Oscar commentary and picks

Oscar time!  In the most lackluster year for quality movies in quite some time, Hollywood reached box office records thanks to a mother lode of comic book films, animated movies and a bunch of dreck aimed at teenagers and young children.  By and large, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not reward such films, which by and large is good news.
However, 2018 was slightly different.  Black Panther, which broke box office records and featured an all-African American cast, was nominated for Best Picture and would have run way with the award for Best Popular Film if that new category hadn’t been delayed until next year.
Also, “made (mostly) for TV films” — those that only get a token theatrical release — have now been mainstreamed.  Most notably, this applied to Roma, the excellent black-and-white, artsy-fartsy film from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, which Netflix took (almost) directly to a computer or TV near you.
Who’s going to win?
OK, let’s cut to the chase.  Rami Malek (actor), Alfonso Cuaron (director), Regina King (supporting actress), RBG (documentary), Mahershala Ali (supporting actor) and Roma (best foreign language film) are locks.
The Best Actor category is stacked with amazing performances. All of the nominees deserve to win.  Malek has won all of the contests so far, and he deserves to win the Oscar.  His portrayal of Freddie Mercury of Queen is uncannily good.  And he wasn’t even the first choice to play the part: Sasha Baron Cohen was.
For Best Director, Cuaron has won every pre-Oscar competition.  The Academy loves him.  Roma is a triumph of direction.  Filmed in b&w, it follows a year in the life of a maid/nanny in Mexico as she serves a well-to-do, dysfunctional family.  Pretty bland story, for sure.  But Cuaron’s photographic technique is so stunning that it blasts conventional norms. It will absolutely win Best Foreign Language Film and might even take the Best Picture prize.
Regina King was really good in If Beale Street Could Talk.  Since she played Cuba Gooding’s wife in Jerry McGuire, she has been a favorite of mine.  I don’t think that she deserves the Oscar over Rachel Weisz but she has won all the pre-Oscar stuff so she probably will win this category.  Besides, Weisz and Emma Stone will split the votes for their performances in The Favourite.
Mahershala Ali was transcendent in Green Book as the black pianist who performs in the south in the early ’60s with his racist bodyguard at his side.  This was my favorite movie of the year.  Playing off Viggo Mortensen, his co-star and nominee for Best Actor, Ali burst on the scene with his performance in Moonlight and more subtle turn in Hidden Figures.  He is quickly proving that he is in rare air as one of the best actors in the world.
How can RBG not win Best Documentary?  The real Notorious RBG is everyone’s favorite grandmother and perhaps the savior of our democracy.  She just conquered her third cancer.  And she is tantalizingly self-deprecating in this film.  Please, stay strong Ruth.
Almost locks
Glenn Close was brilliant in The Wife.  She is the most nominated actress not to have won an Oscar so this is the year.  She is almost the Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards.  But if she loses, it will be to Olivia Colman of The Favourite.  Colman is so pathetic, sickly, horny, and savvy as Queen Anne that she deserves the award.  Close was so full of closeted angst in The Wife that you expected her to scream at any minute.  When she finally explodes, you want to stand up and cheer.
“Shallow,” Lady Gaga’s song from A Star Is Born, has to win Best Original Song.  Why?  Because it’s Lady Gaga!  Plus, Bradley Cooper is a revelation as a singer.  Cooper should have been nominated for Best Director for the movie, too, because he had the guts to try this film for the fourth time and make it the best of the lot.  Their song will be sung live … and it should win.  The only reason I didn’t put it into the “lock to win” category is because all Academy members vote for this category, and I’m not sure if the old guard know who Lady Gaga is … except that she sings with Tony Bennett.
The Tight Race – Best Picture
This is the most open Best Picture race in recent memory.  As I wrote earlier, it is not unusual to have a couple of films in the discussion for Best Picture.  But there are as many as five of the eight films with a legitimate shot in this category.  Part of the dilemma is that this was a sub-standard year for quality films.
If you want to find negatives about each film, it’s easy. Green Book is just too neat, too canned, too predictable.  Black Panther, at its heart, is just another formula super-hero flick. The Favourite is too prurient, too unlikely, too dismissive of the men who dominated the times. BlacKkKlansmen is too political.  Vice is just a hatchet job that feels like The Big Short but just isn’t nearly as good. Roma is really pretty boring with the stupidest mating ritual ever. Bohemian Rhapsody is a jukebox musical that sanitizes and glorifies Freddie Mercury as more of a tribute than an honest biopic. A Star is Born is the fourth iteration of a film that is just a vehicle for Lady Gaga reminiscent of The Bodyguard.
On the other hand:
Roma — a common woman doing a common job is the “real” Mexico, this film is perfectly photographed.  It’s the story of an ordinary person and the troubled family she serves.  No frills; just great storytelling.
Black Panther — a history-making film proving that mass audiences will swarm to see a super-hero of color.  Great graphics, a charismatic star, and lots of action.
BlacKkKlansman — a funny, sickening story of a rookie black cop infiltrating the Klan that is more entertaining than preachy.
The Favourite — a fun, sexy period piece with three superb actresses who clearly enjoy their roles and tell an unvarnished story of Queen Anne and her proclivities.
Vice — a scathing, scary look at how Dick Cheney overwhelmed the Bush Administration with his view of the world.  Christian Bale is transformed into Cheney while Sam Rockwell imitates George Bush better than Bush does himself.
A Star is Born — The best of the four iterations of this story with the twist of revealing Bradley Cooper as a singer, director, and actor of substance.  And who knew that Lady Gaga could act and would take the make-up off.
Green Book — The best buddy film since Thelma and Louise and Driving Miss Daisy, this film shows us how far we have come … and not … in 50 years.  The two stars (Viggo and Mahershala) shine.
Bohemian Rhapsody — This deep dive into the rock group Queen and especially its lead singer, Freddie Mercury, is the finest musical biopic of its time.  Rami Malek inhabits the persona of Mercury, making all of us wish we had paid more attention to this rock super-group.
So who wins?  I am hoping for Green Book.  It is so much harder to make a great movie whose scope and budget are limited than it is to spend $250 million on a computer-driven film like Black Panther.  The actors carry the film yet the story is amazingly relevant and riveting.
If not, I am rooting for BlacKkKlansman because it is the most entertaining film of the year.  It tells a real story with humor, and exposes David Duke as a demagogue and an idiot.  I just wish Spike Lee had avoided taking the political shot at the end.
Roma is the likely winner because it is the most unique film of the year.  It passes several tests.  It is relevant — about Mexicans, who have been demonized by Donald Trump.  It is artsy — great photography shot in black-and-white, interesting characters, unknown actors.  It is revolutionary — distributed almost exclusively through NetFlix, one of the new media that has provided lots of jobs for Hollywood and saved the film industry.
If it wins, it will be the most successful foreign film since Life is Beautiful.
As to the other categories, who cares!?  The Academy was right to exclude them from the agonizingly long telecast, then bowed to the pressure from the big names.  So we’ll have to watch the opening with no host, see who wins one of the best supporting actor awards, have a quiet dinner, then turn the TV back on to watch the flood of awards we really care about at the end.
I vote for The Favourite for costumes, Vice for make-up, Green Book for original screenplay, BlacKkKlansman for adapted screenplay, and Roma for cinematography.  These are not predictions so much as they are my preferences.
Good luck with your Oscar ballots.  And enjoy your dinner while the winners in the technical categories drone on.  Where is Billy Crystal when we need him?
Here is a link to the Oscar nominations:

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