Will love and mercy prevail again this year, or will one of the season’s darker offerings take home the ultimate prize? Last year, Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” triumphed, its period story about a friendship that blossoms between a boisterous white bigot and a black, highly educated classical musician an unlikely balm at a time of rising racism and homophobia in America. It prevailed against contenders including Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” a memoir exploring class tensions and a faltering marriage in Mexico.
This year’s Oscar nominees for best picture explore dark themes such as mental illness, economic inequities and revenge fantasies, their denouements ranging from bleak to hopeful. Two heavyweights are especially bleak: In “Joker,” a clown who desperately wants to succeed as a stand-up comic (Joaquin Phoenix) descends into madness in economically ravaged Gotham (acting as a stand-in for Reagan-era New York City), while a wily lower-class family worms its way into a wealthier household with deadly results in Bong Joon Ho’s mordant “Parasite,” set in Seoul but resonating far beyond. Both movies made their mark early, with “Parasite” winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Todd Phillips’ “Joker” winning the Golden Lion at Venice.
The third comic-book movie ever nominated in this category, “Joker” has grossed over $1 billion worldwide, but is undeniably divisive and could suffer for that with Oscar voters. Bong’s movie, meanwhile, shows signs it could go all the way, its groundbreaking SAG ensemble victory further underlining the possibility. If so, it will become the first non-English language movie to win the kudocast’s biggest prize. Rapturously reviewed since its Cannes debut, it has a sizable fanbase in Hollywood.
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But if either of those two movies prove too bleak or exotic for Oscar voters marking their preferential ballot, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” offers a revenge fantasy that ends on an upbeat note. An ode to Hollywood in the summer of 1969, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, both nominated, albeit split into the lead and supporting actor categories, respectively, and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. The movie won the Golden Globe in the comedy and musical category, as well as the Critics’ Choice Award, and has been picking up acting and directing kudos in the leadup to the Academy Awards. Although Tarantino did not win the DGA award — that went to “1917” director Sam Mendes over the weekend — he does have a strong following for his body of work; for all these reasons, “Once” can’t be discounted.
The characters in “1917” are literally embattled. Mendes’ drama about two British soldiers on a dangerous mission won the Globe for drama and is tied with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” for second most nominees overall, with 10 apiece. Only “Joker” has more noms (11). “1917,” shot to appear as if it the film is one continuous take, didn’t get any acting noms, but it has won the PGA award for best picture in addition to the Golden Globe for drama and a DGA prize for Mendes, who last won that honor for “American Beauty,” which scored for best picture as well. At its heart, “1917” is a story about survival.
“The Irishman” is epic — spanning decades and running more than three hours — but ultimately bleak, showing how ruinous Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) associations with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) are for his family life. So far it hasn’t scored any major precursor awards, and it’s unclear whether its length, or Netflix backing, could be a deterrent at ballot time. Notably, De Niro did not score an acting nom, though he received one for his role as producer.
Oscar voters looking for a more affirming option could gravitate toward Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” a Nazi satire with an underlying message of compassion. Waititi plays Adolf Hitler in this fantastical story about a boy whose mother (supporting actress nominee Scarlett Johansson) secretly works for the resistance; while divisive, it has disarmed many audiences since its debut at Toronto, where it won the People’s Choice Award. The last film to do that: “Green Book.”
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” has many crowd-pleasing elements, but doesn’t shy away from the economic hardships the March family faced during the Civil War or the limited resources for women at the time. The director has won kudos for re-invigorating Louisa May Alcott’s novel, originally published in 1868, and showing how much resonance those themes have for women today. But Gerwig’s decision to shuffle the book’s plot hasn’t been a hit with everyone and some may shy away from giving the latest in a series of “Little Women” adaptations the Academy’s top honor.
Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” plumbs deeply emotional territory, showing how wrenching a divorce can be even for a couple that professes to still love one another. The fights between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Johansson’s Nicole get nasty as they battle for custody of their son Henry (Azhy Robertson), but the pair ultimately finds grace.
And finally, “Ford v Ferrari” pits two fiercely independent race car drivers, portrayed by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, against the corporate suits at Ford Motor Co. Set in 1966, the true story boasts rousing racing scenes at Le Mans and enjoyable interplay between Bale and Damon’s characters. Voters that prefer traditional studio fare may give it an edge, but the odds are against its victory here.