We can all agree that the Academy has made some confusing choices for the top prize at the Oscars. (Need I remind you that the reigning Best Picture is Green Book?)
In fact, the Academy is full of unpopular opinions, from their hard stance against streaming-only movies to their membership criteria resulting in extreme imbalance. Remember when Martin Scorsese said Marvel movies aren’t cinema? Cinema, he said, is about revelation, it’s about complexity in character, and confronting the unexpected, pushing the art to new places. “And that was the key for us: it was an art form,” he said.
Well, the Academy, as a body, kind of agrees with that assessment — don’t forget that the Academy is largely made up of people like Scorsese who came up in a certain era of film and who made film what it is today — and it’s with that mentality that they annually select the nominees.
So, to keep you from wondering, “This movie?!” at the end of Hollywood’s Biggest Night, we’ve broken down how, in the eyes of Academy members, each of this year’s Best Picture contenders earned their spot.
1917 moves like a symphony. Each piece of the film — the dialogue, the music, the scenery — tells its own complete story in perfect harmony. Every artist involved in creating this film knew when to pull back and when to push forward. The way the camera charges after Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, determined after they got their orders to stop 1,600 soldiers from walking into a deadly trap, and then pans around front as they expressed doubts about succeeding; the stark change in scenery between muddy, body-filled No Man’s Land and the blooming cherry blossoms on the other side of the abandoned enemy trenches; the somber music overpowering the chatter of the soldiers Schofield hitches a ride with after he held a dying Blake.
That’s the kind of artistry the Academy loves. To that end, it’s no surprise that the film is also nominated in nine other categories: Cinematography, Directing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Music, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, and Writing. Noticeably, the film didn’t score any acting noms, which aligns with the Academy’s tendency to recognize overly accomplished men as opposed to fresh young talent like George MacKay. (For proof, take a look at this year’s Actor and Supporting Actor categories, both stacked with highly recognizable, highly lauded names.)
Ford v. Ferrari
If there’s one thing to know about the Academy’s taste, it’s that they’re kind of cheesy. They love the combination of bravado and earnestness in a story, reminiscent of classic Hollywood men who are kind, but manly, and who do the right thing, but do it their way. Starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale as two racecar drivers trying to prove they know more about their craft than Ford — which has commissioned them to build an American car competitive with Italian powerhouse Ferrari — Ford v. Ferrari taps into that exact brand of high-end cheese.
Overall white-maleness aside, this movie is a great time, inducing cheers from theatergoers around every high-octane turn, and tapping into the kind of feel-good action we all can’t help but enjoy. What this film does especially well is make viewers feel like they are inside the racecar, showing the human drama of a tight inside turn over the sound of revving engines. That’s largely thanks to the sound and editing, and the Academy fully recognizes that; Ford v. Ferrari’s other nominations are in the Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing categories.
The Irishman, Scorsese’s own contribution to this year’s pool, celebrates everything we love about classic gangster films. There are tough guys, wise guys, hitmen, muscle men — all of whom also double as family men, with doting wives and docile children whom you better not threaten, or else. It’s the crime family film you’ve seen before, starring familiar faces Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci — but longer.
No, I am not referring to the three-and-a-half-hour runtime (although that is very long). This film takes you from the gangsters’ youth all the way through their old age, based on the “true” story that the real man called the Irishman told on his deathbed. But it does something different than the gangster stories we’re used to: Rather than glorify the life of crime, this film is all about dying. Everyone is introduced alongside their date and cause of death, offering a constant reminder of a ticking clock. In a way, this movie almost feels like the end of an era: Hollywood power players coming together one last time to push a genre to its end, as a new class steps in to modernize Hollywood.
The film also scored two Supporting Actor nods, and nominations for Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Production Design, Visual Effects, and Writing.
To appreciate this film is to appreciate the 12-year-old star Roman Griffin Davis’s favorite part of making this movie: "Kicking Hitler in the balls out of a window," he told E! News at the Golden Globes.
Jojo Rabbit is a whimsical telling of a painful piece of history, taking us inside Nazi Germany when the hype for Hitler was still fervent and exploring the war through the eyes of a child on the wrong side of history. There are two key lessons in the film: (1) we are all people, and being people makes us all worthy of the same treatment; and (2) we can’t get so caught up in our perceptions that we forget to enjoy the dance of life.
The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, a signature of writer and director Taika Waititi’s general approach to storytelling, and that’s refreshing for Academy members to see among the batch of dramas dominating awards season. Even though the reality of WWII was terrible, and we do see some of that reality onscreen, you’re still able to leave this movie feeling hopeful, which makes this film — also also nominated for Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Film Editing, Production Design, and Writing — both artfully created and commercially consumable.
Definitely the most divisive film of the season, Joker represents the kind of comic book movie that the Academy is willing to take seriously: gritty, uncomfortable, and exposing flaws in the way these stories are glorified. (It is no secret that the Academy as a whole derides comic book movies as ‘popular.’)
Contrary to the good time a Marvel movie promises, Joker is a dark look at a corner of reality that we don’t want to face. It’s the people who are looked down upon for their mental illness, or for their economic status, or their general attractiveness, who feel fed up with being on the bottom.
This film wasn’t meant to present the twisted Joker we’ve loved in previous Batman films; Joker was meant to expose the faction of our society that identifies with the villain. And, as much as I hate to say it, the film did the job it set out to do really, really well. Joker sickened people; it caused outrage and feelings of horror. And if film is art, and if art is meant to make people feel things, then Joker is a successful work of art. At least, the Academy seems to think so: Joker is also nominated for Lead Actor, Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Music, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Writing.
Going into this awards season, we already knew the Academy has a soft spot for writer/director Greta Gerwig’s work; she is one of just five women to have ever received a Directing nomination — so it makes sense that voting members would pay attention to her follow-up to 2017’s Lady Bird. But there were two hurdles she had to clear: to not mess up one of the most beloved stories in history, and to find a fresh way to retell this oft-told story.
Choosing to play with the timeline of the story, moving back and forth between past and present with the same actors playing their younger and older selves, was definitely a risk; less familiar audiences could have easily gotten lost. That Gerwig pulled it off while remaining faithful to the source material is a feat the Academy could not ignore. Bolstering the appeal, Gerwig re-teamed with Lady Bird collaborators and Oscar darlings Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, and added the currently irresistible Florence Pugh to her crew.
Honestly, this nomination feels like a no-brainer. Little Women is also nominated in the Lead Actress, Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Music, and Writing categories.
Marriage Story is a traditional actor’s playground, flowing more like a play than a movie. It’s pure craft, using acting and dialogue as the driving storytelling force, leaving details like set design and costuming as secondary. Telling the story of a painful divorce between two creatives, characters are largely seen in front of minimalist sets — an undecorated apartment, a modern office conference room — so the only emotion you see onscreen is the emotion the actors themselves offer. For this reason, it makes sense that the film snagged three Acting nods — Lead Actor, Lead Actress, and Supporting Actress — alongside Music and Writing nods.
The Academy cares less about the film’s explicit meme-ability, although I think we can all agree that too was high. In this film, every word uttered, every facial contortion, every wall punch was absolutely crucial to making this story come alive; that’s where the drama lived. And when emotions are too overwhelming for us to process, sometimes, the easiest way to cope is through humor.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more than Quentin Tarantino’s “love letter to Hollywood”; it’s the culmination of his celebrated career. In this film, the filmmaker revisits some of his favorite Western tropes and touts his deep knowledge of and fondness for Hollywood history. Using his signature styling, Tarantino rewrites one of the darkest stains on his city’s history, the Manson Family murders, and delivers a surprisingly earnest tale of aging heroes and second chances.
But the most important piece of the puzzle: Tarantino’s city is also the city of many Academy members, and the reasons Tarantino loves Hollywood are similar to the reasons many Academy members love Hollywood, so this film felt more personal. (For some anecdotal evidence, it was nearly impossible to get a decent seat in any theater in Los Angeles over Once’s opening weekend, an honor typically bestowed only upon major blockbusters which fully conveyed the city’s excitement over this film.)
And the Academy ate this film up. It also snagged nominations for Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Writing.
The sole foreign language Best Picture contender, Bong Joon-ho's Parasite has been oozing prestige since it unanimously won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May. It’s one of those seemingly rare films that critics and audiences alike have enjoyed, and it got the official Hollywood Stamp of Approval when it was announced that HBO will turn it into a mini-series (which opens up involvement for more Academy members to be a part of this story).
Although English-speaking audiences require subtitles for this film, the thrilling class story transcends culture, dealing with lessons fit for a genuinely global audience, and that can emotionally affect a range of audiences. That type of storytelling is hard to do; this is entirely too evident by the Academy’s diversity problem, which has resulted in cries for more diversity behind and in front of the camera, and pleas for movies that don’t center the white male viewpoint. Also nominated for Directing, Film Editing, International Feature Film, Production Design, and Writing, in this case, it almost feels like the Academy is recognizing what they should be doing moving forward, rather than what they have been doing for decades.