Oscar Marathon 2020, Pt. 12: ‘Knives Out,’ ‘The Irishman,’ ‘Maleficent,’ ‘Once Upon a Time…’

Today, I have to start shifting to four movies at a time, which is particularly unfortunate because there’s so much to say about (most of) these.

Knives Out: One of 2019’s biggest surprise hits, this star-studded whodunit was one of very few successful movies last year that wasn’t a sequel or remake or otherwise attached to a franchise, joining only Us and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in the top-grossing films last year.

For that reason — in addition to appreciation for its craft and cast — several Oscar watchers were hoping it would snag a pile of nominations. Oscar producers, too, were likely hoping for the same result; a massive box office hit could help bring eyes to the Feb. 9 broadcast.

Personally, I thought it had the barest chance of sneaking into the Best Picture category, and though it wouldn’t be my pick, I wouldn’t have objected to it there. I absolutely thought it would get recognized for its costumes, but then again, contemporary films rarely are. How could you deny Chris Evans’ sweater, though?

Just look at that sweater! Look at it!

In the end, though, Knives Out only snagged a well-deserved nomination for writer-director Rian Johnson’s twisty, delightfully clever screenplay. I doubt it stands much of a chance opposite Once Upon a Time… and Parasite, but it’s a nice recognition, nonetheless.

(Nominated for Best Original Screenplay)

The Irishman: Director Martin Scorsese’s latest mob epic got more than its fair share of ribbing for its length (3 1/2 hours), but when a cinematic great is trying to sum up the entirety of his career in one film, 210 minutes doesn’t seem too long at all.

And exactly that’s what it seems Scorsese is trying to do with this elegiac masterpiece, available now on Netflix: Its cast (De Niro! Pesci! Pacino!) mirrors those in his greatest hits, but the film itself is focused on aging, living with regrets and coming to terms with death. The electricity of Mean Streets and Goodfellas is replaced by a deep sadness that becomes even more pronounced by the end, when Frank (De Niro) starts to realize how his choices have ruined the lives of everyone around him.

Even though the Academy, particularly its oldest members, are still learning to accept Netflix into the fold, it’s no surprise that Irishman cleaned up on nomination morning. It’s a bit surprising, though, that De Niro couldn’t break into the Best Actor field, though he had struggled to find traction among the precursors.

Perhaps the wobbliest of its 10 nominations came for its visual effects, because though the de-aging effects allowed its stars to tell a decades-long tale, there was still a sheen of unnaturalness that couldn’t be waved away even with a reported $175 million budget.

(Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor [Pacino and Pesci], Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Editing and Best Visual Effects)

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil: Angelina Jolie’s augmented cheekbones are pretty much the only reason to watch this misbegotten sequel, so I guess that’s enough these days for an Oscar nomination?

It might not have been even last year. In April, the Academy finally expanded this category to five nominees instead of three. Had it not grown, I bet Bombshell and Judy were still shoo-ins, but would those Jolie cheekbones have been enough to overcome the bloody soldiers of 1917 and the green hair and slapdash clown makeup of Joker?

It’s an interesting hypothetical to ponder — more interesting to me than devoting too much brainpower to Maleficent. I’m sorry, a movie with Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer as dueling evil queens should be a hell of a lot more campy and fun than this flaccid mess.

(Nominated for Best Makeup/Hairstyling)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: If this is truly Quentin Tarantino’s penultimate film, as he keeps saying, then what a loss for movie fans, because he’s really coming into the fullest strength of his storytelling prowess.

That’s not to say he’s ever made a bad film (some may be a bit problematic these days, true). But there’s a maturity in Once Upon a Time… that he’s only approached maybe one other time — in Jackie Brown, which also deals with characters contemplating the insecurity of middle age.

Here, it’s action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) — stand-ins for the golden era of Hollywood that Tarantino is lamenting. That old glamour finds human form in the otherworldly charms of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) — who, for the record, I found to be used quite effectively, even poetically, despite her limited speaking time. I think Robbie was used better here, in fact, than in Bombshell.

I’m still wrestling with the mega-violent finale — not with its rewriting of history, but with the gleeful way violence was committed upon the Manson Girls, who — yes, I know — were there to brutally slaughter Rick and Cliff, but still. I think we’re supposed to be bothered by it, though.

(Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor [DiCaprio], Best Supporting Actor [Pitt], Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing)

Up next: Parasite, Ad Astra, The Two Popes and Les Misérables


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