The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2020

There are 38 feature films nominated for the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed fewer than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though, including four titles from our own Top 10 Films of 2019 list. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2019 cinema had to offer.

Listed below are the 16 Oscar-Nominated films from 2019 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

1. Parasite, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best International Feature Film, and Best Production Design

“Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”  – Boomer

2. Avengers: Endgame, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“This is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was ‘forced’ or ‘cheesy,’ but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know.” – Boomer

3. Knives Out, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot.” – Boomer

4. Little Women, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saiorse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score

“This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable.” – Boomer

5. The Lighthouse, nominated for Best Cinematography

“Packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot.” – Brandon

6. I Lost My Body, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.” – Brandon

7. Marriage Story, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score

“A superb breakup story about how you can love somebody so much, and create a life with them that you love, and it still has to dissolve. It specifically illustrates how hard it can be for parents when their child arbitrarily prefers one over the other. The way those formative childhood phases affect permanent legal repercussions is devastating, as is the realization that you might not actually be best parent for your own child.” – The Podcast Crew

8. Joker, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.” – Brandon

9. Missing Link, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“Very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema.” – Brandon

10. 1917, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects

“The video game mission plot might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the unearthly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.” – Brandon

11. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Leonard Dicaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about.” – Brandon

12. The Irishman, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Visual Effects

“Finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.” – Brandon

13. Jojo Rabbit, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Production Design

“Works best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time.” – Brandon

14. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys.” – Boomer

15. Ad Astra, nominated for Best Sound Mixing

“Has all the building blocks needed to achieve something great; they’re just arranged in a confoundingly dull configuration. Worse, there’s literally not one thing about its combination of vintage sci-fi pulp & faux-philosophical melodrama that Interstellar didn’t already achieve to greater success, so there’s constantly a better viewing option hanging over its head.” – Brandon

16. Rocketman, nominated for Best Original Song

“The narration continually reassures the audience that Elton John’s life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments.” – Brandon

-Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Joker (2019)

Uh oh, I ended up enjoying the disreputable movie about the Crime Clown, may the gods of Good Taste have mercy on me. The angry backlash surrounding Todd Phillips’s supervillain origin story Joker has been raging since before the movie was even theatrically released, so I can’t imagine that its recent anointment as this year’s Oscars Villain is going to make my defense of it any easier. Even I balked at the film’s existence when watching its early trailers, seeing nothing about what it was promising that hadn’t already been accomplished expertly in You Were Never Really Here & The King of Comedy. Yet, watching Joker on the big screen recently (thanks to its Oscars-boosted second run) I didn’t find anything that really needed defending. None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.

On a plot level, there’s nothing remarkable here. Phillips merely piles another gritty comic book movie on top of the pile by replacing De Niro’s deranged stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy with The Clown Prince of Crime. Joker checks off all the necessary boxes to function as both an unimaginative Batman movie (yes, that includes a shot of Mrs. Wayne’s pearls) and as a middling Scorsese riff. There’s not even any room for surprise in the titular arch-villain’s transformation from sign-twirling clown-for-hire to deranged serial killer, since he already looks like a homicidal maniac in clown drag from scene one. The only relatively daring narrative specificity here is setting the film during the grimy days of a 1980s NYC (excuse me, “Gotham”) garbage strike, but even that choice reeks of Scorsese worship. This is not a film that desperately wants to surprise you, though. We all know the sign-twirling clown will become a murder clown by the third act, and in the meantime the soundtrack bombards us with the least imaginative song cues conceivable (including “Send in the Clowns” and “Everybody Plays the Fool,” but somehow not “Tears of a Clown”?).

I don’t see all this routine adherence to prescribed story templates as intellectual laziness, however. It’s just an exercise in genre. Like many great genre films, Joker overcomes its narrative familiarity with other virtues – namely in the bizarre screen presence of Juaquin Phoenix in the central role. Like Tom Hardy’s Herculean feat of transforming Venom from microwaved superhero leftovers to deeply strange camp fest all by his lonesome, Phoenix miraculously carves out a deeply weird character study from these uninspired backdrops. From his alien skeletal contortions in the sign-twirling clowns’ locker room to his piercing laughter at the exact wrong social cues to his public displays of bedroom-dancing, Phoenix delivers a genuine nightmare of a performance, flash-freezing my blood as soon as the first scene. I was too terrified of what he might do from moment to moment to worry about how pedestrian the film around him was. If anything, heightening the world around him to match his energy might have been too overwhelming. The familiar backdrop of a “gritty,” Scorsese-inspired comic book movie was just the muted tone his loud, upsetting presence needed to pop against in contrast.

The great irony of Joker is that much ado has been made about its political messaging where there is none, which is the exact folly that’s depicted in the film’s third act. Joker has become a popular irl boogeyman as a call-to-arms for potentially dangerous white men to rise up in revolt. Such a revolt is depicted in the film itself, with thousands of rioters taking to the streets in clown masks, inspired by the Crime Clown’s perceived “Kill the Rich” ethos. The thing that he has no awareness of class politics, and his adoring proto-Anonymous fans are reading into what’s essentially a blank slate of a hero. He might as well be Forest Gump or Chauncey Gardner, offering only empty platitudes like “What’s the world come to?” and “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” when prompted for an opinion on the state of things. If anything, the film functions like a horror movie about how scary isolated white men on the fringe can be once they’re fired up. Anyone who finds a hero in this indiscriminate murderer is deliberately searching for validation of their own already-established political agenda on a blank canvas – which is exactly what happens in the movie. This is a character study of a dangerous creep, not the incel dog whistle it’s been reported to be. Anyone who finds meaning there is just another kind of clown.

Of course, all art is inherently political in some way, and there’s been plenty of valid critique lobbed at Joker for its representation of racial power dynamics and mental health crises in particular. I don’t want to be dismissive of those claims, but I believe they mostly just point to the kind of movie this is at its rotten core: a trashy genre picture that has no real place being lauded in a prim & proper Awards Season context. I found Joker to be a deeply upsetting creep-out, thanks almost exclusively to Phoenix’s outright demonic performance. It’s rare that a slimy, grimy movie like that sneaks into Awards consideration, and a lot of people apparently don’t know what to do with it in that context except to get loud & get angry. Personally, I’m starting to find this particular bit of Oscars Season Chaos perversely amusing in a way I didn’t with past Awards Season villains like Green Book or Three Billboards. In other words, I used think that Joker’s existence was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy.

-Brandon Ledet