This year’s bunch of Best Picture nominees has been criticised for being rather lacklustre, with some suspecting that leftovers from the newly-announced-and-hastily-scrapped Best Popular Movie category were shoehorned in instead of more-deserving entries. After accidentally missing one of last year’s films and, despite my best efforts to complete the set, repeating the feat again this year (Vice disappeared from all nearby cinemas shortly after it arrived), here are some thoughts on each of the other 2019 nominees, plus a few suggestions for what could have been nominated as well as – or even instead of – them.
Black Panther: This list is certainly not without surprises or controversial choices, but the biggest is that a superhero film could win Best Picture.
There is a strong case to be made in its favour. It deals with heavier themes than the usual blockbuster beat-’em-up, it is blessed with a memorable score from Ludwig Gorranson, impressive direction from Ryan Coogler and great performances from its cast – particularly Michael B. Jordan, who plays a conflicted villain with depth and scene-stealing swagger. Plus, in terms of cultural significance, it was one of the most talked-about films of last year and it made more than a billion dollars with an almost-entirely-black cast.
Seeing it on the Best Picture list provokes a feeling of disbelief but it’s an undeniable achievement, even though The Dark Knight or Logan probably should have gotten it first.
Bohemian Rhapsody: Is a stellar performance and a well-directed concert climax enough to deserve a nomination? Not really, no.
Rami Malek gives everything he’s got in an admirable and pretty-damn-good attempt to replicate the charisma and star power of Freddie Mercury, carrying the rest of the film towards its show-stopping ending which is choreographed with undeniable attention to detail which makes the experience immersive and truly joyous.
However, everything leading up to that Live Aid recreation rarely rises above the level of enjoyable fluff which quickly fades from memory, and although it’s fun to see the creation of Queen’s biggest hits, and the band’s argument with their manager about the titular song is a great scene, overall it ends up feeling like a cross between a jukebox and a filmed Wikipedia page.
It’s enjoyable entertainment but it’s not one of the best films of the year.
A Star Is Born: Ah, now this is how to do an excellent musical. Instead of just one good performance and one good set-piece, A Star Is Born is impressive all the way through – especially so during its flawless first hour – and features several standout performances.
How the hell did Bradley Cooper managed to direct a film so well on his first attempt while also singing in a completely different voice, performing songs like a convincing rock star and giving an astonishing performance as Jack? It honestly boggles the mind and probably makes other actors seethe with jealousy.
Pop superstar Lady Gaga successfully manages to play someone who’s never stepped foot on a stage and has lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry with Cooper which makes their relationship entirely believable, putting the audience through the wringer as their honeymoon period turns sour and leads to embarrassment, arguments and tragedy.
Of course, a musical is nothing without its songs, and from the first hype-building guitar chords of Alibi to the gut-punch power ballad I Will Never Love Again via the juggernaut that is Shallow, this film has plenty of original earworms and tearjerkers.
BlacKkKlansman: The unlikely story of a black man infiltrating the KKK one sounds like perfect material for a film. There’s plenty of laughs to be mined from the situation but underneath it all is a sobering, angry and timely examination of racism in America.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) comes up with the idea to join the KKK as an undercover cop, communicating with Klan members including its chief David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone and sending his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to face-to-face meetings.
Spike Lee manages a difficult tonal balancing act and his cast are adept at switching between the humour and the horror of the situation. One memorable example of the latter comes when Flip joins a KKK screening of the racist propaganda piece Birth of a Nation while Ron visits a meeting of black activists and hears the story of a mentally-handicapped black kid being attacked by a crowd after being wrongly-convicted of rape. Earlier on, the bemused reactions of Ron’s colleagues when he calls the Klan for the first time to begin his infiltration are hilarious, but every scene with Flip trying not to blow his cover while in the midst of Klan members is extremely tense and discomforting.
Parts of the story have been fabricated, but unlike the fabrications in the true stories of fellow nominees Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody these changes aren’t detrimental to the film, and during its final moments it forgoes fiction entirely to show recent real-life consequences of the violent, hateful bigotry the Klan thrives on and spreads.
This emphatic full-stop left the cinema audience in an uneasy silence as the credits rolled.
The Favourite: A tragicomic period drama with caustic c*nt-strewn one-liners and a bitter lesbian love triangle at its heart makes this a fairly unlikely Best Picture contender, though perhaps no more unlikely than the 1950s sci-fi aqua-bestiality romance that won Best Picture last year.
National treasure Olivia Colman has the time of her life playing the wild mood swings of Queen Anne, Emma Stone has just as much fun speaking in a surprisingly-good English accent and turning her innate likeability into something more sinister, while Rachel Weisz takes great glee in delivering dialogue with such razor-sharp spite it’s a wonder the other actors don’t walk away bleeding.
The film has an unusual and uneasy atmosphere which takes some getting used to, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny and even has an unexpected poignancy behind all the in-fighting.
It won’t win, but the fact that it’s even on this list is a minor miracle.
Green Book: This was a big crowd-pleaser at my screening and it’s easy to see why. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are a very likeable duo and spending two hours in their company is good fun as they bicker and banter their way through the Deep South on a concert tour.
Mahershala plays Dr Don Shirley, a classical musician touring the Deep South who is complex and conflicted and changes noticeably during the course of his journey across America. Viggo plays Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer based on a real person who apparently walked and talked exactly like a stereotype and managed the remarkable feat of going on a supposedly-life-changing trip and returning home as damn-near exactly the same person he was when he left.
The exploration of racism and other social issues of the time rarely gets deeper than surface-level – though expecting a light-hearted buddy movie to be like BlacKkKlansman may be slightly unfair – and the intense disgust Tony displays towards black people at the start of the film all-but-disappears the moment he meets Dr Don, immediately removing most of the conflict and the whole point of the film.
But like I said, it’s a big broad crowd-pleaser, the sort that would fit comfortably on a Sunday afternoon TV schedule, bolstered by two central performances which make it easy to ignore its shortcomings.
I’m not surprised it’s nominated but I’d be annoyed if it wins.
Roma: Could the Academy overlook the fact that this is -*gasp* – a Netflix film and give it the highest honour in the movie business?
Director Alfonso Cuaron applies the cutting-edge visual effects and aural wizardry he mastered in Gravity to an intensely-personal family drama based loosely on his upbringing, and the results are astonishing.
In his previous film, such tools were used to make jaws drop and eyes boggle but here they do the opposite, immersing the viewer so thoroughly in the recreation of 1970s Mexico he’s created that the CGI is unnoticeable, and the sound-work only draws attention to itself during those double-take moments of realisation that noises of a plane flying low overhead and people chatting right behind you are from the film and not from the screening room.
Over a series of day-in-the-life vignettes, Mexican maid Cleo (teacher-turned-actor Yalitza Aparicio in what is, incredibly, her first-ever role) attends to the needs of a middle-class family as their life and hers undergo seismic changes.
Truth be told, the film’s languid pace would have tempted me to check my phone if I’d watched it at home on Netflix – curse my ever-shortening attention span – but seeing it on the big screen in the dark forced me to acclimatise, to just sit there, stay still and let it wash over me. It’s easy to be lulled into the gentle rhythms of a pleasant, charming, and fairly easygoing drama, stunned by the simple beauty of its camerawork and grow fond of the family it depicts.
Then, suddenly, cracks appear in the family’s foundations, minor issues snowball into full-blown crises and a societal unrest which had been rumbling in the background dramatically interrupts Cleo’s life – and the film soars into the sublime.
After being initially impressed by it but otherwise slightly unsure what all the fuss was about, Roma completely overwhelmed me as it threw one obstacle after the other at its characters and captured their reactions to these tragedies in lengthy sequences so believably-performed that it felt almost intrusive to watch these vulnerable moments up-close.
The film has the same feeling of a documentary – albeit one with impossibly-high production values and a world-class writer-director at its helm – impassively observing moments of relatable mundanity and extraordinary power in equal measure.
Some have dismissed it as arty-farty and pretentious because it’s subtitled, slow, and in black-and-white, but it isn’t, it’s full of heart and passion, with an enormous amount of evident care, affection and attention to detail bringing every single scene to life.
This is my pick for Best Picture winner. (A Star Is Born is a close second.)
BONUS ROUND – And the nominees aren’t…:
It seems odd that the follow-ups to to La La Land and Moonlight are absent from this list. Perhaps the Academy decided to take needlessly-extreme precautionary measures to prevent what happened last time a Barry Jenkins film and a Damien Chazelle film were nominated for Best Picture ever happening again, or perhaps not.
Either way, it’s a shame. Poor, ignored First Man, shut out from all but a few technical awards, not even getting an expected Supporting Actress nom for Claire Foy (her slot in this category seems to have gone to Marina de Tavira from Roma instead and it would be difficult to argue against that decision). A touching portrayal of grief and stoicism disguised as a thrilling space adventure failed to put many bums in seats, but its balance of quiet family moments and dizzying IMAX-worthy spectacle was extremely well-done and deserving of more acclaim.
Meanwhile, it’s wonderful that If Beale Street Could Talk bagged nominations for cinematography and soundtrack (both are also areas where First Man deserved recognition, but I digress). After seeing the film, I was stunned that neither of the central couple had been recognised – Regina King is excellent as Tish’s mum but the entire film rests on the swoon-worthy and movingly-tragic relationship between Tish (Kiki Adams) and Fonnie (Stephen James). The film overall isn’t quite as good as Moonlight for a myriad of minor reasons – a fiery inter-family dynamic full of potential for further drama is introduced early on but never revisited, Tish is surprisingly passive after Fonny is jailed, the character-staring-into-the-camera trick is reused far too often – but it’s still better than half of the stuff on the actual Best Picture list.
It’s tremendously difficult to create performances as quiet, nuanced and believable as the ones given by Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace but such feats are often unfairly overlooked for louder, more attention-grabbing fare. The pair play a father and daughter, Will and Tom, who live off-grid in a Portland forest but their bond is tested once the authorities intervene and take them into social services, leading to Will’s mental health issues intensifying and Tom wondering whether a life of solitude is what she really wants. Every year, there’s at least one film which critics and other movie buffs repeatedly hail as an unseen and woefully-underappreciated modern classic, and this year’s was Leave No Trace. On this occasion, they were right.