Every year Hollywood Elsewhere subjects the leading Best Picture contenders to the Howard Hawks measuring stick. The legendary director is famed for having said that a good movie (or a formidable Oscar seeker) always has “three great scenes and no bad ones.”
Hawks also defined a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.” Well, that lets Taika Waititi out!
How do the ten PGA-nominated films rate on the Hawks chart? Here’s my take:
Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman: This 209-minute film has at least 10 great scenes, but the last 30 to 40 minutes (suspenseful build-up to Hoffa shooting, Hoffa shooting, getting older, “Peggy hates me”, white hair, assisted living, buying the coffin, “leave the door open a bit”) amount to one of the most shattering finales in American cinema. With The Irishman it’s not a matter of choosing great scenes, but asking “which scenes aren’t great or good?” The answer is “none.” Plus: “It’s summer.”
Noah Baumbach‘s Marriage Story. Three great scenes: (a) Adam Driver singing “Being Alive” (although one could argue this is not really an integrated Marriage Story moment as much as a Stephen Sondheim time-out); (b) Laura Dern‘s rant about how the culture has unfairly regarded women over the decades; (c) the screaming fight between Driver and Scarjo in his apartment (although this is closer to a strong scene than a great one).
Sam Mendes‘s 1917. Three great scenes: (a) The smoking German biplane crash crashes into the wooden shack, the British soldiers pull the pilot out, etc.; (b) The scene with the brother (Richard Madden‘s Lieutenant Blake) at the very end; (c) the stand-down scene with Benedict Cumberbatch at the very end. I think the feeding-milk-to-the-baby scene is memorable but perhaps a little too calculated. There are many stirring, oh-my-God scenes in 1917, but they all kind of bleed together because it’s all a stream-of-movie-consciousness thing.
Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Four great scenes: (a) The howling finale at Rick Dalton‘s Cielo Drive home, followed by the invite to visit and schmooze with Sharon and her friends. (b) Cliff Booth visits the Spahn Ranch. (c) Cliff dukes it out with Bruce Lee. (d) “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans” in the Musso and Frank parking lot.
James Mangold‘s Ford v. Ferrari. One great scene: when some Italian guy (or was it Jon Bernthal‘s Lee Iacocca?) tells Tracy Letts‘ Henry Ford II that Enzo Ferrari had called him fat and that Ford, an assembly-line manufacturer, is unworthy of the racing-car realm. The film has many good or very good scenes, but this is the only great one. I’m sorry but that’s how I see it. Plus it has one bad scene — the scene in the diner between Christian Bale and Matt Damon when they’re laughing about the absurdity of creating a competitive Ford race car in the span of several weeks, etc.
Todd Phillips‘ Joker. Three great scenes: Dancing down the Bronx staircase. Arthur Fleck’s big talk-show finale when he plugs Murray Franklin on-camera. Arthur escaping the destroyed police car and comes upon a riot of clown faces on the street. This film has no bad scenes. Everything works and is all of a piece.
Bong Joon-ho‘s Parasite. Many pretty good scenes and always a sense of mise en scene aliveness and invention, but no great scenes. One fatally bad scene: The former maid Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) shows up at the big swanky home in a rainstorm, rings the bell, asks to be let it. The four new employees, a family which managed to get Gook fired, is lying around drunk and bleary-eyed. Good has every reason in the world to expose their scam and ruin a perfectly good thing, so what does her replacement Kim Chong-Sook (Chang Hyae-jin) do? She does what no sane person would ever do. She lets Gook into the house. It’s called bad plotting.
Greta Gerwig‘s Little Women. No great scenes but two very good ones — the fantasy finale when Saoirse Ronan‘s Jo, encouraged by family and friends, chases after Bhaer (Louis Garrel) and stops him from going to California, and the scene when she negotiates copyright and royalties with Tracy Letts‘ Mr. Dashwood. Bad scenes: Florence Pugh’s snarly Amy burns Jo’s manuscript. Laurie has a change of heart and proposes to Amy minutes after telling Jo that she’s his everything. Returning from having given their food to a local poor woman, the March sisters return to find their dinner table loaded down with a banquet (provided by Chris Cooper) that would be enough to feed a Union regiment on a furlough. Bob (Better Call Saul) Odenkirk suddenly shows up with whiskery sideburns…the fuck?
Rian Johnson‘s Knives Out. Several very clever, engaging, well-written and perfectly performed scenes but movies like this aren’t intended to deliver “great” scenes. It’s a well-educated person’s popcorn movie. The only thing that really stands is the “donut hole inside of a donut hole” line delivered by Daniel Craig.
Taika Watiti‘s Jojo Rabbit. No great scenes and a few bad ones. I’d rather not go into it. This film is strictly a sideliner, an also-ran. David Poland tried and tried, but many journos, guild and Academy members have more or less brushed it aside.