Cinema’s Pewter Age

Picks for Oscar Night 2020
Photo by REVOLT on Unsplash

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. 

What strikes one critic as a fatal formal incongruity strikes another (or fifty others) as a brilliant rendering of life itself.

Let me proceed to a pair of films I considered good but overrated, beginning with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. I can’t square the broad critical acclaim for Baumbach with my feeling that his movies—specifically the writing—fall short of what they could be. Satire and sympathy conflict and compete, resulting in a damaging unevenness of tone and intention. In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Baumbach dissected a family, run by two creative parents, whose pathology poured forth from the black hole of the father’s seething narcissism. Baumbach presented the writer-father as a buffoonish ogre of selfishness, siphoning off the film’s tragic potential. Marriage Story once again takes up a toxic divorce in an artsy family, and critics have praised it as a “flawless elegy” full of “dense and literate writing.” But the same simplifying problems persist. A curious imbalance in pacing includes fight scenes that explode from nowhere, as Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s characters—who until moments ago seemed more or less contented and civil—suddenly haul out the big guns and blast away. To be sure, what strikes one critic as a fatal formal incongruity strikes another (or fifty others) as a brilliant rendering of life itself. Do I just want my emotional categories to be sorted out too neatly? Maybe. But even the enjoyable supporting roles—Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as a pair of high-powered divorce lawyers outdoing each other in sliminess—reveal Baumbach’s default tilt toward caricature and comedy, even as he tries to wring pathos and poignancy from the material. Bottom line: is this The War of the Roses, or Kramer vs. Kramer? Baumbach can’t seem to make up his mind.

The other overrated film—I am bracing myself for a pummeling—is Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s trenchant political allegory, Parasite. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about Parasite, especially the mix of comic and ominous as one family, the impoverished Kims, stealthily infiltrates the life of a second, the wealthy Park family. The movie resembles one of the Hirokazu Kore-eda films—like last year’s Shoplifters—that sympathetically portray the marginalized poor in Asian boom-economy societies. But it adds a dimension of absurdity, farce, and metaphor. I assume it’s this skillful welding of realism to sociopolitical metaphor that critics like. But the film’s guiding metaphor—the rich living in palaces above while the exploited poor suffer in underground captivity—is pretty obvious, and ditto the dramatic and explosively violent denouement. To my mind, the movie owes a lot to Jordan Peele—both Get Out, with its absurdist fantasy of exploitation, and Us, in which a doppelganger family of impoverished zombies fastens mercilessly upon a prosperous, comfy upper-middle-class family. But Parasite strikes me as less surprising than these films. Watching Peele, I was never at all sure where he was going; there’s a nervy, weird quality in his movies that Parasite lacks. Perhaps we are living in an age of inequality so crassly obvious, we require metaphors to match. 

Perhaps we are living in an age of inequality so crassly obvious, we require metaphors to match.

The remaining four films are my favorites. But does Sam Mendes’s 1917, the apparent Oscar frontrunner, have something to offer—by way of conveying the horrors of war—that was missing from Saving Private Ryan, or Dunkirk?  If so, it might be in the film’s technical virtuosity: a series of long takes artfully stitched together to create the impression of one single, continuous, monster take. This technique has consequences a viewer may sense but not fully comprehend. First, it creates a High Noon-like effect of near-real time, where the story unspools minute for minute on something resembling our own time scale in the theater. Second, in a continuous take of this length, the camera becomes a character, offering a point of view rather than material for a composition. The result is a special intimacy with the lead character (in this case, the soldier played by George MacKay) that makes the film especially cathartic. It also makes 1917 harrowing in a claustrophobic way, well-suited to the dreadful reality of trench life. (A good pairing for this movie would be Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, made from colorized WWI footage, which should have gotten a Best Documentary mention, but fell between the Oscar filing deadlines for last year and this year.)

Regarding Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, apart from rejecting the idea of ellipses in a film title, I’ll make a confession: I have never liked Quentin Tarantino. I think of him as a flavor that everyone else seems to love but me. He’s the maple-walnut of directors. Specifically, what I’ve resisted is the sense of total enclosure within a purely cinematic, and cinema-referencing, world. His films don’t even pretend to be about life, and what’s worse, they are showy about it; to me they evoke a bull session of college freshmen—wonky, film-obsessed stoner dudes sitting around one-upping each other on their favorite film moments. Showoff snark, snide irony, huge gobs of gore and blood: his films are the very definition of gratuitous.

How is it that Once Upon a Time takes the very same qualities that have always turned me off, and transforms them into virtues? The same things I disliked about Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and other Tarantino films are precisely what I do like now. Even, for instance, the violence. By the time Once Upon a Time turns into a bloody violent spree, it does so in such an hysterically apt way that you can’t help but smile—it becomes a Bruce Lee action film, of the kind that it has already (very fondly) mocked. For me, what differentiates this film is the gentle reverence it emanates. Bathed in a glow of retrospection for Hollywood and its fantasies—and for the all-too-human, fallen characters who help create them—the film seems far more forgiving than those other ones. And Tarantino’s counterfactual rewriting of history uses celebrity to redo one of the most dreadful of real-life scenarios—the Sharon Tate murders—and turn it into something unexpectedly touching. That’s…Hollywood for you.

I liked Little Women a lot, and in a distinctly literary way. The large cast of characters; the mix of social observation and personal particulars; the fulsome, chatty, witty dialogue; the ranging back and forth over many years: watching it is a lot like reading the kind of nineteenth-century novel it derives from. It is an immersive experience, one that lets you care about characters and their rising and falling fortunes over time. Why does Greta Gerwig not get a Best Director nomination for this? It’s almost as if the Academy decided to play into the film’s own themes and spurn the creative accomplishment of a woman. A word about Saoirse Ronan. Viewers will remember her luminous performance as an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn, and her endearing role in Lady Bird, where she played a dreamy teenager mired in an unhappy and economically stressed family. She is a mesmerizing actor, whose beauty rides on a kind of lambent intelligence and emotional hyper-alertness; her face simultaneously conveys something eternal and something supremely focused on, and reactive to, the present moment. Ronan seems born to play characters you will root for with all your heart—and fall in love with, too.

Left for last is Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic, The Irishman, presenting the life of Frank Sheeran, a high-ranking Teamster official known for his ties to the mob and his service as a hitman. The Irishman follows the careers of Sheeran and his Teamster boss, Jimmy Hoffa, from the 1940s through the 2000s. Its three-and-a-half hours fly by, the period-piece details and background tapestry of news stories creating a near-perfect blending of personal story and social chronicle, with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino offering bravura performances.  In a 2018 Commonweal interview, Scorsese mentioned growing up reading the Daily News, and noted that its black-and-white tabloid aesthetic “goes through all my movies.” Yet despite the requisite violence, The Irishman lets in something more like LIFE magazine. Not a noirish glare, but rather a mellow goldenness illuminates the wiseguys assembled here—De Niro, Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel—and Scorsese’s saga of a hitman’s greatest hits.

Some odds and ends. With Netflix, Amazon et al. quickly moving toward dominant positions in the moviemaking industry, 2019 may be remembered as the year when we plunged fully into the twilight zone between streaming and theatergoing—possibly the last year when most of us will have seen most of these movies in theaters, and not at home. On a more minor note, it may also be remembered as the year we did away with the practice of having multiple actors play characters portrayed over many decades. This is due to the magic of VFX technology: CGI touch-ups that make actors look younger, digitally “de-aging” them (as Scorsese did for De Niro in The Irishman.)

Now to a few notable snubs. Didn’t Adam Sandler deserve a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of the diamond dealer caught in a brutal vise of pressures in Uncut Gems? I also would have nominated Lupita Nyong’o for Us, and Jörg Widmer for his cinematography in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. And it’s borderline outrageous that the International Film category failed to include Christian Petzold’s Transit, a strange and gripping film about a refugee trying to escape from what seems to be Nazi-occupied France, but in a current-day setting—an enticing and mysterious movie that resembles Casablanca refracted through Kafka.

Before I list picks and predictions, let me mention a tool I use to help predict Oscar wins. Go to Rotten Tomatoes and compare the Critics score with the Popular Audience rating. Generally, for a film to win big with the Academy, it has to have high numbers in both categories; any significant lopsidedness is a problem. Occasionally, a film that scores less well with critics will get pushed through by a high popular vote—Green Book being the classic example.  But it almost never works the other way; any film that critics love but audiences don’t like much like is toast. By this standard, the films most likely to be rewarded are Parasite and Little Women, while those with a possible problem are The Irishman, Marriage Story, and Once Upon a Time, all of which did better with critics than with audiences. We’ll see. Meanwhile, those interested in a fuller discussion can link to Reasonably Catholic, the radio show where former Commonweal colleague Richard Alleva and I go head to head on the Best Picture nominees, with help from host Maria Johnson. That said, here are my picks: 

 

Best Picture 

Will Win: 1917. Might Win: Parasite. Should Win: The Irishman or Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.  

Leading Actor 
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker. Might Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story. Should Win:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Leading Actress
Will Win:  Renée Zellweger, Judy. Might Win: Cynthia Erivo, Harriet. Should Win: Saoirse Ronan, Little Women.

Supporting Actor
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Might Win: Al Pacino, The Irishman. Should Win: Pacino or Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes.

Supporting Actress
Will Win: Laura Dern, Marriage Story. Might Win: Florence Pugh, Little Women. Should Win:  Florence Pugh.  

Best Director
Will Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite. Might Win: Sam Mendes, 1917. Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman.

Best International Feature Film
Will Win: Parasite. Might Win: Pain and Glory. Should Win: Parasite.

Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: The Irishman. Might Win: Jojo Rabbit. Should Win: Little Women.

Original Screenplay
Will Win: Marriage Story. Might Win: Parasite. Should Win: Once Upon a Time…

Cinematography
Will Win: Roger Deakins, 1917. Might Win: Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse. Should Win: Deakins.

Now get the popcorn popping, and enjoy!

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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