Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
The story: Quentin Tarantino’s re-imagining of the Manson murders.
In its favor: Sheer, exhilarating storytelling from the guy who loves movies and revisionist history. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are a match made in heaven, or at least late-1960s Los Angeles.
Then again: It’s classic Tarantino: self-indulgent, talky, overlong and gratuitously violent.
The review: ★★★
Should win Best Picture
The story: Two young soldiers embark on a harrowing mission.
In its favor: The one-take, master-class camerawork by the great Roger Deakins could be a gimmick, but instead feels essential and intimate; you are down in the mud and blood with the bloated bodies and rats. The surprise Globes win put the film in the thick of the battle.
Then again: It has a lack of stars, and its late entry has it playing catch-up.
The review: ★★★
Other Best Picture nominees
Ford v Ferrari
The story: The American behemoth challenges the Italian legend at Le Mans in the 1960s.
In its favor: Square-jawed manliness abounds in this good old-fashioned barnburner that celebrates ingenuity, iconoclasm and sheer guts. Matt Damon and Christian Bale mesh like a finely tuned engine.
Then again: The testosterone hangs over the film like gasoline fumes, and 2½ hours feels like a long road trip.
The review: ★★★½
The story: A Mafia hit man recounts his involvement with the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
In its favor: Both elegiac and epic, it’s got the powerhouse trifecta of DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci — plus the don, Martin Scorsese, who offers a mea culpa of sorts that at long last deglamorizes the mob.
Then again: Some won’t be able to get past the slightly creepy CGI de-aging — or the 180-minute runtime.
The review: ★★★½
The story: A young German boy with an imaginary friend — Hitler! — confronts his fears and prejudices when they literally hit home.
In its favor: A gorgeous period piece that is gleefully upfront in its intent to shock.
Then again: There’s a lot of “Hogan’s Heroes”-type Nazi bumbling that trivializes the gravity of the subject, and the third act’s tonal shift is both tearjerking and off-putting.
The review: ★★½
The story: The origin story of Batman’s nemesis.
In its favor: A textbook character study of a broken man, it’s a provocative, full-throated tale of anarchy. If you never quite feel empathy for Arthur Fleck, you come to an understanding, however uneasy.
Then again: Nihilistic and bleak, it’s hard to watch; it will confound those looking for a more conventional comic-book movie.
The review: ★★★
The story: The latest incarnation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel.
In its favor: Greta Gerwig has created a fresh, vibrant — and relevant — tale, shaking up the familiar underpinnings without losing the heart. We daresay this is the best of the story’s many adaptations.
Then again: There have been so many adaptations! And did enough voters (cough *men* cough) even see the film?
The review: ★★★★
The story: This “Kramer vs. Kramer” for our time pits an actor against a director.
In its favor: Artfully realistic about the messiness of divorce; with roughly equal time given to each party, we switch allegiances from scene to scene. An unflinching camera allows for emotions that are raw and honest.
Then again: Raw and honest to the point of unpleasantness. And a suffocating sense of privilege persists.
The review: ★★★½
The story: A poor Korean family stealthily inserts itself into the home of a wealthy one.
In its favor: A dark and biting class-system satire that plays like an upside-down “Downton Abbey.” The intricate plot reveals itself layer upon layer, from droll to unnerving to terrifying — you might never go down to the basement again.
Then again: Can we really root for any of these people?
The review: ★★★★
Will and should win
Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Role: Arthur Fleck, clown/would-be stand-up comic.
In his favor: Phoenix is mesmerizing as the tormented Gotham City villain in his formative years. It’s a ferociously demented performance, all skin and bones and convulsive tics and maniacal laughter. He’s controlled yet out of control, a truly frightening dichotomy.
Then again: Bad-boy Phoenix has never been one to charm the voters.
Other Best Actor nominees
Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory”
Role: Faded author/playwright Salvador Mallo, a man beset by physical and emotional ailments.
In his favor: So many multitudes are contained in Banderas’ sad eyes; you feel every midlife ache and pain and yearning. Reuniting with Pedro Almodóvar brought out the best in Banderas, and brought him the best actor award at Cannes.
Then again: It’s a small-scale, intimate, subtitled film.
Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”
Role: Rick Dalton, washed-up action star whose neighbors include Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.
In his favor: Tightly coiled, paranoid and self-loathing, he shines in the long takes that add nothing to the plot but delight us nonetheless. He’s never been more disarming than when he’s schooled by a 10-year-old co-star.
Then again: He’s in the shadow of Brad Pitt.
Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”
Role: Stage director Charlie Barber, who finds himself in a divorce and custody battle.
In his favor: Driver is the Golden Boy incarnate, a man whose orderly and rose-colored world takes a turn for the confounding. From maddeningly obtuse to downright pitiable, he somehow keeps you rooting for him.
Then again: But can we really root for the guy who has everything — including a MacArthur genius grant?
Jonathan Pryce, “The Two Popes”
Role: Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.
In his favor: He plays a popular real-life figure who loves the church, soccer, tango dancing and the Beatles, probably in that order. Pryce has a salt-of-the-earth humility that reminds us why Francis is so beloved. Of the two popes, his the more fully realized story, buttressed by flashbacks to his bumpy path to the priesthood.
Then again: The buddy-picture vibe undercuts the subject.
Missed the cut for Best Actor
Taron Egerton, “Rocketman”
Role: Reg Dwight/Elton John in the heady early days.
Why he deserved a nod: He’s got the showmanship down, with or without those silly glasses and sparkly get-ups. If Rami Malek won last year for a lip-syncing Freddie Mercury, Egerton, whose voice is a credible facsimile of Elton’s, should have been a shoo-in.
Then again: A rock star imitator winning again was unlikely.
Will and should win
Renée Zellweger, “Judy”
Role: Judy Garland in the dissolute last year of her life.
In her favor: Zellweger reins in her trademark squint in a remarkable metamorphosis that captures Garland’s heartbreaking vulnerability, if not her spectacular voice. She even sells an over-the-top “Over the Rainbow.”
Then again: The film itself is maddeningly uneven, with ill-conceived flashbacks that distract from what we came to see.
Other Best Actress nominees
Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”
Role: Araminta Ross, the woman who became slave liberator Harriet Tubman.
In her favor: Erivo is a quiet, steely, spiritual presence, tiny in stature but mighty in will. It’s a tour de force, almost biblical achievement; finally, audiences saw the powerhouse who’s better known for her prowess on the Broadway stage.
Then again: She might have gotten lost in the trappings of a standard biopic.
Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”
Role: Nicole Barber, an actress who initiates divorce proceedings against her husband.
In her favor: Earnest and relatable, she can make clunkers like “I was only feeding his aliveness!” believable. Even as she’s eviscerating her soon-to-be-ex, the spark of lingering affection plays across her open face. It’s a complex performance, as powerful in the small scenes as the big ones.
Then again: The early buzz on the film has died down.
Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”
Role: Jo March, the beating heart of a Civil War-era family of sisters.
In her favor: Ronan has never been more radiant; she brims with fierce intelligence and just-right modernity. Her self-doubt and stubborn righteousness coexist appealingly, breathing new life into a well-loved character we thought we knew.
Then again: This Jo isn’t as front-and-center as previous versions.
Charlize Theron, “Bombshell”
Role: Fox News personality Megyn Kelly.
In her favor: Theron has pulled off an uncanny feat that relies not only on prosthetics but voice and bearing. She makes you feel Kelly’s anguish over her role in the network’s dirty secrets, no matter your opinion going in.
Then again: She had the bad timing to compete in the real-person sweepstakes against Renée Zellweger.
Missed the cut for Best Actress
Awkwafina, “The Farewell”
Role: Billi Wang, an empathetic granddaughter fighting old-world customs.
Why she deserved a nod: You thought she was only a comic actress? She displays a melancholy side here, putting her raspy voice and hunched posture to charming effect. Her exasperated affection for her family feels real.
Then again: She spends a lot of time sitting on beds, staring into the silent void.
Will and should win
Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”
Role: Cliff Booth, stunt double and wingman for a TV star.
In his favor: His effortless cool is the perfect foil to DiCaprio, and he makes his unglamorous life appealing — who wouldn’t want to hang with Cliff, his dog and his Kraft dinner? Bonus points for his shirtless fix-it skills.
Then again: Nothing — everybody loves Brad.
Other Best Supporting Actor nominees
Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Role: Mister Rogers.
In his favor: Has there ever been a more perfect melding of actor and character? Hanks slips into the role as easily as he does the cardigan. But with the measured cadences, the gentle tilt of the head, this is no phoned-in act that coasts on our affection.
Then again: We never quite forget we’re watching Tom Hanks.
Anthony Hopkins, “The Two Popes”
Role: Pope Benedict XVI, who confers with future Pope Francis as he considers stepping down.
In his favor: Hopkins has the more difficult role, lending humanity to a man whom the filmmakers want us to dislike. His halting confusion over the state of the world and the church is palpable.
Then again: It’s the less showy of the two performances.
Al Pacino, “The Irishman”
Role: Teamsters honcho/unsolved mystery Jimmy Hoffa.
In his favor: Pacino tones down his usual bombast as the charismatic, uncompromising union boss. He’s hotheaded, sure, but manifests a tender fatherliness that endears him to a young Peggy Sheeran — and to us.
Then again: He and Joe Pesci could split “The Irishman” voting bloc.
Joe Pesci, “The Irishman”
Role: Philly Mafia boss Russell Bufalino.
In his favor: All purring menace, this is a Pesci you’ve never seen. His quietly lethal pronouncements — “It is what it is” — make your blood run cold. It’s a forceful comeback for a guy who hasn’t been onscreen much in 20 years.
Then again: He and Pacino could split “The Irishman” voting bloc.
Missed the cut for Best Supporting Actor
Song Kang Ho, “Parasite”
Role: Kim Ki-taek, patriarch of a struggling Korean family.
Why he deserved a nod: Lumpish and hangdog, he is more child than parent. But he cunningly never lets you forget he’s the glue that holds this clan — and the story — together. When he snaps, all hell breaks loose.
Then again: This is a true ensemble effort.
Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”
Role: Cutthroat divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw.
In her favor: Her acid commentary is a welcome chaser to the mopey self-absorption of the two principals. She adroitly seesaws between confidential girlfriend and hard-as-nails advocate. You’d want her in your corner.
Then again: Seemingly channeling her brittle Renata from “Big Little Lies,” she can be abrasively one-note.
Should win Best Supporting Actress
Florence Pugh, “Little Women”
Role: Amy March, the spoiled and willful youngest member of the family.
In her favor: Pugh accomplishes something miraculous here: She makes Amy likable and, crucially, understandable (hey, Laurie — we get it). Her bright impertinence is the vinegar that cuts the treacle.
Then again: She had a breakout year (see “Midsommar”), but might the Academy figure this is an actress who’ll have plenty of future chances?
Other Best Supporting Actress nominees
Kathy Bates, “Richard Jewell”
Role: Bobi Jewell, mother of a bombing suspect.
In her favor: She has center stage in the most affecting scene of the film, as she begs for her son to be cleared. She’s the epitome of the loving parent who only wanted her son to realize his dreams but finds herself in a nightmare. And she’s a pro whom the Academy has rewarded before.
Then again: She and her film have been largely absent from awards chatter.
Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”
Role: Rosie Betzler, kindhearted mother to a high-spirited boy.
In her favor: Her German accent is both warm and no-nonsense. It’s such a different character from the one she plays in “Marriage Story” that her versatility might be rewarded. And she’s made for sturdy Nordic knitwear and perky Tyrolean hats.
Then again: It’s a polarizing movie. And a double nominee hasn’t won since 2004.
Margot Robbie, “Bombshell”
Role: Kayla Pospisil, a composite of several Fox News up-and-comers.
In her favor: She walks a flawless line between naiveté and, um, naked ambition as a conflicted cog in the Fox machine. Not having to imitate an actual person, as her co-stars did, frees her to create her character from whole cloth.
Then again: She might not get the credit those co-stars did, either.
Missed the cut for Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lopez, “Hustlers”
Role: Ramona Vega, ringleader of a band of strippers-turned-grifters.
Why she deserved a nod: She electrifies the screen and drips charisma — she’s warm and motherly, then cold and calculating. And in everything from a G-string to an Old Navy hoodie, she shows us how spectacular 50 looks.
Then again: Apparently we just can’t forgive a little thing called “Gigli.”