Not that you shouldn’t watch all the performances, but it’s difficult, at best, to find the time. As a rule, I don’t sleep, so…here are my observations of the nominated performances. I have also reviewed (or am in the process of reviewing) many of these films separately on this blog. Simply type in the name of the film in the search bar above, if interested….
So…without the inclusion of any performances or the ensemble from “Little Women,” nods for Jonathon Price and/or Adam Sandler, nor any individual nods for “Parasite” cast members, this feels like a hopelessly incomplete group of nominees…but here we are…
LEAD PERFORMANCE IN A FILM
I just don’t understand how we failed to acknowledge Saoirse Ronan’s brilliance in “Little Women”. She could have easily replaced Ms. Theron on the ballot, whose performance is..well..read on. But, man, what a swing and miss.
Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”)
While I feel “Harriet” is a fairly tepid film, due mostly to the by-the-numbers script, Ms. Erivo manages to elevate every scene, every actor (with the exception of Clarke Peters, who needs no help) and, well, every moment she is on screen. But we never get to witness enough of her emotional journey…only her emotions. And most of that occurs in the first half of the film. After that, the script just doesn’t give her the freedom to play…to feel vulnerable, to doubt, to fear… as it does in those earlier moments. Instead she is stuck playing nothing but resolve and anger. So, through no fault of her own, I cannot see her winning the Actor Thingee.
Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”)
So I’m in the camp of people who didn’t connect with this film at all. I felt it was forced, hyper-emotional, went from A-to-H instead of A-to-B. And the depiction of theater in general is borderline offensive…but totally in keeping with Hollywood’s view on that medium. Sigh. REGARDLESS, Johansson and Driver gives it everything they’ve got. Especially, I feel, in the earlier scenes where I feel their relationship is the most at ease and the most real. Johansson, in particular is given the harder task as the dumper…just as in an actual relationship it’s always harder to be the one who decides to hurt someone they love, and then spend time wondering if they made the right choice – as opposed to the person who is dumped who simply has to grieve (well – not exactly that simple, but far fewer emotional options). For the most part she succeeds, but there are scenes in this film – in Johansson’s journey – that come out of nowhere which, for me, took me out of the film. All of which is to say, if it weren’t for Zellwegger, I’d probably vote for Scarlett. How’s that for hedging?
Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”)
Gonna be honest. I’m not a fan of the genre. At all. My parents took me to a horror film when I was six and I’ve never really recovered. That said, for Mr. Peele and Ms. Nyong’o, I made an exception. While each family member has the task of playing two different characters – two sides of the same coin, if you will, only she pulls it off. Rage, fear, sorrow and love…it’s all there. That said, I don’t think she can beat the true heavyweight of the bunch…Ms. Zellweger, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if she did.
Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”)
Ms. Theron is fine in what will hopefully go down as an important film. However, it’s not a very good one. And while she channels Megyn Kelly to perfection, it’s just not enough of an emotional journey to rate with the rest of this crew. In fact, the film does whatever it can to paint Kelly as the hero of the film when it is, in fact, the short-shifted character of Gretchen Carlson (played by a brilliant Nicole Kidman). Nonetheless, Theron might win. Lots of people I’ve spoken with thought she belonged in the conversation with Ms. Zellweger. She doesn’t.
Renée Zellweger (“Judy”) (she gets my vote)
Hand her the damned trophy right now. Listen, whether or not you think she “sounds” like Judy Garland is kind of irrelevant, as is the quality of the film itself. It’s her Herculean emotional journey that is what’s so spectacular. Plus, the courage to stand in front of 1,000 extras and be as vulnerable as she is in take after take, and pull it all off with such precision. That is probably not as big a deal for seasoned musical theater performers as I’m making it out to be…which she is as she did win an Oscar for “Chicago”. Regardless, impressive. In fact, the more I think on it, the more I believe it’s one of the best performances of the last few years.
Putting DiCaprio in this category over Jonathon Price’s Pope Francis is like asking for a Starbucks breakfast sandwich when there’s a Michelin star all-you-can-eat buffet right next to it. Or the brilliant lox platter that is Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems”! Don’t get me wrong, DiCaprio has his moments, but Price and Sandler…I mean…holy crap. <sigh> Anyway…
Christian Bale (“Ford v Ferrari”)
I went in thinking this would be a lightweight effort. Should have known better. Bale doesn’t do half-assed work. He, and the film, are terrific. Empathetic, moody, loving, and crotchety. It’s a great performance in a genre not necessarily known for such achievements (though the last racing film, “Rush” also featured terrific work from its actors. However, I wouldn’t call it the best, mind you, but certainly deserving of being on this list.
Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
I suppose I shouldn’t be so harsh. It is a very satisfying performance…and in that one scene with the brilliant Julia Butters (the new Lady Marmont), he is terrific. I just think Sandler and Price give much more complete performances in much more demanding roles. But…I mean…comparatively…whatever. Point made. The movie is a blaa, and DiCaprio is a large part of it.
Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)
See my comments of Johansson. But, specifically for Driver, he has the unenviable task of being the schlub in the film…the fish out of water in L.A. He is also stuck interacting mostly with caricatures…of lawyers, of actors in the NY scene, and of ridiculous situations (the Halloween scene…and ESPECIALLY the Sondheim scene are patently absurd). BUT, again, if not for Phoenix’ performance for the ages, I’d probably vote for him. When the movie works at all it is strictly due to him and Johansson’s ferocious courage.
Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”)
How interesting would it have been if this and Bohemian Rhapsody came out at the same time? I only ask because I thought Egerton gave a much more complete performance. I also think it’s a better film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of “BoRhap”. But, it had almost no point of view…just a timeline to follow. “Rocketman” starts in a place of contemplation and sticks to that journey. And, more to the point, asks MUCH more of Egerton…and I thought he delivered! He’s still not my pick, but he and Driver are in the discussion for number two.
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) (he gets my vote)
If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. It’s the best examination of the effects of PTSD brought on by a life of abuse as you’re likely to see. It’s well made, well-written and brilliantly cast. But, specifically, Phoenix gives one of the great performances of the decade, never mind the year. Everything the character feels, everything he experiences, is like an open scab we’re forced to watch as it refuses to stay closed. It’s breathtaking…and immersive…and heartbreaking. The winner by a mile.
SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE IN A FILM
Okay…we kinda really blew it on this one. There are some deserving performances here, but this was a perfect opportunity to showcase how diverse our reach is. I mean, you show me a better supporting performance than Hye-jin Jang, who plays the longtime housekeeper in “Parasite”. Miraculous. Or Yeo-jeong Jo…the young, troubled mother in that same film. Miraculous. Or Zhao Shuzhen (grandma from “The Farewell”). Or even, and I know, not many people saw it, but Tichina Arnold in “Last Black Man In San Francisco”. Ah well. We do have a lot of glamourous stars, though. A LOT! Oy.
And, uh…”LITTLE WOMEN”?! Anyhoo…
Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)
Sure. She’s good. Really good. But, let’s be honest, she’s playing a stereotype. And, specifically, an L.A. stereotype. No one gets more accolades than an actor portraying someone from LA in a remotely convincing way. I mean, she’s fine. But skirts VERY close to the two-dimensionality.
Scarlett Johansson (“Jojo Rabbit”)
She is lovely in this lovely film. In fact, “JoJo” is one of my two or three favorite films of the year. In this irreverent, thought-provoking and hilarious film, her presence, even when not on screen, informs so much about its world, its purpose, and the lead character’s behavior and actions. Alas, it seems smallish in comparison to some of the other performances. That said…we could do worse. She is absolutely imperative to the success of the film and there isn’t a second of falsehood in her performance.
Nicole Kidman (“Bombshell”)
Yeah, like Theron, it seems like more of a doppelganger performance than a truly emotive one. Not to say it’s not complete. She’s always great…but the film undermines her moments at every turn by getting back to the plot just as we are about to see actual emotional work. I think there is probably a much better version of the film out there where Kidman gets to show us much, much more. I’d love to see that film!
Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”)
This I don’t understand at all. I mean…she’s fine. But this script gives her nothing to do other than emote love for her friend, and for shopping, and for doing heinous things. Further, it’s a script with no redeeming message…or through-line. As a result the characters get caught in the middle of this battle between scripted dialogue and earnest thought and action…and try as they might, so do the actors. That said..it’s one of the few films in any category written and directed by a woman, about women. And while I’m grateful the NomComm recognized that fact, there is another film with those qualities that is far more deserving of these kinds of accolades. Maybe you saw it….it’s a little movie called “LITTLE WOMEN”?!?! Francis Pugh? No? Ugh.
Margot Robbie (“Bombshell”) (she gets my vote)
Ms. Robbie can do more with a small-sized role than almost any actor out there right now. To me she is the main reason you watch “Bombshell”. She understands the camera in a way that many just don’t. “Mary Queen of Scots”, “Wolf of Wall Street”, “Once Upon A Time”…all brilliant performances in which every second of screen time is filled with as much emotion as the camera can handle…without ever veering over the top. And here, she is magnificent. Terrific performance.
Hard to argue with a list like this…except it’s too bad it leaves off some other deserving and brilliant performances. Anthony Hopkins is unbelievable in “Two Popes”. And our limo-driving patriarch in “Parasite,” Song Kang Ho, is equally deserving. And, while he was absolutely dreadful in “Motherless Brooklyn”, Willem Dafoe is superb in a movie I loathed, “The Lighthouse”. But overall…not too bad.
Jamie Foxx (“Just Mercy”)
I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from this film. It’s a bit derivative of earlier films having to do with the inequity of justice between the races in the South. What I was surprised by was the incredible depth of Jamie Foxx’ approach to his character. He is this man. And every aspect of his life’s experiences, and knowledge, is clearly written on every wrinkle of his face, every turn of his lips. He engenders the emotions of someone in the impossible position of waiting to be put to death with such ease and such grace, it absolutely elevates the film far beyond its script or direction. I’m very tempted to give him my vote. The jury is still out between him and Mr. Pitt.
Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”)
Such a strange film…and, as written, Hanks never really gets to make a serious emotional choice…or journey…of any kind. Instead, he acts as a sort of shaman or guru…which, in and of itself, is fine…but man, is it sentimental. The writing gives all the juice to Matthew Rhys, who takes it and gives us brilliant work. I dunno. It’s Tom freakin’ Hanks. Who am I to criticize? But it’s not deserving of our award.
Al Pacino (“The Irishman”)
Putting aside for the moment that at the SAG screening I went to, a man decided to urinate on the row in front of him right around the start of hour three, I actually enjoyed the hell out of this film. But Pacino’s performance had little to do with it. His Hoffa, while strong, determined, fearless and abrasive, is filled with so many Pacino-isms that it becomes distracting (well..not as distracting a fountain of pee flowing in a perfect arc two rows in front of me, but still..). His performance, as a result, lessens the weight of the final act instead of heightening it…which we kind of need after 200 minutes. But…
Joe Pesci (“The Irishman”)
…this is not the case with Pesci. He is exactly who he needs to be, quietly powerful..a man whose strength comes from his intentions, not his bravado. It’s a masterfully subtle performance and he is absolutely deserving of the nomination…if not my vote.
Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) (he gets my vote)
Pitt gives his best performance in over a decade. The film, as far as I’m concerned, belongs to him and without his Hollywood-weariness etched on even the smallest of actions, the film would completely fall apart. Hand it to Tarantino, he knows how to write for movie stars. So I think he gets my vote. And that’s in spite how unfair it is to be the same age as him and, yet, hear the audible gasps in the theater when he takes his shirt off on the roof. If I took my shirt off in a movie, there would be audible gasps alright…but in horror.
ENSEMBLE IN A FILM
After completely swinging and missing last year in this category, I think the Nominating Committee got this mostly right this year. Again, would’ve liked to see “Little Women” in the mix as I think it’s more than deserving. And we should give something to the cast of “1917” for the hell they had to go through to even make that brilliant film. But overall… not bad choices.
This is the film I would have replaced with something like “Little Women” or even “The Farewell”. As I mentioned earlier, it’s more of an editorial than a complete film. That said, the additional cast is complete and convincing, especially the smaller roles…Kate McKinnon, Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Mark Duplass (who is INCREDIBLE in “The Morning Show”), Rob Delaney and, of course, John Lithgow.
These are not new characters. Ironically, as much as Scorsese rails against the Marvel Universe, he has created an ensemble that could easily be called the Scorsese Universe. It’s the same folk as we’ve seen in several of his films. Doesn’t mean they’re not terrific…they are. And the new members of this universe include the outstanding Stephen Graham (who, if you like, you should seek out in the TV sequels to the great film, “This Is England”), Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Sebastian Maniscalco, Louis Cancelmi, and the young Lucy Gallina, whose face perfectly reflects the child-like contempt that is crucial to Anna Paquin’s (vastly underutilized) performance later on. But so much of the film revolves around the film’s three stars, it’s hard to see choosing it over an ensemble film like “Parasite”.
In spite of it being a small film about two or three young people, I’m very glad we recognized it. Everyone in it is note perfect, especially Taika Waititi, and youngsters, Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie (please go watch her in “Leave No Trace” right now…I’ll wait), the hilarious Archie Yates (give him a prize…any prize)…and the aforementioned Scarlett Johannsen. But the work of Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen and especially Stephen Merchant, while absurdist, are what make us stay in the world of the film. A gift of a film. But not in the same league in terms of ensemble work as say…
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”
People will focus on Pitt and DeCaprio, but there are SO many performances that bring this world to life. Beginning with Margot Robbie’s amazing and touching Sharon Tate, Timothy Olyphant’s young western star, Bruce Dern, Margaret Qualley and a host of others…none more noticeable than Julia Butters’ child TV star, Trudi Fraser. This is a true cavalcade of stars playing stars of the past (Damian Lewis…holy crap) in one of Tarantino’s best. Alas, it comes in second to…
“Parasite” (this gets my vote)
The best ensemble by a mile, “Parasite”, while maybe not the best film of the year…maybe…certainly boasts the best ensemble performance. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, the film is made better by the presence of conniving siblings Woo-Sik Choi and So-dam Park, counter-patriarch Sun-Kyun Lee, youngster Ji-So Jung, and especially Myeong-hoon Park. This is a film that will grow and grow in your estimation as time goes by, and that’s not just because of the intricacies of the characters as they move in and out of the story, but how their relationships ebb and flow. It’s simply brilliant work by all. And while I don’t see it beating “Once Upon A Time..”, it most certainly gets my vote.
Next up…TV Drama