This Sunday night comes the annual parade of golden statuettes, and herewith your reviewer’s annual preview, with pleasures, peeves, and picks.
Once again, it will not be a satisfying year for those who view the Oscars through the lens of its #oscarssowhite and #oscarssomale deficiencies, as people of color and women are significantly underrepresented in all categories. And once again, I’m ambivalent about the movies up for awards. All in all, it’s like those AT&T commercials where people are nonplussed when their surgeon or pilot is described as “OK.” Just OK? Whether it is surgery, airline pilots, or the Academy Awards, we want more than just OK. Films under consideration this year either seemed too pat, too designed to please and entertain, like Ford v Ferrari or The Two Popes; or, on the other hand, too stylized, offering more attitude and affectation than anything else (Joker, say, or that critical favorite—spurned by audiences—Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir.)
Almost every year, I have this feeling that the honorees just aren’t as good as they were when I was a teenager and fell in love with movies. Even accounting for nostalgia, I still feel this way. Recent Best Picture winners include such mediocrities as The Artist, Chicago, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, and last year’s champ, Green Book. Now look at the 1970s, when Best Picture nominees included Five Easy Pieces, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, Deliverance, American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, Chinatown, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and Breaking Away. And those are the films that lost. (The winners were Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, and Kramer vs. Kramer.)
My guess is that there has been a siphoning-off of creative energy into television. We’re in the golden age of TV, and maybe you can’t have a golden age of cinema, too. Maybe, at best, a Pewter Age.
With my grouchiness cleared away, let me go through our Pewter-Age contenders for Best Picture, beginning with three that strike me as not Oscar worthy. James Mangold’s race-car drama, Ford v Ferrari, is a perfect example of Well Made Hollywood Entertainment. The good guys are honest but complicated (or is it the other way around?); the villains are soulless corporate apparatchiks; poignant losses evoke tears, and in the end, good triumphs. There is precisely one unexpected moment in the whole movie—when Henry Ford II, played with immaculate stolidity by Tracy Letts, suddenly breaks into tears of terror and exhilaration while taking a test drive in Ford’s new race car. Apart from that one moment, the film contains not the slightest trace of the strange. And at two-and-a-half hours it is punishingly long. A film this formulaic should stick with that formula timewise, too.
For the opposite of formulaic there’s Jojo Rabbit, New Zealander Taika Waititi’s strangely comic look at German Fascism through the eyes of a young boy, an avid Hitler Youth member whose family secretly harbors a Jew. Though that doesn’t sound comic, the movie’s conceit is that young Johannes has an invisible friend—none other than Hitler himself, who repeatedly appears and lectures on the finer points of Nazi ideology. The film actually seems German in its fey, faux-naïve irony and absurdity, its use of whimsy to try to encompass terror. It also evokes Volker Schlöndorff’s Tin Drum with its big-screen closeups of the child’s face, caught in dread. Put off by the film at first, for a time I fell for its particular sway, before concluding that it doesn’t work: in the face of its subject, its slapstick humor repeatedly threatens to become grotesque. The best thing, oddly, is Waititi’s riff on Hitler, which is by turns farcical and then, via several riffs on Hitler’s screaming oratory, scarily accurate. And Scarlett Johansson (nominated for an Oscar) is stylish and wonderful as the mom—part gritty resistance hero, part glamorous coquette.
Finally, there’s Joker, Todd Phillips’s therapy-minded backstory entry in the Batman series. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the depressed loser who eventually becomes the arch-villain. Visually the film captures the grungy, degraded, depressed downtroddenness of New York City circa 1980, and turns it into an externalization of the character’s own depressed state; the color of the madman attire Fleck chooses, its bellicose flamboyance, strikes an angry counternote to his ultra-drab surroundings. But the film’s ending is wildly contrived, in an almost grotesque attempt to be “shattering”—and, strangely, to pay very specific homage to two Martin Scorsese films, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. The explosion of violence this involves does a disservice to Joker’s own potential for quiet, inward suffering. But even that potential is problematic, and brings home how strange this movie is as a comic-book movie. In the Batman movies, even a mesmerizing arch-villain like Heath Ledger’s Joker is, ultimately, part of the larger picture—one of many players in the gloomy tapestry of Gotham. By subsuming the picture of civic good and evil into a therapy-driven pathology of one character, this Joker effectively abandons the comic-book format. In the process, it showcases a performance by Phoenix that hovers weirdly between virtuosic and gimmicky.