Despite all the craziness in the world recently (or perhaps because of it), I’ve been all about movies in the past few weeks. Specifically, prep for the Oscars! This year I made an effort to see all of the Best Picture nominees before the awards ceremony — and I succeeded! My thoughts on the films are presented below, in the order in which I watched them. There are some minor spoilers in here, so beware if you have strong feelings about such things. For those who just want to know which ones I recommend, Little Women, 1917, and Jojo Rabbit were my favorites. All still in theaters if you get out there soon!
A note about some common themes in this year’s nominees… First off, #OscarsSoWhite, again (except for Parasite). Sigh. Second, it’s interesting that 7 out of 9 of these films are period pieces (I’m counting Joker as a period piece because it’s set in the early 1980s, even though it takes place in an alternate universe version of New York City called “Gotham”.) Is there really that much interest in the past at this current moment? Is it because you can focus on present day concerns in a way that doesn’t seem too partisan by setting your film in the past? Is it nostalgia? Or is it random? I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Third, lor’ be, movies are long these days! Only two are (barely) less than 2 hours long, and the scale tops out at 3.5 hours with The Irishman. Someone get these people more aggressive editors! Lastly, it was really striking to me how some of these films (which also happen to be my least favorites) have very few women characters, and the ones they do have are treated as if they are important only insofar as they affect a man’s character arc. A baffling similarity between Once Upon a Time In Hollywood and Joker: both have scenes where women *may* have been murdered, and the directors never bother to even clear up the question of what happened. Dudes, you need to do better.
Energy runs through this movie from beginning to end. It feels fresh, not just because of its novel story structure (which is different from every other production of Little Women in the past), but also because of the staging and liveliness of the performances. Much of the dialogue feels quick and spontaneous even though it was very thoroughly rehearsed, and the actors have a wonderful rapport that allows them to trust each other and emote in a very genuine way. Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep are all amazing, but most impressive is Florence Pugh as Amy. In her younger incarnation, she is a real brat, with a hoarse braying quality to her voice that is somehow obnoxious and hilarious at the same time. Her older self has been transformed in a fascinating way, and Pugh plays the hell out of the material. She’s wonderful. 4 ½ out of 5.
A question that occurred to me part way through this movie was, why is it called “Marriage Story” rather than “Divorce Story”? The entire film from beginning to end is about the messy process of separating from your spouse when your careers and family are intertwined; there is no idyllic backstory about how things used to be great, so the progress of events seems inevitable and one way. More than any other film I’ve seen, this one focuses on the various stages of the divorce process and how the workings of the legal system can increase friction and turn people into worse versions of themselves. Which all makes it sound very grim and depressing, and there are certainly moments that feel that way, but the film is also surprisingly nutty at times, with some characters and situations that play almost like slapstick. Somehow, it all adds up to a poignant work of art. 4 out of 5.
Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
This seems like a film that Tarantino made for an audience of one: himself. It is long, rambling, and self-indulgent, and takes for granted that the audience has a thorough knowledge of the Manson family and the murders that happened in 1969. The two halves of the story, about a has-been TV actor named Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and the strange adventures of his stunt double Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt), don’t fit together that well thematically, so I was left at various points wondering why scenes were still going on and what they had to do with the rest of the movie. The answer at the end seemed to be … it was all an alternate reality coincidence! Hrm… It does have some very effective passages, though, my favorite being a bonding moment between DiCaprio’s character and an eight-year-old actress as they kill some time before filming a scene. In my opinion, there is no way that this movie deserves to win best picture, but DiCaprio might deserve best actor. 2 ½ out of 5.
As an origin story, this movie tries to explain how the Joker became the character that we are familiar with from the Batman comics and movies. It does an effective job of painting the scene of Gotham city in the 1980s, where poverty is rampant, and the disadvantaged scramble to get by in whatever way they can. It also does a good job of showing how people can fall through the cracks of a health care system that is horribly underfunded and understaffed. The main character, Arthur Fleck, is both poor and mentally ill, and I felt quite a bit of sympathy for him as he struggled throughout the first half of the movie. But then the film tries to connect the dots to show how this poor guy turned into the Joker, and that is where it falls to pieces. Having serious mental illness and being abused are not the reasons that white men become shooters, and it is actively harmful for the movie to imply that that is the case. It only made it worse that the crowds protesting against wealth inequality at the end were characterized as rabid and murderous. This film tried to be deep but ended up being surface level bullshit. 2 out of 5.
Two British soldiers in France during World War I are ordered to bring a message to another battalion located miles away, on the other side of “no man’s land”, and they must do it quickly to prevent 1600 men from heading into an ambush. In the process, they move through a striking range of environments: blasted corpse-strewn landscapes, booby-trapped bunkers, abandoned farms and towns, all while being filmed in what seems like a single continuous tracking shot (but really isn’t – it just looks like one). I had heard about this directorial approach beforehand and feared that it would be too showy or gimmicky, but my fears were not borne out. For me, it was fully immersive. I was awed by the raw spectacle of the cinematography, really felt the cognitive dissonance of horror and beauty mixing, and totally sympathized with the main characters, who experience what seems like a lifetime of trauma in less than two hours. This is an amazing piece of cinema, which deserves an award for best picture and/or best cinematography. 4 ½ out of 5.
As with many of Bong Joon-Ho’s movies, Parasite is told in a heightened and over-the-top way that shines a light on the subject matter: in this case, the complex interdependency of the rich and the poor people they employ to serve them. Some directors might take the side of one or the other, but not Bong: the struggling basement-dwelling Kim family are funny and clever in a way that is easy to identify with – until they start screwing over other poor people by getting them fired and taking their jobs, and begin to seem both nasty and greedy. And the wealthy Park family who employ them are callous and clueless, but not really that terrible. The real enemy depicted in this film is the wealth gap itself, and the ways that poor people are forced to scam and take advantage of any angle they can to make headway at all, elbowing others out of the way to advance. And as the film makes clear, it can all be taken away again in an instant. 3 ½ out of 5.
This movie is structurally a real mess, with time jumps happening seemingly at random throughout its 3 ½ hour running time, and a framing device of the main character telling his story, often in voiceover, to someone who is never introduced or explained in the course of the film. There’s a sort of earnest, determined effort to depict every phase of the mob/Jimmy Hoffa drama which might satisfy people who are really interested in the people depicted and not that troubled by thoughts of all the collateral damage and casual evil on display. Me? I found it tedious, and actively annoying at the end when we’re seemingly supposed to feel sorry for old, lonely Frank in his nursing home, even though he’s never repented for his many crimes. Nope, can’t do it. 2 out of 5.
Ford v Ferrari
There is much in this film that is formulaic: the heroic portrayals of individualistic geniuses who resist the conventional thinkers in charge; the many A-Team montages as machines are built and improved, the adrenaline pumping scenes of cars driving at extremely high speeds. But it has some original moments too, mostly in the interactions between the main characters, car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his friend and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and the scenes featuring Ken’s wife and son. You get a sense of quirky individual personality for each of them and when they combine, they are magic. Bonus: Christian Bale gets to speak in his real British accent for once! 3 out of 5.
A German boy in WW II has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary best friend – but then discovers a Jewish girl hiding in his house. And it’s a comedy. Taika Waititi is one of the few people who would think of making this movie to begin with and then manage to pull it off. Shocking and sad things happen in the course of the story, but the film does not wallow in the awfulness; its main concern is how people can maintain humanity – and foster it in others – even in a brutal world. Humor is an important tool in the box, but the enormously appealing performances are what do most of the work. Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother is the emotional center – she is mischievous, warm, and funny in a way I’ve never quite seen her before – but all of the performances are wonderful. Jojo’s young friend Yorki was especially delightful; his delivery of some hilarious lines in an earnest “old soul” manner made them even more funny. I loved this film. 4 ½ out of 5.