1st Annual Grouches: 2019 Movie Year Awards

You know, because I’m grouchy, and because “Oscar” and “Grouch” go together, ha ha.

Rules!

  1. Most importantly, the Grouches hold themselves to movies that it is not impossible to imagine the Oscars themselves might have given attention to. Ways in include production companies that the Oscars have awarded in the past, filmmakers the Oscars have awarded in the past, and subject matter that seems sufficiently Oscar. (There, I just took care of The SouvenirA Hidden Life, and Dark Waters.) The Grouches are, on a related note, mostly concerned with movies that are accessible to many viewers in the United States either because of its place on a major streaming platform or its run in theaters. What I’m really looking to keep out here, not because they aren’t great but because they aren’t Oscar-adjacent, are the kinds of movies that only appear at Lincoln Center or the Museum of the Moving Image. This is not a set of awards for arthouse movies, not really, and for that reason (as well as the confusion about what year something actually comes out anymore) movies like Ash Is Purest WhiteTransitSynonymsLa Flor, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, etc. are not going to show up here. They are certainly grist for a mill I’m planning to operate this summer, but on this day they are not clean fits.
  2. The Grouches to be awarded are: Best Picture, Best Director, Outstanding Actor (4), Best Casting, Outstanding Screenplay (2), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Mise-en-scène. The Grouches have a day job.
    1. Best Picture will be chosen from five films. The Grouches are not cowards and welcome the controversy of a five picture field. Documentaries will be considered in this category as they are considered in all categories, which means a separate category for them is unnecessary. Pictures made from outside the United States and the Commonwealth which seem sufficiently Oscar-adjacent will be thought of as well. One picture will be chosen, and the award (a full-size galvanized metal trash can) will be presented to the producers.
    2. Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing will be chosen from five films each, in much the same way that the Oscars do. One winner will be chosen in each category to receive the trash can
    3. Best Mise-en-scène mashes up the Oscar categories of Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup and Hairstyling, in large part because of that thing about the day job. One movie will be chosen to win, and individual trash cans given to the relevant personnel in charge on that picture.
    4. Best Casting functions as a way to award an entire cast, and we do mean everyone. The award will be presented to the winning movie’s casting director.
    5. Outstanding Screenplay is indifferent to whether a movie’s story is adapted from other material or an original story. Ten screenplays will be nominated, and two winners will be chosen, each of whom will get the trash can.
    6. Outstanding Actor is especially indifferent to sex, gender, leading, supporting, or what have you. Twenty actors will be nominated, and four winners will be chosen from that group. (Eagle-eyed readers will recognize my deeply ridiculous fix to the old-fashioned and easily gamed acting categories, and will note that I am brave enough to try this myself.)
  3. Categories actively left out include: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (too nerdy), “International” Film (not that this doesn’t fascinate me, but I’ve kind of covered some of the reasons why under Rule #1, and aside from that I’m still catching up), Documentary (likewise covered above), Original Score (I genuinely feel a little bad about this, maybe next year), Original Song (please get rid of this from the actual Oscars), Visual Effects (let’s celebrate these overworked people by actually paying them, huh), Animated Feature (whatever), and the shorts (which also could stand to be replaced at the Oscars).
  4. The winner goes in bold with the category it’s won; the other nominees will follow in alphabetical order. The Grouches also do not believe in victory without rationale, and so in lieu of acceptance speeches the Grouches will express their reasoning as to why the winners won.

 

Best Mise-en-scène: Parasite

Little Women

Knives Out

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Peterloo

Of the movies here, the only one that’s here for its costumes first and its set second is Little Women, which is a statement about how successful the costumes are as much as anything else. What those young people in particular wear is a triumph; Chalamet in those slim suits, Ronan straddling the line between masculine and feminine dress, Pugh in increasingly gorgeous dresses. Little Women is just absolutely beautiful all the way through, and the more I type about it the more tempted I am to switch it out as my top choice. (For me this a two-horse race, although the vast scope of Once Upon a Time and Peterloo certainly gives them some force.) But the trump card for Parasite is in Lee Ha-jun’s production design, and particularly in that house. The Park house is one of the great accomplishments of the movie year, maybe of the movie decade. I want to live in that house even if there’s a person straight living in my basement because of capitalism, because it is a beautiful house, the most beautiful modern house this side of the Vandamm hideout by Mount Rushmore. And yet that house is a sign of the total depravity of the system, just as much as the Kim’s antediluvian and especially postdiluvian subbasement is a sign of that depravity. Parasite can make its interiors feel lived-in or otherwise, making the subbasement in all its fumigated grossness feel deeply lived-in and loved, where any sign that the Park house is lived in (think of the mess the Kims make pre-doorbell) is as awful as seeing someone touch the paintings at an art museum. Without that house, Parasite is a really good movie; with it, it is arguably the best picture of 2019.

Best Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker, The Irishman

Todd Douglas Miller, Apollo 11

Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman, The Farewell

Yang Jin-mo, Parasite

Helle Le Fevre, The Souvenir

I am sympathetic (so sympathetic!) to the argument that a documentary should win the Oscar for Best Editing every year, and I really flirted with picking Apollo 11 (or nominating American Factory, One Child Nation, etc.) for the sheer volume of work that must have gone into the editing process. Apollo 11 is a mission I know back to front at this point, but Miller makes that historical event absolutely gripping; the guy got my heartbeat going for the actual Moon landing. It’s not like we didn’t know they’d land! As great as Apollo 11 is, one does not lightly choose an editor above Schoonmaker, and not for a movie that could have been a slog if she hadn’t been organizing it. The Irishman is gripping over a greater stretch of time than Apollo 11, tying in decades of material so effortlessly that I think people take for granted just how entertaining The Irishman is. Save the “they could have cut another hour!” business; this is a movie which goes at exactly the speed it wants to go at, developing its characters in the epic fashion that they literally don’t use anymore, and so much of that accomplishment is in Schoonmaker’s work. The Irishman is probably a little less balanced than its three fiction counterparts in my nominees, I think—The Farewell in particular is here because of how precisely it balances the different elements of its story—but it’s a greater accomplishment in (spoiler?) a greater movie. I come back to that scene where Frank is summoned to see Angelo Bruno because Frank has burned down a laundromat he never knew the mob had a share in. It is played slowly, but not so slowly that we can’t stay interested in what’s happening, because what’s happening is Angelo is holding a knife to Frank’s throat to make a point. In those slow but not creeping moments The Irishman finds its way, culminating, of course, in a scene at a Howard Johnson’s in which two guys past their primes decide who’s getting which cereal. At that point we know better than to be fooled by the pace; the pace is the disguise these guys wear, and at that point in the picture we know where the seams are.

Best CastingKathy Driscoll and Francine Maisler, Little Women

Anne Kang and Leslie Woo, The Farewell

Ellen Lewis, The Irishman

Mary Vernieu, Knives Out

Martin Ware and Charlie Rotheram, Peterloo

Little Women is the Goldilocks option for me here. Peterloo has an argument for me because of just how many people there are here, and despite the fact that the movie does not work all that hard to give people names we remember, the performances even from totally random figures are exceptional, and in crowd scenes their faces stand out in the masses. On the other hand, Knives Out has a big ensemble cast, though it is certainly one which by and large keeps the stars away from the plebs. (Surely it must also be the starriest one of these nominees. Where would Rory Kinnear, arguably the biggest name in Peterloo, rank on a starmeter of Knives Out folks. No higher than like, thirteenth, right?) But the cast of Little Women is extraordinarily effective from top to bottom, and I would posit as well that the chemistry this cast has ought to push it over the top. Think of how often the Oscars pull winning performances which stand out against the rest of the movie, or which are the only memorable thing about an unforgettable movie; sometimes I think about going through the nominated acting performances like I went through Best Picture nominees a couple summers ago, and then I have to stop myself because that qualifies as self-harm. Little Women is, like the other movies nominated here, a great movie which is amplified by a great cast working in tandem. If there is someone who is giving that above and beyond performance like one would see nominated traditionally, it’s Saoirse Ronan, who carries the burden of moving the plot. But she has such good scenes with Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Louis Garrel, Tracy Letts, and Timothée Chalamet, where she is the focus most of the time but very rarely dominates the screen. Pugh and Chalamet are absolute magnets whenever they’re on screen, and yet they never “steal the scene.” Honestly, choose just about anyone with a name in this movie and someone else with a name in this movie, and there is a scene where they go together harmoniously. Chris Cooper and Eliza Scanlen contrive the greatest tenderness; Bob Odenkirk and Meryl Streep are a delightfully good match; I would watch James Norton and Emma Watson, arguably the weakest links in this chain, do a movie all by their lonesome.

Best Cinematography: Jörg Widmer, A Hidden Life

Hong Kyung-pyo, Parasite

Edward Lachman, Dark Waters

Rodrigo Prieto, The Irishman

David Raedeker, The Souvenir

You’ll find in this category, I think, fewer of the great stars of cinematography and more people who are working within their director’s signature vision to shoot the movies; one hears much more about Joanna Hogg’s direction of The Souvenir than David Raedeker’s photography. This is on purpose, and at the risk of beginning to sound like one of those people who wonder how valuable Mike Trout can be if he’s not on a playoff team, I think cinematography above virtually any other element of a movie must be integrated fully to its purpose. (This is the one time the Grouches will deign to recognize 1917, which is to say that Roger Deakins accomplishes something really impressive, but of course how it impressive it is does nothing, perhaps less than nothing, to improve the picture itself. The Grouches are rather fond of unusual choices in cinematography, but certainly there must be a prevailing reason for it beyond “Well, it looks cool” or “I have literally nothing left to prove.”) Thus Widmer, who has so far made his name not as a DP but a camera operator, whose contributions to the film (one imagines) are as much an extension of Malick as an addition, but who also has to his credit the movie which dripped heartache into me with every shot. Any idiot could go to the places they filmed A Hidden Life with an iPhone and walk away with deliriously beautiful postcards, but Widmer walks away with something sublime. He has Eden, in the days before the serpent and after it, in his camera. I do want to shout out Edward Lachman particularly from this group, who uses unnatural colors and tints the way that someone like, I dunno, let’s say Tom Stern, could not. Dark Waters is a masterpiece of composition even no one is ever going to use an image from that movie as their desktop background. (For more on how Haynes and Lachman find the periphery of their frames, I’ve gushed in greater detail.)

Outstanding Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite / Greta Gerwig, Little Women

Mati Diop and Olivier Demangel, Atlantics

Robert Eggers and Max Eggers, The Lighthouse

Joanna Hogg, The Souvenir

Rian Johnson, Knives Out

Mike Leigh, Peterloo

Jordan Peele, Us

Lulu Wang, The Farewell

Steven Zaillian, The Irishman

Our first double award goes, happily, to two very different screenplays being rewarded for two very different reasons. Bong and Han get theirs for Parasite, an original idea, because of the audacity and brilliance of its story. Gerwig gets hers for Little Women, adapted many times before and from more than just the novel, because of the perfection of its dialogue and the freshness of its concept. If I were to choose one, I would take Little Women, which has an unconventional and imaginative ending which I think comes off stronger than the unconventional and imaginative ending of Parasite. Happily, I don’t actually have to choose, and so I mostly regret that I can’t find room for Rian Johnson, Lulu Wang, or Steve Zaillian in that top two. Johnson’s wit and structure fulgurate with the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spectacle of Gerwig’s work, though not quite as consistently. Zaillian I think has a job almost as hefty as Gerwig in adaptation, and still finds a way to get at the less is more conversations of these gangsters without it ever feeling like plagiarism of some inferior work like Casino. “It is what it is” is loaded with meaning, and the simplicity of it gives the actors ample opportunity to make it overflow.

Outstanding Actor: Tom Burke, The Souvenir / Joe Pesci, The Irishman / Florence Pugh, Little Women / Song Kang-ho, Parasite

Juliette Binoche, High Life

Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose

Timothée Chalamet, Little Women

Ana de Armas, Knives Out

Robert De Niro, The Irishman

August Diehl, A Hidden Life

Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Lupita Nyong’o, Us

Valerie Pachner, A Hidden Life

Al Pacino, The Irishman

Park So-dam, Parasite

Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse

Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir

Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell

It was tempting to double up on any of these movies, but in the end I chickened out. Song and Park for Parasite, Burke and Swinton Byrne for The Souvenir, Pesci and De Niro for The Irishman, Pugh and Ronan or Chalamet for Little Women…heck, I gave a long look at putting Diehl and Pachner in for A Hidden Life, and in truth Pachner was the first cut for me. (My next four, which I’ll give out for free because there are so many nominees: Pachner, Nyong’o, De Niro, Buckley. Pachner for the combination of childish glee and adult pre-grief, Nyong’o for a truly singular performance, De Niro for the stillness everywhere but his rapidly moving eyes, Buckley for making the most tiresomely unoriginal character into someone I unironically rooted for.) And as I look at it, I am a little tickled by my preference for what the awards bodies, at any rate, seem to think of as supporting performances. Thematically, I think it is entirely justifiable to call what Song and Pugh are doing leading roles (even if the screentime is a little off), and of course Joe Pesci and Tom Burke are playing in supporting parts which are utterly necessary for the pictures they’re in. Maybe it’s overkill to include Pesci and Burke together, but listen, it is maybe as difficult to create credible menace in a character onscreen as it is to create anything else, and those two guys are friggin’ scary because neither one of their characters wants to present something fearful to the others sharing the screen. Anthony is a con man, a drug addict, a lover of Powell and Pressburger movies, and a gravelly-voiced stud. Burke’s eyes are the center of that performance. They’re dead. They’re absolutely dead, and against the death in them Julie is helpless to prevent herself from trying to fill them with her own life. Pesci gives the performance of his life here, understated but never against type, the polite businessman who is most frightening because he expects like an emperor of old. The expectation, the noblesse oblige, that’s what makes Russell scary even though he is a little shrimpy, a little frail, and obviously fallible. As for Song and Pugh, what ties them together is the way both of them seem to play two people in one body. Ki-taek is equal parts Alfred Doolittle and Max Rockatansky, a goofball gadabout as well as canny survivor; Song is equally good at both, and brings a new element to those types to boot: shame. Amy March, for generations one of the great villains of literature and screen, gets a new lease on decency in Pugh’s irresistible performance, one where she, shrieking, clomps around the house because her presumably shapely foot is stuck in a homemade cast as well as she glides around an artist’s studio, in husky bold tones declaring her intention to be “great or nothing.” I’m not one of those people who believes we’re in for an eternity of Pugh—how quickly Jennifer Lawrence grew old to us!—but I definitely hope for a decade which features her again and again.

Best Director: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Greta Gerwig, Little Women

Joanna Hogg, The Souvenir

Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

This was, for me, the hardest award to choose. As a college student I used to be excited about the idea of a Picture/Director split at the Oscars, and then to my horror, after I graduated college it was like they were always going to award those prizes to different movies. The novelty has worn off, although as you’ll see, I don’t believe that the best movie must be the best directed movie; there are limits to what authorship of a picture means in practice that other people have written books on. I think my short answer as to why Bong wins the Grouch comes down to this: he was Hitchcock this year. And he wasn’t just like, very good Hitchcock. If Bong’s direction on Parasite was as good as Hitchcock’s on like, The 39 Steps, then this award would go to Martin Scorsese for (checks back of the napkin) his eighth best movie. But Parasite would have been great Hitchcock, because at his best Hitchcock knew how to marry this dazzling technical wizardry with scalding emotion. (I say this with the necessary caveat that Bong is interested in stuff that I don’t know ever really appealed to Hitchcock, and I am on the whole more invested in Bong’s thoughts than the Divine Alfred’s.) Think of that stretch of movie where the former maid shows up at the door while the Parks are out and the rain is pouring down, and she comes inside…think about how much work the Kims do to clean up after themselves and clean up Moon-gwang’s secret…think about the close shaves…think about what three Kims return home to! Being able to control those scenes, to balance fear and anxiety and revulsion and relief and grief and regret and shame, is witchcraft. When you watch Parasite, you are reading the first line in Bong Joon-ho’s obituary.

Best Picture: The Irishman

Dark Waters

A Hidden Life

Little Women

Parasite

If it’s a Best Picture nominee, it deserves at least one snippet of explanation before we get to the final decision.

  1. Dark Waters and The Souvenir are incredibly close for me, and in the end I chose Dark Waters for that final spot because I think it’s doing something absolutely remarkable within its genre. There are still a lot of people, judging from the box office and some of the critical response, who view Dark Waters as, essentially, failed Oscarbait. Mike D’Angelo, who I really like, has suggested that if you take Todd Haynes’ name off the movie, it would be entirely unimpressive; I would suggest that Todd Haynes’ name on the picture ought to encourage us to look for the themes which Haynes has spent decades working through. In so looking I was stunned by the way that Haynes created a true spiritual sequel to Safe, mixed in with a dash of the best of Red Desert, and did it from a true story. Again, I’ve gushed about this movie in incredible detail, and if you are looking for a case for Dark Waters I hope I’ve made it well on a different page from this blog.
  2. A Hidden Life is a truly idealistic movie, and in the presence of idealism reaching beyond logic, I was profoundly moved. A Hidden Life is not traditionally exciting, but I think I get to judge you a little if you’re bored by the weighing of a person’s soul, or, more prosaically, if you fail to be shaken by the beauty of the picture.
  3. For Little Women, I will never cease to be amazed at how much life there is in a story that I’d assumed was withered with age. I really like the Gillian Armstrong version of the story, but in comparison with Gerwig’s it is stodgy. There may not be a more charismatic movie from this past year, a word which I use in the sense that it calls for our attention and keeps it through the sheer force of its own will. If the Grouches were awarded based on favoritism, it would win the whole shebang.
  4. There’s a little voice in the back of my head about Parasite, and what that little voice says is that he’s not sure that the end of Parasite works. It is maybe just a little bit clunky! Just a little! But that clunkiness in the end, everything from the stabbing on…I don’t know that it lives up to the promise of the return to the subbasement. Maybe that’s something that will clarify for me after I see Parasite a second time—I’ve seen The Irishman three times now, which has helped me feel better about what on the first viewing I thought was a slightly off-topic foray into the life and times of Crazy Joe—but at present the Grouches can’t find a way around it. I will even grant that the climactic moments of Parasite are the best of the year, better than what The Irishman has in the same rough place in the movie. But from the scene where Frank asks Jimmy to present him the award through the very last moments of the movie, The Irishman is nothing short of masterful. Frank never loves Jimmy more than when he asks him to present the award; Russell is never more cruel than when he demands that Frank shoot him down without the courtesy of saying the words. Few movies problematize loyalty more than The Irishman, a movie which presents betrayal not as an opportunistic fling but as a form of total helplessness. This is an adjective that is used too often, but there is something Shakespearean about The Irishman in the way that its men on top of the world lose everything through arrogance and hubris; there is something more like Miller, though, in the way that the movie is filled with the despair that it may never have been possible to do anything. Jimmy Hoffa is dead years before he’s murdered in the eyes of The Irishman, dead as soon as Frank kills those POWs in Italy during World War II. But it doesn’t mean we can’t feel deeply for what’s gone wrong.

2 thoughts on “1st Annual Grouches: 2019 Movie Year Awards

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