• Jessica Moore

A YEAR IN REVIEW: Revisiting the 2020 Oscar Nominees

Below is a handpicked selection of the most notable films of the year, as honoured by the Academy and in spite of its recognition. This overview does not, of course, with the Academy as its framework, cover the breadth of excellent filmmaking that emerged this past year; Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Farewell, Uncut Gems, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco were elided from consideration despite their critical acclaim. While this overview is certainly not all-encompassing, it is a spoiler-free, handpicked selection of some of the more notable nominated films, the conversations they have generated and their specific cultural reverence.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig

Little Women is a sum of all its greatest anticipations. It is the period genre at its most charming, it is an adaptation that simultaneously remains close to the source material and refines its own vision, it is an ‘actorly’ ensemble-piece that emanates sororal affection and intimacy.

As evidenced in 2017’s Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s approach to filmmaking is novel in such a way that never compromises her warmth. She refrains from explanatively pulling her audience through the story, and instead positions our experience of the narrative next to her own, and we can feel the sensibilities of her creativity.

It is abundantly clear that Gerwig is a devoted fan of Louisa May Alcott, and her reverence for the source material only exposes the centrality of her directorship. We can feel as Gerwig enthuses at the March sisters and their dispersive lives with urgent and vibrant devotion, laying bare their intimacy and softness.

Little Women is a visual feast of costuming and theatricality; it is sensuous filmmaking at its most tender.

nominations:

Best Picture

Best Actress in a Leading Role (Saoirse Ronan)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Florence Pugh)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Costume Design

Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)

prediction:

Best Costume Design

Best Adapted Screenplay

Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a portrait of married life and a faithful character study of its inhabitants, one which has rightfully earned critical and popular acclaim. There is rigour in its depiction of the legal complexities of a coast-to-coast divorce, there is self-awareness in its editing and visuality, there is naturalism in the cadence of its dialogue, and it is wholly deserving of all that it is nominated for.

Though Joaquin Phoenix occupies a cultural stronghold on ‘performance of the year’, perhaps in spite of the film from which it emerges and the divisive context of Phoenix’s ‘method’ acting, it would be rather wonderful, and entirely deserved, if Driver walks away with the award for leading performance.

Marriage Story is gloriously devastating. It is a unified depiction of what happens on and off stage; the fronts we uphold and the entangled and contradictory emotions that lay beneath; it is a film that captures art and life, together.

nominations:

Best Picture

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Adam Driver)

Best Actress in a Leading Role (Scarlett Johansson)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Dern)

Best Original Screenplay

Best Cinematography

Best Original Score (Randy Newman)

predictions:

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Dern)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Driver)

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino

If the Academy were to conceptualise a film to best fit their own criteria, this would certainly be it. When the premise for Tarantino’s ninth film was in circulation, it seemed too good to be true: the 1960’s, Pitt and DiCaprio, Sharon Tate, the Golden Age of Hollywood, Los Angeles, the Manson murders, self-criticism of the film industry. As a monument of cinematic potential, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood should be the apex of Tarantino’s filmography, a pastiche of all that is memorable, innovative and stylishly pessimistic about Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill. In reality, there is a dissonance between its conception and its execution. Characters fell flat and were underused, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate was robbed of the Mia-Wallace-treatment, and plot points, such as DiCaprio’s spaghetti western epoch, were needlessly indulgent and masturbatory.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is self-aware of its position in Hollywood, and its 162-minute-runtime is littered with memorable sequences of comic performance and masterful direction. It is a museum of filmmaking and Tarantino has never been so self-reflected in his work, for better or for worse.

nominations:

Best Picture

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Brad Pitt)

Best Original Screenplay

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Best Director (Quentin Tarantino)

Best Production Design

Best Cinematography

Best Costume Design

Best Sound Editing

Best Sound Mixing

predictions:

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Pitt)

Best Original Screenplay

Best Picture

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips

Todd Phillips’ Joker is the discussion of the year, or rather the anti-discussion, for it seems to have much and nothing to say politically. It contextualises the eponymous Joker and his misery within a broken social system yet remains apolitical, or more aptly, anti-political. That is, everything it claims seems rooted in antithesis, edging towards social commentary but then redacting its stance in violent self-annihilation. Ironically, it almost censors its own ‘subversive’ political beliefs through lack of thorough and meaningful exposure.  Inevitably, and rather vehemently, Joker has divided audiences, and, most reprehensibly, it has been described as an irresponsible, propagandistic ‘rallying cry for self-pitying incels’. While the film itself seems to operate within a framework of social unrest and class war, it seems to negate accountability for properly handling these issues. They’re mobilised in the narrative, then left to their own devices to run their course.

Considering its form, it is impossible to localise the Joker as a culturally recognisable figure outside of the context of its noir comic-book universe, and it is through this formal framework that a mutual inscription of its sociopolitical commentary emerges. Mental illness is inscribed upon a violent character in order to humanise his otherwise caricatured psychology, yet this incontrovertibly and simultaneously implies dangerous behaviour from those who are mentally ill. This slippage between cinematic ‘humanisation’ and ableist pedalling ties with the film’s much larger, ambiguous political motivation. Joker does not kill or incite evil through his own political charge, as the film may suggest in order to localise it within some recognisable reality, but rather, evil is borne out of inarticulate self-loathing and (violently depicted) mental illness. To avoid the risk of giving spoilers, I won’t specify examples, but it is worth assessing the film’s moments of violence and regarding their true incentive, though perhaps Phillips himself is also uncertain.

Aside from its flimsy political autonomy, Joker does impress with its devotion to Arthur Fleck as a character study. Phoenix certainly delivers a memorable and visceral performance of psychological isolation, and perhaps this is the perspective from which the film should be viewed: a standalone performance in amongst political contention, as literally and cinematically isolated from its complicated and dissonant landscape.

nominations:

Best Picture

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Joaquin Phoenix)

Best Director (Todd Phillips)

Best Cinematography

Best Costume Design

Best Sound Editing

Best Sound Mixing

Best Original Score (Hildur Guðnadóttir)

Best Film Editing

Best Makeup and Hair Styling

predictions:

Best Original Score, Hildur Guðnadóttir

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho

The only way to watch Parasite, a weblike, genre-defying, socially insightful experience of a film, is to know absolutely nothing about it.

Winner of this year’s Palme D’or, Parasite is unquestionably the film of the year, holding the position of highest-ranking narrative feature of all time.

Bong Joon-Ho has described the ‘locality’ of the Academy, a perceptive observation of its elision of ‘non-Western’ narrative features. If Parasite wins Best Picture, which it certainly should, it’ll be the first South Korean film to do so, symbolising a defiant blend of opposition and adherence to what the Academy deems ‘high cinema’.

nominations:

Best Picture

Best International Feature Film (South Korea)

Best Production Design

Best Film Editing

Best Original Screenplay

Best Director (Bong Joon-Ho)

predictions:

Best International Feature Film

Best Director

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese

Scorsese’s adapted narrative The Irishman is an odyssey of criminality. In its 209-minute runtime, there is room for an abundance of varied, stylised camerawork and editing, including fourth wall breaks, freeze frames and title cards. It follows as an epic memoir of Frank Sheehan (DeNiro) and his complicated 20-year friendship with Russel Buffalino (Pesci). Their lives emerge from the fabric of retrospect, and the passing of time is innovatively cinematised through ‘de-ageing’ visual effects.

While it certainly exhibits an inventiveness to Scorsese’s well-established auteurship, it is a refinement of his most accomplished techniques, it will perhaps be overlooked by the Academy. Largely because it sits in amongst a competitive category for Best Picture, which is (hopefully) more likely to favour nascent directorship over those who are long-established.

nominations:

Best Picture

Best Director

Best Supporting Actor (Pacino, Pesci)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Production Design

Best Cinematography

Best Costume Design

Best Film Editing

Best Visual Effects

predictions:

Best Visual Effects

The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is if Ingmar Bergman’s Persona transmuted into a masculinised, horrifying dramedy. It is neurotically sexual, highly stylised, and filmed in a striking 1:1 aspect ratio.

As a film which prioritises absurdist form over its ‘simple’ content (as simple as blending mythology and mundanity can be), its experimentalism is perhaps too bold for the Academy. Dafoe’s enervating supporting performance has been unfairly snubbed by the Oscars, and the film itself only received one nomination. Nevertheless, the Academy need not approve of this masterpiece, for it has certainly staked out its position in film history as a career-best for Pattinson, Dafoe and Eggers respectively.


nominations:

Best Cinematography

predictions:

Best Cinematography

notable mentions

1917 (received ten nominations including Best Picture)


Rocketman (“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” nominated for Best Original Song)


Bombshell (Theron nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role)


A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (Hanks nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role)


Harriet (Cynthia Erivo nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role)


Ford v Ferrari (received four nominations including Best Picture)


Jojo Rabbit (received six nominations including Best Actress in a Supporting Role)


Judy (Zellweger nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role)


The Two Popes (received 3 nominations including Best Picture)


Knives Out (received one nomination for Best Original Screenplay)


Pain and Glory (Banderas nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role)


Wasteland Picks

Best Picture Parasite

Best Director Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)

Best Actor in a Leading Role Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Best Actress in a Leading Role Saoirse Ronan in Little Women

Best Actor in a Supporting Role Joe Pesci in The Irishman

Best Actress in a Supporting Role Laura Dern in Marriage Story

Best Original Screenplay Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Best Adapted Screenplay Little Women (Greta Gerwig, Louisa May Alcott)

Best Foreign-Language Film Parasite

Best Original Score Joker (Hildur Guðnadóttir)

Best Cinematography The Lighthouse

Best Film Editing Parasite

Best Production Design Parasite

Best Visual Effects The Irishman

Best Sound Mixing 1917

Best Sound Editing 1917

Best Makeup and Hair Bombshell

artwork by Charlotte Mansfield