The Empty Bookshelf Guide to the 2018 Oscars

And we’re back at it, again! The Best Picture nominees in alphabetical order…

BlacKkKlansman

It’s Ricky Jerret from Ballers! Kylo Ren! And they bring it. This is a simple movie (Black guy cons his way into the KKK, including a personal relationship with James Duke), with complex details throughout. It takes place not in the Deep South but Colorado Springs, and in the 1970s, not 50s. The most bleeding heart liberal in the movie is a white police officer who’s generally a background character who argues with the main character. The few “wink, wink, nudge, nudge — this is just like today” moments work better in montage form at the end than the “who could imagine that ever happening” lines in the movie that are practically accompanied with staring down the barrel of the camera lens. But this juxtaposition is the strongest takeaway from watching; the 1970s weren’t that long ago. This might win Best Picture. Adam Driver was great, but not award-winning great, and if he was nominated, John David Washington should’ve been nominated, too. Spike Lee has a good chance of winning for directing.

Black Panther

This nomination is a big deal, and that’s all I’ll say about that. Sticking to just Marvel, Infinity War was a better movie, but this is clearly a Marvel top 3. Expanding to comics generally, Into the Spider-Verse was unquestionably better. This has no chance of winning Best Picture (the Academy and voters consider the nomination itself to be the prize for this movie), but would be my pick for Production Design and Costumes, where a world is truly created instead of recreated as in The Favourite or BlacKkKlansman.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Rami Malek had better not win the Best Actor award. This is the definition of impression acting… and he even gets to wear prosthetics! It’s trendy to trash this movie, but it’s merely OK-to-Good not the full-on dreck that is often claimed. The most significant issue is getting Queen’s music in the movie is key to a movie about Freddy Mercury, so relying on the band’s script approval leads us to such insightful takeaways that the other members of the band wrote many of Queen’s songs. I now know that “I’m In Love With My Car” wasn’t written by Freddy Mercury. I’m VERY glad that the movie spent any of its runtime correcting that misconception. We’re also stuck with the movie’s hard stop of a happy ending in 1986 (the band is back!) while Freddy Mercury died in 1991. A more interesting story the movie doesn’t even allude to is his choice to not disclose his HIV/AIDS status until literally the day before he died. (in fairness, I’m not sure that Freddy Mercury, of all people, being the person to destigmatize HIV/AIDS from being thought of as a “disease of gay men and drug users” would’ve really helped all that much.) This shouldn’t win anything, but Rami Malek has distractingly oversized chance of winning (this is a prosthetics joke), and I suppose the art/technical awards like Sound Mixing have a chance, though picking a movie about a band for sound awards seems a little on the nose. No, no. On the teeth! A little on the teeth!

The Favourite

This is my pick for Best Picture; an absolutely bananas movie with a plot description which sounds like Oscar bait, but actually isn’t when viewing the final product. “Two women compete for the affections of Queen Anne at the turn of the 18th century.” BLAH. SO BORING. But it isn’t. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, surprising, horny, and even a little violent. Also, there’s a dance-off and multiple(!) duck races filmed in ways no duck races have ever been filmed before. Strongest recommendation. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll win Best Picture, but I have higher hopes for the actresses. More unfortunately, it will likely win for Best Costume Design because, well, it’s a movie about the British monarchy in 1703. This is low hanging fruit and another “Most” award instead of “Best.” That’s not to say it’s easy to construct the costumes, but these aren’t better costumes than anything in a painting from the era or even other movies which have come out taking place in the same time period. (Note: I would be willing to watch an informative video from someone who actually knows about movie costume design about why this hot take is garbage, but I’m waiting…) Also, it will likely win for Production Design. They shot it in an actual castle! That’s practically cheating! “But we needed to fill it exclusively with period appropriate artwork!” they say. That’s like filming a baseball movie at Yankee stadium, then replacing all of the Yankees logos with whatever fictional team the script calls for, and getting period appropriate cars for any exterior shots.

Green Book

Did you know that the South was incredibly racist in the 1960s? What about that not only were they racist, they were hypocritical? No? Well, then have I got the movie for you. And it has a happy ending centered around a Christmas dinner after everyone learns lessons. Blech. (in seriousness, read the Wikipedia article about the actual Green Book. Eye-poppingly terrible… and not all that long ago.) Mahershala Ali is awesome here; Viggo Mortenson is punching below his weight class with a low effort Italian-American accent for a character whose arc can be telegraphed from the first scene he’s seen. The bulk of the story is given to Viggo Mortenson’s character’s growth, but Mahershala Ali’s character actually gives us anything to think about. He’s of two worlds, but accepted by neither. The black community looks down at him because he’s of the rich white person’s world and acting like he’s “better;” the white community looks down on him, for, well, because he’s black. This is similar to the dichotomy Virgil Abloh has discussed with his Off-White brand and branding as being parts of streetwear and luxury fashion as well as being black in the otherwise lillywhite world of high fashion. Unfortunately, this angle in the movie is presented as a screaming fight on the side of the road where all detail of that experience is literally spelled out and “NOBODY WANTS ME!!!” is tearfully and loudly delivered. Beyond that, there’s some cynical bending of the truth in the movie. The two didn’t become friends or remain in contact after their roadtrip. Hint: none of the “since then” pictures in the credits show them together. It must be said that this is better then Crash, and Crash somehow won a Best Picture award, so that means that this has a chance. Mahershala Ali should win.

Roma

This is faint praise, but this was a very well-made movie. I do realize this is reacting “that’s funny” to a joke instead of laughing. “Masterfully assembled at the peak of technical proficiency,” I never want to sit through it again (and thanks to Netflix, it took three viewing sessions to watch it the first time). I’d be open to reading a “why Roma is good, and you don’t get it,” but I’d need someone to provide a coherent reason why there’s a sequence in the movie that goes like this:

  • Scene 1 (triage center at hospital) – one shot. Result: Patient needs to go to an operating room. Cut to scene 2.
  • Scene 2 (hallway between triage center and operating room) – one continuous shot. Hallway is shown empty. Doors open and characters enter hallway in the distance. Camera rotates to track characters walking through hallway then opening doors of operating room. Cut to Scene 3.
  • Scene 3 (operating room) – one shot. the absolute best sequence of the movie, though didn’t require Scene 2 at all.

And the whole movie is a series of vignettes in that same style. I appreciate the craft, but not the product. It has a decent chance of winning. This would not offend me, but it should not win, as it would be the film version of “most movie” similar to how the Emmys often give awards for “most acting.”

A Star is Born

Maybe a “safe” choice to win (the showbiz industry loves stories about showbiz), but I’d support it. For a first time acting, Lady Gaga’s performance is top-notch, and Bradley Cooper’s first shot at directing is also remarkably successful. And even crazier, the most unexpectedly successful performance might be Andrew Dice Clay… and he’s playing an actual character, not just his persona but with a different name. Two nitpicks: of course it’s a movie about singers, but some of the concert footage outlasts its welcome; Bradley Cooper’s deafness sub-plot was a waste of time. I do wonder what Viggo Mortsenson would’ve pulled off in that same role; Bradley Cooper played the character in two modes: “stoic” or “completely over-medicated.” It might win!

Vice

I do realize that I’ve railed against “impression acting” above and previously, but, come on, Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Sam Rockwell are really, really good here. And, yes, I realize prosthetics were involved, too. I enjoyed The Big Short. The complexity of creating and manipulating mortgage-backed securities allows for “STOP THE MOVIE, HERE’S AN EXPLANATION.” Vice takes Adam McKay’s approach from The Big Short, but applies it to explanation of items not earning that “edutainment” tone; it’s patronizing and has an unearned smugness that rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m generally, politically, in the same alignment as the filmmakers. BUT, those moments are rare, and as long as you’re comfortable watching a movie that, itself, talks about the fact that it’s movie (the script itself is practically a character), it tells an incredible story. Those complaining that the movie doesn’t show “the other side,” the movie addresses this with Cheney’s final soliloquy (delivered directly to the camera, of course). Again, as someone who’s generally the target market of the movie’s perspective on things, he should’ve added “There hasn’t been a second September 11th, and Osama bin Laden is dead” to his “We needed a leader that was willing to make the tough choices. The type of choices you’d be afraid to make, but know someone needs to…” speech. Not that that completes the “other side” argument or is necessarily a valid counterargument for the real-life terribleness the movie showcases, but it would at least round it out a bit more. It won’t win, but the screenplay and its three nominated actors have good chances.

Others Worth Mentioning

First Man is as good or better than any of the nominated movies, and Ryan Gosling is great in a role that absolutely isn’t imitation (can you do a Neil Armstrong impression? Exactly.). I’m not sure why or how it disappeared from the awards scene so aggressively, but it belongs to be there. It did receive nominations for the art-technical awards, and all of the key sequences rely on completely bonkers sound work. These aren’t “the big 6,” but they’d be well-earned for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.

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