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And the Nominees Are: The 2019 Oscars Best Picture Category

Written by Tom Hemingway.

Photo from the article This year, the Academy has nominated eight out of a potential ten nominees in the Best Picture category. The ceremony will be held on Sunday 24th February (around 1am on Feb 25th in the UK) and if you’re planning on staying up to watch, here’s a guide through the favourites, the underdogs, and the downright undeserved contenders of the 2019 Oscars Best Picture Category.

First up alphabetically is Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman. This film had a late summer release in 2018 and, like most of this year’s Best Picture crop, enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success, making just under $100 million dollars in worldwide gross. These two factors are both noteworthy. Films released earlier than November tend to be shut out of the Best Picture field due to voters’ frustratingly short-term memory, making BlackKklansman an uncommon ‘early release’ contender. Moreover, many Best Picture nominees ultimately make marginal profits at the box office with last year’s nominees Phantom Thread and Call Me by Your Name finishing their theatrical run with only half of BlackKklansman’s total gross.

Part of BlackKklansman’s commercial appeal is no doubt due to director Spike Lee’s handling of the subject matter. Putting his unique spin on the true events inspired story of a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be white over the telephone, Lee seamlessly traverses both comic and dramatic registers. This results in a film that is both accessible and socially conscious (a sure-fire way to the Academy’s heart), and which pulls no punches in an immensely moving coda that makes the political motivations behind this project unabashedly clear. The film ends by contrasting the tense race relations of the 1970s with present-day footage of President Trump and the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville which culminated in the tragic death of Heather Heyer (to whom the film is dedicated). This may be too much to handle for the older, whiter members of the Academy, for whom the status-quo affirming racial politics of Peter Farrelly’s Green Book (to be discussed in more detail below) may be a more palatable choice. Nevertheless, the awarding of Best Picture to BlackKklansman would be as powerful a political statement the Academy could make during the present Trump administration.

Black Panther, helmed by Ryan Coogler, is a landmark nominee as the first comic book movie to be given a Best Picture nod by the Academy. Once again, Black Panther is a relative outlier, being released in February 2018 (before last year’s Oscars ceremony had taken place) and grossing more than any of the other Best Picture nominees, earning $1.347 billion dollars worldwide. The film undeniably works as a great piece of action cinema, with tight storytelling, dazzling yet expressive stylistic flourishes and wonderful performances from its ensemble. It also works as a standalone entertainment to a greater degree than other films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making it more digestible than, say, the juggling act narrative of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. Whether Black Panther is the best superhero film ever made, or even of last year (looking at you, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) is up for contention. But its inclusion in this category cannot be overstated as a step towards greater inclusivity and representation in popular cinema.

I have relatively little to say about the Queen biopic-by-numbers, Bohemian Rhapsody, that hasn’t already been said, other than that the film’s pleasures lie mainly in recreation - and if you want to see Queen’s performance at Live Aid, why not pop in your DVD of Live Aid? As for Rami Malek, who now seems on track to win the Best Actor award after his victories at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes, his reliance on wigs, false teeth, and miming to craft a performance seem laughable when you compare it to Bradley Cooper’s fully fleshed depiction of a fictional rock star in A Star is Born.

The Favourite, from Yorgos Lanthimos, has been praised by many, but for this writer seems an example of the whole being less than the sum of its individual parts. Its three leading performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz - a trio bizarrely categorised across both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories this awards season - are inarguably stellar. Stone has never been so good and is far more deserving of a win for this film than she was for La La Land in 2017. British audiences may be familiar with Olivia Colman’s knack for comedy after watching her for years in Peep Show, and her comic groundings most likely helped her navigate the absurdist and often cruel humour of Lanthimos’ irreverent costume drama. The film’s costumes are impeccable and its cinematography, reliant on extreme fish-eye lenses, is certainly distinctive, if not a tad ostentatious. Its sly depiction of women in power and the characters’ control over idiotic men is timely, arriving during a period of tumult in Hollywood. The impression left by the film has personally diminished over time, but its success at the BAFTAs (where it earned seven wins) could ultimately lead to a sweep on Oscar night.

Green Book recalls a type of sure-fire Oscar contender of decades past. It’s a true story dealing with topical issues, blending comedy with drama, and securing a PG-13 rating to ensure maximum eyeballs on screen (think Frost/Nixon). The film is another period piece, this time based on the true-life story of black musician Don Shirley undertaking a tour of America’s Deep South and hiring a white Italian-American bouncer as his driver. UK commuters will by now be all-too-familiar with the pull-quote from Variety on its poster proclaiming Green Book as ‘a film unlike any other’. This is despite the fact that it reverses the premise of Driving Miss Daisy, a film which was controversially awarded the Best Picture Oscar thirty years ago in 1989. The film is over-familiar in its approach and style, at odds with recent Best Picture winners which have at least given us kinky fish men and a screeching Michael Keaton. The fact that it comes from Peter Farrelly, a director who is most known for crass comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary makes its recognition (not only for Best Picture, but also in the Best Director category) somewhat troubling, as if the prestige drama genre can legitimate a director where the comedy genre cannot. More problematic is its potential victory over films told from a black perspective (BlackKklansman and Black Panther). Green Book deals with racism but is written and directed by white filmmakers and prioritises the white perspective. The opposite of quietly radical, Green Book is this year’s staunchly conservative Best Picture pick.

A win for Roma, which is looking increasingly likely, would be historic for several reasons. It would be the first ever foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars (with only ten previous foreign language nominees in the category, beginning with Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion in 1937). It would also be the first winner that has been released exclusively through the streaming company Netflix. A win for Roma could thus see a change in the way major studios go about distributing and campaigning for films during awards season. However Roma is also a black-and-white foreign movie, making it a doubly daunting prospect for a broader audience, and a tricky one in a year where the Academy is attempting to appeal to the general public with a shorter ceremony and a spotlight on more commercially successful cinema. Awarding Best Picture to Roma may undermine this mandate in the most welcome way possible; a win for a film about Mexican culture will allow Hollywood to hold a topical two fingers up to the hateful MAGA rhetoric surrounding immigration and wall-building.

The 2018 version of A Star is Born is a visceral experience despite being the fourth incarnation of this story. The now-familiar narrative concerns the corresponding ascent and descent of stardom surrounding its central couple, played here by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. The film initially seemed like the safest possible option for this year’s Best Picture award, receiving universally positive reviews and a sizeable $423 million-dollar box office gross. But having won practically nothing in the major categories at the other ceremonies, any success it has on Oscar night would be welcome. Many other frontrunners eventually see some backlash as audiences tire of hearing endless praise heaped upon the same film for months on end. Regardless, Bradley Cooper’s achievements here shouldn’t go ignored, as well as his collaborators including the film’s actors, cinematographer, sound designers, editors, and other musicians (such as Lukas Nelson and Mark Ronson), whose work converges to create a dramatic love story imbued with music and comedy, dealing in themes of celebrity, addiction and mental health.

Adam McKay’s Vice holds the distinction of being one of the worst-reviewed Best Picture nominees of recent years, alongside the aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody and 2011’s saccharine Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Despite the mediocre company it keeps, this is an unfair way to frame the film. Vice is startlingly similar to McKay’s critically-acclaimed The Big Short (also a Best Picture nominee in 2016) with regards to its tone and aesthetic, and is arguably more audacious and vitriolic in the denunciation of its subject - Dick Cheney. Christian Bale, once again almost unrecognisable, provides the film with an uncanny portrayal of Cheney which often moves beyond mere impersonation. He includes Cheney’s unnaturally heavy breathing and idiosyncratic “um’s” and “ah’s” in the middle of sentences, but also conveys a true sense of anger and greed in his fourth-wall-breaking acerbic address at the film’s conclusion. The warmth that was once present in his eyes is buried behind years of corruption as well as layers of superb makeup. Amy Adams, never not great, plays Lynne Cheney with equal parts affection and malice beneath the surface of her false Washington niceties. However, the main problem with Vice is its central thesis that Dick Cheney is responsible for every bad thing that has happened in the past 20 years - from the rise of ISIS (convincing), the election of Trump (tangentially), to the 2018 California forest fires (??????). It is preaching to the choir as far as its political alignment and agenda is concerned - something the film addresses in a post-credits scene - which goes some way to explain Ivanka Trump’s recent walk-out during a screening she attended of the movie. Vice isn’t as bad as some critics may have you believe, but it’s certainly not the best of the bunch.

Looking over this year’s Best Picture field, there seem to be no obvious frontrunners in the same way that The Artist or Slumdog Millionaire seemed pre-anointed winners in years past. However, this isn’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of the films which, for the most part, are worthy choices. Instead, it is more a reflection of the uncertainty plaguing these troubled times, where it wouldn’t be surprising if the devil himself rose from the polished floor of the Dolby theatre proclaiming, ‘… and the Oscar goes to Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Adding to the instability, the Oscars are without a host for the first time in decades and the Academy has publicly backtracked on plans to introduce a Popular Film category as well as present several major categories off-air. The latter decision drew criticism from last year’s Best Director winner, Guillermo Del Toro, and one of this year’s frontrunners in several categories, Alfonso Cuarón. It’s all shaping up to be a fine mess.

This article was published on February 21, 2019.

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