Agenda | Mar 21,2020
The 2020 Oscars, the most prestigious award ceremony in cinema, takes place today. The year has presented one of the strongest contenders in a long while.
Mainstream movies have touched upon complicated issues such as feminism, social and class struggles, institutional racism and sexism, organised religion’s relationship with the past, corporate greed in the face of individual perseverance, the hilarious ways through which people deal with totalitarianism and the horrors of war. There was even a movie about the late years of the Hollywood Golden Age before social realism and blockbusters crowded movie theatres.
But which movies were actually good? Which are timeless and which will be forgotten by all except a few film historians?
Avengers: Endgame might have taken box office records home, but it was the Joker that was the most talked-about movie of the year. It was not a unique movie. It did not tell us anything we did not know and did not even do that great a job of imitating Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
But the fact that it was made was fascinating in itself. This was a valuable comic book character that had for years been specifically marketed to appeal to children. The use of such a mainstream character to expound on such a controversial societal topic was a bold move on the part of DC as well as Warner Bros. Pictures.
The combination of a controversial topic and a popular comic book character catapulted the film into mainstream notoriety. It was pop-sociology, but at least it had a semblance of social commentary in it. This was something to celebrate. If this was the only way to get mainstream audiences to think while watching movies, then so be it.
There was, of course, the undeniably brilliant Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which is guaranteed to win an Oscar, which I hope would have shared the victory with Adam Sandler for his work in Uncut Gems.
If there was any movie that was neglected by the Academy, it was the fantastic Uncut Gems. A film about a gambler’s attempt to resell a gem that was sourced from Ethiopia, Sandler was brilliant in the role. The dynamic direction and cinematography were no less fantastic but were too inspired with independent filmmaking to have become commercially successful or gained significant awards' season love. It was also a movie that was too honest about the human condition.
Combining Uncut Gems’ psycho-analysis and the Joker’s social critique was Bong Joon-ho’s masterful South Korean movie Parasite. Endlessly witty, it is perhaps the most astonishing movie ever made about class struggle.
Who would have ever thought that Marx’s three-volume Das Kapital can be packaged into a two-hour movie?
The film was too playful with itself to have been a modern masterpiece. It was also not Joon-ho’s best movie - that honour goes to the mysterious Memories of Murder – despite popular belief. But it was one of the year’s most surprising, entertaining and hilarious movies, showing the director’s endless creativity.
Whenever “endless creativity” is discussed, one cannot help but bring up Quentin Tarantino. With the Hateful Eight, he seemed to have been indulging a little too much in the gore he was known for and falling short of the delicious original plots, dialogues and characters he had popularised.
With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one of his least violent movies, as well as containing only a few swear words, he dove into telling a story about what he knew best: movies. But it was not movies per say. It was the institutions, the professionals, the cultures, rumours and lifestyles of an era in Hollywood history that was coming to an end. It could have been a straight forward movie, but history is too dull for Tarantino, and thus the glorious and bloody climax of the film.
Another highly respected filmmaker that made a splash was Scorsese, who came forward with The Irishman, his best movie since The Departed. No one will ever be able to direct a gangster movie the way Scorsese does. But this one was a little different. It was much more sprawling than Goodfellas or Casino.
It was also more apologetic, informed by old age and an era that condones the racism, greed and hypocrisy of the mafia culture. It was about regrets, about old white men who slowly find out that their macho narcissism left a legacy history will not look back on kindly. If Scorsese made his protagonists in Goodfellas young and cool, he made them old and cruel here. It was one of the most honest and self-deprecating movies of the year, with fantastic narration and acting. I loved every minute of The Irishman, which, if one is unfazed by the long-running time, gets better with repeated viewings.
I was also impressed with Ford V Ferrari, a film about how corporations rely on the innovation and hard work of individuals who, in many cases, do not get the recognition they deserve. Christian Bale, as usual, steals the show and Matt Damon fits nicely enough into the role. Nonetheless, the film was too forgettable. It was well made but was too smitten with the circumstances of its heroes to make a sweeping point about corporate greed or the sports car racing industry.
An even more fascinating true story about the love-hate relationship of two men was The Two Popes. No one could have imagined that a movie about Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis discussing faith, the Catholic Church, soccer and the Beatles could be, not just watchable, but warm. When 2019 started, we did not expect two popes to tango together, metaphorically as well as literally, but that was what we got, and it was an intellectual ride while it lasted.
On the same level of excitement as the Two Popes were Marriage Story, a movie about divorce, and 1917. Full of dialogue and character, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story had some John Cassavetes in it. The film contained a brilliant cast and offered a scandalous expose of married life and divorce, but it could have used some realism. It would have been a great movie if it took a less mainstream approach, such as using less attractive actors and more working-class problems, which is what Cassavetes would have done.
1917 is slated to take home both Best Picture and Director given its success during the awards season. It featured impressive performances, especially from its leads, George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, and portrayed the dreariness of World War I most accurately since only Paths of Glory did in 1957. But it had one glaring flaw. Although it was photographed seamlessly by Roger Deakins, it failed to justify its use of a single continuous shot.
I was not that impressed with Little Women. It is directed and written well enough. And it is useful in its depiction of young middle-class women in the 19th century United States. But it failed to make its case for why it is relevant now when gender relationships and roles have undergone a revolution. It was a nice history lesson but not a great movie, especially considering what we were expecting from Greta Gerwig, writer and director of the ingenious Lady Bird.
So what was the best movie of the year?
Honourable mentions are Toy Story 4, Ad Astra and Hustlers. I loved Knives Out. It was quirky, fascinating and colourful and an ode to Rian Johnson’s creativity. Pain and Glory was the quintessential Pedro Almodovar movie - sober and calming to watch with an understated and touching performance from Antonio Banderas.
But none of these gave me that thrill at the back of my spine while watching them. I was deeply impressed by The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Uncut Gems and Parasite, but they did not inspire the awe that comes once in a long while.
But Booksmart did the trick. It has not been talked about as much and has not had much mention during the awards season. Directed by Olivia Wilde, the film is about two high school seniors that, on their last day of school, try to have as much fun as they possible can to compensate for the years they had dedicated to reading books.
It is one of the decade's funniest movies, perhaps the funniest movie since Bridesmaids. It had at least three scenes that trump everything funny Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Kevin Hart tried to do in the 2010s combined.
It was also the most liberal movie of the year. Without necessarily declaring itself socially progressive, it communicates the idealism that defines millennial's enthusiasm. It is a simple enough movie. Neither the acting, the directing nor plot stand out. But the combination of a funny script, a progressive theme and subversive attitude makes it the year’s most surprisingly hilarious and thoughtful movie.
PUBLISHED ON Feb 08,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1032]
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