteousness and ethic high ground.

Both Crowe and Pistorius are excellent in the lead roles, Crowe suitably revelling in the role. It is great to see Caren Pistorius in a lead role, after she impressed in Slow West back in 2014 and has only really taken smaller supporting roles since then. She is more than up for the challenge and the film develops her character very well at the start so that when the inciting incident of her meeting Crowe’s character occurs, as an audience we can more than empathise with her life situation.

Perhaps rather unsurprisingly for a film of this type, Unhinged falters in its plausibility. There are multiple instances in the beginning where you think surely the relevant authorities would have captured and arrested Tom but you just have to get on board that the film is going to defy logic somewhat and go with it.

Ultimately, Unhinged is far better than this type of film ought to have been and despite its success is undeniably further heightened by its opportunist release date, in that cinema audiences haven’t had anything else new to watch on the big screen for a while, exceeds expectations in what UK cinema’s real comeback film should be. It’s a big, dumb blast from start to finish.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Best Films of 2019 (10-1)

This is the second part of my Best Films of 2019 feature detailing my Top Ten films. Click here to read numbers 20 to 11 and the Honourable Mentions.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten films of 2019:

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10) Green Book

Green Book is a thoroughly enjoyable film with some outstanding performances from both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The script is sharp and provides some fascinating insights into America’s prejudice culture and racism of the time. The interplay and relationships between characters is also excellent, who I really got on board with from the start. It is well-directed by Peter Farrelly and fantastically paced. Green Book provided a controversial win at this year’s Oscars as it ultimately took the coveted Best Picture gong. Whilst I really like it as a film, the controversies surrounding how it represents race and ethnicity are valid. It is unashamedly a white saviour narrative and the film does perpetuate stereotypes. These are questions that come up after watching the film and although it does somewhat tarnish the quality of the film, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy Green Book. (Full review here)

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9) Boy Erased

Boy Erased is the sophomore effort from actor-now-director Joel Edgerton whose debut The Gift was a masterpiece. Boy Erased is a completely different film and is a drama about a teenager who is forced to undergo homosexual conversion therapy program. The cast are all excellent, Lucas Hedges gives a nuanced performance as the conflicted main character and Russell Crowe is a standout as his authoritarian and religious father. Joel Edgerton casts himself as the head of the program and he is a particularly sinister and nasty piece of work. The score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is fantastic and the film is visually dark and gloomy. Boy Erased is another success from Edgerton and it will be interesting to see where he goes next.

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8) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile 

Joe Berlinger’s feature film on Ted Bundy is the perfect companion to his Netflix docu-series on the notorious serial killer. The entirety of the cast are on top form here, Zac Efron continuing to prove his versatility in the lead role as the deranged murderer, as he continues to shake off the High School Musical stigma. Berlinger skilfully encapsulates the key facts in this biography into a feature film run time and all of the characters are developed well. By the time the film gets into its final act, the stakes are really well set. The critical reception to this film has been rather mixed with many arguing it is a watered-down version of the Netflix series, but for me the film does more than enough to act as a companion piece.

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7) Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a multi-layered and a more mature effort compared to his previous back catalogue. For the most part, this film lacks the trademark ultraviolence and shocks and is a contemplative study of Hollywood in its golden age. On a first watch, the first two thirds do meander somewhat but it is all for a purpose and the final third really pays off. On subsequent rewatches, there is a lot more to appreciate. The performances across the board are top-notch here, Brad Pitt in particular a standout. That said, this is not Tarantino’s best work and he is being recognised for the wrong film in this year’s Oscar Awards but this is still a total blast from start to finish.

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6) Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier is the latest from director J. C. Chandor, who previously made A Most Violent Year which I really liked when it first came out and upon further viewing, I now deem to be a masterpiece as it is a film rich with layers, a terrific narrative and conflicted characters. My expectations were very high for this film, a crime heist thriller with Ben Affleck and Chandor reuniting with Oscar Isaac. This is another excellent film by Chandor and it successfully takes what can be a rather conventional genre into a new direction in the way it explores certain themes and the repercussions the heist has on the group. The score by Disasterpeace is intense and the film looks visually sharp. I was engrossed by the film throughout and Chandor manages to sustain the tension throughout.

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5) The Mule 

The Mule is a gripping film that ramps up the tension throughout its run time and has a commanding, grizzled performance from Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has played this type of gruff character many times throughout his impressive career but it still works, particlarly when paired with the fascinating story.  The film also teaches some well-intentioned messages and morals and there’s an admirable relationship within Stone’s family that felt authentic and also the relationship between Eastwood and Bradley Cooper’s DEA agent. I also really liked how Eastwood humanized the drug cartel members which results in some memorable characters for Eastwood to interact with. In fact, the script by Nick Schenk, who also wrote Gran Torino which is another excellent Eastwood film, is razor-sharp and efficiently paced. Much like The Old Man and the Gun, another recent release which tackles many of the same themes as this film, The Mule interrogates the existential themes of what makes Eastwood’s character work and why he continues to work for the cartel when he knows what he is doing. (Full review here)

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4) Joker

Joker is enthralling from start to finish and is one of the best films of the year. Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerising as the titular character and is strangely sympathetic as an individual who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong and commits some despicable acts. Phoenix really becomes the Joker in the last 20 minutes of the film or so and this is particularly effective and it’s astonishing to chronicle the difference in the character from the start of the film to the wicked monster we get at the end. What also elevates Joker from more standard comic-book fare is how it proposes so many different meanings and interpretations. This is a film that requires multiple watches to really get the full picture. Phillips interrogates many interesting themes, the most interesting of which is his depiction of mental illness and the questioning of how society tackles this problem. The string-based score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is hypnotic and compliments the film beautifully, doing a lot of heavy lifting in places. It’s one of the best scores of the year. The film is also beautifully shot by Lawrence Sher, who manages to capture the grittiness of Gotham City and juxtaposes it with the neon, pulsating urbanisation.

The film isn’t quite perfect though. As is clear in all of director Todd Phillips’ career, he’s not the most subtle director and there are a few instances in which Phillips chooses to explain certain choices which were pretty self-evident. I’m also a little unsure of the film’s final scene tonally and thought the film could have ended a scene earlier but based on some critical readings that have been put forward, it is admittedly necessary. There are so many standout scenes in this film that are just stunning to behold and you have to admire the ambition. Joker is fully deserving of the praise it has received and is one of the best films of the year. (My review here)

Now into the top #3…

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3) Glass 

Glass is an excellent end to this trilogy and mostly represents M. Night Shyamalan at his best – it is pretty much a knock-out. Shyamalan develops these characters extremely well, furthering their character arcs and subverts expectations, for better or worse for some viewers. It is very cine-literate and further deconstructs the generic constructs of the superhero genre and offers some fascinating commentaries on these. As is to be expected, there is a Shyamalan twist and it does undo the good work a little as it isn’t one of his best twists but if you can buy into the film’s central conceit beforehand, it really is excellent. As with a lot of Shyamalan’s filmography, it would be very easy for one to laugh and sneer at this film, as the film walks a fine line. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson standing out. Technically, Glass succeeds in spades too. The score is outstanding, West Dylan Thordson returning from Split and successfully melding both past themes whilst creating some memorable new ones. DP Mike Gioulakis is also great and there are numerous shots which are just a work of art to look at. I sincerely hope that in a few years time, this film will be reassessed as it’s been really unfairly recieved. (Full review here)

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2) Doctor Sleep

To my dismay and against all the odds stacking against it, Doctor Sleep is an enthralling sequel to The Shining that is refreshingly different from its predecessor but still has some spiritual connections. It is frequently mesmerising and has a fascinating narrative at its core. The characters are well-developed and Flanagan establishes some emotional narrative stakes. Of course, there does not need to be some connection to what has come before it and the third act returns to The Overlook Hotel. The film does dip a little into fan service here but not enough to derail the entire film. But it is the first 2 hours are so that are really, really strong. Speaking of the 152 minute run time, this is a film that earns its length. There are so many standout scenes here and Flanagan does an excellent job of conjuring dread. A scene with Rebecca Ferguson astral-projecting mid-way through is just stunning and a shootout at the end of the second act are the highlights. Overall, Doctor Sleep is a surprisingly great sequel that holds it own with Kubrick’s original.

So the best film of the year is…

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1) Dragged Across Concrete

S. Craig Zahler does it again. His first film, Bone Tomahawk reached very highly in my 2016 list and his second, Brawl In Cell Block 99 took top honours in 2017. Dragged Across Concreteis another wonder from this top director. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are both brilliant as two policemen who are suspended after brutally treating a suspect and take matters into their own hands. Tory Kittles is also great as a recently released man who reunites with his family and finds himself intertwined in this case. There are also small roles from Zahler-regulars Fred Melamed, Udo Kier and Don Johnson. The script is once again fantastic and the film deals with the themes of wealth and righteousness very assuredly. Dragged Across Concrete foregoes some of Zahler’s usual ultraviolence and there is nothing here that rivals the violence in his first two films – bear in mind though the film still has an 18 certificate. But instead, this is an equally well-developed narrative that is fascinating throughout and the third act is well-worth the interesting build-up. I think Brawl In Cell Block 99 remains Zahler’s best film but this is another winner and it will take quite a lot for something to top this.


So there we go, these films were in my opinion the best of 2019. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments or tweet @TheFilmMeister

Ranking Best Picture Nominees

The Academy Awards have now been and gone and Parasite ended up being triumphant for the Best Picture award, becoming the first foreign language feature to win the coveted gong. Here I rank the Best Picture nominees in order of my own personal preference.

Let’s get started… 

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9) 1917

1917 looked to be the biggest threat to Parasite in terms of the Best Picture award and I am so glad 1917 didn’t win here. I don’t really understand the praise for this film at all. Whilst on a technical level, there is a lot to admire, it doesn’t really break new ground for the genre. The notion of a continuous shot has been utilised in a few films recently, most notably Birdman which was a big Oscar contender a few years ago. A lot of 1917 felt like  watching a video game rather than a film. The biggest crime of the film is how thinly drawn the characters are and I had no emotional investment in any of them. The performances are fine and the cast make the most of the thin material. There are some fantastic moments of Thomas Newman’s score and some interesting shots from Roger Deakins. But this just isn’t Best Picture material and I’m really surprised at the praise lavished on this film.

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8) Marriage Story

Marriage Story has some strong performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver and at times, a very sharp script. I haven’t really jelled with the bulk of director Noah Baumbach’s filmography in the past but this is his definitely his most assured work. Baumbach tackles the notion of family, relationships and the bitter and difficult subject that is divorce well and there are some standout scenes here, particularly one scene where Driver’s father looks after his son and is monitored by a child evaluator. But Marriage Story could have interrogated these themes further and it’s never quite as satisfying as it should be. Still, this is a big step in the right direction for Baumbach and the performances and script are the best things going for it.

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

7) Little Women 

I was really excited to watch Greta Gerwig’s second directorial effort after being knocked out by Lady Bird a couple of years ago. Little Women is a valiant follow-up and retains the sharp dialogue and Gerwig develops the characters well. Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen particularly stand out as two of the sisters and they both give very multi-layered performances. Gerwig interrogates the themes of family and literature deftly and for a film that has a period setting, it feels very modern in its narrative. This is a strong and refreshingly different adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel and I can’t wait to see what Gerwig does next.

It is at this point that ranking the rest of the films gets pretty tough and many are interchangeable. 

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6) The Irishman 

The Irishman has been a very long time coming and easily Netflix’s biggest acquisition in their plight for original film content. There is a lot to like in the finished product. The main trio of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are outstanding as expected. Pesci is particularly strong in playing a role against type. The film is never boring in its gargantuan three and a half hour run time and the final third in particular is impressive. Director Martin Scorsese explores the ugly reality of the gangster genre which is a contrast from his other films in the genre which have focussed more on its glamorisation. The kills here are quick yet depressing and their actions have dire consequences. But unfortunately, this is far from prime Scorsese. The de-aging visual effects are a mixed bag and are very obvious at times, distracting from the story that is being portrayed. As the way in which Scorsese tries to portray the story at times is quite blunt, there is a feeling that there isn’t much of a pay-off to the lengthy run time and some sequences are unsatisfying, particularly as I had read the book this was based on. The Irishman is an interesting experiment from Scorsese but it’s far from his best work.

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5) Jojo Rabbit 

Director Taika Waititi describes Jojo Rabbit as an ‘anti-hate satire’ which perfectly encapsulates this film. There is a lot to like here and this is another original film from Waititi, who transposes his brand of humour to Nazi Germany with great results. What is also impressive is how the film takes a darker turn in the second half and there are some particular heartfelt moments, due to the good work in developing the characters. This is one of Scarlett Johannsson’s best performances here as the titular character’s mother. Taika Waititi also shines as Adolf Hitler and Stephen Merchant and Sam Rockwell also turn in strong performances. Hunt for the Wilderpeople remains Waititi’s best film though but it’s good to see his talent recognised here. 

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4) Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari pedals an entertaining and gripping story of its source material that is bolstered by some strong performances and good racing sequences. This is despite a lengthy 152 minute run time which is impressive as it always sustains the pace. The characters are well-developed, particularly Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s leads and the interplay between them is heartfelt yet entertaining. Bale is particularly effective as British World War II veteran / professional race driver as he is constantly let down by his peers who do not appreciate his genius. Tracy Letts is also a standout as the CEO of Ford who is able to balance the authoritarian, no-nonsense but a little dim side with the sheer thrill of race driving. There is a particularly effective scene when he is driven in the car that bears his name around a race track where he breaks down in tears. Visually, the film is sharp with Mangold-regular Phedon Papamichael’s photography showcasing the scope of the race. There are also some sound themes from another Mangold-regular, Marco Beltrami who co-scores the film with Buck Sanders.

As entertaining as the film is, Mangold is surprisingly rather slavish to the biopic formula, something which he managed to subvert beautifully in Logan. The plot is mostly predictable in terms of the character beats needed to serve the genre and there aren’t many surprises to the formula. But ultimately, despite its reliance on formula, there is more than enough in Ford v Ferrari to enjoy and this is an above average effort in a genre that can often isolate audiences that aren’t car enthusiasts. (My review here)

Now things get tricky… 

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3) Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood 

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a multi-layered and a more mature effort compared to his previous back catalogue. For the most part, this film lacks the trademark ultraviolence and shocks and is a contemplative study of Hollywood in its golden age. On a first watch, the first two thirds do meander somewhat but it is all for a purpose and the final third really pays off. On subsequent rewatches, there is a lot more to appreciate. The performances across the board are top-notch here, Brad Pitt in particular a standout. That said, like Taika Waititi with Jojo Rabbit, this is not Tarantino’s best work and he is being recognised for the wrong film but this is still a total blast from start to finish.

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2) Joker

Joker is enthralling from start to finish and is one of the best films of the year. Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerising as the titular character and is strangely sympathetic as an individual who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong and commits some despicable acts. Phoenix really becomes the Joker in the last 20 minutes of the film or so and this is particularly effective and it’s astonishing to chronicle the difference in the character from the start of the film to the wicked monster we get at the end. What also elevates Joker from more standard comic-book fare is how it proposes so many different meanings and interpretations. This is a film that requires multiple watches to really get the full picture. Phillips interrogates many interesting themes, the most interesting of which is his depiction of mental illness and the questioning of how society tackles this problem. The string-based score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is hypnotic and compliments the film beautifully, doing a lot of heavy lifting in places. It’s one of the best scores of the year. The film is also beautifully shot by Lawrence Sher, who manages to capture the grittiness of Gotham City and juxtaposes it with the neon, pulsating urbanisation.

The film isn’t quite perfect though. As is clear in all of director Todd Phillips’ career, he’s not the most subtle director and there are a few instances in which Phillips chooses to explain certain choices which were pretty self-evident. I’m also a little unsure of the film’s final scene tonally and thought the film could have ended a scene earlier but based on some critical readings that have been put forward, it is admittedly necessary. There are so many standout scenes in this film that are just stunning to behold and you have to admire the ambition. Joker is fully deserving of the praise it has received and is one of the best films of the year. (My review here)

And the best film is…

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1) Parasite

Parasite is easily the winner here and it is pretty much perfect. This is a thrilling and rich study by Bong Joon-Ho about two families on opposite sides of the wealth scale. The script is razor-sharp and witty and the story takes some unexpected turns. The film constantly surprises and is consistently gripping. The performances are all brilliant and the film is technically astute. Films really don’t get much better than this.

Summary

Overall, this is a weak collection of films nominated for Best Picture, with the exception of my top three. There isn’t a great deal in between most of the other films and they all have their flaws. Luckily though, my top three favourite films here all performed very well and it was groundbreaking to see Parasite win Best Picture.

2020 Academy Award Nominations – My Thoughts

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The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards have been announced and we now know exactly which films will be vying for the coveted golden statuette. My general opinion is that it’s a mixed bag of quality, especially in the Best Picture field. That said, the Oscars are never going to be universally correct for everyone’s tastes.

Best Picture

Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Parasite
1917

Predicted Win: 1917

The big award this year is a mixed bag. I think this is a three-way race between 1917, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Parasite. I expect 1917 to win as it has dominated the Awards race so far, which is a shame as I didn’t like it very much. I wasn’t invested in any of the film’s characters, felt it was more like watching a video game than a film and felt the story was predictable. My opinion appears to be shared with some of the voters so perhaps Once Upon A Time In Hollywood could win here as I would argue it’s the film that’s most liked by all. Many want Parasite to win and whilst I hope this happens as it is by far the best film in this field, I think like Roma last year, that’s asking too much and it’ll probably just win the Foreign Language category.

I don’t tink the rest of the field have much of a chance. The Irishman was good but not prime Scorsese. Jojo Rabbit received too much of a divided response from critics to win. Ford v Ferrari is a filler choice, despite there being a lot to enjoy. Marriage Story, Little Women and Joker all have more of a chance but are not as popular as the other three. I’m particularly happy that Joker features in this list as it was another breath of fresh air for the comic-book genre and I was worried it may not make the cut due to its divisive response.

As for snubs, it’s a shame not to see The Lighthouse, Us or Uncut Gems as these all looked to be top contenders for these Awards.

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Best Actor

Adam Driver for Marriage Story
Antonio Banderas for Pain and Glory
Joaquin Phoenix for Joker
Jonathan Pryce for The Two Popes
Leonardo DiCaprio for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Predicted Win: Joaquin Phoenix for Joker

I think Joaquin Phoenix is a dead cert to win for his mesmerising portrayal of the Clowned Prince who honours the role that won Heath Ledger an Oscar as well in The Dark Knight. The rest of the nominees are good choices, with Adam Driver probably the only competition Phoenix has, who gives an excellent performance in Marriage Story.

As good as DiCaprio’s performance is in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, he is overshadowed by Brad Pitt in the film and he has better performances in his career that weren’t even recognised. Jonathan Pryce is good in The Two Popes but the film itself is terrible. Perhaps if either of these were to be swapped out for Adam Sandler’s transformative performance in Uncut Gems, this would have made the category a bit stronger.

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Best Actress

Charlize Theron for Bombshell
Cynthia Erivo for Harriet
Renee Zellweger for Judy
Saoirse Ronan for Little Women
Scarlett Johansson for Marriage Story

Predicted Win: Renee Zellweger for Judy

This is a weak category this year. I suspect Zellweger will win here due to her success at the Awards so far this year and her biggest competition and who I think should win here is Scarlett Johansson. A stronger field would have included Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance in Us, and Florence Pugh in Midsommar.

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Best Supporting Actor

Al Pacino for The Irishman
Anthony Hopkins for The Two Popes
Brad Pitt for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Joe Pesci for The Irishman
Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood

Predicted Win: Brad Pitt for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

A very strong set of nominations other than Anthony Hopkins. I think Pitt will continue his Awards run here and he absolutely deserves it. It’s one of his best performances in his long career. It’s particularly good to see Joe Pesci here as he plays a character against type in The Irishman whereas Al Pacino plays himself really.

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Best Supporting Actress

Florence Pugh for Little Women
Kathy Bates for Richard Jewell
Laura Dern for Marriage Story
Margot Robbie for Bombshell
Scarlett Johansson for Jojo Rabbit

Predicted Win: Laura Dern for Marriage Story

A stronger set of nominations compared to the leading actress, Dern will likely win here but again, Scarlett Johansson gives an outstanding performance in Jojo Rabbit.

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Best Director

Bong Joon Ho for Parasite
Martin Scorsese for The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Sam Mendes for 1917
Todd Phillips for Joker

Predicted Win: Sam Mendes for 1917

This is a strong field this year and it’s a shame that Mendes is going to win, considering it’s probably his weakest film in his varied filmography. The win should go to Tarantino or Bong Joon Ho. It’s ironic to see Todd Philips here considering his direction clearly channels that of Scorsese who is also nominated.

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Best Original Screenplay 

Bong Joon-Ho & Han Jin Wan for Parasite
Noah Baumbach for Marriage Story
Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Rian Johnson for Knives Out
Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns for 1917

Predicted Win: Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

A good selection, but I think it’s between Tarantino and Parasite. It’s interesting to see Knives Out garner its only nomination here.

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Best Adapted Screenplay

Anthony McCarten for The Two Popes
Greta Gerwig for Little Women
Steve Zaillian for The Irishman
Taika Waititi for Jojo Rabbit
Todd Phillips & Scott Silver for Joker

Predicted Win: Taika Waititi for Jojo Rabbit

Another tough one to call, I suspect Jojo Rabbit gets its only win here to balance out the field.

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Best Foreign Language Film

Corpus Christi
Honeyland
Les Miserables
Pain and Glory
Parasite

Predicted Win: Parasite

Is there really any chance anything else could win here?

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Best Animated Feature

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Klaus
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Predicted Win: Toy Story 4

This is another interesting but weak field and I think Toy Story 4 will win here with its unlikely strong reception. It’s interesting to see Frozen 2 get snubbed here.

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Best Cinematography

Jarin Blaschke for The Lighthouse
Lawrence Sher for Joker
Robert Richardson for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Rodrigo Prieto for The Irishman
Roger Deakins for 1917

Predicted Win: Roger Deakins for 1917

This is an interesting set of nominations. It can only be Roger Deakins who will win his second award here after recently getting an Oscar for Blade Runner 2049. The photography is very good in 1917, I’ll give the film that. I’d rather the award go to Lawrence Sher who really captures the gritty, neon-lit Gotham City beautifully. It’s refreshing to see The Lighthouse get nominated here. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography in The Irishman is fine but it’s the weakest nomination in the field. A better nominee would be Hoyte van Hoytema for Ad Astra or Pawel Pogorzelski for Midsommar.

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Best Editing

Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
1917

Predicted Win: 1917

This will be another one for 1917’s sweep, especially in its seamless splicing of the various shots together to make the film appear as it is shot in two sequences.

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Best Production Design

Jojo Rabbit
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Parasite
The Irishman
1917

Predicted Win: 1917

I think this will be another win for 1917, especially with the amount of work that had to go in the design to achieve the two shots.

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Best Costume Design

Arianne Phillips for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Mark Bridges for Joker
Mayes C. Rubeo for Jojo Rabbit
Jacqueline Durran for Little Women
Sandy Powell & Christopher Peterson for The Irishman

Predicted Win: Jacqueline Durran for Little Women

I think this will be Little Women‘s sole win.

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

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling

Bombshell
Joker
Judy
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
1917

Predicted Win: Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia DeHaney for Vice

There’s always a film each year which feels like it doesn’t deserve to get a nomination. It was Suicide Squad a couple of years ago and I think this year, it’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil‘s turn.

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Best Original Score

Alexandre Desplat for Little Women
Hildur Guonadottir for Joker
John Williams for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Randy Newman for Marriage Story
Thomas Newman for 1917

Predicted Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir for Joker

This is a weak field. Guðnadóttir is the most deserving win here with her sensational cello-based score for Joker which is hypnotic. Newman’s 1917 score is filled with some strong moments, but the composer has done much stronger work in the past. Randy Newman’s score is familiar with his other works and John Williams’ nomination is laughable. A more deserving field would include West Dylan Thordson for Glass, Michael Abels for Us, Hans Zimmer for Dark Phoenix and Disasterpeace for Triple Frontier.

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Best Original Song

‘I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away’ from Toy Story 4
‘(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again’ from Rocketman
‘I’m Standing With You’ from Breakthrough
‘Into The Unknown’ from Frozen 2
‘Stand Up’ from Harriet

Predicted Win: ‘Into The Unknown’ from Frozen 2

A very unpredictable field and I’m really not sure who will win this. I’m guessing Frozen 2 due to its single nomination when it was snubbed from the Animation field.

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Best Sound Mixing

Ad Astra
Ford v Ferrari
Joker
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
1917

Predicted Win: 1917

Another surefire win for 1917, it’s good to see Ad Astra here.

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Best Sound Editing

Ford v Ferrari
Joker
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
1917

Predicted Win: 1917

Yet another dead cert for 1917.

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Best Visual Effects

Avengers: Endgame
The Irishman
The Lion King
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
1917

Predicted Win: 1917

Another win for 1917. The rest of the nominations are fine, although I found the visuals in The Irishman distracting and one of its main flaws. Snubs for this category include John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and Ad Astra.

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Overall

So based on my predictions, I’m predicting 1917 to be a very dominant presence with the other Best Picture nominees perhaps picking up an Award here and there. I don’t think The Irishman and Ford v Ferrari will get anything. For sure in the technical categories, 1917 will sweep the board.

There are a few films that, inevitably, have been overlooked. These include:

  • The Lighthouse – other than for Best Cinematography, no nominations at all despite getting good reviews and being released in Awards season
  • Waves – some found this to be Awards bait but I really liked it
  • Uncut Gems – no nominations at all despite a transformative Adam Sandler performance and strong direction and technical attributes
  • Dragged Across Concrete – my personal favourite film of 2019, although this was never going to get a nomination

It’ll be interesting to see to what extent 1917 sweeps the board.

The Academy Award Winners will be announced on Sunday 9th February