2019 Oscars Best Picture Review
I’m a movie nut so don’t worry — no spoilers.
Black Panther — 85%
Green Book — 83%
Bohemian Rhapsody — 81%
The Favourite — 75%
VICE — 68%
A Star is Born — 65%
BlacKkKlansman — 55%
Roma — 52%
Perhaps it was the mostly inane social commentary surrounding each movie or the way the movies themselves were made, but this was the first year I was so aware of my own biases. And so while Society was telling us which films we should like based on identity politics, I’ll do my best to focus on what I personally thought of each film.
On full display here is my love for theme, plot, character development, and conflict, and my ambivalence towards cinematography, costume design, and the actual performance of the craft of acting. What do I mean? I’m won over by a movie as a whole — why it was made (theme), what actually happens (plot), how do the people in it change (character development), and what battles they are fighting (conflict). While I appreciate the difficulty of achieving what it looks like (cinematography), how the people in it look (costume design), and individual achievements (acting performances), I don’t tend to dwell on these. From a subject matter perspective, I have a decidedly American focal point towards topics such as politics and music and am not as interested in social structures in countries that are not America or India (a.k.a., British Monarchy or Mexican servants).
To give you an idea of my taste, here are all the nominees I’ve seen from our current decade. I had to go back to the ’00s to find a 10. I’ve never seen a Best Pic Nom deserving of less than a 3; only two comedies come to mind. I don’t mess with 1s.
10 — No Country for Old Men. Brokeback Mountain.
9 — The Fighter. The Social Network. Moneyball. Philomena. Boyhood. Spotlight. Lion. Get Out.
8 — The King’s Speech. Argo. Silver Linings Playbook. Lincoln. 12 Years a Slave. Her. Nebraska. The Wolf of Wall Street. The Martian. Moonlight. La La Land. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Hacksaw Ridge. Brooklyn. Dallas Buyers Club. Amour. Beasts of The Southern Wild. Zero Dark Thirty. Whiplash.
7 — Midnight in Paris. Birdman. Hidden Figures. The Shape of Water. Hidden Figures. Hell or High Water. Fences. Arrival. Mad Max: Fury Road. The Theory of Everything. Selma. The Imitation Game. The Grand Budapest Hotel. American Sniper. Captain Phillips. American Hustle. Inception.
6 — The Big Short. Lady Bird. Darkest Hour. The Revenant. Les Misérables. Django Unchained.
5 — The Descendants. Life of Pi. Bridge of Spies.
4 — Gravity. The Post. Dunkirk. Call Me by Your Name.
3 — Room. Manchester by The Sea. Phantom Thread.
2 — The Pest. Nacho Libre.
1 — -.
OK, let’s get to the rankings and ratings already. I’m moving to a percentage scale, in keeping with the trends of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Once again, this was a relatively weak year for Best Picture Nominees. One expects the average to be closer to 80%. The average was 71%.
Should Win: Black Panther or Green Book.
Will Win: Roma.
Black Panther — 88%.
Logline: T’Challa, heir to the hidden but advanced kingdom of Wakanda, must step forward to lead his people into a new future and confront a challenger from his country’s past.
How dope would it be if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences did something daring and gave a comic book movie the ultimate prize? I’m sure you’ve heard the old quote, often wrongly attributed to Maya Angelou:
“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl W. Buehner
All I know is that I walked out of the movie theater practically floating. This film was incredible. Is it the best comic book movie ever? Maybe, maybe not. (My favorites are The Dark Knight (2008) and Superman II (1980). But it’s certainly good enough, especially in the release year of 2018, to give it this honor. It was an epic with modern-day ramifications and implications. Brilliant. And enough comic relief in parts. (I just now saw that it took the top prize at the SAG Awards; I didn’t know that. Boss.)
Green Book — 83%.
Logline: A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
Thank God for the animosity between blacks and whites, because we’ve gotten some really good movies out of it. In all seriousness, this reverse Driving Miss Daisy (Best Picture 1989, although as a seventh-grader, I swore Batman had it in the bag) had a tall order: do something refreshing with a clichéd topic. And it delivered. There were enough variations on the theme and even some role reversals, illustrated by things like the Italian’s love of fried chicken and Little Richard. I may be more inclined to like it since my comic friend, Sebastian Maniscalco, played a rather large bit part. I was happy to see that as well as its win of Best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes. Not quite a masterpiece, but this road movie was both funny and poignant. Viggo Mortensen was phenomenal; Mahershala Ali is my favorite new actor.
Bohemian Rhapsody — 81%.
Logline: The story of the legendary rock band Queen and lead singer Freddie Mercury, leading up to their famous performance at Live Aid (1985).
Any claims this movie was not gay enough are, well, gay. I can understand certain liberties were taken at the request/demand of the Freddie Mercury Estate, but I truly enjoyed this biopic. Yes, it was formulaic, but that formula works, especially when you have the soundtrack of the fourth greatest band in history (behind The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd). The good-looking Rami Malek was incredible (yes, when an acting performance is that good, I notice) and the story just flowed. There were quite a few laughs, and having Mike Myers play a character making oblique Wayne’s World references didn’t hurt. One of the issues I had with it is that it was shot in a very insular way, completely from the band’s POV. We didn’t get any newspaper or statistical montages so we could see what it was like from the outside looking in. On the one hand, that’s a strong creative choice; on the other hand, it limited the scope of Queen’s achievements. But hey, it won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. And of course, I’m leaning into this one because Mercury has strong Indian heritage, growing up in a Parsi family that immigrated from India to England. What movie wouldn’t be strenghtened by a couple of brown parents’ disapproving of the main character’s career choice?
The Favourite — 75%.
Logline: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.
Although I couldn’t care less about Anglican royalty, this film was delightful. It was consistently amusing and occasionally hilarious. Olivia Colman, of whom I had never heard, crushed this role. Every time she was on-screen, I was mesmerized. Emma Stone was legit. And the tension in the mansion was palpable. I felt it crackle from start to finish. I feared this might’ve been tedious given my lack of interest in the subject, but it held my attention from lights-down to lights-up. As my wife (with whom I saw all of these) mentioned, her criticism of the film was that she has seen this genre executed before, whether it was The Queen or Elizabeth. She’s also a big Downton Abbey fan, but that sort of thing is not my cup of (high) tea.
Vice — 68%.
Logline: The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.
Along with Boho Rhapso (possibly my favorite abbrev. of the year), I heard the most varying things about this movie. Again, I’m biased strongly towards funny movies about politics, so I wanted to like this. Still, staying as objective as I can, the movie had vision and a keen sense of humor, which are great. But my Mom once explained to me that a well-directed film “has direction.” Meaning that you feel you always know where you are. With Adam McKay’s movies, I often find myself asking, “OK, so where are we going with this?” I felt this would’ve been stronger with him as a writer and somebody else at the helm. It’s an important movie, though, as Dick Cheney is one of the five men I’d charge with the destruction of the American Empire, the others being Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and the Kochs (they count as one).
A Star Is Born — 65%.
Logline: A musician helps a young singer find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.
“I like American music.” — Violent Femmes
I’m a fan of Bradley Cooper’s acting and of Lady Gaga’s music. Their chemistry on-screen was palpable. I thought her acting debut was incredible, perhaps even better than Eminem’s in 8 Mile. I know “sometimes I want to jump onstage and just kill mics,” but the pacing of this movie approached the ridiculous. It was unrealistic how quickly Lady Gaga’s character rose to fame. Perhaps this is why the film is entitled, “A Star Is Born” instead of “A Star Rises.” In the time it takes for a normal human birth, she launched a successful music career and sold out multiple theaters. The story of talent finding talent is believable; it happens all the time. But I wish the movie would’ve shown us a few indelible scenes vs. trying to cram everything into a 134-min escapade. I liked the songs but I just found the storyline too predictable and the laughs too few and far between. I understand this is the fifth version of this film; Director Cooper could only stray so much. But to quote from the best post-2000 film, No Country for Old Men, it was too linear.
“Man killed Lamar’s deputy, took his car, killed that man on the highway, swapped for his car, now here it is, and he’s swapped again for God knows what.”
“That’s very linear, sheriff.”
“Age’ll flatten a man, Wendell.”
BlacKkKlansman — 55%.
Logline: Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, CO, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of a Jewish surrogate who eventually becomes its leader.
Spike Lee may share a dubious distinction with Woody Allen: most overrated director in the history of American cinema. Lee has done a wonderful job marketing himself, but take a look at his lineup; it’s dece, at best. Same formula as Woody: drop an early great one (Annie Hall, Do The Right Thing) and build a career on that. The best Spike Lee movie of all time is Boyz n The Hood (and people who know what’s up will be down with that joke). The biggest issue with BlacKkKlansman is that it didn’t make a shred of sense, starting with its title. Yes, I get that it spells KKK in the middle, but why stylize it that way? More confusingly, why in the world is the black man even needed when the Jewish man can just go infiltrate the KKK himself? And even if they want to work in tandem, why isn’t the Jewish police officer on the phone with the black one? The whole film was a stretch, even though it was based on a true story. It was entertaining in parts, but a Best Picture Nom? No way. (Give it to The Wife. That flick got robbed.) The best KKK story ever is the one of Stetson Kennedy in Malcolm Gladwell’s Freakonomics. Make that a movie.
Roma — 52%.
Logline: A year in the life of a middle-class family’s maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
I love slow-moving films. Films that take their time to build and take us on a journey. I found it refreshing for a male Director to make such a pro-female movie, one that portrayed men’s behaving badly and women’s sticking together. And all of us, including my wife and my mother, were bored out of our minds. Yes, the climax was interesting, but it was a long, long, long way to go to get there. Too long a buildup and too long a denouement. Buzz indicates it will win, which will be the most wrong call since Crash in 2005. (The only thing that makes this more forgivable is I don’t have a film I loved, the way I loved Brokeback Mountain.) Director Alfonso Cuarón could take a page out of A Star Is Born: in the time it took Roma to scrub a floor, Gaga won three Grammys and did a national tour. If Cuarón would’ve directed A Star Is Born, we’d still be watching Gaga remove her eyebrows. And that’s from somebody who just wrote a 2,200-word film review essay.
Rajiv Satyal is a comedian and pop culture junkie. He resides in Los Angeles.