Knee-jerk reactions to the 2019 Oscar nominations
I’m going to make a calm, measured statement about the 2019 Oscar nominations: Oscar sucks.
Oscar is also great.
That’s the way of the world – too many things are too complicated to paint with broad strokes. Forty-nine percent of me asserts that the Oscars are a bloated, overhyped, relentlessly and cynically campaigned mess of indulgent self-aggrandizement. Fifty-one percent of me is willing to accept Oscar’s shortcomings for an opportunity to spend several weeks talking about movies, and put a bright spotlight on worthy films that otherwise might not enjoy such mainstream attention.
It also gives me worthy cause to praise the good stuff and pan the crap. (I know — isn’t that painting with broad strokes? you may be thinking. But, if I may retort to my own hypothetical, isn’t hypocrisy an insolvable component of the human condition?) Here’s what Oscar got right and wrong with the latest batch of nominations. (Editor’s note: by a 2:1 ratio, most of the things Oscar did were wrong. So it goes.)
WRONG: Ethan Hawke, snubbed. This is the biggest surprise among this year’s nominees. Was it not assumed by all sentient Earthlings that Hawke’s performance in “First Reformed” was masterful, the best of his career and the best of the year? A few decades from now, we’ll look back on his portrayal of an alcoholic minister in the midst of a faith-testing personal earthquake as genius work – assuming we all haven’t fallen into the sea by then, of course.
WRONG: Oscar’s treatment of “First Reformed.” Writer/director Paul Schrader returns to form with such vigor, it deserves all caps and emphasized punctuation: he RETURNS. TO. FORM. The film is a rumination and a provocation and a warning and an ultimately hopeful look at one man’s hopelessness. It’s essential. Essential! But not worth a best picture or director nomination, apparently. Schrader earned a token original screenplay nod, and I’d go out on a limb and say it’s likely to win, if it wasn’t going up against heavy hitters “Roma” and “The Favourite.”
RIGHT: Spike Lee, at last. Innovative behind the camera for decades now, Lee finally earns a best director nod for “BlacKkKlansman,” which revitalized his career and is surely among his best work. Of course, he should have won in 1990 for “Do the Right Thing.” Or in 2003 for “25th Hour.” In a category full of unexpected surprises (especially Pawel Pawlikowki for “Cold War”), Lee may have a serious shot at winning. His biggest competition will be Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”).
WRONG: Dude. Yeah, I’m talking to you, best director nominee. You’re definitely a dude, and not a woman, because none of those got any recognition this year. Sure, current sexual politics and a reconfiguration of the Academy’s voting body lean in that direction, but so does the work: Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” was one of the year’s great directorial efforts, as were Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” and Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace.” All were forgotten come nomination time. In every category, even. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
RIGHT: Ten nods for “The Favourite.” Three vivid and inspired performances from Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and best-actress-to-beat Olivia Colman. A deliciously witty and layered screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Assertive direction by Yorgos Lanthimos. This is one hell of a film. Yet I have a sinking feeling it’ll win between zero and two Oscars.
RIGHT: Best picture nominee “Black Panther.” Oscar stops being a snob and finds a Marvel Comics movie at last worthy of his gilded time. Well, it’s about (bleeping) time. The film pushed boundaries and opened doors not just creatively, but in terms of cultural representation. And it’s not just a film we needed, but one we enjoyed, probably many times.
WRONG: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” for best animated film. You’d think this type of recognition would be a positive thing, but it’s really yet another argument for abolishing the category altogether. Do you risk ignoring the essential and spirited art of animation by eliminating it, or will Academy members be forced to consider a lowly cartoon for their oh-so-hallowed best picture category? Tough call. Either way, this is the latest example of great films (see also: “WALL-E,” “Inside Out,” “Spirited Away”) essentially being rendered “just a cartoon.” Voters need to nominate something as extraordinary – and dare I say, revolutionary – as “Spider-Verse” for the big one. Grow a pair, you cowards.
RIGHT: Regina King for best supporting actress. King’s mirror scene in “If Beale Street Could Talk” seems like almost nothing, but in fact is nearly everything. She carries all the film’s themes, suspense and dramatic weight in that pivotal moment, and she delivers, with nuance and power.
WRONG: “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This is a controversy at the awards-season water cooler. The movie’s fine. Whatever. I didn’t like it. You might’ve. It’s a crowd-pleaser. But does it deserve five nominations, including one for best picture? Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope nope. Nope. Does it deserve one? Maybe. Best actor nominee Rami Malek sure is likeable as Freddie Mercury. But does he deserve it over Ethan Hawke? Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope nope. Nope.
WRONG: “Green Book.” This is a controversy at the awards-season water cooler. The movie’s fine. Whatever. I liked it. You might not have. It’s a crowd-pleaser. But does it deserve five nominations, including one for best picture? Nope. Not at the expense of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which was horribly wronged. (More on that in a minute.) Does it deserve one? Maybe. Supporting actor nominee Mahershala Ali is pretty good. And best actor nominee Viggo Mortensen sure is likeable as a racist oaf who ends up not being a racist oaf. But does he deserve it over Ethan Hawke? Nope.
WRONG: “If Beale Street Could Talk,” snubbed. No best picture nod for Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to big Oscar winner “Moonlight” is… something. Upsetting, perhaps. “Beale Street” is as moving and relevant as its predecessor, but may suffer in the wake of “Moonlight”’s significant success. The he-already-won-it angle is the only one that makes sense here.
RIGHT: “Vice” scores eight nods. I laughed my fool head off, and that’s Adam McKay’s screenplay and mischievously funny performances by Christian Bale (best actor nominee) and Steve Carell (no nominations) at work. OK, maybe eight nominations is overkill. Three or four would make more sense. We’ll call this one ALMOST RIGHT and move on.
WRONG: Screw you, neighbor. Shockingly, the universally loved, tearjerking Mr. Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” didn’t land a nomination. Nor did “Three Identical Strangers,” which has almost as many twists as the M. Night Shyamalan filmography. And yet “RBG,” a nice but unexceptional and often hagiographic bio of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, eked its way into contention. Curious. On a positive note, we now have “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” and “Of Fathers and Sons” to seek out and watch.
WRONG: Toni Collette, snubbed. The “Hereditary” star gave the most exemplary horror-film performance since Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” (no, not that one, or the other one, but the 1977 one). Collette’s character is so mangled within, even she doesn’t understand the extent of it; as the truth of herself is slowly revealed, it’s terrifying for all parties on the screen and in the theater, on earth and in heaven and hell and all places in-between. She’s note-perfect at all times. But, she’s in a movie existing in a ghetto genre when it comes to Oscar, so no dice.
WRONG: Bradley Cooper, best actor. Don’t get me wrong. He’s very good in “A Star is Born,” which he also directed. But his work behind the camera is stronger than his work in front of it. And even then, the director category is too crowded, and he’s considered a snub by many people who aren’t me. (Bigger director snubs? Lynne Ramsay, Paul Schrader and the guy in the next paragraph.) Does Cooper deserve an acting nod over Ethan Hawke? I think you know the answer to that.
WRONG: Christopher McQuarrie, snubbed. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” was one of the most bracingly intense action pictures I’ve ever seen. No film since “Mad Max: Fury Road” – notably a multiple Oscar nominee, including for best picture – pins you down and makes you sweat buckets unto basins like this one. (I needed IV fluids on my way out of the theater.) It’s a product of intense skill and commitment on the part of its director. That’s McQuarrie. He created a film, sure. But he also created an experience, and that doesn’t happen very often. “Fallout” didn’t even get a visual effects nod, which boggles the mind. Remember, action is art, too.
WRONG: “Eighth Grade,” snubbed entirely. Zilch. Not even a screenplay nod for writer/director Bo Burnham’s poignant, awkward and funny story about a teen girl coming of age online and in reality. Or a best actress nod for Elsie Fisher, who anchors the film with a quietly courageous performance. It’s a timely and insightful film, two accusations nobody in their right mind would fling at Oscar.
RIGHT: “Roma.” Everything about “Roma” is right. Especially the things it’s nominated for: actress, director, supporting actress, original screenplay, cinematography, foreign language film, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and, of course, best picture. All right. Especially right is Yalitza Aparicio’s acknowledgement in the best actress category. In a movie so meticulously conceived visually, incorporating so many social and political ideas and movements, where director Alfonso Cuaron plumbed memories both vivid and ethereal for a story and reconstructed entire city blocks of Mexico City ca. 1970 from scratch, Aparicio is the true revelation here. Let’s just give all the Oscars to “Roma” right now and call it a year.