Oscars: Best Films of 2019

Nine nominees for Best film this year and I’ve managed to see 7 of them. Parasite is only released on Friday and I don’t think I’m going to have a chance to see before the awards on Sunday. It’s frustrating that a film with so much buzz around it is so slow to come to UK cinemas, particularly given that it actually won a couple of BAFTAs last weekend – how a film can be eligible for awards when it isn’t even out in the country is beyond me. The other is Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ’66 as it was known in the UK) which I sort of wanted to see but just didn’t get around to, I probably would have made more of an effort if I had known it was going to be an Oscar nominee but it never seemed to have that level of buzz about it.

On some levels it’s an interesting range of films, big spectacle (1917, Ford V Ferrari), intimate drama (Marriage Story), period drama (Little Women), something foreign (Parasite), something controversial (Joker) something undefinable (Jojo Rabbit), and a couple by big names just doing their thing (Martin Scorsese’s Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
However, those entries are only ‘diverse’ if you’re considering films that are considered dramas. The point of expanding the nominees list was supposed to open it up for a broader range of films but it feels like it’s failed this year. Even just comparing to last year, mainstream films Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born, and superhero film Black Panther were nominated while this year’s similar and superior offerings of Rocketman and Avengers Endgame were completely ignored. Was Black Panther nominated because it was a good film (which it really really was) or because it shocked the Hollywood elite by showing a mainstream film made and starring black people could be a success. Because in 2018 that was apparently something that needed to be proved. I believe Black Panther earned a nomination because it was a really great film, but nominating a ‘token’ superhero film one year is no better than nominating a ‘token’ black actor or female director (I’ll rant more about that in my next post) just to shut up critics and then reverting to blinkers the following year. I think Rocketman with it’s perfect blend of fascinating story, insightful writing, stunning acting and beautiful direction not only should have been nominated, but that it should possibly have won.

So looking at the actual nominees, of the 7 films that I’ve seen, the two I don’t feel belong on this list are the two by the Names. I thought The Irishman was actively bad – completely lacking in any depth of character or plot, unforgivable given the length). Once Upon A Time in Hollywood wasn’t as complete a write off, but it was still a jumbled collection of good ideas for very different films that Tarantino just meandered between. Neither director has any self-control with editing or run times and both films committed the terminal sin of long periods where I was bored. The third film I really struggle with on this list is Jojo Rabbit which I didn’t feel delivered the tone it needed to, which makes me sad rather than angry, and I’m willing to concede that I may be wrong in my feelings on it and was just expecting something different given the trailer.

That leaves four films for me to chose between and while they are all incredibly good films, I think the one that is the best package is Marriage Story. It manages to blend all the big elements of film making – writing, acting, directing together to produce an intimate film that’s beautiful and brutal. The other three films are all superb, but each excels in one area of film making maybe over and above the others – Joker has a stunning performance at its heart, Little Women is a truly wonderful adapted screenplay making a classic completely relevant without losing the heart of the original, and 1917 is one of the most impressive directorial achievements in decades, but lacks a little on the story front. Marriage Story was the only film that I was absolutely gripped by the whole time, even though I watched it at home via Netflix; all the other films at some point I dropped out of the immersion to think about the film making itself.

My full reviews are below. I’ll post my full list of picks for the awards at the weekend.

Marriage Story
I put the film on because it appeared at the top of my Netflix page, I knew it had got some award nominations, and I couldn’t be bothered to decide what to watch. I was not expecting to be so completely gripped, moved and genuinely stunned by it. I can’t remember the last time I watched a film that felt so real, like I really was looking in on peoples’ lives. Yes, I can’t say I relate that much to an LA actress, or a New York avant garde theatre director, and I’ve not been married let alone divorced, but I really felt I was watching real emotions and behaviour. The ups and downs of the relationship are so fluid, the emotions so wide ranging and raw that I physically felt the anxiety, anger and stress that the characters were going through. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are phenomenal, in small moments, long speeches and high energy fights it never feels like they’re delivering a script but are really living it. The only thing stopping this being a 10 are that some of the supporting characters feel a little too extreme, their comic relief is much appreciated, but does slightly clash with the two main characters.

1917
This is an incredible cinematic achievement. The film is made up of a series of incredibly long takes (apparently up to 10 mins long each) and is blended together so that it seems like just two continuous shots. We follow a mission given to two young (but jaded) soldiers charged with a terrifying but critical mission to deliver a message. The shooting style isn’t just a gimmick it’s a tool to make the audience completely part of the experience, and the intensity of it is all part of the film. What surprised me was that it didn’t feel like the film makers really made many concessions to the style, the film still has massive action sequences, complex camera moves, complicated lighting and moments of intense acting. The beauty and the scale took my breath away on multiple occasions and with so many “tricks of the trade” not available it made even the simplest of shots so much more impressive.
I will say, that without this incredible way of filming, I don’t think the film would have been anywhere near as remarkable, in fact I think the film making did limit some aspects. The concept is of course strong, and any film that presents the reality of war has something worth listening to, but I think overall there was probably not enough depth to characters or situations. The filming style would have made it very hard to get this depth, the actors did an impressive job in what must have been incredibly challenging circumstances, but I did find a couple of the characters a little too closed off, a avoiding the depth of emotion that it would be hard to reach in the middle of a ten minute take, and impossible to edit for. Ordinarily there would be dozens of options for every single second, but here I’m sure there were brilliant moments of performance that had to be thrown away because of a miss-firing effect or stumble of a cameraman. That the output is so good even with those constraints is incredible, but it does make the focus of the film that style rather than the other components. I’m not complaining, it’s made something unusual and still an incredibly good piece of cinema.

Joker
I didn’t want to see this film. Not because I didn’t think it would be good, but because I thought it probably WOULD be good, and when the subject is as hard as this one, being good just means it’s a very hard and challenging watch and I didn’t really want that. However it’s getting to awards season and I was feeling bad I wouldn’t be able to comment on it in that context, so when I stumbled on a convenient cinema showing I decided to got for it. I’m glad I saw it in the cinema as it forced me to keep paying attention, when at home I would probably have taken the easy option and started looking away to my phone.
The film was all the things I hoped (and feared) it would be. An incredibly well written, directed and acted character study. We all know where the character is going to end up and so it’s a film utterly without hope and an incredible sense of doom that makes it a really depressing watch. There’s no way out of that, it’s tense, bleak, violent and sad. Joaquin Phoenix however gives a completely compelling performance, so even when I didn’t want to be watching what was happening, the way he performed it was always interesting, surprising and fitting. It’s a film that from start to finish, I didn’t want to look at, but couldn’t take my eyes off.

Little Women
This is probably my favourite book of all time, I’ve read it more times than I can count and know the characters, storyline, dialogue and even the descriptions incredibly well. It feels like there’s an adaption of it for pretty much every generation of actors and I can’t actually remember any of them disappointing. Greta Gerwig is a wonderful talent and I was excited to hear she was adapting and directing a version, with a cast headlined by the equally talented Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy). I was not disappointed.
The book is beautifully, faithfully and lovingly retold. The only innovation is to shake the story up and tell it in overlapping timelines and flashbacks. I could certainly respect the idea, but it didn’t quite work for me as I felt it spoiled some of the storylines, big moments of character development were lost because we already knew how things would turn out. My companion didn’t like it either, he wasn’t familiar with the story and lost track of characters and ‘when’ we were. However, other than that, the production is lovely – bringing out the threads of feminism without overwhelming, beautiful chemistry from the cast, and a glorious period setting. It is also just as emotional as it should be and is at least a “two tissue” picture.

Jojo Rabbit
Another film I’d been looking forward to and ended up disappointed. Just like David Copperfield in fact this film was also a bit too jumbled in tone, but rather than muddling it up in each scene, it just felt like each act of the film played differently. The concept and tone of the trailer were intriguing – a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany, with Hitler as an imaginary friend. But quirky tone of the film sort of kept coming and going, as if it wanted to revert to a more thoughtful and serious piece but then remembered it was supposed to be funny. It’s an odd thing to say, but it actually needed more Hitler as he was the comedy relief who really nailed the satire of the piece; Sam Rockwell also did an admirable job here and could have been on screen more. It had great ideas, solid cast, nice design (I liked the brightness of it, rather than the cliche dreary colour scheme), and some really great scenes, but it just didn’t quite come together.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I have a great many conflicting thoughts about this film. I’m going to broadly approach them chronologically as they hit me.
As the film started, I immediately settled into it, warming to the characters and wanting to know more about them and spend time with them. DiCaprio and Pitt are both playing characters that are comfortable for them and the audience, just enough depth and complexity to be interesting, but neither massively challenging. After a while I also began to appreciate the style of the film, the loving way 1960’s Hollywood was presented. It as shot with a creative eye, but not an “overly arty” one that felt contrived. I was also lucky enough to see the film on 35mm which just added to the period feel.
I forgot it was a Quentin Tarantino film. It was smart, but not in the smug or deliberately shocking way that his other films were. It was also gentle and felt safe. Even with Sharon Tate as a central character and the knowledge of what happened to her, it still felt as if everything was controlled, not as chaotic as Tarantino usually feels.
Then I got bored. It was still interesting and pleasant spending time with the characters, but it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. Tarantino’s lack of ability to edit was showing again. I began to wonder whether the film was actually not going to show what happened to Tate as we were still firmly stuck 6 months before that date and noodling around.
Then suddenly we were back in a Tarantino film. The dry narrator reappeared, the events edged from quirky but believable into more extreme and the violence cranked up to levels that I actually closed my eyes for. I’m not going to spoil it but I’m genuinely not sure how I feel about the ending, whether it’s a cheap trick or a clever twist. I genuinely can’t decide.
Overall – There were bits that I loved, bits that I found frustrating and bits that I have no idea about. If you watched the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes I don’t think you’d ever connect them as the same film and I don’t think that the transition is managed very well. It’s an interesting film, and almost a film that’s designed to be studied and talked about, but there’s also a lot to enjoy in it.

The Irishman
There is no escaping the fact that this ‘film’ is three and a half hour long. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t work. If Scorsese wanted to effectively tell this sort of long life story, he should have committed to a 8 part mini-series or something. If he can’t generate that amount of content then he should have shown more control and edited it down so it was at least under 3 hours. The problem is I don’t think Scorsese wanted to do either of those, and no one told him no. The result is a film that is baggy and boring, but also very narrow focus. There are plenty of ‘episodes’ that should have been edited out of a film, and plenty of characters that could have been expanded to a mini-series (not least every single woman). The acting is impressive, and I wasn’t overly bothered by the de-aging effects, but I was really bored and it felt more like an endurance challenge than an enjoyable experience.

One thought on “Oscars: Best Films of 2019

  1. Pingback: Oscars: Films of 2019 – Narrative Devices

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