The Critic: S&N’s 2019 Oscar Picks

By Spencer Davis. At this year’s Oscars, it seems like the focus will be less on the awards and more on the half-assed, throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks approach that the Academy and ABC have taken to stave off their ever-spiraling decline in viewers. Now I’ve already spent plenty of word count suggesting one novel approach the Oscars might take—nominating movies that people have actually fucking seen—and apparently the Academy listened, nominating blockbusters like A Star Is Born, Black Panther, and Bohemian Rhapsody for the top prize (along with more accessible fare like BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, and Vice, which—while not box office hits in dollar terms—are at least the kind of movies you can enjoy even if you lack a film history degree from USC or a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema).

Unable to just leave a good thing the fuck alone, though, the Academy has also clumsily ushered in a slew of changes to the telecast in an effort to woo back disinterested viewers with a leaner, three hour show. They’ve axed the host (in part because they couldn’t find anyone who wanted the job). They flirted with having only two of the Best Original Song nominees perform (before Lady Gaga threatened to walk, forcing them to recant or lose their biggest star). And perhaps worst of all, they tried to relegate “less important” categories like Cinematography, Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Live Action Short to the commercial breaks, only to backtrack on that too when the all-too-predictable backlash ensured.

All this in a quixotic effort to attract people who have never liked watching the Oscars, at the expense of those of us who actually do. If that sounds a little bit like one of those formulaic 90s rom-coms where the girl spends the entire movie desperately chasing after some self-absorbed douchebag who treats her like shit, while all the time overlooking the faithful best friend who loves her just the way she is … then congratulations, you’re smarter than anyone who runs the Academy these days. With that said, if the Oscars are really so insistent upon “fixing” things, here’s a few more sensible ideas from someone who’s watched every Oscars ceremony since 1980.

  • Spread out the big awards, like Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and the Screenplay awards, so that they don’t all come at the end. People wouldn’t mind seeing awards like Cinematography or Live Action Short if they didn’t come during an uninterrupted, two-hour slog right in the middle of the broadcast.
  • Get rid of the long-winded category introductions. Nobody needs to hear Anne Hathaway and Owen Wilson wax poetic for thirty seconds about how movies wouldn’t be movies without the magic of Sound Mixing. Just name the damn nominees and get on with it.
  • Resist the urge to add new categories. Some people have been throwing around ideas for new awards like Best Stunts, Best Casting, Best Voice Performance in an Animated Film, Best New Filmmaker, etc. Don’t be stupid. Setting aside the tiny problem that it’s asinine to try to shorten the broadcast by subtracting and adding at the same time, you’re not going to fool the lowbrow masses with such transparent overtures at the same time that you’re nominating Roma and The Favourite for all the awards that actually matter.
  • For the love of God, start earlier. It’s on a Sunday, but you don’t even start the thing until 8pm EST? It shouldn’t take an MBA from Wharton to grasp the concept that if half the broadcast happens after people have already gone to bed, you’re going to have fewer viewers. If the geniuses at ABC can’t figure this out, maybe they should call CBS—who start the Super Bowl at 6:30 and seem to do just fine putting asses in front of the TV.

That’s it. That’s all you need to do. You can keep the musical performances, the In Memoriam segment, the Career Achievement award—even one or two of those obligatory montages of great moments in film history that Leonard Maltin likes to masturbate to. You don’t need to cut off anyone’s speech after fifteen seconds. You don’t need to dumb it down for all the Michael Bay fans out there. You just need to do a few small things—things that, by the way, people have been complaining about for decades now, so this shouldn’t all be so completely mystifying. People have a funny way of telling you what they want, if you’ll only listen.

Amy Adams – Vice
Marina de Tavira – Roma
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone – The Favourite
Rachel Weisz – The Favourite

S&N’s Vote: Emma Stone

I could write a whole article about the shitpile of pretentious drivel that is Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, but there’s too much vitriol in the world already. So what I will acknowledge is that the acting is fantastic, with Stone, Weisz, and Coleman all giving Oscar-worthy performances. In this category, I give the narrow edge to Stone, who gets to deliver line after line of barbed, British wit, but whose physical acting transcends her already-impressive resume to date, as she allows her character’s scheming duplicity to seep through the facade of her courteous demeanor.

The Oscar Winner: Regina King
I might even have voted for Regina King myself, if Beale Street had been in the theaters for more than two weeks (or made it to streaming platforms in a timely manner). I’ll never understand how it is that the studios don’t realize the money-making opportunities of putting Oscar nominees out on video before the Oscars. I’d even watch the Live Action and Animated Shorts every year if they’d just do this. You want money? Fine, I’ll happily pay the rental fee. Just don’t make me have to go into public. Is that too much to ask?

Mahershala Ali – Green Book
Adam Driver – BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott – A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell – Vice

S&N’s Vote: Sam Elliott
This year, there are a number of truly superb actors in this category who are being nominated for work that, shall we say, isn’t their strongest. Driver is solid in everything he does, but is his work in BlacKkKlansman really that much deeper than his Kylo Ren? How about nominating Sam Rockwell for a Dubya impression that wouldn’t win a blind taste test against Will Ferrell? And Mahershala Ali may make the best of a flawed movie, but there’s really only so much he can do. So I’m giving my vote to Sam Elliott, who was crushing in his few short minutes in A Star Is Born. You could argue that he’s the soul of the film. And he’s the only contender in the field who wouldn’t be receiving a career achievement award—he’d be winning on the merits of this movie alone.

The Oscar Winner: Mahershala Ali
This one’s close to a lock, and while I may not agree, I can at least take solace in the fact that Ali is a class act who is certainly worthy of the title, “Two-Time Academy Award Winner.”

Yalitza Aparicio – Roma
Glenn Close – The Wife
Olivia Coleman – The Favourite
Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy – Can You Ever Forgive Me?

S&N’s Vote: Lady Gaga
This is the most interesting race of the night, with at least three of the contenders—Close, Coleman, and Gaga—having held front-runner status for some portion of the awards season. Like a horse who burst out of the gate too quickly, though, it feels like Gaga has faded in the back stretch. That’s a testament to the absurdity of the media new cycle more than it’s a criticism of her performance, because her turn in A Star Is Born was one for the history books. To say it was star-making feels trite, and more than a little bizarre given the fixture that Gaga has been in pop culture for more than a decade now. But what she showed us in terms of raw emotion, restraint, and of course, musical performance in this movie was something that no other actor could have done. After this movie, you can genuinely question whether her music career was just the warmup for something much bolder and more enduring.

The Oscar Winner: Glenn Close
After crucial wins at other awards show, the conventional wisdom seems to have ceded this category to Close. If so, you can add her name to a long list of great actors—Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener, Kate Winslet in The Reader, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Christian Bale in The Fighter, Christopher Plummer in Beginners—who won the Oscar for movies that nobody even remembers anymore.

Christian Bale – Vice
Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe – At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen – Green Book

S&N’s Vote: Bradley Cooper
Everyone already knows who’s winning this one. And yet, when you watch them side by side, which portrayal of a troubled rock star—Bradley Cooper or Rami Malek—has more depth, more power, more gravity, more realism, more nuance, more understanding of what it means to live the life of an artist? Cooper was snubbed in the Best Director category, and yet, when he walks away empty-handed for the night, I honestly feel the Best Actor outcome will be the bigger crime. He made Jackson Maine into a bigger-than-life character who always felt like real life. He made the whole film believable. And unlike his primary competition, he actually sings. Seems like an important detail in a performance about a performer. Give the man a damn trophy already.

The Oscar Winner: Rami Malek
I’m a huge fan of Rami Malek, from Mr. Robot going all the way back to his scene-stealing work on The Pacific. So it pains me to say this, but … this is not Oscar-worthy work. Not even close to it. Sure, he captured a certain bombast that was one of the many memorable facets of Freddy Mercury. But go back and watch video of the real Freddie Mercury. You’ll be struck by his surprising masculinity, his physical presence, his charisma—and you’ll be struck by the fact that you saw none of this in Bohemian Rhapsody. Played with an eye toward his inner insecurity, and no doubt influenced by our retrospective understanding of his life in the closet, the movie forgets that Mercury’s homosexuality was but one part of his larger-than-life persona. One to be taken seriously, absolutely, but not one that defined him. (And then there’s those fake teeth. Go back and look at photos of Freddie Mercury, and tell me if he looked like Mr. Ed?)

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star Is Born

S&N’s Vote: RomaThe two movies in this field that anyone will remember thirty years from now are Black Panther and A Star Is Born. I’m a firm believer that this is the test Oscar voters should aim to follow; under this test, movies like How Green Was My Valley, Going My Way, Hamlet, Gigi, and Ordinary People wouldn’t be Oscar winners, and Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Raging Bull would be. But this year’s batch may be the exception to the rule. Because as strong as the performances in A Star Is Born were, the movie has nagging flaws in structure and script that don’t quite merit its inclusion into the hallowed halls of Best Picture winner. And Black Panther, while revolutionary in both racial dynamic and in reasserting what the tired genre of comic book movie can achieve as art, is still very much a comic book movie—with many of the shortcomings in formula that such a story demands. Then there’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a pedestrian musical biopic that, while a perfectly enjoyable watch, has no business even being on this list. Even BlacKkKlansman, while perhaps being the most culturally apt choice for this moment in history, feels at times like it raises bigger questions than it is fully capable of tackling, like a batter trying to swing for the fences with every pitch.

That leaves Roma. It doesn’t pass the history test, to be sure; I have zero illusions that a black-and-white, Spanish language character drama seen mostly on Netflix by people with fairly effete tastes like mine will be remembered thirty years from now with pangs of nostalgia. When they’re making one of those “great moments in movie history” montages at the 2049 Oscars—assuming of course the whole enterprise hasn’t collapsed under its own folly by then—Roma will not make an appearance. But in a field that is admittedly flawed, we must turn to the craftsmanship of the films, and in that at least, Roma is historic. Cuaron’s cinematography is stunning, grounded in total realism while somehow feeling too beautiful to have been made without special effects. The acting, with evocative performances from both Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, is masterful. And the humanity on display is something rare in Oscar fare. This isn’t one of the endless Best Picture nominees that shamelessly courts Hollywood’s self-inflated sense of its own importance (Birdman, The Shape Of Water, Argo, The Artist). It’s not a tired, feel-good story that tries to dismiss the troubles of real life with a mythic sense of optimism in the face of adversity (Driving Miss Daisy, Forrest Gump, The King’s Speech). It doesn’t punch you in the face with a social message steeped more in virtue signaling than in a true, deep examination of the plights of the oppressed (12 Years A Slave, Dances With Wolves, or—gag—Crash). It’s just a deeply human story, with real people and honest experiences. Roma neither preaches nor absolves. It offers no easy answers, and its scale is in its subtlety. If art, at its best, is supposed to imitate life, Roma does it better than almost any film in memory. That it may not necessarily be remembered for that is not so much an indictment of the film as an indictment of ourselves.

And as an added bonus, it’s a stout middle finger to the elements of our society that view those lives taking place beyond our southern border as lesser than ours.

The Oscar Winner: Roma
This is a year where there could be a surprise in the top category. But my money is on Roma. So if Green Book goes and wins this thing, I might need to start finding other awards ceremonies to write about.

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