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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.