The 91st Academy Awards’ “Best Picture” Nominees Ranked from Worst to Best

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.

Not too much of an exaggeration, by the way.

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, was a disappointment 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?

“How dare you people, who have practically no control over executive decisions, ruin the medium! Out, I say! But see my serious film first, okay?” [Source]

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.

Some critics, such as Owen Gleiberman, managed to do all three at once in the span of a single article. Ironically, despite his impassioned defense, he didn’t even put Hereditary on his top ten list. [Source]

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.

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January 2019 in Summary: Into the Thick of Things

Hope all of you are doing well in this new year so far! Now that the Oscars are around the corner, I’ve been running around attempting to see and review all of the nominations. As a result, when it comes to reviewing games, I had to make a lot of last-minute changes. I intend to complete everything I set out to do in short order, though.

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Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)

Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga is a bouncer who works in New York City, though he soon finds himself seeking new a new job when his nightclub is closed for renovations. Based on the strength of his references, Tony is invited by “Doc” Don Shirley, a highly skilled African-American pianist. The musician is in need of a chauffeur for an eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South. Though hesitant at first, Tony accepts the offer, intending to return to New York City by Christmas Eve.

It only takes knowledge of the titular Green Book to know what the central theme of this film is. Named after and published by a New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green, the publication in question was an annual guidebook for African-American roadtrippers. It was intended to show readers where to find motels, restaurants, and fillings stations black people could use. Society was segregated so thoroughly in 1962 when this film is set that many establishments flat-out refused to serve them in any way.

Indeed, even knowing the history of racism in the United States, it is still horribly jarring seeing the conditions in which Don Shirley lodges. This is a man with a remarkable amount of talent, being fluent in eight different languages on top of his prowess on the piano. Such was the extent of his talent that the distinguished composer Igor Stravinsky, once said “his virtuosity is worthy of Gods”. In spite of these remarkable achievements, his audience is shown to only appreciate his talents as far as his onstage performances. The second he steps off the stage, he’s just another black man to them, and he is subject to the full extent of the baggage that comes with it.

In spite of these heavy subjects, it’s not all doom and gloom – far from it. At times, Green Book seems to evoke The Odd Couple in how its two leads interact. The interactions between the boorish, frequently insensitive Tony and the introspective, worldly Don comprise a significant amount of the humor in the film. Indeed, what I particularly enjoyed is how much the characters learn from each other. Don begins the film with many causally racist tendencies, though never to the extent of the Deep South resident depicted. You get the sense that his bouts of insensitivity are more the result of inexperience and being a product of his time than of genuine malice. It is through interacting with Don that his worst habits are eventually excised and he eventually learns some problems cannot be solved by punching them. His greatest moments involve him refusing money at two different points. The first is when he refuses to abandon Don for a job that pays twice as much. The second instance is when he turns down a bribe to convince Don to play at a restaurant at which the musician is not allowed to dine.

Meanwhile, being the consummate professional that he is, Don eventually loosens up and learns to appreciate Tony’s company.  What I like about how they learn from each other is that neither is presented as completely in the right or wrong. Both of them have techniques that work in different situations. Tony’s ability to get people to go along with his ploys gets them out of just as many sticky situations as Don’s silver tongue and connections.

These good touches do come with a rather hefty downside, however. A major plot point in the film is that Don is rejected by both races. White people don’t like him as a result of racism while he fails to understand black culture due to his distaste of popular music. While the former can’t be denied, the real Don Shirley was active in the civil rights movement to the extent that he befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and took part in the historical Selma march. He was also friends with many prominent contemporary black musicians, including Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughn. It is therefore ludicrous that he had never listened to Aretha Franklin or Little Richard as the film suggests.

Many journalists also took issue with the film’s plot, claiming that it was aimed at making audiences feel good. It’s extremely difficult to deny this supposition, as Tony is frequently called upon to rescue Don from many dangerous situations. It especially doesn’t help the film’s case that Don Shirley’s family hated it. While the film suggests the two developed a strong friendship, Mr. Shirley’s relatives believed it to be a strictly employer-employee relationship. Granted, this aspect isn’t verifiable, and friends of Mr. Shirley have said the two were indeed close, muddying the issue further. Less defensible is that Mr. Shirley’s family was never consulted during the film’s production – they had never even been asked. Mahershala Ali, the actor who played Don Shirley, was especially horrified to learn this, for the producers led to him to believe the man had no living relatives willing to help. Although it’s a given that these fictionalized accounts are not, nor can they ever be, a completely accurate depiction of real-life events, Green Book, to its detriment, ended up taking quite a few unfortunate liberties with reality. It’s difficult to appreciate what a biographical film does well when you can’t depend on it to tell the truth in the most crucial moments.

If I were to sum up Green Book in a single word, it would be “safe”. Like many efforts from 2018, it wasn’t afraid to tackle the touchy subject of racism in the United States. While I give Peter Farrelly a lot of credit for making a film about a serious subject after making his mark with various wacky comedies such as Dumb and Dumber, I feel the main problem is that his effort ultimately doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It does capture just how unconscionable the practice of segregation was, but so do many other period pieces from around the same time such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit or Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Had it not been for its Oscar nomination two months after its premier, I likely wouldn’t have remembered seeing it in the long run.

Indeed, without a unique take on the subject of racism, it can be difficult to appreciate what it does well. As it stands, there is no ground Green Book covers that wasn’t handled better in films such as George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give or Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting. For that matter, I even find myself giving more credit to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. It was an example of a film that went for the gold and wound up with the bronze whereas Green Book seemed to deliberately aim for the latter. This isn’t to say the film is bad; the interactions between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are very charming to watch, and its heart is in the right place despite its myriad execution issues. Still, without anything substantial to offer in terms of insight and lacking in historical accuracy, it didn’t have much in the way of staying power in the long term.

Final Score: 4/10