If I Were an Oscar Voter
By J. Don Birnam
February 9, 2020
Hello, Oscar nuts (and all of you who don’t know what you’re missing!). We are back with Box Office Prophets’ long tradition of acting like humble Academy voters just for one day and telling you not what may win, but what we would vote for if we had pen, paper, and a ballot (actually, voting is fully electronic now!). I was very sorry to miss my “They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?” column this year. Maybe next year will be better - alas, there is this thing called “crypto” you may have heard of that is sucking up my life!
By the way, some of my past picks: here, also here, and here as well. Again, my favorite movies do not typically win Best Picture. Two years ago I would have gone for Dunkirk, and last year I probably got very close with Roma. But, as I have said before, if your taste aligns with the Academy’s, something is probably disturbingly wrong with you.
Meanwhile, my friends Kim and David do not think too highly of this year’s crops. I do not know if I have a view on quality, except to offer two observations: It is interesting that many of the movies are major studio fare, many blockbusters, even, a trend that has most certainly not been the case in the last ten or so years. The second is that there does seem to be, with a return to big box Hollywood films, a return to familiar stories about angst-ridden mediocre white dudes. Funny, no? I mean, I actually enjoy seven out of nine of the movies and would be happy with any of those seven winning. There is something weird about the movies feeling so traditional after a few years of striving towards looking at different kinds of films.
Which brings us to the big divide of the year. Much like Green Book vs. Roma last year, you can view 1917 vs. Parasite this year as a battle of past vs. future (or at least present). An old traditional Academy with stories of redemption, war, and heroism, or a braver, forward-looking Academy thinking about class struggles, internationalism, etc.? Unlike last year, when I loathed one movie and was way over the top for another, I like both of these. I am both a traditionalist and a look-forward kind of person. It is tough, let me tell you.
Without further ado, then…
9. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Sorry Quentin fans, but I’m just not. I find his movies to be self-indulgent rather than clever, self-congratulatory and self-referential instead of interesting or creative, and subtly misogynistic instead of purportedly progressive. I admit this is bias, conscious bias that perhaps does not permit me to appreciate the talent that is there. I did love some of his first films, like Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. But I feel like the Academy has gone way too gaga over him, and undeservedly so. And do we really need another movie about Hollywood, with Hollywood nostalgia, winning? Wasn’t The Artist enough? For a while it really looked like this could win, but please, no…
8. Jojo Rabbit. If there is something true about the Oscars race, it is that if a movie ends up being the TIFF People’s Choice Winner, I am most likely to hate it. Whether it be Silver Linings Playbook, The King’s Speech, or Green Book, I’m sorry, but the folksy folks who attend the Canadian film festival have bland, make-me-happy-and-smile taste. Do we really need another Holocaust parody movie? Honestly, that is not even what bothers me so much about that movie. The talented Taika Waititi spends a lot of effort in reminding everyone he is only joking. Hitler is reeeally bad, like reeeeally bad, they were closeted homosexuals (bad, see!?!), and they were just bad. The question is: if we have to spend half a movie apologizing for making it, should we maybe think about not making it? Should maybe our ego not win out for once? Oh never, mind, see #9.
7. Ford v. Ferrari. Now we are in the “I could live with it” territory. This film, which I saw at its world premiere in Telluride, surprised me. I do not like car racing movies. This one found a way to make itself a bit different, what with the amusing Italians, the surprisingly fresh relationship between the two principal characters, and the truly exciting race, an amazing feat considering it was a 24-hour long endeavor. This film has a solid chance of going 3/3 in its technical Oscar nods, but the shutout by the Actors’ branch of talented Damon and Bale means they are likely not going to cross the finish line anywhere near first.
6. Marriage Story. I love this Noah Baumbach film, a difficult sit, even though I have never fully admired his “mumble core” style completely. The acting is superb, the story is somehow believable, the jokes are good, and it just felt like something that could happen to me and most of the people I know. The acting genius of Adam Driver continues to astound, Julie Haggerty was a gem, and Scarlett Johansson has now fully grown on me. Of course, Laura Dern is deserving, even if I liked her performance in another nominee so much more this year. This may not be a story for the ages (though it is funny when this kind of family drama dominated the Oscars in the late 1970s and early 1980s), but it is one that touches deeply nonetheless.
5. Joker. Alone amongst most of my “woke” friends, I truly admired this film about a comic book villain that I have always found reductive and uninteresting. With a thunderous score by Hilda Gunadottir, a towering performance by Joaquin Phoenix, and an all-around moody, dark, somber tone that mirrors our current society well and that turns what could have been a disastrously violent to a foreshadowing-ly violent tale, Joker is one of the most haunting of this year’s nominees. I am not impressed with Todd Phillips’ direction and would have given his slot to someone else, but I cannot deny that the movie stood with me because it managed to make social commentary of a comic book while threading a needle that is almost impossible to thread in today’s day of very touchy snowflakes all over the internet on all sides of all politic spectra (right, middle, and left).
4. The Irishman. I have always loved Marty and his work, and this film was no exception. Though I recognize that it is derivative or almost a sequel to his past work, I really appreciated the 30-minute footnote at the end, the critical part of the movie: the realization as life turns into older age of what it all means (spoilers: very little). The added twist of the old men dying felt deeply personal, very true, and, as a result, unique and powerful. This is on top of all the other talent oozing from the screen, from Marty’s actors, to his editor, to his costume designers, and even the sometimes wonky de-aging visual effects. Wrapped in all of this is an interesting story that hits on critical chapters in American history, all dead, buried, and forgotten. This film is too traditional even for this traditional Academy and has no chance, but will figure squarely in the pantheon of this gem of a filmmaker for the rest of movie history time.
3. 1917. In 1996, when World War I veterans still lived and when the film was called The English Patient or Saving Private Ryan, I would have been all for it. Today, I admire it just the same, having lived through, in disgust, the time when Sam Mendes’ other film, American Beauty, won it all. This film, less “original,” than the 1999 Oscar winner, feels somehow more interesting and compelling. There is the technically cool aspect of the tracking shot, the beautiful score and the dazzling effects, the solid job of the ensemble cast. What really jumps out to me the most, though, is how thorough the story of just two fictional soldiers is; he bell curves the action from quiet start to crescendo to climax and back to relaxation, and, in the process, tells the entire proxy of the war itself. That is pretty cool and even genius, and it is one of those movies that really grips you when you are watching it and leaves a mark.
2. Little Women. I am now a full Greta Gerwig convert and disciple. Her aesthetic, her touch, for this beautiful film, just worked for me from start to finish. The Alexandre Desplat score, the costumes, the acting from Meryl, to Chris Cooper, to Timothee Chalamee, to Saoirse Ronan and everyone else, just really worked. The story is known but also timeless, and the time twist made it interesting, enthralling, and somehow even sadder. The coda - the marriage - is not necessarily what a 2020 audience wants to see (though even that is debatable) but it is true to the reality of life, certainly back in 1865. It is one of the most beautiful pictures of recent memory and would be a truly deserving (but impossible to imagine) winner.
1. Parasite. 2019 will not be a movie year I remember as one where I had an impassioned favorite like Roma or Dunkirk that I wanted to see win every prize ever created. Perhaps in that sense Kim and David are right? While Parasite would be my vote for Best Picture, it would be knowingly over my favorite of the nominees (see No. 2) because I admire so much how different, stylish, intelligent, crafty, and all-out audience captivating it is. Seeing the reactions of other people I put in front of this movie has been a delight. Social commentary, a stunning production design, a subtle score, true to life performances, and a pitch perfect, surprising, enthralling, engaging script all mean something special. It would be the first Palme D’Or Winner since Marty to win this prize, and the first Foreign Language Film movie to do so (The Artist was foreign produced too, but it barely counts). Could it happen? Did I just jinx Parasite? We will know soon!