Sunday, February 17, 2019

2018 Best Picture Rankings

Every year, after viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award.  Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans.

2018 was not one of those years where I think we'll look back a decade later and go, "Oh yeah, 2018 was the year that [fill in the blank] came out!", like how 2014 was the year that Boyhood and Birdman both stretched filmmaking in different ways or how 2010 was the year The Social Network was robbed by The King's Speech in the worst selection since Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan in 1998.  The eight nominated films (and even a couple of the films that didn't get nominated) are all really good pieces of cinematic art, but I don't know that any of them will turn out to be memorable.

8. Bohemian Rhapsody

If Bohemian Rhapsody were to duplicate the second half of the film, with Freddie Mercury's redemption with his band and the subsequent powerful performance at Live Aid, the film would be much higher on this list.  Unfortunately, the beginning of the film is a muddled mess, perhaps brought on by some of the behind the scenes drama that saw this film have multiple directors.  The movie skips over key interactions among the characters that would establish their relationships, instead choosing to have each character state the relationship verbally.  This saps the film of all power during the early tumult.  When the band members say they're a family, there's no real feeling of family there -- it's only later when the band actually shows itself to be a family that the emotions become real.  It honestly feels like pages of scripts were either skipped over or cut out late without thought to the consequences.

Points for casting Littlefinger as a non-villain.
The real strength of Bohemian Rhapsody is the way Rami Malek disappears into Freddie Mercury.  He earned every bit of his Best Actor nomination (and the awards he's racked up to date).  He brings a wonderful mix of passion, vulnerability, whimsy, and strength to his Mercury, and really carries the film through its second half comeback to high quality.  I dare you to watch the Live Aid recreations and not want to immediately go find the real performance on YouTube.

It's impossible to picture a better Freddie Mercury than Rami Malek.
Ultimately though, no other nominated film was as blemished as Bohemian Rhapsody.  Honestly, there were several films that didn't get a nomination that I would place above it.

7. The Favourite

The Favourite is one of those films that seems to come up in ones or twos every year where you almost feel that they have to feel satisfied to be nominated.  Not that it's a bad film, but it's just not important.  It's not reinventing cinema with new techniques.  It's not tackling a critical issue in today's society.  It's not telling an important historical story that helps put our own world into perspective.  It's not bringing a crucial part of literature or the other arts to life.  It's just a very solidly well done film, which is good enough to get a nomination, but doesn't put it even in the top half of the nominees.

Emma Stone is every bit as endearing and funny as ever, even when she plays mean.
The Favourite stars somehow-Best Supporting Actress nominees Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who jump gleefully off the screen as rival members of Queen Anne's court, pull out every dirty trick in the book to attain and/or keep their place as the queen's right hand woman.  Olivia Colman does a phenomenal job as the queen, who we learn is tortured and not actually crazy, and would probably be my pick for Best Supporting Actress if they hadn't for some reason put her up for Best Actress despite having less screen time than her supporting actress castmates.  The entire rest of the cast is pretty much forgettable.

Kudos on the costuming and set design, though.
It's a very well done comedy film that, among other things, features Emma Stone in probably the best handjob scene to ever hit mainstream cinema.  It's funny, well acted by its powerful leading ladies, and hits the spot.  But it's also largely a puff piece, with really one thoughtful moment at the end, when Queen Anne reminds her newly victorious subordinate that being on the top rung of the court still puts you far below royalty.  That's far from enough to make it a Best Picture.

6. BlacKkKlansman

BlackKkKlansman, on the other hand, is that film that gets nominated because of its importance despite having many flaws.  It presents an at times whimsical story of a plucky young African American cop in 1970s Colorado who, out to prove himself as a potential detective, sets up an ongoing sting of the KKK.  You would think that infiltrating a hate group, especially as someone from the group that is hated, would be the subject of a taut thriller, but instead, Spike Lee undercuts his own tension throughout the film, making even the tense moments seeming to not be all that harrowing.

The addition of the love story, though tangential to the main plot, is still a distraction.
John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the real-life black undercover klansman, while Adam Driver earns a supporting nod as the fictional partner (Stallworth's real life partner has never been acknowledged for security purposes) who actually meets with the klan face to face given that Stallworth would not make for a very believable racist in person.  Topher Grace plays a David Duke who was basically Topher Grace with a mustache and bad haircut.  None of the rest of the cast really warrants mention, which helps explain why it's so far down this list. 

Even in a Klan robe, he still looks like he's lecturing Kelso.
The film is grossly inaccurate (the plot the police strive to break up is not the same plot that Stallworth helped break up in real life), but I think by now we've given up on historical accuracy from our films that are "based on a true story".  What really sinks the film for me is how off the tone feels at times, with digressions and jokes seeming to rob the movie of any forward momentum.  Spike-isms are abundant throughout, including the really, really old use of a tracked cart to move people who were supposed to be running (I would still love to be behind the scenes in a Spike Lee-Tom Cruise movie as the two fight over how to shoot Cruise's character's running scenes).  Really, the most powerful moment in the film (by far) is at the end when the movie closes with a new bunch of klansmen burning a cross within sight of Stallworth's apartment followed by real life clips from the Charlottesville march and subsequent violence from 2017 to show that we still haven't made nearly enough progress.  But maybe we shouldn't have to wait for the closing credits to get to that point.

5. A Star is Born

A Star is Born begins the part of this list where I wouldn't be terribly upset if it won Best Picture (though I would be surprised).  A remake of the 1976 remake of the 1954 remake of the 1937 original, this year's edition (perhaps thankfully the film decided to take the 1990s off) lives up to its predecessors, who all managed to leave an imprint on motion picture history.  Starring Bradley Cooper, produced by Bradley Cooper, directed by Bradley Cooper, and featuring a script by Bradley Cooper (who may or may not have catered the movie set as well), A Star is Born also stars Lady Gaga, who does a very good job with the material.  Her Ally Maine (wife of Cooper's Jackson Maine) is a little weakly defined in the beginning (the filmmakers seem unsure whether Ally is overwhelmed or completely and confidently in charge of her life in these early scenes) but really comes together into a tour de force for Gaga about midway through, allowing the pop superstar to really show her acting stuff in the late stages of the film.

And oh yeah, she can sing pretty well, too.
Cooper himself does a creditable job himself, and you get the feeling that if he keeps working on getting rid of his still-present-but-not-as-much tics (like smiling goofy smiles with manic eyes at awkward times) from being someone destined to replace the likes of Hanks, Washington, and Day-Lewis in Hollywood's leading man pantheon.  His Jackson manages to be troubled without being unlikable, which is extremely hard to pull off, and Jackson's method of handling what he saw as the no-win situation he was in was powerful and moving.  Sam Elliott also shines as Jackson's brother, an admittedly very Sam Elliott kind of character.

Every family needs Sam Elliott as an uncle.
Could A Star is Born have been better?  Perhaps making Ally a bit more consistent in the beginning.  Maybe reducing the number or duration of the big "talk out your problems" scenes.  Maybe making the scenes leading up to Jackson's decision more powerful (Rafi Gavron does not do those moments justice in his role as Ally's manager).  These are somewhat quibbles, but at this level of filmmaking, those quibbles (or lack thereof) are what separates Oscar winners from the rest of the pack.

4. Black Panther

Black Panther being this high up on the list might be a surprise to some, but what would be more surprising is that at different times, it appeared anywhere from number 5 to number 1.  It's a superhero genre film yes, but it's an almost perfectly formed superhero genre film with a little bit to say.  It's also a genre film with a great villain, which helped send another genre film, Silence of the Lambs, to Best Picture status at the 1992 Oscars. 

Black Panther picks up just after Captain America: Civil War, with the young prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) about to take the rites to become king of his technologically advanced nation of Wakanda.  With all of its vibranium-driven tech, Wakanda could easily subjugate the world if it wanted, but instead the nation's tradition is one of hiding in plain sight, building an extensive spy network and keeping the world at large completely in the dark as to what wonders they've managed to create for themselves.  Michael B. Jordan's Eric Killmonger, a terrorist with ties to the ancient nation, has other ideas and challenges the new king for control of both the reins and the heart of the nation.  All kinds of really good superhero action takes place as a result.

Though there are some aspects of Jordan's performance that I didn't get as much out of as other audience members.
But what sets Black Panther apart from other superhero movies (really, almost all action movies of any subgenre) is that its action is clothed in a philosophy that provides some food for thought (the only prior superhero movie to accomplish this was The Dark Knight, whose Best Picture exclusion caused the Academy to rethink how many films to let into the race -- since then, Avengers: Infinity War has also managed this accomplishment).  To a certain degree, Killmonger is right, and his impact on T'Challa is palpable.  It also manages to be poignant, funny (in a non-disruptive way -- something Taika Waititi might want to study), and thrilling.  In other words, it's a damn good movie.

And did I mention the action?
It's not perfect, mind you, which is why it settles below the films ahead of it.  There are a few plot holes involving T'Challa's decision making during critical moments (though some of the seemingly most egregious ones can be explained by T'Challa's inherent nobility, a trait his own father warned him was not good for being king) and why, considering Wakanda had spies everywhere, no one bothered keeping track of Killmonger throughout his life.  These are nits, but nits that the films ahead of it on this list don't seemingly have.  But even if it doesn't win Best Picture, Black Panther showed the world how a legitimately great superhero film can be made.

3. Roma

Roma, like Black Panther, was difficult to place on this list, but for slightly different reasons.  Black Panther has to overcome the difference of genres, bridging the gap between superhero film and Best Picture nominee.  Roma also has a gap to bridge, but in this case it's cultural.  I'm not talking about the fact that it's in a combination of Spanish and Mixtec, but rather the fact that the actors portraying the characters are so reserved in their craft.  It's a different feel than a modern American (or British) film, where the actors push forward their portrayals, even seeming to be actively quiet.  That doesn't happen here in Roma, and that sets up a very different tempo to the film than an American audience is used to.  That doesn't make its film craft any lesser, but it does add difficulty in trying to discern if something noticeably off is off because of the cultural translation or because it's legitimately a flaw.

It makes it difficult when characters are either much more sedate than I would expect (which is often Cleo, the main character played by Yalitza Aparicio in her very first role ever) or much more aggressively emotive or manic than I'd expect (which is almost every other character in the film at different times).  Is this culturally accurate?  I don't have the knowledge to say.  If it is, then everything's great.  If it's not, then here are the flaws that should knock it out of contention.  I'm choosing to interpret it as a bit of both given the relative inexperience of some of the main cast.

Drama, drama, drama.
However, that doesn't prevent Roma from being a dazzling film to watch.  The cinematography by Alfonso Cuarón is absolutely stunning.  There are too many shots worth mentioning to list them all, including a wonderfully difficult tracking shot done at the beach, but the one every film student should examine is the fire scene, when a bunch of revelers are called from their party to put out a fire.  Seeing such a difficult visual environment of a nighttime blaze in an otherwise dark forest area with every person on screen clearly yet seemingly naturally lit -- in black and white, mind you -- just reminds you how much craft there is to the art of great filmmaking.  Watching Roma brought to mind John Ford's great films, and I'd love to put the fire scene up against some of the nighttime scenes from, for example, My Darling Clementine just to see how they relate in the use of light and shadow.

Seriously, look at how beautiful this is.
Roma is a personal story of Cleo's professional and love life within the context of the tumult surrounding the family she works for, who are going through their own substantial drama within the context of the political happenings of the time.  When these different layers intersect and mix is where Roma attains a sort of narrative magic that help pushes the film forward.  It's a surprising amount of complexity that Cuarón wrings out of a relatively straightforward story structure, and truly is a joy to experience.

2. Green Book

Green Book is one of those films that attains its spot on the list thanks to doing everything exceedingly well.  It has a tight script, is well shot, and the lead actors are phenomenal.  It tells a heartwarming tale of cross-race (and cross-sexuality) friendship set in a time of very little tolerance and screened in a time of diminishing tolerance.  It's a timely film, even if it doesn't say enough about our current world to warrant Important Film status.

Some have complained about the film having a white savior complex, but I don't see that here.  Instead, I see a film that shows a friendship in which both partners bring something fundamental to the table.  It also flips the script on so many other black-white friendship movies like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption in that here the African American part of the team is the learned, cultured scholar teaching the relatively coarse white partner the finer aspects of civilization while the caucasian part of the team is the streetwise, physical half of the tandem.

Seriously, I don't quite see this as putting the white guy over the black guy.
Green Book fills the Best Picture nomination spot for the straightforward, well-acted comedy that tells a culturally significant true(ish) story, much like Philomena, which preceded it by a few years.  And as with Philomena, it perhaps rises a little too high up my list as a result.  But any film that can ably make me laugh (and laugh quite hard at times), think, and have my emotions swell in the same two hours deserves real consideration.

Green Book's success as a film is particularly driven by the great work of its stars.  Viggo Mortensen jumps off the screen as Italian-American blue collar worker and neighborhood tough guy with the heart of gold Tony Vallelonga.  Mahershala Ali may well win another Oscar as the erudite Carnegie Hall pianist Don Shirley.  Mortensen and Ali have considerable chemistry, and both live up to their Oscar-worthy resumes.  Mahershala Ali in particular makes the case that, once filmmakers start consistently giving him starring roles instead of supporting actor roles (though you can make a great case that Ali was a lead actor here and his nomination in the supporting category is just gamesmanship), he'll be the next pantheon actor of our time.

Mahershala Ali can make even quiet moments compelling.
In the time I've been making my list, Green Book has wandered everywhere from number two to number four.  I can't put it in front of my number one choice, but a film so well done can't fall far.

1. Vice

Vice was not one of those "it's obviously an Oscar favorite even while I'm watching it the first time" films for me, but as I was sorting the list out, it became apparent that Vice was the only film that really made me feel like I had seen something new in filmmaking.  And really, that's a major part of what pushes a movie to the top of my Best Picture list.

Of course, I've been here before with director Adam McKay, having picked The Big Short as my Best Picture for 2015 when it was up against a similar list of films that did not present a clear and easy favorite.  While I still stand by that pick, The Big Short fell, well, short, against Spotlight, a film that I said could easily be my Best Picture despite listing it at number three.  I fully expect something similar to happen, as I think McKay ends up being a little too edgy for many Academy voters.  Still, here we are.

Vice shares quite a bit with The Big Short in terms of having a satirical flavor while explaining some of the complex concepts surrounding major issues the film takes on.  Instead of using random celebrity encounters to take the audience to school (who can forget Margot Robbie in a bathtub?), Vice uses a single narrator to provide the necessary context and lectures.  If you're like me, trying to figure out who the narrator is will bug you throughout the film until they finally reveal their identity, at which point you'll think, "Whooo, they went there!"

I mean, really.
The script is funny and informative, the directing is crisp and innovative, and the acting is stellar.  Christian Bale absolutely transforms himself into Dick Cheney, physically and emotionally.  Sam Rockwell somehow conjures George W. Bush out of a drawl and a relaxed face, eschewing any attempts to make himself look exactly like the former president entirely.  Amy Adams and Steve Carrell also shine as Lynne Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Though he did have to go with some hair graying for later scenes.
I don't think Vice necessarily tells a completely true story, getting a little too deep into conspiracy theory land for my taste, but as a film, it's a stunning example of op-ed cinema, combining with The Big Short to introduce perhaps a new genre of live action film. 

I could see any of my top five getting the actual Best Picture trophy this year, but if you ask me, Vice is my Best Picture of 2018.

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