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 nominees roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s 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 senior correspondent Zack Beauchamp, associate culture editor Allegra Frank, and film critic Alissa Wilkinson discuss Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s dark comedy about a young German boy living with his mother during World War II. And the boy and his mother have a secret to hide.
Alissa: I’ll be honest: While Jojo Rabbit kicked up some dust in the wake of its premiere, I thought it might be a lot more controversial with audiences than it’s proven to be. Some critics really loved it. Others hated it, seeing its ironic tone as a detraction. I thought it was flawed but had something interesting at its core. On the whole, though, I feel like the “discourse” has been limited to critics and cinephiles rather than general audiences.
Which is why I am especially interested in what both of you thought of the film. It comes out of the gate pretty hard with its dense sense of wry irony — the scenes of archival Third Reich footage set to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the early appearance of the little boy’s idea of who Hitler is, colored by the propaganda machine he’s grown up in and played by Taika Waititi himself. Did that work for you? What were your first impressions?
Allegra: The divisive reception certainly influenced me going in. I was prepared to find Jojo Rabbit cloyingly sardonic, if not offensive, within a tricky comedic territory. I felt my preconceived notions were affirmed when the movie began, because as you noted, Alissa, it lays out its sensibilities from the get-go. Did I really have patience for a Nazi Youth send-up this twee?
But Jojo Rabbit very quickly deepens. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, the cutest child on earth) is so charming, his love for his family and friends so boundless, that his idolization of the Fuhrer ends up feeling like a minor detail. Instead, after the first half-hour of WWII buffoonery, Jojo Rabbit becomes a heartwarming and at times incredibly tragic story of overcoming differences and managing grief. That emotional weight surprised me, especially because the film didn’t lose its sense of humor in the process of digging deeper.
Zack: This is exactly the kind of movie I have a difficult emotional time with. My grandparents on my mother’s side were both Holocaust survivors; after my grandfather escaped a death march, he hid in a small German town much like the one in the film until rescue by Allied soldiers. It was really hard not to see echoes of him in Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the Jewish girl who Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their attic.
I’m foregrounding my background here because I don’t think my reaction to Jojo Rabbit makes much sense without it: namely, that I felt like there were almost two radically different halves of the film, one much better than the other. The first half, focusing mostly on Jojo’s alienation from the Hitler Youth and struggles with sheltering Elsa, felt kind of aimless. I had a lot of trouble discerning the aim of the satire — the point that Nazism is dumb has been done to death — and the parallels with the present day, which the film is obviously striving for, are not very well drawn. There were bright parts, like Rosie’s conversations about womanhood and freedom with Elsa in the attic, but on the whole I kept having an impulse to check my phone.
But the film takes an abrupt tonal shift when the Gestapo shows up, which I think was all to the good. The entire tense search and interrogation, and Stephen Merchant’s absurd yet deeply creepy turn as Captain Deertz, hammered home the stakes in a way the movie hadn’t done prior to that sequence. Then Jojo finds Rosie’s body, and I started to get a sense that Jojo Rabbit actually understood what Nazism was — and started to really care about what was happening. This second half, including the extremely dark and well-done final battle scene, made me feel like the movie actually had a point: The tenets and aesthetics of organized hatred may be deeply ridiculous, but their power to cause immense suffering cannot be underestimated. And that, I think, made the viewing experience worthwhile.
I want to go back to something you both brought up. One film I’ve heard a lot about in reference to Jojo Rabbit is The Producers, which uses ridicule of Hitler as part of its narrative device. So more broadly, I’m curious what you think about the role of ridicule and humor in stories about Nazi atrocities or other heinous acts of human slaughter. (I’m thinking here of two Quentin Tarantino films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.) I know this is a big question, and we won’t definitively answer it here. But how do you think about it, as a viewer? And how did Jojo Rabbit reinforce or change that?
Allegra: I love The Producers! It’s one of my favorite movies. But what works for me about The Producers is that it doesn’t make any attempt to convince viewers that it is anything but satire. It’s exclusively about the fallacies of capitalism; it does not reckon with Hitler in any way but superficially. Jojo Rabbit has empathy, conversely, and I often found its cartoonish Hitler elements to be at odds with that empathetic sensibility. As Zack said, the movie works a lot better when it takes Nazism for what it is really is: a horror, not a source of comedy.
But there definitely can be a place for humor within horror, no? Sometimes, it’s even necessary to help us manage the pain that comes with the awfulness. I prefer that jokes about genocide or mass murder or war, etc., be self-aware, to reassert — again, like Zack pointed out — that there is a human cost to hatred. Alternatively, The Producers’ model of “horrible event turned into a plot point divorced from its historical context in an absolutely illogical way” clearly works for me too.
Zack: Here’s where I shamefacedly admit that the only parts of The Producers I’ve seen are the scenes that Larry David performs in that one season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But I have seen both Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained and liked them both, though I think they’re a different kind of film than both The Producers and Jojo Rabbit.
The Tarantino films are fundamentally revenge movies, a way of giving historically oppressed groups some satisfaction against their oppressors (the best movie like this for us Jews is, weirdly enough, X-Men: First Class). In Basterds and Django, the humor serves to emphasize the catharsis — to deepen the eventual humiliation of the Nazis and slave owners at the hands of their victims.
Jojo Rabbit contains a moment that echoes those films relatively early on, and it was actually one of my favorite scenes: when Elsa is holding a knife to Jojo’s throat and monologuing about the enduring strength of the Jewish people. But the theme of power reversal isn’t well established in the rest of the movie’s runtime, the humor largely serving merely to point out that “Nazism is kind of stupid.” And I dunno, I just don’t think director Taika Waititi — whose other work shows he’s a real comedic talent — does very much with that.
Alissa: Those are really great points. They make me think about another question, one I don’t really have the answer to. Who is Jojo Rabbit ... for? The fact that the movie was marketed as “anti-hate satire” gave me pause, and made me wonder perhaps who the studio thought was the movie’s target audience. (Sure, Waititi has made some fairly mainstream stuff, but as much as I love What We Do in the Shadows, I have to admit it’s not for everybody.) Is there a setting or audience for whom you’d particularly recommend a film like this?
Allegra: I find Waititi to be kind of hit-or-miss, but the romantic spirit and familiar movie setting of WWII makes me think Jojo Rabbit could land for a wide audience. I’ve spoken to friends with very different tastes who really loved it, whether for the humor or the heart or both. Dunking on Nazis seems broadly palatable to American audiences in 2020, at least, even if there are also uncomfortable or undersold elements of doing so. I’ve recommended the film to other people around my age — so, in their late 20s — who can tolerate sort of loud humor, aren’t inclined to push back too hard on the ideological efficacy of satire, and have a fondness for cute kid actors. Because Roman Griffin Davis is a perfect child and no one can tell me otherwise.
Zack: Oh, yeah, the casting in this movie is fabulous, both kids and adults. Sam Rockwell as a Hitler Youth leader is particularly great, though I still am not 100 percent sure what was up with his character — both what he actually thinks about Nazism and whether we’re supposed to read him and Alfie Allen (who played his assistant) as romantic partners.
As far as people I’d recommend Jojo Rabbit to, I’d say that it’s not actually for Taika Waititi superfans. It’s not as funny as What We Do in the Shadows or even Thor: Ragnarok. Weirdly, I’m going to say that if you like Wes Anderson films, you should see this one. The Hitler Youth training scenes gave off strong “evil Moonlight Kingdom” vibes, and the combination of twee with a decent heaping of darkness feels a lot like The Grand Budapest Hotel or, more indirectly, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Allegra: Oh, that’s a great suggestion! Jojo does have a similar feel of, like, a very charming dollhouse come to life.
Alissa: Two final questions: What other movie(s) would you recommend to someone who liked Jojo Rabbit, and why — something that might add context to its subject matter, or be in a similar vein thematically or artistically? I’m going to cheat and say Hunt for the Wilderpeople which, like Jojo, sneaks some pretty tough stuff — abuse and the reasons kids might need foster care — into a very funny comedy that revolves around a terrific child performance.
And: Should Jojo Rabbit win Best Picture?
Allegra: I really love Zack’s Wes Anderson suggestion, and specifically Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel as comparisons. This movie does have this toybox, whimsical air to it, with a heavy dose of cathartic heartbreak. (Still so sad about Jojo seeing his Jewish-sympathizing mother hanging in the town square … god, what a traumatizing moment.)
I don’t think Jojo Rabbit merits a Best Picture win, however, for the reasons of its sometimes flimsy satire and slow-going early half. It’s definitely a surprisingly lovely watch, and I’m glad it’s received the positive notice of being nominated. But most of all, I am excited about Roman Griffin Davis’s future; he is the real standout for me as the wonderful Jojo.
Zack: Aw, thanks, Allegra! Since I’m actually an ideas and ideologies writer, not a real film critic, I’m going to super-duper cheat and pick a book as my recommendation: Susan Neiman’s Learning From the Germans. Neiman is a Jewish philosopher who grew up in the American South and now lives in Berlin; her book is about what lessons America can take from Germany’s process of reckoning with the Holocaust in its current struggle with racism and the legacy of slavery/Jim Crow. She’s a very engaging prose stylist, and the book should appeal to people who were interested in the (somewhat underbaked) attempts at Trump-era relevance in Jojo.
As for the Best Picture race, I haven’t seen all or even most of the other contenders. But assuming some of them are as good as the reviews suggest — looking at you, Parasite and Little Women — then I don’t think Jojo Rabbit should win. It’s a good-but-not-great movie that has some really powerful moments but ultimately fails to fully deliver on the dual promise of an important subject and top-tier creative talent.
Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees: