Hollywood loves to be referential, even when it’s unintentional. This is evident in some of the Oscar contenders for best picture. While each are unique and stand out in their own right, they often draw similarities to past buzzy films and television programs. Will nostalgia help make one of the movies on this list find its name inside that last sealed envelope on Oscar night?
War films, particularly those in which an unlikely band of allies are up against the Germans, have long persevered at award shows. Director Sam Mendes’ period drama follows two young British soldiers stuck in France during the height of World War I who wind up on a mission to save the day. For context, consider former best picture nominees like 2017’s “Dunkirk” and 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
American legend Tom Hanks is back again to play another American legend. And while he may not be playing an astronaut — as he did when he portrayed Jim Lovell in 1995’s “Apollo 13” — or a studio mogul — as with his depiction of Walt Disney in 2013’s “Saving Mr. Banks” — he may be playing someone who had an even greater impact on many a childhood: Fred Rogers. Based on journalist Tom Junod’s Esquire profile of the TV host, producer, minister and sweater aficionado, this biopic comes from “Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s” Marielle Heller and is written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster.
Coming in while the #MeToo movement is still hot is director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph’s story of the Fox News sexual-harassment scandal that brought down CEO Roger Ailes. How hot is this topic exactly? Showtime had a miniseries about it earlier this year, “The Loudest Voice.” In this version, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman play respective journalists-turned-whistleblowers Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson.
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Writer-director Lulu Wang’s autobiographical film draws you in with the pretense of allowing Western audiences to gape at this foreign concept of not telling a loved one that she is dying — only to turn things on their heads and make us think that maybe we are the ones who are doing it wrong. In doing so, Wang offers a conversation on death that is less Sally Field’s grief-stricken break down in 1989’s “Steel Magnolias” and more a celebration of life a la 2009 best picture contender “Up.”
Ford v Ferrari
The quest to be the quickest and the best has been depicted on film through the space race, the presidential race and, in director James Mangold’s new film, a literal auto race. Oh the stories race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) could swap with Ryan Gosling’s determined Neil Armstrong in 2018’s “First Man” about the men in suits who sent them on these seemingly impossible missions.
Some people make headlines. Others get the job done. Robert De Niro’s depiction of labor official Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran in director Martin Scorsese’s organized crime epic is gruff, phlegmatic and not afraid to get his hands dirty. It calls to mind previous such Scorsese epics as “GoodFellas,” but also Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning “The Godfather” films with its look into how such a life affects the family.
A bullied boy gets into zany antics with his imaginary, friend Adolf Hitler (played by writer-director Taika Waititi). The eponymous Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) would probably also find an ally in warm and cuddly Fuhrer devotee Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars) from Mel Brooks’ Oscar-winning screenplay for 1967’s “The Producers.”
Inevitably, people will compare Joaquin Phoenix’s starring role in director Todd Phillips’ film with Heath Ledger’s posthumous supporting actor Oscar win for his depiction of the comic book super villain the Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” But the film has also earned comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed 1976 film “Taxi Driver,” starring Robert DeNiro. In “Joker,” DeNiro himself plays a talk-show host that feels born of the same cloth of his character in another Scorsese film, “The King of Comedy.”
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s biopic, which he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham, follows Walter McMillian (portrayed here by Jamie Foxx), an innocent man sentenced for murder, and Bryan Stevenson, the determined attorney (Michael B. Jordan) who got the conviction overturned. Best picture Oscar nominees about similar, but fictional, incidents include “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “The Green Mile” (1999) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). This time, will the truth prevail?
All generations deserve a chance to find themselves in the determined, opinionated Jo March, who this time is played by Saoirse Ronan in writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s story. Winona Ryder earned a lead actress nomination for the previous big-screen adaptation in 1994. But Jo is not the perfect idol that so many young women want to emulate. How well would her life choices stack up against ”Lady Bird,” the titular suburban teen from Ronan and Gerwig’s 2017 collaboration?
Just as much as Hollywood is to blame for perpetuating the fallacy that all relationships thrive in a post-credits happy- ever-after utopia, it also can offer some of the most painful and honest depictions of what it means to watch the future you believed you’d built with someone dissolve into rubble. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson offer dueling perspectives in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s searing take on heartbreak that has earned comparisons to 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” which went on to win best picture.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Plenty of ink has been spilled over the cinematic references in writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history of late 1960s Los Angeles. It also has the feel of films even older than that, such as the black-and-white film school requirements like best picture nominee “The Maltese Falcon”; movies that relied on the heroes to be tough, strong and frequently silent as they cleaned up any mess put in front of them — be it getting the hippie punk to fix your flat tire or knowing just when to signal your dog.
After “Roma” came close to being the first foreign-language film to win best picture, this year offers another contender in “Parasite.” Much of the way you look at director Bong Joon Ho’s comedy-thriller — for which he shares writing credits with Han Jin-won — depends on your alliances. Do you root for the Kim family, who are struggling to survive in their basement apartment? Or the wealthy Parks who are quickly infiltrated by imposters when they simply mean to offer employment? Or is this movie really a revenge thriller for peaches still upset about 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name”?
This isn’t the first time director Clint Eastwood has looked at modern-day American heroes (see also 2014 best picture Oscar nominee ”American Sniper,”” as well as 2016’s “Sully” and 2018’s “The 15:17 to Paris”). But a story of a wronged person with little power to stop the mob mentality that wants to criminalize you? That’s more like his 2008 Oscar-nominated Angelina Jolie film “Changeling.”
The Two Popes
Director Fernando Meirelles and writer Anthony McCarten’s film about retiring Pope Benedict XVI’s (Anthony Hopkins) relationship with his much more progressive replacement, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is a great opportunity for amazing actors to monologue. It may bring to mind other strong-willed characters giving speeches played by acting titans, such as 1976’s “Network,” a best picture nominee that won Oscars for three actors.