On January 13th, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for its annual film awards. The nine Best Picture nominees were an eclectic mix, from the classic period piece “Little Women” through the war thriller “1917” to the decadent drama “The Joker.” This reviewer has seen them all and herewith offers his personal views on the major categories prior to the awards ceremony itself on Sunday, February 9, 2020.
For my part, the best all-around movie I saw in 2019 was Noam Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” It’s bland title underplays what is a fiercely wrought and sad tale of a crumbling union, collapsing not because its principals (played magnificently by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) are nasty or mean-spirited, but because their differing desires—both valid—gradually undercut what brought them together. Undergirding this demise is a subsidiary theme of American divorce and it vagaries, personified by the outwardly cheery but inwardly steely Laura Dern as Johansson’s divorce lawyer. This is a symphony in contending egos, mingling melancholy with mirth in unsettling and believable ways.
“Marriage Story” is leagues and a century away from the magnificent “1917,” another one of my favorites. The simple suspense set-up—two British soldiers in WWI trying to warn a division of an ambush—is achieved with an amazingly complex camera scheme which gives the impression that the action is being carried out in real time. Its momentum is unrelenting—and very moving. In yet another strong contrast, there is the exhilarating “Little Women,” adorned with a superb cast, splendid costuming, outstanding production design, bracing storytelling, and evocative music.
Most of the other nominated movies also have their strong points, except for the glaring exception of Todd Phillip’s “The Joker.” I lament that such a depraved and self-indulgent picture has sundry nominations, great box office, and critical raves. To me, this is a director catering to the willful overacting gene of Joaquin Phoenix, seen raving to demented and cruel ends. This movie left a vile taste in the mouth; may it leave the ceremony empty.
This category offers several decent performances, though I can’t agree with a nomination for the lackadaisical and uneven Leonardo DiCaprio for “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” He seemed more a tool than talent for Tarantino’s opus. My own favorite was Adam Driver in “Marriage Story,” a deft and distressed portrait of a normally contained man slowly coming apart. Just below Driver’s work, in my estimation, was the magnificent Antonio Banderas, finally playing his age, in Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” a vision of rich and troubled maturity like few others on film.
Kudos again to “Marriage Story,” with Scarlett Johansson creating her most vivid and complex character ever. Her more placid and open persona provided a perfect contrast to her husband, the more driven and private Driver. She also got to show a vast array of emotion, from carefree to crushed, sometimes in the same scene. Also worthy of note was Charlize Theron’s impersonation of Megan Kelly in “Bombshell,” which was vibrant and compelling and considerably aided by her striking resemblance to the news anchor. Likewise Saoirse Ronan in “Little Women,” personifying the plucky Jo as Louisa May Alcott might have wished.
Best Supporting Actor
Here my choice is clear: Joe Pesci as Jimmy Bufalino in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” It is so wonderful because, after a career of playing nasty, Mafiosi types, bursting at the seams with violence, he comes off playing a reasoned, almost serene, gangster. He does it with an underplayed calm and cogent delivery of a favorite uncle. The fact is that his performance was a kind of gift to his director (the actor was essentially retired for 20 years), a beautiful swan song. Let me also praise Tom Hanks, incarnating a calming Mr. Rodgers of consummate patience and reason in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Best Supporting Actress
All the young actresses in “Little Women” were very fine and, thankfully, each was given similar screen time, a rarity in this narrative. None made better use of her time than Florence Pugh as the feisty Amy. The actress, now on a career roll, is a revelation here. Pugh offers a portrait of such spirit and grace that she comes off much more impactful that the shallower character of the novel. Laura Dern, as the cool but viperous divorce lawyer of “Marriage Story” runs her a very close second.
Given its complexities and drive, the work of Sam Mendes in “1917” earns my highest praise. Creating a film which richly honors the WWI memories of his grandfather adds real poignancy to his effort. A labor of love becomes a labor of triumph. Fully as impressive, in a completely different vein, is Bong Joon Ho’s direction of the provocative and funky “Parasite,” a Korean comment on class wrapped in a giddy and shocking plot. You truly cannot guess where the next zinger is coming from.
Given my admiration for “Marriage Story,” I will be consistent in anointing its creator, Noah Baumbach, as my first choice for Best Original Screenplay (To note: It’s a crime that he was not also nominated for Best Director). Baumbach has tellingly limned the lives of striving young New Yorkers in a series of significant films since 2005 (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Frances Ha,” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” etc.), but this is his richest, most potent story-telling so far. Among adapted scenarios, Greta Gerwig’s re-conception of “Little Women” strikes me as brilliant. She has taken a classic novel in period garb and breathed into it new, contemporary life.
Best International Feature
A tight race here between utterly different, yet utterly convincing works. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” has already been acknowledged above. It is a unique and challenging cineplay in which the viewer, even after witnessing distressing episodes, comes away somehow satisfied and even grateful for it sheer creativity. Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” may not be his swan song (the Spanish director is 70), but it certainly could serve as a great one, demonstrating his usual clever plotting and vivid color sense but at the service of a gentler, more redemptive story. He is aided enormously by his lead—and onetime muse—Antonio Banderas.
I’ll offer one highlight among the technical awards: Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography for “1917.” From the 1990’s, this British master was Oscar-nominated 12 times, but he never won the statuette until last year (with “Blade Runner 2049”). In “1917,” he has combined his inordinate skill as rarely before. Besides the splendid images he created—from dusky battle fields to lurid townscapes, he and director Mendes used constantly roving cameras to produce what appears to be one continuous flow of action: a masterpiece of movement.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.