So what explains my unshakable case of the blahs?
It’s not that I don’t admire the films that will be competing for the biggest prizes on Sunday night: Of the best picture nominees, I thoroughly enjoyed “Ford v Ferrari,” admired “Marriage Story” and found “Jojo Rabbit” delightful and surprisingly affecting. And I adored “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig’s incisive, rambunctious, handsomely produced adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, which manages to retain the book’s distinctive vernacular while making a movie that’s completely her own.
But when it comes to the front-runners — which also happened to be the movies my fellow critics praised most lavishly last year — I’m either neutral, unenthusiastic or simply confounded. While reviewers and movie industry insiders have gone gaga over the tonally erratic class-conflict allegory “Parasite” or “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited — and just plain long — paean to the lures and recriminations of mob life, I’ve remained strangely indifferent.
Even as early as last summer, when Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” sent my colleagues and millions of Tarantino fans into a collective swoon with its ambered depiction of 1960s Hollywood, I stayed upright and unmoved. I wasn’t entirely impervious to its nostalgic charms: I was dazzled by its sensuous, sun-kissed lyricism, as well as Brad Pitt’s languorous, deceptively shrewd portrayal of an easygoing stunt man feeling his years. But I’ve always found Tarantino’s flights of romanticized revisionism more perplexing than meaningful or poignant, and his fetishes — from women’s feet to climactic bloodbaths — stopped being cute a long time ago.
I was even more stumped by the love for the year’s most unlikely billion-dollar blockbuster, “Joker,” which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival just days after it won the Golden Lion at Venice. Festival screenings are almost always fizzy affairs, but the Toronto premiere of “Joker” carried an added jolt of anticipation. Yet when the film finally unspooled, I didn’t react with awe or outrage or anything stronger than a shrug. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix did an extraordinary job of thoroughly committing, physically and psychically, to a role that seemed to be consuming him from the inside out — a technical feat for which he will surely win an Oscar on Sunday night. But it was in service to a film that looked less like a bold reimagining of one of pop culture’s most familiar (and weirdly loved) villains than a rehash of “Fort Apache, the Bronx” by way of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” While defenders of “Joker” extolled the film as a searing portrait of our dystopian times — and its harshest critics called it dangerous and inciting — I found it to be a hash of borrowed style and bogus self-seriousness.
I had similarly conflicted reactions to “Parasite” and “The Irishman,” both of which possess cinematic values to admire, but neither a home run. “Parasite,” from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, manages to be an intriguing, if plotty, parable about resentment, aspiration and avarice within a cruel economic hierarchy, before it devolves into a surreal Grand Guignol of hyper-stylized violence, leaving a bloody pile of glib dichotomies and muddled morals in its wake. “The Irishman” revisits some of Scorsese’s most familiar thematic and aesthetic tropes — the loyalties, betrayals and regrets of the underworld, played out in elegant tracking shots and explosive verbal takedowns — in the form of an undisciplined, repetitive, ultimately enervating road trip to nowhere. (Well, Detroit. But still.)
Taken together, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Parasite,” “Joker” and “The Irishman” often feel like a self-congratulatory circle of mutual riffs and references, with Bong quoting Tarantino, who’s quoting himself, and “Joker” director Todd Phillips quoting Scorsese, who’s quoting himself. The result is a closed circuit of cinematic quotes, nods and homages that’s far less compelling to observe from the outside.
Part of the problem, as many filmgoers recognize, is awards season itself, which increasingly crams the most daring, thoughtful, substantive and sophisticated movies into the fall and winter, resulting in a year that starves audiences for eight months and then force-feeds the good stuff all at once. “Once Upon a Time” is that rare summer film to make it to awards consideration. But as that film, “Joker,” “Parasite” and “The Irishman” assumed their favored positions in the race, I started to feel increasingly alienated — much like the vast majority of filmgoers, whose tastes for animated fantasies, superhero spectacles and Star Wars franchises have increasingly led them to tune out the Academy Awards. The twist this year is that most of the movies competing for best picture are hits, with “Joker” breaking box-office records for R-rated movies and “The Irishman” drawing more than 17 million viewers on Netflix’s site in its first five days of streaming. “Parasite,” “Little Women,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Ford v Ferrari” have also proved exceedingly popular.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the awareness that accrues from Oscar talk is “1917,” Sam Mendes’s World War I drama whose tense military mission unfolds in real time, filmed in one long, seemingly unbroken shot. Surely, I thought, this audacious exercise would jostle me out of my ennui, especially after my astonishment at Peter Jackson’s magnificent World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” last year.
I was duly impressed by the care and cinematic chops Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins deployed in “1917,” which takes viewers right into the Great War’s fetid trenches, desolate battlefields and, in a marvelous penultimate scene, the terror of battle. And lead actor George McKay, who plays a young soldier tasked with delivering a life-or-death message to the front, does a marvelous job as the audience’s proxy, persevering despite his horror at the danger, death and destruction we see through his eyes.
But even with so much technical prowess on display, I found “1917” less immersive than distancing, its visual language more akin to a first-person video game than bravura experiments such as “Rope,” “Russian Ark” and “Birdman.” Despite the specificity of its setting, much of the movie — its obstacles, ambushes, moments of reflection and oases of respite — felt generic, schematic and often laughably contrived. Like so many of the other nominees, this one left me with a good-not-great case of ennui.
That stands in stark contrast to my feelings last year, when I put Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” at the head of my annual Top 10 list. I was rooting for that movie to win, but would have been happy to have seen “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther” or “A Star Is Born” take top honors. Unlike its vociferous critics on film Twitter, I even liked “Green Book,” although I didn’t think it was the finest movie of 2019.
Actually, the fact that I didn’t hate “Green Book” made me feel like something of an outlier within a critical community that seemed obsessed with derailing it as a retrograde, patronizingly racist artifact of a bygone age. This year, I feel like an outlier on just about everything.
My favorite movie of the year was “American Factory,” Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s exquisite portrait of an Ohio car factory in the midst of disorienting technological, economic and cultural change, which I hope at least takes the award for best documentary. Although I know “Parasite” is a shoo-in for best international feature, I would love for Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain & Glory” to receive the recognition it deserves. And it’s a shame that some of the other movies I unreservedly loved last year — “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “The Farewell” and “Waves” — are barely parentheses, if they’re in the conversation at all.
Still, even if one of my least-favorite movies winds up with the big prize, there will be a bright side: Like “Roma” before it, “Parasite’s” phenomenal success symbolizes a film culture that is growing more global and far-ranging in the stories it tells; “Once Upon a Time” and “1917” come from Sony and Universal, respectively, suggesting that the big Hollywood studios are willing to invest in originality and directorial vision, not just superhero spectacles and cartoons. Should the Oscar go to “The Irishman,” a Netflix movie, that will signify yet another acknowledgment of evolution within a notoriously change-averse industry.
If one of those movies wins — and one of them surely will — I’ll find a sincere reason to cheer. I just won’t be whooping.