For the second time in a row, the Oscars will be host-less. Last year, original host Kevin Hart, whose name had briefly become associated with homophobia, dropped out, lest the Oscar broadcast become besmirched in controversy. The end result was a leaner show, still long at three hours, 23 minutes, but a full hour shorter than the longest-ever Oscars, 2002’s four-hour, 23-minute snooze-fest.
Aside from the “Oscars so white” outcry that popped up again this year with just a single major-category nominee of color (the excellent Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet”), this year’s pre-show drama was decidedly low-key. I expect a show with lower-than-normal ratings, considering that many fans of “Joker,” the year’s most-nominated film, probably aren’t the target viewing demographic for the Oscars, and that last year had a much more mainstream slate of nominees but disappointing ratings nonetheless.
Here are my picks for the winners. Interestingly enough, this year’s acting categories each seem to have all-but-guaranteed winners, which is unusual. That being said, there are always surprises; last year, I was wrong on both Best Actor (Rami Malek for “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Best Actress (Olivia Colman for “The Favourite”).
Mark your ballots!
Ford v Ferrari
Once upon a Time…in Hollywood
Who Will Win: 1917
Who Should Win: Parasite
Watch Out For: Parasite
Should Have Been Nominated: Avengers: Endgame
Comments: Many years, the nominated films seem to have recurring themes, overlapping names, or similar settings. In 1999, three of the nominees for Best Picture were set during WWII, while the other two took place in Elizabethan London. In 2010, two of the ten nominees were firmly in the science fiction genre, and another two had the word “Up” as the first word in the title. In 2017 and 2018 both, three of the nominated films each year dealt, all or in part, with the African-American experience.
What a relief, then, that 2019 brings us a more diverse set of films. Sure, the themes of love, survival, and aging are each present in more than one of the nine nominated films. But really, “Ford v Ferrari,” about the Ford Motor Company’s drive (no pun intended) to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race of 1966 is as different from the “Irishman,” a nursing home resident’s confessional about the hits he pulled for the Pennsylvania mob, as can be. Similarly, “Jojo Rabbit,” about the slow birth of conscience in the eyes of a young Hitler Youth lad whose mother is secretly harboring a Jewish refugee, is pretty far, thematically, from the dark and violent origin story of the DC Comics villain, “Joker.”
The differences continue with “Little Women,” which in large part is about four sisters finding love, and which is in sharp contrast to the misleadingly-titled “Marriage Story,” which studies an affluent couple falling out of love. Then you have “1917,” a near-real-time story of front lines peril during which two British soldiers race through battle-scarred Belgian countryside with orders to call off an attack planned for the next morning. This taut film seems worlds away from the one portrayed in “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood,” where we study an aging western star and his stuntman, who just happen to live next door to a doomed (or is she?) Sharon Tate. Finally, “Parasite,” a funny and suspenseful Korean yarn about a poor family slowing insinuating their way into the lives of a rich family, is in a class all by itself (It was also my #1 film of the year, in last month’s post on the subject.)
As usual, the frontrunner status has changed several times. When Netflix released “The Irishman” in November, it was hailed as director Martin Scorsese’s best film in years, and the film to beat. Not long afterwards, the streaming giant released “Marriage Story,” which critics proclaimed was going to sweep the top four categories. (As it turns out, “Irishman” lead Robert De Niro and “Marriage” director Noah Baumbach weren’t even nominated.) “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood” has been a contender ever since it was first released, and it now seems locked in a three-way race with “1917,” the buzz for which grew late, and with “Parasite,” which may be the only better-reviewed film of 2019 than “Hollywood,” and which insiders say may be the first foreign language film to win the top prize.
Personally, I’d be okay with that. While “Hollywood,” a film that I consider to be slightly overrated, has many of the trademarks of being a Quentin Tarantino film, and while “1917” will undoubtedly bring up comparisons to “War Horse” and “Dunkirk,” you have simply never seen a movie like “Parasite.” The film begins as a subversive comedy, then morphs into a thriller with a twist that M. Knight Shyamalan would be proud of, and finally ends as a tragedy. I think “Parasite” should win – and it has a fighting chance (I’d say 30%), but I think “1917” will prevail. And to be fair, director Sam Mendes’ war epic is excellent in its own right. It is probably my second choice.
A few insiders think that “Joker” is in the race as well, but I don’t agree. Sure, the film that receives the most nominations – and that is “Joker,” with 11 – often wins the top prize, but I think of “Joker” as a performance piece more than anything else. Although clearly an homage to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” it frankly has no business winning Best Picture if neither of those films did, either.
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Sam Mendes, 1917
Todd Phillips, Joker
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once upon a Time…in Hollywood
Who Will Win: Sam Mendes
Who Should Win: Sam Mendes
Watch Out For: Bong Joon-ho
Should Have Been Nominated: Greta Gerwig, Little Women
Comments: Poor Quentin Tarantino. He really wants a Best Director Oscar. Thrice-nominated in this category (for “Pulp Fiction,” “Inglorious Basterds,” and “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood”), the chatty auteur would likely consider himself due. The fact that he already has two Best Original Screenplay statuettes (for “Fiction” and “Django Unchained”) hardly matters.
Tarantino is running a distant third this year. While he has come a long way over the years in terms of his command of the camera, he has regressed in terms of pacing. Of course, Tarantino has always subscribed to the Stanley Kubrick school that basically discards the three-act textbook structure. Still, his late editor, Sally Menke, passed away in 2010, and his films since then have all had an unfortunate sort of bloat to them. Was “Once upon a Time” boring? No…but did we really need superfluous scenes of, say, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character dancing on an “American Bandstand”-type show?
Tarantino isn’t alone in his excesses. Martin Scorsese, who received his ninth (!) directing nomination this year for “The Irishman,” is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but like Tarantino, he doesn’t make a lot of short films. While I appreciated the fact that “The Irishman” was a slow-burn, and more of a film for older audiences than for young men hoping for lots of onscreen violence, his film probably could’ve been shorter than 209 minutes. And that being said, Tarantino and Scorsese both deserve their nominations more than Todd Phillips, whose “Joker” was something of a mess.
We have a two-man race this year. For at least the past month, “1917” director Sam Mendes has taken most pre-Oscar awards in the Directing category, and the fact that he already has an Oscar for his work on 1999’s “American Beauty” doesn’t disqualify him at all. “1917” is an enormously-impressive piece of filmmaking, and much, much, much more than just one or two seemingly-continuous shots. He deserves to win. Nipping at his heels more with each passing day, however, is South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, whose devious “Parasite” is the water cooler underdog hit of the year. Five of the last six Best Director Oscars have been from a different country. Could Joon-ho make it six out of seven?
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once upon a Time…in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes
Who Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix
Who Should Win: Adam Driver
Watch Out For: Adam Driver
Should Have Been Nominated: Robert DeNiro, The Irishman
Comments: So the big question of this year’s Best Actor race is, will it be Joaquin Phoenix or will it be…Joaquin Phoenix? Seriously, the long-time actor has had this trophy in the bag since “Joker” opened in October. The respected Method actor brings his usual intensity to the role, playing Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck comedian in a gritty 1980’s NYC (Gotham City?) whose gradual decline into depravity and murder – and eventual rebirth as the Joker – is chronicled in rather depressing style. If Phoenix emerges victorious on Sunday night, he’ll be the second actor to win an Oscar for playing the Joker – the late Heath Ledger delivered a very different take on the role in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”
Phoenix is joined in the category this year by Antonio Banderas in “Pain and Glory.” Banderas garners his first nod for his sympathetic portrayal of Salvador, an ailing, Almodóvar-like filmmaker reflecting on his life and career following a pair of emotional reunions with the men of his past. Leonardo DiCaprio, playing aging western star Rick Dalton in “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood,” earns his first nomination since winning four years ago for “The Revenant.” A long sequence in the middle of the film finds Dalton cast in a supporting role for a TV western against a precocious child actress, and Dalton’s determination to nail his scene is an acting tour-de-force for one-time “Growing Pains” star DiCaprio, and the best work he’s done in years.
Also nominated – and not to be overlooked – are Adam Driver, for “Marriage Story,” and Jonathan Pryce, for “The Two Popes” – Netflix productions both. Driver, a Supporting Actor nominee for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” is even better here, as Charlie, the OCD Broadway playwright, who is shattered upon learning that his wife is leaving him. Driver received raves for two terrific scenes late in the film: his impromptu piano bar rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s somber “Being Alive,” and his devastating, spittle-and-wall-punching breakdown in his new Los Angeles apartment. He is terrific in the rest of the film as well, but in a weaker year, would surely win based on those emotional third-act scenes alone. Pryce, meanwhile, has been doing great work for years, so it is somewhat surprising that this is only his first nomination. I remember him as a Bond villain in 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and as Argentine president Juan Perón in the previous year’s “Evita.” The UK-born Pryce plays another Argentine in “The Two Popes” – newly-elected Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America. Pryce plays Francis as a humble man of the cloth, a humanist haunted by his past and believing he could have done more to protect other Jesuits during Argentina’s Dirty War of the 1970’s and 80’s.
Banderas, DiCaprio, Driver, and Pryce are all terrific. That they don’t stand a chance against Phoenix is unfortunate. I would especially like to see Driver win; who can’t identify with a guy who, while not perfect, is still in love with a woman who no longer feels the same way? Some detractors will say Driver hasn’t been around long enough, but that’s just nonsense – he’s in seemingly everything these days. Still, it’s hard to be unimpressed by Phoenix, whose Joker ranks up there with Ledger’s, with Jack Nicholson’s, with Jared Leto’s, and with Mark Hamill’s. Just as Phoenix is much more than just “River’s younger brother,” his performance in “Joker” is much more than just body contortions and a creepy laugh.
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy
Who Will Win: Renée Zellweger
Who Should Win: Renée Zellweger
Watch Out For: Scarlett Johansson
Should Have Been Nominated: Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Comments: Just as Joaquin Phoenix has been the long-determined winner in the category of Best Actor, Renée Zellweger has held that gauntlet in the Best Actress race since “Judy” was released in September. Full disclosure: I am not her biggest fan. She was great in her breakthrough role as squinty-eyed Dorothy in “Jerry Maguire,” as the amnesiac waitress in “Nurse Betty,” and as jailbird sensation Roxie Hart in “Chicago,” but so, so, so bad in “Cinderella Man” and in “Cold Mountain,” the latter film of which somehow found her winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2004. She took a hiatus from acting for several years, and the break seems to have agreed with her. She is at the top of her game – or any actress’ game, for that matter – as a middle-aged, pill-popping Judy Garland, who comes to London to perform and finds a husband (her fifth) along the way.
2019 was a strong year for the Best Actress category. Zellweger is well-matched, and her competition includes two first-time nominees one fourth-time nominee, and (along with Zellweger herself) one past winner. For the first timers we have Cynthia Erivo and Scarlett Johansson. In “Harriet,” Erivo is a force of nature as the title character, Harriet Tubman. The screenplay races through her escape from slavery relatively quickly, but is nuanced in its portrayal of her as an independent, determined liberator of slaves, some 70 altogether. Erivo more than rises to the challenge. In “Marriage Story,” Johansson (who is also nominated in the Supporting Actress slot for “Jojo Rabbit” – her first appearance in each category) plays Nicole, the long-suffering mother and actress wife of a talented NYC stage director. Having fallen out of love with her husband, she seeks to move back to the Los Angeles she grew up in, and to take the couple’s son with her. Johansson shows us her character’s frustration in constantly being second fiddle to her husband’s career, and it is a solid, lived-in performance.
The repeat nominees besides Zellweger are Saoirse Ronan and Charlize Theron. The Irish-born Ronan is just 25 years old yet is already on her fourth nomination, giving Jennifer Lawrence a run for the money in the talent department. Ronan plays Jo, the second-oldest of the four March sisters, in “Little Women,” an oft-adapted classic novel that seems especially fresh this time around. As Jo, she shows us the ahead-of-her-time struggles of a young woman torn between love and career, only learning at the end that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it, too. Theron, on her third nomination and 17 years after her first win (for 2003’s “Monster”), plays Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly, who earned a deserving reputation of one of the smarter journalists in the network’s employ, and who put up with more than a little bit of shit by her predatory boss, Roger Ailes.
Any of the actresses could win, as could my personal choice, Lupita Nyong’o, who plays tricky dual roles in the Jordan Peele-directed horror film “Us,” had she secured a nomination. For shame. Scarlett, who is one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood, successfully works in the indie and mainstream fields, and she is every bit as good as her “Marriage Story” co-star Adam Driver, even considering that her character doesn’t get the big breakdown scenes that his gets. Like Driver, she has a small-ish chance at an upset…but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Best Supporting Actor
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once upon a Time…in Hollywood
Who Will Win: Brad Pitt
Who Should Win: Brad Pitt
Watch Out For: Joe Pesci
Should Have Been Nominated: Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Comments: Best Supporting Actor is usually the most crowded Oscar field, with about 15 strong candidates jostling for five slots. This year…not so much. The category is so unusually lackluster this year that despite his film’s mid-summer release date, long before the usual slate of Academy-friendly films was released, Brad Pitt was slated as the category front-runner the moment that “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood” came out in July – and he never lost an ounce of momentum. To me, Pitt is one of those actors who is somewhat bland, and who only comes to life as a performance under the guise of certain directors in particular. Quentin Tarantino is one of those directors, and he makes Pitt’s character, rash Hollywood stuntman Cliff Booth, into something of a tragic figure. It is, for the first time in Pitt’s career since “Inglourious Basterds” in 2009 (also directed by Tarantino, as it happens), a great performance.
Even though they won’t win, I should give at least a cursory mention to his fellow nominees in the category. Tom Hanks, nominated for the first time since 2000’s “Cast Away,” plays PBS’s iconic Mr. Rogers as a savant-like peacenik; his nod here was, like Pitt’s, a foregone conclusion. Next up, and nice to see nominated once again, for the first time since 1997’s “Amistad,” is Anthony Hopkins. In “The Two Popes,” the knighted Brit plays Pope Emeritus Benedict as, first, an out-of-touch curmudgeon and, later, a regretful old man. Pitt, Hanks, and Hopkins are joined by the tag team of Al Pacino and Joe Pesci for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Pacino carves fine ham as an impassioned Jimmy Hoffa, while Joe Pesci plays mob boss Russell Bufalino as someone low key and even-tempered – the opposite of what Pesci is known for. Pesci came out of retirement to play the part, and his quiet performance is the best one in the film.
Best Supporting Actress
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell
Who Will Win: Laura Dern
Who Should Win: Laura Dern
Watch Out For: Margot Robbie
Should Have Been Nominated: Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Comments: While 2018 was a strong year in this performance, with fine work by Amy Adams, Marina de Tavira, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and winner Regina King (for “If Beale Street Could Talk”), 2019 was more a “meh” year. I am still unsure why J. Lo, whose fiery performance as a less-than-honest stripper, didn’t receive a nomination. Her movie, “Hustlers,” was just okay, but she was as good as any of the other nominees, and she proved that her fine work in “Out of Sight,” 21 years earlier, was not a fluke.
It is what it is. As it stands, we have Kathy Bates, who tugs at our heartstrings as the mother of wrongly-accused Atlanta Olympic Park bombing suspect Richard Jewell in the film of the same name, making her fourth trip to the Oscars as a nominee (she won in 1991 for “Misery”). We also have Laura Dern as Nora, the damn-the-torpedoes lawyer of Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, in “Marriage Story,” and the thrice-nominated actress is all-but-guaranteed to win this year, as she has taken most awards season honors to this point. Speaking of Johansson, she was double-nominated this year, and in the Supporting Actress category it is for playing Rosie Betzler, mother to our title character in “Jojo Rabbit.” She loves her son and can’t fault his loyalty to the Hitler Youth…despite the fact that she is secretly working for the Resistance. Next up is Florence Pugh, who plays the sensitive, artistic, contemptuous Amy in “Little Women” – the best character in the film. Finally, Margot Robbie plays ambitious Fox News newbie Kayla Pospisil, a fictitious composite of several real-life women who were victims of Roger Ailes and his lecherous advances. She is good here, but should have been nominated instead for her vibrant portrayal of Sharon Tate in “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood.” She is the underdog, considering her strong work in both films…but this is Dern’s year.
Best Original Screenplay
Once upon a Time…in Hollywood
Who Will Win: Marriage Story
Who Should Win: Marriage Story
Watch Out For: Parasite
Should Have Been Nominated: Uncut Gems
Comments: With four strong candidates and one weak one (the strengths of “1917,” as much as I admire the film, are not in its script), this seems a tough category to pick a winner. “Knives Out,” scripted by “Looper” writer-director Rian Johnson, is funny and clever in equal measure, and has enough fans to be one of the underdogs of this category. “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood” divided audiences and critics with its revisionist ending, but as always, scribe Quentin Tarantino has such a great ear for dialogue that he cannot be discounted. (As I mentioned earlier in this post, he already has two Oscars in this category, for “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained.”). “Parasite,” written by its director just like “Knives” and “Hollywood,” is ingenious and tone-perfect despite its jaw-dropping plot twists, and I have never seen a movie like it before. Many industry scribes are pulling for it.
That being said, there is something so believable in the bickering, name-calling, and mud-slinging that occurs between the leads in “Marriage Story” that I think it will – and should – win here. It doesn’t hurt that writer-director Noah Baumbach has been nominated before (for “The Squid and the Whale”) or that his partner, “Little Women” writer-director Greta Gerwig, is nominated in the other screenwriting category as well.
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Two Popes
Who Will Win: Little Women
Who Should Win: Little Women
Watch Out For: The Irishman
Should Have Been Nominated: Doctor Sleep
Comments: In all honesty, this is a weak year for the Adapted Screenplay category. I liked, but didn’t love, the Netflix-distributed “The Two Popes,” which offers keen insight into the process of electing a new pope, but then, alas, morphs into a sort of buddy comedy in which Popes Benedict and Francis bicker, bond, and watch fútbol together. “Joker,” an origin story about the DC Comics villain, was a movie that no one asked for, yet grossed over a billion dollars in global box office. The problem for me is that I never bought into some of the major story beats. “Jojo Rabbit” was fun, but predictable. “The Irishman,” by Oscar-winning “Schinder’s List” screenwriter Steven Zaillian, has more story depth than the other nominees in this category, especially in terms of what it has to say about growing old, about loyalty to one’s boss, and about how friendships can waver on a knife’s edge.
While ultimately not as strong as “Goodfellas,” “The Departed,” or a few other screenplays for Martin Scorsese movies, “The Irishman” would surely win…if not for the wonderfully fresh take by “Little Women” scribe Greta Gerwig, who breathes new life into oft-adapted material. All of that being said, I sure wish “Doctor Sleep” had snuck in here. The movie was a box office bomb, but it does an admirable job of not only condensing Stephen King’s 600-page tome into a workable film, but of also acknowledging the elephant in the room that is Stanley Kubrick’s much-loved 1980 film.
Historically, few Oscar viewers remember – or pay much attention to – the “below the line” nominations, in categories like Film Editing and Costume Design. This is too bad, considering that a film’s visual palette, auditory presentation, and scene transitions are all part of the overall movie-watching experience. But Oscar ballots can sink or swim based on the total number of correct predictions, so here are my guesses in the remaining categories:
- Best Foreign Film: “Parasite.” No question here.
- Best Animated Feature: “Toy Story 4” over “Missing Link”
- Best Documentary Feature: “American Factory” – produced by the Obamas, distributed by Netflix
- Best Documentary Short: “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)”
- Best Live Action Short Subject: “The Neighbors’ Window”
- Best Animated Short: “Hair Love”
- Best Cinematography: “1917” and the legendary Roger Deakins
- Best Film Editing: “Parasite” over “Ford v Ferrari”
- Best Original Score: Hildur Guonadottir for “Joker”
- Best Original Song: “Stand Up” from “Harriet” – performed and co-written by Cynthia Erivo
- Best Sound Mixing: “1917” over “Ford v Ferrari”
- Best Sound Editing: “1917” over “Ford v Ferrari”
- Best Production Design: “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood” over the more-deserving “Parasite”
- Best Costume Design: “Little Women”
- Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Bombshell.” No contest.
- Best Visual Effects: “The Lion King,” with “The Irishman” waiting in the wings, all CGI de-aged.
By my count, that leaves “1917” with five Oscars, and “Parasite,” “Joker,” “Little Women,” and “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood” with two each. Whatever happened to the days when the Best Picture Oscar winner took home seven or eight other trophies as well? That hasn’t happened since “Slumdog Millionaire” collected eight Oscars in 2009!
The 2020 Oscars will air live this Sunday, February 9th at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m PT on ABC. Find out more facts about the nominated films at oscar.go.com…and enjoy the show!