Fun with numbers: Ranking the 2020 Best Picture Oscar nominees

Every year, I try to watch all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night, but I’ve fallen behind this year and have missed two of the films. Nevertheless, just as I did last year, I’m going to have some fun and try to quantify the qualities of the 7 nominees I’ve watched and predict which ones have the best chance of walking away with the golden man in the next 24 hours.

The awards season for me typically begins with the Venice film festival which runs in late August/early September and is where a lot of the heavyweight contenders have their global premieres. This is also the time when films that have debuted at Cannes in May get their wide theatrical releases. Occasionally there are independent films which screened at Sundance at the start of the year which roll out into theatrical release in the second half of the year and become part of the conversation. And for the past few years, we’ve had the new kid on the block Netflix, schedule limited theatrical releases for their productions to qualify for Oscar eligibility.

Before I get into the scores, here are my thumbnail reviews of the 7 films I’ve watched (there may be minor spoilers):

Ford v Ferrari: This is a really well made movie which is easy to watch due to its linear narrative and classical story-telling with a beginning, middle and end. It ticks all the “Oscar boxes’ including acting star-power (Matt Damon and the chameleonic Christian Bale) and outstanding technical proficiency especially in editing, sound and cinematography (although it wasn’t nominated for the latter). There is no conventional happy ending (and given it’s based on actual events, the filmmakers had no choice in this matter) and that ultimately impacts its ‘likeability’ and ability to win the big prize.

The Irishman: This film was much hyped upon its release, as much for the once-in-a-lifetime combination of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci sharing screen time, as for the computerized de-aging of these actors. I found it to be an engrossing story and the three-hour runtime wasn’t an issue at all. However, the de-aging was distracting, because my brain kept telling me “that’s not how Robert De Niro looked when he was young”. I was also a bit disappointed not to see any overtly dazzling camera work as I’ve come to expect from the master director…but that’s just me not managing my expectations. The hype has definitely cooled off in the past few weeks and I have a suspicion that it may walk away with zero conversions from its 9 Oscar nominations. But personally, this is a movie that I’ll rewatch parts of from time to time, in the years to come.

Joker: I’ve always been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix and if there’s a movie in this list that is carried by one actor, this is it. I was completely engrossed while watching Joker and could appreciate the meta-connection with its cinematic parent, Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. This is a very divisive film, particularly in the US, because it speaks to people who are (or feel) marginalized and appears to legitimize anarchy as a form of justice. I think there’s a pretty good chance that Joaquin Phoenix will win the Oscar for Best Actor on his fourth attempt. And while a lot of critics feel that it is a hollow film, I do rate it very highly.

Marriage Story: This is one of my favourite movies of the year, one that I truly feel affection for, although it seems wrong to use such a word for such an emotionally devastating movie. Like Joker, this is an actor’s movie, with the film carried by the two leads Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, as well as the supporting characters playing the three lawyers – Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. The acting is wonderfully nuanced at times, while the script also gives each of the actors the opportunity to flaunt their acting chops in one or two melodramatic scenes. It’s worth watching director Noah Bumbauch’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale as a variation of the same story and as a study of how this director’s craft has evolved over time.

1917: This movie has emerged as the frontrunner for Best Picture over the past few weeks. I was fortunate to watch it on IMAX, which is the only way to appreciate its technical achievement. But as physically immersive as this film is, it’s amazing how emotionally sanitized it is, completely the opposite of my favourite war films like say, Saving Private Ryan or Fury. Even for all its physical realism, I was amazed how conveniently the narrative ignored the fact that one of the characters cut his hand on barbed wire at the start of the movie, then accidentally plunged it into the guts of a dead German soldier and then seemed to have no obvious problem for the rest of the film…I would have expected his hand to have gone septic and ready for amputation in the next several hours. I do hope 1917 wins another Oscar for Roger Deakins’ cinematography and perhaps for production design, but I don’t feel it is deserving of the Best Picture award.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: I’ve written an entire post on this nostalgic, revisionist work from one of my favourite directors, so there’s not much more to add. I believe Brad Pitt is the front-runner to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and I’d be very happy with that although it’s a tough call, as the other 4 actors in this category – Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci – have all done an equally good job.

Parasite: Last, but definitely not least, is the film that really shook me to my core when I watched it. I can’t find the right words to describe the movie…it works on so many levels, as a thriller and as a commentary on the dynamics of class barriers in society. Jordan Peele has rightfully received a great deal of critical acclaim and commercial success for using the horror/thriller genre to talk about racial and social inequality in Get Out and Us. There is no question in my mind that Bong Joon Ho and Parasite should be placed on an even higher pedestal. I couldn’t help but think of the Eloi and the Morlocks from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine after watching this movie. I would really love for Parasite to win Best Picture, but more realistically would expect it to walk away with Best International Film.

A special mention for The Two Popes, which although not nominated for Best Picture, did get nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and deservingly for Best Actor (Jonathan Pryce) and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins). Who could ever have imagined that a film featuring a series of theological discussions could be so engrossing. It’s even more amazing that this film was directed by Fernando Meirelles, who broke out in 2002 with the horrifying City of God, a film on the exact opposite end of the cinematic spectrum, in terms of content, pace and tone.

When I did this exercise last year, I used 6 criteria – feel-good quotient, emotional intensity, visual beauty, acting star power, social relevance, entertainment value (which means, did you feel you got your money’s worth). This year, “feel-good” doesn’t apply to most of the movies but I decided to retain it for consistency. Also, do keep in mind that these scores are subjective and seen through my eyes, I’m sure the ranking would be very different for other viewers.

NomineeFeel-goodEmotionalVisualStarsSocialEntertainment ValueTotal
Ford v Ferrari57873737
The Irishman54694735
Jojo Rabbit?????? 
Joker376810741
Little Women?????? 
Marriage Story410687742
1917831042835
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood978102945
Parasite3985101045

And so my predictor says it will be a tie between Parasite and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Last year, I got lucky as Green Book got the highest score in my tally and did go on to win Best Picture. Of course, I haven’t watched 2 of the nominated films – Little Women and Jojo Rabbit, so this is not a comprehensive analysis. Sadly, Little Women is only due to hit theatres in this part of the world next month and I regrettably missed my chance to see Jojo Rabbit when it had a limited screening at the end of last year. This year, I suspect that 1917 will win, but as you can see, I rank it very high on visuals, entertainment value and being a feel good movie, but it didn’t do anything for me emotionally and had no social commentary whatsoever. Let’s see what happens in a few hours!

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho

Sadly, every year the Academy latches on to a few movies, and then tends to nominate them across all the Oscar categories. A rather lazy approach. There’s a whole bunch of interesting movies out there that would qualify for nomination in one category or the other if only the Academy members took the time out to watch them. I’ve been working my way through several of them (and yes, a couple of them have received Oscar nominations) and plan to put up some thumbnail reviews of these movies soon. The movies in the list are A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, A Hidden Life, Bombshell, Dark Waters, Dolemite is My Name, Harriet, Honey Boy, Hustlers, Judy, Just Mercy, Knives Out, Midsommar, Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Queen and Slim, The Farewell, The Lighthouse, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The Report, The Souvenir and Uncut Gems. Maybe next year I should focus on the Indie Spirit Awards which just took place and honour many of the film’s I’ve mentioned here at the end.

Post script 10th Feb 2020: And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to…Parasite! So very happy that this movie received the recognition it deserves. And that’s 2 years in a row that my scorecard ended up with the correct prediction!

2 thoughts on “Fun with numbers: Ranking the 2020 Best Picture Oscar nominees

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