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Oscars 2019: Breaking Down the Nominations, or This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Some takeaways on this morning’s announcements — and why this year’s Oscars feels like an ideological battle over what we consider “important” movies

Christian Bale in 'Vice'; Mahershala Ali in 'Green Book'; Lady Gaga in 'A Star Is Born.'

Annapurna Pictures; Patti Perret/Universal Pictures; Clay Enos/Warner Bros Pictures

We knew this was coming. Deep down, we knew.

We had assumed that Roma and The Favourite and A Star Is Born would rack up a lot of Oscars love, as was their destiny — 10 nominations each for the first two, eight nominations for the latter. We knew that there would be some insane snubs and surprises; that some of our personal favorites would not make the cut (please pour out a glass of blood-red wine for Hereditary‘s Toni Collette, then proceed to scream at your family); and that some of the “no-brainer” inclusions would curiously be A.W.O.L., making you question whether brains play into this process at all. (Whither First Reformed‘s holy man Ethan Hawke, cleaning up on the critics’ group circuit for his career-best performance? Or Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the one sure thing we thought we had?) Some of the films you’re rooting for would be included, others would be left out in the cold. Forget it, Jake, it’s the Oscars.

But then, during the Golden Globes, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody took home the Best Comedy and Best Drama awards, respectively, and the notion that these particular movies might be edging their way into two of Oscars’ big-kahuna spots suddenly seemed like a reality. On Saturday, Green Book took home the Producer’s Guild of America’s top prize, all but assuring a Best Picture nomination. The same PGA, you may remember, that has a better-than-average track record of predicting what wins the Oscar. If you listened closely at 8:20 a.m. EST this morning, you could hear the sounds of millions of fingers being crossed, in the hopes that somehow the inevitable would be avoided.

But we just knew those two movies would be nominated. A facile movie about race relations and a formulaic-to-a-fault biopic about a rock band were going to take the place of two other films that deserved the “Best Picture” assignation more. History would repeat itself. That’s what history does.

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Because for all of the changes that the Oscar voting demographic has gone through over the past few years — specifically, a massive push to include more women and more non-Caucasian members after that #OscarsSoWhite brouhaha — we’re still talking about an organization that overall skews toward the safe and the familiar. There are enough younger artists in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences now to help a movie like Moonlight win over a grief-stricken acting showcase, a Hooray-for-Hollywood musical, an adaptation of a beloved Broadway play and not one but two uplifting true-story dramas, which would be unthinkable a decade ago. There are enough recently inducted members willing to think so outside the box that they’d give the Best Picture award to a film in which someone literally has sex with a fish. This is what progress looks like.

And yet there are still enough folks in the Academy that skew toward a conservative mindset when it comes to the moving pictures — who remember a time when movies were movies, dammit — to push for two films that feel like they belong in the Best Picture race of 1979, not 2019. Both adhere to a somewhat tired template of real-life tragedy and triumph, one that uses hot-button issues as ways to scream Important Movie About Important Things. Both have a somewhat fast and loose relationship with the truth. Both might be accused of doing more harm than good. And both have a chance to be declared the “Best Picture” of 2018, a highly subjective statement that nonetheless comes with a tacit Industry Seal of Approval in the form of a naked bald guy holding a sword.

Here’s the thing: You can say that this ultimately doesn’t matter, that we still watch GoodFellas more than Dances With Wolves decades after the latter won so who cares, that Oscars gonna Oscar and Roma is still a masterpiece regardless of how many or how few statues it wins. (Which yes, it is.) Only it does matter. For a large number of people, “the Oscars” still equals “the movies,” even with lower annual broadcast ratings and the glut of awards shows out there now. And it’s hard not to feel like there’s an ideological battle for the art form going on when films that are personal, paying homage to the past while pushing the medium forward, or simply presenting a superior model of a warhorse story are being passed over for recognition in favor of safe mediocrities. You keep rewarding bullshit movies passing themselves off as “serious,” you’re going to get more and more bullshit movies hitting theaters near you every late autumn and early winter. You keep favoring Green Book over, say, If Beale Street Could Talk or First Reformed or Can You Ever Forgive Me — or, if we want to pull from the long shots, Eighth Grade or The Rider or Support the Girls or Burning — and people will potentially miss out on far more worthwhile movies that deserve their attention. This is why we can’t have nice things, because the faux-prestige ones that do nothing but flatter the sensibilities of audiences keep getting the go-ahead to suck up all of the oxygen.

In any case, there were a number of high points in this morning’s announcements. It was hard to believe that Spike Lee had never received a nomination for Best Director before, or that this is the mighty Sam Elliott’s first Oscar nod. Roma scoring Best Picture and Best Foreign-Language slots wasn’t surprising, but Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira getting nominated in the acting categories was — the latter had not even been in the conversation regarding the Supporting Actress category, and this bodes well for the movie’s chances overall. We understand why Vice has become such a divisive film, and why some (not us) may grumble about Adam McKay getting directing and screenwriting nominations — but at least it dares to break your run-of-the-mill biopic rules, and Christian Bale’s performance doesn’t begin and end with the prosthetics. We’re glad Lady Gaga didn’t get ignored, even if Director Bradley Cooper™ did. BlacKkKlansman getting a Best Picture nod was a wonderful surprise; Black Panther getting a Best Picture nod was history in the making. With Won’t You Be My Neighbor? weirdly out of the running, the thought of Minding the Gap or Hale County, This Morning, This Evening winning Best Documentary has us positively giddy. Ditto Spider-Verse taking Best Animated Picture.

Everyone this morning kept mentioning the Oscar ceremony that took place in March 1990, when Driving Miss Daisy — a film that’s been brought up in conjunction with Green Book more than a few times — went home with the Best Picture statue. It had come out the same year as Do The Right Thing, which hadn’t even been nominated; Spike Lee, meanwhile, was absent from the Best Director category as well. Thankfully, we will not need Kim Basinger to come onstage this year and point out how Lee getting the high hat felt like a crime. But we could see a similar battle between movies that pretend to be important statements on the world we live in and ones that actually attempt to tackle the human condition in the most righteous, enraged, artistic and/or poetic ways imaginable. And it would nice to see Academy voters do the right thing this time around.

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