The Academy Awards (2019): Oscars So Trite II

· Films & Video Games

Welcome to the second annual “Oscars So Trite” feature.

Another evening of sanctimony and cliché. How wonderful and extraordinary for the Academy to engage in the courageous act of patting itself on the back for another year of simply existing, making an occasional good movie or two. A red carpet ceremony with a who’s who of million dollar clothing and glamor – a beauty pageant for art/theater school kids with studio funding – is followed by a handing out of gold welfare trophies to people who probably deserved them more for things they did in previous years.

Only this time, the ceremony is supposedly set to proceed without a host. Makes sense – I know when I think about the supposedly most prestigious “recognition of excellence in cinematic achievements,” and the 91-year tradition preceding this one, the real problem is that some guy in a tux made a joke he didn’t write that didn’t land. There couldn’t possibly be anything else wrong with the Oscars.

Anyway, just like last year, here are some jokes about the Best Picture nominees.

Jojo Rabbit

Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, Scarlet Johansson, Rebel Wilson, and Sam Rockwell
Nominated: Picture; Supporting Actress (Johansson); Adapted Screenplay; Editing; Costume Design; Production Design

The Oscars this year are so white, they even included Nazis.

If Taika Waititi wanted to make a serious Best Picture or Best Director contender, someone should have told him that Wes Anderson has never actually won either of those awards. He’s not the only filmmaker on this list who apes Anderson’s lateral scrolling like a distracted bicyclist. Unfortunately, Jojo Rabbit has nothing close to the fun of a bicycle crash. More like if an Aryan Jesse Owens suddenly felt his blood thin out to the point of evaporation. We see what the trailers told us about, and then suddenly I’m watching a bland picture with everyone just sort of sitting there waiting for a bell to ring or meandering around waiting for someone else to say an exaggerated line about how Nazis are silly.

How did a movie where a teary-eyed boy clings the legs and feet of his hanged mother make a moment like that feel so trivial? It wants so much for its middle and ending to be taken seriously, but it can’t even keep its grip on all of its characters not played by Rebel Wilson. Even the dance that ends the movie is one of those middle-school debilitated shrugs that only an old boomer would find cute. So if it does win, let’s have Warren Beatty announce it again.

Joker

Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, and Frances Conroy
Nominated: Picture; Director; Actor (Phoenix); Adapted Screenplay; Cinematography; Editing; Original Score; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing; Costume Design; Makeup and Hairstyling

A year ago, when Black Panther was the token superhero movie taking up space on this list for the pantheon, I joked that it would be hilarious if it actually did win because doing so would mean that a Spike Lee cartoon ended up beating out an actual Spike Lee film.

My having to write this joke again is proof that Hollywood is out of ideas.

Hey look! A movie trying to rip off two different Scorsese classics that never got Oscar love, and even managed to get Robert De Niro himself to play a non-trivial role, wants to play in the big leagues including against Scorsese himself. I guess this is how you sneak your little devilish sympathy romp into the fancy pants club – make it look like other, better movies and call them an “inspiration!”

Of course, Joker has been called an inspiration by quite a few critics and political mouthpieces heavily to the left of center openly invested in the prospect of a movie theater shooting so they can point and tsk-tsk. Yes, apparently this film is so dangerous with its depressed stair climbing, bathroom dancing, pillow smothering, and alley ambushing that audiences simply cannot be trusted to see it. Lord knows, it might give white people silly ideas like “hey maybe you shouldn’t disparage the deranged, humor their whims, or put a clearly unstable lunatic on national television” or “hey maybe class, malaise, and scarcity of resources make a difference in how someone with pre-existing illnesses and pathetic fantasies starts acting on them, causing others who always wanted to do the same to flock to him and project onto him whatever juvenile grievances they’ve had with society already.”

Joker never manages to fully separate itself from its character, nor justify its existence as an origin story for a character who never needed one. But pushing political buttons like these is a surefire way to get all manner of unearned publicity in both directions. Good thing the American press and popular culture is totally equipped to handle the nuances of something like this.

Parasite

Director: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Kang-Ho Song, Lee Sun Gyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Park So-dam, Jeong Ji-so, and Choi Woo-shik
Nominated: Picture; Director; Original Screenplay; Foreign; Editing; Production Design

Speaking of murderous inspiration, class, and elitist contempt, my compliments to Parasite for clarifying why I like money. If my sub-basement squatting father had committed murder, fraud, theft, and trespass all upon the same family, it will definitely also be my dream to get into the real estate business.

Here’s a true story that tracks my thoughts while watching the film. Most of Parasite is strangely clean. There’s an absurdly lengthy and tiresome cat/mouse chase through the Park family home that is framed as a full-blown silent battle between one group of underclass squatters vs. another. But even as bloody and twisty as it gets, it’s all happening in a clean, polished, and near spotless residence – an aesthetic that mostly took over the movie. It wasn’t until just after that, when the Kim family gets home to find their entire neighborhood knee-deep in sewage, their basement flat totally flooded, and feces pouring out of the toilet in full force that I suddenly remembered that I was watching a Bong Joon Ho movie. I suppose this is a compliment for having drawn me in that much, but then I’m immediately taken out once Morse Code becomes a thing.

Award season wouldn’t be what we know it to be without that one movie all the college boy nerd kids thrill to as their new favorite cinematic kimchi. Last year that film was called Sorry to Bother You. Bong is a willing supplier – a capable filmmaker who, from his body of work, seems to think that his home country of South Korea would be humanely and prosperously improved if it were a bit more like North Korea. Parasite is catnip for the would-be sophisticated. It’s neither empty nor interesting. Like Morse Code itself – it just flickers.

Ford v Ferrari

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, and Josh Lucas
Nominated: Picture; Editing; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing

Do you hate your father?

If you do, then see this movie without him. It won’t make the experience any better, but at least you’ll have stuck it to the old man like the guys here do to Enzo Ferrari.

Do you hate Italians?

If you do, then take them with you when you see this movie. Same reason.

Ford v Ferrari (sounds like an IP lawsuit) was not nominated because it’s better than the other films or because there exists the slightest chance for it to win. That would make too much sense. It’s nominated because, despite what so many of them keep saying and doing every day, Hollywood as a whole still loves America. Not as much as Hollywood loves itself (we’ll come back to that), but this is its way of paying tribute.

Yes, it’s a big, tough, manly, muscle-flexing rush of race track awesome with more testicular fortitude than the rest of the junk up here. Color me surprised that it was even allowed to be made, considering half the rest of the 010s Best Picture winners involved “men” of such esteem and ivory social stature that they wouldn’t be caught dead driving their own cars, let alone fixing them. This ain’t exactly Oscar’s cup of tea.

The Irishman

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, and Anna Paquin
Nominated: Picture; Director; Supporting Actor (Pesci); Supporting Actor (Pacino); Adapted Screenplay; Cinematography; Editing; Visual Effects; Production Design; and Costume Design

Speaking of hating Italians…

What was Martin Scorsese thinking making a 200+ minute movie about the half-regretful but totally unrepentant mob enforcer and his quiet role in causing decades of blood and turmoil for no reason beyond his middle-aged suburban boredom – filmed in a way that raises important questions about audience-passive complicity in the delicate course of history? Doesn’t that bite-sized cape hater realize that Americans spend their valuable Netflix time binge-watching more important things like entire seasons of How To Get Away With Murder?

De-aging technology is the central gimmick of The Irishman, which is ironic because the other 2019 movie that I recall using it was Captain Marvel. Yeah, take that, Marty! A “theme park ride” did your thing before you did!

But the real issue with The Irishman is that it cannot be appreciated without first having seen Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. In two of those three films, Joe Pesci played a psycho enforcer. Tommy DeVito was not a made man, and got killed for killing one. Nicky Santoro was a made man, and got killed for being annoying. Pesci’s character here is the temperamental, poised, subdued opposite of Tommy and Nicky who dies of old age. 30 years of movies where his character is slowly climbing up the mafia chain, and now at last he made it. But the praise he’s getting is praise by contrast.

Let me say that again – Joe Pesci is literally getting a Supporting Actor nomination because people are astonished that his character in this movie is different from his different characters in different movies. Some jokes write themselves.

1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: George McKay and Dean Charles Chapman
Nominated: Picture; Director; Original Screenplay; Cinematography; Original Score; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing; Visual Effects; Production Design; Makeup and Hairstyling

If there’s one thing the Academy patrons love, it’s pretending to know about cinematography.

Here’s another true story about my viewing experience for 1917. During my screening, the digital projector borked during the plane crash scene, and then kept doing it at least a dozen times. For those who have not seen the film, it’s the most intense and jarring moment of the story. A sequence where the extended, unblinking camerawork is at its most effective because of the closing of space. One moment the guys are watching a dogfight the way you might see a fireworks show. They blink (you don’t), and the enemy plane is right on them and they’re a deer in its propellers. The pilot is screaming, on fire, and…

…Sopranos ending.

Thanks, potato projector. Now I have to hate this otherwise boring, repetitive slog of a war epic rather than just ignore it. If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably just be making jokes about how the movie feels like you’re hanging by your coat on a rack that’s being pulled through the war exhibits of the British museum on celebrity bloke night.

But I watched that guy catch fire and wail in agony so many times, I could’ve made his misery my ringtone.

The war genre is now so hacked to death with uninspired trench sludge like 1917, I’m almost rooting for a new war just to vary up the art. Is that wrong? It’s probably wrong. But to be fair, this is what Hollywood roots for too.

Little Women

Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Bob Odenkirk
Nominated: Picture; Actress (Ronan); Supporting Actress (Pugh); Adapted Screenplay; Original Score; Costume Design

Apparently spending so much time in America makes foreign actresses worse at sounding American. Emma Watson and Saoirse Roman have both done better work elsewhere. As I listen to them prattle on about how life without dad stinks or how much they love the theatre or whatever, I keep hearing the Irish and British accents ringing out and souring the all American visual literary experience.

Happily, Florence Pugh does not have this problem. As Amy March, the character that everyone agrees got the short end of the book, her performance is elevating and restorative and other words I might say if I was writing a different article.

Still, despite admirable efforts, the best actor turns out to be Timothée Chalamet as Laurie. Should that have been allowed? I ask because Little Women could only have been more meta if the March sisters tried theatre acting as the President of the United States. At the end of the film, multiple characters talk about how “stories about women need to be told,” which ironically made me question for the first time if I had just watched a story worth telling at all. Just tell the story! I’m already here!

But a meta interpretation helps this film as much as it hurts it. It’s over two hours long and Meryl Steep appears only four times for a combined total of about six minutes. It’s my understanding that her character is a good deal more important than that. So I guess the movie is saying: shut up, Meryl.

Marriage Story

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Scarlet Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda
Nominated: Picture; Actor (Driver); Actress (Johansson); Original Screenplay; Original Score

Speaking of Laura Dern…

Oh right, I forgot to mention that Laura Dern is in Little Women, but she’s here too. Playing the feminist lawyer Not-Jennifer-Jason-Leigh hires to escalate the divorce, Dern struts about owning the room like she married it.

Against her is the feeble Alan Alda followed by Ray Liotta – who has the judicial ferocity of a tank commander. Hired by Not-Noah-Baumbach to help him get through it as it all spirals out of control… and then ends happily for some reason. Liotta is the only good thing in this film.

Wait, Vivek why are you talking about the lawyers? Isn’t this about Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson?

Like most of you, I watched that isolated clip of the shouting match and came away laughing at the terrible acting. I was also hoping the rest of the movie before it would provide proper context. It does not. The entire movie is like this – shrews badly in need of taming. The lawyers might as well be the stars.

Marriage Story is an egotistical and pretentious joke of a self narration that fits the Oscar mold perfectly. How appropriate for a community of dramatic pretend-players who divorce and spouse swap like movie projects to have a movie like this purport to represent them. Where would we be without movies like this?

Don’t answer that. The existence of this film rhymes with the Oscars from 40 years ago, where a war film now widely considered one of the best of all time was defeated in the Best Picture race by… a divorce movie called Kramer v. Kramer. If you need a divorce story, just watch that one. At least that film remembered to be real.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie
Nominated: Picture; Director; Actor (DiCaprio); Supporting Actor (Pitt); Original Screenplay; Cinematography; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing; Production Design; Costume Design

Okay now that we’re done talking about girl stuff, here’s a question. Have you ever seen the South Park episode “You’re Getting Old”? Well you should. It’s a classic. But if you want something worse, try this movie. Earlier I mentioned Hollywood loving itself. Nothing demonstrates that like a movie that dreams of its most idyllic state of existence and then tries to stay there.

When was the last time the actual best movie of the year won a thing? I don’t remember either, so you can count this one out. Oscar hates being reminded of the rot within the underbelly of Hollywood. The Artist, Argo, and The Shape of Water all won Best Picture because they gave Hollywood a fuzzy delusion of itself and its supposed roles in the advent of history. The irony is that all things considered, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has one of the rosiest possible reflections of old Hollywood, what with Sharon Tate skipping around town glowing like the inside of the briefcase from Pulp Fiction.

The idea is to give Hollywood a long overdue, bicentennial revenge on the Manson Family, not just for the murders they committed but for their corruption on its most idyllic self. But will Oscar really see it that way? I know last year’s Green Book also featured two guys in a non-gay relationship driving through the landscapes of history with happy endings and free pudding for everyone, and…

…okay, maybe it might win something. But you should be pessimistic and assume it doesn’t.

Happy 2020, folks. When you watch the Oscars this year, just remember how much they love you back.

– Vivek

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