Shortly after the 2010s came to an end, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked over the many releases in 2019 and announced their nominees for the prestigious title of “Best Picture”. The previous ceremony famously proceeded without a host. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but the 2019 ceremony had notably higher ratings than those of the year before. It was therefore fitting that the 92nd ceremony would follow suit. It’s just as well; hosted ceremonies would drag on for far too long, often featuring unfunny comedy sketches when, theoretically, the main focus should be on the art.
I say “theoretically” because the eight “Best Picture” nominees for the 91st ceremony were, to put it bluntly, underwhelming. In fact, they formed the single weakest lineup of films I had seen since I started seriously paying attention to the Oscars – decidedly lacking in muscle or staying power. In the end, Green Book walked away with the prize. Considering that the previous year had the artistically daring The Shape of Water shatter the barrier preventing the high-minded from appreciating fantasy as a genre, the victory of Green Book was a clear regression. Nonetheless, it was the single best film to represent 2018, showcasing the extreme lack of ambition or imagination plaguing creators at the time.
For the 92nd Academy Awards, a total of nine films were nominated for “Best Picture”: Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Parasite. On the surface, it would appear that the Academy fell into old habits. Much like Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Green Book, two of the “Best Picture” nominees from this year, Jojo Rabbit and Joker, received a lukewarm critical reception. It would seem counterproductive to claim to celebrate the best of the best only to promote middling efforts.
However, don’t be fooled by the numbers. If the creative stagnation of 2018 caused filmmakers to dole out the single weakest “Best Picture” lineup I’ve ever seen, 2019 was responsible for one of the strongest batch of nominees in years. The only other years of the 2010s capable of giving it a run for its money would either 2014 or 2015, which saw the release of the decade’s highlights: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mad Max: Fury Road respectively. Ironically, this increase in quality actually made ranking the nine films much trickier.
Last year’s eight nominations ended up being distributed across five different tiers. It’s easy to rank a list when what you have to work with is all over the map. Conversely, I can say all of the films I’m about to discuss are worth seeing. So, while 2018’s nominees struggled to pass, 2019’s did so effortlessly. Because every nominee ended up getting a passing grade, I actually had to put some thought into how I would order them. In the end, I realized I had to think of this list in terms of how I would order my top ten for the year. The easiest ones to rank were the ones in the top two positions because we’re talking about works that are so unequivocally better than their contemporaries, it’s almost unfair they’re even in this competition.
Just like last time, this list is, in no way, intended to be a prediction as to which film will win. This article’s primary purpose is for me to express how I think of these films in relation to each other. Now that we have the introduction out of the way, let’s get started.
9. Little Women
Had I written a “Worst to Best” list of the 90th Academy Awards’ “Best Picture” lineup, I am positive Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird would have ranked last. It wasn’t a bad film per se, but it did demonstrate a bad habit of Ms. Gerwig’s to tell rather than to show, which made certain aspects of her narrative difficult to take seriously. I see a bit of that in her sophomore effort, Little Women, as well. If your intent is for two characters to be an obvious mismatch for each other, it doesn’t pay to hire an actor and an actress who have such great chemistry in their shared scenes.
Thankfully, despite being my least favorite of the nominated films, I can still say that Little Women is worth seeing. It really says something that the weakest of these nine films is still better than a majority of last year’s nominees. I could make the case that, like with Lady Bird, Ms. Gerwig vastly overestimates the likability of certain characters. However, this time around, she has much more awareness in the matter, which makes said characters’ slights easier to tolerate. In the end, Ms. Gerwig does a good job addressing issues people may have had with the original text while staying true to what made it a classic in the first place.
8. Marriage Story
Storytelling in the late 2010s had a bad propensity to paint the world in shades of black and white. Even situations rife with moral ambiguity tended to have a side the audience was intended to root for – whether or not such a proposition worked in practice varied. This is a trend that Marriage Story actively subverts. Both of its main characters are well-meaning, yet realistically flawed. I did hear some people express disappointment with this film for making the characters portrayed by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson too unlikable. While it is perfectly understandable given the lengths the characters go to in order to one-up the other, it’s just not the kind of film that can be parsed the same way as its contemporaries. Anyone searching for a film featuring good guys and bad guys won’t it find in Marriage Story.
To be completely fair, Marriage Story does make a similar mistake as Little Women in that one disproportionally weak aspect does hold the film back: the character of Nora Fanshaw. While everyone else is realistically flawed, she comes across as a walking stereotype who enforces a potentially damaging double standard. Still, Marriage Story comes out ahead of contemporary efforts that do this because the narrative refuses to take sides – including hers. For the purposes of this list, I rank it ahead of Little Woman for providing a more interesting conflict.
What Saving Private Ryan did for World War II, 1917 did for World War I. In a lot of ways, it seems a little redundant because the First World War has always been a very unpopular conflict. It took filmmakers several decades to realize that, while striking down fascism benefited all of humankind, the Second World War was just as unglamorous as any other – more so given its unmatched death toll. Nonetheless, even with countless filmmakers telling audiences just how horrible war is, some could still find the idea of fighting in one exciting.
If you wanted any film that shows war for what it is, 1917 would be the one to pick. War as Sam Mendes depicts it is not exciting; it is terrifying, damaging, and exhausting. At any moment, a calm-looking battlefield can turn against you. Nameless corpses are strewn across the battlefield, and there is nothing stopping the protagonists from joining them. At the end of the day, war is not fun, it is not meaningful, and it is certainly not glorious. For being one of the few anti-war pieces to clamp down on its themes without even the slightest hint of romanticism, 1917 is a laudable effort.
6. Ford v Ferrari
Whenever critics and journalists complain about a given year’s list of “Best Picture” nominees, there tends to be a film or two that takes a brunt of the ire. It can be a quality product, but if it’s not what the critics are looking for, they won’t hesitate to set it ablaze. In any other year, Ford v Ferrari would likely have been their primary target. As it stands, it has to settle for third place behind Jojo Rabbit and Joker. I say this because between the nine films presented, it is by far the most mainstream and accessible. On the surface, it is very much a standard 2010s biographical feature. It is about a scrappy team of underdogs who, despite the odds being against them, come out on top, permanently changing the status quo in ways no one thought possible.
However, if that’s the kind of film you’re expecting, then Ford v Ferrari throws plenty of curveballs your way. If anything, the film reads as a light deconstruction of the typical biographical feature insofar that, like Marriage Story and 1917, it presents its conflict in shades of grey. Sure, the protagonists are highly likeable, but by the time the titular conflict plays out, you really have to wonder who the true antagonist is. I’ve seen at least one journalist dismiss Ford v Ferrari as a mere popcorn flick, but in light of its surprising amount of applicability, I don’t think such a description gives James Mangold and his team enough credit. Great story beats can be found in the most mainstream works, and it’s a reality many people invested in the medium need to accept.
5. Jojo Rabbit
If you’re like me, I think you can usually gauge the strength of a given year when it comes to its “Best Picture” nominees by the number of films you have to catch up on after the lineup is announced. To put it another way, the quality of a given year’s output is inversely proportional to the number of films that slip beneath your radar when the nominees are announced. For the 91st Academy Awards, I ended up missing three films: Vice, Green Book, and Bohemian Rhapsody. This is because the critical consensuses of these films, while positive-leaning, weren’t compelling enough for me to give them a chance. Indeed, when I realized Vice, a film that shamelessly danced to the critics’ tune, failed to get unanimous praise from them, I correctly predicted it would be the weakest of the nominees. Indeed, the lightweight Green Book ended up winning, which, while annoying, was the perfect way to cap off a year mired in the doldrums.
Granted, for this Academy Awards lineup, I had also missed three films, but two of them were distributed by Netflix, only having a very limited release in theaters. That means, in practice, the only one to have truly slipped beneath my radar was Jojo Rabbit. When it ended up being rescreened following its Oscar nomination, I saw it as soon as possible. I think one could use this film to demonstrate how bizarre and out-of-touch critical consensuses became by the end of the decade because, just like with Joker, they failed to make a strong case for what turned out to be one of the year’s better efforts.
Taika Waititi’s entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok, proved a little divisive due to carelessly mixing tones at times. Fortunately, he managed to overcome this weakness with Jojo Rabbit. The mixture of the Amarcord-esque silliness of how Nazi Germany is initially portrayed and the seriousness that comes when the enormity of the setting dawns on you is seamless. I’m not entirely sure how Mr. Waititi made it work so well, but what he created is one of those rare contemporary comedy-dramas that manages to truly deliver on both fronts. Seeing the director play a historically inaccurate version of Adolf Hitler and having the soundtrack include blatantly anachronistic music is indicative of the kind of unbridled creativity filmmakers absolutely need more of. If that wasn’t enough, his effort gained the official seal of approval from the great Mel Brooks. That’s when you truly know you’ve well and truly succeeded.
4. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino may not be the most prolific filmmaker out there, but when he has something to say, he can command his audience’s attention immediately. It is a true shame that present-day indie filmmakers underestimate the power of charismatic acting performances or using a style to enhance one’s substance. It’s probably why a lot of them either become one-trick ponies or burn out after their bombastic debuts.
I have to admit that, if I were to make a list ranking Mr. Tarantino’s efforts from worst to best, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would rank fairly low on the list. Regardless, it really says something that one of his weaker films still manages to rank fourth on this list. In spite of its acclaim, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did receive a fair bit of heat from a certain cultural commentators such as Jonathan McIntosh for its romantic portrayal of New Hollywood. The issue they had with the film claimed that Mr. Tarantino tacitly approved of the racist, sexist practices of the era. Considering that he ended up writing Sharon Tate as a fully fleshed out character while reducing the undeservedly revered Roman Polanski to a bit part, I find one has to take such a claim with a grain of salt. Granted, I can understand why people would have a problem with how Mr. Tarantino depicted Bruce Lee.
However, one thing holding much of the current wave of filmmakers back along with the cultural commentators who support them is their inability to realize that every aspect of the past wasn’t objectively worse. Obviously, the era wasn’t perfect. There were plenty of prima donnas working in New Hollywood, and Roman Polanski was the exact kind of monster who could thrive in an environment that gives directors such unrestricted power. Taking him out of the equation, the directors at the time had a certain drive their successors lack. One got the feeling that they made art for its own sake rather than to improve a company’s bottom line or to reaffirm the beliefs critics held. Sure, it eventually came crashing down, but it wasn’t due to a lack of passion.
Moreover, Mr. Tarantino writes in a way that assumes the audience is smart enough to know the reality of the events his films portray. Considering contemporary efforts were conceived under the notion that the average audience member is a complete dullard with a shorter attention span than a goldfish, it is nearly impossible to overstate what a breath of fresh air this was in 2019. Most critics at the time were under the impression that points needed to be hammered into their audience’s heads, slowly eroding the importance of good storytelling over time. Mr. Tarantino elected not to play this game, and his emerged an effort superior to most of 2019’s output because of it.
Joker is a prime example of a quality work that didn’t get its dues because it didn’t jibe with the critical zeitgeist at the time of its release. Admittedly, I attempted to find some definitive explanation for why large portions of critics dropped it like a hot potato, but I couldn’t find one. In an era when indie films were quiet and anemic and mainstream releases loud and bombastic, Joker comes across as what would happen if you took the title character and put him through a New Hollywood filter.
Now, one may assume based of such an assessment that Joker is laughably behind the times, but that isn’t the case at all. In fact, Joker succeeds in much of the same way as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in that it channels the audacious New Hollywood energy in a time when the industry was in desperate need of a renegade or two. The film community by 2019 had become far too complacent with creators playing nicely with their sensibilities, so for someone to barge onto the scene and challenge them was exactly what the doctor ordered.
2. The Irishman
A film so good, it got two different supporting actor nominees. Martin Scorsese inspired a lot of anger in Marvel Cinematic Universe fans when he decried the franchise in 2019. His dismissal of the series as “not real cinema” was a truly misbegotten argument. Cinema, despite implying a high, yet nebulous cultural meaning, ultimately has a fairly objective definition: “the production of movies as an art or industry”. It is therefore reductive to denounce the installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “not real cinema” because then you could apply such a designation to anything you didn’t like. What’s to stop one from saying the works of Mr. Scorsese aren’t real cinema? Sure, many cinephiles would object to such a sentiment, but it’s still just one word against another under these circumstances. Is one opinion really the truth just because more people believe it? And the arguments would only get more abstract and nonsensical from there.
Mr. Scorsese’s thesis is admittedly understandable, but he ultimately approached a very real problem from the wrong angle. Regardless, I give him credit for being one of the very few creators in any medium to back up his words with genuine talent. An overwhelming majority of the time, whenever somebody expresses this view, they fail to provide a viable alternative. Mr. Scorsese actually manages to put his money where his mouth is by giving us a grand, sprawling epic that, by 2019, was exceptionally rare. This places him ahead of contemporary commentators because it adheres to one of the most important guidelines an artist can follow: be the change you want to see happen.
Despite the many great things that can be said about The Irishman, a certain faction felt Hustlers and Uncut Gems were cheated out a “Best Picture” nomination just to prop up a veteran past his prime. In response, I have to say that you never settle for paste imitations when the real thing is being offered at the same price. While it could be considered a grossly one-sided contest, the more experienced Mr. Scorsese proved he hadn’t lost his touch over five decades into his career. That is truly impressive.
When I ranked the 91st Academy Award nominees from worst to best, I ended the list in a somewhat unusual way. I placed the final two films in their own section, and pit them head-to-head before declaring Black Panther the winner. I have to admit the reason I did so was fairly weak; I considered Black Panther the superior effort simply to spite the critics for the many terrible opinions they expressed throughout 2018. I did genuinely think it was a better film than Roma, but if you think that’s a tenuous reason to round out the list, you would be entirely correct. In my defense, I wrote the article the way I did to demonstrate that, while Black Panther was the best of the nominees, I didn’t really have a horse in the race.
As you may have gathered by now, that is not a problem I had with this year’s batch of nominees. While Mr. Scorsese’s effort was doubtlessly impressive itself, I find I have to give the nod to Bong Joon-ho’s anti-capitalist allegory, Parasite. If you wanted a film that has a critique to give on society, yet never feels the need to talk down to its audience, Parasite is for you. It is a film that manages to transcend the trappings of its zeitgeist and deliver a fresh, original satire the likes of which the medium had not seen in years.
How does Mr. Bong succeed where countless others have failed? Nuance. In a typical story from around this time, you would be treated to a heavy-handed parable devoid of any real characters. In fact, one could see this flaw manifest in one of Mr. Bong’s own earlier works – Snowpiercer. The antagonists didn’t have a diegetic reason for doing what they did; it was because they were just that evil. Here the characters on both sides of the conflict are very believable, which makes the story that much easier to take seriously. Combined with some of the funniest bits of black comedy of its day, I can see no better feature to round out this list.