Oscar Gold 2020 – Best Picture

We come to it at last. Twenty-four days straight, no breaks, one category after another. And now, there’s just one more to go, the big one, Best Picture.

Now, because I cannot just let things be easy, I have a completely convoluted process for determining my rankings in this field. This is for two reasons. First and foremost, because Best Picture goes to the film’s producers, it helps to think of the award as not just the film you like best, but as the best overall production, including all aspects of the process. Secondly, unlike every other category, Best Picture is determined through ranked choice voting, which makes sense, because we have more than five nominees, so a majority is by nature unlikely, and in such a wide field, any number of entries could lay claim to the prize, and voters can easily like more than one movie in the set.

For those unaware, ranked choice is an ideal system for a field this size. In every other category, whatever film or individual gets the most votes wins. It’s a clean process. You have five choices, you vote for one, most votes gets the trophy. Even with five nominees, you’ll almost always get a clear plurality if not a pure majority, and in the cases where you get a close vote at the top, those two are still getting a huge share of the vote, so it feels cut and dry. With Best Picture, however, say there are 10,000 votes to go around for nine nominees. If you get 1,500 for the winner and 1,490 for second place, that won’t feel like an actual consensus, because it wouldn’t even account for a third of the overall voting group. It just wouldn’t feel right. It would feel like there’s an asterisk over the whole process.

So that’s why we have ranked choice. On the Academy voter’s ballot, in the other 23 categories, you simply pick a winner. In Best Picture, you’re only required to pick a winner for the ballot to be accepted, but the intent is that you rank all nominees top to bottom, so that if your preferred top choice doesn’t make it, your vote for second or third can be allocated. Or, the reverse can happen. Your favorite may get the most votes, but not enough for a majority, so other people ranking it second, third, fourth, etc. can push your pick over the top and get the win.

Here’s basically how it works. Let’s use 10,000 as the sample number again (actual Academy membership is closer to three times this, but for the sake of argument let’s go with this). Everybody ranks all nine nominees. Say, Joker gets the most first place votes, but only gets about 3,000 or so, well short of a majority of 5,000. It has the lead, but not a consensus. And given how polarizing the movie is, it’s very likely that it gets just as many last place votes as first. Meanwhile, once all the votes are in, Little Women only has about 150 first place votes, and is in last place. Under the ranked choice system, Little Women would then be eliminated from consideration. The 150 people who ranked it first would now have their second place choice count towards the totals of the other films.

So, say Joker has 3,000 first place votes, just ahead of Ford v Ferrari with 2,500. Of the 150 votes for Little Women, 75 are for Ford v Ferrari, 45 are for Parasite, and 30 are for 1917. Each of those movies then add those to their total. Ford v Ferrari now has 2,575 first place votes, creeping closer to Joker. We still don’t have a majority, so now eighth place is eliminated, and their second and third choice votes are redistributed among the other seven. We keep going until there’s a majority, and therefore a winner. It’s like the Iowa Caucuses, except there’s a set of rules everyone can follow, all choices are entered at the beginning, and the entire process isn’t inherently incompetent.

I really like this system, because the end goal is a winner we can basically all agree on, even if we don’t agree. It’s consensus, it’s compromise. And it still leaves the door open for an overwhelming favorite to just get a pure majority right from the off and take the whole thing.

So with all that in mind, let’s get to the nominees, and my own process for determining my rankings. Because I believe in the best production side of things, I’m continuing a process I started last year. I have my own personal preferences for each film, based on how much I enjoyed it in the moment, and while that’s relevant, it can’t be the sole determining factor. For the record, here’s how I rank the nominees on pure enjoyment, based on the grades I handed out when I first saw them. In parentheses, I put where they rank overall out of the 139 films I saw for 2019:

  1. Parasite (1)
  2. The Irishman (4)
  3. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (7)
  4. Little Women (8)
  5. Joker (18)
  6. Jojo Rabbit (32)
  7. Marriage Story (37)
  8. 1917 (39)
  9. Ford v Ferrari (92)

Based solely on that, I can make my choice if I ever got an actual Academy vote, but that’s just personal enjoyment. And while I certainly wouldn’t have nominated Ford v Ferrari for Best Picture, its overall ranking of 92 is a bit of a weighted grade, as I saw mostly good movies last year. It’s ranked 92, but I still gave it a “B” grade. It’s good, just not great, and certainly not Best Picture great.

But again, I may be missing something important. If I’m judging the overall production values, I have to admit that Ford v Ferrari has some pretty high quality, especially from a technical aspect as well as the lead performances. So maybe it’s still on the whole worthy of consideration. That’s why I have my Oscar Gold Rush System (patent pending).

The way I see it, there are six major areas to consider when it comes to the grand production. These are also the six areas that the Oscars themselves consider: Acting, Directing, Writing, Artistic Elements, Technical Elements, and Music. You can argue that Music goes under artistic, but it’s mostly added in post, which would lend it more to the technical side, but music is more artistic than technical, so rather than paint myself into a semantic corner, I just made it its own thing.

I take each of these factors, and rank each movie from top to bottom, giving them a score of 9-1 accordingly. In some areas, like the technical stuff, nominations in Oscar categories earn it some points, but in the end I simply rank them on what I remember standing out. Once I do that, I then weigh the areas based on their overall importance to the success of the film. In that vain, Acting counts three times, Directing and Writing each count twice, and the other three areas each count just once. Finally, I tabulate each film’s score in this system, giving them a rank based on that final tally. In the case of nine nominees, the top possible score is 90 if a film ranks first across the board.

So with all that in mind, here are the final rankings of this Oscar Season. No need for alphabetical order, as we’ve gone through all of these films multiple times by now.

This year’s nominees for Best Picture are:

9. Ford v Ferrari – Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, and James Mangold
Total Score: 24/90

There’s a lot to enjoy about this film. There are some stunning visuals, crisp editing, and the sound design is on point. Matt Damon does an admirable job as Carroll Shelby, and Christian Bale is fun as Ken Miles, though if you recall the behind-the-scenes recordings of him melting down on the Terminator set, he’s really just playing himself.

But while the film is a nice distraction, it’s basically just a run-of-the-mill dad film that essentially boils down to a dick measuring contest between two billionaires. The movie has nothing to do with the history of the titular automakers, or anything of value that could be paralleled to today’s world. It’s just a race, and a pointless race at that. This movie is all about the wounded pride of rich assholes. We have enough of that in the news every day. This movie will get plenty of rotation on FX and USA networks over the next few decades for you to nap to on a Sunday afternoon when there’s no football on, so arguably it’ll endure more than some of the other films on this list, but that’s about it.

8. 1917 – Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, and Callum McDougal
Total Score: 33/90

From a technical standpoint, this is the best film of the year. Sam Mendes is likely to win his second Best Director Oscar for coordinating an occasionally thrilling wartime epic using the one-shot format that won Birdman the top prize five years ago.

But in all honesty, I think we’ve all been too swept up by hype. This may very well win Best Picture on account of it winning most, if not all, of the technical categories, but apart from that there’s not much there. This really doesn’t add to the pantheon of great war movies, or even great World War I movies. Hell, Kirk Douglas died yesterday. You want to see a great WWI flick? Watch him in Paths of Glory.

This movie is technically superlative, but that’s about it. There aren’t too many artistic elements to highlight, the acting is passable at best, and while it’s nominated for Original Screenplay, the story is really just the most stressful letter delivery of all time. And in the grand scheme of the Great War, this mission to save 1,600 lives sounds noble, but most likely, if this event were real, every single one of those men would have died within a month anyway. The English army lost 700,000 men in that war. Most likely every single person there was walking around dead and just didn’t know it, so what real good did Blake and Schofield’s mission really serve, other than having the irony of Tommen Baratheon and Robb Stark play brothers?

This is a really good film, and worthy of Best Picture consideration, but it would not get my vote to win.

7. Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach and David Heyman
Total Score: 36/90

On the flip side of the equation we have Marriage Story. Based on Oscar nominations, it’s arguably the best acted film of the year, with very strong writing. But from the other technical and artistic aspects, there’s not much to report. In fact, it’s the only Best Picture nominee to not get a single nomination in any of the artistic or technical categories.

Now, you don’t necessarily need those elements to make a great movie, which is why acting alone is worth all three below-the-line elements in my system. But if you’re going to rely entirely on your cast, they’d better be stellar. Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, and Laura Dern do great jobs, but the rest of the cast is sort of meh. And while Noah Baumbach does a good job writing and directing this modern-day take on Kramer vs. Kramer, it’s really just a thinly-veiled retelling of his own nasty divorce. And if you’re going to go autobiographical, then just do that. Otherwise, like Pain and Glory, you risk coming off as self-serving.

Still, as much as I hated Kramer vs. Kramer, I didn’t hate this. That movie always left a bad taste in my mouth because a selfish person decided to ruin a man’s life and take a child away from his father just because. At least here, both Charlie and Nicole have their own agency and justifiable resentments towards one another, and really it’s the lawyers doing all the dirty work. It’s all the more reason to get a goddamn pre-nup if I ever get married, but this was a lot more palatable than the previous divorce movie that got Best Picture.

6. Joker – Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Total Score: 37/90

Joaquin Phoenix is about to finally win an Oscar, and deservedly so, for giving us a somewhat unique take on one of the greatest villains of all time. The score is strong, the lead performance otherworldly. There are great artistic elements as well, including Makeup, Production Design, and Costuming.

So why is it barely in the top two thirds? Because as great as the movie is, I’ve already seen it twice before, when it was called Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I like this story. I really do. But it’s a ripoff. And in my mind, that immediately disqualifies it for the top prize. Todd Phillips doesn’t get to win Best Director when he’s copying Martin Scorsese, who’s nominated alongside him. You don’t get to win for Adapted Screenplay when you’re more adapting two previous movies instead of the DC Comics source material. Granted, there’s no official origin story for the Joker, but that means you’ve got carte blanche to make something up as long as it’s true to the character. Instead, Todd Phillips opted for a Scorsese homage. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as far as Best Picture is concerned, it’s a cheat. I treat this movie like I think of Tom Brady. No matter what metrics you hand me about all his records, the fact of the matter is he cheated, and when you decide to cheat, you forfeit any claim you might have had to calling yourself “the greatest.” Simple as that.

5. Jojo Rabbit – Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi, and Chelsea Winstanley
Total Score: 48/90

Is this the greatest satire of all time? Of course not. In fact, it’s wildly over the top and obvious. But the problem is, we live in a time where we have to be over the top and obvious. We live in a country that 75 years ago fought to save the world from Nazis and fascism, and now we have a fascist running the country telling us that there are “very fine people on both sides” when Nazis openly march in the streets and kill people. It’s a sad sign of the world we live in. We need obvious points like, “Love good, Nazis bad!” because that’s how far we’ve regressed as a society.

Breaking down the various aspects of the film, the acting is very strong, particularly from Scarlett Johansson – in the better of her two nominated roles – Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, and of course, Taika Waititi himself as the most hilarious version of Adolf Hitler imaginable. The production and costume designs are creative and inspired. The music is fantastic, converting a catalog soundtrack into German-translated pop rock. The script is delightfully warm and funny. In the old Best Picture system, this film would almost assuredly not even get nominated, because the Academy on the whole hates comedy, but if I had my druthers, it would make the final five.

4. The Irishman – Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Total Score: 58/90

Remember how I said Joker was a Scorsese ripoff? Apparently it’s so much of a ripoff that Emma Koskoff felt the need to produce both it and the actual Scorsese movie on this list!

Anyhoo, this is a classic Scorsese throwback, from the themes to the scenery to the cast itself, as he reunites all the greats of mafia cinema for what one would assume is one last hurrah of the subgenre. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci all give performances that will go down as being among the best of their storied careers. Scorsese pulls out all his regular tricks in camera work, sound and lighting design, and storytelling to great effect.

The really impressive part is the story, that never really drags despite it being over three hours long. It’s hard to maintain attention for that long, even on Netflix where you can pause at your discretion. The only part of the film that makes you notice the run time is the ending, and that’s because there are so many points where the film could logically conclude that each time you wonder if it’s a fakeout. But that is the most minor of flaws in what is otherwise a magnum opus for all involved.

3. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood – David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, and Quentin Tarantino
Total Score: 66/90

Hey look, it’s David Heyman again. Emma Koskoff gets two Scorsese stories, and David Heyman gets two L.A. stories. Weird how that works out.

Anyway, Tarantino’s 9th film (of a planned 10 before he retires), is arguably his most personal, as it’s not only a love letter to Hollywood and the Hollywood system, but also a longing, a wistful bit of nostalgia for the ways of old as he joins the older generation of greats and approaches his own obsolescence. Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie lead an all-star cast that also includes Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, and a Dakota Fanning who is for once tolerable. In fact, there’s a lot of crossover in the casts of all these films, I’ve noticed. While the Academy basically says through it’s nominations that Marriage Story is the best acted film of the year, for me this has a stronger cast.

The story and setup are vintage Tarantino, with a self-reflexive look at an old school actor at the twilight of his career looking for one last shot at the big time. At the same time, an unsung anti-hero who may or may not be a murderer scrapes by the best living he can off of coattails. And then you have the third major converging story, of a promising ingenue who in real life met a gruesome and tragic end, but in QT’s leitmotif of revisionist history, gets the happily ever after she deserved, coupled with some hilariously gratuitous violence just a stone’s throw away. This film represents the best and worst of Hollywood sentimentality, presented through the most loving and forgiving lens in the industry, and it works to tremendous effect from beginning to end, thanks to strong acting, a great script, deft camera work, and some amazing artistic elements.

2. Parasite – Kwak Sin-ae and Bong Joon-ho
Total Score: 72/90

God, what can I say about this film that I haven’t already? A stellar cast. Two major sets that establish the class war better than any film in recent memory. Bong Joon-ho’s savant-like ability to play with genre conventions and switch them on a dime, subverting all expectations and ability to predict outcomes. A haunting score. Clever dialogue. This movie has it all.

So why is it only second? Because while it’s certainly the most well-rounded entry in the field, it only ranked first for me in the writing and directing. Everywhere else it ranked no higher than third. But it did so consistently well across all the various elements that it never fell off for being too top heavy. This is a movie that excelled in two key areas, getting top marks for 40% of the equation. For the other 60% it ranked in the middle, which is enough to say that it would be a great consensus pick to win if the voting goes to a second or third round in ranked choice. I almost elevated it to the top spot by giving it an X-Factor bonus for being the first South Korean film nominated for International Feature, but that would have felt dishonest, as no other movie would have been eligible for it. It’s my favorite film of 2019, but based on the scores, it falls just shy, behind one other true gem.

1. Little Women – Amy Pascal
Total Score: 75/90

With one exception – that being technical elements – Little Women ranked in the top four for every section of this equation, and in the top two in four of them. Greta Gerwig’s delightful, joyous masterpiece has arguably the strongest cast, and one led by women with strong supporting men at that, similar to my pick last year, The Favourite. It’s so hard to find great movies that feature women at the forefront, but this film succeeds in spades.

Not only are the four March girls incredibly talented with tremendous interpersonal chemistry, but the script is probably the best adaptation of Lousia May Alcott’s novel ever put to the screen, and with Greta Gerwig’s unparalleled skill in dealing with character, the combination was nothing short of immaculate. Saoirse Ronan further cements her place among the great actresses of our time. Emma Watson steps away from Hermione Granger’s shadow at long last. Florence Pugh, who gave a spectacular performance earlier in 2019 with the overlooked Midsommar, finally has the breakout she’s deserved for quite some time. Even Timothée Chalamet shines as Laurie, a character that you can either love, hate, or love to hate depending on how you read the book or see the film. But no matter your feeling on the character, you have to admit Chalamet plays him perfectly.

From a musical standpoint, Alexandre Desplat’s score is utterly delightful with its fast-paced piano leading the way. Artistically, the costume and set designs are simply stunning. Every piece of clothing is precisely tuned to the appropriate character.

But really, this all comes down to Gerwig. She understands character motivations better than just about any writer/director/actress working today. More than any other filmmaker out there, she truly gets who she’s working with, and where they should go. She has a unique perspective that shows just how valuable women are to society and in great storytelling, but it’s all about the story driving the action, rather than the cynical Hollywood motif of just shoving ladies into the spotlight for profit. Gerwig shows us how beautiful and powerful women are by letting them be beautiful and powerful, rather than just asserting it and then dropping a turd in the punch bowl.

It’s kind of funny that she’s going up against her boyfriend, Noah Baumbach, in this category. It’ll be interesting to see who gets to have bragging rights when it’s all said and done. I can certainly in my own head bank on at least one award for each film when Sunday comes, but if I had my way, she’d have the ultimate win.

Next up: I’ve analyzed all 24 categories based on my personal preference, but how are things really going to shake out when the envelopes get opened on Sunday? Tune in tomorrow when I break down who will actually win the Oscars!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What are your rankings? What are your criteria? Seriously, what is a car race movie doing in this field other than bringing up the rear? Let me know!

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