Hoo boy ... literally. The 2020 Oscars are filled with them. This Best Picture lineup is the most mad-as-hell-white-man-driven since – checking resources – never mind, they’ve nearly always been a bland sausage-fest. However, it’s freshly disappointing for two reasons. After #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy proposed and implemented changes intended to diversify its membership, and for a moment it seemed to work when Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight took home the big one in 2017. Then, just this past year, the preening, ahistorical, white-savior-valorizing Green Book won that award, making everyone feel like they’ve time-traveled back to the days of Driving Miss Daisy (1989) or before. Surely everyone had learned a lesson or two since, or maybe Oscar voters are still mostly old white men.
The other major disappointment is that the pool of potential nominees was filled with films by or about women and/or people of color. Sure, Greta Gerwig’s refreshing Little Women update garnered several nominations, but the actor-director missed out on being only the sixth woman ever nominated for the Best Director prize. Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo is the sole person of color nominated across the twenty acting slots (two of which are taken up by problematic fave Scarlett Johanson). Lupita Nyong'o, who gives possibly the best performance of the year in Jordan Peele’s great Us, missed out on a shot at a well-deserved second Oscar. (And this time she isn’t even playing a slave.) Also on the cusp of recognition were Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Alfre Woodard in Clemency, Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy, any cast member of Parasite, and many others just as (or more) deserving as anything that made the eventual cut.
The diversity problem is deeply ingrained in the Hollywood system, with prognosticators and journalists pointing to the overall lack of it in roles behind and in front of the screen as a possible reason for Oscar’s white maleness. Awards have never been harbingers of great taste — making cinephiles question their cultural ubiquity as such for quite some time now — but are instead a reflection of overriding values in the industry during a given time period. They’re also a huge box-office boon, pushing large numbers of moviegoers to theaters in their wake and therefore influencing what new projects are greenlit in the future. This means the Academy does have responsibility in looking outside the box regarding what it deems as statue-worthy.
This isn’t to say that this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees aren’t worthy of such honor. On the contrary, the mean of quality with this bunch is considerably higher than last year’s: a handful of stone-cold future classics sit alongside a couple of prestige-seeking titles and two downright duds. Although something like Scorsese’s The Irishman specifically addresses and condemns the culture of white masculinity and its woes, the issue of representation across the nominees is markedly apparent. With one female-centric and -made film and one non-white-centric and -made film in the lot, it’s just not a good look these days. Regardless, here they are, the 2020 Best Picture nominees from worst to best — the chuckleheads to some knuckleheads — with just a little diversity as a treat.
Todd Phillips, the man behind such landmark laugh riots as School for Scoundrels (2006) and The Hangover Part III (2013), makes his funniest film yet with Joker. The intention, however, was clearly anything but. Stuffed to the gills with overwrought signposting, wonky (non-)politics, and nonsensical armchair psychology, this comic-book movie for grownups is Phillips’ big introduction into “serious filmmaking,” although the director seems to have gleaned everything he knows solely from IMDb’s Top 100. He’s so clearly out of his depth that he can’t prevent future Best Actor winner, Joaquin Phoenix, from taking his Freddie Quell from The Master (2013) to the nth degree by mutating his body and face to no real purpose. Nearly every beat of Joker is so blown out of proportion and lacking any nuance or intelligence that it just becomes one muddled, ugly mess. Anti-protagonist Arthur Fleck and Phillips consistently tell the audience, “Don’t
Forget to Smile.” Some viewers did, precisely because the filmmakers tried so damn hard to discourage them.
8. Jojo Rabbit
Jojo Rabbit is far from the first film to make light of Nazis and Nazism: Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch unleashed their urgent anti-Hitler masterpieces, The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942), during the Good War itself. Although Taika Waititi may be regarded as one of the preeminent comedy directors of Now, Lubitsch or Chaplin he is not. By reconfiguring Wes Anderson’s ‘tween charmer Moonrise Kingdom (2012) as a self-proclaimed “anti-hate satire” set during World War II, Waititi’s Jojo proves to be a queasy mix of slapsticking fascists, miscalculated “heartwarming” moments, and a cool-to-the-touch hipster remove. Even more egregious than its treatment of queer-coded characters — an attempt to complicate liberal-leaning viewers’ sympathies towards Nazis (!!!) — is its climax when said characters are given redemption arcs, essentially saying there are “very fine people on both sides.”
Director Sam Mendes deploying the one-take trick for his World War I adventurer 1917 may have a greater purpose than that of Alejandro Iñárritu and his Best Picture winner Birdman (2014), but even if the intention is proximity to battlefield experience, it nevertheless reeks of filmmaking-as-stunt. Some have rightfully compared this men-on-a-mission actioner to video games – collect the milk, avoid the crashing plane, navigate the booby-trapped trench, talk to this celebrity cameo, feed the milk to the baby, and so on – which isn’t to denigrate that rapidly artistically adapting medium but to question whether Mendes has ultimately fulfilled Truffaut’s notion of war films as war glorification by making the horrors of battle the stuff of an easily digestible “dad movie.”
6. Ford v Ferrari
Speaking of dads, they just have to love James Mangold’s vroom-vroom saga Ford v Ferrari. Someone clearly does, as this based-on-true-story lob-down-the-middle straight to Academy voters made boffo-box office, hence its inclusion here. For the first half of its unnecessary 2.5 hours runtime, stars Christian Bale and Matt Damon enliven the leaden and rote corporation vs. little guy proceedings with a modicum of horsepower, but it’s not until Mangold’s workmanlike direction kicks into high gear does this puppy really start to purr. Providing an opportunity for bad car metaphors aside, some truly exhilarating racing scenes just can’t elevate the film beyond a forgettable and protracted dick-measuring contest.
After working on two bigger-budget globally financed and globally minded features, mixed-bags Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), it comes as a great shock that Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has finally achieved global recognition by going back home to South Korea with the relatively scaled-down Parasite. Bong’s knives are certainly out in this class-warfare thriller that manages to be also the funniest film of 2019, but perhaps they’re too sharp this time around. Parasite has already achieved instant-classic status, but the director’s latest contains a precision that, while marvelous to behold, lacks the freewheeling playfulness that made his three previous Korea-set features — Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), and Mother (2009) — near-masterpieces with much more pertinent and detailed critiques of class, family, and systemic oppression.
Taking Quentin Tarantino at face value is incredibly easy, especially with Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, his breeziest yet most inward-looking romp since Jackie Brown (1997). Some see the 1969 LA fantasia as regressive revisionism, others as an ode to great cultural shifts, but the aging enfant terrible is really re-evaluating his role in delivering Dream Factory-born wish fulfillment to the masses. It’s his most Godardian mind-fuck: densely textured, difficult to parse, entertaining as hell, and ultimately suspect of its own medium.
3. Little Women
The miracle of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation is that it is at once a complete throwback to old Hollywood and a thoroughly modern update. By remixing the the sunnier, “younger” years of the March family’s saga with their more melancholic later ones, Gerwig turns Louisa May Alcott’s tried-and-true story into a Proustian memory palace. Even if it takes a few breaths to get oriented to the performative earnestness of the former, the accumulation of change and uncertainty in the latter makes it all the more credible and palpable. The smallest of narrative and character alterations aren’t just necessary modifications — they morph the story into a paean to both womanhood and the act of creation.
Most of the hand-wringing over Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is about the narrative’s gender parity. While the role of Charlie, the receiving end of divorce papers, gives Adam Driver a more dynamic character arc of confusion and misplaced anger, it’s easy to sideline a career-best Scarlett Johanson as Nicole, the figure who’s already worked through those feelings and represents the more aware and knowing other half of a breakup journey. Together, they’re the whole self-actualization process for any given human who comes to the realization that a partnership’s prime has passed. Some less successful treacly beats aside, Marriage Story dethrones its Best Picture winner progenitor, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), as the supreme cinematic divorce story with its razor-sharp wit and gracious egalitarianism.
1. The Irishman
The two greatest 2020 Best Picture nominees were produced and released by Netflix, the streaming behemoth that has already taken over television sets and altered production and distribution models at large (to the extent that even they can’t seem to figure out how it all works anymore). Although their Roma took home some big awards at last year’s ceremony, the backlash to them upending traditional methods is apparent this year. Regardless of your opinion on Netflix’s far-reaching influence, there’s a bit of irony that their best bet at Oscar glory in 2020 was Martin Scorsese’s mob saga The Irishman, an epic tome about changing tides – here the parasitic relationship between American politics and organized crime. Although it’s likely to go home empty-handed, Scorsese’s tale will prevail not just as his ultimate statement on the bad deeds men do and their consequences, but as an in-text and subtextual lesson in failing to keep up with epochal shifts. This 20th century-set story emerges as the film most reflective of current times, whether about its makers’ industry or its country as a whole.
The 2020 Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. CST on ABC.