Last night Kim and I saw the last of the eight best picture nominees. This is the earliest we’ve ever completed the task, and, it is also the first time we’ve been able to see them all without traveling into the big city. Nifty, huh?

Here are some preliminaries. First, there are NO SPOILERS here. These are my thoughts on the quality of these films. Second, I will have a second post on the Oscars later which predicts winners. Third, none of these films are great, but as a group (with an exception) this is a pretty solid class of movies–definitely something for everyone. Fourth, after I’ve given brief reviews for each film, stay tuned for the next section where I discuss trends and themes. Each year has its own themes, and this year is no different.

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Let’s take them in alphabetical order.

A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born is so wonderfully directed and shot that I am in shock, and a little confused, as to why Bradley Cooper was not nominated for best director. It is a beautiful movie. The acting is solid, although I think Lady Gaga’s performance is a little overrated, but her music is not. This movie easily has the best soundtrack of the Oscars in a long time. Watch Sam Elliot, and watch Andrew Dice Clay in a role he seems to have been born to play.

Chances? This is a remake, of a remake, of a remake. Three earlier versions of this movie exist, and the gold standard will always be Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I think there is no chance this wins best picture, although it may earn a lot of other awards.

Black Panther

I am so happy this movie is nominated. It is the one family film (the only family film) on the best picture list. You can watch this with your children and have great conversations about overcoming adversity, failure, friendship, trust, and so many other noble virtues. It is a superhero movie, so it has that against it, but it stands alone as a very good movie.

I think it has very slim odds of winning, but for Black Panther, the nomination is the prize. For the record, I’m still steamed that Coco and Inside Out were both snubbed in previous years. If Black Panther were to win, it would signal a paradigm shift for Oscar. Movies that make as much money as Black Panther and are as universally loved never, ever, win.

BlacKkKlansman

I expected to not like this movie. I don’t know why, but I went into it with a bad attitude. That didn’t last long. This is a wonderful film, superbly directed and the acting was outstanding. Watch out, though, because the language is very strong, and there are times when the hatred and evil things being said are so uncomfortable it made me cringe, but the way in which Lee unfolds the story is captivating.

BlacKkKlansman has a punchers chance of winning best picture.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Rami Malek nails the egotistical capricious maniac that was Freddie Mercury. The film is worth seeing for his performance alone. The best lines go to the boys in the band, though. Their involvement in the story keeps this from being a one-man show. The music is outstanding, the costumes are flamboyant (of course) but the storytelling is choppy and at times it feels like an extended cut MTV special.

Bohemian Rhapsody has zero chance of winning best picture. If I could give it less than zero, I would.

The Favourite

I hate this movie. It is filthy, crude, and everyone vomits at least once. I’m not kidding. I think vomit and rabbits are the only identifiable themes, except for deception, violence, and seduction. There was not a single character in this movie I liked. If that was the point I was supposed to get, then it succeeded.

Okay, let me back down a bit. The first hour of the movie was okay–I could see where things were heading and it had potential for some nice ‘gotcha’ drama or even a little absurdist humor. There are nuggets of a great story here, but the director bores us to death with tedious attempts to show us how clever and smart he is.

Having said that, and realizing this is exactly the way I felt about The Shape of Water and Birdman, both of which won best picture, it is altogether likely this will win. It is a puffy and pretentious film, therefore Hollywood will love it. I give it a likely chance of winning.

Green Book

Of all the films in the list, this is the one that has the most gripping narrative, all around best acting, and cultural pop. I like this movie. Viggo is terrific, but Mahershala Ali is fantastic. The only flaw in this film, as I can find it, is the lack of significance from secondary characters, specifically Tony’s wife (played by Linda Cardellini), who is one dimensional and cliche. The film has been attacked variously on several fronts, not the least of which is historical, which may be legitimate, but this is a story. Movies might be based in history, but they are not historical education. BlacKkKlansman is based on a historical case as well, but I am not bothered if they don’t get all the details about the Colorado Springs police department right. If I only take the movie at face value, then Green Book is the best picture.

I think this has a very likely chance of winning.

Roma

The first hour and a half of this movie will leave you asking, “Will it ever end?” You may find yourself thinking it is some kind of French existential experiment. However, hang in there. The last half hour is devastating. In typical Cuaron fashion, this thing is building up to a crescendo. Now, before you watch, you need to know it is in black and white and Spanish with English subtitles. I warned you. But you won’t really need the subtitles. You will follow along perfectly just watching the action and the acting.

There are some light moments in Roma, but for the most part it is an intense movie that makes you focus. It also wins the weirdest moment at the movies–the naked shower rod karate. And that is all I will say about it.

Roma has an outsiders chance. If it won, I’d be a little surprised, but I can easily see Oscar thinking this Netflix production is worthy of the honor.

Vice

Heads up. Vice is a political movie with a political agenda. This some-what of a biography of Dick Cheney starts with him in Wyoming and finishes with him in the present day. I don’t agree with all the political angles in the movie, but it is a very well done story that is quirky at times, like breaking into Shakespearean tragedy, or the POV of the narrator. The acting is incredible. By the end of the film I thought Christian Bale was Dick Cheney. Seriously. Ultimately, though, the storytelling is uneven and large gaps in character development were left unfilled.

This has a marginal, very marginal chance of winning.


Now that I’ve given a baseline review for the eight films, let’s look at the themes. I’ll cover these briefly, but keep in mind this is always what fascinates me most. The reason is the Oscars reflect culture, and as a student of culture, it helps me see where things are going. I identify at least three themes.

Theme 1: The 1970s. Oh yeah, shag carpet and everything. Roma is set in 1970-1, BlacKkKlansman is in the 70s, most of Vice is in the 70s as is Bohemian Rhapsody. Black Panther serves almost as a corrective to the Black exploitation films of the 70s, and … and A Star Is Born, though contemporary, has the 70s version with Streisand and Kristofferson always in mind. This year’s Oscar movies are a love letter to the 1970s. The reason for this might be two-fold. One, it was a time of great decadence and pervasion which creates great fodder for storytelling. Two, it was simpler, so you can write a story without Google or cell phones. For example, the entire story of BlacKkKlansman couldn’t happen today if people had smart phones.

Theme 2: Remember a couple of years ago when #Oscarssowhite trended and became a real issue because there was so little representation of people of color? Literally, not figuratively, but literally two of the movies nominated this year have “Black” in the title, and half the films feature people of color and two of the movies have racism as the major plot device. Is this an overreaction or a necessary corrective? I think it is a corrective. However, I think Black Panther and Roma are the most hopeful here. Here is what I mean–and my view is limited because I am white man, and I admit my limitations for I will never know the particular troubles a person of color goes through in our society–but what I mean is I look forward to movies that feature minority groups just living their lives and being who they are and not defined by the racism launched at them. We are not there yet, because racism is a problem and seems to be getting worse instead of better, but someday we will.

Theme 3: Without giving away any spoilers, homosexuality is a major theme in this years Oscars. Half the movies, which is the same as for people of color, feature sexuality as a major or minor plot device. I will not spell out which, because in some of them it tries to sneak up on you. And that is what I find most interesting. Hollywood is still using homosexuality as a shocking plot device, but no one is shocked. In this, I think, the movies are a bit behind the times and behind where most families are on the issue. There is more to say on this–and I’ve deleted about four paragraphs of text already on this theme, but for now let’s leave it at what an interesting development this is.

Theme 4: Music makes a huge splash in these movies. Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star Is Born are all about musicians. This is a melding of the icon celebrity culture where movies are no longer about everyday people with everyday lives, but instead we not only worship the celebrity singer, we want to watch movies about them turning their music into drama. The more I think on it, Roma is the only nominated film that doesn’t have either a celebrity, a person of privilege, or a cultural touchstone (like David Duke in BlacKkKlansman) in the narrative. Hollywood might have lost its ability to tell a story about an average person, because it doesn’t value real people.