Oscar on the Oscars – Episode II: Who Should Win?

Picking favorites from the Academy’s major nominees

Oscar Kim Bauman, Living Arts Editor

This article is the second installment of my series of articles revolving around the 92nd Academy Awards, scheduled for Sunday, February 9. While last week, I looked at the best films to not receive nominations, this time, I’m looking at the ones that really did, and explaining who I think should walk away with the awards with which I share my name.

For the sake of length, I’ll be looking at only eight categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, both Leading and Supporting and Best Screenplay, both Adapted and Original. As with last time, this is not meant to denigrate any of the other nominees, but simply offer praise to my favorites.  

To kick things off, my pick for Best Adapted Screenplay is “The Irishman,” by Steve Zallian, based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. Zallian had a daunting task ahead of him in adapting the personal confessions of real-life mafia hitman Frank Sheeran into a narrative film, but he pulled it off skillfully, navigating decades of time and locations across the country with focus and clarity. The story of “The Irishman,” with its framing device of an elderly Sheeran reminiscing about his life, twists the conventions of the mob movie into something more introspective, with a sense of hopeless futility replacing any aura of glamour. 

My choice for Best Original Screenplay, Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” is a movie that lives and dies by its writing. This story of a couple navigating a painful divorce lacks scenes with inherent spectacle. There are no car chases, violent showdowns, or natural disasters. In fact, the majority of the film’s scenes are simple, long sequences of people in rooms talking to one another. The fact that “Marriage Story” is as engrossing and emotionally devastating as it is owes itself to Baumbach’s deft hand with dialogue, as it brings its characters to personal extremes, painting an empathetic portrait of love in crisis.  

One of the key players in “Marriage Story,” Laura Dern, is also my favorite choice for Best Supporting Actress. As the high-powered divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw, Dern turns in a multifaceted performance that forces the audience to confront its moral assumptions. Nora is a consummate, capital L movie lawyer, seemingly empathetic and upstanding one moment, yet cruel and petty the next. While Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as Charlie and Nicole Barber are the human core of “Marriage Story”’s narrative, Dern as Nora represents the cutthroat legal system which twists human relationships for profit, a cynical foil to the film’s warm-hearted humanism. 

While I praised his cold performance in “Ad Astra” last week, Brad Pitt’s relentlessly charming turn as stuntman Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is equally impressive and deserving of an award for Best Supporting Actor. While on paper, Cliff is a second fiddle to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, Cliff nevertheless steals the show. Playing off Pitt’s latent charisma, Booth’s cockiness is his strength and his weakness, getting him as many successes as sticky situations. Cliff carries the movie for long stretches from his solo ventures around Los Angeles to the movie’s bombastic finale, his demeanor hinting at a darker inner life in his sporadic bursts of violence. 

I actually wasn’t a huge fan of “Little Women,” which I found somewhat disjointed, an opinion I know puts me in the vast minority among critics and moviegoers. Saoirse Ronan’s leading performance as Jo March, however, is undeniable in its power, and wholly deserving of Best Actress. Having already racked up four acting nominations at the age of 25, Ronan’s talent has received widespread recognition, and her performance as the sensitive yet headstrong Jo is no exception. Over the film’s runtime, and the years of Jo’s life the movie portrays, Ronan’s presence is the emotional anchor to the “Little Women” experience.

With appearances in three of this winter’s major releases, Adam Driver had a big year in 2019, but his leading role in “Marriage Story” marked a possible career high, with a stunning  performance which makes him my choice for Best Actor. Throughout the movie, Driver runs through the full gamut of human emotion in a way that is utterly convincing and empathetic. As theater director Charlie Barber, one half of the movie’s central couple, Driver embodies a complex mixture of traits which pull at and strain your sympathies. Charlie is self-absorbed and unfaithful, but also a caring father and a thoughtful, soulful man, and only through the strength of Driver’s performance are these contradictions brought to screen in all their all-too-real complexity. 

Director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” which I reviewed in full for The Scarlet last fall, is an impeccably made film. In all honesty, it could win all six awards it was nominated for, and I wouldn’t object, even if my previous picks say otherwise. Bong is an utter master of filmic craft, and in his deft combination of biting social satire, familial drama, and tense thriller in “Parasite,” he makes it look easy. 

The movie is also the first Korean film to be nominated for an Academy Award, let alone six, and Bong’s invitation for American audiences to overcome what he called the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles has opened eyes around the country to an entire pantheon of great film. “Parasite” is not only a great movie, but it may mark a tide change for the way American audiences think of cinema, and for that reason, Bong Joon-ho and his masterpiece, “Parasite,” are my picks for Best Director and Best Picture.

Next week: The Oscar on the Oscars trilogy concludes with a postmortem on the real Oscars.