The storylines for Oscars 2020 are much the same as they’ve been in recent years: popular films vs. underseen critical darlings, traditional theatrical releases vs. Netflix, familiar Oscar formulas vs. idiosyncratic experiments, the hope and chance for diverse, first-of-their-kind nominees vs. the likelihood of things staying the same.
To be more specific, this is turning into a race between Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and three separate Netflix movies – The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Two Popes – for Best Picture. Will the Academy go for Quentin Tarantino’s mid-life crisis movie (Once Upon a Time…) or Martin Scorsese’s end-of-life opus (Irishman)? Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, already destined to be the first South Korean film nominated for a single Oscar, should win Best International Film and also factor into the Best Picture conversation.
It won’t win – probably – but with nearly a billion worldwide and begrudging industry-wide respect, we have to prepare for the possibility, nay, high likelihood that Joker will end up in the Best Picture category on top of, obviously, Best Actor.
Can Lulu Wong’s The Farewell outlast some of the indie film competition or will it be a classic case of getting a screenplay nod and nothing else? If it does crack the acting categories, who should we root for more, Awkwafina (for Best Actress) or Shuzhen Zhao (for Best Supporting Actress)? Can JoJo Rabbit follow in Green Book’s footsteps and leverage its Toronto International Film Festival Audience Award into a surprisingly deep awards season run? Or is it just too damn weird for its own good?
Exactly how many of the actors from Bombshell, Little Women, and The Irishman will get nominated? They can’t nominate everyone, can they? Does a woman make it into the Best Director category this year, either Wong for Farewell or Greta Gerwig for Little Women or both? Will Rise of Skywalker get The Return of the King treatment, the honorary recognition of its historical significance/cumulative achievement vs. its individual excellence? Will anyone remember Rocketman or The King actually exist? Can anything deny Jennifer Lopez her Hustlers Best Supporting Actress nomination? How exactly will Disney navigate its Best Animated Film campaigns for Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2? And how insane will the internet go if The Lighthouse and/or Midsommar score some actual nominations?
Of course, among all the films I mentioned above I’ve only seen around half of them. Unless you are someone who recently attended the run of ultra-early press screenings in LA or hit it up the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals earlier this year, a good chunk of the movies in the Oscars 2020 race have yet to be seen by the general public.
So, I thought I’d turn this article into a running list of all the Oscar feature-length movies I’ve seen, want to see, and don’t want to see. I’ll update it throughout the awards season and rank the movies I have seen from favorite to not-so-favorite.
Have Seen (Updated 12/20)
Marriage Story – This movie broke me.
Midsommar – Skol! Sometimes I want to walk around in Ari Aster’s brain, but then I realize we’ve already done that with Hereditary and Midsommar. What a fascinating, but deeply upsetting place to visit. (Full review)
Parasite – This is to Bong Joon-ho what The Shape of Water was to Guillermo del Toro – it’s the culmination/crystallization of everything he’s done to this point, delivered in the most accessible work of his career. I find it an intimidating film to write about, it’s so layered and brilliant, but it’s also purely enjoyable and genuinely shocking.
Knives Out– I’m always down for Rian Johnson’s latest attempt to blow-up yet another genre. This time, he takes on the whodunnit, locked door Agatha Christie murder mystery. Add in a stacked cast (Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curits, etc.) and Daniel Craig doing his weird American accent thing and you have a recipe for what one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. Whether that’ll transfer into serious awards consideration, well, I have my doubts.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Seems entirely fitting that Tarantino’s mid-life, mature character study would also be wildly self-indulgent and controversial. (Full review)
Toy Story 4 – Better than it has any right to be. (Full review)
Hustlers – That Jennifer Lopez opening dance scene, though. (Full review)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – America’s dad, Tom Hank, playing Mr. Rogers? Yes, please. (Full review)
Ford v Ferrari (aka Le Mans ’66) – There is so much potential for a standard tribute to American exceptionalism here. After all, this is the story of that time the Ford Motor Company went to Europe, took on an Italian competitor, and won. America, fuck yeah! However, James Mangold doesn’t allow the film to fall into that narrative trap. Instead, he’s made a tribute to the working class. This is a movie about the people who get shit done and don’t get the credit for it. Matt Damon and Christian Bale play out the tale of two guys who knew that the money people would figure out a way to fuck them in the end but went forward with it anyway because that’s what you do when there’s a job to be done. They don’t know any other way to live. It’s easy to read this as Mangold’s commentary on being an artist in today’s Hollywood, working within a dying system because your believe in the art trumps everything, but you don’t have to go in for any of that. Instead, Ford v Ferrari can simply be an entertaining sports movie. It doesn’t need that depth to be enjoyed, but the fact that it’s there elevates it in my mind.
Dolemite Is My Name – I’m always a sucker for movies about movies, particularly stories about the hustle and bustle away from the spotlight. Dolemite does that just about as well as any movie ever has, even if it does seem oddly reluctant to look too far beyond Rudy Ray Moore’s public persona. Still, it’s so nice to see Eddie Murphy completely command the screen again, although does that phrase truly apply to a Netflix movie? I don’t know; I just know Dolemite is hilarious. (Full review)
The Irishman – Count me in the group who appreciates the brilliance of Scorsese’s obituary for the gangster genre, but also count me in the group who feel he could have made his point quicker. The totality of a man’s life inevitably leads him to his end and a period of self-reflection and all that, but in this case the power of that message is muted by the film’s extreme length and retirement home Goodfellas familiarity of the story. Still, I am enjoying all the memes. Really, in 2019, movies are just distraction machines we meme about on Twitter, and The Irishman has that covered, thanks in no small part to Al Pacino’s scenery-chewing Jimmy Hoffa. (Full review)
Dark Waters – So, I just bought this new non-stick pan for my kitchen. So many of them claim to be non-stick but then after just two uses its changed colors, your turkey sausage is burnt, and the smoke alarm is going off. Not this time, though. This new thing actually works. I can fry up as much bacon as I want and clean away all the grease without scrubbing. What a miracle! Because of Dark Waters, however, everytime I use the pan I wonder: am I giving myself cancer? You’ll understand once you see the movie, which is another one of those wonderful features where Mark Ruffalo plays a guy who goes through a bunch of old boxes and files and delivers indignant speeches to corrupt bastards. In this case, he plays a real life lawyer uncovering Dupont’s decades of malfeasance. It is truly upsetting, another one of 2019’s odes to just how thoroughly buggered we are as a society. The film, turns out, isn’t a major awards player at all this year, but it is still worth seeing just so you, too, can freak out about what kind of chemicals are really in your non-stick pan.
The Lighthouse – A black and white picture presented in an antiquated aspect ratio we haven’t seen since the silent film days, and it’s about Willem Dafoe farting in Robert Pattinson’s face as they’re stuck together in a lighthouse and devolve into stunning portraits of toxic masculinity. Ok. Where’s the camera? This is a Prank Encounter, right? Surely this Madlib version of a pretentious art-house movie isn’t real? Oh, no, it is. This is Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch. It’s the absolute definition of “not for everyone.” Letterboxd just named it the best horror film of the decade. Shenanigans, I say. But, then again, maybe they’re right? It turns positively Lovecraftian and leaves us certain of just one thing: seagulls are total dicks.
Correction: two things. First, seagulls are sick. Second,
The Farewell – Lulu Wong’s masterful, semi-autobiographical work of grief, generational/cultural divides, and one woman’s search for identity in an impossible land she barely recognizes anymore. (Full review)
Us – There is a definite push for a Lupita Nyngo’o nomination and maybe, just maybe a screenplay nod, but beyond that, Us has kind of gone forgotten. I once saw Us compared to the kind of semi-advanced, but uneven sophomore album you’d expect from a band which was forced by its record label to crank out a follow-up to a surprise hit. That feels about right, even if no one was actually rushing Jordan Peele to make this. (Full review)
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – Does this have a legit shot at Best Animated Feature in the same year as Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2? I don’t know. It’s really the battle of franchise-enders since all three films aim to bow out gracefully. Of the three, The Hidden World is the only one that actually made me cry. (Full review)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Not a good finish, JJ.
Frozen 2 – I appreciate the challenge they had as well as their commendable effort to steer the franchise into some more mature themes, but the whole thing feels surprisingly close to a direct-to-video Disney sequel largely because the story is so threadbare. Still, Olaf funny, and (the “wickedly talented”) Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell can sing the hell out of any ballad put in front of them. (Full review)
Joker – Better performance than a movie. (Full review)
Judy – Ditto. But with Joker and Judy we’re looking at the front-runners for Best Actor and Actress. (Full review)
Rocketman – Elton John had shitty parents. Let’s sing about it. (Full review)
JoJo Rabbit -Movies have tried to mix laughs with Nazis before – The Producers, To Be or Not To Be, Life Is Beautiful – but it’s hard to do it and not come off as mawkish. Taika Waititi’s bend toward anarchic comedy is the wrong fit for the subject matter, but after Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, and Ragnarok, I love that he got the chance to fail like this.
Motherless Brooklyn – Uneven, bordering on bad in its first half hour, but finds itself along the way and turns into a promising glimpse of Ed Norton’s potential as a director. After the film’s box office failure, though, who knows when or if he’ll end up behind the camera again. Probably not enough critical acclaim to significantly factor into the awards race. (Full review)
Ad Astra – James Gray and Brad Pitt had shitty fathers. Let’s look super sad about it. Not to be too glib. This is ultimately an interesting use of space travel to talk about depression and emotional baggage, and even though his character spends a good chunk of the film suppressing his emotions Ad Astra features Pitt at his most vulnerable. (Full review)
Richard Jewell – After the recent run of The Mule, Sully, and The 15:17 to Paris, I’ve just about had my fill of Clint Eastwood’s salutes to rugged, American individualism, finger-wagging at the media, and historical stories bent to his will.
The Laundromat – This is Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic explainer about the Panama Papers with a heavy comedy chaser added in to help the medicine go down, ala The Big Short. The problem is he overdoes the comedy and fractured storylines and ultimately gets in his own way. It’s entirely too easy to enter this movie knowing nothing about the Panama Papers and leave it still feeling confused. But, hey, the fourth-wall-breaking finale in which, spoiler, Meryl Streep drops not one but two costumes and then addresses the camera as herself is certainly memorable. Not likely to be a major awards player, even with Streep around. One of Netflix’s failed awards players this year.
Harriet – Leslie Odom, Jr., playing a key architect of the Underground Railroad, constantly looks at Cynthia Erivo’s version of Harriet Tubman with the awe and wonder reserved for a deity. In those moments, he’s speaking for the entire film. Everyone involved, be they behind the scenes or in front of it, carries themselves with an air of importance, a group of people convinced they are making a significant cinematic tribute to an American icon. That’s how you end up with a version of Harriet Tubman whose every single speech seems designed to end up as the one they’ll use on the Oscars telecast. Luckily, when that version of Tubman is played by Cynthia Erivo the film kind of gets away with it. She’s better than the movie. Thanks to her, it’s a watchable bit of hagiography.
Dying To See
1917 (Due 12/25) – How the heck did Sam Mendes pull off a continuous shot WWI movie?
Little Women (Due 12/25) – Haven’t read the book. Not really the target audience. But after Lady Bird, I am a Gerwig stan.
Uncut Gems (Due 12/13) – The guys who made Good Time have directed a film in which Adam Sandler seems to finally be trying again, and you can jut put it straight into my veins!
Honey Boy – Shia LeBeouf cast himself as his own father in an unofficial biopic about his life as a child star gone wrong. Reviews indicate it’s a wonder to behold; I have a sneaking suspicion it might just be self-indulgently bizarre, which is pretty much LeBeouf’s entire MO these days. Want to be wrong.
Feel Obligated to See
Bombshell (Due 12/13) – The promise of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie taking down Fox News should be all the pull I need, but I am at politics overload right now. Doesn’t help that much of this was covered earlier this year in the Showtime drama The Loudest Voice in the Room, albeit told from Roger Ailes’ point of view. This is a Jay Roach movie, and this is just what he does now – cast famous play to reenact the behind the scenes workings of recent pivotal moments in American history. He just usually does it as an HBO Original Movie, and that’s what this feels like. Not a work of significant achievement or key insight, but instead a workmanlike recreation where part of the appeal is simply looking at Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and marveling at the resemblance. Hope I’m wrong.
The Two Popes – Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as a departing Pope and his incoming replacement, sit down for an awkward chat about morality. That feels like the type of thing everyone will forget about in a year, probably looking back on it with confusion, asking, “Wait, what was the difference between The Young Pope [the HBO series], The Two Popes, and The New Pope [the re-titled second season of the same HBO series]?” That’s a lot of Pope action for pop culture to handle in such a short time, but the reviews have been astoundingly positive.
Might Just Skip
A Hidden Life (Due 12/13) – It’s a Terence Malick movie. It should feel like an obligatory watch for all cinephiles, yet there has been absolutely zero Oscar buzz around it and there are already so, so many other movies to see.
Pain and Glory – Shades of Honey Boy in that Antonio Banderas is basically playing the film’s director, Pedro Almodovar, in this unofficial biopic. This is Almodovar’s Roma, but that doesn’t mean as much to me because I must admit Almodovar is still in my cinematic blindspot.
The Report – Normally, I’d be all for Adam Driver in a backroom political drama, but the tepid word of mouth has led to the sense that this will always just be that other movie Driver did in 2019, ya know, the one that’s not Marriage Story or Rise of Skywalker.
Don’t Know Enough About Yet
The Banker (Due 12/6) – This is an Apple TV+ original starring Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie as two businessmen forced to hire a white man to be the face of their company. It was once considered an Oscar dark horse contender, but since I originally published this article Apple has pushed back the film indefinitely. The issue: one of the producers, who also happens to be the son of one of the real world figures depicted in the film, has been accused of abusing his half-sisters.
Just Mercy (Due 12/25) – Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson star in a story about a black lawyer fighting against the prison industrial complex. Looks like like a humanized version of Ava DuVernay’s excellent Netflix documentary 13th.
Shoulda Been a Contender
Wild Rose – Despite Jessie Buckley’s star-making turn, Wild Rose hasn’t quite managed to catch on as anything other than a charming little indie movie. Too bad. An awards-run would help boost its profile and get it in front of more eyeballs. (Full review)
What about you? What have been your favorite awards contenders of the year so far? Which upcoming ones are you excited to see? How about the ones you really couldn’t care less about? Or is this whole argument invalid because, dammit, they gave Best Picture to Green Book? Let me know in the comments.