Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Review by Ben Pantrey

It’s been less than a year since Toni Morrison’s death at the age of 88: an event which resulted in an outpouring of public grief from her wide and diverse base of readers. It has brought her to the attention of people who had perhaps overlooked her novels before. The Pieces I Am is a documentary about Morrison, compiled from interviews with the author herself and several of her colleagues and contemporaries. These include Angela Davis, whom Morrison worked as an editor for, Morrison’s own editor Robert Gottlieb, Oprah Winfrey, and several others.

The documentary premiered at Sundance in January 2019, several months before Morrison’s death, and does a good job at introducing her to its viewers. We start from Morrison describing her burgeoning love of language as a child, her writing method, the topics her early books covered, and the trajectory of her career. The documentary brings us up to the point when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. I should note that there are spoilers to her early novels, especially Beloved, here.

The interviews are assembled together well, with a clear skillfulness in terms of pace and flow. There are no chapters or clear divisions in the documentary, but the movement from one topic to the next feels natural and smooth. The heart and soul of the documentary is, of course, Morrison herself. Her description of the writing process and her advice for young writers is well worth hearing.

There are no chapters or clear divisions in the documentary, but the movement from one topic to the next feels natural and smooth.

Morrison’s work didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. She wrote in opposition to a tendency in literature that defined serious work as that which describes the experience of middle class white people. I don’t think this context should be ignored, but I did find it a little disappointing that the documentary devoted time to examining the backlash Morrison received as she became an acclaimed author. After she was awarded the Nobel Prize, for example, some newspapers published opinion pieces that suggested that she was chosen as winner out of “political correctness”. Another interviewee notes that you could only hold that opinion if you’d never read any of Morrison’s work. If so, why did this documentary feel these ignorant voices had to be heard and repeated? 

This documentary is founded almost entirely on interviews, and as such, there were some problems with superfluity on the visual side. At times, what was happening on screen amounted to a high definition PowerPoint presentation, with the camera slowly zooming in and out of different photographs as jazz music played innocuously in the background.

Overall, The Pieces I Am is a pleasantly structured introduction to Toni Morrison. I left the cinema with an eagerness to go read her novels. Despite this, the somewhat dry way it’s presented visually makes it seem more suited to Netflix than the big screen. 

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will open to a limited release at the IFI on March 6th.

Dark Waters

Review by Niamh Muldowney

A banana peel will take 2-5 weeks to decompose. A cardboard box will take around 3 months to decompose. Plastic Bottles can decompose between 500-1000 years. But PFOA cannot decompose naturally. And you probably have no idea what that is. 

Mark Ruffalo stars as Rob Bilott in Dark Waters.

Mark Ruffalo’s latest film Dark Waters tells the story of Rob Bilott, a lawyer who’s spent more than 20 years fighting the DuPont company’s illegal dumping and unsafe practices regarding PFOA. PFOA is one of the unregulated ‘forever chemicals’ that can exist indefinitely in the environment and has been linked with kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and preeclampsia. It is found in stain resistant carpets, Teflon pans, and even tap water. It is also currently in the blood of 99% of Americans. Dark Waters works twofold as a film, both as a warning of the dangers of forever chemicals and as a thrilling and terrifying David and Goliath story both against this invisible, indestructible threat, and the corporations that create them. 

The didactic nature of the film can be overbearing, with the characters literally sitting down and discussing the science behind PFOA (complete with drawn out diagrams at times!). However, due to the topic, this information is necessary and adds to the pervasive sense of dread throughout the film. This atmosphere is handled expertly, with the entire cinema hanging on a knife’s edge during phone calls and courtroom scenes. In fact, I recall a moment halfway through the film when a shiver went down my spine: I began to think about how many Teflon pans I had in my kitchen and how quickly I could get rid of them. In short, regarding selling the danger of PFOA, the film just works.

This atmosphere is handled expertly, with the entire cinema hanging on a knife’s edge during phone calls and courtroom scenes.

However, I struggle on whether I actually liked the film. As the genre of David vs Goliath films go, Erin Brockovich, Spotlight, and The Big Short all work better. Dark Waters attempts to make interesting shot choices at points, but it is clear the emphasis is not on this aspect of the film. Ultimately it is the (at times unbelievable, but absolutely) true story that carries the film.

Dark Waters and its promotion does an incredible job at showcasing an issue close to Ruffalo’s heart. You will feel a palpable fear of what lies unseen, undetected and unregulated in the deep dark waters and be convinced to join the fight against forever chemicals. But the line between didacticism and narrative is drawn thin, and holds me back from loving Dark Waters completely. 

Dark Waters is now screening in cinemas across Ireland.

Vivarium

Review by Luke Bradley

Vivarium is the story of a young couple, played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, who find themselves trapped in a mysteriously endless suburban estate following a house viewing. Soon realising they are the subject of a sick experiment by unseen extra-terrestrial overlords, they resort to their only given means of escaping the labyrinth; raising the ‘baby’ that arrives on their doorstep as their own.

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star in Vivarium.

Director Lorcan Finnegan delivers a mostly captivating look at psychological terror, and benefits from doing so in such a unique setting. The symmetrical, uniform aesthetic of the housing estate in which they find themselves trapped is chilling, tapping into classic fears of isolation in the suburbs. The unending maze of green 2-bedroom homes is essentially a character of its own, looming large throughout. Mind-bending sequences of their attempts to escape are the stand-out, lending the viewer the same sense of dread and paranoia that our protagonists endure.

Poots and Eisenberg carry the film excellently, each highlighting different nuances and coping mechanisms symptomatic of their psychological deterioration. Poots in particular is fantastic, and her interplay with their ‘son’ anchors sequences that at times feel a tad too long. It really is their film, although child actor Senan Jennings is also brilliant; never as much as in this film will you absolutely detest a child character. Jennings conveys the creepiness of trying to emulate human behaviour with equally hilarious and bone-chilling results.

Poots and Eisenburg carry the film excellently, each highlighting different nuances and coping mechanisms symptomatic of their psychological deterioration.

The film’s tone can feel erratic at times. Earlier on in the film, Finnegan delights in pointing out the insanity of the concept at hand, doling out plenty of tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing, like ‘quality family homes forever.’ It also doesn’t shy away from poking fun at the film’s creepy characters: one sequence involving the housing estate’s pseudo real estate agent had me in stitches. Pretty quickly afterwards, however, proceedings turn dour, and humour is left to the side in order to delve into the dire consequences of their circumstances. Notable as well is the pacing of the film; Vivarium feels longer than it is, replicating the elongated sense of time the characters have in the labyrinth. Whether this is intentional or not, it does itself no favours.

Vivarium is at its strongest when staying true to its namesake. Focusing on the impact of complete isolation from one’s natural habitat and the psychosis associated with being under observation, the film soars. Some of the excellent tone-setting of the first half is undermined by a sharp turn towards grave seriousness, but Vivarium is still a fascinating character study, complemented well by its brilliant sci-fi/horror twist.

Vivarium will open to Irish audiences on March 27th.

Call of the Wild

Review by Sonny Daly

Call of the Wild ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a comforting vessel of escapism. Exhausted from shenanigans the night before, it seemed like nothing would perk up my cold soul that damp Thursday morning, but I found a warm light in the form of a goofy but lovable dog named Buck. This wholesome Odyssey of a once foolish pooch on a journey of self discovery may seem cliched, comparable to the likes of Rango or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, although this eye watering tale of mans’ best friend is simply just so heartwarming and consistently engaging it doesn’t matter one bit. 

Harrison Ford stars in Call of the Wild.

Directed by Chris Sanders, known for notable works like How to Train Your Dragon and other renowned Disney classics, one would assume that of course this would be a children’s film. However, it can be seen and interpreted differently by adults and children alike. Call of the Wild was adapted from the early 20th century novel by Jack London which was more gritty, depicting much more desperate violence amid the 1890s Yukon gold rush. Some of this is kept in the film however, possibly for adult appeal, in the shape of John Thornton, a grizzly lone wanderer with a tragic past. Played by Harrison Ford, this adventurer joins Buck rather unfortunately halfway through the film on a decided trek across the Yukon, closely followed by prospectors with a personal agenda against Thornton. Where the suspense and action teeters on the edge of being too much for children, Sanders calls in the lighthearted humour of the wacky mutt that makes up for it.

The landscape visuals are stunning, as well as the rest of the production, though it was such a fast moving story it was almost hard to take in all of the excellent production design.

One of the major worries I had for this film was the CGI of Buck himself, but was pleasantly surprised about how he looked and moved, which was very lifelike. This is because he was based on a real St. Bernard-Scotch Collie, which the director adopted from a rescue shelter. The majority of the shots are computer generated however, but done so very successfully. Considering Sanders works on many of Disney’s animated films, this is not surprising. The landscape visuals are stunning, as well as the rest of the production, though it was such a fast moving story it was almost hard to take in all of the excellent production design.

Overall, this is an excellent film which I’d recommend to lovers of nature and dogs of any age. I thought it was a well rounded film that I’d definitely bring my younger brothers to. The only problem I had with Call of the Wild was the rather speedy pace of the plot and abrupt ending. It was a little hard to learn much about the numerous characters who were introduced and exited soon after, but it didn’t take away from the quality and enjoyment of the film. I thoroughly appreciated this film and found exactly what I didn’t know I needed this cold and harsh winter.

Call of the Wild is currently screening in cinemas across Ireland.

From the Archives: A Ghost Story

Review by Robyn Kilroy

A few months ago, while scrolling through You Tube in search of trailers for upcoming films, I came across a trailer that instantly had my interest. With the title A Ghost Story and the thumbnail being someone dressed in a white sheet with eye holes cut out, I was intrigued and watched it. Since watching this trailer (and re-watching it about fifty times) I had been curious to see how director David Lowery would make a film about a man in a white sheet portraying a ghost and for it to be taken seriously. Despite this odd central image, I found myself mesmerized for the entirety of the film. The plot itself follows a man called “C” (Casey Affleck) who, after dying in a car crash, comes back as a ghost and haunts the house where he and his partner “M” (Rooney Mara) lived. He watches on as time goes by, from the present to the future, and even going back to the past, catching glimpses of different time periods. Through this, Lowery depicts how big time and existence truly is, and how small we are in comparison.

When talking about this film with friends and family and describing the main character to be this silent expressionless grown man dressed in a white sheet with eye holes, many of them laughed at the idea. After all, the image of the white sheet is generally tied to dodgy hand-made Halloween costumes for kids. However, I found this portrayal of a ghostly figure to be highly effective. It brings a level of simplicity to the film, bringing a sense of innocence to the ghost, rather than it being a menacing invisible character or a CGI ghost. This simple and innocent take on the character of the ghost means that his emotions are conveyed strongly, even though he is silent and expressionless.  We feel his helplessness as he watches time go by, as the people around him begin the move on and world changes. The only form of communication we see him having as a ghost is with the other ghost next door, who is waiting for someone to return, only he can’t remember who he’s waiting for. These brief conversations are displayed through subtitles as the ghosts cannot talk. Surprisingly, these silent conversations present some of the most emotional dialogue in the film. Lowery allows us to feel the ghosts’ sense of powerlessness; they are unable to stop the world from changing around them.

This simple and innocent take on the character of the ghost means that his emotions are conveyed strongly, even though he is silent and expressionless.

An interesting stylistic feature of the film (which moviegoers either love or hate) is very long takes. Some of the takes in this film are very long, including an already infamous scene in which Rooney Mara’s character eats an entire pie. Though these long takes slow the film down and may be tedious to get through, I found them necessary for this film. After all, this film depicts time and its enormity and through using these long takes this idea is also depicted. For example, in the aforementioned pie eating scene, the length of the scene truly shows Rooney Mara’s character’s suffering as she grieves over her dead partner. By showing this in two very long takes, Lowery in a way depicts the enormity of her grief as the ghost watches on in the background, motionless and helpless.

To conclude, this film broke my heart. I must applaud Lowery’s ability to explore a topic as heavy and existential as time and existence through a character as innocent and bizarre as a ghost in a white sheet. However, had Lowery gone down another route and depicted the ghost in a more generic or popular way, I doubt that it would have the same effect. Whether you end up loving or hating this film, everyone can take away something from this film. 

From the Archives: Loving Vincent

Review by Robyn Kilroy

The great Vincent van Gogh once said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”, a quote that I believe sums up the work of Dorota Kobiela’s new film Loving Vincent, the world’s first fully painted film. It took two years to complete this film, with over 100 painters painting the 65,000 frames on over 1,000 canvases, and a previous four years before that to master the technique. The result of this dedication brings the audience an aesthetic delight as we are brought into the swirling magnificence of these painted frames, inspired by Van Gogh’s work.

vvg(1).jpg

The film tells the story of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), an at first reluctant messenger who must deliver a letter written by Vincent to his brother a year after his death. This journey soon turns into a journey for the truth as Armand tries to solve the mystery as to why Vincent killed himself, and even if he actually killed himself. I was concerned coming into the film that the narrative would be neglected due to the emphasis on the aesthetic quality of the film, however I found the plot to be compelling, playing off the mysteriousness of Van Gogh’s character and circumstances of his suicide. This is also thanks to the flashbacks of Van Gogh’s (played in this film by Robert Gulaczyk) life, which help show the impact the characters in this film have on his life.

The characters are based off the real people in Van Gogh’s life and are styled in the portraits he painted of them. This includes the portrait of Armand Roulin, who’s look in this film is inspired by van Gogh’s portrait of him which he painted in 1888. The same goes for Joseph Roulin (played by Chris O’Dowd), a loyal friend of van Gogh’s, whose look was inspired by his portrait in 1888. I’m familiar enough with Van Gogh’s work (I’m no expert but I like his paintings) and because of this I felt a sense of familiarity with the characters and imagery I saw on screen. For example, when Armand first encounters Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan). We see her playing piano, which is instantly linked to Van Gogh’s painting “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano” (1890).

The paintings used in this film are so masterfully edited together to bring the sensation of movement that I sometimes found myself forgetting that they are in fact paintings.

Of course, how can I write about Loving Vincent without touching on its aesthetics? The paintings used in this film are so masterfully edited together to bring the sensation of movement that I sometimes found myself forgetting that they are in fact paintings. By using Van Gogh’s painting style as influence, you can’t help but feel transported into the world of Vincent van Gogh; how he saw the world. While the majority of the film is painted in elaborate colours, the sections of flashback on Van Gogh’s life are painted in black and white. This is extremely effective as it helps portray van Gogh’s life as a struggling painter, tormented by his inner demons and society around him.  

Overall, I would call this film a triumph, linking the two already closely-knit worlds of painting and film even more together. Not only is this film beautiful, it also provides us with an excellent story of the world’s most celebrated and enigmatic painters.

From the Archives: The Cured

Review by Robyn Kilroy

I think most people would agree with me when I say that the zombie movie is a sub-genre that has very much been overdone. Whether it’s a serious horror such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later or a more comedic take like Shaun of the Dead, the horror genre has been bombarded with flesh-eating creatures for generations. However, after seeing David Freyne’s new Irish horror film The Cured, I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh take on the zombie movie.

the-cured-movie-review-senan-and-conor.jpeg

Set in Dublin, The Cured tells the story of a disease known as The Maze Virus, that sweeps across Europe, infecting people and turning them into zombies. After treatment for the virus begins in Ireland, certain people who have successfully recovered (known as “the Cured”) are released back into the public. The film follows Senan (Sam Keeley), who is cured, released from quarantine and taken in by his sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page). The “Cured” face societal backlash and are seen as murderers amongst the general public, leading many to turn radical in the face of the ill-treatment they experience.

With most generic zombie films, the narrative is commonly centred around a survival plot, in which a group of people must escape some form of zombie sickness. This film, however, refreshingly deals with the aftermath of the outbreak. We see a post-apocalyptic Dublin that is trying to rebuild after the outbreak of the virus. The set-up of the film allows a more humanistic approach to the zombie as we see characters like Senan come to terms with the memories retained from their infected selves. As well as this, the film deals with how far you’d go to fight for your life, with members of the “Cured” forming a radical violent group, led by Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) in order to fight against the discrimination they face amongst the general public. By focusing on the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, the film allows a lot more drama and sympathy towards the infected character that we may not see other films in this genre.

By focusing on the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, the film allows a lot more drama and sympathy towards the infected character that we may not see other films in this genre.

However, the one thing I’ll say about this new take on the zombie film, if you’re going to see it to get your fill of classic horror, you’ve come to the wrong film. While there are many jumps and rather terrifying moments (I don’t do horror films well), they come few and far between. The film chooses to focus on the dramatic and thrilling moments of terror rather than horror. Consider this a warning to those horror fanatics who are looking for their next fix of heart-pumping jump-scares. The Cured offers a refreshing twist to an often predictable genre.

Underwater

Review by Johannes Black

Underwater continues in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft-inspired science fiction, with notable predecessors including Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), and Barry Levinson’s much-understated Sphere (1998). It is exciting and blood-curdling terrain, whose B-movie possibilities have inspired a generation of filmmakers. It should be a winning combination, with a January release date and starring, amongst others, indie-movie heavyweights Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel. Unfortunately for 20th Century Fox (ironically, the last picture to be released under that banner, soon dropping ‘Fox’ for ‘Studios’) the spongy formula has been used too many times before, now waterlogged and unable to carry any real substance.

Kristen Stewart stars in Underwater.

Set entirely in the Mariana Trench (ironically, a filming location for James Cameron’s belated Avatar sequels), Norah Price (Stewart) is employed as a mechanical engineer for Tian Industries: an offshore drilling company whose underwater Kepler station is severely damaged by a crippling earthquake. Assembling with other survivors, including their stalwart captain, Lucien (Vincent Cassel), the crew voyage into the depths of the ocean in hope of survival… only to discover they are not alone. 

As each group member falls prey to an unknown species of creature (imagine Zoidberg  from Futurama’s given The Lion King’s (2019) ‘photo-realism’ treatment) Kristen Stewart battles her way forward, comfortably playing into the ‘final girl’ trope with every new challenge. Underwater marks Stewart’s second recent misfire with the blockbuster genre, including Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels (2019), her versatility replaced by un-emotive, stock responses. I suspect, as a talented star in her own right, Underwater is simply there to pay the bills.

The well-exhausted story is told confidently, but, nearing the half-way mark, it is clearly fatigued by a plodding narrative.

William Eubank’s blockbuster feels more-or-less outdated, as if it should have been released several years earlier. Filmed from Brian Duffield’s blacklisted script, and sat on a shelf for nearly three years during post-production, the signs of its age are implicit. The well-exhausted story is told confidently, but, nearing the half-way mark, it is clearly fatigued by a plodding narrative. Naaman Marshall’s sleek and evocative production design, however impressive it may be, is unable to boost a lazy, wisecracking script: “On a scale from one to ten, how bad is my rig?” “Ten.”

Underwater is entertaining and certainly unsettling, though in a single-use, expendable sort of way. Undoubtedly, this works perfectly as a Friday-night movie, or, maybe, as a first-person video game. Provided, of course, you don’t expect to get anything else out of it.

Underwater is now showing in select cinemas across Ireland.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Review by James McCleary

The past three years have been an exceptional feat for DC Films in terms of successfully recovering from their disastrous attempts to imitate the Marvel formula, the culmination of which took the form of the critical and commercial monstrosity formerly known as Justice League. More than anything else, this quality uptick is indebted to the decision to change tracks and organize each of their films as a unique perspective on the superhero genre under the careful watch of a visionary director. Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is the latest of these oddball roller coasters, taking the meta comedy shape of Deadpool, and turning it into a group hang break-up movie with heart and wit to spare. The film is an uproarious delight anchored by Margot Robbie’s delectable performance as Harley Quinn and director Cathy Yan’s refreshingly unfamiliar approach to blockbuster storytelling. All of which results in what is easily DC’s strongest offering since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy concluded almost ten years ago. 

Margot Robbie leads the all-women superhero team-up in Birds of Prey.

Birds of Prey may have the title of a team-up adventure, but in truth the film belongs entirely to Harley Quinn, who is finally given material more deserving of Margot Robbie’s considerable abilities. Her performance, which often concerns a running commentary on her co-stars and a series of fourth wall breaks, might be dismissed by some as a Ryan Reynolds Deadpool impression, but where Reynolds often struggled to balance the comedy and drama in each line delivery and would instead compartmentalize his emotional range, Robbie delivers each line with a cheeky and heartfelt sincerity reminiscent of her work in I, Tonya, but taken to cartoonish new heights. From unscheduled roller blade brawls to cheese whiz onesie parties, there isn’t a frame in the film where Robbie isn’t pouring all of her energy into bringing this character to life. 

The film’s narrative is fairly simple, focusing on Quinn in the immediate aftermath of her world-shattering break up with the Joker, as she crosses paths with four other women plucked from the deepest depths of comic book mythology: The Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Brasco), all of whom have fallen into the crosshairs of eccentric rich boy Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his loving partner Mr Zsasz (Chris Messina), inevitably leading to the five joining forces to gorily massacre his army of goons. The narrative plays out pretty much how you would expect, but is given an ingenious new coat of paint by Yan, who cleverly structures the film around Harley’s manic rhythm, shifting the tone, location and even point in time on occasion in order to truly put us inside the head of someone whose view of the world is forever transforming by events outside of her control. 

Birds of Prey may have the title of a team-up adventure, but in truth the film belongs entirely to Harley Quinn, who is finally given material more deserving of Margot Robbie’s considerable abilities.

This is not to say that the film is entirely successful at characterising all five of its leads, rather it is the balance of personalities which proves the film’s one significant weakness. After Harley, Black Canary and Cassandra Cain are the best served, while Renee Montoya is a disappointing one-note cop archetype and Huntress is relegated to one prolonged (though admittedly hilarious) psychopath joke. Each of the five leads gives a strong performance, with Smollett-Bell’s in particular making the most of her limited screen-time, but Harley is unquestionably the focus here. She overshadows each of the other heroes’ smaller arcs in her quest to stitch her heart back together in a post-Joker world. 

Birds of Prey is a charming, touching and shockingly violent experiment in superhero filmmaking which appears to function both as an apology to Robbie for her wasted performance in Suicide Squad, and as a joyous mission statement for the bold and bizarre new path DC has forged for itself. For the first time in a decade, I am genuinely excited to see what they come up with next. 

Birds of Prey is now screening in cinemas across Ireland.

2020 Oscars: The Recap

Written by Mia Sherry

This year’s Academy Awards are, for the most part, haunted by their losses. Felt considerably more keenly this year than preceding years due to the overwhelming wealth of brilliant films that were released, the conversation around what would (or what should) win was tainted by discussion of nomination snubs: The Farewell, Uncut Gems, Honey Boy, The Lighthouse, Midsommar and Rocketman to name but a few. 

Many feel Adam Sandler was snubbed for the Best Actor Nomination for his role in the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems.

Alas, far be it from the lofty shoulders of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to withhold a night of debauchery and self-congratulation regardless of the absent talent. The night began as it always does: blander-than-crackers E! Hosts smile woodenly into cameras, critiquing dresses as Ryan Seacrest rubs elbows with Hollywood’s highest and mightiest of 2020. Actors talk about what an honour it is “just to be nominated”, directors talk about “how great it is to be here” and frazzled PR managers take a valium and have a nervous breakdown before they shuffle the talent off to the next interview for another round of vox pops and dress train fixing. There were talks of whether off-the-shoulders were the new leg-slit (verdict: undecided, but still modestly sexy), is a blue suit just a “next level” black suit (verdict: yes, the standard for men’s fashion is still substandard it would seem) and is Brad Pitt growing a break-up mullet? (Yes, but the man pulls it off). 

But it was also the year in which the iron wall the Academy puts up began to crumble, with insider voters claiming they hadn’t seen all the films. The prospect of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite being the first foreign language film to win Best Picture highlighted the absurdity of the fact that the Oscars are in their 92nd year and have never awarded it to a film outside of the English language. It begged the question of the validity of the Awards themselves, if glitz and glam was enough to excuse the copious missteps taken in the name of keeping exclusivity to the upper echelon of the Hollywood system. 

The 92nd Academy Awards also marks the second year that they have gone host-less, regarded by all as being a step towards the less cringe-worthy. We begin with Janelle Monae serenading Tom Hanks with ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’ quickly going into a Beetlejuice-meets-Tony’s sung intro with dancing main characters in the back, including Jaoquin Phoenix’s Joker and women dressed as the Harga from Midsommar. You could practically feel Lin Manuel Miranda vibrate in his seat as James Cordon takes note for next year’s Tony’s. 

Janelle Monae opens the Oscars with a musical performance.

But it sets the tone for the rest of the night: “We celebrate all the amazing women making films this year” says Janelle Monae, pointedly, and also adding “Happy Black History Month”. While that’s a very nice sentiment, in an awards show so overwhelming white and male, it feels not only empty but also deeply performative. Every single year, the Oscar blatantly calls out its own racism and misogyny (often left to the shoulders of women and people of colour themselves), and every year it gets a nervous chuckle, a few tweets, and then it’s put back to bed. I love Monae, and I appreciate her using her platform accordingly, but it’s about time that we recognise this as a worthless gesture until the Academy reflects these sentiments in their categories. 

But anyway, enough with the social commentary, we started the night with a ‘hook ‘em’ award: Best Supporting Actor, and see Brad Pitt beat out some very heavy competition and get his first Oscar for acting for his role as Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. Being such a staple on screen, it’s no shock that Pitt got it, but rather, who he beat: Pacino, Pesci, Hanks and Hopkins. And all who gave nuanced, dimensional performances in their own right, all who were equally deserving. Having given such wonderful and tweet-worthy speeches throughout this awards season, Pitt hit a home run on this one; giving us a little bit of everything you could want: thanks, praise, nostalgia and the barest hint of a manly tear. While many would contest Pitt getting his award for OUATIH rather than his leading role in James Gray’s Ad Astra, few would contest his winning at all. The Oscars have always had a very distinct line of succession, and for the most part this feels like the fulfillment of it. Often it’s rarely a question of the performance itself but what have you starred in before? How many other times have you been nominated? Are you outspoken enough without pushing any major boundaries that you’re using your platform for “good”? It feels fitting, a ceremonial passing of the torch from one generation of acting giants to another. And going to Pitt, whose producing credits include Okja, Moonlight and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, it probably couldn’t have gone to better hands. 

Best Animated Feature goes to Toy Story 4: realistically this is where smart people would have put their money, but it’s still a disappointment when you compare it to the visually inventive and creatively more unique stories like I lost my body and Missing Link. Best Animated Short goes to Hair Love, which is a beautiful testament to black hair and stunning animation alike. 

Retrospectively, Parasite winning [Best Original Screenplay] is absolutely par for the course, paving the way for its eventual Best Picture win.

After renditions of two perfectly mediocre songs, we’re onto the Original Screenplay awards, which have the potential to determine where the rest of the night will go. Original Screenplay in 2020 boasts stiff competition: Knives Out, 1917, Marriage Story, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and Parasite. Retrospectively, Parasite winning is absolutely par for the course, paving the way for its eventual Best Picture win. It is the first foreign language script since Almodovar’s Talk To Her (2007) to win Original Screenplay.

Best Adapted Screenplay goes to Taika Waititi for JoJo Rabbit, which is a divisive film in itself. Its only real contender was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, with Scorsese’s The Irishman having fallen behind well at the beginning of the Awards Race. Though many will be upset at Gerwig’s loss (myself included), Waititi’s win, regardless of what you think of his film, is certainly a step forward for both bolder screenplays and indigenous storytellers (Waititi being the first Maori and indigenous person to win a screenplay award) represented in the Academy. Regardless of your thoughts on the screenplay itself, that’s something to be celebrated.

Maya Rudolph and Kristin Wig give one of the most hilarious introductions for best costume design, which ends up going to Jacquline Durran for Little Women. It feels truly deserved. Though it will be the only award Little Women will walk away with, at least it’s not a pawned off award to keep the masses from rioting. Durran’s work undoubtedly deserves the honour regardless of what the Academy fails to award in Gerwig’s adaptation.

Laura Dern picks up Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Marriage Story.

After another whimsical ad break, we go on to Best Actress in a Supporting Role. It was never really a question of it not going to Laura Dern, nominated for Marriage Story, against Florence Pugh for Little Women, Scarlett Johansson for Jojo Rabbit and Margot Robbie for Bombshell (notably missing from this category is Jennifer Lopez for Hustlers, and in truth Bombshell’s wheedling into these categories is odd and awkward). Dern’s win is a first for Netflix in acting, though it’s tainted by the fact that she won it for Marriage Story and not for her arguably much more well-shaped out performance in Little Women. It’s the Oscars, so we take what we can get. 

(Author’s note: I left for a bathroom break and when I came back Eminem was rising from the stage and rapping about weak legs and arms like spaghetti, causing me to genuinely ask the question of what year I was in. Unfortunately, 2020 was the answer.)

Best Cinematography goes to Roger Deakins for 1917. Realistically this was not at all surprising; the one-take effect was used as a genuine narrative piece instead of a flashy gimmick.

Best Cinematography goes to Roger Deakins for 1917. Realistically this was not at all surprising; the one-take effect was used as a genuine narrative piece instead of a flashy gimmick. Additionally, if we want to talk about snubs then move over Adam Driver and Leonardo DiCaprio because Deakins has you beat for spades. Nominated fifteen times (once twice in the same category in 2007), he only gained his first win in 2017 for Blade Runner 2049. Remember that line of succession thing? This is that come full circle. 

Best Editing was a tense one, because at this crux it has the potential to determine the best picture. Somewhat surprisingly it goes to Ford V. Ferrari, a film that largely flew under the winning radar and was, to many, a shock that it got nominated at all. It’s also interesting that Parasite didn’t secure this win, despite winning at the Editors board. Cynthia Erivo then misses out on getting her EGOT for best original song to Elton John’s ‘I’m Going To Love Me Again’ from Rocketman, which, while disappointing for Erivo, is the least Rocketman deserved when it was so cruelly excluded from any major categories this year. 

1917 gets best visual effects, not totally out of left field, but it’s given to them by James Cordon and Rebel Wilson, dressed as cats. Like in the movie, Cats. The abjectly horrifying motion picture, Cats. It’s nice to know that, despite none of us being around for the birth of cinema, we can still witness the end of it. 

With that behind us, Best International Feature film (previously known as Best Foreign Language film) goes to Joon Ho’s Parasite, which, by all accounts, is well expected. Joker finally gets its first win of the night for Best Original Score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, becoming the fourth woman ever to receive the award, the first since 1997 which went to Anne Dudley for The Full Monty. Though it’s surprising that Joker did so badly, its award for score was never entirely contested: Alexandre Desplat’s Little Women score, though lovely, was perhaps too whimsical and ‘same-y’ for the Academy, Thomas Newman for 1917 was a run of the mill war score, and The Rise of Skywalker by John Williams was one of the weakest Star Wars scores to date. In truth, Randy Newman’s Marriage Story was perhaps Guðnadóttir’s only real contender, but when compared with the haunting and fragile violin that Guðnadóttir employs to chart Arthur’s rise and fall into crime and disillusion it was never really a question of who would take home that golden statue. 

Bong Joon Ho is awarded the Best Director prize for Parasite.

Best Directing. At this point, is anybody’s game, but shockingly it goes to Bong Joon Ho. It’s interesting that when pitted against Academy golden boys Scorcese and Tarantino, Joon Ho still came out strong, and it’s this that hopefully marks the Academy’s movement from being a deeply local and systemic Awards show. Joon Ho’s acceptance speech is one of the best of the night. One of the most moving moments, perhaps, is when he leads the crowd in a standing ovation for Martin Scorcese. As a director who again and again champions expressive and demanding cinema, to be so frosted out from awards (largely due to the fact that he had to go through Netflix to get funding for his film) was unbelievable to most. Though it was undoubtedly Joon Ho’s night, the fact that he so graciously acknowledges his standing on Scorcese’s shoulders is a testament not only to some of the great films that have come from Hollywood (despite our complaints) but also to the great films born from them. Later, a la Lindsey Lohan in Mean Girls, Joon Ho offers to split the Oscar between all five directors. Oh Bong, you cad, making us cry one minute and laugh the next.

Though it was undoubtedly Joon Ho’s night, the fact that he so graciously acknowledges his standing on Scorcese’s shoulders is a testament not only to some of the great films that have come from Hollywood (despite our complaints) but also to the great films born from them.

We’re three hours in now and getting to the most pressing question of the night: which white man will scream the loudest, and, through his white male rage, ensure his Oscar? What’s that I hear? Surely Adam Driver! Look at those veins pop in that montage! Or Leonard DiCaprio? He’s beaten his curse, after all, and I really do believe him when he roars about hating “fuckin’ hippes”. Antonio Banderas? No yelling, next. Jonathan Price for the Two Popes? Again, very little yelling, no point. So who could it be? Why, it’s the clown prince of crime Joaquin Phoenix getting his first ever Oscar for Joker. Giving one of his most charged and moving speeches yet, Phoenix pays tribute to his late brother River Phoenix in a rally against animal cruelty. Though Phoenix is an incredible actor, many would agree that his win for Joker feels instead more like a retrospective win for The Master or Walk The Line (line of succession, remember?). Compared with the other actors in the category, though Phoenix certainly acts the loudest, he does not necessarily act the best. 

Best Actress is slightly less predictable, mostly because many can’t quite believe Zellweger’s winning, or even nomination, for Judy. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t rather it go to Saorise Ronan for her turn as Jo March in Little Women or even Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story. But alas, it went to Zellweger, who gave Gwenyth Paltrow a run for her money with what must be the world’s longest speech. She didn’t even get pushed off by that godforsaken music. 

The cast and crew of Parasite accept the Oscar for Best Picture.

By this point it’s nearly 4:30 in the morning and I’ll be damned if I don’t want to just go to bed. But I’m keeping at it because we’re finally here, at Best Picture. It was nail biting and unsure up to the last minute: 1917 won PGA, but Parasite won SAG, the larger body within the Academy. Ford V Ferrari gets best editing which is usually a sway vote for best picture. Though Parasite thus far has swept the awards board, there’s largely a sense of it being too good to be true. And then it happens: Parasite gets the best picture, becoming the first film not in the English language to win, and the first since Marty (1955) to also win the Palme D’or at Cannes Film Festival. It’s incredible that a film so staunchly anti-capitalist, so blatantly resistant to Westernization could sweep the awards at a show built on those two very foundations. It’s Bong Joon Ho, who faced the wrath of Harvey Weinstein and nearly had his career destroyed because of it, who did it. He accepted it with grace, and reader: it was a joy to watch. 

Full of performative white guilt, diamonds so bright they could blind you and clothes so expensive a single suit could probably solve the housing crisis, the 92nd Academy Awards is probably one of the most successful to date.  For what was nominated, it’s hard to be disappointed. Though many have lost faith in the Academy to recognise the truly deserving of nominations and awards, in the words of the big winner Bong Joon Ho himself: “cinema has always been international and universal”. It’s shocking and slightly bitter-tasting that it’s taken the Academy 92 years to get to the point where they can earnestly look outside the scope of the Hollywood-New York-London trifecta to films being made globally. Whether or not this new-found appreciation for international films remains is yet to be seen, but at best, we can see this as the first step in the breaking down of a very flawed system. At worst, just a particularly good year for Bong Joon Ho. 

A full list of all category winners can be found on the Academy’s website.