Armchair Oscars – 2019

| May 12, 2021

Best Picture

Parasite (Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
The Nominees: Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

The Irishman (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
My Nominees: Booksmart(Olivia Wilde), The Farewell (Lulu Wang), Joker (Todd Phillips), Little Women (Greta Gerwig), Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach), Midsommer (Ari Aster), Us (Jordan Peele)


For the first time in Oscar history, a non-English speaking film was selected as the Best Picture of the Year.  Many unsuspecting patrons (myself included) walked into Bong Joon-Ho’s oddball dramedy expecting – based on the title – a pandemic drama like Outbreak or Contagion, all about how Patient Zero manages to take a deadly virus and unknowingly spread it from one continent to another creating mass chaos.

That’s . . . not quite what we have here. Or maybe in some strange way, it is.

The title refers to a group of bottom-feeding moochers who long-con their way into the lives of a wealthy family through a clever plot that . . . let’s face it, no human beings on the face of the planet could ever pull off unless the victims are blind, deaf and/or lack any sort of peripheral vision.  What comes of the film is a clever plot that is just as tightly wound as Knives Out but far trickier and far more devastating in its effects. Bong Joon-Ho oscillates between comedy, drama and one the craziest thrillers that you’ve ever seen.  Yet, underneath the clockwork plot lies a very potent statement about class warfare, and the questions of who is the real parasite. Its the kind of film that long essays will be written about, that film lovers will study and discuss among themselves. Is it fantasy? What parts are reality? What does the ending tell us?

I liked the film very much, and I appreciated the abstract and often surreal nature of Bong Joon-Ho’s scripts.  This is his specialty – removing the limits of gravity and often logical sense and using it to put together a potent film about the oppressive and devastating nature of class warfare.  Yet, I’m not as much a fan of the film as the larger audiences.  Like his previous film Snowpiercer, the film is so abstract that I found it difficult to get my feet into the action.

Even more difficult is selecting my Armchair Oscar for two-thousand nineteen.  My choices came down to two very different films, Martin Scorsese’s crime epic The Irishman and Lulu Wang’s family drama The Farewell.  Watching both films again, I almost deemed it a tie, but since Awkwafina is really the lynchpin of The Farewell, I’ll save it for Best Actress.  In the meantime, I am selecting The Irishman; first because it is a terrific film, and second because the Academy voters essentially kicked the film in the butt, offering up 10 nominations and then giving it the cold shoulder on Oscar night.  The movie deserves better, and so does Scorsese.  By giving the Best Picture Oscar to a non-English speaking film and the Best Director award to a Korean filmmaker, the Academy voters were showing that they were adapting to a more diverse culture of films, but for Martin Scorsese, the song remained the same.

Scorsese has largely been a consistent Oscar bridesmaid for the entirety of his half century of excellent filmmaking.  He has been nominated for Best Director nine times, winning only once for the mediocre crime drama The Departed.  That angers a lot of pure movie fans because Scorsese is the greatest living American filmmaker and the voters of the Academy don’t seem willing to acknowledge it.  But still, their snub gives me an opportunity to reward the film with my Armchair Oscar, so here we go.

The Irishman was special because it bookended Goodfellas in a very interesting way.  The two films live and breathe in the same territory – Italian-American mobsters in New York City – but the difference is the approach. If Goodfellas had an outlaw, wild-west spirit, then The Irishman shows the work of an older director, more patient, more thoughtful.  Probably no one under the age of 60 could have made this film.

Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” it follows the recollections of a former truck driver turned mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro) who, by course of circumstance, got himself entangled in the inner-workings of the mob and the teamsters as the two converged and then split over disagreements with the bombastic union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

But if The Irishman were just a story of mobster shenanigans it would be accused of trotting the same ground as Goodfellas and Casino.  Instead, this is a movie about the long passage of time, circumstance, interpersonal relationships within the old-world system of gangsters, and codes of honor and conduct.  Plus there is a bittersweet statement about the process of aging and the long stretch of one’s final years, leading to one of the saddest third acts that Scorsese has yet devised.

His trademarks are here, but we know that things are a little different in this film.  Narration has always been a routine addition, but in The Irishman it is a little different.  The film opens with a long tracking shot inside a retirement home wherein we find a solitary figure seated alone in his wheelchair.  This is Frank Sheeran, an elderly former gangster who tells his own story.  Who is he talking to?  At the end we see him talking to a priest but largely, I think, he is spilling his confessions to his maker.  The film is about the regrets of a man whose life has been one of violence and bloodshed buried under the convenient excuse that it was only business.

Frank’s story has been reduced by many of the film’s critics as having too much in common with Forrest Gump – a largely passive observer who tells his story to no one in particular about living a life of circumstance and his journey often backs into the critical milestones of history.  That device doesn’t sour the experience, however.  Frank was a veteran of World War II who came home and got a job as a truck driver, then through a chance meeting with mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) became a hitman, then met Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) and became a union leader.   When the mob traditions clash with Hoffa’s bravado, Frank’s loyalty is tested.  At that point, he has come to consider Hoffa a friend, but he knows that not killing him will mean his own death.

I like the way that the film backs into historical events.  They are intertwined with the narrative as we live through the events of the CIA’s war against Fidel Castro, the assassination of JFK and then the war between the mob and the teamsters in the 60s an 70s that made Hoffa one of the most famous men in America.  Frank is ringside for these events but what separates this film from baubles like Forrest Gump or Zelig is the casual way in which it backs into history.  In one of my favorite scenes, there’s an almost accidental way in which Frank just happens to be driving a truck that arrives with supplies for Operation Mongoose.

Frank turns to crime not out of desperation (or desire) but just because of the nature of the job that he has been given.  He’s not a bad man, he just does bad things because that is the tenet of the job.  The shape of a passive observer is not new to Scorsese.  Henry Hill was like that, as was Travis Bickle, Alice Hyatt and even Jesus.  They don’t make their destiny so much as bump into it and become part of the world in which the exist – basic survival in a world that will chew them up.  Frank is reactive and can talk his way in and out of a situation by seeming so casual that you believe him on general principal.  Take, for example, the moment when the boss calls him on the fact that the truck he’s been driving is empty (he’s been off-loading meat and sending it to a local mobster).  The way he reacts to the news that the truck is empty is kind of brilliant.  He isn’t defensive.  He seems to actually know nothing, and his habit of seeming to be a man of low intelligence sells the lie.  He knows what happened to the inventory, but by not trying to overexplain things, he manages to get himself out of trouble.

This passive nature saves his neck, particularly when he is called in after taking a side job that would have had him unknowingly blow up a laundry owned by Angelo Bruno (Harvey Kietel).  The meeting with Bruno says a lot about Sheeran’s character because he doesn’t wise off.  He’s honest and that’s what saves his neck.  This is his nature.  He seems content to be one of those guys in the background who does the job without question (which is how he got into the mess with the laundry).  He’s an observer, not a reactor, and that’s largely what gets him into the orbit of the louder and more ferocious Jimmy Hoffa.  Frank is window shopping on this gregarious period of the mob mixed with the unions and only comes in when he’s asked to do something.  He’s asked to act, but not think.  The problem is that Frank is a man who is always thinking even when he’s not talking, which is why he has to be cornered into eventually killing Jimmy Hoffa.

This is De Niro’s best performance in years and it reminds you of what made him a movie star to begin with.  He has always been an actor who could turn from one image to another – consider that this is the same man who could play a passive observer like Frank Sheeran but also a ferocious raging bull like Jake LaMotta.  I could say that about a lot of De Niro’s work, but in The Irishman I was surprised to find another actor who surprised me even more.

Joe Pesci has been an actor that people confidently dismiss as being one-note, as the short box of dynamite that could go off at any second, exploding in a hail of violence.  This trait won him an Oscar in 1991 playing Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas but by contrast, Russell seems to come from a different planet.  Yes, he’s still a mobster, but Russell Bufalino is a quiet man, a softer figure, a man of caution and consideration whose decisions – even those with murderous intent – seem to have been discussed and worked over and considered before being put into action.  Consider the way that he corners Frank into murdering Jimmy Hoffa.  There’s no tough guy bravado, no overriding anger.  The situation, by which Jimmy Hoffa has become a man of towering respect within the teamsters and now threatens to separate the mafia and the union business, puts him in the crosshairs.  It is clear that the mob has made many attempts to reason with Hoffa but Hoffa won’t budge, or as Russell explains to Frank, “We tried to reason with the man.”

This is the most complex and carefully crafted film of Scorsese’s career.  His gangster pictures are extraordinary because they never shy away from the repercussions of a life spent in an industry of bloodshed.  The closing passages are like nothing he has ever directed as we follow Frank through the closing years of his life, watching old friends die and failing to reconnect with a daughter that has long-since cancelled him out of her life, and the story ends on a note so uncomplicated that we almost wonder if there isn’t more that we’re not seeing.

The whole movie is like that.  I’ve seen it four times and every time is a new adventure, something new that I didn’t notice before.  It is a strange, sad journey of a man who was swept up by circumstance but got caught up in a life that ultimately left him empty and lifeless in his old age.  He’s seen all of his friends die either by violence or by nature and when the final image lands, we are left to wonder which one was better.

Best Actor

Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
The Nominees: Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood), Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
My Nominees: Robert de Niro (The Irishman), Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is My Name)

Jimmy Kimmel' Joaquin Phoenix 'Joker' Outtake Was Prank on Director

There are at least two things that will stand out when the history of early twenty-first century American cinema is written: the rise of streaming, and the massive popularity of the superhero genre.  The latter runs so hot and cold with audiences that it risks becoming bad comedy.  There are so many avenues, so many different characters, so many different tones that the genre has become a world unto itself.  But there was a noticeable split in the genre, between Disney’s clean, family friendly MCU and Warner Bros. fractured and often frustrating attempts at capturing an adult audience with the DCU.  More often then not, WB found itself with egg on its face.  The films, for the most part, were dull, lifeless and juvenile.  But during the few times that they hit the mark, they hit like a thunderbolt.  Enter: Todd Philips’ Joker.

Joker is not a difficult character to explore since there are so many moods and tones that can be presented, from Caesar Romero’s daffy clown to Jack Nicholson’s wiseass to Heath Ledger’s psycho anarchist to Jared Leto’s punk-thug wannabe, it is a field day for the actor.  And yet, even after all of that, Joaquin Phoenix still managed to take this character down a road that, cinematically, we hadn’t seen before.

Joker stands away from the linier timeline of the DCU, presenting the character more or less the way that he might be in real life, as a deeply disturbed individual, twisted by his environment and rejected by a mental health community that has thoughtlessly discarded him like an empty soda can.  What Todd Phillips presents to us is a mental illness that is unchecked, one that is dangerous to the population at large.

What I love about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is that it challenges you to decide what you think about it.  The performance – and by extension the movie – wallows in human tragedy, in the pangs of untreated mental illness and the disorganized social order that feeds a violent sociopath to bulldoze an unholy wall of destruction that it will be left to psychologists, psycho-analysist, historians and true crime addicts to unravel.  Todd Phillips is not playing to the marketing; he’s playing on a very specific note, a brave note of borrowing the dark tapestry present in the early work of Martin Scorsese (specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) and reframing them into the comic book genre’s most famous villain.

It was also a common sense move to build an origin story from scratch.  Unlike his masked adversary, Joker has such a differentiated series of origins that the public consciousness isn’t exactly cemented into a set of expected notes.  Here Joker is seen through the tragedy of Arthur Fleck a lonely, pathetic loser who is mentally ill, pushing 40, lives in a rotten tenement with his sick mother (Frances Conroy) and barely holds on to a part-time job as a sign-spinning clown. 

It doesn’t help that his environment is a hellhole of urban decay.  This is 1981 and Gotham City is in the middle of a garbage strike that local news report blames on a new plague of super-rats.  Arthur has fleeting dreams of being a stand-up comic but currently he takes little jobs like playing a clown, twirling a sign for a failing business.  As an accurate portrait of his pathetic existence, his sign is stolen by street kids who then beat him up – and THEN he is called on the carpet by his boss for not returning the sign!  Only slightly worse is the fact that his indifferent county-appointed social worker (Sharon Washington) has to cut him off due to budget cuts that are largely blamed on the machinations of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).

Based on these events and a long-running series of heartbreaks and disappointments, largely fueled by his isolation, it is difficult to mentally map out exactly where Arthur’s mania will take him (this is not a predictable movie).  Will he become a vigilante?  A mass murderer?  A stalker?  A serial killer?  Will he just sit by and watch the world burn?  It’s hard to say because Phillips’ narrative through-line is such a nicely-paced piece of controlled chaos that the movie keeps overturning your expectations.  It is nice that, for once, a comic book movie isn’t aiming to build a franchise.  Phillips just wants to give us a mentally unbalanced man who becomes a maniac and give us a sense of how his mental illness fuels his actions.

Phoenix creates Arthur, despite the terror and mayhem that unfolds, as not inherently a bad person.  He’s a dangerous person whose mental illness is left unchecked, uncared for and ultimately abandoned.  He’s a lost soul, mired in an environment of violence, apathy and despair which leaves him free to move in a lot of unhealthy directions.  All those around him seem to be unknowingly and unconsciously feeding his madness which boils up into moments of shocking violence.

Even his goals seem out of sorts.  He dreams of being a stand-up comic but given the chance, his mental condition takes over and he humiliates himself.  That culminates in a nice tribute to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy when Arthur becomes fixated on his idol, a slick, smarmy and largely talentless Carson-like talk show host named Murray Franklin (a miscast Robert De Niro).  Never-the-less, I had to laugh to myself when I realized that Arthur’s appearance on Franklin’s show wasn’t the first awkward appearance that Phoenix has made on a talk show.

Phoenix gives a brave performance, one in which he isn’t afraid to look like a jerk.  He is in every scene and to play a role like this requires a great deal of naked emotions.  I can’t imagine five other actors who would have played the role this well or taken the character to the lengths that are required.

Arthur’s wall of destruction is largely self-made but it isn’t really his fault.  The world is decaying around him as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  What no one can know is that the rotting human condition and the routine abuse that he takes are just throwing gasoline on the fire.  By virtue of being in the right place at the right time, he accidentally sparks a revolution.  The garbage strike is threatening to turn into panic in the streets and when the hammer falls, it is Arthur who is seen as its architect.  His shenanigans manage to get him a spot on Murray Franklin’s show where he commits a murder on live television that sparks the disaffected masses, who now see him as a hero, to riot in the streets.

This is not a pleasant movie to sit through It wallows in misery far beyond reason and takes some turns that seem better suited to Arthur’s fantasies then to his reality.  That’s mostly in the third act in which I thought that Phillips script made some choices that were executed largely because he couldn’t nail down an ending.  Plus, the ending scene keeps us wondering if the whole thing hadn’t taken place inside Arthur’s imagination.  Did it?  I’m not exactly sure.  If the movie had made it a little more clear that this was a fantasy, I think I could accept it a little easier.  All of us who have been abused by an uncaring world, either at school, at work or in social circles, have had private fantasies about taking violent revenge on those who have oppressed us, so it would seen logical.  But we are never really sure.  Did he really cause this devastation?  Or is it still in the works?

At any rate, I wasn’t really interested in the plot.  I was more interested in the character.  Phoenix finds a balance in this character that only grabs for our sympathies due to the fact that he is not the architect of his own problems.  He is the victim of a system that has stopped caring for him, a system in which the wealthy elite cast him aside and people in his immediate surroundings take great pleasure in beating him down.  He needs help.  He needs therapy.  He needs to be institutionalized and in a much healthier and caring world he would get the help that he needs.  Instead, he is a ticking timebomb ready, willing and able to watch the world burn.

Best Actress

Renée Zellweger (Judy)
The Nominees: Cynthia Erivo (Harriet), Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story), Saoirse Ronan (Little Women), Charlize Theron (Bombshell)

Awkwafina (The Farewell)
My Nominees:
Hong Chau (Driveways), Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart), Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story), Lupita N’yongo (Us), Florence Pugh (Midsommer)

Way to Go .. Awksomely Fine .. Asian Girl first ever @ Golden Globes for  Best Lead Actress.

Judy Garland was one of the most dynamic entertainers of the 20th century.  She could sing, she could dance, she could do drama, she could do comedy.  She was a one-woman show all by herself, and she brought joy to millions.  So why, then, would I want to spend two hours watching a bland bio-pic that recreates the worst year of her life?

Sure, the behind-the-screen story of Judy Garland is bittersweet.  Her ebullient on-screen presence was contrasted by a life of over-work, drug abuse, broken marriages and a life cut short at the age of 47, but, really, who wants to spend time watching a movie about that?  Who wants to watch the great Judy Garland, late for her performances, drunk off her ass, drugged up, verbally abused and then humiliating herself on the stage?  Apparently, the voters of the Academy who, for some reason, felt that this mediocre performance from a wildly miscast Renee Zellweger was worth singling out despite stellar work from Scarlett Johansson and Saoirse Ronan and unnominated work from Lupita N’yongo, Hong Chau and Florence Pugh?

I can’t give much credit to Zellweger in the title role because she has to work through so much misery and pain that, I think she even wears herself out.  Plus, again, she’s wrong for the role.  You never feel that you’re seeing Judy, you only feel that you’re watching Renee with too much make-up and a stupid haircut – which also got nominated!

Two-Thousand Nineteen was a great year for actresses (which I can’t say about the men) and my favorite wasn’t even nominated despite winning the Golden Globe.  Awkwafina was new to the entertainment world, mainly known as a rapper in music and as a comedienne in film.  We first saw her as Constance in the caper film Oceans 8 and then as the daffy best friend Goh Piek Lin in the comedy Crazy Rich Asians.  She was cast in The Farewell before those films were released and I’m glad it came out afterwards because it gave us a chance to see another side of her acting talent.

The Farewell announces at the beginning that it is based on an actual lie, which is kind of true.  Awkwafina plays Billi, who is really an analog for the writer-director Lulu Wang who, in real life, experienced a family crisis when she returned to China only to learn that, not only was her grandmother dying but that her family had decided to withhold this information from the old lady since her condition was irreversible. The point was to keep her from living in misery in her final days.  So, in order to bring her relatives together without giving things away, they decided to plan a large, hastily put-together wedding for Billi’s cousin so that family could see her one last time.

This is, we American neophyte couch potatoes learn, is apparently a tradition in Chinese families and it is something of which the Americanized Billi was unaware.  Her relationship with her parents is uneasy.  She’s been in New York, attempting unsuccessfully to forge a career as a writer – aspirations that her mother looks upon with an alarming disdain.  It says something about her relationship with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that they didn’t want her to join them in their trip to China for fear that her emotional state might give things away.  Unlike the rest of the family, Nai Nai has been the only person in Billi’s orbit that has ever really been a source of emotional stability.

What sets the movie in motion is the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai.  We can easily feel their bond and we understand their special union from the moment that Billi arrives.  There’s tension as she first sees her grandmother, knowing that she has stage-four lung cancer and will soon die.  The family looks on, praying that Billi won’t break the ruse.  That kind of detail is crucial here because it establishes a history between Billi and the rest of the family – they know that she can be an emotional wreck and everyone is expecting her to, at some point, break down.

What I love most about this film is how it establishes this story without ever really making the ruse into a gimmick. It is a launching pad for a lot of pinned-up emotions that have been building for years.  But at the center is the relationship that she has with Nai Nai, who is a ball of fire.  Played in a wonderful performance by Zhao Shuzhen, she is a lovely spark of life despite her condition, and that is off-set by Billi’s difficulty keeping the bad news from her.  Yet, the movie establishes what they feel for one another.

Awkwafina is incredible here, giving a performance that takes place mostly in unspoken passages.  When she is in the hospital speaking frankly to the doctor about hiding her condition, there is a broken hearted anger in her voice.  She never has an outburst but you can feel the frustration inside of her.  When she is alone with Nai Nai, she offers the warmest and most comforting and relaxed smile, one that she knows that she can’t share with anyone else.  And there’s the ending when she must leave Nai Nai to go back to the states.  The look on her face as she drives away – I defy anyone with a heartbeat to keep a dry eye.

I’m so glad that this movie was released within a close proximity to Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians because those two performances contrasted with her work in The Farewell show her range.  She can play daffy characters, but she also has the ability to play drama just with her face.  It is important to pay special attention in The Farewell to the moments when she has no lines, when she is just observing the situation, unsure what to say or what to do.  Quiet, unspoken internal emotions are so much harder to play then so much overblown monologuing.  Not every actor can do this, and we feel more for Billi when she has to be reserved.  It’s a remarkable performance.  I have no idea if this is was intentional or not.  It if was, then Awkwafina is a much better actor then I thought she was. 


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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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