Ford v Ferrari v Little Women

Both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, both rich with A-list actors and A-grade performances (and both, no less, with Tracy Letts, as Henry Ford II and Mr. Dashwood, respectively), Ford v Ferrari and Little Women can be compared in few other ways. Yet pitted against each other and the seven other nominees, comparisons will and must be drawn (even though neither of these is likely to win the top prize with Parasite and Once Upon a Time... also in the ring).

I make an effort each year to watch the best picture nominees before the big night, and the picks for 2019 on the whole are worthy of Oscar nominations, especially in relation, let's say, to Green Book (2018) and Hidden Figures (2016), both of which seemingly selected more for the subject matter addressed than how that was executed through the art form. With two more nominated 2019 films still to watch, I'm currently of the opinion that Parasite should win but that either Once Upon a Time... or 1917 will win. On February 10 we'll find out.

I watched Ford v Ferrari then Little Women, the first to get my blood pumping on the racetrack before spending a couple hours seeing four girls come of age in mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts. (Yup, probably should've watched them the other way round, but Little Women held my attention nonetheless.) The first takes place in the 1960s and the latter in the 1860s. One with girls hopeful for a brighter future, in which women will shine; the other with a bunch of grease monkeys turning wrenches and scarcely a woman, little or otherwise, to be seen—certainly not in any position of power anyway.

And power is what much of Ford v Ferrari is about. The power of automobile magnates. The power of dick-swinging near-mechanophiliacs and corporate suits clambering up a hierarchy greased with testosterone. The power of who's got the fastest engine under the biggest balls. Then again, Little Women is to some degree about power as well, albeit on the female side of it. The power to direct one's course as independently as possible and as permitted in a male-dominated world. The power to love freely in spite of social conventions and constraints and economic dependency. The power to demonstrate power—without being shunned for it.

One could argue that all good films are about power in some form and from some perspective. After all, what's a good film without conflict, and what's conflict really but some kind of power at odds with another?

With almost exactly 100 years between the stories of Ford v Ferrari and Little Women, one might amuse oneself by imagining the sexes in these films switched around. Little Ford women, if you will, teaming up to piece together a race car fast enough to beat one crafted by a Mrs. Ferrari. Or four good-natured brothers growing up with little means, struggling to find their places in a world of few job or marriage prospects. But that would be silly. What we're actually given are two decent, but not great, films.

Ford v Ferrari feels like rock 'n' roll, and a bit like a Ron Howard flick, as in Apollo 13, plus 1986's Top Gun, loaded with adrenaline and lots of delectable screw-you-suit-n-tie-guy moments. Matt Damon nails it and Christian Bale aces it, and seeing them perform together is a treat in itself. Then with Little Women we get an even bigger all-star cast and, again, solid performances, especially from Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh. It's hard not to compare it to the 1994 version. Which, if I remember correctly, a girlfriend coaxed me into watching when it came out on VHS. Not really my cup of tea, but Little Women I realize is for so many others a timeless, endearing story. My wife adores it, and so I asked her why, to which she replied simply with, "Because it's simple." That was it. And how could I disagree? It's a warm, fuzzy tale (despite Beth kicking it after a nasty bout of scarlet fever). No one gets raped or robbed or shot or bombed or eaten by a dinosaur. Every character is more or less the same shade of guilelessness. It's a movie to watch the week before Christmas, to reflect on the importance of family and how the little things matter.

To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed Ford v Ferrari more, not because I'm a guy but because parts of Little Women seemed helter-skelter, as in the narrative and/or editing was bumpy, and I felt the casting clashed but couldn't pinpoint which actor or actors didn't fit. But while Ford v Ferrari was way more fun, it seemed formulaic at times, with paint-by-number storytelling. Also, was there a single Italian character that wasn't vilified? Again, neither is the very best of 2019, but they're not at all bad either.