Great movies always speak directly to the here and now regardless of their actual settings. Taken together, six of 2019’s best-picture nominees manage to survey still-potent American themes across the span of the past century and a half.
“Little Women” is set during the Civil War, and while the adaptation, like Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, takes place far from those bloody battlegrounds, writer-director Greta Gerwig wants us to remember that all women were struggling for their own agency back then — and that the struggle continues on to this day. Most film versions of the Alcott classic, including a 1933 best picture nominee, fade in on a snow-covered country home and the four March girls’ readiness for Christmas. Gerwig’s “Little Women” fades in on a bustling city street, and an older Jo March’s readiness to play hardball with a (male) publisher. The filmmaker is signaling an interest in expanding the inquiry into personal fulfillment that she began with “Lady Bird,” to draw keen connections between obstacles to women artists in the distant past and those today.
Downshift and fast-forward a century to 1966 and “Ford v Ferrari” recognizes the role of big business in our nation’s dominating force around the world throughout the 1900s — and, come to think of it, founder Henry Ford’s association with the term “American century.” James Mangold’s racing thriller critiques the mania to establish brand ID and crush competitors at any cost, especially those of the smug, out-of-touch Old World. The personal story of men risking everything — life, family, reputation — for the sake of career brings out the essential conflict between Ferrari management’s complacency, and Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby’s ballsy innovation. Critical 21st century economic phenomena, such as international trade wars and internet-fueled entrepreneurship, aren’t far from Mangold’s mind. Nor should they be from the viewer’s.
The very title of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” implies a fairytale La La Land circa 1969, but this is no dewy-eyed stroll through a movie tchotchke store. Everything that plagues its characters hangs over industry types today. A star’s dread of aging and marginalization. A secondary player’s low income and lower status. The exploitation of this year’s blonde. The peril from enraged have-nots and nutjobs hanging over the privileged.
“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” as Simone Signoret titled her autobiography; romanticizing the past isn’t going to help us much when we’re still suffering from the same diseases. Small wonder Tarantino winds it all up with an alternative-reality take on a genuine L.A.-based tragedy. The good win out. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Martin Scorsese’s epic “The Irishman” is also fixed on the past, but not the glory street crime days of “GoodFellas” or the Vegas boom of “Casino.” Instead, old men who’ve spent their time on earth betraying and murdering, without apparent consequences, look back and realize the existential emptiness of it all. In a telling moment in Scorsese’s “The Departed,” a ruthless, amoral mob boss wonders how some guy’s ma is doing. “Oh, I’m afraid she’s on her way out.”
“We all are,” the kingpin sagely replies. “Act accordingly.”
Too bad the decrepit Irishman Frank Sheeran, now on his way out, never acted accordingly — never realized that if you want to wind up in a state of grace, you have to live in one. It’s not too late for the rest of us, however.
The dystopia of Todd Phillips’ “Joker” perfectly captures the grimy reality of New York, aka Gotham, in the 1980s. But it recognizes Arthur Fleck as a casualty of our time, as much as (and maybe more than) his own. The movie understands that some psychic wounds never heal, particularly for those less well-off or less capable on whom society has turned its back. In a meeting with the social worker who will shortly be forced to dump him, Arthur inquires, “Is it me, or is it getting crazier out there?” When people become disconnected from their institutions and those who love them — when they’re left to themselves to be pummeled by impossible, mass media-fueled fantasies of power and affluence — the only proper response is, “Both, Arthur. Both.”
On the surface, plenty of healing seems to have happened by the time we arrive at the present-day “Marriage Story,” whose nice, privileged people live in comfortable digs and wear fashionable clothes and seek balance between career and family. But of course it’s all an illusion, as Noah Baumbach is out to expose the stresses and fault lines threatening a relationship’s stability. Some of them are quite modern: people’s inability to communicate either with or through their attorneys, for instance. But others resonate as more universal: one spouse’s fear of change, the other’s fear of failure; the difficulties when a couple tries to work on projects together; the strains on a child when parents stop seeing eye to eye.
Nicole is struggling to express herself on her own terms, without continually sublimating her wishes for a man’s vision. What is the price of agency for these women? Or for Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman,” for that matter? These are conflicts, like those in all the best picture contenders, that life never really resolves.