Awards Season

CultureMap film critic's guide to the 9 Best Picture Oscar nominees of 2020

CultureMap critic's guide to the 9 Best Picture Oscar nominees of 2020

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Joker was nominated for 11 Oscars, the most of any film at the 2020 Academy Awards. Photo by Niko Tavernise

The nominations for the 2020 Academy Awards have been revealed, with nine films garnering nods for Best Picture. But are all of them deserving? Take a look back at what CultureMap's film critic, Alex Bentley, had to say about each of the nominees when they were originally released. The Oscars will be handed out on February 9.

The latest film from writer/director Sam Mendes (nominated for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) immediately struck me as an all-time war movie thanks to the strength of its story and the storytelling choices it made. Making the movie look like it was done in one shot was much more than just a gimmick, thanks to the verisimilitude of the Oscar-nominated production design, the Oscar-nominated score from Thomas Newman, the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Roger Deakins, and the performances of the two compelling lead actors. It was my No. 1 movie of the year and of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, and with 10 overall nominations, it looks like the Academy may agree.

Ford v Ferrari
On a purely storytelling front, Ford v Ferrari could have been better, delving into more specifics for those of us who aren’t intimately familiar with the history of the story the movie tells. But the performances of the stacked cast, led by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, and the intensity of the various racing scenes is more than enough to make up for that lack. With the film only nominated for three other technical categories, though, don't expect it to make much of an impact during the awards.

The Irishman
Martin Scorsese (nominated for Best Director) has been making movies so long that he’s been counted out multiple times before roaring back and showing how capable he truly is. The vaunted de-aging technology used on Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino is hit-and-miss, but the talent of each shines through. While perhaps a step below his other classic films, mostly because of its length, The Irishman shows that the master filmmaker still knows how to deliver a crackerjack story. The film also has 10 overall nominations, including both Pesci and Pacino for Best Supporting Actor.

Jojo Rabbit
I was not able to review this film upon release, and it's one of the more divisive films to be nominated for Best Picture, only notching a 57 on Metacritic and 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. That's likely because the the tone of the "anti-hate satire" was difficult to understand for many, featuring a story set in Nazi Germany and writer/director Taiki Waititi as Adolf Hitler. But it seems to have a struck a chord with the Academy, garnering six nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for Scarlett Johansson and Best Original Screenplay for Waititi.

There are many who have praised the grittiness of this DC movie and the now Oscar-nominated performance by Joaquin Phoenix. I did not find the experience quite as exhilarating. Although it has some of the hallmarks of a mainstream movie, there’s little that’s entertaining about Joker. Phoenix’s version of the character is uncomfortable, to say the least, and the act wears thin the more the movie goes along. The Academy disagrees with me, though, as the film received the most Oscar nominations this year, 11, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Cinematography.

Little Women
Most people who choose to see Little Women will already be intimately familiar with the story, but if you're not, writer/director Greta Gerwig does you no favors. She mixes up the order of the story, dulling the impact of some emotional high points. Still, the performances of Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh (both nominated for Oscars), and others are fantastic, and Gerwig's storytelling method pays dividends in the end. Although Gerwig was passed up for a Best Director nomination (as were all female directors), she did nab a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, with the film receiving six nominations overall.

Marriage Story
This film is not about a marriage, but rather the dissolution of one. Writer/director Noah Baumbach (nominated for Best Original Screenplay) goes into excruciating and heartbreaking detail about the months-long progression of finalizing the divorce of the two main characters. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give career-best performances (both are nominated, giving Johansson the rare double acting nomination), and they're supported extremely well by Laura Dern (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and others. Baumbach has finally made a movie that can be appreciated by most moviegoers without sacrificing quality or toning down his acerbic nature. 

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Another film I was not able to review upon release, it's also the only film nominated for Best Picture that I have seen three times. A different kind of film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino (nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay), it's a fantastic tribute to late 1960s Los Angeles, fading movie stars, and the spirit of Sharon Tate. It also features two more outstanding performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, both of whom are nominated. The film, nominated for 10 Oscars overall, turns to Tarantino's typical ultra-violence in the end, but the clever way in which it's done and the cathartic nature of the scene makes it unforgettable.

Just like 2018's RomaParasite is a foreign language film that is so good it demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. It has the veneer of a thriller, but takes on a variety of social issues with an insight and clarity that few other films can match. It's a master class in storytelling by South Korean writer/director Bong Joon Ho (nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay), providing one of the finest examples of how to entertain the masses while still telling a deep and meaningful story. With six total nominations, it stands as much a chance as any other film to take home the big prize.

Get Tickets