It’s that time of year again. Audiences and critics have given their verdict on the best of the year. Finally, Hollywood itself will honor its peers and crown 2019’s towering cinematic achievements. Love them or hate them, you can’t ignore them. The Academy Awards remain among the biggest televised live events of the year and cinephiles around the globe in different time zones will tune in simultaneously for the industry’s biggest night.
I’ve been following the Oscars for around 10 years now. This is one of my favorite best picture line ups. I love or at least like each of these 9 films wholeheartedly. There’s nothing here that makes me shrug or that I feel doesn’t belong. This has never happened before. It could also be the first time that my favorite film of the year actually wins the best picture.
It’s also a year with a lot of broadly well-liked and popular films. The 5 theatrical wide releases from Hollywood (Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari, Little Women, 1917) all cleared $100 million domestic. Jojo Rabbit did well at the specialty box office. Parasite exceeded all expectations for a foreign film domestically and amassed a healthy total worldwide. Marriage Story and The Irishman were sent straight into millions of homes courtesy Netflix. This shaped out to be a list of nominations that actually proved quite popular among general audiences and not just film buffs and the industry.
Some honorable mentions – films that didn’t factor into the awards conversation but I enjoyed and were important to me in 2019: Avengers Endgame, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Booksmart, Knives Out, Waves, and Ad Astra.
Related Read: 10 Criminally Underrated Best Picture Winner
And now, without further ado, here’s my ranking of the nine nominations. These reflect personal preferences and not an objective analysis.
Watching Joker is a bleak, harrowing and uncomfortable experience. It’s like watching the timer to a bomb countdown and being completely helpless. There’s no choice but to wait and witness the explosion. For many years now, we’ve seen comic book origin stories in which we get thrilled and excited as the protagonist inches closer to their new identity. In this case, you’re dreading it and flinching at the thought of what’s to come.
Joaquin Phoenix anchors the film with an unhinged and arresting performance you can’t take your eyes off of. The production design and cinematography paint Gotham as the perfect playground for the slippery slope out of sanity and the chilling score is used effectively. The narrative manages to surprise and is consistently engaging. Todd Phillips brings it all together with his focused direction into a unique and unforgettable viewing.
Full List of Oscars 2020 Nominations: Joker Leads With 11 Nominations
However, not all was perfect. The Batman references and attempt to tie in the Wayne’s felt forced and did nothing for the narrative. And while the film touched upon a lot of interesting themes and felt like it wanted to say something larger about society, it didn’t quite successfully explore these ideas.
8. Marriage Story
Marriage Story is a terrifically written and acted drama. Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson are riveting in career-best performances. Noah Baumbach’s screenplay is raw and effective. The film is well-staged and lovingly scored. The entire supporting cast is full of aces too – especially Laura Dern (who’s almost a certainty to win the Oscar at this point).
The film arose all sorts of emotions within me. It can be tender and brutal, soft and unflinching. I was completely invested and wanted more once two hours had flown by. I don’t need to say much more about this absorbing film. The fact that it’s so low on my list only speaks to how much I liked the other nominations this year.
Must-Read: Every Noah Baumbach Film Ranked
7. Jojo Rabbit
Jojo Rabbit has a truly interesting plot and capitalizes on it to tell a touching tale uniquely and engagingly. It takes a while for the film to truly establish what it’s about, but once it does, it instantly warrants your investment and succeeds in winning you over with its sincerity. The comedic and satirical elements of the story work well and are always sharp and never overdone.
Roman Griffin Davis is fantastic in the leading role and it’s wonderful to see such a raw and confident performance from this young debutant. Thomasin McKenzie offers a perfectly subtle and graceful performance (for which she deserved more attention this awards season). Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell are reliably great in their supporting roles.
The film moves at a brisk pace and features many memorable sequences. It has moments that’ll make you laugh, pull on your heartstrings, and also makes time to occasionally ramp up the tension and suspense. Taika Waititi brings it all together with his confident direction to craft a film I much enjoyed.
1917 is a technical knockout and the film-making bravado on display is astonishing. It more than makes up for the somewhat simple narrative and stakes as far as war movies go. The film achieves the effect of making you feel like you go along on the mission with the soldiers and is completely immersive.
Our Review: 1917: A Devastatingly Beautiful Representation of War
Among all the nominees, it’s probably the one that feels the most like an experience. In an age of the streaming revolution, it’s always a delight to see filmmakers try and tell stories with a new visual language to take advantage of the big screen. What Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins have accomplished here is something we’ll be talking about for years to come.
The only drawback of the “one-shot” illusion the film tries to create is that once you clue into it, it feels like the technique is informing the narrative, rather than the other way around. The story is written to be in service of shooting style, and this instantly limits its scope and its stakes. While I was incredibly engaged, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I’d have liked to be. Regardless, this is our current front runner for the best picture and I’m completely fine with that.
5. Little Women
As far as book adaptations go, it doesn’t get much better than Little Women. Many questioned the need for another one of these films, given the number of times this story has been told on the big and small screens over the last couple of decades. Greta Gerwig proved them wrong by creating a film that’s an absolute delight from start to finish.
The production here is impeccable. Everything from the costumes to the sets and lighting is perfect and transports you to a time and place. She succeeds in capturing the mood and warmth of the book in such a fine fashion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scenes of the sisters all together and talking over each other. The energy and innocence translate onto the screen in a manner I didn’t think possible. By playing with timelines and telling the story in a nonlinear fashion, it allows us to experience the story from a fresh perspective.
The cast is stacked and is easily among the best ensembles of the year. The meta ending is bold and clever. I can see myself revisiting this film just to spend some time in the delightful company of the March sisters for years to come.
4. Ford V Ferrari
I don’t care for cars and yet, this was among the most engaging films of the year for me. Despite being driven by a simple and predictable story, it was also the most exhilarating. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t feature the creative ideas, high ambitions or uniqueness of many of 2019’s best films. It stands close to no chance at winning on Sunday and has been mostly dismissed as a well-liked and entertaining “Dad movie”, but there’s nobility in accomplishing that as well.
Read Our Coverage From TIFF: Ford v Ferrari: Winner All The Way
It’s a film in which every department is at the top of its craft, resulting in a fine-tuned and polished to perfection product that zooms past the finish line in style and grace. Much like the many teams that have to come together in perfect synergy for a race car to go 100’s of laps, everything in this film comes together wonderfully to deliver an absolute knockout package that’ll set your heart racing in IMAX.
I had no prior knowledge of the true events the story chronicles or of the sport of racing in general. I came away with a newfound appreciation for the sport and a desire to know more about the people and the story itself. Since then, I’ve re-watched the film and even read the book it’s based on.
The race scenes are exciting and involving. The off the track drama is just as compelling thanks to a charming cast and characters who overcome the scripts occasional hokey portions. Toss in some top-notch cinematography, thunderous sound design, a screenplay that’s involving even in its slower moments and you have an absolute winner.
3. The Irishman
“The only way we did this together again was if we could do something new with it, not just repeat what we’ve already done” The Irishman is a three and a half-hour long, decades-spanning, world-building and absorbing epic that pushes the envelope in how such stories are told in various ways, whether it be the (slightly distracting) VFX & de-aging or the reflective and contemplative epilogue.
It’s a dense film filled with details and populated by interesting characters fully fleshed out with their traits and pet peeves, the main trio of which are wonderfully brought to life by De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino. All of them are so well written and their on-screen interactions are all you’d hope for. There’s a lot of talking, so thankfully the dialog is as witty and entertaining as ever. The film lacks the kinetic energy and momentum of something like Goodfellas. But it’s still engrossing in its own way with many memorable scenes and moments.
Even at its massive run time, I never felt like the film dragged or anything should have been cut. Every detail further immersed you in the world and the lives of these characters. There are multiple themes dug into in interesting ways and it’s such a joy to see one of our most beloved directors go all out with the shackles of and no restraints. It’s a film I enjoyed even more on a second viewing and will revisit in years to come.
2. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino is his weirdest and most fascinating. He’s picked a combination of the most mainstream stars to make his most indulgent and niche film yet! I had to watch it twice on the opening weekend just to take it all in. This isn’t a movie with much of a plot, it’s more of a “hang out with these characters & experience a few days in their lives” experience. Thank god, the actual characters are well written and gripping with a dynamic presence. The wonderful setting of 1969 Hollywood is fully realized. The film whisks you away to a different era and place. So much so that I found myself reading up on Hollywood in the ’60s after. And the ending is just satisfying on so many levels.
Leonardo DiCaprio is back after his Oscar win in a surprising and touching performance that was worth the wait. We see him in a manner we haven’t before and he expectedly nails it. Brad Pitt is oozing charisma in every frame he’s in and reminds you of why he’s one of the biggest stars of the last couple of decades. While I expected to love Leo, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Brad’s performance. I can’t wait for Sunday to get off to a rollicking start with his win for best-supporting actor. Margot Robie has the required impact in her part and the film is littered with pleasant cameos from other notable actors.
This film has multiple memorable scenes that’ll stay with me for a long time. It’s a drama with a healthy dose of well-earned laughs and some typical Tarantino style action. The film is a complete sensory experience and the sights and sounds of 1969 Los Angeles are wonderfully captured. Whether you love or hate this film (it’s been very divisive in my social circles), it’s undeniably a unique experience. I loved simply spending time with these characters in this time and place. It didn’t bother me that the film wasn’t typically structured or had any semblance of a coherent plot that had forward momentum. Shots linger, conversations drag on and there’s much joy to be found in the smaller details. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, we’ll be hanging out again soon.
Parasite is a cinematic excellence. Rarely does it happen that you walk out of a film thinking “I’ve truly never seen anything quite like this.” The hype for this film on film twitter and its acclaim and wins at film festivals were so unprecedented, it had me believing there was no way it could live up to it. I was proven wrong. Between its roller-coaster of a plot, it somehow finds the time for comedy and character. Not to mention how the masterful screenplay subtlety weaves in some social commentary and shines a light on certain issues. It makes you think while being uproariously entertaining.
The film flies by because it’s so engrossing and keeps you at the edge of your seat. Bong Joon-Ho expertly weaves together moments of such heightened tension that you’ll feel your pulse pounding. The writing is unbelievably sharp and perfect performances further elevate the material. The SAG award for the best ensemble is well earned. It’s a real shame none of them were recognized at the Oscars.
Months later, I’m still blown away by the sheer brilliance and storytelling creativity of this film. It creates moments that are so natural and grounded in reality that even the more outlandish elements seem to fit right into the real world. The film masterfully maneuvers varying tones and genres. To the point that it makes it look unbelievably smooth and easy, whereas it’s an incredibly delicate balance and tightrope act to pull off.
Every once in a while comes along a film that’s such a scrumptious and joyous watch, you wish you could wipe it clean from your memory so you could experience it for the first time again. Parasite is that for me. I will be rooting for it to beat out the favorite, 1917 and make history in taking home the highest honor on Sunday night.