With the Oscars being presented on Sunday, February 9th, I like to focus on the films and performances that I found most memorable. In keeping with the tradition of the late Siskel & Ebert’s “If We Picked the Winners,” here are my standouts for 2019 using the nominees in the main Academy Award categories. While others try to second-guess Oscar politics with who ‘should win’ or ‘will win,’ I like to keep it simple. In case you missed any of them, these are the films and performances I’ll remember- simply put, these are the ones:
Best adapted screenplay: Taika Waititi, “JoJo Rabbit”
If Roberto Begnini and Sasha Baron Cohen had a kid raised on a steady diet of Monty Python humor, it would be a kid like Waititi, who adapted Christine Leunen’s novel “Caging Skies” into a comedy screenplay with the funniest dialogue I’ve heard in a while. While the story centering on a 10 year-old German boy’s coming-of-age as a member of the Hitler youth during WWII may seem off-putting in a stale politically correct modern world, “Jojo Rabbit” has a heart beneath its irreverent exterior. Silly satiric situations and over-the-top comedic characters have never mixed so well to show humanity and kindness can develop even in a boy who idolizes and has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend.
Best director: Sam Mendes, “1917”
Employing the effect of a film being one continuous shot pays off for Mendes, who uses his camera to make the audience feel like they’re alongside two WWI soldiers sent to deliver a message through enemy lines to stop an impending military assault. While it seems like a gimmick, it’s a smart move: you, like the soldiers you’re accompanying, never know what’s coming up next. Taking in the carnage as they cross over war-torn terrain, we experience what the soldiers do. The startling unanticipated surprises awaiting the soldiers, ranging from a booby-trapped bunker to shots fired from a sniper’s rifle, have a jarring psychological effect. Mendes expertly turns our ‘not knowing what’s next’ vantage point into a nightmarish rollercoaster ride.
Best actress: Scarlett Johansson; Best supporting actress: Laura Dern; Best original screenplay: Noah Baumbach- “Marriage Story”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that’s what’s so smartly illustrated in Baumbach’s script for “Marriage Story.” Taking two years to write, based on his own and others’ experiences navigating divorce proceedings, Baumbach layers enough levity into the dialogue to deflect the harsh damage inherent in the dissolution of a marriage.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) want a divorce as amicable and painless as possible. Unfortunately, Nicole’s emotions get the better of her and that’s what Johansson brings to the table. Alternating between anger and anguish, Johansson is impressive. Trying to articulate why Nicole began to feel invisible in her marriage, Johansson’s tears and verbal tirades are a marvel to watch. When Nicole’s given the advice to seek legal counsel to protect her interests, the emotional flood gates open wide.
As Nicole’s attorney Nora Fanshaw, Laura Dern shows she’s found her acting niche. Like her Emmy-winning role as Renata in HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Nora’s the type of savvy, streetwise woman Dern excels in playing. Out to protect Nicole’s interests, Nora comes off as both counselor and confidante. But when the litigation game begins, Nora shows her strengths. Needling Charlie on whether his agreements with Nicole are ‘deals’ (when in Charlie’s favor) or ‘discussions’ (when they’re not), Nora soon pays Charlie a compliment that takes him aback- is she being sincere or just being smarmy? As well as Dern plays Nora, it could be either.
Best actor: Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Given the unenviable task of playing a role made memorable by other actors, Phoenix plays it smart by playing it low-key. Even after we’ve seen Joker’s spectrum of past portrayals, Phoenix makes the beginning of Joker’s iconic characteristics his own. Before becoming Joker, we watch Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) rip through a gauntlet of emotions as he tries to fit into a society that shuns him. Crippled by one of Joker’s future trademark laughing jags, Phoenix conveys a psyche about to snap, wrestling with physical pain as he tries maintaining control. All of the mirth and madness we’ve come to expect from the Joker character is given a deeper, darker root thanks to Phoenix’s daring performance.
Best picture; Best supporting actor: Brad Pitt- “Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood”
In his role as fading TV star Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) friend/stunt double Cliff Booth, Brad Pitt epitomizes ‘support.’ With a laid-back and amiable persona that fits Pitt perfectly, Booth is the coolly aloof buddy who fixes Rick’s problems and has no problem taking care of his own. In situations only Tarantino could script, whether tussling with Bruce Lee or taking on murderous Manson family members after smoking an acid-laced cigarette, Pitt does it all with a sneering stride few actors could pull off as easily.
Of all the movies nominated, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” was the sentimental fractured fairy tale that surprised me most. Even when the film wildly, comically or violently veered off the rails in classic Tarantino style, it still managed to create a love letter to a bygone era. Energetic, atmospheric and nostalgically heartfelt, it was the time travel trip I could easily have experienced again.
Enjoy this year’s Oscars and in discovering the future Oscar winners of 2020.