Father Jim McDermott, SJ

Oscars 2019: The year it got weird

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

It’s been a strange year for the Oscars. In August the Academy announced the creation of a new category, “Outstanding Popular Film,” which was almost immediately shouted into oblivion by Oscar voters and critics who would prefer the movies that make the money that actually allows modern-day cinema to survive be happy with their cash and People’s Choice Award nominations.

But then when this year’s Best Picture nominees were announced last month, it turned out that most of them had at least some degree of mainstream popularity. “Black Panther” in fact boasts the year’s biggest box office. Only “Roma” fills the role of stereotypical Oscar darling that nobody has actually seen. And its viewing stats are impossible to judge, as it was also released on Netflix.

This year’s race has provided some of the typical behind-the-scenes drama, particularly regarding “Green Book,” whose writers never bothered to consult with the family of the real-life African-American pianist the film is supposedly about. They produced a film that ends up being, unsurprisingly, about the white co-lead teaching the black man a “valuable lesson.” My kingdom for an end to films like this.

Likewise, while half the films in contention for Best Picture are focused on stories of people of color (“Black Panther” and “Roma” in fact have almost entirely non-white casts), with the exception of Best Supporting Actress, not a single acting category includes more than one person of color.

Instead of honoring Michael B. Jordan for his stunning performance as Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther,” the Academy chose to nominate last year’s winner, Sam Rockwell, for basically a cameo impersonation of George W. Bush.

But in some ways what’s strangest of all in 2019 is that most of the films nominated seem best described as … fine. OK. A nice way to spend two hours and escape thoughts of mortality, but that’s about it. There’s really nothing this year with the kind of innovation of 2015 winner “Birdman,” the lyricism of 2017’s “Moonlight” or searing power of 2014’s “12 Years a Slave.”

By far the strongest film artistically is “Roma,” writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical tale of the young live-in housekeeper who took care of him and his siblings as their family and country fell apart in Mexico City. Crafted with the deliberateness and cinematographic bravura of the finest European films, “Roma” immediately enters the canon of great cinema.

But “Roma” is slow. So very slow. A work of literature, to be sure, beside which contenders like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born” seem little more than dime-store paperbacks. (I realize many would love “Star” to win it all. To me it seems a familiar, tired story in a sparkly coat of Gaga.) But until the very end, “Roma” never seems all that interested in getting our attention. It’s kind of perfect for Netflix’s “just keep it streaming in the background” business model in that way.

In its best moments, Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” which adapts the true story of a black Colorado Springs police detective who works with a Jewish colleague to infiltrate the KKK, rises to the level of visual poetry. It’s hard to believe Lee has not already won an Oscar. Thirty years after his first film, there’s still no director that can shift between the visually audacious, linguistically explosive and quietly intimate like Lee.

The story of “BlacKkKlansman” doesn’t really stay with you like I thought it might, but it’s worth watching just to let Lee dazzle you once again with his keen eye.

“Vice,” too, shows great creativity at times. Writer/director Adam McKay leavens the story of Dick Cheney’s rise to power with fourth-wall-bursting asides like actors Christian Bale and Amy Adams (who play Dick and Lynne Cheney) suddenly delivering a bedroom scene in iambic pentameter.

The asides create the sense that we are witnessing an improv troupe deliver zingers rather than watching a story, and it’s fun to be in on the joke. But the history suffers. Bale gives Cheney a Zen-like nobility that is strange and rings untrue.

“The Favourite,” about a young woman (Emma Stone) vying for the affection of the sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins’ adaption of the James Baldwin novel about a 1970s Harlem love story (nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress) offer by far the best scripts of the year, with startling turns of event and character. 

“Black Panther,” too, showed an unexpected capacity to create surprising, unforgettable moments (that, believe it or not, are also not fight scenes). If you were to ask regular moviegoers what their top-five scenes of the year were, Michael B. Jordan’s first and last scenes in Wakanda would almost certainly make most lists. The writing is just that sharp.

Articles like these usually try to predict who will win and sometimes who should. But at their best the Oscars try to call out a whole set of performances and stories worthy of attention.

We go to the movies to be entertained, to escape into strange new worlds and other people’s lives. But, more than that, the cinema provides a space in which we feel like we can put down the things we’re carrying for a little while and open ourselves to new ideas and experiences.

The nominees themselves might not have achieved greatness (although “Roma,” “Black Panther,” “The Favourite” and the fantastic animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” come close in different ways). Still, each offers the possibility of a journey that is not just escape but opportunity, a chance for solace, reflection and perhaps even insight into our world and ourselves. In the midst of all-crazy-all-the-time we’re living in, that remains a gift worth treasuring.


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