Darragh Leen looks at the certainties, the maybes, the hopefuls, and the odd fairy-tale in the mix.
The annus mirabilis for cinema? Perhaps.
2019 showed that movies are still a great source of exhilaration, joy and fascination, dragging us into spellbinding fictional worlds and educating us not only on the current state of our world but what we crave, loathe and love.
The nine films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture are stellar and range from the heart-melting to the spine-tingling, to the side-splitting and the soul-warming.
Brad Pitt, Best Supporting Actor: With a career pockmarked with mostly unappreciated roles as an ice-cool charmer, Pitt has finally found the shoe that fits in ‘Once Upon A Time in Hollywood’. The whip-smart and charming script would be a dream for any thespian, never mind this Tarantino favourite. Stuntman Cliff Booth is the role Pitt was born to play and he knocks it down Hollywood Boulevard. This is a lock.
1917 for Best Cinematography: Just over two years ago, industry veteran and virtual cinematic rock star Roger Deakins remained light in the Oscar department despite a whopping 14 nominations to his name. Patience is a virtue. Deakins would eventually emerge victorious with Blade Runner 2049 on his 14th attempt. He can get chummy with Oscar now. Number 2 is on the way.
Laura Dern, Best Supporting Actress: Another actress biding her time and biding it with grace is industry favourite, Laura Dern. She turns 53 on Monday and should do so with a golden statuette to call her own. Her performance in Marriage Story as the high-powered lawyer that bites is fundamental to the air of antagonism and threat in the film. Noah Baumbach’s personal story is affecting in all the best ways but Dern puts a spanner well placed in the works for Adam Driver’s down-on-his-luck theatre director. It’s not her greatest performance (eg ‘Inland Empire) but everybody has their time - and Dern’s is now.
Adam Driver, Best Actor: It’s well established that Joaquin Phoenix has set a particularly high standard for immersive, dedicated fully-fledged acting - the most recent his powerhouse turn as comic book villain in Joker. The Academy has always had a penchant for gifting gongs to those who produce the MOST acting as opposed to the BEST and most nuanced performances. So, any discussion on the most affecting and personal performance of the year inevitably leads to Driver’s work in the aforementioned Marriage Story - notwithstanding the brilliance of Arthur Fleck. That aside, Phoenix, like Laura Dern, has stood by and watched from the gallery for long enough. No-one apart from Driver would be too put out to see him make for the podium Sunday night.
Parasite for Best Picture: Having essentially locked up Best Foreign Language Film category, what sort of a fairy-tale (and leap forward for the film industry and Hollywood) to award the top prize to a singular, original vision from a Korean filmmaker? After eschewing such a first last year with ‘Roma’, the Academy has the chance to set the record straight. It’s among three standouts and with Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood in the mix with a World War I epic, this masterpiece will have its work cut out.
Thomas Newman, Best Original Score (1917): Would this even be a surprise? This isn’t the first time Sam Mendes and Newman have matched sound to image, but it may well be the crowning achievement of their collaborations. Managing to succeed in what seemed an unenviable task of syncing a beautiful melodic score to an edge-of-your-seat war film, Newman not only enhances the audience's experience but also manipulates and heightens our senses. It’s a work of brilliance and it’s important to recognise that in the face of the threat from female composer Hildur Gudnadottir on Joker, who looks to be the one to beat.
Saoirse Ronan, Best Actress: Speaking of fairy-tales, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel ‘Little Women’ seems to be working in the area of the fantastical; whether that be the flawless passing of time through four seasons via visual beauty or the wide-eyed curiosity and naivety of Ronan’s protagonist Jo March. Regardless, the Irish starlet’s turn is another to behold and in a year of mesmerising performances, Ronan stands up to be counted – once again. This, of course, would be a major upset but don’t worry people, her time will come.
Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actor: Coming out of retirement specifically for Scorsese’s mob tale of mortality and morals (‘The Irishman’), the Goodfellas star isn’t so much cashing in as showing the new kids how it’s done. He won for his crackerjack role in Marti’s 1991 classic ‘Goodfellas’, but this isn’t Tommy DeVito reborn. In fact, it’s a whole new beast of a performance and every time the old-timer is on screen he demands attention. The Academy would love to have rewarded Pesci with his second Oscar but he’ll probably end up unlucky to be up against another masterfully written character by Tarantino. A fitting way to bow out, nonetheless.
Scarlett Johansson, Best Actress/Supporting Actress: I’ve mentioned both categories in which ScarJo is nominated - her first and second for the record - not least because she may win neither. Johannsson’s nominations are in categories that are pretty locked down (Zellweger and Dern) but that doesn’t detract from bravura displays. She started with a flourish in Marriage Story and ended with the endearing warmth of Jojo Rabbit, a film I fell in love with even if others gave it a colder reception. She remains second favourite in the Best Actress category and the odds don’t favour her as the Renee juggernaut has all the momentum.