Monday, February 24, 2020

The 2019 Markademy Awards

The Academy Awards may have been earlier than ever this year, but the Markademy Awards obstinately move at their own pace.  Welcome to this year’s ceremony, hosted by….the exact same person who’s hosted the last two Oscar ceremonies!  What an honour!

Let’s dive right into things, since everyone is surely eager to rehash an awards discussion that seemed mostly settled weeks ago!

Actual nominees: Kathy Bates/Richard Jewell, Laura Dern/Marriage Story, Scarlett Johansson/Jojo Rabbit, Florence Pugh/Little Women, Margot Robbie/Bombshell
Actual winner: Laura Dern

Alterna-ballot: Cho Yeo-jeong/Parasite, Penelope Cruz/Pain & Glory, Thomasin McKenzie/Jojo Rabbit, Taylor Russell/Waves, Zhao Shuzhen/The Farewell, Michaela Watkins/Sword Of Trust

My ballot: Cho, McKenzie, Pugh, Russell, Shuzhen
My winner: Thomasin McKenzie

It’s always curious to me when a film is critically acclaimed more or less across the board, and virtually all the main players in the cast consistently rack up awards or nominations at every critics’ function across the land….except for one person.  In Jojo Rabbit’s case, you had ScarJo with the Oscar nomination, Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi mentioned as potential lead and supporting actor nominees after they popped up in other critics’ mentions, but virtually nothing for Thomasin McKenzie. 

Maybe the answer is just “the others campaigned more, or campaigned better,” but man, I don’t get why McKenzie wasn’t a staple of awards season when she is the clear force of such a well-received movie.  Maybe category confusion?  Did voters not know if she was a lead or a supporting role and thus split the votes?  Whatever the case, it was a weird miss, and hopefully just a blip at the beginning of what looks like a very promising career.  Between this and her performance in Leave No Trace last year, McKenzie seems like a major star on the rise.

Aside from Florence Pugh, I wasn’t super into the Academy’s choices.  Laura Dern was fine but also kind of barely in the movie, and I’m not sure she really nails the one big showcase scene she does receive.  (Alan Alda, who I’ll tell you right now did show up on my ballot, did at least hit a homer on his one big scene.)  Just to stress right off the bat the arrogant and naval-gazing that are the Markademy Awards, I’ll say that I really prefer my alternate ballot, which is just a better and more interesting array of performances and films. 

Actual nominees: Antonio Banderas/Pain & Glory, Leonardo DiCaprio/Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Adam Driver/Marriage Story, Joaquin Phoenix/Joker, Jonathan Pryce/The Two Popes
Actual winner: Joaquin Phoenix

Alterna-ballot: Taron Egerton/Rocketman, Andre Holland/High-Flying Bird, George MacKay/1917, Eddie Murphy/Dolemite Is My Name, Adam Sandler/Uncut Gems

My ballot: Banderas, DiCaprio, Driver, Murphy, Pryce
My winner: Antonio Banderas

After boasting about the quality of my picks, I’ll follow up with a category where I meekly assent to four of the Academy’s five choices.  The big exception is omitting the Academy’s winner, since if I have trouble fitting Arthur Fleck among even the five best pop culture representations of the Joker, I sure can’t justify putting Phoenix in the top five performances of the year.  So, I’ll replace Phoenix with Eddie Murphy, then pause for a moment to think about a world where Eddie Murphy played the Joker and wondering if I can figure out a way to travel through parallel realities, and move onto awarding Antonio Banderas. 

This is a classic case of an actor who I’d always considered to be good but not great suddenly stepping up with a signature performance.  Banderas is working on an entirely subtle level, and just kills it with every choice.  Maybe it was the quiet nature of the performance that so struck me, perhaps especially in comparison to the more actor-y moments of the other major nominees (even Jonathan Pryce isn’t immune, since playing the sitting Pope is inherently a flex).  There’s more than a little of Pedro Almodovar’s actual life in Banderas’ role, and it’s an interesting choice on the part of both to take the quieter route for this film, considering that Almodovar hasn’t been shy about being overtly showy in the past.  You could hardly find two more different movies than Pain & Glory and the last Banderas/Almodovar collaboration, the very “wait, WHAT?” The Skin I Live In.

Actual nominees: Cynthia Erivo/Harriet, Scarlett Johansson/Marriage Story, Saoirse Ronan/Little Women, Charlize Theron/Bombshell, Renee Zellweger/Judy
Actual winner: Renee Zellweger

Alterna-ballot: Awkwafina/The Farewell, Julianne Moore/Gloria Bell, Lupita Nyong’o/Us, Jodie Turner-Smith/Queen & Slim, Alfre Woodard/Clemency

My ballot: Awkwafina, Johansson, Moore, Woodard, Zellweger
My winner: Renee Zellweger

Another chalk pick on my end.  Despite everyone’s lack of enthusiasm about the Judy movie itself, the “are we really going to give Renee Zellweger a second Oscar?” reservations, and then the post-ceremony “geez, if we’d known her speech was going to be that long…” reservations, I think the reason Zellweger won was because her performance was just that good.  Judy isn’t anything special, it’s an Oscar vehicle if there ever was one, but Zellweger nails the tricky middle ground of capturing a famous person’s general essence while not just doing a rote impersonation.  There are obviously a few of Judy Garland’s tics and mannerisms in there, but Zellweger doesn’t fall back on caricature.  If I had to make a comp for Zellweger here, it would be with Chadwick Boseman’s Markademy Award-winning performance as James Brown in Get On Up a few years back.  Trying to replicate James Brown or Judy Garland is impossible, but getting 70 percent of the way there and then adding 30 percent of your own work is a nice formula for biopics.

A note on Johansson and Driver, who both did their best to almost bail out an average film.  Marriage Story ignores Howard Hawks’ “three great scenes and no bad scenes” rule for making a good movie, since it has four or five great scenes amidst an overall confused script.  Johansson has the tougher of the two roles, since Driver’s character becomes the focus of basically the whole final two-thirds of the film, yet ScarJo’s big one-take monologue in her divorce lawyer’s office is such a key framing device for how we perceive Driver’s character the rest of the way (and it’s such a good counterweight to Marriage Story’s ingenious opening montage of the couple’s letters about what they like about each other).  This is a lot to write about a performance that was probably fifth on my ballot but still, good job ScarJo.

Actual nominees: Tom Hanks/A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Anthony Hopkins/The Two Popes, Al Pacino/The Irishman, Joe Pesci/The Irishman, Brad Pitt/Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Actual winner: Brad Pitt

Alterna-ballot: Alan Alda/Marriage Story, Sterling K. Brown/Waves, Chris Hemsworth/Avengers: Endgame, Jonathan Majors/The Last Black Man In San Francisco, Keanu Reeves/Always Be My Maybe, Song Kang-ho/Parasite

My ballot: Brown, Majors, Pacino, Pitt, Song
My winner: Sterling K. Brown

I’m going to go quick hit-style through this very deep category.  Pitt was a worthy Oscar winner for what I think will end up being his defining role, since Cliff Booth seems like an encapsulation of Pitt’s entire career.  Once could argue that his win was a bit of category fraud if you consider Pitt and DiCaprio to be co-leads in OUATIH, but it fits with the movie’s theme that Pitt is the loyal second banana to the end.   

Weirdly, Hemsworth and Reeves were maybe on the same wavelength as Pitt on the scale of roles that double as vague self-effacement, with Pitt and Hemsworth at around a 6 and Keanu at a very tongue-in-cheek 11.  If I was mean, I’d say that Pacino and Pesci were also vaguely making fun of themselves, but no matter your feelings on The Irishman as a whole (I felt it could’ve been at least 30 minutes shorter), it was great seeing both guys sink their teeth into actual roles for the first time in a long time.

As noted earlier, Alda nails his one big scene, and frankly I’d kind of love an entire movie about his character.  Majors is only slightly behind Thomasin McKenzie in my “buy stock in this actor, they have future star written all over them” rankings.  Song stood out amidst a deep cast since I think the driving scenes with Mr. Kim and the Parks are Parasite’s narrative heart.

Speaking of narrative hearts, Sterling K. Brown, who has the difficult task of being the through-line amidst Waves’ two storylines.  This is a movie that has such a fascinating turn to it that I dare not even hint at a spoiler, but Brown is the one (though if Waves has a flaw, it is that Renee Elise Goldsberry’s character is underwritten) who has to navigate both ends of that turn.  Sorry if I’m being vague, but the movie works best the less you know about the plot, and Waves is well worth seeing.  It’s probably no secret by this point that SKB is a hell of an actor, so hopefully it isn’t hard to believe that he delivers a great performance here, my lack of detail notwithstanding.

Actual nominees: Bong Joon-ho/Parasite, Sam Mendes/1917, Todd Phillips/Joker, Martin Scorsese/The Irishman, Quentin Tarantino/Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Actual winner: Bong Joon-ho

Alterna-ballot: Greta Gerwig/Little Women, Fernando Meirelles/The Two Popes, Joe & Anthony Russo/Avengers: Endgame, Josh and Benny Safdie/Uncut Gems, Trey Edwards Shults/Waves, Lulu Wang/The Farewell

My ballot: Bong, the Russo brothers, Shults, Tarantino, Wang
My winner: Bong Joon-ho

What a wide range of directorial challenges here.  We have Gerwig, Tarantino, Scorsese, Phillips, Meirelles, and the Russos delving into familiar characters, stories, and personalities and trying to spin them into new directions (not all successfully, looking at you Todd Phillips), and then we have Bong, Shults, Wang, and the Safdies taking us into entirely fresh territory. 

Probably no surprise that I have a lot more to say about Parasite later on, but in Bong’s case, I’ll point out that this is a perfectly composed film.  It is Hitchcock-ian in its exactness of every scene, every framing, every setpiece, all calibrated for maximum suspense, laughter, outrage, sympathy, horror, or whatever Bong wants us to feel.  No knock on Sam Mendes, but an Oscar victory for him wouldn’t have felt nearly as special as Bong’s win — I almost jumped out of chair in surprise when Bong won, since Mendes was seen as such a big favourite.

Actual nominees: Ford vs. Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Parasite
Actual winner: Parasite

As a reminder, the following movies are the ones that crossed the imaginary “this is good enough to win Best Picture” line in my mind.  Some years it’s five films, some years it’s six, some seven, there’s really no limit.  But, this year, it’s five, like an old-school Best Picture ballot before The Dark Knight gave the Academy a nervous breakdown.

1. Parasite
2. Avengers: Endgame
3. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
4. Uncut Gems
5. Waves

I touched on Waves earlier, and I touched on the front half of the end of the (or, this) Avengers saga last year when Infinity War won my Markademy Award for Best Picture.  Honestly, it really seemed like Endgame was going to make it two-for-two, especially after having one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life watching it on opening night in a packed audience of rabid Marvel fans who cheered and roared like it was a sporting event.  Endgame was the perfect way to cap off the first 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since it basically touched on every movie from those 11 years, sometimes to the literal point of entering those movies via a #TimeHeist. 

OUATIH also felt like both familiar ground and maybe the end of an era, in the sense that Tarantino’s movies usually address some similar topics.  And, this film in particular, felt like QT’s way of sending 60’s pop culture riding off into the sunset on a happy ending, sidestepping the violence of the real world with….well, ok, some movie violence, but still.  (Speaking of audience reactions during movies, DiCaprio’s panicked contribution to the big final fight scene got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in a movie theatre.)  If you believe Tarantino when he says that he’ll retire after 10 movies, OUATIH could also perhaps be interpreted as the first step in a personal sendoff, since he now has nine movies — he counts Kill Bill as one film split into two parts — under his belt.

OUATIH and Parasite are perfectly composed, and something like Endgame has to be calibrated to a literal extent due to all the CGI involved.  And while obviously a lot of thought and preparation went into Uncut Gems, the fact that it seems like it’s flying by the seat of its pants the entire time is what makes the movie such a blast.  It is one half-cocked Howard Ratner (Sandler’s character) misadventure after another, all culminating in one of the wildest climatic scenes in recent memory.  Between this and Good Time, the Safdies are quickly shooting up the ranks of my favourite directors.

And then there’s Parasite.  The Academy’s Best Picture and the Markademy’s Best Picture don’t often coincide because AMPAS usually makes some terrible choices (whereas my track record is, ahem, spotless!) but was Parasite ever a home run choice in 2019.  Just when it seemed like the Thanos that was 1917 seemed inevitable, there wasn’t anything behind Sam Mendes’ one-take finger-snap, leaving Parasite to complete its iron man run of critical acclaim that began back at the Cannes Festival. 

Parasite became the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, a distinction that many felt should have been Roma’s to win last year (especially in comparison to the mediocre Green Book).  Roma, however, had just too many hurdles — beyond the language barrier, it was also a Netflix movie, slow-moving, shot in black-and-white, and very high on the “insists upon itself” scale.

By contrast, Parasite is a movie for the here and now (quite literally, in that Parasite and Birdman are the only Best Pictures of the last 11 years to be set entirely in the present day) that speaks directly to the issues of 2019, yet since the issues of class warfare are timeless, I feel like this film is going to age very well.  I think Parasite was just so obviously and uniquely great that it was too much for Oscar voters to ignore, and it probably helped that Roma got close enough last year that the Academy was willing to take one more step and award a foreign-language movie the top prize.  The direct comparison to Roma is kind of amusing, considering how Roma is all about how the saintly housekeeper fits within the family unit, and Parasite is….uh, not about that. 

This is another instance where I have to be sparing on the details, since Parasite is a) best seen without knowing anything about it, and b) a must-see movie, so I don’t want to recommend the film so highly and then spoil everything.  Perhaps just calling it a “thriller” will do, even if the suspense is only part of the overall package, and it isn’t exactly what one would think of when imagining a normal thriller.  But, in short, Parasite is the best movie of both 2019 and the last several years.  You can’t spell “a masterpiece” without “Parasite,” and if that half-assed anagram doesn’t sell you on the film, nothing will.

Here are the rest of the movies that made my notables list:

6. Knives Out
7. Little Women
8. The Farewell
9. Jojo Rabbit
10. Spider-Man: Far From Home
11. Booksmart
12. Pain & Glory
13. Dolemite Is My Name
14. Queen & Slim
15 .The Last Black Man In San Francisco
16. Triple Frontier
17. 1917
18. Between Two Ferns
19. Toy Story 4
20. Rocketman
21. Always Be My Maybe
22. High-Flying Bird
23. Shazam!
24. Ford vs. Ferrari
25. Sword Of Trust
26. Blinded By The Light
27. The Two Popes
28. The Peanut Butter Falcon

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