Longtime readers of this column know that in the Kingdom of Ericksonia, the Oscars are always right because I’m the one who hands them out. Whereas in the so-called real world, Kevin Costner has won more directing Oscars than Welles, Hawks, Fellini, Kurosawa, Buñuel, and Truffaut combined; in Ericksonia, such injustices have been accounted for—so if Kevin’s head is posted on a spike at the city gates, it’s nothing personal and just part of an overall reckoning. In Ericksonia, Stanley Kubrick got an Oscar for directing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alfred Hitchcock got one for Vertigo, and Barbara Stanwyck got hers for Double Indemnity and Cary Grant got his for His Girl Friday. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona won best picture of 1966, when, inexplicably, Hollywood didn’t even nominate it for best foreign film, and David Lynch’s Lost Highway beat out some snoozer called Titanic.
But more recently the parallel universes have started to overlap. This is because the Oscars have gotten better, with prizes going to Moonlight, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker, and No Country for Old Men, movies that never would have been in contention 20 years ago let alone 50 or 60. Dictatorial habits die hard, however, so this doddering old king still wanders his empty palace, pronouncing choices to anyone in earshot.
Editing: The Irishman
That this three-hour biopic of the man who reputedly assassinated union boss Jimmy Hoffa is an overrated disappointment shouldn’t obscure the achievement of Thelma Schoonmaker, one of the greatest of all film editors and the winner of three previous Oscars who deserves a fourth. Schoonmaker deftly conducts the orchestration of a life, interweaving its swirling circles of memory while always keeping us in the loop.
Cinematography and Art Direction: 1917
These two categories don’t necessarily go together, but they’re inextricably tied in Sam Mendes’s World War I epic, which unfolds in real time and continuous motion across what appears to be a single battlefield that was actually shot in a half dozen different locations. Living cinematography legend Roger Deakins’s feat is so bravura that it risks upstaging everything else about the picture. Honorable mentions are the often magical Atlantics and Terrence Malick’s typically ravishing A Hidden Life.
Adapted Screenplay: Little Women
Who needed yet another version of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel about four sisters growing up after the Civil War when, over the last 100 years, we’ve already had a couple dozen movies, plays, operas, radio broadcasts, and TV shows on the subject? Turns out we did, as writer-director Greta Gerwig makes the classic story both feminist and romantic, a compassionate examination of hard choices and false ones that is faithful to the source with just a dollop of meta.
Original Screenplay: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino rides again, this time in a convertible down the Sunset Strip through a mythic ’60s that is really a mash-up of three or four different decades. Tarantino’s best film since Kill Bill is a time capsule unto itself, released at the end of a high-velocity summer and casting an ever-growing shadow as the year went on.
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I tried to avoid what seems so suspiciously like a lifetime achievement award in disguise, and it’s tempting to choose Taika Waititi’s Adolf Hitler in Jojo Rabbit because that way we can acknowledge Waititi’s writing and direction as well, which would be cheating for a good cause but still cheating. But I decided Pitt deserves this because he’s the essence of a terrific movie that makes a hero of the sidekick, the also-ran, the best friend, and the only character in the story that has a clue who he is.
Best Actress and Supporting Actress: Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie,
This story of Fox News’s women taking on sexual harassment in their own organization—while insisting they’re by no means “feminists,” God forbid—manages to barely ask let alone answer how it is that some people have to experience something firsthand before they grow an empathy gene. But broadcasting superstar Megyn Kelly can only hope she’s worthy of Theron’s uncanny portrayal, and coming off her turn as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time, Robbie is the film’s soul, the Everywoman whom Fox tries to turn into Everybarbie. We also shouldn’t let go unnoted the increasingly inevitable Lupita Nyong’o in Us, superstar of the future Cynthia Erivo in Harriet, and particularly Scarlett Johansson, who had some kind of year, appearing in the biggest movie ever (Avengers: Endgame) and superbly playing two very different moms in Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story.
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
To Joaquin or not to Joaquin? That’s the question before the motion picture academy, which for more than two decades has been trying to dodge this perplexing actor’s ever confounding path through startling performances in Gladiator, Walk the Line, The Master, Her, and You Were Never Really Here. But as an afflicted sad sack turned sociopath in the controversial and divisive Joker, he can no longer be denied: Nothing else was in his league this year, not even fine work by Antonio Banderas as the gracefully if fitfully aging gay director in Pain and Glory, Eddie Murphy as a cult comic turned auteur in Dolemite Is My Name, and Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins embodying a Catholic church at war with itself in The Two Popes.
Director: Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
So masterfully does Bong negotiate the passages of his narrative labyrinth that it’s only later that we realize how many moving parts there are, including—not to give too much away in the math—three family units in a standoff where each exploits the others, two homes of very different status, weaponized magic rocks and lights flickering in code, a flood of sewage unleashed by a fateful downpour, and a birthday party that blows out more than its candles. If that sounds obtuse, good: The less you know about Parasite before seeing it, the better. And don’t let this scare you, but the director of Okja and Snowpiercer also has hidden just behind his secret door a subterranean commentary on economic class and the toxic gap between haves and have-nots. This is a close call over Malick, writer-director of…
Best Picture: A Hidden Life
The real-world Oscars have an unfortunate tendency to reward self-important films in this category, rather than more-enduring populist choices: 1982’s Gandhi over E.T. is the classic example. But sometimes the moment demands nothing less than a statement. We shouldn’t be too glib in our comparisons of what’s going now in this country to what went on in Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s because it cheapens the truth and its consequences; but then cheapening the truth and its consequences is the unfortunate commonality between those in charge of ’30s fascism and those now laying assault to our battered democracy.
That A Hidden Life is a Terrence Malick picture will be equally obvious to fans and detractors, but here the strobe-light editing and pastoral ambience are in service of a true story like nothing Malick has told before: that of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a lonely dissident who wouldn’t swear loyalty to Hitler even as his refusal bore no evidence of changing anything. One of the viewer’s agonies is how we keep trying to find a way out for him, how we keep trying to get him off the hook that he won’t let himself off, when a mere signature will save his life. Even as none of us can imagine this kind of courage or conviction even in these days when there’s so little of it, the grace of Malick’s depiction forgives us anyway. Would I rather watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood again? Yeah, I would. But in a year when—the implied subversions of Joker, Bombshell, and Parasite aside—few other big movies had implications for our current predicament, A Hidden Life plays like a manifesto albeit in Malick’s hushed cacophony of murmurs, collapses of sense before the majesty of an MIA god, and dread rising up from beneath the rapture.