Angry clowns. Desperate families. Aging mobsters. Silly Nazis. Little women. Bad marriages. Muddy soldiers. Sexy stuntmen. Cars that go very, very fast. While the Academy remains as frustrating as ever with many of its awards categories this year, one group of nominees stands out; representing a wide variety of genre, style, and quality. Though there are some more-than-worthy films that did not make the cut, and maybe even one less-than-worthy film that did, it is refreshing to see so many different kinds of films considered for one of the Academy’s most coveted awards. With the 92nd Academy Awards only days away, here is my very definitive and indisputable ranking of this year’s Best Picture Nominees.
Depending on who you ask, Todd Phillips’ origin story of one of pop culture’s most iconic characters is either a loving homage or a shameless rip-off to Martin Scorsese’s grimy New York dramas ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The King of Comedy’. While certainly well-made in some aspects, and led by a very engaging and committed performance, ‘Joker’ is much too concerned with how profound and edgy it thinks it’s being to actually be profound or edgy about anything at all.
8. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the gangster drama was not without controversy of its own. After he dared to share his opinion on the current state of the film industry because someone asked him to, his 200+ minute meditation on emotional isolation, violence, and even some aspects of his own career became the target of vitriolic bad-faith criticism from a very vocal and very online minority. Is ‘The Irishman’ longer than it needs to be? I would say so. But the last thirty minutes pack such an emotional punch, that I’m not sure the film would be nearly as effective at a shorter length.
7. Ford v Ferrari
To be honest, this is the most surprising of all this year’s nominees. Yes, it’s exactly the kind of well-crafted, crowd-pleasing biopic that the Academy tends to shower with affection. But unlike much blander affairs like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Green Book’, James Mangold’s ‘Ford v Ferrari’ is not a self-important “issue movie.” There isn’t any sexuality to half-heartedly acknowledge or any racism to solve with fried chicken and pizza. It’s well aware that the real people it’s depicting are not household names, and as such does not treat them like deities to be worshipped. It’s very slight, with not much to say about its characters or why it’s so important. Instead, it’s about extremely competent people being very good at their jobs, and of course driving cars really fast.
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
A far cry from the edgy cynicism of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’, Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the last days of Old Hollywood is one of his most sincere films to date, as well as his funniest. Both Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt are proving to be much more interesting to watch as they age, and the friendship between their characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth is the beating heart of this period hang-out movie.
The more you know about filmmaking and its many challenges, the more impressed you will be by Sam Mendes’ thrilling portrayal of the horror and futility of war. However, the undeniably astonishing achievement in cinematography looms so large over the rest of the film that it can be easy to overlook the understated yet foundational performances of George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, our only constant companions through this harrowing journey into hell.
4. Jojo Rabbit
Don’t let Taika Waititi’s hilarious portrayal of an imaginary Adolf Hitler fool you. ‘Jojo Rabbit’ has plenty of thoughtful things to say about the dangers of radicalization and fascism. It’s even willing to make you laugh to make everything a little more palatable. Its sense of humor does occasionally undercut some of its more serious themes, but it also makes life in Nazi Germany all the more terrifying in contrast. It does seem a little confused about how you should feel about a couple of its characters, but ‘Jojo Rabbit’ has its heart in the right place.
3. Marriage Story
We’re in the top-tier now. While most of the other nominees certainly have their merits, this is where the real heavy hitters are. Noah Baumbach’s painfully honest drama about divorce showcases incredibly naturalistic writing and one of the year’s best performances from Adam Driver. But perhaps the most admirable thing about ‘Marriage Story’ is the empathy it shows for its two leads. You personally might feel more for one side over the other, but the film is careful not to paint anyone as right or wrong, because everyone’s a little bit of both.
2. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to her excellent coming-of-age tale ‘Lady Bird’ is quite possibly the definitive adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s much-celebrated tale of the four March sisters. Her modern approach to this classic American story is funny, heartbreaking, and gives a satisfying arc to a character that many of the novel’s fans and even previous adaptations have painted as irredeemable. Gerwig deftly jumps back and forth to different points in the story, and–regardless of how familiar you are with Alcott’s story–you always know where and when you are due to clever use of color, atmosphere, and in some cases, hair.
To be honest, there isn’t much I can say about Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece. The less you know about ‘Parasite’ going in, the better. It’s incredibly rare to see a story with this much to say delivered in such a clean, seemingly effortless way. If you only have time to catch one of the nominees before Hollywood’s big night, make it this one.