Well, it’s that time of year again for the Oscars, my loyal readers. That one event we wait for all year. Like Christmas – second Christmas. Only without any gifts and double the disappointment. And while I’m a bit late to turning my ballot in, timeliness means nothing. It’s not like the Academy actually registers my vote for anything anyway, so who cares if I get my picks out now, or next year. Still, in the spirit of adding to the discourse and nothing more, here’s my Oscar picks for 2019:
Best Cinematography – Roger Deakins — 1917
For many years Roger Deakins was the proverbial cinematography Oscar bridesmaid, but never the cinematography Oscar bride. At one point he was a 13-time loser in the category, destined to simply always be the also ran. But then came nomination 14, where he won. That was two years ago for Blade Runner 2049, a film that is admittedly mighty gorgeous to look. Anyhow, after sitting out from filmmaking for 2018 – more or less – he came back in 2019 with two films: The Goldfinch, which I hear is terrible and which also died a slow death at the box office. And also, 1917, which has had a longer shelf life.
Look, the nominees for cinematography this year are all pretty great in terms of their cinematography – of the other four, The Lighthouse and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood… stand out – but what Roger Deakins does in 1917 is next-level. After all, the movies’ entire aesthetic is that of a single, unbroken shot and while that aesthetic isn’t seamless as it could be, it is pulled out pretty adeptly. And the reason it works as well as it does? Stellar work by the cinematographer.
To be fair, 1917 is a film I liked, but did not love. It has shallow characters, feels as relentless and driving as a videogame, sometimes lurching from set-piece to save-point and back again, and completely fails to engage me. Which, in a way, is the irony of the cinematography. While I can appreciate the achievement of the work of cinematography itself, it probably hinders the film more than the rote script and pedestrian characters did. By being about the aesthetic first the film is distancing and is why I could appreciate it, but only in an intellectual way, not in an emotional way.
Still, if you’re looking at how well that particular piece of the film worked, this particular piece worked like gangbusters.
Original Screenplay – Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon A Time in Hollywood…
Every one of the Original Screenplay nominees are damn fine films, though parts of some clearly infuriate me. Knives Out is the best plotted of all the films and really has that tick-tock driving plot that 1917 wishes it had, even if my head hurts a little bit trying to unwind it. Marriage Story isn’t a movie to ‘enjoy’, even though I really liked it and found it moving. This despite the fact that, as a family law attorney, I find the portrayal of the attorneys in the movie to be the worst sort of stereotype, which smacks of (1) shoddy writing, (2) the sort of thing a person would right when they don’t know what they’re talking about, and (3) the thing a person writers when they have a very specific axe to grind. It basically plays the same as the stories from the writers in in Billy Crystal’s writing class in Throw Momma From the Train. Parasite is a borderline-great film undercut by one glaring flaw that could be fixed fairly simply, making the film almost perfect. But the one perfect film among this lot is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… A hang out movie that gets better every time you hang with it, it is also incredibly relevant and deep, and filled with so many great performances you lose count of them very quickly. Sure, I’m a 45 year-old white man, so of course it’s themes about aging speak to me, but just because it’s in my wheelhouse doesn’t make it any less great.
Adapted Screenplay – No preference
I’ve seen 4 of 5 nominees in this category, missing out only on The Two Popes. Of the others, The Irishmen doesn’t exactly feel scripted. If the job of the writer is to make choices about what to keep and what to jettison, Steve Zaillian made no choices. Everything went in. Put another way, there’s enough here for three movies, and it probably should have been three movies. As to Joker, this one baffles me. A film that feels fake-profound at best, it merely seems to recycle the tropes of past movies, but with steeply diminishing returns. Of the remaining two, Little Women and Jo Jo Rabbit, both strive to achieve something unique – making Hitler the subject of a comedy, and making a meta-commentary on the state of women’s lit – but neither quite get all the way there. At best they are 85 out of 100 and because the rest of the nominees here are lesser quality, it would be fine if either won.
Supporting Actress – Scarlett Johansen – Jo-Jo Rabbit
I know Laura Dern is the sentimental choice for Marriage Story, and will probably win for what is a very good performance. But, given she’s portraying one of what I am – a family law attorney – but playing the worst kind of stereotypes about us, I can’t put aside my antipathy long enough to support her. In comparison, Scarlett Johansen is the emotional center of Jo-Jo Rabbit and gives a heartbreaking performance. Sure, her accent isn’t as subtle as her acting, but that doesn’t change she’s the one who makes the film play as well as it does.
Supporting Actor – Brad Pitt – Once Upon A Time in Hollywood…
We all know Brad Pitt is going to steamroll through this category on his way to the Oscar, and when he does, it’ll feel deserved. Not because he won for being due, like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, but because he played the hell out of the role. That said, part of me is tickled by the idea of Al Pacino and Joe Pesci winning. Al Pacino because I love a big actor, and he goes big. But it isn’t going big for the sake of going big in The Irishman – it’s going big and just dominating the movie. And yet, Joe Pesci dominates the movie just as fully as Pacino and does it by going small. If either won I’d be tickled, even if I’d also be sad they beat Brad.
Lead Actress – No Preference
Unfortunately, I’m only see two of the nominated performances in this category: Scarlett Johansen and Saoirse Ronan. Of the two, Ronan is better. But, given I’m incomplete in this category, I have to refrain from voting.
Lead Actor – No Preference
Unlike Lead Actress, I’ve seen three of the performances here – the frontrunners anyway – and cannot pick between them. Driver is magnificent in Marriage Story and it’s top-shelf work for him, and he probably should win, but like his co-nominees, it’s hard to make a case he’s better or lesser than they are. Phoenix is stellar playing a big, tic-filled role, and while he’s great in Joker and the movie only works because of him, his win will feel like he won for being due, not because this was his best. DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood… might actually be giving the performance of his life in a role that requires him to be, at times pathetic, and at other times triumphant, but while he’s great he’s not so good I can put him above the others. If any of these three win I’m okay with it. If any lose, I’m also okay with it. Maybe they can just agree to cutting the trophy in thirds and sharing?
Best Director – Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood…
Parasite is held together because of Bong-Joon Ho’s stellar direction but that the story has a pretty major flaw, and he’s the source of the flaw. Still, he makes it work. 1917 is not an achievement of direction, it’s an achievement of cinematography and that’s all that needs saying. The Irishman is pedestrian and only nominated because Scorcese’s name is on it. Joker is middling and might have been better if put in the hands of a director who knows how to work this material. That leaves QT. But don’t assume Tarantino wins this one by default – no, he wins because he crafted the most visually arresting, most emotionally devastating, most haunting piece of work this year. It might not be as showy as other movies here, or as flashy, but it hits every note just right, and Tarantino should be rewarded for it.
Best Picture – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood…
This movie affected me so completely that I saw it four times in the theater, another time at Christmas on a plane, and then shortly after on Blu-Ray. This story of ageing men coming to terms with their uselessness in this world, juxtaposed with a youth we know will be cut short, worked me on a deep level and while others might say Jackie Brown or Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s best, I think the true top of the heap for him is this film. This is the sort of film anybody would want on their resume and the only reason he’s not running away with Best Picture this year is his oeuvre is already so stellar it feels wrong to declare one Best Picture when you already didn’t with the others.
 Also, I don’t actually send in my votes. One wonders what the Academy would do with my votes if I did – would they simply throw it away, or would they send it back with a form letter? “Dear Sir, thank you for the correspondence but a quick check of our records reveals you are not a member. So, fuck off. Sincerely yours…”
 At least, my picks in those categories I feel even remotely qualified to voice an opinion in. So if you were coming here hoping I might weigh in on Sound Editing, I hope you enjoy disappointment because you’re not getting it.
 One of my favorite bits is when the older woman is reading her story and it goes something like this: “Dive!” the submarine captain ordered into that thingy that they speak into.
 Spoiler alert: they don’t need the housekeeper’s husband in the basement. It would be enough to have the old housekeeper return and the family accidentally kills her, then spend the rest of the movie dealing with hiding her body. Make that change alone, leave everything else intact, and the movie truly achieves perfection.
 That was The Master