Some year, I’m going to make a point of seeing potential Oscar nominees when they are first released. Until then, I will continue to stress myself out by cramming as many of them as I possibly can in the days leading up to the show. Two days ago, for example, I had to perfectly time screenings of Cold War and If Beale Street Could Talk so that I could sprint from the first to catch the second right as the previews were ending. It worked. High five!
There are two movies I missed – Never Look Away and Mirai. But from what I hear, the jabronis in the Academy don’t watch all of the movies before voting anyway. How American!
Since I’m writing this at the last minute, I’ll stick to my ranking of Best Picture nominees and then share a few random thoughts about some other categories.
Best Pictures Ranked
This category can have as many as ten nominees. There are only eight this year and the fact that If Beale Street Could Talk and First Man didn’t make the ballot suggests that the Academy is run by insane people.
8. Bohemian Rhapsody
If there’s something positive to say about this movie, it’s that it eventually ends. The first two acts have the narrative depth of a bad Hallmark movie and are edited in a way that completely undercuts the purpose of a biopic. All of the key moments of failure and triumph are presented through expository dialogue. Queen said they’d be world famous and then, 60 seconds later, they were! Yeah, Rami Malek was pretty good as Freddie Mercury. But he has the chance to shine because none of the other characters are given any texture. Somebody should slap the entire Academy in the face for nominating this clunker.
There’s an interesting story waiting to be told about Dick Cheney. This wasn’t it. By skipping over huge chunks of his life – particularly how he went from being a minor politician to running Halliburton – it becomes impossible to understand his true motivations. Adam McKay goes out of his way to tell you that it’s Cheney’s notorious secrecy that makes it impossible to truly know the man. So maybe the movie was doomed from its inception. The acting is great, but McKay’s chaotic punctuation of the story – which worked really well with The Big Short – just doesn’t work here. Like Bohemian Rhapsody, this shouldn’t have been nominated.
6. Black Panther
I was there opening night. I’ve seen it three times. I have a whole collection of Black Panther comics and action figures from my childhood. I absolutely loved this movie. And I don’t think it has any business being in this category. The consensus seems to be that Black Panther deserves to be here because of its cultural impact. But I’m not convinced that the quality of art is affected by its audience’s reaction (in fact, that’s the entire point of At Eternity’s Gate). Black Panther was a paint-by-numbers Marvel movie: assemble an incredible cast, overlay the broad strokes of a genre (James Bond, in this case), and make the villain the mirror of the hero. It’s an excellent formula, but not for the best picture of the year.
5. The Favourite
Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and especially Emma Stone are a perfect trio in a story about jealousy and power. The set design and camera work – particularly some of the sprawling tracking shots that visualize the emptiness the characters feel – are also stellar. In the end, I’m not sure that the story is especially consequential for anyone beyond the three central characters, so the movie doesn’t feel quite worthy of the big award.
4. A Star Is Born
I roll my eyes a lot. The eye-roll that most risks getting the old lookers stuck in the back of my head is when I hear famous actors saying that their true aspiration is to direct. But hey, I guess some actors actually do deserve to direct because Bradley Cooper’s rookie effort is a great movie.
It would be too simple to say that this is a story about the dark side of fame, though it’s certainly that. The movie uncomfortably explores what celebrities and fans owe each other, and the best moments come when the characters are pulled out of their natural environments. One early scene really stuck out. In an empty grocery store parking lot in the dead of night, Bradley Cooper’s rock star and Lady Gaga’s aspiring singer sit on a curb. Both are under the spotlight of a street lamp, on equal ground, and they spend some time trying to figure each other out. It’s a beautiful scene of foreshadowing, filled simultaneously with hope and despair.
Bradley Cooper should have been nominated for Best Director over Adam McKay. And both Dave Chappelle and Andrew Clay deserved to join Sam Elliott on the Best Supporting Actor ballot.
3. Green Book
One of my measures of a great movie is how often my mind wanders while watching it. I have lots of useless thoughts competing for attention! During Green Book, I forgot I was even watching a movie until the lights came up – and I’m not exaggerating. Controversies and politics aside, it’s a heartwarming story that’s elevated by excellent performances all around.
There are better movies this year – BlackKklansman and If Beale Street Could Talk – that deal with the most challenging aspects of racial justice and equity. Green Book’s message is simple and obvious, but it seems true enough that the world improves when individuals learn from each other. Viggo Mortensen’s character isn’t a cliched white savior as some have suggested. He’s one guy whose worldview is changed for the better – and one changed mind is better than none. That’s the kind of movie this is.
If I had to pick one work to describe Spike Lee, it might be “unchecked.” In an industry that often prizes style over substance, Lee always has something sharp to say…and his message often gets dulled by long runtimes, uneven pacing, and too much exposition. In BlackKklansman, his approach remains the same while the effect is exactly the opposite.
There’s an extended sequence near the end (and this isn’t really a spoiler) that completely shifts the speed of the story. In one place, the KKK holds a ceremony to induct new members. We’ve come to see these characters as buffoons, but there’s something deeply unsettling about the self-serious, quasi-religious way in which they formalize their hatred. Elsewhere, a house of black students – presented cleverly as the academic elite – listen in silence as an elder tells a stomach-churning personal story of a lynching in horrifying detail.
It’s a long vignette within the movie and every second, each one lasting an eternity, reminds the viewer – in stark contrast to what our president might have us believe – that there aren’t two sides to this story. A few minutes later, Lee bridges the gap between his polished story and the rawness of reality by showing footage from Charlottesville. It’s maybe the most powerful cinematic decision that Spike Lee has made as a director. And, unfortunately for all of us, it’s the most obvious one, too.
If this wins Best Picture, it deserves it.
In most Oscar years, I find that there are one or two movies that rise to the category of masterpiece. Those aren’t always the movies that end up winning – because the voting system is bonkers – but they are the ones that, considered for all of the various elements that combine to create a movie, are significantly better than their competitors. I watched the other seven nominees before Roma and felt like it might be an anomalous year with no true masterpiece.
But when the credits appeared at the end of Roma – stamped over the final seconds of one of the most stunning closing shots I can remember – I was utterly overwhelmed.
Cuaron’s movie is at once intensely personal and universal. It takes place in the 70s but wrestles with some of the defining issues of today – the strength of women, the increasing wealth gap, the power dynamic between servers and the served, religious doubt, political unrest, fanaticism, isolation, existential dread – but does so in a way that feels routine. I don’t mean that as a criticism.
Rather than crafting a story with a definitive start and finish, Cuaron drops us into the life of a young house maid in Mexico City. Over the course of a few months, some life-changing things happen to her and those around her. And when the movie ends, you understand that you’ve just experienced a short look of the human race. The world will continue to churn and burn after the movie’s events, just like it did before them.
With its focus on the smallest details, the storytelling reminds me a bit of my favorite author, Haruki Murakami, who describes things as trivial as the half-can of beer a character sips. The stunning visual style, sweeping in its scope and captivating with its black-and-white contrast, seems like it nods to the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.
Roma is a very tough movie to watch and it’s not one that generates excitement for repeat viewings. But it’s nothing short of a triumph and I hope the Academy sees it as such.
Random Thoughts About Other Categories:
- Cold War is this generation’s Casablanca and finds its brilliance by focusing on what you’re not seeing on screen. I hope it wins Best Foreign Film and more people see it.
- Ethan Hawke gave the best performance of the year (and his career) in First Reformed. Better than anyone else nominated. Again, stupid Academy!
- Glenn Close will probably win Best Actress. She gave a powerful performance and has had a great, un-awarded career so far. But Yalitza Aparicio deserves the award for Roma.
- Much of the story around Black Panther is about how it presents a leading hero of color. That’s critically important – and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse does the same thing in an even better movie.
- Emma Stone is one of the best actors working today.
- Willem Dafoe’s performance as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate made me so sad. I’m glad he’s nominated.
- Lady Gaga’s song from A Star Is Born is wonderful, but I really hope that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs wins this category. That song was the most important part of one of the movie’s best segments.
- Also, I just remembered that I have to say something to the Academy: You idiots! You fools! You nominated Bohemian Rhapsody and not The Ballad of Buster Scruggs?!