Oscars 2019 – Best Picture

A Star Is Born

Oscars 2019 – Best Picture

This year, not unlike every other year, the Oscars producers are promising to trim down the length of their lumbering spectacle, doing their best to keep the ceremony limited to three hours, because apparently advertisers really care what’s going on at midnight on a Sunday.

They joke about this every single year; last year’s show ended with Helen Mirren giving a jet ski to the Costume Designer from stupid Phantom Thread because his speech was the shortest of the evening. They teased the joke for three hours and then when it was time for the punchline the guy got about two seconds of screen time.

Speaking of costumes and time consumption, please take the following seven minutes to watch the glorious and insane presentation of the Best Costume Design award from 1969.

The producers’ methods of slicing time off the program are always bad. This year they tried to hack away at the Best Song category, originally telling three of the five nominees that they wouldn’t be allowed to perform. Then they decided to present certain awards (like Best Editing) during the commercial breaks. (Note to Hollywood: the way to shorten your program is probably NOT by pissing off people who edit for a living.)

Here are my thoughts on this year’s Best Picture contenders. Click here if you’d prefer to read my talking points about all the other categories.

Green Book

Last year the film Hidden Figures was a runaway sensation, so it’s probably not surprising that Hollywood wanted to take a second shot at “uplifting story about lesser-known moments in 20th century black history.” For some reason, though, that task fell upon Peter Farrelly, the Cumberland native whose last feature was the sequel to Dumb and Dumber. In a quarter century of filmmaking, this is his first drama!

The Green Book is based on the true story of a black musician, Dr. Don Shirley, whose family has been very vocal about hating the film and its presentation of their deceased relative. But really the story is actually about Shirley’s chauffeur, and was written by the chauffeur’s son, and presented in such a way that the chauffeur (Viggo Mortensen*) is considered a Lead Actor while Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is heavily favored to win in the Best Supporting Actor category. I can’t say whether that’s a good thing—it’s possible?— because I haven’t seen the film, which based on my past experience means it has a pretty good shot of winning Best Picture.

The Shirleys aren’t the only distraught family this year, by the way. The family of young James Bulger — no relation to Whitey — is livid about their toddler’s 1993 murder being reenacted in Detainment, which is up for Best Live Action Short. I haven’t seen that one, either.

Bohemian Rhapsody

One film I have seen is Bohemian Rhapsody, a really cheery depiction of the life of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. If the film was meant to have any edge, or viewpoint about, say, Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, it was swept away by the controlling manipulations of the surviving band members (who got a whole lot of free publicity from this thing). The movie was designed to be as inoffensive as possible, yet it was directed (mostly) by Bryan Singer, a man whose proclivities for barely legal twinks have been common knowledge for decades. (As far back as 1997, a 14-year old extra sued Singer for forcing underaged boys to strip during a shower scene.) I think Bohemian Rhapsody does a lot of things very badly, though I don’t know enough about Mercury personally to know whether to be offended by the lifelong gal pal that seems to have upset so many gay men.

Three other Best Picture nominees are based on real people, because no one has any imagination, but each of those is significantly better than Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Favourite / Vice / BlacKkKlansman

I didn’t love Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite as much as I loved his last two movies. The Lobster is perfect, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a real slow burn, so my expectations were probably just too high for his story of two cousins vying for the affections of Queen Anne. That said, does it matter that The Favourite conveniently ignores the fact that Queen Anne was married and that her husband was lurking around the palace during the time of the film? That’s up to you, I guess, but I’m inclined to say no. If I wanted facts I would read a history book or maybe watch a documentary.

One of my favorite movies last year — one which no one saw — was Wild Nights With Emily, an Emily Dickinson biography that really dug into the weeds of why we think of her as a recluse and who got to make that decision. Because, it turns out, that decision was made for a reason.

That’s partly why I don’t like the biopic as a genre, even though I have liked a number of them in recent years. (Jackie; Frank; I, Tonya; Lizzie… Maybe I only like them when the character’s name is in the title?) Vice was very polarizing but ultimately a very good history of Dick Cheney’s half-century reign of terror. While the film’s last 90 seconds were way too heavy-handed, I appreciated that he actually expressed some subtlety when drawing parallels between our present day and the last time the Oval Office was occupied dum-dum who seemed unfit for office and his shadowy VP that no one paid any attention to.

Director Adam McKay (The Big Short; Anchorman) isn’t known for being subtle, but he’s got nothing on Spike Lee, who had his first hit in many years with BlacKkKlansman. From its feisty Alec Baldwin opening through its sledgehammer-ish conclusion, the broad thesis (America is racist and really messed up) is most convincingly rendered through the film’s male characters, who are complicated humans with strange agendas. (The women are very one-dimensional.) The story might be true but it’s so ridiculous that it feels made up.

Besides the four biopics and one royal saga, there are three other Best Picture nominees: a remake, a superhero movie, and a black-and-white Spanish-language movie that was essentially made for TV.

Black Panther/Roma

Last year I complained that people weren’t facing reality, with only two of the nine Best Picture nominees (Get Out and Three Billboards…) actually set in the present day. The only difference this year is that there’s one less nominee. The Favourite takes place three hundred years ago. The Green Book happens in 1962. BlacKkKlansman, Roma, and most of Bohemian Rhapsody take place in the seventies. Vice skips around for a half a century, starting in the sixties, but it’s definitely presented as history. That leaves A Star Is Born, the most contemporary nominee despite it being a remake of a remake of a remake, and Black Panther, which is set in the present day in a fictional kingdom.

I loved Black Panther but I don’t want it to win because if Marvel/Disney get a Best Picture then who knows what the nerds will be demanding next.

I haven’t seen Roma—it’s been playing in Boston-area movie theaters for two months but I keep missing it—but I don’t want it to win. I’ve heard many people say that it’s the best movie of the year, and it might well be, but if Netflix gets a Best Picture then the movie industry as we know it is basically dead. Like, I could see supporting this film as a sign of solidarity with our Mexican friends while certain people are trying to build a stupid wall between us, but mostly I just see this as Netflix being a jerk and intruding where they don’t belong. Silly me for wanting my Best Picture to be something that actually played on a movie screen in my state.

So, A Star Is Born.

A Star Is Born

Reader, I LOVE IT. I love the songs, I love the story, I love the house, I love the dog, I love Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott and Sam Elliott’s moustache and even Andrew Dice Clay. It was a critical and commercial hit. It will surely win the Oscar for Best Song, yet “Shallow” is only the third or fourth best song on the soundtrack. (Seriously, Bradley Cooper’s Best Director snub wasn’t the Academy’s only oversight.) The criticisms I’ve seen of the film – that it romanticizes alcoholism, for instance, or that it dismisses pop music as inferior to gruff guy country-rock – are frankly incorrect. One of my favorite things about A Star Is Born is that Gaga goes from vampy cabaret act to arena-ready rocker to dance-pop diva, and the film doesn’t judge her for that. Her alcoholic man friend does, but it’s made pretty clear that he’s not exactly the voice of reason.

Since my favorite films of the year (If Beale Street Could Talk and Isle of Dogs) weren’t nominated, I’m 100% rooting for this remake of a remake of a remake to win.