Julie and I watched 12 films during our seventh consecutive annual viewing of Oscar hopefuls, a collection that encompasses all of the movies that were nominated for either Best Picture or an acting category. Usually, we like most of the films we see to varying degrees with perhaps one or two that leave us cold. This year, however, was a motley assortment of hits and misses. In fact, I can recommend only half of them. Here they are, ranked in order from my least to most favorite.
12) THE FAVOURITE (or in my case, The Least Favourite)
10 Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Olivia Colman), Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone), Director (Yorgos Lanthimos), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Costuming
In a nutshell: Rival cousins will do anything to win the exclusive favor of Queen Anne.
You know how it is when you’re ready to put down a novel because you don’t like its characters and you don’t care what happens to them? That’s pretty much where I’m coming from with my opinion of The Favourite. Admittedly, I may be compromised by my utter disinterest in royal domiciles and whatever goes on within them. Even so, I could not escape the contrivance of the whole enterprise. I repeatedly had the feeling that the director was nudging me to respond in a particular way – say, to laugh – but I’m afraid I was a chronic disappointment.“
“Look!” the film seemed to say, “people in the 18th Century used vulgar language and had sex all the time!” Ho-hum. “Listen!” it pleaded, “that overwrought organ music in the soundtrack following an extremely bitchy move by one of the antagonists means it’s time to laugh!” Yawn. “Wait!” cries the film, “don’t you like how the designer of the titles and credits put enormous space between each character of each word?” No. No, I do not.
I did like Olivia Colman’s nuanced performance of a troubled queen who vacillates among states of barest competence, childlike delight and melodramatic despair. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone were fine, too. Oh, and there were rabbits. I like rabbits in most anything.
Bottom line: This combination of cast and setting is irresistible Oscar bait. Only the Academy knows why.
11) AT ETERNITY’S GATE
1 Nomination: Best Actor (Willem Dafoe)
In a nutshell: The last days of Vincent Van Gogh.
A good chunk of At Eternity’s Gate is taken up by shaky, point-of-view shots in which most of the bottom half of the frame is out of focus, as though one were wearing bad prescription bifocals. I am mystified as to why. I mean, there is the rather lame possibility that it was done to show us how differently Van Gogh saw the world. But that would be as stupid as it is pretentious, so I have no idea. I do know it’s relentlessly annoying. Ditto for the extensive use of hand-held camera shots that are not so different than the footage that resulted when Dad used to forget to turn off the camcorder.
These techniques are enough to put me off a movie I otherwise enjoyed. Its slow pace and gorgeous landscapes immerse the viewer in a peaceful, bygone world. Willem Dafoe imbues Van Gogh with innocent wonder and painful fragility. Just keep the damn camera locked down, clean the lens, and let the actors do their thing, and you would have a much better film. Oh, and while you’re at it, toss out the ponderous piano music as well. If you’re going to clear out the artsy-fartsy stuff, might as well get rid of all of it.
Bottom line: This is why more people don’t go to see arthouse movies.
10) A STAR IS BORN
8 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Bradley Cooper), Actress (Lady Gaga), Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott), Original Song (“Shallow”), Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Sound Mixing
In a nutshell: A preternaturally gifted singer is discovered by a rock star whose fame is soon eclipsed by that of his protégé.
It’s just not for me. That’s my polite response to Bradley Cooper’s interpretation of A Star is Born. I’m inclined toward politeness because I’m aware that many moviegoers have been genuinely moved by the film’s performances, its music, and the overall narrative. And while I was impressed by Lady Gaga’s acting skills, I cannot say the same for the rest of the endeavor.
I suppose that’s because one person’s spot-on heart-tugger is another’s melodrama, but I just couldn’t help seeing the artifice behind the project, like watching a magician when there is no secret to the illusion. Characters don’t develop so much as they are chained to tropes that signal the inevitable, such as Cooper’s rock star forever chugging from bottles of alcohol and sighing in relief. Hmm…all that drinking might lead to a bad end, you know.
And speaking of bad ends (SPOILER ALERT), there was something about the film’s stylized portrayal of suicide that reeked of romanticism, narcissism and exploitation to me. If the family dog waiting fruitlessly for his master doesn’t do you in, Cooper includes a gratuitous final shot of a silent Gaga staring into the camera as tears roll down her face. Oh, Bradley! Come back, Bradley!
I apologize. It’s just not for me.
Bottom line: Featuring the hit song, “Shallow.” Irony not intended.
8 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Christian Bale), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Supporting Actress (Amy Adams), Director (Adam McKay), Film Editing, Original Screenplay, Makeup and Hairstyling
In a nutshell: Dick Cheney’s rise from Yale dropout to White House intern to Vice President of the United States.
Director Adam McKay employed a collage of narrative techniques to make sure that 2015’s The Big Short, a film about how the 21st Century housing bubble precipitated an American financial crisis, was both understandable and entertaining. He employs the same “anything goes” style in Vice to lesser success, the effect being similar to reading the work of an English major who has brazenly decided to ignore the requirements of his assignment and instead relies on impressing the professor with sheer genius. “Very clever ideas,” you might scribble on his paper, “but perhaps not as clever as you think.”
Sometimes the strategy pays off, as it does midway through the movie in a structurally subversive moment you’ll recognize when you see it. More often, though, the quirky storytelling comes off as lazy exposition, as if McKay doesn’t trust an audience raised on Saturday Night Live to have the patience and attention span demanded by a traditional narrative.
There are fine performances all around, especially Christian Bale’s transformation into Cheney, and that might have been enough to save the film were it not for McKay’s political bias. Understand that my personal philosophy is so far left that I am often disappointed by the conservatism of the Democratic Party, and even I thought that much of Vice was comprised of cheap shots. The mere truth would have sufficed. Instead, McKay implies Cheney’s primary responsibility for myriad social ills, resulting in a satire that unintentionally lampoons the liberal elitism of its creator as much as anything else.
Bottom line: I accuse Adam McKay, sitting in the director’s chair, armed with contempt, of preaching to the choir.
8) Green Book
5 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Film Editing, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: A racist Italian bouncer softens under the employ of a gifted, black pianist.
Sigh. You know, it’s not unusual for me to perceive a clunker or two during our annual viewing of Oscar-nominated movies. But here we are, five films into the list, and I have advanced only from blah to meh.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Green Book as a film from a narrative perspective. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali give engrossing performances, and the storyline is an effective meditation on race relations and changing attitudes. But let’s face it: this is a movie that’s tailor-made for white audiences to feel good as they leave the theater. It keeps the insidious racism of the past under a glass jar and says nothing about the insidious racism of today. Mortensen’s transformation from thick-headed bigot to a somewhat enlightened bigot is a comfortable proxy from the average white filmgoer, who will surely see himself or herself as even further evolved.
Like other popular movies that club Civil Rights Era racism with all the subtlety of a hunter claiming a seal, Green Book is yet another missed opportunity. Two missed opportunities, actually. The story of pianist Don Shirley is fascinating, but this is a tale from the perspective of his short-term chauffeur. Likewise, the horrifying truths behind the necessity of a Green Book guide for black travelers is worthy of its own movie. This ain’t it.
Bottom line: Being Driven By Mister Vallelonga
7) BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
5 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Rami Malek), Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
In a nutshell: Freddie Mercury rises to fame as the frontman of Queen.
The emotional hub around which Bohemian Rhapsody revolves is Queen’s 20-minute performance at Wembley Stadium as part of the historic Live Aid charity concert in 1985. The short set has attained legendary status over the years, no doubt due not only to its vibrant energy but also as a fitting exemplar of the late Freddy Mercury’s unique stagecraft. What a jolt it is, then, to learn that Queen’s flamboyant lead singer confidently strutted the stage that day while fully aware of his impending demise due to AIDS. Familiar phrases like, “Mama, I don’t want to die,” from the movie’s namesake track, assume heartbreaking significance. Band members Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon look toward Mercury with stoic admiration of his talent and courage, tears welling in their eyes, for they have just learned of Freddie’s tragic diagnosis during rehearsals before this unlikely reunion of their band.
Only…Freddy Mercury did not receive an HIV diagnosis until at least 1986. His bandmates played Live Aid ignorant of Mercury’s contraction of AIDS, the news of which they would not learn for another four years. And the appearance of Queen at Live Aid was in no way a reunion, as the quartet had just finished a world tour eight weeks prior.
Now, either this sort of emotional manipulation at the cost of any semblance of accuracy bothers you, or it does not, but Bohemian Rhapsody boasts no disclaimer advising its loosey-goosey handling of the truth. Yes, it’s a movie and not a documentary. But fiddling with the chronology of album releases and band lineups is one thing. Going for cheap tears by claiming that one of rock’s most lauded performances was delivered under the ominous cloud of devastating news is something else.
Too bad, too, because the movie is entertaining, if a bit hokey (everybody from strangers in a bar to stagehands up in the amp scaffolding loves Queen). Rami Malek is a dynamic and convincing Freddy Mercury, notwithstanding the occasions when he sucks in his cheeks to express pensiveness, which highlights his prosthetic dentures and evokes Jerry Lewis as The Nutty Professor. And the film has cats that out-act the rabbits in The Favourite.
Bottom line: Is this the real life? Nope.
10 Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira), Director (Alfonso Cuarón), Foreign Language Film, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
In a nutshell: A story of interdependence among a family and its housemaid amid the political upheaval of early 70s Mexico City.
Roma opens with a static, black-and-white shot of a tiled surface upon which water intermittently washes and the credits are superimposed. Only after three minutes have elapsed does the camera pan up and rotate to capture some unremarkable action for a further minute and a half. It’s the kind of shot that might appear to some as a cinematic stunt, not a mere movie sequence, but filmmaking! Fortunately, director Alfonso Cuarón walks that thin line between art and pretension, adding a crisp soundtrack of ambient noise that underscores the verisimilitude of arresting cinematography. You feel as though you were there, right among the parents, their children, and their domestic help.
That intimacy is voyeuristic during the film’s mundane moments and heartbreaking at its emotional peaks. Cuarón deftly maintains a pace between the ordinary and the extraordinary, keeping the narrative compelling throughout. How fitting, then, that the protagonist is portrayed by someone with no prior acting experience: an unknown plucked from the ranks of everyday life and giving an exceptional performance.
Bottom line: For the patient viewer, a sensory delight of sight and sound.
5) THE WIFE
1 Nomination: Best Actress (Glenn Close)
In a nutshell: A long-married couple travel to Stockholm to accept the husband’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Wife reminds me of 2016’s Fences, not because they are even remotely anything like each other in content, but rather because both films are showcases for a small ensemble of actors. Just as Fences was adapted from a play, The Wife might easily have been mounted as a theatrical production. The setting and even the plot are secondary – it’s all about the relationships among the characters.
I wouldn’t mind at all if Glenn Close takes the Best Actress Oscar. Her authenticity as a suppressed creative derives from a subtle and nuanced performance. She is frequently smiling, even when pained, as though she is accustomed to wearing a mask of civility. The portrayal of her marriage is insightfully thorny, a thicket of resentment, betrayal, rage, familiarity and genuine affection.
There is also good casting of the supporting players. Jonathan Pryce exploits his natural affability to wring out sympathy for the protagonist’s wretched husband. Christian Slater, whose Jack Nicholson-esque drawl seemed so anachronistic in the 1989 teenage satire Heathers, still sounds the same, but he has aged enough to put that eccentricity to credible use as a somewhat sleazy yet charming journalist. Most impressive of all is Annie Starke, utterly believable as a younger version of Close’s character (and no wonder, as Glenn Close is her actual mother).
Bottom line: This one is all about the acting, and all the acting is good.
4) BLACK PANTHER
7 Nominations: Best Picture, Costume Design, Original Score, Original Song (“All the Stars”), Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
In a nutshell: The heir to the throne of the secret kingdom of Wakanda is challenged by a renegade warrior who grew up in America.
I don’t like action movies, and I am no fan of superheroes. But I really enjoyed Black Panther, and that tells you something about just how good it is. So good that I willingly sat through tedious action sequences for the story to resume. So good that I didn’t mind its predictability. So good that I tolerated the requisite gratuitous cameo from the late Stan Lee.
What Black Panther lacks in some areas is more than made up for by the sheer inventiveness of its production design and costuming, along with a compelling narrative that posits an irresistible fiction: a hidden kingdom in Africa, untouched by colonization and far more technologically advanced than the rest of the world. For as outlandish as superheroes and their environs are permitted to be, the kingdom of Wakanda is somehow plausible – it is a mix of old and new, tribal traditions amidst soaring spacecraft.
It’s clever and smart, and I can see why it has left audiences cheering. If ever there were a fantasy to embrace and be inspired by, this is it.
Bottom line: A superhero action film, but so much more.
3) CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
2 Nominations: Best Actress (Melissa McCarthy), Supporting Actor (Richard E. Grant)
In a nutshell: Based on the memoir of biographer Lee Israel, who became notorious for creating and selling forged literary letters.
There’s a lot that directors and writers can do to make an essentially unlikable character appeal to the audience. Start by showing said character at a squalid nadir, with nowhere to go but up. Introduce a friend that is similarly broken. Then surround the pair with fools and charlatans. It’s a proven formula, but it requires a rare ingredient to pull it all together: actors who can find the vulnerable humanity in roles that would not ordinarily prompt our sympathy.
Melissa McCarthy is one such actor. Alcoholic author Lee Israel is abrasive, profane, and unapologetic. Her moral code bends according to her fortune. She appears to have zero charitable inclinations. Yet McCarthy teases out the less obvious aspects of these undesirable traits. Lee is a talented writer whose skillful work is commercially ignored. She is painfully introverted, investing all of her capacity to love in her elderly cat. She is bluntly honest and refuses to play the hypocritical games by which one advances through polite society. And she is desperate. This is a character that prefers not to reveal an inkling of emotion, yet McCarthy shows us what is going on underneath the affectless mask.
Richard E. Grant is another such actor. His drug-dealing and homeless bon vivant, Jack, lives for the moment while presenting himself aristocratically, like an amoral Quentin Crisp. He seems to have no problem with being an accomplice to Lee’s scheme, so long as he is paid. And he blatantly flaunts rules that do not suit him, even at the cost of friendship. But Grant seizes on Jack’s helpless hedonism and unassailable sense of dignity, and like an errant child with disarming charm, we cannot help but like him.
A toast to the Academy for nominating McCarthy and Grant, then. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is their showcase.
Bottom line: A solidly entertaining film with two of the year’s best performances.
2) IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
1 Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)
In a nutshell: Lifelong friends Tish and Fonny fall in love and struggle to establish themselves as a young couple in early 1970s Harlem.
Director Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight took Best Picture a couple years ago in an infamously botched award presentation, returns with another lovely film that demonstrates his cinematic chops. Once again, cinematographer James Laxton works his magic, and what a shame that once again, he has not been recognized with a nomination (especially considering the fact that the lensmen behind A Star is Born and The Favourite were nominated). If Beale Street Could Talk is a rich palette of browns and golden ambers, with beautiful backlighting setting off characters and reinforcing their emotional arcs.
But it’s not just a technically good film. The acting is first-rate, especially from newcomer Kiki Layne, who is surely as deserving of an acting award as anyone who was nominated. Her portrayal of Tish is a masterful depiction of infatuation, fear, determination and devoted love. Regina King, who was nominated for her role as Tish’s mother, displays similar range and fortitude, but if anything, Beale Street is an embarrassment of acting riches; every member of the cast turns in a memorable performance.
Bottom line: This film has a more legitimate claim to a Best Picture nomination than most of the movies that received one.
6 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Adam Driver), Director (Spike Lee), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Original Score
In a nutshell: A 1970s black detective infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. Based, incredibly, on a true story.
Unlike Green Book, this is not a film that was made to make white audiences feel good as they stroll out of the theater. Rather, director Spike Lee has created a movie that ought to leave its audience angry, if I have any hope for the future of our country.
John David Washington portrays Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who responds to a KKK recruiting pitch in the classified ads and plays along with the president of the local chapter. Adam Driver is the white detective who acts as Stallworth’s proxy whenever it is necessary for him to attend meetings and functions. Both are excellent, as is bit player Paul Walter Hauser, who portrays a racist imbecile who goes by the name Ivanhoe. (Hauser, similarly wonderful as an idiotic Shawn Eckhardt in last year’s I, Tonya, could make a career out of convincingly and entertainingly embodying complete morons.) Also of note is Topher Grace, whose matter-of-fact portrayal of the polite yet monstrous David Duke is all the more disturbing due to its restraint.
It’s the coda of BlackKklansman that vaults the film from good to the kind of greatness meriting a Best Picture award. Lee finds a way to make an indelible connection between the racist crazies of yesterday and those (and their enablers) of today.
Bottom line: The Academy will shake its head in shame-faced embarrassment if its members don’t reward the bold direction of Spike Lee.