2019 wasn't a great year for awards season movies. I felt a general sense of malaise as I tore through the major contenders, few of which genuinely moved me. In truth, my top four movies this year were a pair of comic book movies and a pair of animated flicks. That's usually the tell-tale sign that Oscar-bait titles have overreached.
If I Were an Oscar Voter
By David Mumpower
February 9, 2020
Even out of those releases, the ones that moved me the most were The Two Popes, Knives Out, Apollo 11, and The Farewell, all of which got shafted to a large degree. While I genuinely like seven out of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees, none of them were even in consideration for my top 10. My “favorite” of them finished 15th out of 104 movies that I’ve seen thus far.
So, my praise won’t be glowing, just as my criticisms will only be strong for a pair of titles. Everything else is thoroughly entertaining but not memorable enough that I’ll watch every time I notice it on cable or a streaming service.
9) Joker (80 out of 104)
There’s a legitimate chance that Joker wins the Academy Award for Best Picture. At the time of publication, oddsmakers give four films a chance, and the Todd Phillips film is one of them, albeit the least likely. Frankly, this fact blows my mind, as Joker is one of the most overblown, underwhelming films in a generation.
Ostensibly a character piece about how a lonely failure of a man captures the spirit of Gotham, Joker fundamentally fails to tell any story of note. It’s childishly simple and stubbornly angry. This film is an anthem for misanthropes, and it’s a condescending one at that. Apparently, the angry incel target audience isn’t worthy of any depth or wisdom, only rage.
Phillips is best known for The Hangover franchise, which started with a decent, albeit lazy first film. The second story devolved into a hateful, dysfunctional mess, which I mention because Phillips hasn’t changed much over the past decade. He sneers at society in an "I hate you because you don't love me" way. The worst part of Joker's success is that it empowers the director to make more of this trash.
8) The Irishman (52 out of 104)
Somewhere in the gaps of Martin Scorsese’s indulgences, a terrific 100-minute cut of The Irishman exists. Hints of it persist throughout the movie, as engrossing character development collapses under the weight of improvisational theater dialogue.
A moment where the future killers of Jimmy Hoffa spend time with his fish-loving foster son somehow takes a back seat to a pointless, excruciatingly long discussion about the social contract and doors. Scorsese aspires for meaningful details and character development, but he undoes his own efforts by a shocking lack of confidence in the proceedings. It’s like he cares so much about undoing some of the criticisms regarding his entire career that he falls victim to overthinking.
I’m diametrically opposed to three-hour movies in all but the most extreme examples. However, my favorite film of 2019, Avengers: Endgame, runs for 181 minutes. I accept them when the story justifies the excess. With The Irishman, I was looking at my watch more than I’ve done with any film since Peter Jackson last visited Middle Earth.
7) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (34 out of 104)
As the numbers indicate, I’ve just jumped into the upper third of my film studies for 2019. While Joker is an F, even The Irishman falls into the upper half of the features I watched last year, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Everything from this point forward is a title that brought me a fair amount of happiness.
I actually share many of the criticisms of The Irishman with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The latter is undeniably a movie that needed better editing. I'm not quite sure how much of the footage got deleted vs. never filmed, but the third act glosses over any number of essential details to reach the finish line.
Earlier parts of Quentin Tarantino’s latest excess tell stories that go nowhere, but they’re undeniably entertaining, albeit purposeless. In truth, that statement may encapsulate the auteur’s entire career to this point. He’s someone you would love to buy a few drinks and then listen to him regale you with half-truths about celebrities of yesteryear that you may not even know.
Still, two positives about this film are undeniable. The casting is sublime, with Brad Pitt perfectly measured as the man playing second fiddle to Leonard DiCaprio’s character. And the surprises in the third act, resolving with fire in a pool, more than justify every bit of excess that comes before.
6) Ford v Ferrari (32 out of 104)
I’m a sucker for a good sports movie, and I was enthralled by my viewing of this title. It’s the first time I watched a feature in ScreenX. While I wasn’t enamored with the technology, Ford v Ferrari proved the perfect film for it, as other cars felt like they were in the rearview mirror during the racing scenes.
In terms of quality, my primary complaint about Ford v Ferrari stems from the artistic license. The producers decided to throw out the history books to tell a better story. You can research to learn how much of the film is inaccurate, but I think common sense will lead you in the right direction.
One character played by Josh Lucas might as well twirl his mustache and tie the protagonist's wife to some train tracks. A crucial meeting between the owners of Ford and Ferrari wasn't entirely made up out of whole cloth, but the timing is grotesquely misleading. These elements enhance conflict; however, they come at the expense of confidence in the true story.
So, my most substantial issues with Ford v Ferrari are philosophical. The film itself works on all levels.
5) 1917 (31 out of 104)
Confession: I would have enjoyed this film a great deal more without its cinematic conceit. I love the extended tracking shot and have said as much many times over the years. Alas, this film is no Rope. The prolonged single take became a distraction quickly and felt like a kind of torture over time.
Several sequences would have made more sense with a wide overhead shot to display perspective. Instead, the bunker mentality meant to cause a feeling of claustrophobia only frustrated with its lack of explanatory visuals.
With that acknowledgment out of the way, I believe that 1917 qualifies as one of the best World War movies of the 21st century. It's utterly gripping, and the twisting nature of the story brings in many unexpected elements that add to the depth.
Whether a kind officer presents advice, soldiers on a bus provide support, or a hidden foreigner proffers food and solace, 1917 feels like it’s global. That’s a critical element for a world war with intensely British sensibilities.
4) Marriage Story (19 out of 104)
In a subtle way, Marriage Story tells the most provocative story of this year’s contenders. It displays the combative elements intrinsic to modern divorce. Two people clearly still like, support, and admire one another, yet they need to get far away from each other. The woman realizes this before the man, but the details matter less than how the conflict plays out in the film.
Divorcing parents of a child automatically join a competition. Each one must prove fitness as a guardian. It's a destructive battle even though the intent sounds positive. And talented middle-class people must accept brutal financial hardships to finance the endeavor.
In Marriage Story, divorce is the villain. Both husband and wife are protagonists in their own ways. It’s a fascinating story structure that leads to a distilled, vaguely clinical take on the process. I’d have liked it more if the movie displayed any real heart, but it’s stubbornly guarded with its emotions.
3) Jojo Rabbit (17 out of 104)
Yeah, I don’t know what to do with this one. Filmmaker Taika Waititi delights in the audience’s discomfort as he plays Adolf Hitler for laughs. The phrase, “Heil Hitler!” is stated at least 200 times. Nazi paraphernalia abounds throughout the film.
The entire artistic decision feels like a litmus test. Can audiences overlook these grotesque images to appreciate the total rejection of totalitarianism that lies beneath the surface?
I admit that I struggled with it. I was just about ready to stop watching after the first ten minutes of Jojo Rabbit. I’m glad that I kept watching, though. The film delighted me with its heart and wisdom plus the right level of humor for such an awful historical setting.
I’m honestly not sure whether I’ll ever watch Jojo Rabbit again. I’m glad that I stuck with it, though.
2) Little Women (16 out of 104)
Any adaptation like this faces an uphill battle. Everyone knows the story, but the filmmakers cannot take much artistic license. Otherwise, purists will be up in arms over the share hubris of believing that someone in the 21st century can tell the story better than Louisa May Alcott.
To her credit, Greta Gerwig embraces the challenge and succeeds to a remarkable degree. The film works because Gerwig wins with casting. Proven actresses like Emma Watson, Laura Dern, and Saoirse Ronan join relative newcomers like Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen to bring the March sisters to life.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the 2019 version of Little Women is that it cushions the heartache of Beth’s ailment. Since audiences know that the tragedy is coming anyway, Gerwig doesn’t lean into this part of the story inasmuch as financial and maturity issues along with the occasional courtship.
Yes, Little Women plays like a CliffsNotes version of the story, but the film also provides a gentle hug for the literary crowd.
1) Parasite (15 out of 104)
For the longest time, I didn’t know the subject matter of Parasite. I like to maintain a sense of surprise about some projects. All I knew about this one was that Bong Joon-ho, director of Snowpiercer, had created a film called Parasite. I naturally expected the project to involve aliens or a deadly outbreak.
Look, I don’t want to spoil the surprise here, as many North Americans have yet to watch Parasite. Should it win Best Picture tonight – and it’s got about a 40% chance – a bunch of people will stream it and then experience that same sense of abject shock that I did.
Parasite’s legitimately one of the most surprising, unexpected delights in modern cinema. Any description of it wouldn’t do the movie justice. All I’ll say is that the first five twists in the film in no way prepare the viewer for the MAJOR bombshell that turns the story on its ear.
After that arc plays out, I can’t say that I loved all of the decisions that Joon-ho made. It’s like he wanted people to fall in love with the characters, only to question those feelings by the end.
Again, the director’s erudite takes on class structure in society make all of his filmmaking exercises nuanced and sometimes inscrutable. So, I may appreciate this one more a few years from now. Right now, I feel like it’s a brilliant near-miss rather than a grand slam. I reserve the right to adjust my opinion later.
For now, all I can say with complete confidence is that Parasite is the best of a weak batch of Best Picture nominees.