Oscars 2019: Let the Debates Begin

The Daily — Jan 23, 2019
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018)

The list of this year’s Oscar nominations is, as always, shot through with encouraging breakthroughs and disappointing setbacks. On the one hand, what an international roster of nominated directors: a Mexican, a Greek, a Pole, and one white and one black American. On the other hand, none of the five are women. Black Panther, a vivid celebration of black culture, has scored seven nominations, including best picture, but Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight won best picture in 2017, is looking at only three nominations this year for his lovely and heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk—they’re for his screenplay, adapted from James Baldwin’s novel; Nicholas Britell’s original score; and Regina King’s supporting performance.

The eight films racking up the greatest number of nominations are also, perhaps not surprisingly, the eight in the running for best picture. That makes it easy to take a look at them in pairs and check in on how they’re currently faring with critics and awards prognosticators.

Roma and The Favourite

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a painstakingly detailed and choreographed reconstruction of his memories of growing up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, in which two ladies of the eighteenth-century English court vie ruthlessly yet hilariously for the favor of Queen Anne, lead the list with ten nominations each. Over the weekend, the London Film Critics’ Circle gave its best film and director awards to Roma, but also handed four prizes to The Favourite. As Kristopher Tapley, one of Variety’s awards-watchers, has pointed out, by the time the Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday morning, Roma had chalked up “twenty-one best picture prizes from regional groups. Alfonso Cuarón has collected thirty-two director awards, more than any other individual achievement of the year.”

In short, a sizable majority of critics like Roma. A lot. But for the film’s dissenters, there’s something suspect about a male director’s memory piece on the indigenous nanny and maid—Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, who’s nominated for best actress—who cared for his middle-class family. In an outstanding essay for Another Gaze, Phoebe Chen succinctly outlines the points of contention: “Cuarón’s whiteness begets a colonial gaze; Cleo lacks the discursive inner life of a fleshed-out character; Mexican critics love it; Mexican critics do not love it; Indigenous representation is an accomplishment; rich men should not make movies about their former maids.”

Roma seems to have infuriated Scout Tafoya, who argues in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books that it’s “a colossal mistake, a series of miscalculations born of unchecked hubris and hideous classism, the kind of film that drags the rest of its director’s body of work down with it.” Others, such as Pablo Calvi, are more measured in their criticism. Writing for the Believer, he posits that “before finding value in her story, [Cuarón] must infect her gaze and hollow out her point of view.” The point he’s driving toward is that “Cleo is, ultimately, a whitewashing device.” For the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, she’s “a stereotype that’s all too common in movies made by upper-middle-class and intellectual filmmakers about working people: a strong, silent, long-enduring, and all-tolerating type, deprived of discourse, a silent angel whose inability or unwillingness to express herself is held up as a mark of her stoic virtue.”

Phoebe Chen has taken these points into consideration. Her rejoinder: “Maybe Cleo’s absent politics jar in a time when the general frenzy of a trash fire world means no one can afford to be apolitical,” she writes, “but the hard fact remains that many people live outside the aphoristic remit of the personal as political. For all the doomsday clamor and demands that art attend social problems with an urgency that matches their arrival, fictional characters have no obligation to be avatars of praxis.”

Again, on the whole, reaction to Roma has been overwhelmingly positive. The current issue of the New York Review of Books opens with a beautiful essay in which Alma Guillermoprieto places the film within the context not only of Cuarón’s oeuvre but also of her own memories before exclaiming in her final paragraph, “It is so bursting with life, Mexican life!” Caleb Crain, also writing for the NYRB, adds: “However much the intimacy between Cleo and her employers’ children may have been structured or conditioned by social and economic bias, the intimacy between them was real, the movie insists. To the children, in fact, it may have felt more real than their relationship with their biological parents. Cuarón’s genius is that he is able to induce an appreciation just as vivid in the viewer.” And of course, the most heartfelt appreciation comes from Cuarón’s close friend Guillermo del Toro, who headed up the jury that awarded Roma the Golden Lion in Venice last summer. He’s tweeted ten acutely perceptive “personal musings” about the film. “The final image rhymes perfectly with the opening,” reads the tenth. “Once again, earth and heaven. Only Cleo can transit between both.”

By comparison, The Favourite’s naysayers haven’t been as harsh, and its advocates not nearly as rapturous in their praise. The film has struck Slate Movie Club host Dana Stevens “as needlessly fussy in its structure (those smug intertitles before each ‘chapter’) and distractingly showoff-y in its direction. (The court of Queen Anne is a fishbowl! We got it the first five times, Yorgos Lanthimos!) To be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed The Favourite’s A-list trio of divas and salty C-word-laced dialogue. I just didn’t find the movie had that much to say about the world outside the (admittedly luscious) hothouse it built for itself.” But to return to the NYRB, Namwali Serpell, addressing the conundrum of “equal opportunity villainy,” points out that “many recent women-centered films overcompensate, succumbing to lukewarm tokenism, portentous plots, neutered sexuality, and pulled punches both literal (no catfights) and figurative (no misandry). They manage to skirt the usual stereotypes of cattiness, victimhood, hysteria, sluttiness, and so on, but they miss all the depth and contradiction of genuine vice.” The Favourite “dispenses with this bind altogether.” It’s “a story about three bad women—bad in very different, very interesting ways.”

A Star Is Born and Vice

Eight nominations each, but not necessarily the ones many might have expected. Bradley Cooper has been nominated for starring in and cowriting A Star Is Born but not for directing what Farran Smith Nehme has reminded us is the “fifth (direct) iteration of this deathless story, not the fourth.” George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932) also tracked the rise of a female star whose partner in love (or in the case of Cukor’s film, friendship), the man who’s inducted her into the world of show business in the first place, stumbles and falls. Most critics have warmly welcomed Cooper’s debut as a director, but audiences have fallen head over heels for it. As of this week, the worldwide gross has exceeded 400 million dollars. And everyone’s pleased to see Sam Elliott score his first ever Oscar nomination for his supporting performance as Cooper’s older brother and manager. “I think the thing off the top of my head might be, ‘It’s about fucking time,'” Elliott joked when he heard the news.

Vice, Adam McKay’s comedic take on the rise of Dick Cheney from Wyoming congressman to shadow president, hasn’t fared as well. It does have its champions—four out of five stars from the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, for example—but most reviewers are on the same page with Nick Pinkerton, who writes at 4Columns that “while McKay’s conviction that very simple cause-and-effect explanations exist behind the expert language of government doesn’t necessarily diminish his work as a polemicist, he is hobbled as an artist by the fact that the same simplicity—simplemindedness, even—governs his dramaturgy and depiction of human relations.”

Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman

Black Panther, the first superhero movie to be nominated for best picture, is honored with seven nominations, but frustratingly, a best director nod for Ryan Coogler isn’t one of them. The sheer barrier-breaking speed of Coogler’s trajectory has been nothing short of breathtaking. His first feature, the modestly budgeted Fruitvale Station, won the Grand Jury Prize and an audience award when it premiered at Sundance, and it just kept on gathering awards at Cannes and beyond through the rest of 2013. Two years later, Coogler resuscitated the wheezing Rocky franchise with his critical favorite and box-office hit, Creed. And now, he’s given us a billion-dollar-plus blockbuster that’s also been embraced by critics. “A jolt of a movie,” Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times last February, “Black Panther creates wonder with great flair and feeling partly through something Hollywood rarely dreams of anymore: myth.” Days later, also in the NYT, Carvell Wallace, noting that the film is “steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness,” wrote about Black Panther’s reception in black communities. When he spoke with Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds, she emphasized that the characters “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors, and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty.”

Spike Lee has been nominated for best director, and it’s been a long time coming. Like many who’ve spoken with Lee since Tuesday morning’s announcement, Deadline’s Geoff Boucher has asked him about 1990, the year the Academy granted him a nomination (but not a win) for writing—but not for directing—Do the Right Thing. “Let’s be honest,” says Lee. “It was a snub. That’s what it was. But it did not stop that movie from becoming an American classic. That film is in the Library of Congress. It’s taught in classes all over the world. It’s only gotten better every year since it was released.” Lee’s always considered Driving Miss Daisy’s best picture win that year as salt rubbed into the wound.

BlacKkKlansman, which won the Grand Prix in Cannes, now heads into the ninety-first Academy Awards ceremony with six nominations. Lee tells Boucher about the day that Get Out director and BlacKkKlansman producer Jordan Peele called him up to deliver “what has to be the greatest six-word pitch in the history of Hollywood cinema: ‘Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.’ First thing I said was, ‘This must be another David Chappelle bit.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Ron Stallworth exists, he really infiltrated the Klan and there’s a book and a script.’ And for me that was it.”

Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody

There’s no need to rehash the objections leveled against Peter Farrelly’s road movie and buddy comedy led by a black pianist and a white bouncer or Bryan Singer’s PG-13 Freddie Mercury biopic. We hit the main points when Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody won the top two Golden Globes a couple of weeks ago, and now they’ve got five nominations each. Let’s do note, though, that Nate Jones has a not uninteresting piece up at Vulture about “the life cycle of a late-’10s Oscar villain,” which usually begins with a fall festival premiere and “rave reviews from the mostly white commentariat” coupled with “some side-eyes on social media over its racial or sexual politics” before the backlash well and truly kicks in.

Odds and Ends

Sorting through the instant analyses, the lists of snubs and surprises and so on—see, for example, the A.V. Club, Eliza Berman (Time), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian), Richard Brody (New Yorker), Kyle Buchanan (New York Times), Inkoo Kang (Slate), Dominic Patten (Deadline), and Ramin Setoodeh (Variety)—you’ll find two overarching themes. First is the shameful paucity of films made by women. Two names in particular pop up frequently as candidates who might have taken, say, Adam McKay’s slot in the best director list: Debra Granik, whose Leave No Trace has left no trace at all on this year’s round of nominations, and Marielle Heller, whose Can You Ever Forgive Me? does have three, namely, best adapted screenplay (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty), actress (Melissa McCarthy), and supporting actor (Richard E. Grant).

The second theme is that, after “years of aggressive maneuvering,” as Brook Barnes puts it in the New York Times, Netflix has “finally cracked the Academy Awards.” It’s not just the ten for Roma; Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has scored three nominations as well. As if to drive the point home, on the same day as the nominations announcement, Netflix became the first nontraditional studio to join the industry’s lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Reaction from AMC and Regal, North America’s two largest theater chains, was swift. They issued press releases announcing that, when it comes time to showcase the best picture nominees in theaters, they will not be screening Roma. “This seemingly knee-jerk response stems from their stated policies of never playing a film that doesn’t honor the ninety-day theatrical window,” explains Tom Bruggemann, who, writing for IndieWire, urges the companies to reconsider.

Of all the snubs, the one that seems to have taken most by surprise is the lack of recognition for what many deem a career-best performance, Ethan Hawke’s turn as Reverend Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Otherwise, most agree that the documentary category is looking strong this year. Morgan Neville’s wildly popular film about Mister Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, was overlooked, but the inclusion Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap and RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, both of them richly promising debut features, is a more than pleasant surprise. In the foreign language category, the big story seems to be Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. With three nominations, it’s Poland’s strongest entry yet in the Oscar race. Pawlikowski’s Ida took home the gold in 2015, and on February 24, we’ll see if he can double or maybe even triple his luck.

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