The Best Picture line-up for the Oscars is pretty strong this year. The nine nominees are Sam Mendes’s 1917, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Todd Phillips’s Joker, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and James Mangold’s Ford V Ferrari.
Joker leads with 11 nominations, and three films are tied with 10 nominations.
The field can be narrowed down to three films: 1917, Parasite, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Although Joker has the highest number of nominations, it’s ultimately a case of superb craftsmanship in service of an average film.
With Jojo Rabbit, Waititi attempts to mine laughs out of one of the darkest periods of the 20th century, and the results are divisive. Ford V Ferrari is a solid star vehicle about auto-racing, but nothing we haven’t seen before. Gangland epic The Irishman, notwithstanding an excellent final 30 minutes, is also bogged down by a lumbering pace and awkward de-aging effects. Little Women and Marriage Story are fine, intimate films, but just not good enough as the big three.
Mendes’s 1917, which follows two British soldiers navigating hostile territory during World War I to deliver a message to his fellow troops that could save 1,600 lives, has been made to appear like it was shot continuously without cuts. Some have termed the illusion of a two-hour single shot gimmicky and unnecessary, but it makes sense for a story that follows every step of the protagonists and is unconcerned with what’s happening elsewhere.
The barbarity of history’s first fully-mechanised war is successfully communicated in 1917, as the camera relentlessly accompanies the protagonists as they encounter mangled bodies, abandoned weaponry and demolished houses against the constant threat of enemy gunfire in the background. The realisation of Mendes’s mad ambition required intricate production design across miles, well-organised camera movements and lighting arrangements. The result is not just a triumph of craft and technique but also incredibly moving.
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is a wildly inventive thriller sprinkled with darkly comic and crowd-pleasing elements. The story follows an impoverished family fooling a rich family into being hired at their home. The events that follow spiral out of everyone’s control, leading to a blood-soaked climax.
Tonally, Parasite is just right, so that its themes of class conflict do not seem facile but also aren’t too abstract to get buried under the film’s genre thrills. The film’s two biggest strengths: it never sags for a minute, and its uncomplicated theme of capitalism-is-evil is something everyone’s on board with in 2020. Though Bong’s earlier films, such as Memories of Murder, were just as good, and South Korea has produced equally good or even better films before, why the West fell head over heels in love with Parasite is anybody’s guess.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is, by far, the most deserving of the Best Picture award. It’s an extremely difficult film to get right, especially since its languid, free-flowing tone has to mesh with the technical finesse and rigour required to achieve a lightness of touch. And Tarantino and team does it flawlessly.
The film follows a television star and his best friend-cum-body double getting by in Hollywood, Los Angeles, in 1969, a time when American culture and cinema was on the cusp of entering a new, cynical era.
Defying all screenwriting rules as always, Tarantino’s screenplay is an episodic account of three days spread over six months in the lives of these two men. Despite the lack of traditional structure, narrative highs and lows, the screenplay is surprisingly funny, and deeply wistful and even melancholic, given the way the film ends.
Breathing life to this screenplay are two of the most charming movie stars on the planet, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. There’s the superstar-in-the-making Margot Robbie, who is channelling a beautiful memory of Sharon Tate, instead of playing a caricature of the person. And there are a host of popular faces in small but memorable roles, making the film an extremely starry affair.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood practically fires on all cylinders. The technicolour hues of Los Angeles in the ’60s shine bright through Robert Richardson’s lens. Fred Raskin’s editing brings an invisible order to the whimsical 160-minute narrative. The soundtrack assembled by Tarantino regular Mary Ramos is a hoot. The hairstyling, costume design, and production design departments are absolutely on point with Tarantino’s vision.
The Academy has an absolutely meaningless reputation of rewarding films about the film industry, but if Once Upon A Time In Hollywood does bag the big one on Sunday evening, no one in their right mind is going to complain.