Oscars 2020: Joker is a well made film but does it deserve 11 Academy Award nominations?

How did film about a comic book idiot get more nominations than The Irishman?

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

 

Let’s keep this in perspective. Joker won an enormous 11 Oscar nominations. That’s a lot, but there were three films right behind with 10.

The Academy historians will remember this year as one in which big beasts ruled the veld. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Sam Mendes’s 1917 and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood all scored in double figures. There are four guys at the head table drinking the claret and swilling the cigar while everyone else eats sausage rolls in the kitchen. Get out of the way.

Nonetheless Todd Phillips’s Joker has scored the most nominations. It seems only yesterday – ah, yesterday! – that we were remarking how films made by hipster Brooklyn cheesemongers had taken over the Academy Awards. It was all Moonlight this, Beasts of the Southern Wild that and Get Out the other.

Now a Warner Brothers film about a Batman villain sits atop the heap. It’s taken more than a billion dollars. It’s everywhere in popular culture. The dawn in which it was bliss to be alive (not to mention young) looks to have passed.

Of course, Joker’s most fervent fans would dispute this analysis. They cannot claim – nor would they want to – that the film is some low-budget experiment that plays best at wholefood arthouses, but they do like to pretend that it has the sensibility of an independent film. The word “masterpiece” is bandied around quite a bit.

Joker’s conscious borrowings from Martin Scorsese films such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy allow fans to pretend that it swims in the same artistic waters as those great works. It really does not.

It’s a well-made film. It features a great central performance by Joaquin Phoenix. But it trades in the sort of off-the-peg nihilism you expect to hear when a teenage boy slams the door and retires to his Slipknot records (or whoever it is these days).

This wouldn’t be nearly so annoying if Joker had not become such a lightning rod in the tedious, ongoing culture wars. Like the awards ceremony monologues of Ricky Gervais, the film’s qualities (and they are considerable) no longer matter so much in the wider conversation.

Your feelings about Joker – or about Gervais digs at the supposed wokeocracy -– now tell us something important about who you think yourself to be. You probably have Phoenix as an avatar on your Twitter account. You almost certainly don’t approve of gender-neutral pronouns.

Almost nobody sympathised with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but a certain number of Joker’s online supporters think the demented, sexually frustrated murderer had a point. “I don’t approve of everything Donald Trump says, Ethel, but you can’t deny that he has a point,” other imaginary people say.

We should not get carried away. Most people who watched Joker took no part in these conversations. You can be certain that the jury at the Venice Film Festival were not making any point about “woke tyranny” when, to gasps, they passed the Golden Lion (previously won by Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa) its way last September. But the online chatter so often ends up drowning out the unmoved murmuring of the quietly sane.

That chatter is that bit louder when such a film gets caught up in the Oscar conversation. One scarcely noticed consequence of the Academy Awards’ shift towards independent cinema over the past decade has been the rise of cinematic champions for the overlooked movie fan in Tuna Fish, Iowa.

If you didn’t like Boyhood in 2014 then you could go and see fellow nominee American Sniper. If you didn’t like Moonlight in 2016 you could go and see Hacksaw Ridge. If you didn’t like The Favourite last year then you could go and see Green Book. That last film’s victory appeared to be giving two fingers to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and its leisurely monochrome patience. We don’t like that sort of thing in Tuna Fish.

It’s hard to tell what the gritty, weird competition for Joker is this year. Maybe Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite? There’s nothing particularly difficult about that breakneck satire, bit it is in Korean. So, maybe we can put that in the Brooklyn cheesemongers’ slot.

If we’re standing up for the supposedly misused male in society then we need look beyond 1917 (men and one woman in the trenches of Normandy), One Upon a Time in… Hollywood (men and one fairly quiet woman in 1960s LA) or The Irishman (men and one almost mute woman in post-war rust belt).

There have been counterproductive efforts in certain media to present Greta Gerwig’s Little Women as the film that men just can’t stand, but nobody has produced anything other than anecdotal evidence to back this up. It has been popular with audiences and critics of all genders and none. All this makes it more galling that Gerwig missed out on a best director nomination (probably to allow in Phillips).

Less remarked upon, but arguably more irritating still was the total shutout for Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. When, a year ago, that film played to applause at Sundance many analysts argued that, in the new climate at the Oscars, it would score bags of nominations.

Yet here we are in an awards landscape dominated by a comic-book idiot. Anyone who sincerely believes that men are now the more oppressed gender needs to have a proper gawp at this week’s nominations.

Phillips and his team would surely sympathise with Gerwig and Wang, but they can’t pretend they haven’t been stoking the embers. The director, who first found fame with The Hangover, declared wearingly that he had left comedy because of (yes, you’ve guessed it) “woke culture”. They can’t back away from the culture wars they started.

The upside is they’ve made a lot of money and scored a staggering number of Oscar nominations. The downside is that they’ve rendered their pretty decent film toxic for a significant number of people they would call “social justice warriors”.

I don’t think the Joker people care much about that, do you?

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