Among the certainties in the world of film criticism—there will be a series of pieces bemoaning critics’ inability to stop a terrible summer film from becoming a blockbuster; Armond White will often stake out a position in opposition to many of his fellow critics; movies about middle-aged men having their mid-life crises sorted out by women well out of their league will always receive mostly kind notices; etc.—there’s one that stands above all others. Every year, Pixar will release a new film, and every year, it will garner exceedingly kind reviews, often competing to be the best-reviewed wide release of the year on review aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The reviews will contain some variation on the phrase, “Pixar does it again!” and champion the studio’s ability to come up with children’s films that also hold appeal for adults and tackle bigger themes than your usual computer-animated monstrosity. At the end of the year, said critics will often pen a few words about how Pixar can never get any love at the big races at the Oscars, even when their films win big critics prizes (as did WALL-E). And then the topic of Pixar as reliable geniuses, practitioners of a kind of ruddily American innovation, will be put back in the box until it is dragged out all over again the next time a Pixar film is released, to be repeated with much the same series of beats.
I would find it hard to disagree that Pixar is the best and most consistent creator of traditional narrative film within the Hollywood system, and, indeed, they’ve produced many of my favorite films of the decade. They have ten films at this point, and all ten of those films have their virtues, with at least five or six of them having such virtues as to be genuinely worthy of far deeper critical discussion than they usually receive. At least one would number among my favorite films of all time (The Incredibles). Even something like Cars, which has its problems when examined as a typical three-act, Hollywood narrative (the mid-section sags), is more interesting from a thematic point of view. What it’s saying is something that’s been stated time and again, but it’s rare for a computer-animated film to express such a weird nostalgia for outdated technologies and things that have gone on before. Pixar’s dedication to the old ways of movie storytelling, to the idea that things used to be better when story went before all else, dammit, provides such a weirdly compatible partner for its cutting-edge technological feats that both halves of the equation strike an odd tone of harmony.
Among modern movie magnates, Pixar and Clint Eastwood seem to stand alone for getting critical credit for their deliberate embrace of old-fashioned Hollywood techniques and tropes. Pixar movies, while innovative on a visual level, are definitely throwbacks on a storytelling level. Unlike Eastwood, who deliberately seeks out material that has a classical Hollywood feel to it, Pixar is also structured much like a studio would have been in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Like most animation studios, the production staff at Pixar is much closer to the way a production staff on a television show might work, with a large variety of voices contributing a variety of notions to the finalized product. While it’s easy to tell a Brad Bird film from an Andrew Stanton film at the directorial level, both are still readily recognizable as Pixar products in a way that a Warner Brothers film is not necessarily recognizable as a Warner Brothers film. Pixar reignites that old debate over whether or not a director, screenwriter, producer or studio is most responsible for a film’s content and argues indirectly for the idea that a studio can be an author, that a group of people working together can forge something approximating a thematic identity. Oddly enough, for a studio that so often embraces stories about individuals working alone to change the world, Pixar’s films almost always provide occasional glimpses of an individual voice but then speak up more forcefully, in the end, for the collective. But where other studios might be trapped up by ego in this process, Pixar uses it to turn all of its films into at least solid pieces of craftsmanship, if not miniature masterpieces.
What’s even more interesting is that Pixar has a decided thematic throughline to its films. Though multiple themes are present in the films, three have risen to dominate the nine productions released so far, even going so far as to create a neat evolution of the Pixar thematic ideal. For its first five films (save the intriguingly different Bug’s Life, which I’ll examine in more depth in a bit), the studio made films about the relationships between young children and their parents and the way those relationships shifted, changed and warped as children aged. For its next four films, the studio made films about how individuals do or don’t fit within their communities and the ways that communities struggle to encompass the exceptional individuals who pop up within them. And now, with Up and leaked plot details from Toy Story 3 as evidence, the studio is overwhelmingly concerned with mortality.
What’s even more interesting is how these themes intertwine most thoroughly in studio creative chief John Lasseter films, while Stanton’s films close out each rough “section” of Pixar’s filmography with the ultimate statement of that particular theme. Pete Docter’s Up, meanwhile, is almost a refutation of the four films that precede it (its villain could have easily been the hero of any of those four films), while it seems unlikely that Brad Bird—who’s uniquely obsessed with the ways society ostracizes individuals—could have made a film as good as The Incredibles or Ratatouille at any other point in the studio’s history. What’s even more interesting is how these four men, who comprise Pixar’s main creative “brain trust,” have somehow meshed together to create a unified authorial voice for the studio that rarely seems in conflict with itself.
Pixar’s first film, Lasseter’s Toy Story, is the earliest expression of all of these themes. Sheriff Woody is the laid-back cowboy archetype of a leader of a small community of toys, always ready to figure out how best to serve the other toys in his community. He’s also the beloved plaything of a young boy named Andy, and he feels an almost fiercely paternal love for the boy, even as he understands that his relationship with Andy necessarily gives Andy all of the power. And lurking at the back of his mind (though not so acutely as it will in Toy Story 2) is the idea that he will eventually be replaced in Andy’s heart by something.
In Toy Story, that something is the outsider the community struggles to incorporate, Buzz Lightyear, a confidently swaggering archetype of his own, who arrives to adulation from the other toys and the disruption of Woody’s normal routine. Fittingly, the movie’s other major narrative arc has Buzz accepting, thematically, that he will die. He is not an almighty space ranger. He is merely a toy. And while his plastic will not literally decay, his usefulness to the boy who owns him will. In its first film and simplest narrative structure (really, the film is essentially a classic buddy film), Pixar is already laying out everything it will be obsessed by. (Even more interesting is how the short in the studio’s filmography that most resembles Toy Story—Tin Toy—finds children a source of horror more than gentle, paternal affection, perhaps a sign that it comes from a bunch of men who have not yet had children themselves.)
A Bug’s Life, directed by Lasseter and Stanton, is the least thematically pure film in the Pixar canon. It incorporates other old Hollywood tropes—like the idea of the country boy going to the city and finding great adventure—and never quite subsumes them into the studio’s formula in the way other films in its filmography did. That makes it pleasantly iconoclastic viewing when watched in, say, a Pixar marathon, but it stands out as being the only film among the studio’s first five that is not dominated by parental fears of a child moving past them that give way to gradual acceptance. The ants in A Bug’s Life have lifespans so short that they essentially have to accept that they will, inevitably, be replaced. Their main goal is to work to build a better community, to protect it from the greedy grasshoppers, who think only of self and take whatever they want. (We’ll have other pieces about Pixar’s politics later in the week, but it’s striking how A Bug’s Life also lays out the studio’s political views so handily—there’s a kneejerk liberalism there, but also a creeping dread that all of the good liberals do in trying to build a community can be easily undone by freeloaders.) More than any other film, A Bug’s Life defies easy categorization into the categories I’m laying out here.
Not so Toy Story 2, which takes everything Toy Story was obsessed with and heightens it. Directed by Lasseter, Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich, the film pounds into Woody the notion that he is a toy, with a shelf life, that he will inevitably outlive his usefulness and have to watch his surrogate son lose any interest whatsoever in him as the son necessarily grows up and moves on. The film is not about finding a way for Woody to preserve the feeling of being a loved and special toy forever (as the original Toy Story treatment, available on the DVD, was), but, instead, about him learning to accept that he will both lose his son and metaphorically die. The film’s notions of community are less pronounced than they were in Toy Story, but they’re present, especially as the ad hoc community undertakes a rescue mission to free Woody from a toy collector.
Monsters, Inc., directed by Docter, David Silverman and Unkrich, is the first film in Pixar’s canon to make explicit notions of parent-child love and concern. While most of the praise for the film stems from its ability to invent a wholly separate world that runs parallel to our own and intersects with it at key points (namely, children’s bedroom closet doors), it deserves equal consideration for how it turns a surrogate parent-child relationship into one that feels like a real one by the end. Despite the fact that young Boo spends what seems like several days in Monstropolis, we never get any indication that her parents in our world are terribly concerned about her disappearance. Instead, big, blue, furry Sully is the one who gets to experience the realization that the proper place for children is in a position where they are guided by their parents but eventually grow apart from them, as he eventually must do the right thing and place Boo back in her proper place. Monsters, Inc., doesn’t have much in the way of mortality concerns on its mind, though it does have occasional thoughts on community, namely because the one at its center is dying, needing to find a new way to beat an energy crisis. The dominant theme for the first time is that of parents realizing their children will outgrow and even replace them.
If Docter, Silverman and Unkrich were the first to let that theme dominate a film, by the time Stanton and Unkrich’s Finding Nemo came around in 2003, their playing up of that theme and Toy Story 2’s subtle raising the volume on that theme had come to make it seem like Pixar could only make films about how parents don’t want to see their children go but realize they must. Finding Nemo, about a lonely clownfish with just one son who embarks on a voyage throughout the entirety of the ocean to find him when he is snatched by an aquarium collector, is a lovely farewell to that theme, both playing it up to a point that no prior Pixar film had and finding a way to gradually lay it to rest. When the film begins, Nemo, with his one fin smaller than the other, is solely the responsibility of his father. When it ends, he is the responsibility of an entire community of friendly fish, an ad hoc family, and while that family’s presence does not lessen Nemo’s father’s pain at the fact that his son will recede from him, growing murkier the further he pulls away (the film’s lovely final image), it certainly helps him realize that he has a place within the world other than “father.”
Pixar would evolve to find more interest in those themes of communities and individuals’ places within them in its next four films, starting with 2004’s The Incredibles. That film would also bring the studio its first arguable auteur in Bird, whose favorite themes nicely coincided with Pixar’s new bent. Bird was responsible for the best non-Pixar, non-Disney American animated film of the ‘90s (and arguably THE best animated film of the ‘90s), The Iron Giant, but that film’s gentle liberalism and send up of Cold War paranoia didn’t really prepare audiences for the weird liberal elitism Bird’s two Pixar films espouse (a philosophy that would earn him comparisons in pieces to everyone from Ayn Rand to fascists).
While I appreciate that this theme pops up in both of Bird’s films, Bird’s films are also uniquely obsessed with how communities combine lots of talented individuals in a system that creates something bigger than all of themselves—a metaphor for filmmaking, most likely. It’s also not solely unique to a film like The Incredibles—where Bird’s fretting that attempting to make everyone feel exceptional would sand the edges off the truly exceptional somehow became picked up by conservative commentators as a bludgeoning bat against the long-dead corpse of political correctness. The Incredibles is interested in family issues, yes, but they’re more the issues of parents with children who are growing older and firmly asserting themselves as independent individuals. What it and Pixar are most interested in at this point is the idea that communities need to be built up and nurtured, yes, but not at the expense of the individual.
By forcing superheroes underground, the world of The Incredibles also forced them into unexceptional lives where they were of less use than they would have been more fully expressing their talents. Bird’s films are messily personal (one always gets the sense that he feels like a misunderstood genius), which makes them the most fascinating Pixar films to dissect, but The Incredibles and Ratatouille are of a piece with the films Pixar was making at that time. If either film is elitist or fascist or Randian, it’s not because Bird is any of those things but because the studio itself had taken a turn in that direction at the time, perhaps indeed believing itself to be truly exceptional when compared to Hollywood morass at some subconsciously collective level.
Of the major Pixar creative voices, it’s Lasseter who’s always been the most interested in old-time American iconography, the traditionalism that gives Pixar the base it neatly skews with its highly technological filmmaking style. He and the late Joe Ranft created Cars next, the film in Pixar’s canon that has easily the least support. What’s interesting about the film is how it inverts the themes of the other three films of this period of Pixar’s filmography. Lightning McQueen is an exceptional racecar, yes, much, much better at racing than everyone else around him, but he has much to benefit from listening to everyone else he meets in the tiny town of Radiator Springs, even learning lessons about how to be a better racer from them. Cars remains a pretty weird film on a conceptual level—while it’s obviously a piece of highly personal filmmaking, it also occasionally feels like one of those ‘80s animated shows designed to sell toys—but where Bird’s films and Stanton’s WALL-E elevate the individual at the expense of the community, Lasseter’s portrayal of the death of Radiator Springs suggests that there should be a limit to this sort of thing, that the community should come first in some instances. Weirdly, the film in Pixar’s filmography it most resembles is A Bug’s Life.
Pixar’s next film was to be the directorial debut of short director Jan Pinkava, a film about a rat who learns to cook with a highly comic tone. When the film was determined to not be working, it was handed over to Bird, who played up the extreme physical comedy of the concept (which involves the rat master chef literally turning another chef into his puppet) and the weird ickiness of seeing a rat in a kitchen into what may be Pixar’s most highly personal film. He also ramped up the inherent elitism of the concept. The kitchen is a community, yes (as outlined in a lovely scene where the ghost of a dead master chef shows rat chef Remy that everyone has a place in the kitchen and should not be looked down on), but it’s a community designed to serve the head chef’s vision. The idea here is that when someone comes along with a certain degree of talent, it’s necessarily good to help them achieve that talent if your job runs parallel to theirs. (It’s not just Linguine who becomes a puppet here. The film’s one major female character, Colette, throws aside all of her own ambitions to be alongside Linguine and, eventually, to serve Remy, the film’s single biggest flaw.)
While this is necessarily the case on a film set (and it’s worth pointing out that Bird’s prickly, individualistic voice may have been reacting somewhat to the collaborative voice of the Pixar studio system), it’s not really the best way to run a society. The central debate over Bird’s two Pixar films (which, again, there will be more of in the week to come) is over whether he literally believes this is the way society should be run or whether he just worries that placing too much of an emphasis on the community shuts down individual voices. The Iron Giant suggests that Bird has an old-school liberalism that believes in communal values, but his Pixar work suggests it’s not as set in stone as even he might like.
On the other hand, maybe Bird was just picking up on something in the water at Pixar at that time because the following film, Stanton’s WALL-E, easily the most acclaimed Pixar film, is all about two exceptional individuals who literally remake the world around them into the image they want it to be. Much has been written about the lyrical loneliness of the film’s opening 45 minutes, when the almost impossibly cute robot WALL-E courts the sleekly efficient EVE throughout a post-apocalyptic Earth that has fallen into environmental catastrophe. Again here, classically liberal notions of protecting the community—here, expressed through surprisingly biting satire as an environment fallen into disrepair because greedy humans took and took and took and didn’t think about the consequences of their actions—eventually turn into a story about how the ways communities fix themselves and work best is when they get behind the leadership of a great leader. WALL-E is not the genius talent of Bird’s films. He’s just a likable guy who wants to do the right thing, but in a selfish, infantilized world, that becomes nearly an act of revolution, as he eventually leads back a big baby humanity to reclaim the world it abandoned. WALL-E, being about robots and all, is positively full of scenes where first the robots, then the humans, throw off the programming that society puts on them to express their individual spirit, but the film ends with the humans trading in one kind of programming for another, and it’s not immediately clear Stanton sees the cynicism in that.
Docter was less involved in Pixar’s mid-period films than the other three members of the studio’s brain trust. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that he would usher in what appears to be another period for the studio with Up, released earlier this year and co-directed with Bob Peterson. Up takes perhaps the predicted thematic route for a bunch of men who started out as young and suspicious of domesticity, moved into considering their roles as fathers and then began to consider their roles as leaders within their community: Now, they’re taking time to think about death. (Toy Story 3, which is all about what happens when Andy goes off to college, seems likely to continue this theme from what little we know of it.) Up takes as its protagonist a very normal, average old man, who’s spent his whole life with a little girl he met when he was 9 and now finds himself facing the end of a lonely life without her. While there are community themes here—the hero, Carl, eventually becomes an active part of his neighborhood by becoming involved in the life of Eagle Scout Russell—the predominant one is that of looking back at life and seeing what good it was, what you did to make other people’s lives better. Perhaps interestingly, the villain here is an elitist—an explorer who retreats from society when they fail to recognize him as the great, shining example of humanity he believes himself to be—and he’s defeated by a very common man. This is, in essence, the previous four Pixar films flipped on their ears.
I don’t necessarily think that this overview of these films suggests the studio had a grand, master plan. Nor do I think that some of the criticisms of Pixar’s themes—particularly its community themes—are all that accurate (something I hope to wrestle with another writer over later on in the week), but I think detecting the presence of this evolution of thematic intent in the work of the studio (even if this piece oversimplifies some of this to a degree and even if I’m still not sure how to plug A Bug’s Life into this whole schematic) allows a starting point to begin to consider the studio’s output more critically. In the days to come, other writers will look at the roles of things like religion or politics in the studio’s films, while still others will dissect some of the films in detail. Most of us love Pixar (including myself), but we have a few skeptics who are going to present their concerns. Regardless of how you feel about the studio, I’ll hope you’ll stick around and share your thoughts in comments. Pixar’s place in the American film scene is so singular at this point that I’m kind of surprised there hasn’t been more close critical examination of who and what they are. In the week to come, we’ll try to right that balance.
An addendum: We have a week full of provocative pieces (as described above), but it’s not too late to get in on the action. I’d particularly like people who’d want to dissect one of the studio’s shorts, as that’s something we’re a little, uh, short on. So if you’d be interested in writing about Pixar in the next few days, please e-mail me at [email protected] Thanks!
Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score
John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.
That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.
Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.
Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”
Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.
Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.
Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917
Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women
Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes
Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.1
Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.
As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.
The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.
That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.
But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.
Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula
In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it..5
From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.
Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.
The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.
Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.
Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.
By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.
In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.
Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress
Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.
Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.
Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.
No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.
On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.
Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy
Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Review: Intrigo: Death of an Author Is Damned by Its Lack of Self-Awareness
The film evinces neither the visceral pleasures of noir nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.1.5
“Surprise me!” demands reclusive author Alex Henderson (Ben Kingsley) near the start of Intrigo: Death of an Author of budding novelist Henry (Benno Fürmann), who’s come to him in search of advice. As an audience member, it’s difficult not to end up making exactly the same exhortation to director Daniel Alfredson’s film. With each plot point being not only easy to predict, but also articulated and elaborated on multiple times by an awkwardly on-the-nose narration, the only shock here is that a film apparently concerned with the act of storytelling could be so lacking in self-awareness.
Henry is a translator for the recently deceased Austrian author Germund Rein and is working on a book about a man whose wife disappeared while they were holidaying in the Alps, shortly after her revelation that she would be leaving him for her therapist. Most of the tedious opening half hour of the film is taken up with Henry telling this tale to Kingsley’s enigmatic Henderson, after he meets him at his remote island villa. The pace picks up a little when David switches to giving the older writer an account of the mystery surrounding Rein’s death and how this could be connected to his story, which (surprise!) may not be entirely fictional.
Death of An Author is the most high-profile release of the Intrigo films, all directed by Alfredson and based on Håkan Nesser’s novellas. Alfredson was also at the helm of two film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but he still doesn’t appear to have developed the stylistic tools necessary to elevate his pulpy source material. Here, his aesthetic seems to be aiming for the icy polish of a modern noir, but it leans toward a safe kind of blandness, evincing neither the visceral pleasures of the genre nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.
While Fürmann’s stilted central performance at times threatens to sink Death of An Author, Kingsley always appears just in time to keep the unwieldy thing afloat. Nonetheless, his character’s cynical meta commentary, alternately engaged and aloof, is ruinous: As Henderson criticizes Henry’s story, he effectively draws too much attention to the film’s own flaws.
Death of an Author’s mise en abyme framing device has a similarly self-sabotaging effect. It initially promises an interesting push and pull between a writer’s literary perspective on reality and their own lived experience, but as so much of Henry’s psychology is explained through clunky expository dialogue instead of being expressed visually, no such conflict is possible. The structure ends up just distancing us further from the characters, as well as undermining the tension generated by the more procedural elements of the plot. Ultimately, aside from some picturesque scenery and a satisfyingly dark ending, all we’re left to enjoy here is the vicarious thrill of Kingsley’s smug, scene-stealing interlocutor occasionally denouncing Henry as a hack, and implicitly dismissing the whole scenario of the film as trite and clichéd.
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Benno Fürmann, Tuva Novotny, Michael Byrne, Veronica Ferres, Daniela Lavender, Sandra Dickinson Director: Daniel Alfredson Screenwriter: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Weathering with You Lyrically and Mushily Affirms the Sky’s Majesty
Contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed the film’s increasingly mawkish tendencies.2.5
The lyricism of director Makoto Shinkai’s new animated film, Weathering with You, should shame the impersonality of the CGI-addled blockbusters that are usually pitched at children. An early scene finds a teenage girl, Hina (Nano Mori), floating through the sky, at times almost seeming to swim in it. This moment introduces a suggestive motif: In the film, scientists speculate that the sky possesses a habitat that, for all we know, is full of similar properties to the one in the world’s oceans. The Tokyo of Shinkai’s conception is plagued by rain that sometimes falls so hard as to suggest a tidal wave dropping out of the sky, which is a memorably scary and beautiful effect. Sometimes such rains even leave behind see-through jellyfish-like creatures that evaporate upon touch.
At their best, Shinkai’s images affirm the majesty and power of the sky and rain, intrinsic elements of life that we too often take for granted. Raindrops suggest bright white diamonds, and storms resemble cocoons of water. But Hina’s new friend, Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo), doesn’t take the weather for granted, as he’s introduced on a large passenger boat, surveying a storm that almost kills him. Running away to Tokyo from his parents, Hodaka first glances the city as the boat approaches a port, and at which point Shinkai springs another marvel: a city of vast neon light that’s been rendered with a soft, watercolor-esque delicacy.
The first 45 minutes or so of Weathering with You promisingly merge such visuals with the story of Hina and Hodaka’s blossoming romance, while introducing an amusing rogue, Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri), who offers Hodaka minimal employment as a junior reporter for a tabloid magazine. Suga gives the film a lurid quality that’s surprising for a children’s fantasy—as he milks the young Hodaka for a free meal and carouses around Tokyo at night—until Shinkai sentimentally reduces him to a routine father figure. And it’s around here that the plot grows more and more cumbersome and gradually takes over the film as Hina and Hodaka become typically misunderstood youngsters on the lam, evading the law and the Tokyo crime world. The free-floating visuals are eventually tethered to a metaphor for the specialness of Hina, who’s a mythical “sunshine girl” capable of bringing light to Tokyo’s endless storms, and for the fieriness of Hina and Hodaka’s love. Shinkai over-explains his lyrical imagery with YA tropes, compromising the dreamlike mystery of the film’s first act.
The narrative is also an implicit story of global warming, as Tokyo’s storms threaten to destroy the city, with Hina representing a potential balancing of the scales at the expense of her own earthly life. That’s a resonant concept that Shinkai never quite steers into overtly political territory—and contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed Weathering with You’s increasingly mawkish tendencies. A free-floating atmosphere, in which sky and ocean are merged, suggesting collaborative gods, is more than enough for an evocative fable. It’s a pity that Shinkai overthinks his project, frontloading it with borrowed plot machinery that goes in circles, separating lovers mostly for the sake of separating them.
Cast: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori, Shun Oguri, Kana Ichinose, Ryô Narita, Tsubasa Honda, Mone Kamishiraishi, Kana Ichinose Director: Makoto Shinkai Screenwriter: Makoto Shinkai Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
2020 Oscar Nominations: Joker, 1917, The Irishman, and OUATIH Lead Field
Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho.
Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho. Todd Phillips’s Joker led the nomination count with 11, followed by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Sam Mendes’s 1917, and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with 10 each, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with six each.
While Joker mostly received attention throughout the awards season for Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance, many pegged Hildur Guðnadóttir’s victory at the Golden Globes for her score as a sign that the film would do well at the Oscars. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) had to make way for Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell) in best supporting actress and Lupita N’yongo (Us) for Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) in best actress. And both Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) and Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes) landed nominations for best actor, pushing Golden Globe-winner Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Robert De Niro (The Irishman), and Christian Bale (Ford v. Ferrari out of the way.
See below for a full list of the nominations.
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Todd Phillips, Joker
Sam Mendes, 1917
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy
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
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
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
Best Costume Design
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Sound Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Best Sound Mixing
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Animated Short
Best Live-Action Short
Nefta Footfall Club
The Neighbor’s Window
Best Film Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Best Original Score
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Best Documentary Feature
The Edge of Democracy
Best Documentary Short Subject
In the Absence
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Life Overtakes Me
St. Louis Superman
Walk, Run, Chacha
Best International Feature Film
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Honeyland (North Macedonia)
Les Misérables (France)
Pain and Glory (Spain)
Parasite (South Korea)
Best Production Design
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Visual Effects
The Lion King
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Best Animated Feature
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Toy Story 4
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Two Popes
Best Original Screenplay
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Original Song
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
“I’m Standing with You,” Breakthrough
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen 2
“Stand Up,” Harriet
Review: VHYes Spoofs Late-Night TV Without Exacting Critiques
VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.1.5
There’s more inspired satire about how television manipulates an audience’s emotions in the original RoboCop’s opening newscast scene than in the entirety of Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes. Set around Christmas in 1987—coincidentally, the year of the Paul Verhoeven classic’s release—the film opens as adolescent Ralphie (Mason McNulty) has received his first camcorder. Robbins filters everything through Ralphie’s camera, giving the film an entirely home-video aesthetic, and after Ralphie’s father (Jake Head) discovers the device can be used to record live TV, VHYes morphs into a procession of mostly stale sketch-comedy bits that have been taped during Ralphie’s late-night channel surfing.
Throughout, VHYes shuttles from one gag to the next in search of purpose. In one bit, Robbins serves up a parody of The Joy of Painting starring a woman, Joan (Kerri Kenney), whose dry wit and thinly veiled arousal for her work culminates in a painting of her dunking on Dennis Rodman, of which she assures viewers, “There’s moisture. Some of it isn’t sweat.” We also get a spoof of Antiques Roadshow featuring an appraiser (Mark Proksch) who increasingly reveals his lacking aptitude for the position. And on a mock QVC channel, the formerly married hosts bicker as they predominately sell drug paraphernalia disguised as household products.
VHYes is clearly indebted to the gonzo sketch comedy of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but unlike Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Robbins homes in on the oddities of people and things as a means to an end, rather than using them as a jumping-off point for unhinged social commentary. The only segment that approaches a distinct comedic take on its material is Conversations with Todd Plotz, in which the host (Raymond Lee) discusses “tape narcissism” with a cultural philosopher (Mona Lee Wylde) who makes obviously prescient remarks such as, “One day the real world will exist to be filmed.” Though this exchange might outwardly suggest an attempt to critique global technological influence, a la Videodrome, the sketch lacks a punchline, let alone insight, beyond the host donning a goofy expression, further revealing how the film is a parade of empty nostalgia for its own sake.
The film offers a reprieve from its grab bag of sketch comedy with a series of musical interludes hosted by Lou (Charlyne Yi), who uses the occasion to introduce bands to her interested but clueless parents. The best of these features Weyes Blood performing a haunting rendition of her 2016 track “Generation Why.” But lest the music linger for a moment in earnest, Robbins concludes the segment with the ironized, faux-Lynchian imagery of a door, isolated in darkness, opening onto Lou and Weyes Blood doing a slow dance.
The film’s climax returns to reality to find Ralphie and his friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw), obsessed with the documentary Blood Files: Witch of West Covina. The show claims there’s a haunted sorority house on the outskirts of the town where the two live and, predictably, Robbins uses this material to spring the boys out of the house and toward danger, Ralphie’s camcorder footage all the while guiding us through their ghostly discoveries. As in its comedy, the film proves wholly derivative in its horror, borrowing liberally from The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and V/H/S and, in this stretch, without even the good sense to heavily ironize it. For all the outrageousness that could be concocted from its overarching premise, VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.
Cast: Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, Charlyne Yi, Mason McNulty, Rahm Braslaw, Jake Head, Christian Drerup, Mona Lee Wylde, Raymond Lee, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins Director: Jack Henry Robbins Screenwriter: Jack Henry Robbins, Nunzio Randazzo Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
2020 Oscar Nomination Predictions
We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really.
We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really, but the endless parade of stupid decisions to improve a show that no one who watches thinks ought to be anything other than the silly, dated, gaudy thing it’s always been gave us no confidence in its future. Nor, for that matter, did the Academy’s utter acquiescence to the Golden Globes’s selection process, rubber-stamping the latter ceremony’s much-derided choices of Bohemian Rhapsody for best drama (!) and Green Book for best comedy (!!) by allowing those films to become the two biggest winners of Oscar night. As it turns out, only one of the many lame suggestions proffered by the AMPAS’s board of directors actually came to pass, if only temporarily. It’s the accelerated calendar that shortened this year’s Oscar season and forced everyone (including us) to scramble to get ahead of the much-tightened deadline. So, like Tom Hanks’s Fred Rogers, we’ll get right to the heart of the matter.
If there was ever a year where we’d feel comfortable going with fewer than eight nominees here, something the Oscars haven’t done since the expansion beyond five a decade ago, this would be that year. From festivals to critics’ awards to the ongoing guild nominations, such has been the uninterrupted love streak for four specific films—Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—that it’s easy to imagine the quartet hoovering away enough of those necessary first-place votes to leave almost no room for the remaining candidates.
Did we say four? Maybe make that six, since the last few days have proven to us that both 1917, which upset for the best drama and best director Golden Globes, and, arguably, Joker, which earned the most BAFTA nominations, are firing on all necessary cylinders. We’re still not entirely sure that the love for Joker’s incel overtures isn’t more of a European thing (beyond the BAFTAs, its strongest endorsement came from its surprising Golden Lion triumph at the Venice Film Festival) and that the majority of American’s cultural gatekeepers aren’t repulsed.
But a hit is a hit is a hit, which is why we’re also predicting a surprise nod for this year’s foremost Dad Movie™, James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari, and would be likely to predict the same for an even bigger hit, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, if only its devilish depiction of the underlying racism residing within even the most well-meaning moneyed white people didn’t hit so close to home. And, of course, were it not for the alternative chance for voters to instead shoot broadly satirical, and safely historical, Nazis in a barrel.
No nomination gave us more reason to believe that AMPAS’s cleaning up of its voting roster may have actually changed things than Paweł Pawlikowski’s for best director last year, over the likes of Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly. Sure, the directors branch has always been among the most likely to nominate foreign-language candidates, once the seal was broken in the ‘60s during Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman’s heyday. But last year everyone knew their due diligence would be taken care of by Roma’s Alfonso Cuarón, and yet they still nominated a second foreign prospect, marking only the second time that’s ever happened, after Lina Wertmuller and Bergman earned nods for 1976’s Seven Beauties and Face to Face, respectively.
That, after Wertmuller, only four other female directors have been nominated isn’t of itself the kiss of death for Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Marielle Heller, Céline Sciamma, Lorene Scafaria, Mati Diop, Chinonye Chukwu, Olivia Wilde, Alma Har’el, Claire Denis, Kasi Lemmons, Melina Matsoukas, or Joanna Hogg. But the fact that BAFTA and the DGA could both assess a year with not just one top-drawer distaff candidate but legitimately more than a dozen, and still come up with nothing but penis sure feels like it.
The AMPAS branch of directors, though, still feels one or two steps hipper than the room. Maybe not hip enough to give the Safdie brothers their due, but we at least expect them to hold their noses about giving their slot to the director of The Hangover movies, and to stand another foreign director alongside the given Bong Joon-ho. Of the many options, we feel pretty bullish about longtime Academy favorite Pedro Almodóvar, whose Pain and Glory is as much a valedictory lap for elder artists as Tarantino and Scorsese’s offerings.
It’s hard to dispute what Mark Harris months ago saw happening in this category, namely that four slots were thought to be all but locked in for white actresses, despite wide acknowledgement that this was a weak year for the category except when it comes to actresses of color. Well, we’re going to dispute it anyway. In particular, we’re nowhere near as convinced as Gold Derby that Charlize Theron is a slam dunk. (Their collective has assigned her even more “predict nomination” points, whatever those are, than winner-elect Renée Zellweger.) Theron’s turn may be more physically transformative than co-star Nicole Kidman’s, but she’s still playing Megyn Kelly, no matter how much Bombshell opts to highlight her lawyerly “objectivity” behind the scenes and only pays momentary lip service to the sort of “Jesus was white, and so is Santa Claus” rhetoric that made her a star at Fox News in the first place.
The film’s underperformance in theaters and with precursors also doesn’t bode well, but it’s hard to imagine even the same voters who handed Green Book the top award siding with Kelly over Saoirse Ronan’s Jo pointedly throwing a passive-aggressive wedding at the end of her book to please an editor in Little Women. Lupita Nyong’o’s precursor run for starring in elevated horror gave us flashbacks, but she has one thing Toni Collette didn’t: that SAG nod. So, we think she emerges from the underworld to stand alongside Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo.
On the flip side, we’re unable to shake the specter of Ethan Hawke failing to land an Oscar nod despite winning approximately four times as many critics’ awards as any other single performer last year. There will likely be plenty of time to unpack what AMPAS has to say about masculinity in the midst of the #MeToo backlash, but suffice it for now to say that the alchemy straight actor Antonio Banderas brings to Almodóvar’s queer universe, not just now but for literally a generation, feels particularly out of line with the zeitgeist held up against not just the likes of Joaquin Phoenix’s sociopathic Joker, but arguably almost everyone else we see breezing by Banderas for the nod in the year’s most competitive acting category.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s existential crisis as fading B-list actor Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is also, often explicitly, a crisis of professional virility. The initial post-feminist-friendly reluctance of Adam Driver’s character to do battle with his soon-to-be ex-wife in Marriage Story eventually shatters into what Film Twitter (yes, shallowly) categorized as the wrath of someone who’s never had to deal with being called on their privilege. And, of course, Ford v. Ferrari’s last word on Oscar darling Christian Bale’s Ken Miles comes in the form of one of his tools, predicating his entire existence on “the work.”
And speaking of work, if Rocketman’s Taron Egerton looks increasingly likely to take the most up-for-grabs slot, it’s as much due to his willingness to put in the hours on the glad-handing highway as it is Oscar’s increasingly grudging fondness for male ingénues (Rami Malek, Eddie Redmayne). In the context of all this, we won’t be terribly surprised to see Robert De Niro’s central performance in The Irishman, as a man’s man who way too late in the game realizes the cost of his brand of masculinity, reduced to an also-ran.
Best Supporting Actress
Academy rules prevent Margo Robbie from getting nominated twice here. But the fact that the BAFTAs reserved not one but two slots for her on their ballot, despite all headwinds indicating that the consultants and publicists pulling the strings on the campaign trail had fully installed Bombshell as “the one” for Robbie’s Oscar chances this year, feels an awful lot like Kate Winslet in 2008 to us. As you recall, everyone fell into line with the narrative that she was to be nominated for lead actress for Revolutionary Road and supporting actress for The Reader. And as you recall, the Academy didn’t like the former film and found the latter downright irresistible, and so they went their own way. That’s the benefit of being the Oscars. (Everything else is called a “precursor” because they’re not the Oscars.)
We don’t need to tell you of the sizable overlap between BAFTA’s membership and AMPAS’s for you to take a wild guess as to which of Robbie’s two contending films is better liked. Also, the backlash against those who would dare point out Robbie’s Sharon Tate, aside from her feet, has a lot less to do in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood than in Bombshell is very much in the air. I mean, we’re that close to including Anna Paquin among our list of closest runners-up, specifically because of the volume among those decrying her lack of dialogue in The Irishman.
Best Supporting Actor
About this category, we have roughly as much to say as Anna Paquin, or maybe Joe Pesci, whose uncharacteristically verbose acceptance speech took everyone by surprise at the New York Film Critics Circle gala this week. Five slots, and Parasite’s Song Kang-ho aside, Oscar’s elder statesmen look to fill them all. The dual nominations for Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira last year would seem to portend good things for Song—to say nothing of SAG’s perception-altering (and still mind-blowing) nomination of Bong Joon-ho’s film for best ensemble cast over the likes of Marriage Story, Little Women, and Knives Out, but neither of Roma’s actresses faced as much competition in their fields for others’ valedictory victory laps.
Even more so than in best actress, this category simply has four slots all but reserved already. For the fifth, BAFTA and the Golden Globes went for Anthony Hopkins as Bad Pope, and SAG opted for Jamie Foxx as Good Incarnate. We’re expecting Oscar voters to go somewhere in the middle: Alan Alda, a welcome breath of fresh air playing the one lawyer in Marriage Story who recognizes how the whole system is rigged, unfair, and predatory, and who yet still possesses enough humanity to regale his client with a long-winded joke (on the clock, naturally).
Best Adapted Screenplay
You may have noticed that we’re not yet convinced that Little Women is going to pull a Phantom Thread as the late-breaker that gets ignored by most precursors only to finally arrive at the station when it comes time for Oscar nominations. But Greta Gerwig’s updating of Louisa Mae Alcott’s universe for modern sensibilities feels like the frontrunner here, alongside Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, which at approximately 4,680 pages of script earns the spot on ream-girth alone.
While it’s all iffy territory beyond those two, we actually feel pretty good about the WGA’s nominees enough to quell our reservations about leaving off the crowd-pleasing, feminist antics of Hustlers and the, we guess, Catholic-pleasing antics of The Two Popes. Jojo Rabbit and Joker were both written or co-written by the films’ directors, which never hurts, and this is one of the few categories where we could see the subtleties of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s treatise on masculinity trumping the revving of Ford v. Ferrari’s.
Best Original Screenplay
We can’t go five-for-five with WGA on this side of the script categories, as Quentin Tarantino remains ineligible for guild consideration. Also, you know, Booksmart, as we’d be more shocked to see that one included on the Oscar roster than we would be to see Tarantino left off. Because, beyond Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Parasite, there are already way too many candidates that fit the classic template for original screenplays that earn their movies its only Oscar nod out there, among them Rian Johnson’s riotous Knives Out, the Safdie brothers and Ronald Bronstein’s unrelenting Uncut Gems, and Lulu Wang’s nuanced The Farewell. Johnson’s political whodunit hybrid is in with a
bullet syringe filled with morphine, but the other two look vulnerable to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, filled as it is with copious speechifying, and (again) Pedro Almodóvar’s don’t-call-it-a-swan song Pain and Glory.