Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard bearer for the current moment.
So the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.
Each year’s slate of nominations roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.
The most-nominated film overall is also one of the year’s most successful commercially, and one of its most controversial. A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.
In the runup to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Below, Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff, senior culture correspondent Alex Abad-Santos, and film critic Alissa Wilkinson talk about Joker, Todd Phillips’s controversial take on the origin story of arguably the most famous villain in comics.
Alissa: Ah, Joker. Joker, Joker, Joker.
The year’s most controversial film (and its highest grossing non-Disney film) is now the Oscars’ most-nominated film, which I find not particularly surprising but a little exhausting. I’ve never felt that this movie had much to say — it reminds me of a game of telephone, in which Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy said it first and then something got lost in translation.
But it obviously struck a massive nerve with audiences as well as with the industry, which has heaped praise on it beginning with the Golden Lion at Venice. Joker was programmed at most of the major festivals this fall, and Joaquin Phoenix seems all but certainly poised to win the Oscar for his performance.
You both saw it after the explosive reviews started coming out. Was it what you expected?
Emily: Let me tell you about watching Joker three days after Christmas, on a DVD screener, with friends, long after the buzz had died down. I didn’t get it.
And by “didn’t get it,” I mean I didn’t get any of it — the controversy, the concern trolling, the praise. This struck me as a boring, bland, mostly uninteresting movie, centered on a decent performance that, nevertheless, seemed to be constructed entirely out of GIFs.
The reading of the film that has swayed me slightly toward feeling more charitably toward it (and even were I to adopt a “the movie’s better than its critical reputation” stance, I’d still find the filmmaking junky and pedestrian) is an overtly leftist one. In this reading of the movie, Arthur Fleck is an example of what happens when the social safety net is so nonexistent that he has nowhere to turn. The community that bears him up is largely invented, and when he actually spurs some sort of ... revolt ... or something, he’s too far gone to develop class consciousness. Arthur is a potential revolutionary who doesn’t realize what he’s doing and is turned into a villain by the media.
I’d like to see this version of Joker! I do not think it is the one I saw! Joker is so painstakingly obsessed with figuring out ways to pay homage to the “bold” cinema of the ’70s that it forgets that, say, Taxi Driver has lots of great characters beyond Travis Bickle. Instead, it finds ways to stay entrenched in Travis’s point of view while also making sure we understand the humanity of, say, Cybill Shepherd as the woman he loves from afar. Joker has no idea how to get out of its protagonist’s head, even for a few seconds, which makes it tonally suffocating. I checked out of it.
What I think the leftist reading of Joker is tapping into is the way that Todd Phillips has made a “Did you ever notice ...” movie. What I mean is that this is a film that hits on a lot of different topics, in a scattershot fashion, but in a way that feels meaningful. Todd Phillips has noticed that the rich are a problem, so he’ll talk about that a few times. He’s noticed that mental health care is seriously deficient in this country, so he’ll mention that. He’s noticed that a lot of violent people become famous, so why not that, too. But the thoughts in this movie’s head rarely go beyond these observations. It’s a Jay Leno Tonight Show monologue with occasional violence. Reading this movie as a leftist treatise would seem a lot more plausible if we got the sense that anybody else was suffering like Arthur Fleck is. But the movie places only his suffering front and center, then fetishizes it.
The real center of this film isn’t leftist politics; it’s an anguished whine about how you just can’t tell jokes anymore, and, like, fine, Todd Phillips, maybe you can’t. But I’m not sure the answer to the sorry state of the studio comedy — and/or the rise of people who insist that comedians joking about the traditionally disempowered are only upholding a broken status quo — is making a big studio superhero-adjacent film.
Anyway, my friends and I were thoroughly bored by this movie, and I continue to admit: I don’t get it. Joker wanted so badly to shock me that I remained unshocked. It had its finger in the light socket and was begging me to hold its hand. But, like, I could see what it was doing, you know? I wasn’t going to take its hand! What did you think, Alex?
Alex: I was on vacation the day that Joker came out, but I was familiar with the controversy erupting — people who were saying that Joker was dangerous versus people who were saying these people were fragile worrywarts. And I actually, at that point, was leaning toward the Joker fans, because of the curdled argument that art encourages violence (see: the argument against violent video games).
I saw the movie a little later, and I came away thinking that the controversy was more compelling than the movie. I found Joker to be like listening to someone scream-read Catcher in the Rye from a different room or, as Alissa pointed out in her review, a piece of art that resembles nothing more than an amalgamated simulacrum of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Arthur Fleck is a maelstrom of tragedy and stifled masculinity, and because society never showed him any form of affection, he was forced to burn it down to find warmth.
It felt predictable, all its supposed edginess rooted in style and shock and wrapped around Joaquin Phoenix’s blazing talent.
What makes the Joker such a compelling character in pivotal comic book works like The Killing Joke is the realization that he and Batman are fundamentally so similar. One bad day can push men to extremes — Batman’s bad day pushed him to a relentlessly seek justice, and conversely, Joker’s drove him to deranged ghoulishness. And sane men don’t ever let that one day break them.
I wish the movie explored this more — the idea of scorn, of why Arthur Fleck is so reviled but also sympathetic, or perhaps even what makes Joker such an impossibly magnetic supervillain if Batman is one of our most beloved heroes. I kept wanting it to say something, anything, about how or why society punishes the weakest (Fleck) and most vulnerable.
And, well, it all just left me flat, thinking that the controversy was the greatest marketing tool for such a middling movie. It’s like Phillips and Joker gave you the CliffsNotes version of the Joker, rather than breaking any kind of new territory.
Alissa: Obviously, I agree with you all (and wrote reams on this movie), but I do have a question about its reception by audiences. I don’t want to denigrate audience members, of course. But so many responded to the movie, many in positive ways — and everyone seems to have felt like they at least needed to see it. I think some of that has to do with what a simulacrum is: a simulation of the original that nearly replaces the original. There are hints in here of what made Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, among others, so very disturbing (far more disturbing than Joker). But what else do you think accounts for its popularity?
Emily: I don’t think it’s all that difficult to trace the success of Joker — it’s a movie that seems like it’s saying something big and important, that flatters viewers into thinking they’re smart, and it’s tied to a superhero property. Batman remains one of the most consistently popular superheroes at the box office, and Joker remains his chief nemesis. From an audience point of view, this is win-win-win.
And I don’t really blame anybody for finding this movie exciting, even for as boring as I found the film. In an era when the superhero film has become the dominant force at the box office, there has been concern that the tonal sameness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — cocky heroes who love to crack jokes and occasionally suffer tragedy — would infect the genre. And when Warner Bros.’ first handful of superhero movie efforts in this new era were turgid, gritty messes (think Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, etc.), a future of superhero cinema hopelessly divided between overly sugary and overly gloomy films seemed like it was about to happen.
But Warner Bros.’ new tactic has actually been pretty good for the genre, even if I don’t love all the movies. Now, the studio worries less about creating a cohesive cinematic universe and just tries to come up with movies suited to the strengths of their characters and directors. Joker looks nothing like Aquaman which looks nothing like Wonder Woman, and that’s all great! The reaction to Joker reminded me a little of the reaction to 2017’s Logan, the last movie where Hugh Jackman played Wolverine, and you could tell viewers were really into how different it felt from most superhero movies, no matter its faults. (And I really like that movie, where I find Joker hard to take.)
But, as with Logan, there’s the implication that finally, someone is taking these characters seriously. That’s where Joker breaks down for me — I don’t think it had a coherent center to speak of. But I can see where if you either think it does or find yourself swayed by its superficially gritty exterior, it seems mighty impressive indeed. The critic and screenwriter Carol Grant described Joker on Twitter as a “dorm room poster” movie, and she’s right. It’s a movie designed to make you think about how the system is rigged against you, but really only you, specifically, not anybody else who might be watching.
I really just wish all the people who’d praised this movie had watched either HBO’s Watchmen or the final season of Mr. Robot, which did all of the above but 10 times better and more coherently.
Alex: When you consider the Joker’s popularity, I think you also have to consider his legacy onscreen. In particular, think of Heath Ledger’s pivotal performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight and then Jared Leto’s in 2016’s Suicide Squad. The two couldn’t be more different in terms of quality. Ledger immortalized the role, giving that menacing edge to predecessor Jack Nicholson’s portrayal, while Leto’s was considered the worst thing about a movie that was one of the worst things ever to happen to cinema.
Leto’s flop energized fans, who believed that this iconic character and Ledger’s legacy were disrespected. The pressure on Warner Bros., Phillips, and Phoenix to produce a good take on the Joker was immense because of the residual sourness of Leto’s performance. Fans wanted to see if Warner Bros. was going to keep dragging this character into the pits of mediocrity or if Phoenix would restore the Joker to his rightful place in the pantheon of legendary villains.
Phoenix was and is incredible. And fans can hold his performance, right alongside Ledger’s, as essential to the Joker and to the world of superhero cinema. Maybe even the best ever?
And that’s all kind of comical, because Joker wasn’t even the best movie, let alone superhero movie, of the year.
Emily: I’m going to be brief here, but I found Phoenix to be shockingly off in this film. He’s one of my favorite actors, but the performance here seemed to be assembled at random from a highlight reel that cuts across his career. There’s no coherent center to the character, because his performance has been selected not for nuance but for moments that blow the roof off the theater.
In reading interviews with Phillips and Phoenix, it sounds like the director let the actor experiment a lot on set, but it’s clear that all involved then just kept the wildest possible takes. It feels less like a lived-in performance than a performance constructed out of a Saturday Night Live parody of itself. (I honestly thought David Harbour parodying this movie on SNL by playing Oscar the Grouch might sink any claim it had to being taken seriously. I guess not.)
A great performance has some sort of emotional center. Phoenix seems to have chosen to make Arthur Fleck untethered to underline his mental illness and his disconnection from society. There’s a world in which that works — it’s arguably what Phoenix did in his best screen performance, in 2012’s The Master. But here, it felt to me like another case of the movie choosing to be extra over choosing to be meaningful.
Alissa: One last big question. Joker seems to have courted controversy, knowing that it would stir up “the discourse” and act as free advertising for the film, especially among the kind of people who think going to a movie will make critics unhappy. (It doesn’t, for the record. It’s your money! Knock yourself out!)
That, combined with Joker’s immense commercial success, seems to suggest the movie is going to set some kind of template for Hollywood, which is forever chasing whatever seems to rake in the bucks. (And indeed, that’s the aim of the six big corporations at Hollywood’s center, and right they are to do it.) So what kind of precedent do you think Joker sets?
Alex: The idea of pitting fans versus critics isn’t unique to the Joker. In fact, it seems to be a common occurrence with Warner Bros. superhero movies that critics didn’t like (see: the aforementioned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League). The idea, perpetuated by the directors and actors of these movies, is that only true fans will appreciate this movie. And since critics aren’t “true fans,” they can’t fully appreciate the movie. And, to be fair, there were people who wrote off Joker before it was released because they felt it was “dangerous” — something I don’t agree with at all.
But this anti-critic narrative creates a fallacy that makes a film, to a certain extent among its fans, critic-proof. Joker was the first Warner Bros. superhero movie where this critic-haranguing came before its release.
In a similar vein, we had Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker come out this year and marketed as the anti-Last Jedi, a movie that was brigaded by fans who believed it betrayed their Star Wars sensibilities. While directors and executives behind big franchises like Star Wars always take fans into account, it’s a bit disconcerting that the vocal fans, some of whom resorted to toxic and racist harassment, may now see their actions validated.
I suppose the counternarrative to Joker’s success is to look at Rise of Skywalker’s (relatively) disappointing box office. For a movie that did so much to cater to the section of the fandom that hated Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker still trails its predecessor at the box office. And that may signal to Star Wars producers and directors that trying to court fans isn’t as foolproof as it seems.
The truth is, I’m not sure how much Joker will affect the marketing strategies of studios in the future. But I hope that what happened with Joker, and all the controversy surrounding it, doesn’t become a regular occurrence — if only because it’s just so exhausting to have an entire conversation about and debate a movie before it’s even released.
Whew. Emily? Emily, are you still here?
Emily: Here’s the precedent I’m worried Joker sets: I’m worried that now, if you want to make a smaller, more personal movie about the state of the world (which, for all its faults, Joker definitely is on some level), you’re going to have to filter it through superhero cinema. Am I looking forward to an Apocalypse Now riff featuring the Martian Manhunter or a Big Chill homage with the Justice Society of America? I mean ... I would see both of those movies, so I’m part of the problem. But I don’t love the idea that we’re increasingly entering a cinematic era where the ouroboros is the default.
Obviously, this endless march toward superhero domination can lead to some neat things. Look no further than the TV series of Watchmen, over on Warner Bros.’ corporate cousin HBO, for an example of a series that uses superhero motifs to talk about the modern world in a knotty and compelling way. But that series was made by Damon Lindelof, who has plenty to say about geek culture, if nothing else. What happens when there are more movies, made by directors who long to tell stories in certain genres, and they discover they’ll have an easier time selling those stories if the main character is Krypto the Super Dog?
I don’t know, but I’m not looking forward to finding out. I don’t like Joker because I think it’s a bad movie. But lots of bad movies have been nominated for Best Picture before. What chills me about this movie leading the Oscar nominations is how much it strikes me as a sign of things to come.
Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees: