Oscar Quest 2019–Down to the Wire


I’ll bet you thought I forgot.

While you’ve been worrying about whether or not the Oscars were going to go on without me this year, I have been quietly but steadily going to the movies. I may not have had the inclination to post a zillion individual reviews like I did last year when I was younger and sharper, but I have been working hard to cram in all the major nominees before the big night. I’m not quite there. But thanks to senior pricing, video streaming and free afternoons, I’m close enough.

And so it’s time to officially announce my Oscar choices for 2019. But even here there is a twist. Instead of predicting what Oscar will choose, wild, arbitrary scamp that he is, I have decided to reveal MY choices. If I were the Oscar Queen, and only one film in each category must be chosen for a seat in my cinematic court, which ones would I choose? Disregarding all the preliminary indicators like the Golden Globes, the SAGs and BAFTRA, I have based my choices on the films and performances that I liked the best. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. I’m not competing with Oscar this year.

He’s crazy.

Not that it’s easy. Sometimes I like two or even three equally as much. It’s really hard to pick just one. Then it becomes an eeny-meeny-miney-moe, a close-your-eyes-and-point, a coin toss. In Queenly fashion I will stick by my choice, but it is not without remorse that I leave other, equally worthy enterprises behind. That’s just the way the celluloid crumbles.

The thing is, when it comes down to the wire and all the Oscar nominees are dropped into chute, movie viewers know one thing for sure. None of them suck. The Academy has done the sorting and though they may not always get it right and good films can (and do) get left out, the bad ones, the awful ones, the ones you can’t believe you paid for—those films are so far out of the running that you can walk backwards and still not have to worry about tripping over them. This makes movie-going at Oscar time a joyous thing. All good movies, well made, well-acted, well-written, well-scored, costumed, built, designed, made up and dressed. Not a clunker in the bunch. They may not all be your cup of tea, but they are all good films—the kind you don’t regret putting your money on the counter for.

And that makes it hard to choose. Picking one implies that the others are bad. Not the case. Not the case at all.

Get yourself a ballot on line.  To insure yourself an afternoon (evening, weekend, month?) of quality viewing, watch any of the nominees on the list. You will learn something about acting, about filmmaking and the about current state of American culture. I know it sounds like a cliché, but as far as I’m concerned, it really is an honor to be nominated. And it’s a roadmap for some pretty fabulous movie-going.

That said, here are my Oscar favorites for 2019.

Actor in a Leading Role—Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. His performance as Vincent Van Gogh was controlled, nuanced and fabulous. The film itself tries too hard to be “cinematic” and I found some of the music and camera work to be intrusive, but Dafoe’s performance transcends all of that to reveal the essence of the artist and give us some insight about how the world both feeds and destroys him.

I think Rami Malek will win, but Dafoe’s performance was the best for me.

Actor in a Supporting Role—Mahershala Ali in Green Book.  (Is there a category for Best Smile?) I was unsure at first how I felt about the Ali’s character, but it wasn’t long before he sold me on it. The film is flawed (like any film, I guess), but Ali’s performance in this film is indelible. It was the only one of this category of nominees that stayed with me. His only real competition in the category for me is Sam Rockwell’s turn as George W. Bush in Vice. But my vote goes to Mahershala.

Actress in a Leading Role—Glenn Close in The Wife. My feminist leanings aside, Close owns this category.  Unsentimental, precise and totally engaging, Close portrays a character reaching the climax of an intolerable life, the sort of life that one accepts as “the way things are”—until they can’t be anymore. And she nails it. While the other actresses in this category all put in performances worthy of their nominations, none of them reaches the height of skill and perfection that Close portrays here. All of her professional experience has led her to this role. She has no real competition for Oscar. She will win. Or someone will have to answer to me.

Actress in a Supporting Role—Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk. The warmth and unconditional love of a mother. The grit and strength of a black woman in a racist world. The heart and commitment of a woman standing as a role model for those around her. King handles it all in this too-small role with finesse and authenticity. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time to get all of this across, but get it across she does with great skill. I only wish we could see more of it. I think Oscar will agree.

Cinematography—Cold War. I loved looking at this film. I wish that I understood Polish (and Italian and French), so that I could have spent more time searching the frame and less time reading subtitles. Black and white, beautifully shot, reminiscent of early films—I just really loved the look of it all. Cold War is a love story in a world that doesn’t respect love stories—Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s. The cinematography aptly underscores, reinforces and helps to tell the story that unfolds on the screen. It is as it should be. I think its major competitor in this category is Roma. The Favourite really wants this one, but I found this film to be just crazy over-the-top with odd camera work and intrusive cinematic everything. If I want everything and the kitchen sink, I’ll go to Home Depot, not the movies. I will see Cold War again, just to bask in the look of it.

Directing—Cold War. Roma is the favorite and will probably win. But a film like Cold War needs a skillful director at the helm or it has the potential to implode. Vice and BlacKkKlansman are really good films. I liked them both and learned from them both, but they are stories that are not as needy as Cold War. This is a case, I think, of directorial choices making or breaking a film. Of course, I have no way of actually knowing this. It’s just a feeling. But I’m sticking with it.

Film Editing—I have no idea. Quite honestly, I only saw each film once and, if it’s done well and in service to the story, editing shouldn’t hit you in the face the first time through. That said, I hope The Favourite doesn’t get it. Its cinematic concerns are too heavy-handed and get in the way at every turn.  The Favourite was not my favorite. Just sayin’.

Original Song—“All the Stars” from Black Panther. It’s by far the most interesting and most engaging of the nominated songs and that’s why it’s my favorite. Shallow might beat it.

Production Design—Black Panther. Each of these films creates a world that is new to many of us. I did not see Mary Poppins Returns so I cannot count it in my mix, but the most elaborate world here is Black Panther. Because it is completely imaginary, I think that it is the most award-worthy. Something from nothing and all that.

Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects—First Man. This was a wonderful and incredibly underrated film. (Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as Neil and Jan Armstrong are surprisingly good.) These awards will definitely go elsewhere, but this film deserves the recognition. So, I’m recognizing it.

Adapted ScreenplayThe Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This is a series of six short stories about the old West, Coen Brothers style. Sometimes lighthearted, sometimes macabre, sometimes macabrely lighthearted and sometimes lightheartedly macabre, this film is different from any other film on the list—or any list for that matter. This screenplay is gold. As a writer, I bow to the master. It is currently on Netflix. If I were you, I drop everything and sit down and watch it right now. It is definitely not mainstream enough to win. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

Original Screenplay—Vice. I went to this film reluctantly. A movie about Dick Cheney? Really?  I came out amazed at how much fun it was. It deserves my vote just for proving me wrong. Green Book’s script, so much potential, so well shot and acted, kind of fell apart in the second half for me. I didn’t see First Reformed. And you know how I feel about The Favourite. But, when all is said and done, Roma will win. And that’s OK.

Best Picture—Yes, I made you wait until the end for this one. I was hoping that by the time I had a chance to consider all of these films in their respective categories, I would have made my choice. Well, haven’t. But I’m working on it.

These are all films worth seeing (although one of them is just not my favorite.) So I don’t elevate any of them to disparage the others. That said, I do have an A list and a B list.

The B-listers are well-made, well-acted and well-directed. The A-listers are, too. The B-listers are memorable, engaging and entertaining. Ditto for the A-listers. So what’s the difference? It’s a je ne sais quoi. It’s a thing that’s different for me than for you. It could even be different for me today than me yesterday. It’s arbitrary and, at this level of film making, irrelevant. And who the hell am to say, anyway?

But I will.

My B-List and Why They’re Not on My A-List:

Black Panther because I’ve never been a fan of superheroes and fantasy worlds.  The Favourite because it’s not mine. Too loud, too much weird (and painful) music, too much camera work I had to look away from, too much vomit. The Green Book because Mahershala can’t do it all by himself. He needs a script that doesn’t take shortcuts. A Star is Born because it didn’t make me cry. And I specifically stuffed my bag with tissue. This is my biggest Oscar disappointment.

My A-List and Why They’re Not on My B-List.

BlacKkKlansmen because it is all about the story. Everything in the film serves the narrative, everything is necessary and everything fits. It catches you early and holds on. Bohemian Rhapsody because Rami Malek resurrects Freddy Mercury. I’ve actually been waiting for it for a long time. Oh, that music! Roma because it opens up a world of real people that we may otherwise have never known. And it is beautifully shot. Vice because it was hysterical. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s not a lot of comedy on this list.

Best Picture? Nah. Not going there. It’s a crapshoot anyway.

I respect the artistry of all of these films (even the one I don’t particularly like).  After all even B-Listers are not like, well, W-Listers, right? I’ve seen a W-Lister or two in my time and they make B-Listers look like sheer, unadulterated brilliance.

Everything is relative.

The eight movies on the list are worth seeing and that is not true of any random eight movies you might throw together. These movies were NOMINATED, for Pete’s sake. For better or worse, that is an honor.

I do think one of my A-Listers will win, because Oscar is Oscar and, as he has no choice but to whittle it down to one, it may as well be one of those. Which one will it be?

We’ll find out together, won’t we?

 

 

 

 

 

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