The battle for ‘Best Picture’ — a look at this year’s nominees


91st annual Academy Awards to air Sunday, Feb. 24

By Cody Willoughby - cwilloughby@aimmediamidwest.com



Provided photo A middle-class Mexican family embraces in “Roma.”

Provided photo A middle-class Mexican family embraces in “Roma.”


Provided photo Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in “Vice.”


Provided photo Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in “Green Book.”


Provided photo Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sing in “A Star is Born.”


The 91st annual Academy Awards are set to air this weekend, and there’s a lot of discussion to be had about this year’s Best Picture nominees.

Not to be one for blatant drama, but 2018 boasted what may have been the most underwhelming (and puzzling) line-up of award-season films in recent memory, and I’m not the only one who noticed. Many industry commentators prognosticated the prolific rise of streaming services, the surging demand for video games and television, and the heightening prioritization of blockbuster tentpoles by major studios as sources for the mild dirth in artful cinema.

Basically, the entire entertainment industry is currently in the middle of a seismic shift, and things like Oscar nominations (trivial as they ultimately are) will display a tangible effect of that movement until the earth eventually settles.

Having seen all eight of this year’s nominees, I’ve taken the liberty to touch upon the strengths of each film, and ultimately whether each film deserves its Best Picture nod. The awards will be televised Sunday.

BlacKkKlansman

No, the spelling on that title is not a typo.

Based on actual events, “BlacKkKlansman” spins the yarn of African American police officer Ron Stallworth, played by John David Washington, who successfully manages to infiltrate a Colorado branch of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a Jewish surrogate, played by Adam Driver.

The strength of “BlacKkKlansman” comes from its bouncy script, which smartly plays up the caper elements of the narrative, maintaining a sly sense of adventure and an edge-of-the-seat tension as to whether or not these characters will get away with it. A film with this subject matter could easily play as preachy and labored, particularly when citing similarities to more contemporary goings-on, but “BlacKkKlansman” never loses sight of its main objective — to entertain — and continuously treats viewers to witty dialogue, colorful characters, and engaging situations until the end credits.

Verdict: Well worth its nomination, for its tremendous balance of commentary and entertainment.

Black Panther

Easily the most widely-viewed entry of this year’s list, it’s difficult to harbor much criticism toward “Black Panther” in light of the global phenomenon it became last February (but alas, I’m going to criticize it, anyway.)

“Black Panther” does have positive attributes, no doubt — its mostly-black cast is bustling with a coterie of consummate thespians any prestige picture would kill to land. Obviously, the film’s main character is very compelling, as is the film’s villainous rogues, and the fresh landscape of Wakanda is quite inviting to audiences used to more familiar fare from Marvel films.

Having said that, the pacing is a bit unwieldy, with a story arc that doesn’t truly kick in until about one hour through the runtime. Also, the movie’s action sequences, which ought to soar considering the budget and source material, are surprisingly generic, with visual effects that don’t even appear finished at times.

This film made history as the first comic-based Best Picture nominee ever, but I still wish that honor had gone to “The Dark Knight” or even “Logan,” which were both stronger showings of overall filmmaking prowess. “Black Panther” is certainly a rousing blockbuster, but it’s not superior cinema.

Verdict: No to Best Picture, but its more minor nominations are understandable.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Driven by its incredible soundtrack and an electric performance from Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody” highlights the life and times of Freddy Mercury and his Queen bandmates through the 1970s and ’80s.

For all its flaws, “Rhapsody” proved to be one of 2018’s most essential theater-going experiences, recreating its subject’s greatest live rock performances with breath-taking aplomb. It was worth the ticket price alone just to experience the simulation of such epic concert fare. Its casting was pretty good across the board, too.

Having said that, the film does have a highly sophomoric and paint-by-numbers script, which blatantly revised Queen’s history at numerous turns for the sake of added drama. In portraying a band as unconventional as Queen, such a conventional screenplay seems doubly sinful.

“Rhapsody” is a crowd-pleaser, as proven by its robust box office returns, but it’s too imperfect to be vieing for Oscar glory.

Verdict: Nope. In a more crowded year, this would’ve barely been considered.

The Favourite

This dark comedy chronicles the plight of a frail Queen Anne, who occupies the throne of England in the 18th century. A high governess, Lady Sarah, and a new servant, Abigail, vie aggressively for the Queen’s affections. Madness ensues.

“The Favourite” is tonally a difficult movie to pin down. On paper, it would seem like your standard dry-as-a-bone Oscar bait that comes around every season, but it doesn’t play that way on screen. There’s a sadistic streak of black wit running rampant beneath the surface of this film, and its artful direction keeps viewers on their toes. It constantly feels like some wild story beat, no matter how outrageous, could potentially be in store at any moment.

It’s only my opinion, but “The Favourite” is ironically my least favorite of this year’s nominees as a viewing experience. It’s a film that seems delighted to showcase the worst tendencies of humanity in the most unorthodox of ways, which is somewhat off-putting, considering the movie’s visual palette and period-piece setting.

Having said all that, the movie is indeed well-made.

Verdict: Deserving enough as a dark horse entry, but it shouldn’t win.

Green Book

Echoing the breezy sentiments of “Rain Man” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Green Book” tells the story of a working-class Italian bouncer, played by Viggo Mortensen, who becomes the driver of an African-American pianist, played by Mahershala Ali, during a tour of the deep south in the 1960s.

Based upon the isolated nature of its story, “Green Book” is a film entirely dependent upon having two fleshed-out leads with stretches of dialogue that are interesting and original, and delightfully, it succeeds.

Mortensen’s crude and candid Tony Villalonga is a humorous foil to Ali’s rigid and stoic Don Shirley, and the story excels in its allowance of these two men to muster a warm friendship throughout their journey, despite initially not communicating well or understanding the cut of the other’s jib.

“Green Book” is not a complicated movie, and could even be accused of treading on all-too-familiar waters, but it’s an entry that this year’s shortlist needs. It’s nice to leave the theater feeling good about humanity once in a while.

Verdict: Absolutely, for its earnest storytelling alone.

Roma

Documenting a year in the life of a maid to a middle-class Mexican family in the 1970s, “Roma” is easily the most inaccessible nominee to the average viewer on this year’s list.

It’s in black-and-white, it’s entirely in Spanish, it has zero musical accompaniment, its editing has long stretches without cuts, and its story is fairly subdued and minimalistic. For American audiences, any two of these paired together would often be a dealbreaker, so naturally all of them together can make for a very tough sit.

Despite those hurdles, “Roma” seems to have emerged as the season’s frontrunner, presumably due to its stellar cinematography and technical craftsmanship. “Roma” marks the first-ever Best Picture nominee to be produced by Netflix, and if it wins, the game will change on how films from streaming services are marketed, as well as how dynamic those services are in providing resources to other prolific aeteurs.

Verdict: Yes, but mainly only for its technique.

A Star is Born

Marking the fifth onscreen iteration of this story, “A Star is Born” follows the rising career of fledgling musician Ally and the waning career of alcoholic country singer Jack, with a touch of romance permeating the journey for both.

Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper is truly the engine driving this well-oiled machine, utilizing a down-and-dirty shooting style that puts the viewer right into the action with Jack and Ally during moments of live performance.

The movie’s basic story may be its weakest factor overall, but in the end, that’s outweighed by the emotional weight of its music, the charm of its leads, and the classical visual style Cooper has implemented. If anything else, “A Star is Born” makes me very enthusiastic to see what other tricks Cooper may have up his sleeve for future directorial efforts.

Verdict: Worth a nomination, for its success in freshening up an old property.

Vice

Generally, we get one nominee each year that serves as an “actor’s movie,” driven by a towering performance that ends up being the main attraction all by itself. Last year, we had that in “Darkest Hour,” for which Gary Oldman won Best Actor, and this year we have it again in “Vice.”

Christian Bale’s transformation into Dick Cheney is weirdly seamless, and unless Malek shuts him out, Bale seems poised as the obvious choice for the Best Actor Oscar. It helps, too, that he’s backed by great supporting turns from Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, and Steve Carell, which props up Bale as the leader of a team, rather than a spotlight-hogger.

The movie occasionally gets a little bogged down in its own expository mumbo-jumbo, and the jumpy, sporadic nature of the editing can be a little perplexing, but “Vice” remains a compelling watch if only for the fun everyone involved seems to be having.

Director Adam McKay, whose roots are in comedies, smartly prioritizes humor as a crux for this film’s story and themes; even to the politically disenfranchised and uninitiated, a little amusement will easily be mined.

Verdict: Worthy, for its creative spin on the biopic subgenre.

Did any deserving nominees get shut out? The biggest snub of the year was easily “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an intimate and harrowing relationship drama executed with the kind of classy technique that’s becoming all too rare. It’s the one film this year whose absence from the list I immediately noticed.

“First Reformed” may have also been worth a nod, for its daring exploration of spiritual philosophy, as well as “Annihilation,” for its delivery of uncompromisingly intelligent science fiction. Otherwise? Not much else.

Many of this year’s early hopefuls, such as “First Man,” “Widows,” and “Beautiful Boy,” did not quite deliver on the promise of their pursuits, and it’s easy to feel unsympathetic about slots going unfilled when so many films missed the mark. If anything, 2018 was a year in which the Academy could’ve shrunk the category back down to five nominees with little controversy.

Time will tell if cinema re-confirms its footing in 2019, but for now, I’m almost just relieved to be caught up on must-sees. It’s important to appreciate those scant few moments when they do come along.

Reach Cody at cwilloughby@aimmediamidwest.com.

Provided photo A middle-class Mexican family embraces in “Roma.”
https://www.tdn-net.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2019/02/web1_Roma-3.jpgProvided photo A middle-class Mexican family embraces in “Roma.”

Provided photo Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in “Vice.”
https://www.tdn-net.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2019/02/web1_Vice-3.jpgProvided photo Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

Provided photo Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in “Green Book.”
https://www.tdn-net.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2019/02/web1_Green-Book-3.jpgProvided photo Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in “Green Book.”

Provided photo Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sing in “A Star is Born.”
https://www.tdn-net.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2019/02/web1_A-Star-is-Born-3.jpgProvided photo Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sing in “A Star is Born.”
91st annual Academy Awards to air Sunday, Feb. 24

By Cody Willoughby

cwilloughby@aimmediamidwest.com