Sunday night at the hostless Academy Awards ceremony, one of eight films will be awarded the Best Picture Oscar. Here is my annual ranking of the nominated films. As always, these are not predictions nor is the order based on films I “liked” the most, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. Tune in Sunday and try to stay up until the end to find out if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters agree with me.
I should love Vice. I was a big fan of director Adam McKay’s last film, the (justly) Best Picture nominated The Big Short. Vice repeats the unconventional fourth-wall breaking asides that made The Big Short such a surprisingly enjoyable lesson in high finance. And the theme of, and raison d’etre for, Vice, that Dick Cheney is an asshole, resonates with my perspective and politics.
But what was refreshing and elucidating in The Big Short becomes grating and repetitive in Vice. There is no nuance, certainly not in Christian Bale’s lauded but really one-note performance as the grunting, unpleasant Cheney. Yes, he gained a lot of weight and the makeup is transformative, but Bale’s Cheney is only a shadow of the similarly regarded Winston Churchill inhabited by Gary Oldman (last year’s Best Actor).
Vice ultimately plays like a Saturday Night Live cold open that would be fun to watch for five minutes on Facebook, but which loses its way when stretched to a feature film.
7. Bohemian Rhapsody
I enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody and am glad I saw it in the theater. I listened to a lot of Queen in high school and college in the late 70’s and early 80’s; hearing the music boomed over Dolby Theater Surround (“All Around You”) was a total nostalgia trip. I will not be too disappointed if Rami Malek wins the Best Actor Oscar (although the real Best Actor of 2018, Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, wasn’t even nominated).
But . . . Bohemian Rhapsody has no business being nominated for Best Picture. At best it is a successful diversion, a tribute to a great rock and roll band. In many ways it is a mess, the last-minute change in directors evident in the uneven plot and style.
Also evident are the many drafts the script went through, bending the truth so that Freddie Mercury’s sexuality was minimized and even demonized – things really go downhill once he acknowledges his attraction to men – and so that the surviving members of Queen can look like the good guys in comparison.
Bohemian Rhapsody is just not that good a film.
6. Green Book
Sigh. If Green Book wins the Best Picture Oscar, this Sunday night will go down in infamy with the 1990 ceremony when Driving Miss Daisy won and Do the Right Thing (the best film of 1989) was not even nominated. Surely the Academy is more woke 30 years later and does not need to reward a film that purports to teach us about race from a white perspective when two excellent films by black directors featuring black characters are also nominated. My fear that this might happen is not assuaged by the fact that the Academy did not nominate the best film of 2018, the unapologetically black If Beale Street Could Talk.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, I did have a good time watching Green Book. It is light and airy and non-threatening. As a white guy, I am certainly comfortable having the white character take center stage. But even more I am disappointed that the most interesting character, Dr. Shirley, is relegated to a prop through which Tony Lip learns about black people.
And who exists so Tony can teach him how to be more . . . black! (Thank goodness Tony introduced him to fried chicken.) The subsequent criticism of the film by members of Dr. Shirley’s family should be enough to disqualify it from Best Picture consideration.
Green Book is a fine film, but not Best Picture, not in 2019, not with the other films that are nominated.
Roma is a majestic achievement of film-making. Alfonso Cuarón should probably win Best Director if only the current film is considered (but I hope Spike Lee wins based on his body of work; plus I want to hear his speech). I am a sucker for long takes and the coordination they entail. Roma is full of masterful long takes with blocking I cannot fathom – check out the scene in the shop that becomes engulfed in a riot. The black-and-white cinematography (by Cuarón himself) shines and shimmers, presenting tableaus worthy of still photographs hung on museum walls.
So why is Roma not higher on my list? This may disqualify me as a film critic, but I felt distanced from the characters and events by the very technical mastery I admired. Even the most fraught events in the film provoked more intellectual interest than emotional investment. I believe this is attributable at least in part to the literal distance Cuarón consistently kept the camera from his characters. Also, there is a limitation in his choice to portray the struggles of the indigenous workers through the eyes of a upper class child, and perhaps there are some issues with privilege inherent in that as well.
Although I respect Roma a great deal, for me it is not a Best Picture winner.
4. A Star Is Born
I did not see A Star Is Born until this week. I went to the one theater where it was still playing, only at 10pm, out of a sense of duty and desire to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars ceremony.
I put it off because I did not think I would like A Star Is Born. My generation’s version was released when I was 14; for the adolescent me the Barbara Streisand / Kris Kristofferson weeper was nothing but cheesy.
But . . . there is something about this 2019 version of this oft-told tale. Perhaps it is the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, or the mostly excellent music, or the raw energy inherent in Cooper’s direction.
This film just works, and it works in what is perhaps the most “old Hollywood” way of any of the films nominated for Best Picture. It’s got big stars, an epic scope, and an old-fashioned passionate but tragic romance.
it’s certainly not a “great” film, but it is a reminder that popular entertainment does not have to sacrifice quality filmmaking. I don’t think it’s in the same category of Best Picture worthiness as the top three on my list, but I will not be too disappointed if A Star Is Born wins on Sunday.
Now we come to the films I consider serious contenders. Any of these last three are worthy of being bestowed the Best Picture Oscar.
Blackkklansman affected me more than any film I saw this year. Specifically, the last ten minutes, disconnected from the plot of the rest but heartbreakingly relevant. That ending wrecked me. It wrecked the whole theater. Folks weeping, talking angrily back to the screen . . . Most of the folks around me were people of color and I felt at least uncomfortable along with the tears that welled up.
That’s a good thing.
One thing excellent films can do is make us appropriately uncomfortable even as they entertain us.
And Blackkklansman is entertaining. The story is one that no one would buy as fiction (but it’s true!). A black cop goes undercover – at least on the phone – as a KKK member. How can that not be fun? But it’s also elucidating – through John David Washington’s excellent portrayal of the police officer, we get to observe and experience what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness.”
Perhaps Blackkklansman will win and make up for the tremendous snub of Do the Right Thing 30 years ago.
2. The Favourite
Is The Favourite sometimes too over the top? Do the anachronisms sometimes distract? Are the chapter titles too precious at times?
Yes, yes, and yes. But who cares. The Favourite embodies everything one could want in a Best Picture – amazing performances by its three female leads, gloriously rendered costumes and production design, elegantly crafted dialogue with plenty of trenchant wit, all displayed with distinctively alluring cinematography.
The Favourite drips with originality. Its faults result from risk-taking, not playing it safe. Perhaps it is not as artful (or arty) as Roma, but it sure is one heck of a lot of fun.
It’s too bad there is not an acting award that could go to Olivia Coleman (who really should win Best Actress over both Glen Close and Lady Gaga), Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone collectively.
1. Black Panther
Remember last winter when you went to the theater and saw Black Panther? It’s been a year or so, I know, but try to recall the rush you experienced watching the story unfold, the wonder the first time you saw Wakanda, the beauty of the tribes in their traditional clothing gathered at the waterfall.
Black Panther is so much more than a “Comic Book Movie.”
It is a film of not just black but also women’s empowerment, an original epic production that is not quite like anything that has come before.
Now, I know some of the Marvel fans will say The Avengers: Infinity War is a better movie. I’ve had that conversation. Perhaps Infinity War is better if you are a fan, if you have seen all the Marvel movies and know all the characters and plot thread that converge, but Black Panther is so much more accessible to everyone, and therefore certainly a more worthy Best Picture Nominee . . . and winner.
I admit that I am a comic book movie dilettante; I see the big ones but had no idea what Benedict Cumberbatch was doing in Infinity War, much less who Antman was.
I say that to assure you that I do not put Black Panther first on my list out of any Marvel fandom, but because I genuinely believe it was the best film of those nominated in 2018. One test of such a film is its rewatchability; I can imagine enjoying Black Panther many times over the years to come.
BONUS: The Real Best Picture of 2018
I said this above but wanted to reiterate, If Beale Street Could Talk is the Best Picture of 2018. It is beautiful, poetic, ephemeral but at the same time devastatingly real. I have accepted it’s failure to be nominated, but if Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack is not awarded an Oscar on Sunday there will be something terribly wrong. Please watch this film if you have not. You can thank me later.
BONUS BONUS: One More Recommendation
It’s not a great film by any means, but the film I just plain enjoyed the most in 2018 is Juliet Naked. Check it out. Again, you can thank me later.