5. The Irishman
The Irishman is much more than just another gangster film from Martin Scorsese; it’s a story about aging and losing priorities in life told through the eyes of the mobsters that lived epic highs and lows, and Scorsese uses a genre he’s mastered in the past to make a comment about legacy. The unprecedented digital deaging technology allows the film to show the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) from beginning to end, and despite his lifetime of service and years of connections, he’s left a bitter, forgotten man who was never able to care for his family. The last shot of The Irishman is one of the most provocative things Scorsese has ever done, and De Niro details this devastating transition from beginning to end with one of the best performances he’s given in years.
Where the film really excels is the supporting performances from Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino. Pacino is often known for over the top performances, and while he gets to do a lot of scenery chewing as Hoffa, he also represents a character who unabashedly lives life to the fullest and pays the price for his resilience. However, it’s Pesci who gives the most surprising performance in the film; Pesci often plays loud mouthed, exaggerated characters like in Goodfellas or Casino, but as Russell he is incredibly restrained and shows his power and influence in more subtle ways. Scorsese’s film is very deservedly nominated for Best Picture, even if it isn’t quite as strong as some of his past work.
4. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach has been largely ignored by the Academy Awards, as prior to Marriage Story he had only received one previous nomination for Best Original Screenplay for The Squid and the Whale. It’s nice to see Baumbach finally get the recognition, but the nomination is much more than a make up award. Marriage Story is an emotional gut punch, a film that shows the slow deterioration of a marriage as two people begin to realize that they aren’t fit for each other’s needs anymore. There’s no acidic side to Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and seeing these two characters that actually care about each other makes the story even more heartbreaking.
Baumbach’s excellent screenplay is very detailed in how it breaks down the crushing impact of the legal process on child custody cases, and this is also embodied by the scene stealing supporting performances by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as various lawyers. The film is also very detailed in how it explains what the divorce arrangements are like, such as what parents get custody on what weekends and how the child is forced to do the same thing multiple times with each parent. While Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and Renee Zellweger in Judy are largely expected to take home the trophies for Best Actor and Best Actress, it really is Driver and Johansson who are most worthy, and as a film Marriage Story earns the power of these dynamic performances.
Foreign language films rarely get Best Picture nominations, and while occasionally films like Amour and Roma get in, it is always nice to see the Academy broaden their horizons and consider non-American films. Parasite undoubtedly had global appeal due to the universality of its message, which explores class differences between the relationships between two families. It’s not just the timely message that makes Parasite a masterpiece, but the entertaining way in which Bong Joon-ho crafts his story. Parasite is easily one of the most entertaining films of 2019, and seeing the poor Kim family con the wealthy Park clan is hilarious and exciting, but becomes even more gripping as the lasting impact is unveiled.
The twists in Parasite are all completely earned, and the film is able to shock its audience with its intricate plotting, all of which holds up on a second viewing. Bong and his team designed a brilliant set for the Park’s family home, and the action in which the Kims must conceal themselves is one of the most gripping sequences of the year. It also has an incredible ensemble of actors who depict realistic family dynamics, with the standout being Song Kang-ho’s amazing role as Kim Ki-taek. It would certainly be amazing to see Parasite accept the award for Best Picture, both in the novelty of a foreign language winner and as a recognition of its brilliance, but there are two films that deserve the win even more.
The Oscars will often nominate war films for Best Picture, but no war film has won the top prize since 1986’s Platoon. However, if another war film was to win, few would be as deserving as 1917, a completely immersive real time thriller that pits the viewer directly within a dangerous mission to save the lives of 1,600 men from a German attack. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins tells the story in one continuous shot, and as a result the film is able to maintain complete believability and accuracy. The situations that the characters face aren’t the traditional ones seen in past war films, as they must avoid all types of dangers in their quest to reach the front line.
The brilliance of Sam Mendes’s direction is that the human element of the story is never lost. Private Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) has a strong reason to want to complete this mission, as his brother’s life is among those that could be lost, and Private Schofield (George McKay) is able to match his companion’s breathless enthusiasm with a more battle weary resilience. The two lead performances are absolutely extraordinary, and due to the real time nature of the film’s structure, the audience sees every intimate detail of what these men must accomplish. Mendes won the Academy Award for Best Director twenty years ago for American Beauty, and it would be fitting for him to win again for this incredible technical achievement.
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The film most deserving of this year’s Best Picture Oscar is Quentin Tarantino’s stunning tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Era. A film about a transitional period in movie history that comes during a transitional period in modern day cinema, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a great hangout movie that pays homage to history, before ultimately rewriting it. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) have their fair share of flaws, but Tarantino ultimately argues in favor of these faded pillars of a different era by using them to save Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) from the Manson Family. The uproarious third act is more than Tarantino’s typical blood and guts material, as it reclaims history and offers a touching tribute to Tate and all that she represented.
The film is also one of Tarantino’s best looking, as he took time to recreate 1969 Hollywood with an incredible attention to detail, and includes key moments of wisdom such as the terrifying Spawn Ranch sequence and the emotional scene of Sharon Tate watching her own legacy onscreen. The dialogue is as sharp and funny as anything Tarantino has ever written, particularly when it comes to the genuine sweetness between Rick and Cliff, but he also accomplishes a great many things with visuals alone; in particular, the third act montage set to The Rolling Stones’s “Out of Time” encapsulates all the themes and recurring motifs of the film into one beautiful package.
While it often acknowledges the hardships that existed within the era and doesn’t brush over the trauma that was so prevalent in a changing country, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is decidedly uncynical and comes out arguing for the power of cinema itself, and deserves to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.