7. Ford v Ferrari
As much of an outstanding film as Ford v Ferrari (also known as Le Mans ’66) is, its appearance in the Oscars’ yearly ballot of Best Picture nominees was perhaps this year’s most surprising inclusion.
The film, based on the real events of the American triumph of Ford over Ferrari at the famed Le Mans race of 1966, had ticked all of the Oscar-bait boxes – an all-star award-winning cast, an all-American movie, a true story narrative of triumph and tragedy – but the era in which said films were guaranteed Best Picture favourites seems to have passed, and the momentum seemed to be on the side of more youthful, less “traditional” cinema in the run-up to the announcement of the nominations.
Christian Bale and Matt Damon offer stellar work as the film’s leads and director James Mangold constructs a film that looks and feels like a high quality studio-driven drama should, so while Ford v Ferrari may not have received individual recognition for any of its central players, the quality of the piece was still very high with some of the best sound and editing in cinema for the whole year.
A surprise inclusion in the list it most certainly was, but its position at number 7 in ours is due more to the quality and challenging nature of its less safe Best Picture brethren than it is to do with any apparent lack of quality with this film as a standalone. 2019 just so happened to be a remarkable year for cinema.
Recommended for you: What ‘Le Mans 66’ Gets Right That Other Motorsport Films Did Not
Viewed as either a modern reclamation of past character-driven thrillers of the ilk of Taxi Driver or seen as an indecent ripping off of King of Comedy without much depth, Joker feels like this season’s top ranked or bottom ranked film on any Academy member’s Oscars ballot, though the reality seems to be that it belongs somewhere much more in the middle.
Joker was a remarkable comic book movie, that much is undeniable. The film took the framework of the genre and twisted it into something else, though a Best Picture nominee this certainly does not make. The assertion some critics have of this film being both shallow and dangerous is in of itself hypocritical, as is the notion of this film being bad because it is a clear homage to the work of someone else (in this case Martin Scorsese). The same goes for audiences who equate the blending of more Oscar-normalised genres such as drama and thriller with the fantasy of comic book cinema as being inherently Oscar-worthy – a film like Joker may be spectacular in the microcosm of its genre, but that doesn’t make it an otherworldly, best-of-all-time movie.
Undeniably, Joker broke boundaries and changed the fabric of what we consider to be “mainstream”, and the performance of Joaquin Phoenix is one of the strongest of the year – as is the score of Hildur Guðnadóttir – but many of the film’s major themes are very on the nose and the ambiguity of its political/ideological position seems as much to do with oversight as it does with being in conjunction with the characterisation of its protagonist.
The debates surrounding this Best Picture nominee don’t look set to go away anytime soon, perhaps the biggest compliment a challenging film such as this can be afforded, but the reality of Joker as a piece of art is that it will forever be important but shouldn’t be considered the best film of the year.
5. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach has long been a filmmaker of significant critical acclaim, and in Netflix he has found a distribution partner willing to push his work to the top of the For Your Consideration lists of every Academy voter, the result being his first Best Picture nomination.
The screenwriter-director of typically New York pictures was able to mould his semi-autobiographical feature around two young, awards-fashionable and marketable names (which certainly didn’t harm the campaign for this film either), but to see Marriage Story as a mere Oscar-baiting piece of cinema would be to do it a great disservice, for this film is packed with layer after layer of emotion and profound humanity.
The great power in Marriage Story comes from how Baumbach and his collaborators bring the themes of the piece together through their various contributions, increasing the power of the incredibly strong (and Oscar-nominated) written word with their input time and time again.
This is very much a screenwriter-director-actor movie that on the surface provides little by the way of spectacle (the kind of thing you’d put in a video package), but does offer a mature, deep and philosophical drama of the highest quality; a deserving inclusion in the Best Picture race and the movie in this edition of ranked that indicates a significant shift towards this year’s brightest and best.
4. Little Women
Greta Gerwig had worked for over a decade in front of and behind the camera before landing the role of screenwriter-director for the latest silver screen iteration of Little Women, and the filmmaker’s experience was certainly evident in this adaptation, the 2019 film being well written and intricately constructed as well as feeling young, fresh and relatively contemporary (for a 19th century novel adaptation), just as Gerwig has felt to Hollywood in recent years.
The relatively young director, who received both an Original Screenplay and Best Director nomination in 2018 for her work on the semi-autobiographical coming of age drama Lady Bird, placed the timeless aspects of the female experience at the forefront of her adaptation, handling each character with the same tenderness and care as Louisa May Alcott managed to do in her novels. The result was one of a perfectly tuned love letter to womanhood filled with a genuine sense of intimacy that was relateable across genders, demographics and nationalities.
Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh were particularly laudable for their performances, but the sense that every cast member was pulling in the same direction ensured that everyone was at the top of their game, career veterans such as Chris Cooper, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep each contributing their own qualities to the film, while those behind it were knowledgeable enough and talented enough to create a genuinely marvellous period drama for the contemporary space.
Were it not for three career-high, decade-topping films elsewhere in this year’s Best Picture nominees list, Gerwig’s Little Women would almost certainly by the frontrunner to win this award.
Recommended for you: Greta Gerwig – The Essential Collection