Here are my reviews of the nine 2019 Best Picture candidates. The ceremony is February 9, 2020.
The World War I film 1917 (B+), directed by Sam Mendes and photographed by Roger Deakins, relies on an enormously effective and immersive magic trick of appearing like one continuous camera take, achieved with a mix of practical action and digital sleight of hand. It’s an incredible adventure spectacular even though the parade of set pieces and escalating stunts feel a bit too convenient at times. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are very empathetic as lance corporals in the British Army tasked with getting a message to a fellow battalion to thwart a German trap. The film’s you-are-there aesthetic is nothing short of masterful even though it shortchanges character development and deeper themes in service of its technical priorities. Still, the action sequences are visceral and propulsive, as if the journey of Apocalypse Now were given the lilt and momentum of Run Lola Run. Mendes marshals splendid elements ranging from majestic music to earthy atmosphere and gorgeous shots of Northern France in various stages of terror. Go for the war movie, stay for the action ride.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new verité thriller should come with a warning label that it will most assuredly produce anxiety in its audience. It is both a blessing and a curse that these sibling writer/directors fill every mise-en-scène of the paranoid action drama Uncut Gems (B) with such realistic and resounding cinematic finesse. This potboiler of a film constantly raises the stakes and develops a preternaturally tense atmosphere not to be underestimated by the faint of heart. The brothers’ mastery of charged objects nearly out-Malteses every falcon frame. Adam Sandler is incredible in the meaty antihero role at the film’s center, and the plot basically traces his diamond district hustler character through the constant ups and downs of being over leveraged. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale since the main character was pretty corrupted from the very beginning, but it’s fascinating to see the compounding effects of his actions as he juggles bribes, bets and bids into a nearly untenable position. The central character so dominates the movie that there’s really little oxygen for others in the ensemble, so it’s difficult to want much more than a speedy resolution for all of them. It’s amazing filmmaking buoyed by a pulpy performance, but you may like it best once it’s over.
One of the best examples of investigative journalism at Fox News was actually the investigation of the journalist organization itself, as chronicled in Jay Roach’s ripped-from-the-headlines sexual harassment drama Bombshell (B). Charlize Theron brilliantly channels alpha anchor Megyn Kelly, who follows the disturbing trail of manipulative behavior by the news network’s top brass (a terrifying John Lithgow in pancaked prosthetics as the late Roger Ailes). The film is consistently engrossing even though often surface level. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are also effective in their roles as news purveyors who find themselves the news subjects (I wish the central trio were on screen together!), and Kate McKinnon is solid as an unexpected ally. The parade of real-life lookalikes gets a bit distracting as central characters are given short shrift (look, it’s someone playing Geraldo!), but the film will go down in history for showcasing a fascinating formula for how a #MeToo movement could take hold even in the most insular of places.
Filled with autumnal beauty, radiant performances, fierce dialogue and timeless themes, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (A) breaks through the barriers of the work’s familiarity to speak an empowering message to modern moviegoers about truly heeding one’s instincts. This is the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel written more than a century and a half ago, and Gerwig finds extraordinary resonance in the story for contemporary times. She re-invents the piece a bit with a non-linear format and even a meta interplay with the book’s author, and the playfulness with chronology helps the work echo even further with delight. A quartet of curious and talented sisters led by protagonist Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, experience the highs and lows of growing up and discovering their individual female powers in a changing America during the aftermath of the Civil War. A luminous Ronan anchors the film, with Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen each adding depth and appeal to the ensemble. Pugh in particular gets to shine. Laura Dern is splendid as the vulnerable mother holding down the family fort while father is away fighting, and Timothée Chalamet is a charismatic and ideal match for the sisters who are weighing the joys and costs of male companionship in both flash forwards and flashbacks. It’s telling how high quality every aspect of the film is that one can almost forget Meryl Streep is also in the movie and incidentally excellent as the misanthropic aunt. The film is sumptuous and idyllic in its depiction of the March family’s story and snappy in its defiant points of view. There is real and ribald sibling rivalry, sensational depiction of true sisterly bonds, genuine glass ceilings to smash and sheer delight to behold in every picturesque frame. Gerwig has made an essential version of this tale with a feminist vantage point which is inclusive and insightful. Her warm film is highly recommended to anyone looking to forge a path against the odds.
Two master actors chew the Sistine scenery in the often insightful, sometimes humorous The Two Popes (B), directed by Fernando Meirelles. Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, making the stunning decision of recanting his papacy, and Jonathan Pryce portrays the future Pope Francis, visiting Vatican City and Benedict’s summer home in a moment of crisis for the church. Both actors are at the top of their game reflecting two very different world views. The film works best in depicting the two men discussing conflicting interpretations of church teachings in the world and debating nuances of God’s authority (a veritable tennis match of lobbing insightful dialogue back and forth like a tennis match) and is less effective in addressing topical issues of church scandals or even delving into some mysterious flashbacks. The film has some fun with behind the scenes glimpses of the men following World Cup matches and other personal moments humanizing their lives while wrestling with Big Issues. It’s an ultimately hopeful look at the good that men can do when balancing theological duties with a perspective beyond the insular workings of the church.
Don’t judge a talented ensemble by its misbegotten digital feline fur cover. Once you get past the regrettable and slightly creepy augmented Snapchat aesthetic, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical Cats (B-) hits some pretty nifty notes. Ardent evan-Jellicles of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic tuner based on T.S. Eliot’s poems about ragtag whiskered strays vying for redemption will find there’s a terrific theatrical bravura and a deft, often dreamlike showmanship beneath the layers of the bizarro production design. After a high-energy and effective opener, there are admittedly a few comedic clunkers (I’m looking at you, Rebel Wilson and James Corden!) before the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellan and even Taylor Swift put their impish imprint on some rather well sung, elaborately staged and choreographed kitty ditties. Some of the scale and CGI effects defy logic, but you’ve got to suspend belief a bit anyway since you’re watching a fantasy about crooning human/cat hybrids after all. This material has never been known for having a cogent plot; in fact, Hooper shapes and improves the narrative though-line a bit from its stage origins with a sense that the characters are caught up in an actual contest. Ballet impresario Francesca Hayward is divine as the spirited protagonist, as are talented dancer/singers Robert Fairchild and Laurie Davidson in some of the less star-driven roles. Jennifer Hudson does a helluva “Memory,” and the new Lloyd Webber song “Beautiful Ghosts” (sung by Hayward, lyrics by another T.S., Ms. Swift) provides a lovely contemporary counterpoint. The film’s feral spirit can lull you right into its bonkers universe; and even though not every sequence lands on its feet, the film will undoubtedly bring joy to many as it survives multiple derisive deaths to at last experience safe harbor in the loving protection of cult fans.
J.J. Abrams returns to the helm for the final entry of the legendary Jedi v Sith sequel cycle, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (B), a populist pretzel twisting space and time to conclude a myriad of loose plot points while pouring on salty nostalgia in generous doses. This space opera saga finale works best when its trio of next-generation heroes Rey, Finn and Poe embark on snappy adventures together, less in a murky subplot involving a villainous blast from the past and even less in its introduction of new characters to an overstuffed narrative. Abrams scores a propulsive and often thrilling first hour and gets the humor right with fan-pleasing quips and gags but finds himself a bit tangled when trying to shoehorn the late Carrie Fisher’s unused footage from past movies into cogent current conversations and striving to make sense of some lapses in lineage for its dueling family trees. Visually, the film is splendid, with a few epic tricks up its sleeves including a pretty Bollywood planet and a deft lightsaber battle on the high seas. There are some clever treasure quests, stunning revelations and a few generally poignant moments, sometimes bookended by an occasionally soggy and somewhat schizophrenic salmagundi. In trying to please his fanboy/fangirl constituencies, Abrams is all too likely to replace originality with more origins. The film is indeed haunted by ghosts, some of the high-spirited variety and others fossilized or zombified with creaky bones of a lumbering legacy. It’s a testament to the acting chops of Daisy Ridley as protagonist Rey and Adam Driver as her frenemy Ren that they acquit themselves admirably amidst some mumbo jumbo logic. The over four-decade series has likely outlasted its ability to surprise, but its mirth and myth making factory still thrills. This frenzied film hyperdrives to a generally smooth landing.
The revelatory performance of Paul Walter Hauser as the mild-mannered titular character of Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell (B) is the primary draw of the historical procedural movie. While the director plays a bit loose with the story elements surrounding the man wrongfully accused of masterminding the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, Eastwood successfully conjures a trio of fine performances, including Hauser’s nuanced protagonist, Kathy Bates as his classic Southern mom and Sam Rockwell as a wry, supportive lawyer. Less successful are Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde whose stock characters as an FBI agent and reporter, respectively, at the center of Jewell’s false narrative tend to ring false. The film is taut in its re-enactment of the inciting incident and intriguing in its examination of how easy it is to cajole a hapless man into a corner. It has flashes of humor and pathos as its themes come into focus. The story is told in a minor key evocative of its central subject and is above average entertainment even if not astonishing.
Waves (B), written and directed with a whirling dervish ferocity by Trey Edward Shults, tells an epic story of a contemporary Floridian family experiencing a variety of trials on a journey to redemption and recovery. While ultimately hopeful, it careens head-first into a Requiem for a Dream level fever pitch for some time before transitioning into a more contemplative second act. The ensemble is uniformly exquisite, led by Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry as well-meaning parents to Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell, also a wonder as thoughtful teen siblings facing a coming tide of turmoil. Although his film is often lovely to behold, Shults employs too many cinematic tricks with an elliptical structure that weighs down the movie’s thin storyline. At times, despite good intentions, the film feels a bit like an after-school special greatest hits episode. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is tense and tantalizing, and the bursts of nighttime and maritime colors are gorgeous, even if occasionally too evocative of the superior Moonlight, set in a similar milieu. The themes about savoring every moment and taking steps to heal emotional wounds are quite resonant, but sometimes the film goes to alarming lengths to administer its balm.
Even though it chronicles the sad tale of the breakdown of a marriage, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (A) is bittersweet bliss. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give career-best performances as the couple in the story’s center, a director and his actress muse, respectively, who find themselves separated by an emotional gulf and soon a geographic one as his NYC career flourishes and as she moves to L.A. to film a pilot. Their characters’ drift away from each other is less the result of a bombshell than simply desiring different approaches to matrimony and how they live their lives. And although they have become too closed-off from one another to thrive as a functional unit, the complicated mechanics of divorce – and what it all means for the couple’s sole offspring – become the trigger point for high drama. Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Laura Dern are magnificent as acerbic orbiting attorneys, with Dern in particular delivering mightily as the woman empowering Johannson’s character to strike faster and harder. Baumbach makes his audiences deeply care about the proceedings with endearing and intimate close-ups, flashes of humor and a brilliant take on human relationships. The acting is so good, it feels like a documentary. Tragedy is tough, but this ensemble demands attention. Even Randy Newman’s sometimes spry, sometimes sanguine score is a delight, although it’s pretty much the opposite of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” The film is searing and sensational and will likely be absorbing must-see viewing in your queue. Prepare for the streaming, especially from your eyes.
Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name (B+) is a joyous examination of creating unconventional film art and in the vulgar verses and syncopation of its titular rhyming cinematic pimp may just showcase the origins of rap music too. Eddie Murphy as standup comedian turned Blaxploitation movie icon Rudy Ray Moore and Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, an obscure and flamboyant actor tapped to direct the film-within-the-film, both turn in marvelous comeback performances. The film falls in the let’s-make-a-terrible-movie sub-genre already populated by The Disaster Artist and Ed Wood, but it’s also notable for plumbing an era in history of significant underrepresentation of African-Americans in film. The movie is gorgeously art directed and very funny. It’s a hoot to see an ensemble, including Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Chris Rock and Titus Burgess, having this much fun while showcasing history in the making.