And the Oscar Goes to…

Much has been made about the lack of diversity among this year’s Academy Award nominees. There are only two actors of color nominated: Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), and there are zero female directors nominated, which has ignited a social media movement calling for women to boycott the Oscars. However, the shallow pool of diversity is not the fault of the Oscars, it’s merely a symptom of a greater problem within the Academy and movie industry as a whole.

The directors’ branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the crew who chooses the Best Director nominees) is predominantly male. Beyond that, Hollywood, by and large, is run by white men, so it’s only natural to have the majority of films being made reflect the body in charge. However, awareness of inclusivity is rising, and this past year saw women at the helm of some incredible films.

Audiences experienced Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Lulu Wayne’s The Farewell, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Alma Har’el’ s Honey Boy, Melina Matsukas’ Queen & Slim and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Woman on Fire.

Significant alterations are needed to ensure equality within the industry, but the ladies in the filmmaking class of 2019 give hope that change might be closer than it appears. And so, it’s time to celebrate what is. This has been an exceptional year in film with some career-defining performances. Here are my critiques of the top categories, and predictions on how things will shake out at the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday.

Best Actress

About 10 years ago, Renée Zellweger decided to step away from acting, and in that moment, a light went dim over Hollywood. In 2016 that light began to flicker when Zellweger returned to the silver screen in the films Bridget Jones’s Baby, The Whole Truth and Same Kind of Different as Me. This year, that light is beaming bright as Zellweger has delivered the most captivating role of her career in Judy.

The film focuses on Judy Garland’s five-week London residency in the months before her death in 1969. Zellweger disappears into the titular role, embodying Garland’s movement, voice and facial expressions. She even captures the soulfulness within Garland’s dark eyes, allowing audiences to feel the passion and torment burning within the legendary performer. Despite the mental and physical descent in her final months, Garland never lost hope of making her dreams reality, and Zellweger illuminates this spirit to galvanizing effect.

Cynthia Erivo (Harriet), Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story), Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) and Charlize Theron (Bombshell) are worthy nominees, but Zellweger is in a league of her own this year.

My prediction: Renée Zellweger

My preference: Renée Zellweger

Best Actor

This has been a phenomenal year for men. Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood), Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) and Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes) make up the distinguished list of nominees, but arguments could be made for the nominations of Robert De Niro (The Irishman), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), George MacKay (1917), Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is My Name) and Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) as well. However, no matter how long the list of nominees, Phoenix will be the one going home with Oscar.

As Arthur Fleck, Phoenix submits himself to the character, and delivers a transformative performance. His immersion into the pathos of mental illness pulls audiences into the method of a madman. Arthur is endearing with pure aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian, but when the abuse from his past comes roaring into the present, nihilism overtakes him. In a pivotal scene, Phoenix performs a dance as his character undergoes a metamorphosis, and the effect is bone chilling. The film becomes an all-consuming emotional roller coaster ride, and Phoenix’s performance is the work of a legend.

My prediction: Joaquin Phoenix

My preference: Joaquin Phoenix

Best Picture

Three films are in contention for the night’s biggest award: Parasite, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and 1917.

Parasite is a microcosm of greed, aspiration and terror that showcases class discrimination in a spine-tingling manner. Tension is felt from the onslaught, and once the scheming begins, the film becomes a high-octane thriller. The brilliant score is an eerie source of discomfort throughout, and as the drama escalates into a mind-blowing climax, a single lesson has been learned: Plans are better left unmade.

Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is a study of the agony and ecstasy of Hollywood success, juxtaposing the storyline between an icon whose career is on the decline, and a doe eyed starlet on the cusp of stardom. The film is a masterful tour de force by Tarantino—more character study than action—that weaves together humor, suspense, history and enchantment.

1917 is a harrowing tale about a seemingly impossible war mission, but it lacks the depth and emotional gravitas of the other contenders. The story is simple; the script is weak, and the melodramatic moments are cause for annoyance. The scene with a French girl and baby (who is a bit too chubby to be starving) is a desperate attempt to make the audience feel something unnecessary, and the exaggerated drama in the final scenes overrides the emotional moments that did resonate early in in the film.

However, 1917 has been awarded a Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award, Producers’ Guild Award and BAFTA. Unfortunately, Oscar is poised to follow suit.

My prediction: 1917

My preference: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress

This category holds an eclectic group of supporting ladies including Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell), Scarlett Johansson (Jo Jo Rabbit), Florence Pugh (Little Women) and Margot Robbie (Bombshell). But those four ladies will remain seated when the winner is called Sunday night, because Laura Dern will be taking home Oscar for her sublime performance in Marriage Story.

As divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw, Dern is compelling. From the first moment she appears in her no-nonsense pumps and tailored jacket, Dern commands the screen. She exudes strength and confidence, but she also harbors an ease and tenderness within—slipping off her shoes and curling up on the couch to console her grieving client. No other actress could pull off this role with such grace.

With Nora Fanshaw, Dern gives audiences a character who transcends film. Her monologue about societal bias against mothers could serve as a new mantra for women. And watching her go toe-to-toe with Ray Liotta in the courtroom wearing a pink and black sheath dress is one of the year’s most savory slices of cinema.

My prediction: Laura Dern

My preference: Laura Dern

Best Supporting Actor

This is one of the most iconic lists of nominees in Oscar history: Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), Al Pacino (The Irishman), Joe Pesci (The Irishman) and Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). After collecting a Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award, Screen Actors’ Guild Award and BAFTA, Pitt is poised to finally nab his first Academy Award for acting (he’s won as producer in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave).

As stuntman Cliff Booth, Pitt melts into his character in a role seemingly tailor-made for him. Cliff’s suave demeanor plays beautifully off of the anxiety-riddled Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the friendship between the two men gives the film nuanced charm. Whether Cliff’s boredom results in a face-off with Bruce Lee, or causes a ruckus with the hippies at Spahn Ranch, Cliff is the moral center of the story…despite the fact he may have killed his wife at sea.

My prediction: Brad Pitt

My preference: Brad Pitt

Best Director

This field is stacked with heavyweights. Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), Todd Phillips (Joker), Sam Mendes (1917), Martin Scorsese (The Irishman) and Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). Unfortunately, the weakest among them is the one most likely to take home Oscar.

Mendes made the bold decision to film 1917 as though the action unfolds in a single shot. The technique is effective, drawing audiences into the battlefield, but that’s the only high mark of the movie. The digressions in the script are weak, causing the storyline to disconnect at times, and too many scenes are fraught with contrivance. It’s as though Mendes didn’t trust his actors to elicit emotion, and instead, relied on sappy moments of intimacy that failed to ring true.

This Oscar should go to Tarantino. He uses his camera as a tool of seduction, easing the audience into the mood and groove of 1969. Tarantino’s dedication to history, and keen attention to detail, drenches the film in the nostalgia. It’s a love letter to movies with equal parts melancholy and cheer, and the wonderment encased in the final scene gives pause for romantic reflection.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to bet against Mendes’ sparkling collection of pre-Oscar awards, which include a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award, the Directors’ Guild Award and a BAFTA. Watching him accept the Oscar on Sunday will be bitter tasting, but the fact of the matter is unavoidable.

My prediction: Sam Mendes

My preference: Quentin Tarantino

Best Adapted Screenplay

Early this Oscar season, Little Women was buzzing with acclaim, and it seemed Greta Gerwig was poised to win the Academy Award for her adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel. She took home the Critics’ Choice Award in January, then out of nowhere, Taika Waititi’s Jo Jo Rabbit hopped into contention by winning the Writers’ Guild Award and BAFTA. Coming down the home stretch, Gerwig and Waititi are in a dead heat for the Oscar.

It will remain a mystery to me as to why this contest isn’t between Steven Zaillian (The Irishman) and Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (Joker). Both films are profound character studies that delve into the grit and vulnerability of masculine power. They are challenging films that resonate long after the credits roll. But, for whatever reason, the awards circuit is embracing the lighter weight films full of charm and delight.

The choice is between a coming-of-age comedy about Nazis (showcasing a bumbling Adolf Hitler who offers cigarettes to 10-year-old boys), and a Civil War-era drama about four sisters determined to live life on their own terms. This marks the sixth film adaptation of Little Women, and Gerwig’s nuanced approach allows the movie to resonate on a deeper level than previous installments. By telling the story in flashbacks and flash-forwards, the most important relationships in the story are more tightly bound. Gerwig assembled a rock star cast—Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper—and gives each actor their own space to soar. Yet, it feels as though the momentum behind Jo Jo will carry it through to Oscar. After all, in recent years, the Academy has shown an affinity for quirky scripts with nuanced artistry à la Birdman, Midnight in Paris and Her.

My prediction: Taika Waititi (Jo Jo Rabbit)

My preference: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (Joker)

Best Original Screenplay

This is a hotly contested race between Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Once Upon a Time was the early favorite, earning a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award. Then, Parasite evened the score with wins at the Writers’ Guild Awards and BAFTAs, giving Tarantino loyalists serious anxiety heading into Sunday’s Oscars.

Unlike some of Tarantino’s juggernauts like Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction, which are stacked with dizzying sequences of pulse-pounding drama, Once Upon a Time is a slow burn. Tarantino gives the film space to breathe, and the intoxicating blend of late-1960s fashion, cars and music puts the audience into a state of sentimental longing. Tarantino marinates the storyline in suspense before flipping the script on its head for one of the most explosive endings in cinematic history.

Bong has solidified himself as a master of suspense with Parasite. He allows a palpable sense of unease to slowly rise before launching the storyline into blood-soaked chaos. His brilliance is felt in the empathy he elicits for the family of con artists, even as they infiltrate the polished upper-class with devious intent.

My prediction: Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

My preference: Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

 

 

 

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