by Sr Nancy Usselmann, Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies
There is so much buzz in Los Angeles about the Oscars, even after the event. Last week I brought one of our Sisters who has never been to Hollywood to Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and to see the Walk of Fame. The entire street was closed off as they were setting up the red carpet and canopy leading into the Dolby Theater for Hollywood’s biggest night. Sister was fascinated by everything: the names, the stars, the hype. Being a film lover, the Oscars event is a night that recognizes all those who work in the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the Networks rarely give much time to the award winners for best makeup artist or best set direction because they just want to get to the Best Picture award. Yet, these people, whose names are largely unknown to most of us, are the ones who make the movie stars look good. That’s why I stay for the closing credits of a film, to honor the hard work of all those people and to pray for their special intentions, since that’s what we do as #MediaNuns. We pray for those who work in the media—all of them.
So, now to my thoughts on each of the Best Picture nominated films. I have seen all of them and it’s quite a lineup of emotionally gripping and well-crafted stories. So, I will just go through each one and give my opinion.
Ford v Ferrari—This is a hugely entertaining film, especially if you like cars. It is a racing film with heart, and of course two of the best actors in Hollywood—Christian Bale and Matt Damon—do not disappoint. In the mid 1960s, the American auto designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) teams up with the testy English race car driver Ken Miles (Bale) to build a car for Ford Motor Co. that will compete against the award-winning cars of Enzo Ferrari at the Le Mans in France. The film has heart and connects the audience with the personal struggles of both Shelby and Miles, but offers hope that when we come together we can overcome our greatest fears and biggest obstacles. This won’t win the Oscar, but it’s a great film, one that I will definitely watch again and again.
Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
The Irishman—Scorsese presents a crime thriller epic drama with a different twist from The Godfather since the movie is set in 1950s Philadelphia. It is epic not only for the superb acting by classics Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci but also because it is a whopping three and a half hours long. It begins with Frank Sheeran (DeNiro), an elderly veteran in a nursing home, sharing his thoughts about his time as a hitman for the Italian mob, hence the name The Irishman. Sheeran is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) who is head of the Teamsters Union and his initiation into the mob begins. At first he innocently works to get a little extra money for his family, but then he is ingratiated to many in the union, even to the point of being asked by disgruntled union members to confront Hoffa with whom they are displeased. It’s a long, complicated story of crime and cover up. In the end, Hoffa is murdered and Sheeran with several others are convicted for his murder. Sheeran eventually is released to go to a nursing home where he tells a Catholic priest about his life through the sacrament of Confession. He receives absolution. This film is Scorsese once again grappling with his Catholic imagination regarding sin, suffering, death, absolution, and final judgment. It’s clever and intriguing, even though it is very long. It probably won’t win, but having this nomination is a nod to a job well done in getting the audience to ponder that the result of sin is violence and death, but grace and forgiveness are always offered to us if we want it. Do we want it? That is the question.
©2019 Netflix US, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo credit Niko Tavernise.
Jojo Rabbit—I already reviewed this film at length, so I won’t repeat the details. I only will say that I hope this film wins. Director Taika Waititi, who also plays the role of the fictionalized character of Adolf Hitler that resides in the imagination of the boy, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, played brilliantly by Roman Griffin Davis, took a risk and came out on top. This film, that makes fun of the Nazis while telling a beautiful story of understanding and acceptance, could have been a flop and offensive at the same time. And yet, this amazingly crafted story shocks and warms at the same time, especially every time Davis is on screen. He is the most adorable and innocent child wanting to be accepted in the Nazi youth organization, only to discover the young Jewish girl his mother is hiding in their attic. Through sharing, dialogue, and argument, they form a bond that is touching and heartening while also presenting the real possibilities of knowing the other person even in spite of the differences. I did not expect to like this film, but I love it and can reflect on the experience for a long time. I hope it wins.
Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.
Joker—I first saw this film at the Venice Film Festival for its world premiere. It’s shocking and disturbing, so much so that I could not write about it for a long time. I had to ponder what it was really saying underneath the dark narrative about what leads someone to embrace evil. It is a powerfully scripted film that delves into the psychology of evil and how the oppression and bullying of those who struggle mentally leads them to lash out in utter frighteningly violent ways, as we know from the comic book stories of Batman and Joker. The film ends with Joker and others around him laughing and celebrating the chaos, leaving no room for hope other than a very brief glance at Bruce Wayne as a child. Many theaters had law enforcement on hand on opening day fearing copycats of Joker’s behavior, making us question whether there is any cause and effect of movies upon behavior, especially of those already in a dark, depressive mental state. It might win an Oscar, but I hope not, since humanity needs something that gives hope in the midst of darkness. Joaquin Phoenix was brilliant, by the way, and will most likely win the Lead Actor Oscar for his interpretation of hurt, fear, anger, and violence rolled up into the one festering heart of Joker.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Little Women—I like Greta Gerwig and I believe she is one of the best women directors in the mainstream. It is also surprising that a film like Little Women was nominated since it appeals so much more to women than men, and many men vote in the Academy. The last time a woman director won was Kathryn Bigelow for the war film The Hurt Locker, a film men watched. This is a lovely interpretation of the classic story by Louisa May Alcott and the latest in a long line of film adaptations of the book. It is unique in how it played with time jumping from present to past to future at various intervals, yet all the while holding us creatively in the grip of the simplicity and beauty of life at a time when available media was books and letters. Saoirse Ronan plays Jo, the impetuous and frustrated writer who dreams of a life of success and adventure. The Marsh girls all share a special bond with each other and their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern). The composition, cinematography, and beauty of the relationships will hold audiences captive in its simplicity. THAT is awesome filmmaking. I don’t think it will win for Best Picture but I am sure glad it is nominated.
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN. Photo credit: Wilson Webb; © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Marriage Story—I have not written much about this film, but I have thought about it a lot since I first saw it at the Venice Film Festival. Adam Driver is superb. He just commands attention in every movie he’s in because of the sincerity and vulnerability he displays in his craft. He plays Charlie, a stage director who is married to an actress he directs, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). They have a five-year-old child together but their marriage is falling apart. Resentments build and finally they seek counseling. But when neither shares their honest feelings they walk away with issues unresolved. Finally Nicole presents divorce papers to Charlie. It is a telling story of how once we bring lawyers into our relationships everything becomes bigger and more problematic than ever. The lawyers have to make a case for the divorce so the worst of people comes to the fore. All Charlie and Nicole had to do was sit and talk and listen to each other. Instead, it becomes a horrific mess. My issue with the film is that the little boy is almost non-existent in the whole process of divorce, as if his feelings don’t matter. It is all about the adults feeling fulfilled but ignores the give and take of marriage, the sacrifice of giving oneself to another. Instead it presents the typical self-indulgent view of the culture. No wonder marriages don’t last. The film ends on a sad and disappointing note and it made me sad that marriages sometimes remain individualistic when they are really supposed to lead a man and woman to become one, in soul and body, in fruitfulness and love. This is a strong contender, but I hope it doesn’t win. I feel its message is the culture regurgitating its own philosophy.
© 2019 Wilson Webb
1917—I reviewed this film already, so check it out for details. In short, I will say that the cinematography is astounding. Sr. Rose Pacatte said it was like a video game. And indeed it is, but I think that’s a positive thing. It makes you feel a part of war, the realism of war, the dank, dark, and despairing reality of war. Because of that, it is one of the best war movies I have seen in a long time, and I watch a lot. I’m a war movie buff. I like them because the horror of war shows the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. And the best of humanity is heroism, not the superhero-kind-of-heroism, but the true and noble aspect of human beings that is virtue well lived. This film does that and I believe it will win the Oscar for it. It pulls us out of ourselves and offers a belief in humanity that rises above the divisions, rancor, fear, and despair that life can often present. My prediction is that 1917 will win.
© 2020 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood—I am not a big Tarantino fan, so this film is not high on my list. It is a retelling of the Charles Manson Family murders of actress Sharon Tate and others in 1969 Los Angeles but with a twist that leaves the good guys alive and the Manson Family dead. It involves a cast of thousands, specifically Leonardo DiCaprio as veteran Hollywood actor Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his stunt double and friend Cliff Booth, who offer incredible talent to the script. However, it is typical Tarantino brutality, perhaps more so that his other films, when the coin is flipped and Dalton and Booth end up perpetrating violence on the Manson Family murderers. It’s a film showing Hollywood in its glorious light, portraying as the movies can do, a more favorable view of history and life. I hope it doesn’t win, but the talk is that it has more than a fair chance.
Andrew Cooper - © 2019 CTMG, Inc. Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Parasite—This shocking and unique story comes to life by Korean director Bong Joon-ho. The story follows the poor Kim family who live just below the street level in one of Korea’s low-income neighborhoods and who barely make ends meet. The son becomes a tutor to a teenaged girl of a wealthy family as the request of his friend and the former tutor. Once he has ingratiated himself to the family he finds devious ways to get his family members to be hired by the family, under false names. First, his sister pretends to be a art psychologist for the young son, and their father the driver of the influential Mr. Park and then their mother as the housekeeper, all by eliminating the former employees. When the Park family goes on a camping trip the Kim family parties in the house taking advantage of their “good luck” which lasts only for a few minutes when the Parks return home unexpectedly. They escape detection and later discover the former housekeeper’s husband hiding out in the underground bunker of the Park house. Then literally all hell breaks loose. It’s a calm film that becomes horrific. It is a clever story about class struggle and the complete ignorance of the wealthy about the plight of the poor. It has social and political consequences that resonate across oceans. Who are the parasites? The poor who take advantage of the rich or the rich who live off the backs of the poor? This film is so original and creative that I believe it will win Best Foreign film, but it deserves Best Picture as well.
The Kim Family (Woo-sik Choi, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park) in Parasite. Courtesy of NEON Entertainment. © 2019 All rights reserved.
These are my reflections on the Best Picture films and an overview of what will be talked about at the Oscars. On a side note, Renee Zellweger deserves the Oscar for her heart-breaking and passionate portrayal of Judy Garland. It is just so terribly sad how she became the pawn in the hands of big Hollywood executives that destroyed her. So many great stories and so many people who make these stories come to life on the silver screen. I pray for them that they may use their craft to promote human dignity and share the beauty, truth, and goodness of humanity and of God who Is Beauty, Truth, and Goodness itself.
by Sr Nancy Usselmann, FSP
Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies
Sr. Nancy’s book A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics challenges readers to engage the popular media culture by becoming a mystic
Sr. Nancy challenges Christians today to delve deep into the rich theological tradition of the Church as the root and foundation for recognizing the beauty of God present in all that is truly human. The artists of popular culture sometimes unwittingly seek transcendence while grappling with some of humanity's most profound existential longings. The cultural mystics of today point out those needs of humanity in the culture's artifacts in order to enter into dialogue with those who seek something beyond what this world satisfies.
The anthropological-sacramental-incarnational paradigm presented gives us this ability to take a sacred look of the culture and offer the joy of the Gospel, Christ who is the answer of all humanity's yearnings!