The Oscars race has reached its final and most heated lap. After months of speculation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has narrowed the race down to simply eight movies. Eight, and eight alone, represent millions of dollars of studio campaign finances and glittering dreams. There is much to be said about the surprised inclusion of the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody or Vice, and the snubbing of If Beale Street Could Talk or First Man—and we say as much right here!—but there is something to be said about all eight movies, be they ostensibly The Favourite or a reigning Black Panther.
Below are excerpts of each film as we received and reviewed them upon release, as well as links to dig deeper into Oscar’s golden dreams.
Black Panther is unlike almost all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that have come before it. Director/writer Ryan Coogler (Creed) and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) have found just the right sweet spot to tell a story that is deeply Afro-centric and affirmatively political in its themes and concerns, while dressing it in some of the familiar Marvel superhero pyrotechnics and adding a dash of James Bond espionage thriller. In other words, they’ve made a movie that speaks to a segment of the populace who have long awaited a mainstream film that addresses them directly, yet in no way does Black Panther alienate anyone else–this is still a comic book adventure for everyone.
At its best, Spike’s new joint embraces this ongoing conversation between art and culture, race and propaganda, to speak of the persistent malignancy in American life that has manifested itself from the fringes of David Duke to the mainstream of Donald Trump. As such his film is angry, disparate, and for the first time in ages for the filmmaker, unconcerned with making its conflicting emotions congeal. It wants to capture the wide range of human experience, from comedy to drama, and joy to tragedy, that Lee feels in Trump’s America… all while tracing its ugly lineage back to a time when even the film’s lead black character scoffs at the idea of a David Duke-type ever becoming president. Lee is using his artistic vision of the past to denounce the kind of art that’s so emboldened the Klan and their ilk for the past hundred years.
Hence the jarring contrast when the rest of the movie is just another night at the movies. And to Bryan Singer’s credit, at least as a filmmaker, it is by design no more and no less than that. Despite whisperings of behind-the-scenes conflicts worthy of an aggressive Brian May guitar solo, nothing that messy (or dramatic) ever appears on screen. This is instead exactly what it sets out to be: a formulaic and comfortable trip down jukebox memory lane, with nary a ballad or crescendo ignored. The life story it purports to tell, however, has been so whitewashed and and scrubbed of controversy that one imagines Mercury, either the man or Malek’s approximation, would be as unimpressed as all the other empty pop culture products he scolds in “Bicycle Race.”
The Favourite is hence an exercise in droll deconstructionism, marveling in exquisite set design and costumes that rarely veer toward the anachronistic (although when it does, you will notice), yet still resist the urge of fawning reverence and hagiographic sentimentality that so bedevils most American productions about British monarchs and the centuries-old gentry class. In the place of such noble pursuits, Lanthimos crafts a delightfully twisted ensemble piece that happily blurs the line between affairs of state and the affairs of the head of state. And infusing passion into this potentially disaffected aesthetic is a triumvirate of tour de force performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, which includes some of each’s most indelible work.
Of the recent audience-friendly films on culture clash, Green Book falls closer to the astuteness of Hidden Figures… than it does the obliviousness of The Help. However, at the end of the day, the film is told entirely from Tony’s perspective and is about Tony’s slow burn toward the mid-20th century equivalent of Wokeness. It’s effective, but it never delves deep enough into Don’s point-of-view. Admittedly, the film was co-written by the real Tony Lip’s son and is based on family history from that vantage, but the film is most interesting when glimpsing into the indignities that Don faces from more than just the most sneering of racist Louisiana cops. Here is an African American with an extraordinary experience, but too much of it is glimpsed only through a rearview mirror.
In a world where the preeminent European film festival has banned Netflix-produced pictures from ever competing, there is a growing industry debate over whether a film that’ll be mostly viewed at home on a streaming service is really a film. Or more precisely if it is really “cinema,” in that abstractly romantic sense, instead of “television.” Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is not only the latest example that defangs this pretension; it sweeps that argument away in a black and white wave of moviemaking bliss. In a year like 2018, it is hard to think of a film that more lovingly or enthusiastically embraces the cinematic vernacular of the last hundred years to tell a story of such intimate delicacy and complementary big screen scope.
A Star is Born
Several times throughout A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper purrs the lyrics, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” We think he doth protest too much, particularly in a film that so lovingly updates not only a few old ways of moviemaking, but also a very specific, older Hollywood myth. Indeed, Cooper’s pensive directorial debut, which likewise stands as a remarkable introduction for Lady Gaga in the role of movie star, is the fourth version of this tale (not counting the many knockoffs) in which a fading star gives birth in his last gasp of fame to a new pop culture sun. Like the misbegotten 1976 version with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, 2018’s A Star is Born moves the showbiz fable from movie studios to the music industry. But unlike that vanity project, Cooper uses American entertainment’s favorite creation myth to recreate how audiences will forever perceive him and Gaga.
Ultimately, however, Vice is an excellently made and phenomenally acted cipher, much like the man it investigates. If enough people see it, it may slow the low-key, steady revision of history that is almost bound to happen, as Vice wants to make the case for why we need to avoid the likes of Dick Cheney–a mostly amoral man with little regard for other human beings and no respect for the limits of power–but it can’t quite decide how it wants to present its argument.