All Things Entertaining and Cultural

2019 Oscars — Goodness All the Way

2019 did not look as if it was going to be an interesting, let alone an eclectic and notable film year.

Until November, only Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” seemed to be a genuine contender for post-year honors. One actually worried whether Maggie Smith or Jim Carter would have to get a nomination by default for the popular “Downton Abbey,” if Brad Pitt would need to be recruited for “Ad Astra,” whether Rebel Wilson or Awkwafina would benefit for comic turns in “Isn’t It Romantic” and “The Farewell,” or if “Yesterday” would desperately fill a Best Picture spot.

About the only performances that made strong impressions were Cate Blanchett’s in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” and Lupita Nyong’o in “Us” and they were in pictures that didn’t live up to their stars’ work.

Then came the fall award season, the time when studios and production houses save their best so their freshest in memory during Oscar consideration.

Movie buffs live for this time.

While I look forward to it, I resent that all the gems are packed into compact period while the rest of the year is chocked with unrelieved mediocrity, a “Yesterday” or “The Upside” providing some hope that the second echelon of movie might sustain one through the glut of superhero, dystopic, and magical battle flicks.

Alas, I’ve grown, not too old, but too jaded, for them, despite enjoying “The Avengers” and taking some delight in seeing anything with Paul Rudd in it, even if it’s “Ant Man,” which is from 2018 anyhow.

I guess “Rocketman” and “Us” were supposed to give early respite from the Marvel-DC barrage, but the Elton John biopic was overdone, begged too much for sympathy and understanding, and looked schlocky next to 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” while “Us” showed Jordan Peele to be a possible one-trick pony with that trick, 2017’s “Get Out” being shallow tripe that thrived on a gimmick and overstayed its welcome. (Hold your hat, I’m about to say something similar about this year’s baby doll, “Parasite.”)

Labor Day passed, and “Once Upon a Time” came to the screens.


Soon the fascinating “Joker” arrived. Then Netflix provided a preview to film distribution to come, especially now that Disney, Apple, and Amazon are deeper into the act,” and peppered their fall with “Marriage Story,” “The Two Popes,” and the highly contending “The Irishman” as they played in theaters.

Television and film combining and blurring the edges about which is which, can you beat it?

Perhaps not. Netflix made a point with “Roma” in 2018 and glommed two Oscar nominations — “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” — and four Golden Globe nods — the aforementioned plus “The Two Popes” and “Dolemite Is My Name” — this year.

The streamer is clearly on to something.

And Hollywood may be reacting. “The Irishman” received most 2019 accolades for Best Picture, gaining award traction by winning both the New York Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. Martin Scorsese’s involving movie about a man who follows orders and puts hierarchical loyalty above his feelings, affiliations, or personal relationships, with commentary on Jimmy Hoffa’s fate and the JFK assassination, looked destined to clear the board of 2019 film honors.

But not at the Golden Globes. There the awards for Best Picture went to “1917” (Drama) and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (Comedy), making one wonder whether Sam Mendes’s and Quentin Tarentino’s movies impressed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in ways that didn’t register on the New York or L.A. critics, or if the Hollywood movie industry was purposely turning its back on, not Scorsese, but on product that was made by a company that is primarily a television outlet. The January 19 Screen Actors Guild Awards might provide insight on this.

One more thing before getting to a category-by-category analysis of the main nominations (Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Director), the controversy about diversity.

It’s heady these days.

And as misplaced as any backlash towards “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story” because of Netflix is.

When the Golden Globe nominations were announced, Alma Har’el, the director of “Honey Boy” bemoaned that neither she nor any of the woman colleagues were included in the Best Director category.

Forget that “Honey Boy,” a movie with merit but more than a tad self-conscious, has gotten no post-year consideration in any category, not even for Best Actor in which Shia LaBeouf gives a memorable turn. Har’el argued that if not she, then Greta Gerwig for “Little Women” or Lulu Wang for “The Farewell” should compete..

Their nominations would be more plausible, but 2019 was year of cunningly directed movies. Certainly, Gerwig, Wang, or Har’el could not expect to be recognized over Scorsese for “The Irishman,” Tarantino for “Once Upon a Time in America,” Mendes for “1917,” or Todd Phillips for “Joker.” These were remarkable achievements, all much more daringly artistic and more overtly cinematic that the movies the women directed.

This isn’t the case because Scorsese, Tarentino, Mendes, and Phillips are men, and because Har’el, Gerwig, and Wang are women. It’s the case because it’s true. It’s the way the achievements, and voting for the achievements fell out this year.

I would argue that the Oscar and Golden Globes chose correctly. If a woman was to earn a nomination, I’d prefer it to be none of those mentioned but Marielle Heller for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I would be willing to swap Heller for “Parasite” helm Bong Joon Ho. Before either of them, I’d choose to give nods to Rian Johnson for “Knives Out,” Taika Waititi for “Jojo Rabbit,” or Clint Eastwood for “Richard Jewell,” all of whom are men and all of whom I’d also prefer instead of Ho, whose work I’ll discuss when writing about Best Picture.

Here’s the point. A competition is held, and people vote randomly and independently. The top five vote-getters receive nominations. The top vote-getter of that group receives the Oscar.

it’s that simple. Making rules such as the top three spots being sacrosanct but the fourth place, unless covered within the top three places, being reserved for the highest-placing woman and the fifth being held for the best-finishing minority is more unfair to the genuine fourth and fifth placers than denying a place to lower finishers would be.

Controversy is often bilge, and in Har’el’s case, that’s exactly what it is.

The same goes for all who gripe about 19 of the 20 acting nominations going to Caucasian performers. Sure, Lupita Nyong’o, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Lopez would have been welcome in some of those spots, but they didn’t get the most votes.

I say let the vote stand and greet complaints, even if they come from a nominee, such as “Harriet’s” Cynthia Erivo, who barked over the dearth of minority nominees in British film awards.

I have seen all of the nominees and most of the films that might have joined them for Oscar consideration. Here is the category-by-category overview I promised.




The Nominees: “Ford vs. Ferrari;” “The Irishman;” “Jojo Rabbit;” “Joker;” “Little Women;” “Marriage Story;” “1917;” “Once Upon a Time in America,” and “Parasite.”


The Order in Which I’d Place Them: “Jojo Rabbit;” “Joker,” “The Irishman,” “1917,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Parasite,” “Ford vs. Ferrari,” “Marriage Story,” “Little Women.”


Preferred Missing: “Knives Out,” “Richard Jewell,” “The Farewell”


Prediction: “The Irishman”


Ten possible nominations may not have been enough in 2019 if Rian Johnson’s deliciously old-fashioned and delightfully witty “Knives Out” couldn’t make the cut, especially considering everything listed after “Parasite” did.

The wonderful part about 2019’s late, lauded offerings is how different they are in content and scope. They also illustrate how broad the use of cinema is in storytelling.

“The Irishman” beautifully demonstrates the gentle, surehanded use of both — cinema and storytelling — by relating a story protracted in time in ways that emphasize the reach of organized crime and unions from a bygone era and doing so in ways that allow the camera to reveal subtleties and personality traits that gives that complex story importance and texture.

Sure, Martin Scorsese could have been a bit more sparing — I kept cutting the movie as I watched sequences that with a more modern approach could be done with significantly greater economy.

Scorsese is not one to rush. He’ll show you the entire walk or drive. He’ll take time getting characters to both physical and emotional destinations.

When this happened in early scenes, I thought he might be a wee bit self-indulgent, but as “The Irishman” proceeded, I came to appreciate the curiosity and suspense the extended scenes created. I returned to a time of richer movie experience, the 70s and 80s when Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg were showing their mettle, and respected Scorsese’s choices and their addition to his movie.

There has been talk about why the actor playing the title character, Robert De Niro, has received few nominations and no awards for his work in “The Irishman.” I believe the reason is the same as why Scorsese’s effort, though acclaimed, is also underrated. De Niro plays a man whose personal emotions are so blunted, he can show temper and hurt at times, but he is willing to kill dispassionately upon order. You see the character do it when he shoots two Nazi soldiers he could spared without consequence. You see it more when he is ordered to kill people to whom he has ties.

Scorsese also gives fuel to ideas about what may have happened to Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared, his remains never being found no matter how many people claim they know their whereabouts, and the perpetrators and motives leading to JFK’s murder in 1963.

“The Irishman” is a great character study, with magnificent performances, that illuminates a time and does not engrossingly. It is not surprising it was favored by the New York and Los Angeles critics.

Should it be given the Oscar on February 9, there should be no complaint.

Yet, as my placement list reveals, there are two movies I would honor ahead of it, and the Academy may have its own ideas, “1917” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” being, to my mind, “The Irishman’s” biggest competition for the Academy Award.

“Jojo Rabbit” would be my choice because in a time of lame attempts at satire — witness Jordan Peele’s movies and any monologue by Stephen Colbert — Taika Waititi deftly uses dark humor to turn a child’s understanding and a seminal world turmoil on its head.

Waititi makes fun from the unfunny. Like Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks before him, he finds a way to incorporate Adolf Hitler into a movie that mocks Der Führer while showing both his ways of slyly appealing and his nefarious side, from prejudice to wrath.

“Jojo Rabbit” is a brilliant look at its time and all times. The indoctrination of children, like Jojo, is an ongoing concern, whether the ideas being inculcated are those of Hitler or Howard Zinn.

Jojo, age 10, is susceptible to propaganda and what he is told is right and expected. He wants to be accepted. He wants to be a model member of Hitler youth. From the beginning, his sensitivity and basic decency gets in his way. He can spout the approved phrases and tell what heroics he will muster if confronted with a stated enemy of the Reich, but he is informed more by his own gentle nature. Fear about what will happen if he tells what he knows and becomes a denouncer — We see how that might play out in “The Good Liar” — gives way to greater understanding, especially when he horribly learns his mother was a member of the Resistance and that he is hiding a Jew in their house.

Waititi shows the idiocy of movements and their blind following, especially via brainwashing of innocent recruits.

Jojo’s boyish desire to fit in, his actual playful approach to being a proper young Nazi, all imaginary derring-do and no genuine commitment or heart, and the revelations that come to him by time and experience are universal. We leave Jojo as child, a war orphan, but we know he will be a man who will do credit to his mother’s martyrdom.

Waititi’s wit and originality appeal to me. “Jojo Rabbit” would earn the Oscar if I was the lone voter.

“Joker” would be its main competition.

Todd Phillips did an extraordinary job of creating a world that was chilling in many aspects, particularly its cruelty and its adulation of an anti-hero even when it’s clear that idol is a sociopathic maniac.

“Joker” is riveting in several ways, most notably in its portrait of a deeply mentally ill young man, whose malady is known to some but goes unchecked or minimized in an overburdened cookie-cutter system and in its use of darkness and dim shades that burst into robust color in the Joker’s makeup.

“Joker” captures the dangerous, and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance personifies it. Each frame of this movie has drive to it. It and “1917” are gorgeously cinematic and deserve praise for using the medium of film unself-consciously and letting the form help to tell the story and make it mesmerizing.

Sam Mendes concentrates on one story, a young man’s mission to get crucial news to an officer in at outpost miles from his, all of those miles, except for one brief stroke of luck, to be covered on foot, and keeps it exciting, suspenseful, and oh so telling in terms of the waste — of life, resources, property, and potential — that war represents. Especially World War I, that most unnecessary and lastingly harmful of conflicts.

Concern about a myriad of issues grows at this one young man works so intently to save 1,600 others who will go to their doom if his message is unheard or comes too late.

Mendes catches us up in this lone soldier’s experience, making us care more and more about him and his duty as each obstacle arises and each well-planned frame unspools.

Quentin Tarantino takes audiences on a lark like no one else.

This director cannot help being winkingly witty no matter what his material.

Like Martin Scorsese, Tarantino shows history, but instead of devising scenarios for how some major political killings may have gone, he reverses events in one of the age’s best known cultural killings, the slaughter committed by the Manson Family in the Hollywood Hills.

Tarantino treats us to his customary band of colorful characters, led by Leonardo Di Caprio as a film star whose flame is guttering and whose bankability as an actor has faded, even as one of his juvenile co-stars tells him a scene he did with her was the best acting she’d ever seen.

DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are the perfect pair to bring Tarantino’s vision to life with sparkling nonchalance. Each knows how to be down-and-out, and wracked by self-medicating, while remaining likeable and laudable as heroes.

Like Robert De Niro, DiCaprio contributes nuance so well-honed and deftly performed, it’s likely to be overlooked as being too natural. Pitt is hoot as the stunt man and bit player who doesn’t give much thought or regard to anything.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is fun, and the reversal of events, as well as jokes directed at Bruce Lee and others, is exhilarating.

If Oscar nominations were limited to five, the above are the five I think would have, and should have, made the cut.

Four of the directors were nominated in that category. Oddly, Taika Waititi, whose work I like best, but whom I would not choose as Best Director, was the one left out.

Best Director is limited to five nominations, and rather than Waititi, Academy members nominated Bong Joon-ho for “Parasite.”

The choice is understandable. Joon-ho built his story about several different and completely realized spaces, from a basement hovel in a Korean tenement district to a magnificent home on a beautifully manicured estate a few miles away.

He had a lot of story to weave as he relates the way a poor family finds a way to secure all the jobs in an affluent home, the combined salary from those jobs changing their economic picture and lifestyles immeasurably.

“Parasite” begins as an amiable comedy, one you’re willing to go with because the family depicted has some charm, and the wealthy family they serve can be lampooned while being respected and liked.

Naturally, the working family’s ploy has to exposed. Joon-ho finds a great and promising way to do it but, I think, spoils the potential by going the way Jordan Peele did in 2017’s “Get Out” and turning a comedy into a horror film of sorts.

Joon-ho’s choices turned me sour. Easy flow turned to gimmickry. Humor morphed into self-conscious, inorganic shock for shock’s sake. A matter that could have been solved seriously but comically goes way out of hand and, for me, took the joy and enjoyability from the film. I went from admiring to having contempt for it.

Looks to me as if Joon-ho could not think of a logical conclusion to his characters’ fraud and so went bizarrely illogical.

I don’t believe a moment of what happens during the last third of “Parasite.” I wasn’t surprised. I was annoyed. I wasn’t horrified. I was appalled.

Joon-ho is getting some free passes, and scads of writing awards, when he should be praised for intention but blasted for ultimate execution.

Convoluted though the ending is, it’s also lazy and overdone. The movie didn’t need to be “happily ever after” but Joon-ho could have worked for a reckoning that made sense. My guess is he conceived the final scenes before the earlier ones and was married to the mayhem he envisioned even when it should have clear it would be more damaging than dramatic or satisfying.

The remaining three films is the category are good and no disgrace to the Oscars or Best Picture. They are not on the same level as those already discussed and probably have little chance to receive Best honors over “The Irishman,” “1917,” or “Once Upon a Time in America.”

“Ford vs. Ferrari” easily holds interest as nerve-jangling racing scenes punctuate a rivalry for Formula One dominance between the established Ferrari firm and the Ford proponents who want to enter racing and knock Ferrari from its championship status.

Christian Bale and the remarkable Noah Jupe, a standout here and in “Honey Boy,” helps give this picture complexity. Industrial shenanigans are also interesting. Caitriona Balfe from TV’s “Outlander” gives a lovely but unsung turn as Bale’s wife.

I watched “Marriage Story” on Netflix and unlike “The Irishman” but like “The Two Popes,”” it registered as well on the small screen as I think it would in a theater.

That means it’s more a storytelling achievement that a cinematic one. Director Noah Baumbach does a fine job in showing the intrusion expensive high-powered attorney add to divorce while sweetly showing a couple that loves each other and their child but can’t make their lives and desires intersect as man and wife.

Engaging and smartly done, “Marriage Story” is not really an Oscar-level movie.

“Little Women” is also a fine achievement. It isn’t as important a one as Greta Gerwig’s “Ladybird” from 1917, but it does one thing that is quite welcome. It allows Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century characters into natural, real-seeming people instead of the formal types that so often plague costume drama.

indeed, Gerwig sometimes errs in making “Little Women” a little too contemporary, especially in the underdone performances of the usually excellent Laura Dern and Timothée Chalamet.

Gerwig deserves high marks for staying truer to Alcott than most “Little Women” filmmakers do. She also does well in juxtaposing Jo’s experiences in conceiving and selling her novel, “Little Women” and the story Alcott wrote.

There are some confusion about time in the movie. Does Mr. March, the father, come home from the Civil War before Amy dies or after? Gerwig seems to have it both ways.




The Nominees: Antonio Banderas for “Pain and Glory;” Leonardo DiCaprio for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood;” Adam Driver for “Marriage Story;” Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker;” and Jonathan Pryce for “The Two Popes”


The Order in Which I’d Place Them: Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Antonio Banderas, Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce


Preferred Missing: Paul Walter Hauser for “Richard Jewell,” Christian Bale for “Ford vs. Ferrari,” Robert De Niro for “The Irishman,” Shia LaBeouf for “Honey Boy”


Prediction: Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker”


This list of actors missing from this category show the quality of the men chosen for it.

I’d happy to see Jonathan Pryce nominated at last. Truth to tell, I thought he was the stand-out performer in 2018’s “The Wife,” for which Glenn Close was rightfully lauded but wasn’t as sharp or moving as Pryce.

That said, I worry more about him taking the place of a worthier nominee, such as Hauser or Bale, much more than I worry about no woman being nominated for Best Director or the absence of minorities among the acting choices.

All five nominees are outstanding, but two of go beyond that to amazing, and one, Banderas, shows a different side to his talent. The voter is faced with a difficult choice, but I would think it more difficult to deny Phoenix his due this year.

It’s been done. Both the New York and Los Angeles critics gave their Best Actor honor to Banderas.

Critics, even those working in L.A. are not “Hollywood,” and while Banderas had some important American credits, he is not likely to be attract Academy voters the way Phoenix or DiCaprio might.

Besides, you can look at everyone eligible in this category, from the nominated to the overlooked, and there’s one actor who soars above them all, even above DiCaprio, and deserves this prize.

That actor is Joaquin Phoenix, who gives the single best performance in any category in 2019.

Phoenix is a Hollywood guy with a long pedigree. Even when he doesn’t make the nomination cut, his name is frequently mentioned as a contender.

“Joker” is his masterpiece. He is stunning brilliant in it. The range he covers goes beyond a delusionary seeker of recourse for guys who face constant belittlement, get beaten in the street, and receive lectures from jaded, convention-touring social workers. It goes beyond the schizophrenic who is assured on his superiority when faced with regular evidence to the contrary. It goes beyond the resourceful clown who can escape situations. It goes beyond the psychopath who doesn’t hesitate to use murder as a tool. It goes beyond the guy who likes to be noticed. It goes beyond the guy who enjoys getting dressed up for a role. It goes beyond the stand-up comic whose material is too dark and sick to be funny. It goes beyond coping with a life of ridicule and hearing ‘no.’ It goes beyond being legitimately dexterous and acrobat, i.e. having genuine clowning skills. It goes beyond a man who is unable to take care of himself of his mother.

It goes beyond all of this because Phoenix’s performance includes all of this. It is complete, coherent, and cogent. All you see adds up to Arthur Fleck, a name that itself has no distinction, or in the case Todd Phillips’s 2019 movie, “Joker.”

Phoenix is so magnetic, he’s hypnotizing.

The signature walk he adopts, the use of that walk when he’s coming down the Bronx steps, the moods he displays, the change in those moods, his acceptance of delusion, his anger when he realizes he’s failed, foiled, or fooled again, his moments of visually pleading for basic human comforts such as respect and affection is all so canny conceived and so adroitly executed.

The other nominees played part and played them well. Phoenix creates an icon. He delivers a performance that will be spoken of for the age. He is the actor kids later in this century will know, and mainly because of this exceptional turn.

New York and L.A. esthetes may turn to be subtly suffering director played by Banderas. In any other year, Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading actor who keeps on working whatever would be a heady contender.

This year, if Best Actor is not Joaquin Phoenix, the Academy may as well admit it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Mute buttons will help me handle Phoenix’s acceptance speech, but I look forward to watching, picture sharp, as he strides up to collect his first Oscar.

Serial nominee DiCaprio is marvelous in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The child star young actress Julia Butters plays gets it right when she praises DiCaprio’s character for doing the best acting she’s ever seen.

DiCaprio has a bead on the talent, the anarchy, and self-destruction built into his character. He definitely shows that actors, even ones famous enough to have a 15′ foot high poster of their face marking their parking space, have lives off-camera and careers that generally have ups and downs.

Were Leo not up against Phoenix, he’d probably be the favorite, even over Banderas.

My favorite part of Antonio Banderas receiving this nomination is he finally has one.

Frankly, I don’t know that he’s ever actually been cheated by being overlooked, but his career and his performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” warrant his having this milestone to his credit.

Banderas neatly shows the world-weariness and self-doubt of a successful director, not unlike Almodóvar, as he faces both health and career crises.

What artist on any level doesn’t wonder at time if he or she will ever work again or find the material and inspiration to produce something that equals or surpasses achievements?

Banderas embodies a man coping with those issues.

His is a fine performance that has the intelligence of Phoenix and DiCaprio’s work but not the scope, depth, or excitement.

From the first time I saw him on stage, I’ve liked Adam Driver. He combines naturalness with sensitivity even when he plays characters that don’t exude much of the latter.

In “Marriage Story,” he plays a stage director, a darling of off-Broadway, who devotes so much thought, energy, and time into his professional life, he loses track of how wanting he often in his personal life.

Which is why his wife and muse, played by also-nominated Scarlett Johansson.

Driver is so good, you retain empathy for his character even when it’s clear he is wrong on most issues, or fails to comprehend their importance, and has an ego and reliance on being liked that fools him into thinking he has the upper hand, on even a point.

Driver probably clinched his nomination by singing Sondheim’s “Being Alive” as an 11 o’clock number in the film.

Francis I is a charming man, and Jonathan Pryce is charming playing him.

Pryce lets you see the basis for Francis’s popularity. He conveys principle and consistent belief that may go against Catholic doctrine a Pope may be expected to uphold.

This gentle performance is laudable, but in terms of awards, I’d have rather seen this nomination go to Paul Walter Hauser for his work as the title character in “Richard Jewell.”




The Nominees: Cynthia Erivo for “Harriet;” Scarlett Johansson for “Marriage Story;” Saoirse Ronan for “Little Women;” Charlize Theron for “Bombshell;” and Renee Zellweger for “Judy


The Order in Which I’d Place Them: Charlize Theron, Renee Zellweger, Scarlett Johansson, Cynthia Erivo, Saoirse Ronan


Prediction: Renee Zellweger for “Judy”


Preferred Missing: Lupita Nyong’o for “Us,” Cate Blanchett for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”


Want to see a stunning statistic?

Go back to about 1990, and see how many Oscars have gone to actors in biopics.

Portraying the famous or historical is a way to earn attention.

The main competition for Best Actress this year is between Charlize Theron as news anchor Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell,” a movie about the exposure of Fox News creator Roger Ailes as a sexual abuser, and Renee Zellweger as Pantheon singer-performer Judy Garland.

Erivo, Johansson, and Ronan are likely to be also-rans as Theron and Zellweger vie for top honors.

The choice is a doozy.

My vote would go to Charlize Theron, not because I thought she was better or more luminous than Renee Zellweger is in “Judy,” but because every time she came on-screen I marveled at the wit, timing, and crisp line reading Theron provided.

Zellweger channeled Judy Garland, capturing movements, mannerisms, and that star-making catch in her voice. She caught the spirit of Garland as seen on Judy’s television programs from the earlier ’60s.

No one could complain if Zellweger receives her second Oscar — The first was as Best Supporting Actress for “Cold Mountain” in 2003 — for this role in which she moves deftly from comic to tragic, from charming to heartbreaking.

Amid all the excellence, you could see Zellweger working at being Garland.

Charlize Theron moves through “Bombshell” more naturally.

Theron, as Megyn Kelly, played a character that, unlike Garland, I am indifferent about in real life.

Kelly arrives in news when there are few real stars, and she represents to me, more of the current trend towards glamor, than a knack and talent for journalism.

When NBC hired her, I wrote in my television column the expensive move was a mistake because today’s audiences don’t depend on network news and have little loyalty to any anchor. The average person hasn’t heard of most of them and isn’t all that interested to learn the who’s who among Lester Holt, Nora O’Donnell, David Muir, or Chris Cuomo.

While Zellweger made you think of the actual Judy Garland every frame and invited comparisons between her portrayal and the beloved star, Theron never once made me summon an image of the actual Megyn Kelly. It was almost as if she was playing a fictional character. At least she looked at liberty to play Kelly that way.

That’s the main reason I favor Theron even though I expect Zellweger to win and to applaud when she does, as I did when she was given the Golden Globe, over the same field competing for the Oscar, as Best Actress in a Drama.

Zellweger also earned the recent Critics Choice Award. The New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Award both went to Lupita Nyong’o for her dual role, which includes the haunted, determined, goggle-eyed, breathlessly gravel-voiced doppelganger in “Us.”

Nyong’o did the most you could do with her character. She kept “Us” interesting when nothing else compelled one to take Jordan Peele’s sophomore movie seriously. (I, a rare detractor of “Get Out,” was stunned at how empty and straining “Us” was.) She caused you to wonder at her character and ask why, although the reason was predictable, she had powers of speech and logic others from her otherworldly troupe did not.

The nuanced juxtaposition between the trapped character and her alter ego from everyday upper middle class life, played with easy naturalism by Nyong’o, makes it seem odd she was passed over to make room for Ronan or even Johansson. “Us” may have come out too early and bombed too definitely for Nyong’o to be remembered or to compete once the spate of award-season releases were issued.

Another movie that came out early and received generally poor reviews is “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” I agree the film was overworked and convoluted, but Cate Blanchett, my choice for the best actor working today — Yes, even over La Streep – endowed her performance with cunning and intelligence that made me love and understand the character and adore Blanchett more than ever from having the resources to create someone who complex and consistent while working against a middling script.

Cynthia Erivo is an actress of amazing strength and charisma. She shows her range in “Harriet,” but not to the extent Blanchett does in “Bernadette,” not because the range isn’t there, but because “Harriet’s” flaw was being so cut-and-dried. Kasi Lemmons told her story too straightforwardly. In history dramas, where the audience is likely to know the ending, the important thing is to create suspense and make that audience truly fear for the worst in spite of their knowledge. ‘Harriet” did not meet that criterion. It was respectable and watchable, but perhaps too respectful. Lemmons needed to make us worry about Harriet. The movie never gave a second’s doubt she would come through first time, every time.

Yes, that’s consistent with history, but movies from “1776” to “Argo” were nail-biters even though their outcomes could not be a surprise.

Erivo follows suit in ways. She can play anything — I loved her in last year’s “Bad Times at the Hotel Royale.” — but a director has to put her in a position to deliver her best. Lemmons left it for Erivo to do what she did with aplomb but didn’t take the challenge far enough.

Scarlett Johansson and Saoirse Ronan, two actresses I admire time after time, are the also-rans of 2019.

I am happy to see Johansson break through to an Oscar nomination. The recognition is overdue. She is superb in “Marriage Story.” She shows both vulnerability and the mettle of a woman standing her ground even as ease and sentimentality argue somewhat for maintaining, and suffering through, a status quo.

Johansson’s character, the best in the movie, is tough without being hard. You can see how badly that character wants to do the best for, and tend to the needs of, all concerned and how determined she is to have what she envisions for herself and can earn independently with her talent.

This performance may have contended better if Zellweger and Theron had not come along.

Saoirse Ronan has unique resources that set her and her work apart from anyone else’s. She leaps from the frame while remaining totally in character and underplaying more than going for fireworks.

Ronan endows Jo March with the spine and sisterly tenderness required for “Little Women,” yet I didn’t see the performance as one that would cause awards to be mentioned. Nyong’o, Blanchett, Awkwafina in “The Farewell,” and Emma Thompson in “Late Night” all did what I would consider stronger work.

I will predict an Oscar in Ronan’s future, but it won’t come for “Little Women.”




The Nominees: Tom Hanks for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood;” Anthony Hopkins for “The Two Popes,” Al Pacino for “The Irishman;” Joe Pesci for “The Irishman;” Brad Pitt for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”


The Order in Which I’d Place Them: Al Pacino, Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Joe Pesci


Preferred Missing: Jamie Bell for “Rocketman,” Daniel Craig for “Knives Out,” Robert De Niro for “Joker,” John Lithgow for “Bombshell”


Prediction: Brad Pitt


What a luminous list! Four Oscar winners, three for Best Actor, and Brad Pitt who showed his capability in both “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Ad Astra.”

Best Supporting Actor always presents the most possibilities because it’s the category that has the most annual qualifiers.

The 2019 nomination class should be called up en masse and honored as a group. They are that good.

Two of the nominees, Hanks and Hopkins, could have easily landed in the Best Actor category, but they and their performances are welcome anywhere on an Award roster.

Choosing between Pacino, Hopkins, and Hanks was particularly tough. They all do sterling work.

They also had real-life figures on which to base their portrayals, Hanks out-Zellwegering Zellweger for his cloning of Fred Rogers. Brad Pitt, on the other hand, had to originate his character, and Joe Pesci had more leeway because his character was less known than Jimmy Hoffa, Benedict XVI, or Mister Rogers.

Al Pacino would earn my vote because of the screen-commanding intensity of his work.

Pacino is often accused of giving the same performance, or at least using the same inflections, no matter his role.

Not guilty!

He may have more signature gestures than others of his generation, but Pacino is an expert and defining and differentiating characters.

As Hoffa, he embodies the Midwestern and all-American instincts his character showed.

He has the Michigan twang down pat. He has a confident walk that announce Hoffa as a man to be reckoned with. He gives Hoffa enough, and probably warranted, complexity, that you feel for the man even if you at times disagree with him or think his absence would be beneficial.

Pacino plays Hoffa so deftly that you shudder at the scene in which he’s killed. This is strong work throughout “The Irishman” and the first classic Pacino portrayal in a while. I’m give him the Oscar.

Hanks vied strongly for that accolade. A victory for Hanks puts him the elite echelon of receiving more than two Academy Awards. He would join Katharine Hepburn with four, and Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Daniel Day-Lewis with three each.

Hanks exuded the warmth, goodness, and human understanding that was so much a part of Fred Rogers. He remains entirely in character, and it is pleasing to see him crawl under the set to manipulate a puppet, greet people on a subway, or play a piano duet with Mrs. Rogers.

Hanks is endearing in general. It is enjoyable to have him back on the nomination trail after almost two decades of being overlooked for work in such films as “Catch Me if You Can,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Captain Phillips,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” and “Sully.”

Hopkins is wily, shrewd, and believably one-track as Benedict XVI in “The Two Popes.”

You believe when Benedict says he doesn’t know about a popular trend or figure his successor, Francis I (Jonathan Pryce) mentions. You could see the absence of worldliness yet the intelligence and commitment that makes Benedict a scholarly expert on all things ecclesiastic, and specifically all things Catholic.

Hopkins often dominates the screen. He does so with easy charm that underscores the reality of his character and the studied grace Hopkins gives him.

The word that comes to mind when thinking or talking about Brad Pitt’s performance in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is fun!

We know Pitt comes from that Cary Grant-James Garner school of actors who seem to breeze through a part but do so with such simplicity, it becomes an art of its own.

Pitt liked and maybe identified with the rebellious, free-wheeling stunt man who is confident his bravery or talent will always keep him working even if his professional discipline and overall behavior seem to be career-enders.

The character’s humorous, amused assurance sets up many an entertaining scene, especially some that also show his character’s street-smartness, i.e. the scenes on the Manson ranch and with the Manson family.

Pitt may be fourth of five on my personal list, but I would be happy to see him accept an Oscar, as I predict he will.

As noted, he’s the only nominee that doesn’t go into award night having one. A win, and he’ll join the others and make the group five-for-five for receiving Oscars.

Joe Pesci reined back a lot of his signature moves for a clean, amiable performance in “The Irishman.” He belongs this Oscar field. What a year that he is the one who I’m sure will be an also-ran, the main contest being between Pitt and Hanks, with Pacino making a case of his own.




The Nominees: Kathy Bates for “Richard Jewell;” Laura Dern for “Marriage Story;” Scarlett Johannson for “Jojo Rabbit;” Florence Pugh for “Little Women;” and Margot Robbie for “Bombshell”


The Order in Which I’d Place Them: Margot Robbie, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Kathy Bates, Florence Pugh


Preferred Missing: Zhao Shuzhen for “The Farewell,” Jennifer Lopez for “Hustlers,” Caitriona Balfe for “Ford vs. Ferrari;” Annette Bening for “The Report;” Kate McKinnon for “Bombshell,” Frances Conroy for “Joker”


Prediction: Laura Dern for “Marriage Story”


You know this is a good group when Jennifer Lopez can be overlooked for sharp and lustrous work in “Hustlers,” and you think it’s equally unfair for any nominee to be displaced to make room for her.

Before going on, I have to admit that my choice for this award is also unnominated. Kate McKinnon is a phenomenon unto herself, but her work in “Bombshell” caught and held my attention. I loved Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie in their individual roles, but McKinnon caught the tone of the times, the situation, and a working woman’s plight.

Margot Robbie amplified the impression she made in 2017’s “I, Tonya” by making important contributions to two movies, “Bombshell,” for which she’d nominated, and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” in which she plays a friendly, optimistic Sharon Tate.

Like her co-stars Theron and McKinnon, Robbie goes through her paces as a budding journalist looking for room to make advances — that’s professional advances — at an abuse-plagued Fox News with seamless naturalism. You don’t know she’s acting rather than being someone who lives scenes from her life on camera.

While Theron plays Megyn Kelly and Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, Robbie is given a fictional composite character.

Because she is fictional, she could be put in situations it might be difficult for live people such as Kelly and Carlson to want to relive.

So it’s Robbie who plays a difficult, revealing scene — no pun intended — with John Lithgow as Roger Ailes.

Scarlett Johansson is wonderful in “Marriage Story.” She’s better in “Jojo Rabbit” playing a German housewife and mother who can convince all she is pro-Nazi and a supporter of Hitler’s Reich while she is actually a highly-placed, highly effective Resistance fighter that is harboring a Jewish woman in a hidden section of her home.

Johansson can be maternal and coquettish is turn. She plays a sensitive, sensible woman who does what she can to restore Germany to its pre-Nazi freedom while knowing how to persuade Nazi leaders she is among the faithful.

Dern is the epitome of professional coldness as a competitive, winning divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.” She is direct and frank in a way that sugar coats nothing and makes it clear that to lawyers and the court, divorce is profit-maker.

Want sympathy or counselling? Go somewhere else. Try the empathetic lawyer Alan Alda plays so beautifully.

From grooming to posture, Dern is flawless at conveying her character’s expertise and blood sport attitude about her work.

Kathy Bates couldn’t give less than a perfect performance if she tried.

Luckily, she stays true to form for Clint Eastwood in “Richard Jewell.” This extraordinary actress portrays a sympathetic Everywoman, a steady worker, mother, and housekeeper, that never gets ahead but plows forward, complaining about her plight but sailing through and making the most of it.

Bates’s character is too unworldly to understand all that happens when he son is accused of a horrific crime and both the press and law enforcement gather at her door in droves.

Bates makes it real — funny and ironic — when she can’t fathom why the FBI would want the Tupperware from her cupboard and later, makes a wry face and grabs a scrunchy to clean the storage wear when it’s returned.

Bates is a woman in a situation beyond her making or control. She masked bewilderment by sticking to her day-to-day and rallies past lifetime anonymity to make a press appearance that may have changed the course of the ugly case against her son.

Florence Pugh is the surprise nominee in this category, but she is welcome. She is properly haughty and selfish Amy in “Little Woman.” She holds her own against Saoirse Ronan as her sister and Meryl Streep as her disapproving aunt.

Pugh is like a modern young girl who doesn’t outgrow her “princess” stage and believes she deserves only the best and most impressive.




The Nominees: Bong Joon-Ho for “Parasite;” “Sam Mendes for “1917;” Todd Phillips for “Joker;” Martin Scorsese for “The Irishman;” and Quentin Tarantino for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”


The Order in Which I Prefer Them: Martin Scorsese, Todd Phillips, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarentino, Bong Joon-ho


Preferred Missing: Marielle Heller for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighhorhood,” Lulu Wang for “The Farewell,” Clint Eastwood for “Richard Jewell,” Taiki Waikiti for “Jojo Rabbit”


Prediction: Martin Scorsese for “The Irishman”


Two of these directors used subtlety to tell complex stories, one summoned his loopy free-wheeling ways, a fourth opted for a dark, intense character study, and the last was sailing beautifully on an amusing concept before he changed course and added horror to what would have been better off remaining a comedy.

While I’m am aware of Bong Joon-ho’s achievement and enjoyed much of “Parasite,” he is he nominee I’d have swapped out for Waititi or Heller.

Waititi earns my respect because he stayed true to his vision and produced a genuine satire that could evoke laugh after laugh but put a lump in your throat. I cite Heller because I loved the concept of using the Mister Rogers set, and its train and doors, as a theme that repeats throughout the movie and gives “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbood” a structural leitmotif that works.

Martin Scorsese may sit too lovingly on some shots and extend some scenes beyond need, but he is a master storyteller who gets the most from his actors and creates urgency and a mood that compels you to watch his pictures.

“The Irishman” is a movie in the best tradition of taking a subject to the screen. It is epic but holds attention from beginning to end. Some may carp about how loosely it plays with history, or surmises history, but “The Irishman” is primarily about a man devoid of passion, or who replaces passion with duty, and it brings that them to glorious, engrossing light.

Scorsese works in a classic style that defies time to age it.

Todd Phillips fascinates from beginning to end with “Joker,” He may have the most difficult assignment in this field, and he achieves the extraordinary in what I hope will come to be regarding as a great study in madness and its repercussions.

Sam Mendes, whose creativity has impressed for decades now, envisioned his grandfather’s war story, “1917,” as a complete piece and shot it as a continuous piece rather than in segments.

The movie has adventure, suspense, urgency, and a great theme. It celebrates the individual soldier while commenting on the futility of war with it mindless destruction.

Mendes concentrates on an incident, one mission, and says volumes about humankind’s penchant for domination and self-destruction.

Quentin Tarantino is magnificent with timing and a grand entertainer. His story of both the down-and-out and a turnabout captures an era, depicts an event that continues to spark conversation, and serves as a great portrait of individuals, in various stages of their careers, as they get on with life and make it work for them.

Bong Joon-ho could be a surprise recipient on February 9. In general, he had make a fine movie. Even its excesses and unsatisfying last quarter are made well and conceived cleverly for what they are.

For me, Joon-ho goes so far in wanting to shock us — I don’t know, but I’m guessing a ghost story was as much an inspiration as his comic construction about a family that gloms all the jobs from a wealthy and well-paying household — he spoils what he has built.

“Parasite” becomes too horrible and too disappointing to remain entertaining.

Joon-ho drops the reins of logic, his work becomes “too much” and wrongheaded instead of just right and smart.

Conceiving and shooting the wealthy home and its hidden quarters, staging the great flooding rain that brings the picture to a head, and working out most of the details about the working family’s plot and the people that foil it rates great praise. Self-indulgently changing gears, and doing it showily but sloppily, negates the good where post-year honors are concerned.

In most of the categories, I could see any recipient emerging.

In Best Director, I would be unhappy if the Oscar went to Bong Joon-ho.




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