Monday, January 13, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Ranking This Year's Best Picture Nominees From Worst to Best

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

It's been a long day. The discourse over the crops of nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards has already been draining after just 14-ish hours, especially in regards to how the Academy Awards constantly refuses to recognize diverse voices in its nominations. No women directors, only on person color recognized in the four acting categories, it's just ridiculous. For the sake of brevity on this taxing day, I'll cut to the chase: I've ranked this year's nine Best Picture nominees from worst to best. Sound off in the comments if you have any differing opinions on this matter and make sure to support cinema year-round from the kind of voices the Academy Awards and other awards bodies refuse to acknowledge even exist.


Joker featured image
At the bottom of this year's Best Picture nominees is Joker, only the second comic book movie to ever score a Best Picture nod and the movie that made the director of The Hangover an award season magnet. Joker isn't without its commendable qualities, including some evocative imagery, a haunting score by Hildur Guonadottir and, of course, that Joaquin Phoenix lead performance. But Joker is also a movie that struggles to escape the shadow of the vastly superior movies it so overtly homages. Meanwhile, its attempts at larger social commentary land with a thud, Joker never commits enough to specifically detailed themes or real-world issues, leaving one with a surprisingly empty film. That's already an issue on its own merits, but when compared to a number of its fellow Best Picture nominees that merged together thoughtful social commentary with riveting entertainment so effortlessly, such a flaw becomes glaringly apparent. Though it has moments where it hits its intended disturbing bullseye, Joker's so erratic in quality that it's easy to why it handily scored the bottom slot on this list.

Ford v. Ferrari

Fast cars go zoom and guy friends bond in James Mangold's Ford v. Ferrari. Based on the true story of how the Ford motor company created its own racing competitor to Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, Ford v. Ferrari is certainly a more conventional title compared to most of this year's Best Picture nominees. Its dialogue has a tendency of leaning into the overly obvious while you'll likely be able to predict certain key plot points well before they pull across the finish line. However, it's hard to gripe heavily with the traditional nature of Ford v. Ferrari given just how frequently entertaining it is. Much of this comes from the enjoyable rapport of the actors as well as some genuinely impressive racing sequences that push the pedal to the metal. Ford v. Ferrari won't blow your mind but it'll provide two-and-a-half hours of solid moviegoing.


Once Upon a Hollywood

The newest Quentin Tarantino movie is certainly a step down from his most greatest works (particularly the likes of Death Proof or Jackie Brown), mostly because the film sometimes ends up being Tarantino getting too distracted by 1960s movie trivia minutiae at the expense of the overall story. Still, his passion for this era is endearing and since it's a Tarantino movie, Once Upon a Hollywood still ends up being an overall well-made production. Maybe the best part of the entire endeavor, aside from a heroic pit bull owned by Brad Pitt's character, are the quiet scenes with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Such scenes focus on her going about her day in a mundane manner. The most exciting things we see her do are purchase a book and watching one of her own movies in a theater. Such tranquility beautifully emphasizes the depths of a woman frequently only reduced down to her real-world grisly murder. For a filmmaker known for his violent bombast, Tarantino's writing of these Tate-centric sequences shows his gift for subdued scenes bursting with quiet humanity.

Jojo Rabbit

Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi's newest motion picture isn't quite as consistently successful as his best comedies like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but that is to be expected given that this is maybe his most ambitious work to date. His success rate is still remarkably high throughout Jojo Rabbit, a dark comedy with a premise that totally shouldn't work (a young Gentile boy, whose best friend is Imaginary Adolf Hitler, learns to not Jewish people during the Holocaust) manages to get pulled off because of how Waititi isn't afraid to go to appropriately dark places with this premise. From the get-go when its titular protagonist is put in the hospital by an explosion, the world of Jojo Rabbit has some real teeth to it. Its exterior may be comedic but it isn't afraid to go to genuinely scary and sad places. The deeply human performances of Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie and Sam Rockwell similarly excel because of this quality. Come to Jojo Rabbit for the wacky dark comedy at the expense of Nazi's, stay for Waiti's unexpectedly poignant filmmaking skills.

1917Trailer #2 For Sam Mendes' 1917

It's easy to boil down 1917 to just the fact that it's been made to look like it's been filmed in one extended continuous take. That feature of Roger Deakin's cinematography is certainly impressive and worth talking about but there's a whole lot more going on here in 1917 than just that (admittedly prominent) visual detail. This tale of two World War I soldiers traveling across an unforgiving battleground impressively makes formidable obstacles not out of a sweeping enemy army but crumbling buildings and the natural landscape itself. There's danger around every corner in 1917 even when there isn't a rival soldier in sight. The gifts Sam Mendes showed for sublime suspense in previous directorial efforts like Road to Perdition and Skyfall comes in mighty handy in for his impressive work behind the camera on the relentlessly absorbing war tale 1917.

Marriage Story

Divorce is messy. Nobody gets out of it unscathed. That's especially true of the two lead characters of Marriage Story, portrayed by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, whose story of grappling with every messy detail of this process (i.e. finding lawyers, spending time with their kid, etc.) proves to be immensely engaging. Writer/director Noah Baumbach incorporates a number of wonderful touches into the screenplay for this project but perhaps the best of all of them is how he doesn't boil down either of the protagonists to simplified caricatures. Both of our leads are allowed to be realistically messy, to have nuances, in other words, they're allowed to be humans. Such fully-formed characters are creations that the star-studded cast just runs with, especially Adam Driver in a turn that solidifies him as one of the more daring American leading men working right now. Just as undeniable as the fact that divorce is messy is the fact that Marriage Story truly is exceptional.

The Irishman

Martin Scorsese returns to the gangster genre for The Irishman but he is not here for a mere victory lap that repeats what he's done in the past. On the contrary, he's here to do something radically different with the genre he's most heavily associated with. While a sense of inevitable doom crept into the corners of prior Scorsese gangster movies like Casino, here, that same sensibility is omnipresent. As emphasized by how a number of gangster characters get accompanied on-screen text declaring their pathetic demises, the world of crime in The Irishman is shown to be one that exclusively leads to ruin. Friends, family, actual human connections, all those things that make life worthwhile are sacrificed when you take up the gangster life. This idea serves as the haunting thesis of The Irishman and its one that Scorsese explores to remarkable success thanks to a dynamite cast (Joe Pesci's masterfully understated turn is a  sight to behold) and by far the best de-aging visual effects wizardry put to film.


Parasite Kang-ho Soon Yeo-jeong Jo
Bong Joon-ho has broken through to the American mainstream consciousness with Parasite and it's been truly wonderful to see. Not only has this brilliant filmmaker long been overdue for such high-profile recognition, but it also comes about thanks to one of his strongest efforts to date. The wry tale of an economically poor family using trickery to work their way into the employment of a wealthy family starts out as a zippy dark comedy but it doesn't stay perched in one genre for long. You'll never quite know where Parasite is going next but just know there isn't a plot thread or character detail left on the table. Joon-ho's script is a concise creation full of witty dialogue and ingenious explorations of class dynamics. Meanwhile, his similarly thoughtful direction ensures that Parasite is as much of a layered treat visually as it is thematically. All of the hype you've heard is true and then some, Parasite is flat-out great filmmaking.

Little Women

Little Women (2019) March sisters
There are some great movies nominated for Best Picture this year but the very best of the bunch is Little Women, the newest directorial effort from Greta Gerwig. Though the eighth film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel, Gerwig's screenplay applies a number of unique qualities, including a non-linear approach to the narrative, that help to make this particular film adaptation feel brand-new. Best of all in Gerwig's writing is how well she quietly yet powerfully displays the emotional vulnerability of Jo March and all the other Little Women characters. Beth and Jo's beach-time conversation. Chris Cooper's Mr. Lawrence listening to Beth on the piano. Jo and Marmie's night-time talk about working every day to be patient. All of these touching scenes and so many more don't just elicit tears (though they certainly accomplish that), they also allow characters who are so frequently reduced to just being one-note stereotypes in society to be seen for the complex human beings that they are. There's a richness to the characters of Little Women that's carried over into Gerwig's impressively detailed direction (the way she visually differentiates scenes set in the past and present is remarkable) and the cast that's packed with outstanding performances. Greta Gerwig's Little Women is an utterly tremendous motion picture, one as richly human as it is captivating.

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