Best scenes from each 2020 Oscars Best Picture nominee

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The nominees for best picture at the Oscars are supposedly some of the greatest films of the year, so it follows that the best scenes from these films are truly in a league of their own. Whether or not you ever get around to watching the actual movies, tearing through these clips will grant you a highlight reel to help prepare for Sunday’s ceremony. 

“The Irishman”: “Don’t shut the door all the way”

At 3 1/2 hours long, the epic length of “The Irishman” is designed to build toward the final shot, in which the weight of hitman Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) desolate life finally crushes him. A call back to earlier in the movie, when Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino) decision to leave his bedroom door open was an invitation for friendship, Sheeran’s request that his nurse leave the door to his room open is a desperate yet tardy plea for love. The weary eyes of the viewer gaze sadly into the cold room, frozen upon that wrinkled, solitary slump against the chair, until the final cut to black abandons Sheeran to oblivion

“Little Women”: A day at the beach

Drawing substantial influence from the impressionist art movement, writer-director Greta Gerwig composed her melodic story of artistry and sisterhood to seemingly echo the sentimental liveliness of an old painting. This framing is on clearest display in the beach scene that takes place midway through the film. A crucial puzzle piece connecting the girls’ vibrant youth and transition into adulthood, this moment of ecstatic play, flirting and philosophical pondering captures the rapturous joy of the girls’ youthful happiness while also foreshadowing the sprawling future which lies beyond the dry paint. 

“Marriage Story”: “Being Alive” 

Why do we willingly watch a film about a divorce? For most, it’s a search for catharsis. The struggles of Adam Driver’s and Scarlett Johansson’s characters, filtered through the somber lens of a love story told in reverse, allow both emotional fulfillment and introspection. Driver’s heart-wrenching performance of “Being Alive” encapsulates this purpose. His yearning for love in the song contradicts his past behavior with his wife. Yet the pleading melody nonetheless allows Driver’s character to confront his pain and longing, enabling him to feel alive.

“Jojo Rabbit”: The butterfly

A fluttering tracking shot of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) happily following a blue butterfly takes a sinister turn when he bumps into the feet of his mother (Scarlett Johansson), silently swaying from a noose. While there’s little subtlety in this scene — or in the rest of the film — its overt nature just makes it all the more affecting. Incorrectly derided by some as a wacky Nazi comedy, the exaggerated theatricality of “Jojo Rabbit” serves the movie’s central theme. “Jojo Rabbit” is about evil, as seen through the eyes of a child. And it’s this innocent framing which allows both the dueling pain and joy of the child characters to feel that much more poignant. 

“Ford v Ferrari”: A comeback at Daytona

Given the over-saturation of “Rocky” clones and highlights today, it’s not exactly surprising that Hollywood seldom makes sports movies anymore. But “Ford v Ferrari,” and in particular Ken Miles’ (Christian Bale) climactic push to victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona, proves that we’ve been missing out. The visceral thrill of watching the striped red Ford fly past its competitors, beset by Bale’s laughably arrogant Cockney accent and a frantic score, all has an unapologetic layer of Hollywood splendor that can’t be replicated by reality.

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”: Daydreaming of Bruce Lee

It’s the film’s most controversial scene, yet the image of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) tossing an arrogant Bruce Lee into a car is key to understanding the story’s moral ambiguity. Coming after a flashback scene that strongly implicates Booth in the murder of his wife, the absurdity of watching this washed-up day laborer fantasize about putting Lee in his place for mocking an American legend is a critique of masculine aggression. The average viewer still roots for Booth during this scene, though, showcasing Quentin Tarantino’s reflective commentary on the inability of the audience to separate the flaws of this cool masculinity from its theatrical desirability.

“1917”: A lullaby for soldiers

After Lance Corporal Schofield’s (George MacKay) near-drowning, he stumbles, defeated, into a tranquil forest where a regiment of British soldiers sit listening to a wistful rendition of “Wayfaring Strangers.” A spiritually calming interlude that proves an effective contrast to the surrounding bloodshed, it’s a peculiarly dreamlike moment reminiscent of a fantasy movie. And perhaps that’s the point. Even during the horrors of war, there’s room for imaginative reprieve. 

“Parasite”: Hiding under the couch

“That smell. It definitely crosses the line,” says Mr. Park (Lee Sun Kyun). It’s this indictment of Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho), uttered by Mr. Park to his wife while the Kim family hides just feet away, that sums up the creeping unease of imposter syndrome surrounding the Kim family. It’s clear that whatever ritzy identities the Kims adopt, as much as Kim Ki-taek may be the literal driving force for the opulent Parks, they will never be free from the stench of poverty. Kim Ki-taek twists and sniffs his shirt in horrific embarrassment; the Parks make love unperturbed on the couch above. 

“Joker”: The dancing clown

Speaking of insightful social commentary on the violent strain of classism in a static, capitalist world, here’s the opposite of that. The seemingly confused political criticism “Joker” levies against “society” — the rich? Populists? Women? Rats? — is a muddled and ultimately vapid mess redeemed exclusively by Joaquin Phoenix’s emotionally disturbed portrayal of its antihero, Arthur. Most striking is Arthur’s dance scene after his murder of the three bankers. The reptilian movements reflected in the greasy mirror, in rhythm with the moan of eerie string instruments, captures the grotesque weightlessness of Arthur’s bloody emancipation.

Contact David Newman at [email protected].