By Jackson Cropper
On January 22nd, the nominations for the 91st annual Academy Awards were announced and while there’s a lot to be excited about, we all could use guidance when it comes to discerning which films are up to caliber, and which films are pure Oscar-bait. Luckily for you, I have done the hard work of watching all of the films (the good, the bad, and the ugly) nominated for Best Picture this year and placed my thoughts into this collection of reviews that should help steer you in the right direction, plus I’ve added three films that I feel like should have been recognised instead as some of the best work this year.
The Oscars will premier live on ABC on February 24th at 8pm. You can also stream the event live through a Hulu streaming subscription on Hulu.com or through the Hulu app.
The Best Picture Nominees
A Star Is Born
If one film on this list was guaranteed to get Oscar recognition this season, it was A Star Is Born. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is filled with romantic love, industry mumbo-jumbo, and tortured artists- You know… the Oscar stuff! Even though it’s the third remake of the original 1937 film, Cooper’s adaptation began catching people’s attention when its premiere at the Venice Film Festival (one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world) garnered an eight-minute standing ovation once credits rolled. That gushing response to the film has been synonymous with the response of Academy members, who haven’t been able to stop talking about its likability and the onscreen chemistry the actors have.
A Star Is Born follows the fame of a skilled country musician suffering from alcoholism as he falls in love with an aspiring songwriter who has high hopes to make it big. The film’s greatest strength is the notable performances from Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, and Cooper himself, whose acting nominations were seen coming from a mile away. Though the film doesn’t benefit from some awkwardly edited scenes and a meandering second act that often feels like it has little place to go, the cinematography and direction prove that Cooper knows what he’s doing in the director’s chair. It’s obvious that even though Cooper’s acting career has been going on for years, he has a big future in creating his own stories and A Star Is Born shows that he’s just getting started. Even though it might not be one of the best films of the year and it has some noticeable flaws, the talent behind the work is worthy of the nomination, plus the song “Shallow” makes up for many of its faults in every way shape and form.
Probably the biggest surprise this awards season has been the success of the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. The film, led by the impressive Rami Malek, tells the story of Freddie’s rise and fall as the lead singer of the band Queen, a group that pushed rock music norms in the seventies and eighties. Unfortunately, this film is by far the weakest film on this list. Bohemian Rhapsody has select moments of interesting filmmaking, but ultimately the film falls short due to many reasons.
First of all, the screenplay is lazy and uninspired (ironic because the film includes many scenes of band members accusing others of being lazy and uninspired). The dialogue isn’t afraid to leave out personal moments for the sake of moving the plot along, leaving a gap in the connection between the audience and the band members themselves. The members of the band come across as shallow and underdeveloped misrepresented people who move from Queen-era to Queen-era with little growth.
Another complaint towards the film would be the way it portrays Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. Mercury’s bisexuality is depicted as a bane of the band and something that he has to overcome. Once Freddie is out, his new lifestyle almost acts as the group’s Yoko Ono, and the members don’t officially make amends until he announces that he has HIV (which is also depicted as a tragic inevitability and a punishment for his ego that came along with embracing his sexuality). What makes matters worse is that the film’s director, Bryan Singer, has been placed under several lawsuits, dating from April of 2014 to as recent as January 23, 2019, over his involvement in pedophilic activity.
Personally, I feel like this film shouldn’t be getting the award-buzz that it’s getting, but many of eight Oscar nominations were expected when the Golden Globe crowned the film as best drama just over a year after the cultural revolution of the #metoo movement. Hopefully, in the years to come, we’ll realize that we overhyped a film that represents peak mediocrity when it wouldn’t fall in favor of the creative and innovative man it fails to represent.
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has been ignored by the Academy Awards for the past two years, but hopefully with the recent nominations, his third American film will put an end to that long period of neglect. The Favourite is a smart and complex period piece that is powered by three main female leads wrestling over strength, affection, and power. It’s not quite a love triangle, not quite a cat and mouse chase, and not quite a comedy, but somehow it’s all three rolled up into one. The film centers around two women in 18th century England who delve into a bitter rivalry in order to win over the queen’s approval. The two women (brilliantly played by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) seek to be the queen’s favorite for different reasons and as the film progresses you never really know whose side you’re on.
It’s the kind of screenplay that demands close attention and plays around with character motivation as a baby plays with a rattle. The Queen, who is in between this tug-of-war of attention, is played by Olivia Colman who gives one of the best performances of the year. She’s simultaneously bitter, hilarious, and miserable as she desperately strives to set a prime example as a leading lady. Not only is she impressive when her shrill shrieks struggle to assert her dominance, but also when her moments of great weakness sneak upon her and she shows a unique marriage of vulnerability and comfort. All three actresses earned their acting nominations, but if only one woman should win an award, it’s Olivia Colman.
On top of these amazing performances and complex script, Lanthimos manages to deliver the signature style that defined him as the auteur he is. Stellar tracking shots, wide angle lenses, and dark, but comedic, moments are present throughout the film. Hopefully, Lanthimos walks away with some major recognition this year and is encouraged to make more stories as smart and beautiful as this one.
Fans of action-packed blockbusters have waited for the day in which a superhero film is worthy enough for the best picture slot, but after The Dark Knight placed everyone’s standards too high and Logan only managed to grab a Best Adapted Screenplay nom at last year’s Oscars (which the mere statement alone is a miracle we shouldn’t take for granted) it seemed as if that dream would never come to reality. This all changed with the release of Black Panther.
The first Marvel movie to be up for Best Picture, Black Panther does something that no other Marvel Cinematic Universe movie has done before: feel like it takes place in the real world. Pioneered by a strong African-American cast, the film portrays the newfound king of a hidden country in Africa, named Wakanda, that profits off of exclusive access to world-changing technologies. Out of fear that presenting the world with the information could cost Wakandans their way of life, king T’Challa believes that Wakanda should be hidden from the world forever and it isn’t until a powerful character like Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger threatens that mentality that things become interesting.
The cool thing about Black Panther is how it uses its antagonist to deconstruct the beliefs of the protagonist. This isn’t something new in film, but the way it directly relates to prominent issues of our society, and in a superhero film for that matter, is. It encourages discussion of important economic and racial issues in an entertaining way throughout. However, even though it has many things going for it, I feel like the film shouldn’t be in consideration for Best Picture. Compared to other films that came out this year like Sorry to Bother You or Blindspotting, Black Panther doesn’t discuss race or economic issues as effective as those films do. In fact, Black Panther often feels held down by studio standards that get in the way of what’s really interesting- the topics brought up by the story. Another problem can be found in the dialogue where many side characters can feel underdeveloped and one-sided, arguing for their opinions to be heard and then rarely acknowledged again. Often times the dialogue that isn’t directly conflict-driven can come across as tedious or plain awkward (and disclaimer for anyone watching post-February 2018… there is a “what are those?” reference stuck in act one that is doomed to age as well as Nickelodeon Gak). Regardless, Black Panther is a movie people should see and support, even though it may lack what it takes to feel truly Oscar-worthy.
It’s been five years since Adam McKay traded in his wacky-tight grip on absurdist, yet grounded, comedy for prestigious real-world disaster satires, and with the release of Vice, a damaging biopic of former vice president Dick Cheney, it’s apparent that the act is growing tired.
A bit messy in execution and excessive in editing, Vice captures what led to Cheney’s controversial acts during the reign of the Bush administration.
The film, led by Christian Bale as Cheney who famously gained 40 pounds for the role, has some elements that are genuinely clever and even startling, but unfortunately these elements can’t save it from being what it truly is- a self-indulgent film with the intentions of convincing the Academy voters that it’s strong enough for Best Picture.
The truth of the matter is the film doesn’t fully understand what it wants to be. Taking a stance against egocentric and self-centered politicians, but simultaneously sympathizing with the damning control the pursuit of power has on people, Vice is so into how it wants to straddle the line between pure truth and liberal propaganda that it makes stylistic choices so bizarre that it comes off as smug and full of itself. The film spends plenty of time showing both the pressures that power has on our cold-cut conservative and the heinous methods he used to turn himself into a corrupt monster, but what makes it so grating is that it does it in a way so all-knowing that it feels like it’s looking down on you, never letting you in on its joke. The film even acts so almighty that it’s bold enough to pinpoint the exact moment it feels like Cheney could have saved himself from his inevitable corruption. Something about this approach to the Cheney story comes off as condescending.
What exactly went wrong? Is it that Mckay is so desperate to earn his “important” filmmaker status that he wants the audience to be impressed by his knowledge and stance on the matter? Is it that Scorsese made The Wolf of Wall Street look so effortless that every film with themes of greed feels like it can one-up it? Or is it McKay struggles so much with leaving his past behind him that it causes him to shoehorn a horrendous Macbeth-esque dialogue scene into a complicated political film? I’m not too sure. All I know is that the film isn’t saying a whole lot in terms of meaning. All it does is offer us, conservatives and liberals alike, reasons to get angry. It’s odd for a film that acts so high and mighty to tell you that you should be mad and then offer little solution to the matter, and essentially this is the main reason why it shouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture.
At the halfway point of Donald Trump’s excessive presidency, many people have publicly spoken out against the hot-shot president, but perhaps no fury has been more vocalized and apparent than that of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
His latest “joint” portrays the true, yet in some aspects righteously manipulated, story of an African-American Colorado Springs police officer in the seventies who runs a dangerous investigation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Using his own voice over the phone but a Jewish undercover officer to meet the Klan members in person, the cops secretly battle prejudice, bias, and violence hidden in their community. Not shying away from the heavy-handed nature that’s prevalent in Lee’s other works, the film isn’t afraid to make aggressive political points. This is the main reason why BlacKkKlansman is nominated for the Oscar; its subject matter is incredibly relevant.
Unlike how Vice sets out to make people mad, BlacKkKlansman feels like it has a specific reason to incite anger. Fed up with how citizens all across America are treated, Lee uses his new film to show that even though we’ve marked race-relation improvements down on paper, the real-world issues dealt with in the past still need to be fixed today. Mix that madness with a dash of dry comedy and a great deal of suspense, then you have a powerful movie that makes you feel rewarded and infuriated at the same time. That said, given the oxymoronic situation that story deals with, it would have been nice for the humor to be more present. Even though the subject matter is anything but laughable, the humor could have been used in a more effective way to where it still wouldn’t disrupt the film’s main message. Another complaint would be that the film isn’t as stylistic as previous Lee films. Sometimes including plainly-shot sequences, the film has sections that are absent of Lee’s on-screen brand. Even though many scenes deliver on incorporating filmmaking techniques of the 1970s, it would have been nice to see Lee exploit more of the “blaxploitation film” techniques that BlacKkKlansman pokes fun at.
But with the nitpicks out of the way, the film’s unapologetically honest approach to confronting a massive issue in America is powerful filmmaking that deserves awards recognition.
Every awards season we get some films that feel like serious contenders due to the unique ways they approach their stories, but it seems like almost equally we get films that receive plenty of Oscar-buzz despite playing it safe and delivering a fairly simple story. The best example of the later this awards season would be Green Book.
Directed by Peter Farley (one half of the filmmaking duo that brought us Dumb and Dumber), Green Book is about an Italian-American bouncer in the 1960’s who becomes the chauffeur to a prestigious African-American piano player during an extensive touring session through the segregated South. Using the Negro Motorist Green Book to find safe places to stay, both characters, played by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali respectively, travel from city to city getting ready for fancy shows and encountering the blatant racism below the Mason-Dixon Line.
The best part about the film is that the two main characters are used to challenge one another’s social ideals and push each other to be more understanding of racial situations, but even though the film has a heart with pure intentions, it simply does not have what it takes to feel worthy of Best Picture.
The fact is, Green Book plays it far too safe. Nothing about the film attempts to go fully out of the ordinary; it is simply an inoffensive and charming, albeit a cheesy and somewhat forgettable, story that gets it’s points across without feeling too daunting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A comfortable film about racial issues like this is a great alternative for families that don’t have what it takes to stomach the hard blow of more powerful films like BlacKkKlansman, and while Green Book maybe not as articulate in discussing real-world issues as BlacKkKlansman is, it has what it takes to get more people in theatre seats. However, this does not make it a great movie and the slot Green Book holds could have gone to a film more deserving.
Despite its nomination for Best Original Screenplay as well, the script itself is cumbersome. At some points, the movie can feel like it’s glossing over specific issues and often it tries to be funny when it’s really not, but occasionally some back-and-forth dialogue between the two tend to get its point across in an effective way. Without a doubt, the most deserving nomination, and probably the only one it truly deserves, is the supporting actor nod for Mahershala Ali, who delivers a great performance despite having a script that can make his character feel repetitive.
At the end of the day, the biggest issue with Green Book’s current spot in the Oscar limelight isn’t that it’s a downright awful film, it’s that this year’s more meaningful films have ended up hidden in its safe and sorta bland shadow.
One of the most masterfully crafted films in recent memory, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is probably the most Oscar-deserving film on this list. The black and white Spanish film from the six-time Academy Award-winning director is enormous in scope but yet somehow simultaneously subtle.
Channeling Cuaron’s childhood memories of growing up in Mexico City, Roma centers around a maid for a middle-class household, Cleo, who has to take up a whirlwind of responsibility during a family crisis. It’s a sensitive and bittersweet tribute to hidden problem solvers; the low-profile superheroes of life whose sacrifice goes unnoticed until they are reminisced about years later. The already thematically strong film is strengthened with powerful acting from the virtually star-less cast and striking cinematography from Cuaron himself that makes it obvious his heart was poured out into every frame. The film almost floats by the audience, patiently letting us soak up as much visual information as possible and reflecting the connotations we make of it onto Cleo. It’s amazing how we can see how much pain she’s going through without her ever telling the audience how she’s feeling once. On the other hand, one of the most impressive parts of Cuaron’s direction is the way he controls his chaos. Every moment of mayhem is meticulously mapped out in a way that feels effortless, yet somehow the monumental moments never drown out the meaning from the minute ones. It’s this kind of power the film possesses that makes Roma astonishing.
Its nomination for Best Picture marks the first for a Netflix distributed film which, as controversial as that has been, is most likely the future of important and powerful cinema. Realistically, a film like Roma (an independently produced black-and-white foreign drama with no know stars) would have a difficult time in theaters and Netflix is the perfect way for films of Roma’s caliber to make the biggest impact possible. So even if it doesn’t win Best Picture, which it rightfully deserves, the nomination alone is a step in the right direction.
Films that were Snubbed
Young filmmaker Damien Chazelle is no stranger to the Oscars. His feature film Whiplash made waves at the Oscars in 2015 and his stylistic homage to early Hollywood in his musical La La Land was infamously crowned best picture at the 2017 Oscars before becoming quickly dethroned by the correct winner Moonlight. This time around, Damien provides a solid film, but ultimately his weakest thus far, First Man. However, even his weakest film proves to be great and the fact it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture is upsetting.
The film depicts the life of acclaimed astronaut Neil Armstrong as he challenges himself to become the first man to walk the moon. Led by Ryan Gosling, who gives one of the best male performances of the year and possibly his best performance yet, the film contemplates the dangers of human innovation and how it can affect the men who are involved in it. Steering far away from the gleaming patriotism of space-race films before it, the movie instead focuses on how the space programs of the glamorous 1960 directly affected astronaut families.
Throughout the film, Neil has to juggle the pressures of NASA’s expectations, his co-workers’ expectations, and, worst of all, his wife’s expectations. No one can fully get what they’re asking for until America one-up’s Russia once and for all, but what makes First Man so interesting is how it never becomes a blatant propaganda film.
Hopefully, the film will leave with many of the technical awards its nominated for (Best Visual Effects, production design, sound editing, and sound mixing). If nominated, First Man could have proved that a film about a patriotic event doesn’t need to show a seductive shot of a man shoving a flag into the ground in order to be compelling.
You Were Never Really Here
Now that the nominations are out, one of the most disappointing things neglected from the Academy would be woman directors. Plenty of female directors have produced, directed, written, and done cinematography for some great films this year, but the Oscars failed to bring attention to many of them. As of now, only five women have been nominated for Best Director, the latest would be Greta Gerwig for her solo debut Lady Bird last year, and you’d think that the Academy would make an effort to increase that number.
Unfortunately, one of the best films of the year, You Were Never Really Here directed by female director Lynne Ramsey, is a good example of Hollywood’s neglect. You Were Never Really Here is a brutal thriller about a retired veteran, Joe, played by the talented Joaquin Phoenix, who tracks down and saves kidnapped girls for a living, but when one mission spirals out of control, the rescues take a toll on his mental state and send him into the worst nightmare of his life. The film shows a frightening and tense story about the costs it takes to protect childhood innocence from the hideous realities of the world.
Possibly one of the best directed movies of the year, every shot is filled with grit and realism, but at the same time, Ramsey makes the film feel almost like a fairytale drenched in surrealist undertones. Just under 90 minutes, You Were Never Really Here stays tight, holding you on the edge of your seat to find out what happens next. The film truly deconstructs the action/thriller genre making it thematically relevant to the hero himself, rather than having action for the sake of challenging the character’s abilities and nothing more. Hyperviolent upon first glance, Ramsey’s film deep down is a hollowing character study about the sullen and broken protecting the youth from having their innocence tarnished, and the consequences that come with constantly pursuing to be the catcher in the rye.
Even though I knew that there was a great chance that Academy voters wouldn’t vote for it, I’m disappointed Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed didn’t get recognized as one of the best films to come out this year. The film follows a pastor at a historic church called First Reformed in upstate New York who spirals into an internal battle after a meeting with a suicidal environmentalist and his pregnant wife. Similar to Schrader’s first work Taxi Driver, First Reformed deals with heavy themes of despair and a descent into madness, but this time around Schrader asks questions he’s been concerned about bringing up his entire career. Revolving around religious longing and the downfall of mankind, the film discusses the ways in which evil prevails in a broken world and how the fight for selflessness amongst a raging sea of violence can often feel like not enough. The film takes its sweet time to meditate; constantly letting contemplative moments go by with extensive silence, the film acts as a faded scream for help, and from the moment Ethan Hawke’s character Reverend Toller places big black letters into the church’s marquee saying “WILL GOD FORGIVE US?” we’re aware that the scream will still be heard long after the film’s runtime is over.
Giving most likely the best performance of the year, Ethan Hawke comes off as brave in the face of fear, yet fearful towards the God-given suffering he thinks has been placed before him. It’s an absolute travesty that he wasn’t acknowledged for his patient, but breathtaking work. Another beautiful thing about the film is the cinematography, which uses a boxed aspect ratio (basically the opposite of widescreen) that complements Toller’s struggle of feeling imprisoned by his responsibilities.
Even when there were many other aspects of the film that warranted nominations, it should be celebrated that it earned at least a Best Original Screenplay nomination, which it rightfully deserves. Hopefully, without an overwhelming amount of awards recognition, First Reformed’s impact on cinema and the world lasts a long time.