Amid numerous controversies that led to the Academy Awards ceremony proceeding without a host for the second time in history, eight films were nominated for “Best Picture” in January of 2019: Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, and Vice. Taking them at face value, the choices were odd. Many of them had polarized critical receptions with Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice scoring well below 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. While I do acknowledge that Rotten Tomatoes is a flawed metric, it’s very unusual when you consider how in 2017, the lowest-rated nominees, Darkest Hour and The Post, still managed to achieve a score above 80%.
Part of me suspects these strange choices are a result of the Academy’s ill-fated “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” category. The category was proposed in August of 2018 in an attempt to give films that resonated with fans rather than just critics a chance to shine. The idea was met with a universally negative reception from journalists and Academy members alike. Many of them felt it to be an attempt to pander to mainstream audiences and bolster ratings, for 2018 marked the lowest viewership for the award ceremony in the twenty-first century at the time with a mere 26.5 million people tuning in. Though it sounds like it fared well, it should be noted that 32.9 people watched 2017’s ceremony. In between years, an entire 6.4 million people turned up their noses and forewent watching the ceremony in 2018.I myself wasn’t a fan of the idea, as it seemed to tangentially push the journalists’ narrative of how their taste is far superior to that of the unwashed masses. They can talk all they want about how the average filmgoer doesn’t appreciate their masterpieces, but selling a large audience on an innovative idea is as important as coming up with it in the first place. Despite the Academy’s proposed category being thoroughly rejected, I suspect that certain choices, Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book in particular, were made in an attempt to win back those 6.4 million people. In other words, they implemented their original idea; they just used it within their traditional “Best Picture” category instead.
It’s not terribly surprising that many of these choices were derided by causal fans and cinephiles alike. There weren’t enough mainstream releases nominated for causal fans to have an invested stake in the ceremony. Meanwhile, many critical darlings were left to fall by the wayside as a direct result of these choices. In their attempts to please everyone, they pleased no one. I can imagine A24 fans in particular were incensed that neither Hereditary nor Eighth Grade received a nomination of any kind – especially given the divine worship the company receives from critics.
In fact, this is the first time since 2014 that not a single film distributed by A24 received a “Best Picture” nomination. Personally, I’m perfectly fine with that; Hereditary crashed and burned in the final act whereas Eighth Grade, much like Lady Bird, was massively overhyped and had a distinct lack of charismatic performances to carry it.
I do, however, have to say that if you wanted to showcase what an incongruous year 2018 was for the medium, these choices are perfect. It was a year in which every other critical darling, from the aforementioned A24 releases to Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, were disappointments while many of the works journalists barely acknowledged such as Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor ended up being pleasant surprises. This polarization was only worsened by the distributors, whose increasingly cynical, lackadaisical attitudes prevented good films such as Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace from reaching a mass audience. That they had no qualms giving Death of a Nation, Peppermint, and Fifty Shades Freed a wide release only adds insult to injury. Veteran director Paul Schrader claimed in an interview that the seventies, a decade highly revered by cinephiles, didn’t have better filmmakers as much as they had better audiences. Speaking realistically, his blame is ultimately misplaced. After all, how is the audience supposed to improve themselves when distributors refuse to screen quality films?All in all, this was quite a stark contrast from 2017 – another year in which the medium had extreme highs and lows. Although I stand by what I said, 2018 was far worse in that regard. There was enough of a distinction between the best and worst 2017 had to offer that anyone who paid even the slightest bit of attention could avoid watching a failure and appreciate the highlights. Meanwhile, in 2018, I found I couldn’t rely on critics half of the time whether it was because they took to a more sensationalist writing style, raved about underwhelming works, or otherwise decided to throw their audience under the bus at the first given opportunity. With that introduction out of the way, I am now going to ready to move on to the main topic. Because I have now seen and reviewed every single one of the nominated films, I am now going to do something I’ve never attempted before. I will rank them from worst to best. Now, keep in mind that this is not intended to be a prediction as to which film will win. This list is merely intended to outline what I feel is the best film of the ones nominated. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
When the Oscar nominees were announced, I realized there were three films I hadn’t seen. Owing to their unremarkable or mixed receptions, Vice, along with Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, slipped beneath my radar. By comparison, I found I didn’t have to go out of my way to see any of the nominees in 2017. Now, knowing full well the inherit limitations of aggregate review sites, I went into these three films with a mostly positive attitude. After all, A Simple Favor and Avengers: Infinity War stuck out as highlights of 2018 despite their relatively modest receptions. However, even knowing this, I went into Vice with a sense of dread. This is a film that attacks American conservatism and highlights the destruction sowed by one of the country’s most controversial figures. Films such as this had little trouble receiving accolades in 2018, and although it fared well in festivals, Vice left the critical circle at large divided. From this, I extrapolated that if it received mixed reviews despite dancing to the critical circle’s tune, Vice must be a fairly weak effort.
It turns out my initial fears were well-founded. Vice is without a doubt the weakest nominated film of 2018. In fact, I would go as far as calling it the single weakest film to have been nominated since James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s a crass, obnoxious film whose creator doesn’t grasp the difference between challenging his audience and outright belittling them. It highlights all of the weaknesses of contemporary satirists, forgoing any and all notions of subtlety for the sake of getting its message across to an audience the creator has no faith in. However, Vice is a markedly worse effort than most because it is, at the end of the day, too wrapped up in itself to make a coherent point. It seems inconceivable that a heavy-handed film could fail to make a point, but Vice found a way. There’s also a fair bit of cognitive dissonance in how the poster claims Vice to be an “untold true story” while the disclaimer at the beginning admits the writers had to speculate on certain events.
The stinger at the end seemed to outright insult filmgoers when it shows a focus group who just watched Vice. While a conservative member of the group comes to blows with a liberal one, two younger people ignore this and talk about seeing the newest installment of The Fast and the Furious. This scene was so bad that even those who praised the film felt it to be insufferably self-indulgent and trite. Personally, I felt those young people had the right idea.
7. Green Book
Green Book was one of many 2018 films dealing with race relations, and to be perfectly frank, I have no idea why it received the nomination over The Hate U Give or Blindspotting. Compared to those hard-hitting pieces, Green Book feels safe and unambitious by comparison. It’s entirely possible that being safe is precisely why it received the nod over those two features, but on the heels of the 90th Academy Awards ceremony, which saw the transgressive The Shape of Water christened “Best Picture”, this is a strange choice. It’s as though the Academy forgot how to take risks in between years.
There’s also the fact that Green Book isn’t a particularly good biographical feature. In fairness, one has to take every such film with a grain of salt. Even the most dedicated director couldn’t possibly chronicle and subsequently depict every single detail of a real-life event exactly as it happened, but given the crew didn’t consult Don Shirley’s living family members about their subject, it’s clear they didn’t even try. Still, I give Green Book more credit than Vice for at least being interested in telling a story – however flawed the actual execution may have been.
6. Bohemian Rhapsody
Given that Queen was one of the most ravaged bands of their day, it’s highly fitting their official biographical feature would fare similarly. Assessing Queen’s place in music history is interesting because, unlike Led Zeppelin, many holdouts within the respective critical circle haven’t changed their stance from back in the seventies. As such, I consider it an example of the critics both coming down to the wrong conclusion and refusing to admit their mistake, which is decidedly unusual in music. If you actually listen to their albums, you’ll find there is quite a bit more technical innovation than the average rock critic is willing to give them credit for.
In light of this bizarre assessment, you might think that it would be brilliant on a meta level if Bohemian Rhapsody, a film lambasted by critics and beloved by fans, was actually an underrated gem. Unfortunately, this is a case where I’m going to have to side with the critics. The film turning out relatively poorly wasn’t for a lack of trying; Rami Malek’s depiction of the charismatic Freddie Mercury is nothing short of incredible – to the point where people who disliked the film were utterly enraptured by it. However, despite having several individually good aspects, they don’t form anything greater than their sum. This is mostly because of the film’s highly compressed nature. For a band as fascinating as Queen, two hours wasn’t enough time to do their story justice. Well-done aspects of any work can be difficult to appreciate when they’re not given a chance to settle.
I have to admit that when I originally walked out of Green Book, I was poised to place it ahead of BlacKkKlansman on this list because Spike Lee took many creative liberties with history to shape his narrative and utterly failed to stick the landing. When I learned that the crew behind Green Book couldn’t even be bothered to consult those closest to their subject, I found myself reconsidering my stance. Yes, BlacKkKlansman had to excise many inconvenient details in order for its creator’s message to come across as he wanted it, but I feel compelled to give Mr. Lee credit for being ambitious. In the end, his misguided ambition triumphs over the unchallenging Green Book and the unfocused Bohemian Rhapsody. I wasn’t originally going to rank the list this way; I guess you could say I can be counted on to do the right thing when push comes to shove.
Make no mistake, BlacKkKlansman is pretty dire itself. While I have little doubt it’s one of the most ambitious films in its tier, there’s no getting around that its writing is painfully dated. Indeed, one of the more prominent critics of BlacKkKlansman was rapper Boots Riley, who had made his directorial debut one month prior with Sorry to Bother You. There are many reasons why his is the superior effort, but when I read up on the film’s production, I learned he actively removed timely references from his script. That and by setting his film in an alternate reality, he gave it much more of a leg to stand on in the long run. BlacKkKlansman, to its detriment, can be traced to the exact year that spawned it.
It’s a shame because I suspect I was in the minority of people who actually knew of the sting operation that features in this film before its premiere. When I saw those trailers for the first time, I was excited to see a depiction of it because even reading the details made for a fascinating read. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Mr. Lee took the opportunity to get up on his soapbox and beat his audience over the head with his point. In the end, BlacKkKlansman is too confrontational for its own good. Though defenders insist that filmgoers don’t really grasp subtlety, an inability to respect the audience shoots holes in whatever message you’re trying to get across. As it stands, I liken Mr. Lee’s approach to fixing a loose nail with a sledgehammer.
4. The Favourite
It really says something about how bland the nominees are in 2019 that despite being ranked fourth on this list, I still couldn’t find myself awarding The Favourite a passing grade. Had it gone up against 2018’s nominees, it would have been annihilated by six of them: The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, Dunkirk, Get Out, Phantom Thread, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Of the three remaining, Lady Bird is the only film I feel The Favourite would handily outrank.
Now, to be completely fair, The Favourite is the first entry on this list I would consider an above-average effort. The cinematography is fantastic, and the acting performances are top-notch. The costume design showcased an attention to detail that is rivaled only by Robert Egger’s The Witch, though I give The Favourite more credit for its faster pacing and emphasis on meaningful character interactions.
So, if there are many good things I could say about it, why was I not able to recommend seeing it? It boils down to the fact that there really isn’t anyone to root for. I honestly do appreciate what director Yorgos Lanthimos was trying to do. After many films in which gay characters were idealized, it was an interesting change of pace seeing them as flawed and conniving as their straight counterparts. They’re depictions that would have been considered homophobic had the film been released in the early-to-mid 2010s when the LGBT movement gained significant traction. Therefore, it’s a nice indication of how much progress society has made that fans of these films are able see LBGT characters as normal, if highly Machiavellian, people. However, I feel The Favourite is a case where the writers ultimately overcorrected to fix a minor problem. Though far from boasting the worst cast I’ve ever seen in a film, it remains a tough sell.
3. A Star is Born
Despite the Academy ostensibly picking the eight best films from 2018 to win “Best Picture”, A Star is Born is the first film on this list I feel to be straight-up good. Given the critical circle’s skeptical attitude about Bradley Cooper’s debut effort before the trailers debuted, it’s poetically fitting that it would receive a nomination. It demonstrates why it never pays to jump the gun. If you’re enthusiastic about a work only for it to be turkey, you can count on your peers to be sympathetic. However, if you’re cynical about a work only for it to be one of the year’s stronger efforts, you’re going to look downright foolish. Until the film officially premieres, it is neither good, nor bad. Only when it is released will that fact be determined.
Bradley Cooper’s take on A Star is Born makes for a remarkable watch. One of the wonders of cinema is watching the actors transform into their characters. Sure, there are many instances in which actors become famous enough that you’re mentally thinking of their real names, but when I watched A Star is Born, I found myself actively reminding myself who was playing who. Even with that knowledge, I still couldn’t believe it. Complemented with amazing musical performances, you’ve got yourself a solid film absolutely worth experiencing.
Final Round: Roma vs. Black Panther
You wouldn’t think it, but I had an incredibly difficult time choosing between Roma and Black Panther to round out this list. As I’ve made clear by now, it’s not because I’m particularly invested in this year’s award season. As a film fan, I strive to see the Academy Award-winning work before the ceremony, which I have done every year since 2011 when The King’s Speech achieved the top honor. In the years since, there has always been at least one film I could root for. If my favorite film from that year didn’t win, I could at least count on it to be nominated. This isn’t the case for 2019; the three best films on this list would only barely make my top ten.
Still, it’s not often that a foreign-language film gets nominated for “Best Picture”, but it’s highly refreshing when one does. Roma is a film that takes its audience on a real journey. Through the trials and tribulations of its heroine, you really learn to sympathize with her by the end. In many stories, maids are a part the background. In Roma, they’re fully fledged characters in their own right. It’s the kind of film that makes audience members notice those they usually treat as scenery. How many of these kinds of stories are left to vanish because their peers won’t give them the time of day? After having directed Gravity in 2013, it was great seeing Alfonso Cuarón tell a highly personal story, showcasing the many subtle intricacies of the culture in which he grew up.
It makes for an interesting matchup because Black Panther, being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is quick to be dismissed by allegedly serious cinephiles as Hollywood pandering to the lowest common denominator. Meanwhile, Roma was without any shadow of a doubt a critical favorite. You were free to like it without having your taste questioned. However, I feel Black Panther and Roma have a lot more in common than these fans think. They’re both films that have a big emphasis on visuals – to the point where you’re doing yourself a disservice by not watching them on the big screen. They also have no qualms highlighting the discrimination minorities face and feature casts of characters entirely composed of the relevant ethnic groups.
In short, the contest for the number one spot on this list pitted the critic’s choice against the people’s choice. In a year when critics stopped at nothing to divide themselves from the average filmgoer, I deem it appropriate to side with the fans in this matter and deem Black Panther the best work nominated in the 91st Academy Award ceremony. With its stylish action sequences, memorable cast, incredible setting, and surprisingly sympathetic villain, Black Panther cemented itself as one of the stronger films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Was it overhyped? A little bit, but as the lower entries on this tier demonstrate, it’s ultimately better to hype a good work than a mediocre or bad one – even if it’s difficult to consider Black Panther the best of the best.
Winner: Black Panther