No matter how many nominees are allowed into the Best Picture race, it’s always the most coveted prize of the night at every Academy Award ceremony. This year, nine pictures will vie to be the top film at the 2020 Oscars. If you’re still playing catch up, there are a number of ways to watch the Best Picture nominees, which I wrote about here. But maybe you’re having a hard time even deciding which nominee to see in theaters or rent on demand in the first place. Maybe you’re not completely familiar with every Best Picture nominee, what they’re about, and who was involved in the making of them. Allow this handy guide to help you.
Ford v Ferrari
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Noah Jupe, Josh Lucas, Tracy Letts, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild
Every Oscars year needs at least one “Dad Movie” on the list, and Ford v Ferrari is one of those movies – and I mean that in a good way. The James Mangold-directed biopic is, on its surface, about the competition between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari and Ford’s race to build a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at Le Mans ’66. But underneath that, it’s really the story about the friendship between cantankerous engineer and racecar driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and the charismatic and charming Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) as they find their own personal demons being exposed as Ford’s bureaucracy puts a strain on their relationship. Surrounded by a stellar ensemble cast, Bale and Damon work their usual magic and the racing sequences are intense and gripping. Plus, it features one of the funniest fights ever put on film.
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Pip Carter, Andy Apollo, Paul Tino, Josef Davies, Billy Postlethwaite, Gabriel Akuwudike
Sam Mendes’ ambitious film is a masterful achievement of filmmaking thanks in large part to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins being in charge of the camerawork. The movie, shot to appear as if it was done in one real-time continuous take, required an insane amount of meticulous planning and preparation in order to work within natural lighting, without extra lighting, and with few scene resets. The result is a movie that is as detailed as it is gripping, with eye-popping action sequences and quiet character moments alike feeling immersive and intimate. Those expecting a big, bombastic, typical sort of war movie might be thrown, at first, by the film choosing to focus on intimacy rather than spectacle, but it’s all the more enthralling for it.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston
1917 isn’t the only Best Picture nominee featuring some ambitious acts of technical filmmaking. Martin Scorsese’s film explores one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history – the disappearance of corrupt union boss Jimmy Hoffa – through the eyes of Frank Sheeran, a hitman who worked with some of the most notorious crime bosses of the 20th century. Unfolding over multiple decades, Scorsese chose to use groundbreaking VFX to de-age the characters in order to keep the same actors for the entire film rather than having to cast younger versions. The movie’s length of three and a half hours has scared some away, but the pacing is so well done and acting so on-point that it clips along like a much shorter film.
Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel
Greta Gerwig’s timeless and timely take on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is a coming-of-age movie for all time. The story of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – is a story of four young women trying to live their lives on their own terms at a time in which women weren’t allowed to pursue their passions or be headstrong. The Civil War-era story is steeped in the culture of that time and yet somehow perfectly relevant for today. The cast features some of the hottest and most talented young actors working today, with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen leading the cast as the sisters, and current It Boy Timothée Chalamet as family friend, Laurie, who grows up alongside the March girls. Most Best Picture nominees tend to be ponderous or heavy rather than heartwarming, but Gerwig’s deft touch proves a film can be uplifting without being schmaltzy.
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais
Every year, it seems like the Oscars requires at least one incredibly divisive movie to be on its Best Picture shortlist. This year, that movie is Joker, which generated plenty of controversy even before its release and then split critics down the middle, with some finding the writing and directing incredibly weak and others going into raptures about how incredible the movie was. But the movie became a box office juggernaut on its way to garnering 11 nominations to lead all Oscars nominees. Regardless of how you feel about the writing and story, there’s no denying that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is mesmerizing, a performance that is uplifted even further by the excellent work of Lawrence Sher’s cinematography, Mark Friedberg’s production design and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting, strings-heavy score. That’s worth the price of admission alone.
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Ji-hye Lee, Ji-so Jung
Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s film has been making a bit of history this awards season and, previously, on the film festival circuit: Parasite was the first Korean film to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. It also won the top prize at the SAG Awards for best ensemble cast, making history as the first foreign film to do so. There’s a reason the Korean film is getting so many accolades: The black-humored and sharply funny film starts off as one thing and then becomes another movie entirely. It’s not often that a filmmaker has that much courage to completely flip their movie in the course of making it, even more rare that a filmmaker can pull it off so fluidly and artfully. But Bong Joon Ho’s movie is shocking and cerebral, visceral and nuanced, and it’s fitting that this is the film that has finally earned the longtime filmmaker the recognition in America that he deserves. It’s that good.
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates, Luke Brandon Field
When you sit down to watch a Taika Waititi movie, you’re never quite sure what you’ll get, other than the guaranteed two-puncher of zaniness and satire. But Jojo Rabbit is seemingly the culmination of a filmmaker who has managed to rein in his natural comedic tendencies and marry it with actually having something to say. Waititi’s anti-Nazi movie is a gentle rather than scathing satire, but it skewers the idea of hate and xenophobia all the same. Plenty of Best Picture nominees will tell their stories through tears; few filmmakers are deft and intelligent enough to do it through laughter. Waititi’s wacky lens oversees a film that is genuinely heartfelt in its messaging and has depth in between the laughter, with some excellent performances from a gifted ensemble cast including Waititi himself as an imaginary version of Hitler. It’s hard making a movie with Hitler become one of the smartest feel-good movies of the year, but the New Zealand filmmaker pulls it off.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Julia Greer, Azhy Robertson, Wallace Shawn, Matthew Maher, Eric Berryman, Mickey Sumner, David Turner, Gideon Glick
Noah Baumbach, like his partner, Greta Gerwig, is known for crafting deeply intimate character studies in their films, and Marriage Story might be Baumbach’s greatest achievement here. Baumbach wanted to tell a love story through the lens of divorce, and that’s exactly what happens to Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole and Adam Driver’s Charlie. It’s an intimate look at a marriage ending, and the love that still remains, an insightful and compassionate take on a normal relationship falling apart. There’s usually no villain, just two people doing the best they can as communication breaks down and trust dissolves. The film features some powerful performances from its cast. Johansson and Driver have nominations in the Best Actress and Best Actor categories, respectively, and Laura Dern earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It’s heartwrenching but also uplifting, and the best study of a relationship we’ve seen on screen in years.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and ostensibly second-to-last film is also, strangely, his most hopeful. Yes, there are scenes of ultraviolence, particularly the end scene – this is still Tarantino, after all – but his take on the Sharon Tate murder is a bit of revisionist history in which the good guys win and Charlie Manson’s cult gets dead. It’s arguable that Pitt and DiCaprio have never been better. As the has-been actor Rick Dalton, DiCaprio plays up Dalton’s lack of self-awareness with humor steeped in deep sympathy for the character. And there is perhaps no other actor in modern Hollywood who channels the effortless cool of James Dean like Brad Pitt, who uses his natural swagger like a scalpel as Cliff Booth. Cliff might be Rick’s sidekick, but he is very much his equal and, arguably, the hero of the movie. As Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood, it feels like stepping back in time: Each shot is lovingly crafted, drenched in the golden tones of halcyon memories, classic LA landmarks prominent and beloved throughout the film.
The 92nd Academy Awards will air on Sunday, February 9th at 5pm PST/8pm EST on ABC. Click here for our full 2020 Oscars coverage.