There’s a crisis at the Oscars this year — and it’s not about #OscarsSoWhite or #TimesUp, though those inclusion issues still deserve attention. Let’s call this catastrophe #OscarsSoMoney.
It’s a year in which the Academy seems less interested in the quality of films than in the numbers they can attract to watch their Oscar telecast on Feb. 24th. According to Variety, a 30-second ad on the awards show can cost as much as $2.6 million if the show brings in high ratings. That’s the problem. The ratings can vary each year depending on the mix of nominees. When the contenders are mostly art-house films that attract older audiences, the ratings can plummet as low as 32 million viewers, like in 2008 when No Country for Old Men won Best Picture. Compare that 1998, when the blockbuster Titanic took the top prize and the audience soared to 55 million. No wonder the Academy is more obsessed than ever with the bottom line.
And don’t forget that the suits had planned to create a category this year titled Best Popular Film, a lamebrained idea that was fortunately discarded. Since the eight nominees for Best Picture this year include three films (Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born) that grossed over $200 million, popularity is already in the mix. Audiences, especially the lucrative 18-to-49 demographic, have shown they don’t want to stay up to watch another boring awards show: See the 2018 Oscars, which clocked in at a mammoth three hours and 53 minutes, and then drew a record-low 26.6 million viewers. Determined to never let that happen again, the Academy promises to keep this year’s ceremony under the three-hour mark. They’ve also done away with the host (partially out of necessity), practically threatened winners to keep their acceptance speeches short and made the decision to give out awards for cinematography, editing, live-action short and makeup and hairstyling during commercial breaks.
Those guilds went to war, as they should. The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro, last year’s winner for Best Picture, tweeted that “cinematography and editing are at the very heart of our craft. They are not inherited from a theatrical tradition or a literary tradition: they are cinema itself.” Under the threat of mutiny, the humiliated Academy again backed down from a commerce-trumps-art decision it never should have made in the first place.
And for what — ratings? Isn’t Hollywood enough of a business already? Does it really need to reduce and monetize the one night a year when it allegedly rewards the best of its output? Worse, this push to glorify box-office bounty over artistic achievement discounts the whole idea of an Academy, which is supposed to be an institution that promotes and maintains standards in a particular field. We already have the People’s Choice awards to suck up to popular taste. Yeesh.
So let’s look at 14 Oscar categories from the point of view of who should go home a winner and who may have the the stuff to make it a real race to watch.
Green Book Roma
A Star Is Born
How to explain why the critically sniffed-at Bohemian Rhapsody made the cut while the widely praised First Reformed and Eighth Grade did not? And is First Man not on the list of eight candidates because it bellyflopped at the box office? A Star Is Born lost its early momentum as a Best Picture favorite — still a mystery — and Roma, Green Book, The Favourite and Vice aren’t bringing in the big bucks. The profit king is Black Panther ($1.3 billion worldwide), which matched its commercial success with a filmmaking artistry that gave underserved black audiences the chance to relate to superhero characters who looked and sounded like they did.
The simple reason is that Alfonso Cuarón’s poetic odyssey through his childhood in Mexico City stands head and shoulders above any film this year. But is being the best enough? The dialogue in this black-and-white memory piece is spoken in Spanish — and no foreign-language film in 91 years of Academy records has ever won Best Picture. Plus, Roma was released by Netflix, the streaming service that pisses off Hollywood’s big-studio elite, which may clear the field for …
It gives Oscar a chance to do the right thing and reward Spike Lee, a cinema giant only now getting his first Best Picture nomination. But history can also be made by a win for Marvel’s hugely popular Black Panther, the first comic book movie to ever be nominated as this award and a classic of its kind. We’re down with any of these three game-changing possibilities.
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
How Ethan Hawke’s career-best performance in First Reformed is not on this list defies explanation, unless you factor in his film’s below par box-office take, which shouldn’t be factored in at all. Some say Bradley Cooper, the only one of the five nominees not playing a real person, may win sympathy votes for not being nominated as Best Director. Nah. We think it comes down to a two-man race.
FAVORITE: Rami Malek
Even people who grouse about Bohemian Rhapsody as a movie are justifiably over the moon about Malek’s electrifying, tour de force performance as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. The actor captured Mercury right down to his overbite, wearing prosthetic teeth and channeling his every movement and gesture.
SPOILER: Christian Bale
After winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy, Bale thanked “Satan” as his inspiration for playing Dick Cheney, arguably the most powerful and dangerous Vice-President ever. He put on 45 pounds for the role — and voters love that. More crucially, he found the simmering rage under the Dick’s deceptive quiet.
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
As impressive a lineup of actresses as voters could wish for. It could cost the stellar Colman that her role is considered more supporting than lead. (Wake up, people, she plays the Queen!) And it may hurt that Aparicio, a Mexican schoolteacher, has never acted before. In another year, McCarthy — proving she can do drama and comedy — might have won. But it’s not another year; it’s the 2019 where a seasoned vet is taking on a serious-contender newcomer.
FAVORITE: Glenn Close
In the era of #TimesUp, Close finds the tormented heart and soul of a woman who’s had to live in the shadow of her ungrateful husband. It’s her seventh acting nomination and she’s never won. She will now, if there’s any justice.
SPOILER: Lady Gaga
A debut performance that lights up the screen. Gaga can act as well as she sings, which is really saying something. Bette Midler was in the same position when she lost the Oscar for her brilliant 1979 starring debut in The Rose. It won’t make it hurt less.
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlackKklansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice
We would have picked 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet for Beautiful Boy in a tie-with 32-year-old Michael B. Jordan for Black Panther — but neither actor was even nominated, so … [sigh]. The good news: This is the first nomination for 74-year-old Elliott, an underrated gem of an actor who spun gold out of the few scenes he was given as Bradley Cooper’s brother. Two more scenes and he could have won this thing. Rockwell has even less screen time as Dubya in Vice, but he just won last year for Three Billboards. And it won’t sit right if Driver, the white guy, wins for BlackKklansman. So here’s what’s going down.
FAVORITE: Mahershala Ali
Oscar voters seem to love Green Book, despite carping about its purported lack of accuracy in portraying real-life characters. To show that love, the Academy will probably honor Ali with a second Oscar to bookend the one he already won for 2016’s Moonlight. You got a problem with that? We didn’t think so.
SPOILER: Richard E. Grant
As Melissa McCarthy’s drunken partner in crime, this Swazi-Brit actor again demonstrates the comic and dramatic skills he’s been showing since his 1987 film debut in the classic Withnail & I. Amazingly, this is the first acting nomination for Grant. Note to the Academy: You’ve got a lot to make up for.
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Working actors were so pissed that Emily Blunt wasn’t nominated for A Quiet Place that they gave her the Screen Actors Award to shame the Academy. Blunt shouldn’t feel bad: Adams has been nominated six times without winning. Will her turn as Lynne Cheney in Vice change that? Unlikely, but not impossible. With apologies to first-time nominee De Tavira and past Oscar-winner Stone, things look to break down this way.
FAVORITE: Regina King
As King naysayers like to point out, she wasn’t nominated by her peers in the Screen Actors Guild or by the British Academy, nor did the low-grossing If Beale Street Could Talk make the Best Picture cut. Whatever. King rules as a mother fighting to save her daughter’s fiance from trumped-up rape charges.
SPOILER: Rachel Weisz
The Favourite tied Roma with a record 10 nominations this year. And there’s been mounting support for Weisz’s delicious take on a lady of Queen Anne’s court who’ll stop at nothing — sex, revenge, violence — to show how a woman can win power in a man’s world. As themes go, this one’s as timely as a Trump tweet.
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Yorgios Lanthimos, The Favourite
Spike Lee, BlackKklansman
Adam McKay, Vice
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
The nomination for Pawlikowski, the gifted Polish director whose 2013 movie Ida won an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, strikes some as an excuse to cut Bradley Cooper out of the mix for A Star Is Born. (Just like the Academy did with Ben Affleck in the same year Ida won — and yet Argo still went on to nab the Best Picture award anyway.) Has the Academy developed an animus against movie stars who direct? The Directors Guild had included Cooper among its five nominees, along with Green Book‘s Peter Farrelly, whose rep for Dumb and Dumber silliness may have offended the Academy sense of seriousness. And no knock on the gents included, but can someone in the Academy boys club please mansplain to us why no female directors this year met their alleged standards?
FAVORITE: Alfonso Cuarón
SPOILER: Spike Lee
Spike’s long overdue, and his first nomination in this category is probably concession enough from an Academy who barely recognize persons of color in the directing division. He’s luckier than Oscar reject Ryan Coogler, whose multi-nominated Black Panther presumably directed itself.
Best Original Screenplay
No one expected the forward-fearing Academy to recognize Boots Riley for Sorry to Bother You or Bo Burnham for Eighth Grade. And the Academy did not disappoint, running from originality, youth and defiance with its customary speed. Even the nominated Roma will likely be dismissed for its lack of narrative momentum.
FAVORITE: The Favourite
Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, with an uncredited assist from director Yorgos Lanthimos, hit the cultural moment on the head by spinning 18th-century court intrigue into a pointedly funny take on women wrestling with male dominance and coming out on top.
SPOILER First Reformed
In a perfect world, the peerless Paul Schrader would have a shelf full of Oscars from such defiantly ambitious screenplays as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Hardcore and Blue Collar. The brilliance of his crisis-of-faith script for First Reformed is beyond question. Yet this is the 72-year-old auteur’s first Oscar nomination in a career that spans five decades. Not only should he win — Academy voters should carry him to victory on their shoulders. It won’t happen, even during a commercial break.
Best Adapted Screenplay
A Star Is Born
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
If Beale Street Could Talk
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It’s encouraging to see that the Academy found room for a woman, as Nicole Holofcener cowrote the funny and touching script for Can You Ever Forgive Me? And how about that surprise nod for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Netflix western from Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers whose indifference to award competitions is well known. Still, the tight race in this category will come down to:
Spike Lee and his script collaborators did an incendiary job adapting Ron Stallworth’s memoir about a 1970’s-era black cop (John David Washington) who infiltrated the KKK into sharply satiric take on racism — then and now.
SPOILER: If Beale Street Could Talk
Moonlight Oscar winner Barry Jenkins didn’t feel much love from the Academy for the grace he brought to his adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 Harlem romance. But the soulful urgency of his script could be just the place to make up for the film’s omission in the Best Picture race.
Never Look Away
A Star Is Born
Remember last year when the Academy neglected to nominate Call Me By Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom? Well, the dopes turned a blind eye again to the Thai master’s work in Suspiria. They also ignored Kyung-pyo Hong’s lighting majesty in South Korea’s Burning. And Rachel Morrison — the first woman ever nominated for cinematography, for last year’s Mudbound — was overlooked for the epic skill she brought to Black Panther. Clearly, the sexist Academy boys don’t want women getting overconfident. We could go on, but let’s give praise to ….
At first, director Alfonso Cuarón was ready to reteam with his brilliant DP Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki to shoot his tale of growing up in Mexico City in 1971. But when Chivo became unavailable, Cuarón took on the job himself and created black-and-white images of such striking clarity and emotional depth that it seems impossible that anyone else could win this award.
SPOILER: Cold War
If anyone can best Cuarón in this category, it will be Lukasz Zal, the Polish cinematographer whose black-and-white images in Cold War, a feverish love story that spans decades, achieve a monochrome intensity that takes your breath away.
Best Documentary Feature
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
All together now: WTF happened to Mr. Rogers?! Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville’s inspiring doc on childrens’ TV icon Fred Rogers, was beloved by audiences and critics. But not, apparently, by the Academy, who notoriously left off Jane, Brett Morgan’s hugely popular look at primatologist Jane Goodall, from last year’s list. The doc committee that chooses the nominees are infamous screw-ups. Luckily, a few goodies slipped past their cloudy gaze.
FAVORITE: Free Solo
Apologies to Minding the Gap, the superb skater doc from filmmaker Bing Liu, but Free Solo is the one to beat. This National Geographic head-spinner focuses on Alex Honnold, a climber who sees no need for such niceties as rope, harnesses, pitons or even cliff-scaling companions. It’s a portrait of a person who rejects the odds against surviving that come with the job. You watch him in a state of shock and exhilaration.
Besides Mr. Rogers, who’s more beloved than Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. the Notorious RBG? This doc from Julie Cohen and Betsy West gives you the skinny on this judicial and feminist superhero. Watch it and try not to cheer.
Best Foreign Language Film
Cold War, Poland
Never Look Away, Germany
Is it just us or does it seem like rank stupidity not to see South Korea’s Burning on this list. Director Lee Chang-dong knows how to burn images into your memory. The actual nominees have their own share of sizzle. Still, the question is — if Roma wins Best Pict can it still win Best Foreign-Language Film? Or, in the interest of sharing the wealth, should the Oscar go to another nominee?
We don’t care how many Oscars Alfonso Cuaron’s memory piece wins — it deserves all of them.
SPOILER: Cold War
In a year without Roma, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish fever dream would win in a walk, with Japan’s heart-piercing Shoplifters breathing down its neck in a close race. But this is a year with Roma, so viva Cuarón!
Best Animated Feature
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
What was once a dutiful category is now a place where animated talents often put their live-action brethren to shame. Brad Bird certainly fought off the sequel jinx with Incredibles 2, and though Disney/Pixar has won this award for the past seven years, expect some exciting changes this time.
FAVORITE: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Sony Animation proved it can play with the big boys with this visually innovative and thunderously exciting take on the Webslinger, now a mixed-race, teenager street artist out to prove there’s a superhero in all of us. It’s a true breath of fresh air in the animation game.
SPOILER: Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson draws on inspiration from the films of Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa and Yasujiro Ozu for this Japan-set tale of canines imprisoned on an island. Cultural appropriation? Maybe, but Anderson’s stop-motion animation works like a charm, building a joy ride that also works as political metaphor.
Best Original Score
If Beale Street Could Talk
Isle of Dogs
Mary Poppins Returns
In you listened carefully to any film scores this year, you’d know that the magisterial work of composer Justin Hurwitz for First Man is best in show by a mile. And yet his name is nowhere to be found among the nominees. Is it because the Neil Armstrong biopic tanked at the box office? Or is it just plain ignorance? We’d prefer to believe the latter.
FAVORITE: If Beale Street Could Talk
It turns out that the ravishing and resonant score by Nicholas Britell is just as crucial to the success of this Harlem-set romance as the acting, writing and directing. Like the Academy cares. It’s a miracle they’re not presenting this award during a commercial break.
Did you know that Terence Blanchard — who’s scored the majority of Spike Lee’s movies and is one of the most talented film composers working today — has never been nominated for an Oscar until now? Crazy, huh? And the New Orleans jazz virtuoso is at his best catching the moods in BlackKklansman. There’s a chance Ludwig Goransson’s Afropunk compositions for Black Panther could sweep in and surprise. Would we protest? Nope.
Best Original Song
“All the Stars,” Black Panther
“I’ll Fight,” RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The only big news besides Lady Gaga and “Shallow” is that the great Kendrick Lamar got involved in the Black Panther juggernaut. The other contenders are negligible or worse — and the Mary Poppins Returns ditty about finding a dead parent among lost toys and umbrellas is downright creepy.
With Gaga and Bradley Cooper showing up in person to sing their Grammy-winning power ballad before a global TV audience — they won’t air this event during commercials — the prime movers behind A Star Is Born get their best chance to grab an Oscar. And damn, do they deserve it.
In a year where ratings are king, do you think the Academy is going to miss this chance to show off celebrity royalty? The voters may shut A Star Is Born out of the seven other categories for which it’s nominated. But not this one. The popular choice wins.