Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

2019 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. In addition to this section, there's The Top Six, Noteworthy Films and the Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2019 wound up being a surprisingly good year for film, with many solid entries and a handful of standouts likely to be remembered for years to come.

The Oscars were fun this year due to several especially worthy recipients and some good segments. The set was pretty cool, I thought, providing some visual interest and malleability. Janelle Monae, a natural performer seemingly unfazed even by a huge audience, got things going with a spirited opening number that also featured Billy Porter. The rest of the evening wouldn't be as diverse, but Monae and crew were sensational. Although the Oscars didn't have designated hosts, Steve Martin and Chris Rock "not hosting" were quite good together. Martin remains my favorite host of the past few decades.

The Best Song category had some good performances but also some oddities. Eminem showed up to sing "Lose Yourself" (heavily bleeped), 17 years after it won the Oscar. It's a catchy song, but his appearance felt random. I'm not a huge fan of Frozen, but I thought it was neat to have a cast of international Elsas singing "Let It Go." The Elton John-Bernie Taupin song "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" is decent, but its win felt like more of a lifetime achievement award than for its own merits, although this wasn't the strongest year for nominees. Elton John, who won before with lyricist Tim Rice for 1994's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," graciously let his longtime collaborator Taupin do most of the talking this time. "Daily Battles," a moody piece written by Radiohead's Thom Yorke for the film Motherless Brooklyn, made the initial nomination list of 15 but unfortunately did not make the final shortlist of 5. Meanwhile, "Stand Up" from the film Harriet is a pretty good song, and actress and singer Cynthia Erivo absolutely slayed it during her performance.

Standout presenters included Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, who did very sharp, interweaving banter to present the Oscars for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. (Somebody needs to fund them making another movie together.) Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus also were great, pretending to be self-absorbed stars who did not understand what a cinematographer does and expressing ire at editors for cutting their performances. James Corden and Rebel Wilson, who appeared in the already infamous cinematic bomb Cats, came out dressed as cats to present the award for visual effects.

The Oscars montage game remains strong, and it was particularly nice to see a montage of great international films. Of the honorary Oscar winners, I was happiest for Cherokee actor Wes Studi. (You can see his acceptance speech from last October here.)

The Oscar "in memoriam" segment (the montage of death) is always put together well, but Billie Eilish wound up being a rare miss as singer. I like some of Eilish's songs, but her rendition of "Yesterday" was too soft, mumbly and in a bad key for her voice. (She also was not a good choice for the new Bond song. Let her stick to her lane, producers.) The montage appropriately ended with the legendary Kirk Douglas, of course, who made it to 103, leaving just Olivia de Havilliand left of Old Hollywood. (TCM always does a splendid memorial segment, and you can see the edition for 2019 here.)

Joaquin Phoenix gave a heartfelt and slightly nutty acceptance speech for Best Actor, touching on (among other things) animal rights. Renée Zellweger, winning for Best Actress, also came off as a bit loopy, but both performers have a reputation for eccentricity. It's trippy that performances as the comic book character the Joker have now won two Oscars.

As for other award recipients, I enjoyed Best Animated Short Film winner, "Hair Love," and it's well worth a look if you haven't seen it. It's good on its own merits and a nice expansion of diversity. For sheer artistry, though, my favorite in the category was the French stop-motion piece, "Mémorable," which centers on an artist experiencing dementia. I haven't seen the Best Documentary Feature winner yet, American Factory, but it looks intriguing, and typically all the nominees are good. The makeup jobs transforming Charlize Theron and John Lithgow for Bombshell deservedly won an Oscar. I thought the sound awards seemed apt this year, with Ford v. Ferrari winning for Best Sound Editing and 1917 winning for Best Sound Mixing. I probably would have given Thomas Newman the Oscar for his superb score for 1917, but Hildur Guðnadóttir's score for Joker was innovative, effectively creepy and also excellent, plus it was nice to see a woman win (relatively young, too). Roger Deakins, after being nominated and not winning for years, deservedly won a second year in a row for his extraordinary work on 1917.

Brad Pitt's Best Supporting Actor win for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood felt like a lifetime achievement award, but he's extremely likable in the film, oozing effortless charisma, plus all of his competitors have already won performance Oscars. (Pitt's lead performance in Ad Astra was more impressive, however.) Laura Dern was my favorite of the actor wins, though. She gives a great performance in Marriage Story, but has a long career of excellence, and gave a lovely, gracious shout-out to her acting parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd.

The screenwriting nominees typically represent the actual best movies of the year, although I've been disappointed by some winners in recent years. This year, they went to precisely the right recipients, though – Jojo Rabbit for Best Adapted Screenplay and Parasite for Best Original Screenplay. Both are extremely creative, original and occasionally inspired pieces of work, and I was cheering their wins.

Likewise, I would have been happy to see 1917 win for Best Director and Best Picture, because it's a legitimately great film. I probably would have given the nod to Sam Mendes over Bong Joon-ho for directing due to the astounding technical challenges of making 1917. But I was thrilled to see Parasite win both awards (along with Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film). Parasite is a truly original, incisive, funny, disturbing piece of work, thought-provoking, entertaining and memorable. After last year's "safe" win of Green Book, it was an absolute coup that Parasite mopped up at the Oscars, the first film in a foreign language to win Best Picture, a superb film on its own merits, and not remotely a safe pick. Bong Joon-ho claimed he wasn't expecting all the wins, and seemingly had to improvise a bit for his acceptance speeches, but gave nice shout-outs to his fellow directing nominees, most of all Martin Scorsese. I'd be interested to see how the ballots and ranked choice voting looked for Best Picture, but Parasite's victories alone made this a great Oscars.

On a personal note, I got to attend an Oscars rehearsal this year, so it was neat to see how things are run, and to see a few bits that were cut or changed for the actual show. All the presenters who showed up to rehearse seemed to take things quite seriously, wanting to get things right. Our favorites were Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, who ran through their entire banter rapidly and flawlessly, which we loudly applauded.

On to the reviews. As usual, I try to label spoilers, but also follow a simple rule: if it's in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

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