Oscars 2019 – Catching the Best Films, Round 91

My race to catch the Oscar films was on… Host or not! Here’s my take on the contenders.

Green Book

2018 was the first year I managed to watch every Academy Award Best Picture nominee before the award ceremony. It wasn’t just a 90th edition thing – I’d been trying for years, even after a category increase doubled the pain at the start of the decade. Last year, it helped that many of the contenders surfaced at the right time (Awards Season, right?), but that’s not always a given. This year I had a glimmer of a chance, having caught just one film when the field was announced, and that was Marvel’s chronological outlier.

 

 

Controversies

This year’s shortlist made for a rather extraordinary year even if not for the quality of the films, which fell below last year’s bar. But behind the scenes… Marvel’s powerful Black Panther surfaced just after last year’s ceremony and was a surprise addition to the list, mainly because it wasn’t even the blockbuster studio’s best film of 2018. But it had a swagger and an incredible weight outside its narrative that Oscar was astute to pick up. Vice was the most polarising film to earn a Best Picture nomination, but its vivid and startling approach to political biopic is tellingly two Presidents old.

While the ultimate Hollywood remake, A Star Is Born, found its star fading as the Award Season approached, Roma‘s credentials were bolstered by a Best Film BAFTA win earlier in February, which promised a remarkable shift in the industry as a streamed Netflix production – albeit from one of the great directors. Green Book emerged at the end of 2018, as incapable of avoiding incidents on its journey to awards as the road trip it portrays. Many critics piled on apathy, others accused it of taking huge liberties, playing a racism card they thought had disappeared or forcing a purposefully white perspective. This wasn’t helped by criticism from (supporting character) Don Shirley’s family, or Viggo Mortensen’s poor choice of words on the promotion circuit. Discredited tweets surfaced from the co-writer’s 2015 stream, expressing some extraordinary opinions on 9/11. And director Peter Farrally was dogged by revealtions of sexual misconduct on film sets during the 1990s. The odds seemed stacked against it, but the man behind There’s Something About Mary did survive to hit the podium.

Unlike Brian Singer who was removed from history – possibly the first director not to receive a tribute from his Oscar-winning lead actor. He was removed from the troubled production of Bohemian Rhapsody a fair way through shooting (which I thought was a major contributor to its extremely dodgy editing until it picked up Best Editing!). This was more than compounded by the mounting sexual assault allegations that saw his name removed from the BAFTA director shortlist just days before that ceremony. None of this dented the film’s prospects. Bohemian Rhapsody has powered on through critique and sing-along alike to more than double its musical rival’s box office haul – second only to Black Panther on the list.

 

 

Allies

But box office isn’t everything, and certainly not something that links these films. Of course not, the Oscars hardly ever rewards those numbers. Still, there are many themes that do connect them. The Trump-era hasn’t made its presence truly felt yet (as proved as it is disproved by Vice), but true stories, or adaptations of them, dominated five of the eight films. Social justice and civil rights were also strong, nothing new in itself, but certainly in the diversity shown by Green Book and BlackkKlansman and Black Panther. Gender and LGBT politics were alive and well and represented in five of the picks, at least. And the age-old story of fame, perhaps now confirmed as Hollywood’s greatest story, was key to two of the shortlist’s big box-office hitters.

 

 

 

 

Autocues

The ceremony itself was surprisingly hitch-free; in fact, it could hardly have set a better argument for a revolving stage, from Queen’s loaded opener to Julia Robert’s professional farewell. The effective Me Too suite of dresses that filled the Dolby Theatre in 2018, highlighting poor red carpet questions as much as Frances McDormand’s speech, was replaced by a wave of pink, all the way to Jason Momoa’s dapper Karl Lagerfeld tux. Naturally, there were jabs at Trump, but the appeals for love outnumbered them. A particular emphasis fell on the song nominees, and not just because of May, Taylor and Lambert’s opening of Champions. There was also Cooper and Gaga’s laidback gossip-grinder.

An eclectic number of hosts popped out to introduce the Best Picture nominees – I was particularly taken by the brilliant Tom Morello introducing Vice. No questions there, he’s one of the most articulate political performers out there. More of him please. There were peaks and troughs, lulls and guarantees, but the broad smattering of surprise results crept up as the ceremony progressed. Few expected Bohemian Rhapsody to claim Best Editing (least of all Twitter memes), but absolutely no one expected it to claim the most awards. It was clear as the balance grew that the shortlist of potential Best Picture Winners had broadened by two-thirds of the way through, prompting me to lay down the pizza and fried chicken to Tweet:

 

Here’s my verdict on the Oscar picks of 2019:

Black Panther

Black PantherLimited by the near-year that’s passed since its release, Black Panther remains a stunning film, but rather more for the way it transcended the Marvel mould. You may argue, correctly, that the tent-pole perfection of the MCU‘s highest grossing film (and fourth highest of all time) outshone it, but that’s to miss the point that Infinity War was a part-sequel to this Wakandan epic. Black Panther deserved its nomination whatever naysayers maintained in the run-up, but more for what it represented than the solid and occasional sparkling content.

For me, its inescapable error comes right at the end. Enduring a decade of valid complaints that MCU villains rarely stray from the hero-opposite or mundane, Black Panther produced a believable, three-dimensional villain with legitimate complaints that resonated in the early 21st century. And then killed him. A huge mistake, and interestingly one not repeated in DC’s December smash Aquaman. Hugely entertaining fun, DC’s effort wouldn’t trouble the Oscars (surprisingly on the special effects scale) and drew comparisons with Marvel’s Thor and Black Panther. But what it lacked in social metaphor, it reprieved when it managed not to (spoiler ahead) massacre its Royal pretender.

BlacKkKlansman

BlakkKlansmanBlacKkKlansman will be remembered for Spike Lee’s antics during and after claiming a long-deserved Oscar on the 24 February as much as for being a brilliant and charged film. Entertaining, powerful, exquisitely cast and supremely directed. It’s arguably Lee’s most outwardly accessible film and brought many back to the director’s work, but it’s also tricky. The ending stutters leaving a dissatisfaction that questions Lee’s rage at Green Book.

But, it’s confidence isn’t lacking, probably only matched by The Favourite on this list. In the central role, John David Washington brings quiet and captivating gusto, brimming with risk and charisma. Adam Driver makes for solid watching as always, extending the potential for mainstream mumblecore with every performance. While BlackkKlansman is glorious in embarrassing the Klan, the threat never softens, the commentary is full of rage and there is far more than one aspect of civil rights and anti-discrimination in its long sights. That’s an astonishing achievement but then there’s also… The mighty Harry Belafonte in cameo of the year.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian RhapsodyBefore the Oscars, The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw mischievously suggested Rami Malek’s central and overwhelming performance has a bit of “Tonight Matthew” about it. Even if many of us know very well what he means, to represent Freddy Mercury is to present the ideal and the concept as much as the man. Malek balanced that with super-real brilliance. Only the Chinese censors can begrudge him that. And BoRhap brought that same zeal to almost every area of its production, troubled or otherwise. That mostly  includes stretching the elastic of artistic license further than any other fact-inspired film here. I can forgive the odd dramatic addition of say, a false band break-up, or the bringing forward of Mercury’s diagnosis by two years. But the sheer short-hand cheek of suggesting Queen set the phone’s ringing at Live Aid is really beyond the pail. I’m sure the brevity of those scenes is a sign of its embarassment.

Somehow, which is testament to the legend of Freddy Mercury as much as the ridiculous artistic license, it really does stay with you in the days that follow. There’s something there… Which certainly helped it to its four awards to join its near $900m haul.

The Favourite

The FavouriteBrilliantly named, as Joanna Lumley failed to make sound hilarious at the BAFTAs earlier this month. I have to say it. Apart from the gloriously entertaining camerawork, performances, and production design, this is the Best Picture nominee that made me laugh most.

The Favourite basks in its silliness and unsettling period menace.  The balance of Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction and the creeping surreality that never slips to parody, marks it as another classic view of England that’s cast pitch perfectly by a foreign eye (see also, the Rachel Weiss-starring Meirelles classic, The Constant Gardener). There may be moments that Olivia Colman is incredibly and unmistakably Olivia Colman, but it’s true – she turns in a performance here that has never been seen before. In a way the balance to Bohemian Rhapsody this season, major award for major award, regally and factually.

Cannot wait to see what Yorgos can bring back to the Oscars. He will.

Green Book

Green BookAt last, a film about fried chicken! Well, a couple of scenes, anyway. Well, one scene and a punchline.

All finger-licken food of the gods aside, there’s no doubt Green Book starts with a heavy-hand, and that lasts well into the picture. Easily seen as a sign of old-fashioned racial storytelling, it didn’t endear it to many but it may be a necessary trade-off. Whether it’s a pointless throwback or unnecessary and unwanted addition to the genre, by the end of film, for all the keys it hits and misses and many of the more obvious detours it takes along the way, it really has gone on a journey and swept you along with it. It could be a number of factors that provide that warmth, from Christmas to the pinpoint period to the stirring of wonderful piano, but they all combined to overcome the wave of bad-publicity it brought with it to the Awards circuit. I’m pretty sure its broad old-fashionedness is what elevated it in a year marked with several other film pitfalls. Two highly classical, to the point of stylised, performances certainly helped. Whether it will stay in the memory remains to be seen.

Roma

RomaHere was one of the category’s creeping controversies. Roma‘s success at the BAFTA’s triggered a protest from the Vue cinema chain at the accolades bestowed on a film born from streaming. Roma has received a limited theatre release, one that will no doubt grow and many pine for, but its home will always be at Netflix. the home giant will make sure of that.

As such, it could never sit comfortably in an Academy berth. Like Green Book, Roma takes us on a period journey, this time deftly exploring early 1970s Mexico through Alfonso Cuaron’s breathtaking cinematography and frequent, stunning pans and tracks. It’s a gentle giant in many ways and particularly notable for the unique black and white mix, intended by the helmer to be quite different to anything seen on screen before. That really shouldn’t have been a surprise from the Oscar-winnng director of Gravity, it may be to legions of home viewers. I feel a tad bad suggesting that it wasn’t the best monochrome feature in consideration at the awards. For me, it doesn’t capture the sparse dramatic brilliance of Cold War, though I’m aware my European eyes could be blinding me – it’s not the only film I’ll be watching on its post-awards trajectory with interest.

In many ways, this year’s Get Out. While it had the power and momentum to shake the Academy’s tree (streaming versus young pretender Blumhouse), it lacked the sizzling contemporary resonance or genre-twisitng.

That said, Roma is a rare film in capturing a past and fictional life and tracking it perfectly to our everyday. That’s a mean feat and it comes with such simple, brilliant catharis at the end that reaffirms it all, before pouring into the most restful closing scene and credits in living memory.

A Star Is Born

A Star is Born

Here’s where the story’s blown… Sorry, I haven’t seen A Star is Born.

That’s despite being offered a free ticket outside a cinema when I was about to watch Halloween (again, and Oscar-shunned that is too!). Outside a cinema is simply the worst place to offer a cinema ticket, but I digress.

Falling just outside my viewing range (Halloween!), I just couldn’t muster up the effort, mainly because of THAT song I find inexplicably popular.

I will try, and I will update. All credit to Bradley Cooper for steering a familiar story to big numbers and big reviews.

Vice

ViceWhat a treat Vice is. Bravura film-making, that takes the time to craft, with shocks, as it walks the tightrope between humour and terrifying reality.

Yes I know: It’s not for everyone.

It was always easier to predict the accolades falling to the actors in this piece (Bale! Rockwell!) rather than the magicians behind the camera. It’s a shame the film’s Oscars will be mostly remembered for the make-up crew’s absolutely abysmal speech. Bless them.

Some of Vice is utterly audacious and jaw-dropping, doing exactly what film-making should. Here’s hoping this is the start, or perhaps the next evolutionary step, of new studio-backed and overtly challenging craftsmanship, than it is the promise of more vice presidents of the Cheney-mould to come.

Honourary mentions

Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse

Spider-verseI fitted in Spiderverse because, well, word of mouth and the Best Animated Picture nod. Oh and that and the Sony-renaissance that has signalled a real change of fortune and quality two years after the peak of misfiring Ghostbusters and Pixels.

Maybe they were right all along, Spiderman can rival the MCU on his own. Pulling Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man into the theatres and packing in a ridiculously number of canon-stuffed in-jokes under the guidance of Phil Lord, and not least a tonne of heart and soul and laughs. it proved to be a good instinct – almost supernaturally spider-sense eerie. Is this really Sony? Would they take that kind of risk? they did and it paid off in Rhinofulls. AT last comic book films are both the serious potential and opportunity for fun they should be. This was the Oscars that recognised that.

Spider-verse‘s animation takes a while to adjust to and the stakes and concept sets a minefield for a follow-up. But it earns a slight claw back on an earlier comment that buries that. Sure, The Favourite was the film that made me laugh the most among the Best Picture nominees. But this is the one that made me laugh the most full stop. that’s mainly down to Nic Cage, and possibly a hayfever jab.

Cold War

Cold War

This hits the list thanks to Paweł Pawlikowski’s nomination for Best Director, even as it was cruelly denied a slot in the Best Picture category. Perhaps there wasn’t room for two films with a monochrome palette AND subtitles.

Cuaron may have won that slot with Roma, and ultimately claimed the Directing award in this category, but Pawlikowski could feel slightly aggrieved. Called an intimate two-hander by its director, it’s so much more than that. The language is reduced to the bare minimum, the time jumps and assembled scenes are immaculately precise, but brimming with emotion. There’s an extraordinary atmosphere captured in its 90 or so minutes, a good half an hour shorter than most other films here.

Pawel draws out the longer time frame from near the start of the Cold War to tell a simple love story that crosses more than borders and time to an ending of exquisite metaphorical ambiguity. It’s sublime, rivetted into place by intoxicating central performances and I’m probably being terribly obvious to place it in the grand tradition of Kieslowski. I just wish a Best Picture nod had brought it to the attention of more people.

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