Best Popular Film. No Best Popular Film. No host. Kevin Hart. No host, again. Gaga and Kendrick only. All song nominees, but just a little bit of them. Cut the boring awards no one cares about. Oh, wait, everyone cares about them. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for all it’s worth, sure knows how to give a good pre-show, whiplash notwithstanding. This has been a seriously contentious award season unlike any in recent memory. The Oscars have been making headlines beyond the awards gossip sites, even more than 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite and the great Envelope-gate that was the bungled 2017 ceremony.
Beyond the sturm und drang of ABC’s poorly handled attempts to make Oscar relevant again, the Academy Award nominees across all categories are a wildly diverse set of films, ranging from populist favorites to critical darlings to, well, Vice. Although the seemingly daily tragicomical dithering about ceremony logistics has dominated the news, it’s the nominees themselves that have elicited contention and hand-wringing among serious awards-watchers. Since the Best Picture field was widened from a possible five nominees to up to 10 nominees after The Dark Knight was snubbed in 2009, the reconfiguration has mostly seemed to have benefited on-the-cusp indies. Features such as 2017’s Lion and 2018’s Call Me by Your Name can score a spot on the shortlist for cinema’s biggest prize without ever having a realistic chance of winning. This expansion of the nominee pool notwithstanding, the Best Picture races in subsequent years have still featured either clear front-runners or neck-and-neck rivals.
This year, however, the case for the win could be made for any of the eight nominees. Roma is the critical favorite and the most nominated foreign-language film ever with 10 nods. It’s tied for the most nominations of 2019 with a film actually named The Favourite. A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody are unqualified box-office hits, the former headlined by a high-profile pop star and the latter about a deceased one. Black Panther is even more of a money-maker, being one of the highest-grossing Best Picture nominees ever. Green Book and BlacKkKlansman are hits on their own scales, and both check the “period piece” box Oscar voters seem to favor, although they’re catering to very different sectors within the Academy. Then there’s Vice, a film that didn’t find an audience or critical favor, but feels engineered to win over Oscar voters. So far, it’s worked, pulling in copious “pre-Oscar” awards nominations, as well as wins for star Christian Bale at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.
After the ceremony airs this Sunday and the awards-season hangover clears, the 2019 Best Picture hopefuls will be the group of nominees most worth dissecting, in terms of reflecting contemporary politics and culture -- much like the 1968 lineup Mark Harris used as a jumping-off point for his seminal book on New Hollywood, Pictures at a Revolution. The comparison between 2019 and 1968 even goes beyond zeitgeist-tapping and into the divergent quality of the films selected for Best Picture for both years, with the 1968 group also featuring future classics (In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate), misguided Important Pictures (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), pop trailblazers (Bonnie and Clyde), and one of the worst-ever films to be slotted for the big prize (Doctor Dolittle). The parallels to 2019 can be found below in ascending order of quality, from (spoiler alert) a bad Queen biopic to a bad-queen “biopic.”
8. Bohemian Rhapsody
What’s the most offensive thing about this castrated biopic of everyone’s favorite anthemic pop-rock band, Queen, and its frontman, Freddie Mercury? Is it the hackneyed scripting? The piecemeal editing (see: now viral establishing shots of chairs), likely attributable to the film’s troubled production? Is it the flashy yet empty direction that attempts to seduce the viewer into believing they’re watching a film and not an overlong Behind the Music installment? Is it the most praised aspect of the film, Rami Malek’s lead performance, which looks and sounds like an audition for a Batman villain Bane prequel, complete with inane vocal tics, facial obstruction (those exaggerated teeth!), and dead-behind-the-eyes blankness? Or is it the fact that the film’s persona non grata director sublimates his own disgusting worldview by equating Mercury’s queer identity with his ultimate downfall? For all of these reasons and more, Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the most deplorable Hollywood products in recent memory.
7. Green Book
Director Peter Farrelly attempts to “heal the wounds” of a divided America, but instead tips his hand at his own white-liberal ignorance. Green Book is not only an old-fashioned, treacly, and moldy vision of the past, but it’s also capably made and performed, which makes its existence all the more insidious. This wolf in sheep’s clothing chooses to tell the story of black classical pianist Don Shirley Jr.’s (Mahershala Ali) trip across the Jim Crow South through the eyes of his racist (and racially stereotyped) white driver, Tony (Viggo Mortensen as a Mario Brother). The perspective is certainly a problem, but the logical dissonance in endearing the two to each other without truly addressing the black experience, the queer experience, or the black queer experience is simply appalling.
Of the three bad Drunk History episodes featured on this list, Vice is the least offensive, but its existence is the most baffling. This overblown and undercooked screed against former VP Dick Cheney and the heedless quest for power in the American political system fails to be particularly funny or thought-provoking, especially when director and screenwriter Adam McKay haphazardly employs the same distancing didacticism he used in his somewhat better The Big Short (2015). His purpose may be to illuminate the present by exploring the horrors of a not-so-distant past, but the real show is witnessing the steady parade of SNL-level impersonations by Hollywood stars, ranking from a pound-packed Christian Bale doing his best talking-from-the-side-of-his-mouth mimicry to an embarrassing Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.
5. A Star Is Born
What’s most disappointing about actor Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is that it eventually falls so deep into the, ahem, shallow that it thuddingly grounds what soared in its first act. Of course, Ally’s (Lady Gaga) rise to fame with the help of her rock-star lover, Jackson (Cooper), was bound to be more intoxicating than the inevitable downfall, but who knew the new director was capable of making his audience so drunk in love during the film’s first half? Later rote mechanics and questionable gender politics aside, A Star Is Born is nevertheless fueled by Gaga and Cooper’s palpable chemistry, with the latter giving his best performance yet.
A silver-screen experience unlike any other from 2018, the virtues of Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white panorama Roma have already been litigated at length here at the Lens. This 1970s Mexico City memory palace is intricately devised, but the purpose of its cinematic brawn and the rift between its stoic perspective and heartstring-tugging turns remain curious. Alternatively transportative – its beach-scene climax is truly stunning and possibly the key to unlocking its mysteries – and dull – the camera moves left, the camera moves right, continue – Roma is respectable film-school fodder for the ages.
As brash as its maker, Spike Lee’s exhilarating BlacKkKlansman finds the provocateur back in popcorn mode after more than a decade in the indie wilderness. His last foray into blockbuster territory, bank heist-cum-American capitalism missive Inside Man (2006), was far more subtle and subversive in exploring societal imbalances in the United States, while this tale of a black cop (John David Washington) who infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s foregrounds polemics over Hollywood product. Lee does get bogged down in his own confused politics, with some hotly contested choices working (the Charleston coda) and other oddball moves (Alec Baldwin prologue) reeking of nose-thumbing condescension. What’s in between, however, nearly approaches the best filmmaking of Lee’s career.
2. Black Panther
Black Panther is, in fact, as revolutionary as its rabid fandom would have it. Not only does the Marvel film finally give black filmmakers an opportunity to fully realize a black superhero on the same scale white superheros have been afforded, but the very conditions that prevented its far-too-delayed realization are also built into the film’s narrative. To that end, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) fight not only a physical war but also an ideological one that challenges each to reckon with their black identities and the sovereignty of Wakanda. This shimmery lightning bolt is a righteous revisionist superhero film unfortunately too tied to its MCU roots. Marvel’s peculiar house style of waxy over-digitization and pre-visualization prevents director Ryan Coogler from transcending the genre, but hopefully its success means that the future Coogler-helmed sequel will be an even bigger game-changer than this one. Wakanda forever, indeed.
1. The Favourite
If Vice is a complete miscalculation regarding the dangers of power, then Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite thankfully gets the formula right. Luring the viewer into its wicked pomp and circumstance with gloriously ostentatious execution, Lanthimos points his jaundiced vision to the erratic and gouty Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her entitled right hand Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), scheming social climber Abigail (Emma Stone), and their constantly-in-flux carousel of sex and power. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is also bitingly funny and particularly succinct in realizing what drives the human psyche: “I like when she puts her tongue in me.” The film’s ribald and rollicking unfurling – perfectly encapsulated by its top IMDb plot keywords, including “throwing blood oranges at someone,” “dragged by a horse,” “hand job,” “female nudity,” and “wig” – are reasons The Favourite will remain meme-able and quotable after the 2019 awards-season dust settles. However, its deserved crowning as an instant classic is shored up in its unabashed queerness and in the negotiations its women characters make to balance love, trust, and pain.
The 2019 Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. CST on ABC.