BY STEPHEN ATKINSON
The 91st Academy Awards will be held February 24th, but for months the star-studded Hollywood event has made headlines with successive controversies. The August announcement of a “Best Popular Film” category sparked outrage and confusion from fans and critics alike before the Academy quickly shelved the idea, and later, comedian Kevin Hart’s slew of non-apologies for his past homophobic comments left the ceremony without a central host. (At the last host-less Oscars, Rob Lowe danced with a bootleg Snow White in perhaps the most bizarre opening in awards show history.) More recently, the Oscars announced that they would relegate four awards—in Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling—to commercial breaks, which was met with indignation from film industry professionals, and once again the Oscars backtracked: these awards will now be aired live. With TV ratings dropping almost every year, the Oscars producers are desperate to increase the three-hour-plus long event’s watchability, but the attempts thus far have been vetoed by the public. It will be interesting to see if this host-less Oscars can, against the odds, reverse this downward trend.
Of course, the Oscars is more than just three hours of entertainment and a week’s worth of celebrity buzz fodder. After all, it’s an awards show for movies! Unlike the Grammys, however, the Oscars tend to showcase titles that are unfamiliar to many audience members. Fortunately, we’re here to highlight some of the major films nominated, so even if you can’t watch them all before next Sunday evening, you’ll at least have some context—and maybe even a film to root for!
The Race for Best Picture
The Oscars are at the end of a long awards season. Usually by this point in the year, there is a relatively clear favorite to win Best Picture, the biggest prize of the night. Last year, The Shape of Water was the consensus favorite and it won, but just two years ago, underdog Moonlight beat out La La Land in a mix-up that will not soon be forgotten. So the award is never predictable. But this year, it’s hard to make a prediction at all. Black Panther, Green Book, and Roma have all picked up big awards so far, while Roma and The Favourite have been nominated in the most Oscar categories. Do any of these titles sound unfamiliar? Here’s an overview of the films nominated for Best Picture:
Widely considered Spike Lee’s best film in years, this true story follows Ron Stallworth, the first African-American officer in the Colorado Spring Police Department, as he teams up with a white colleague to infiltrate and expose the local Klu Klux Klan chapter. Their mission, however, grows into something much larger as they realize what’s at stake. While few consider BlacKkKlansman the best movie of this bunch, it’s almost universally well-liked, and with the Academy’s preferential voting system, it’s a promising dark horse pick.
Black Panther was a box office sensation and a landmark moment for black representation in film. Prompting both memes and serious discussion, the film has cemented its place in the cultural canon–chances are you’ve seen or at least heard of this highest-ever-grossing superhero movie. Admittedly, the chances of a Disney-distributed superhero movie winning Best Picture are low, but the Academy is making attempts to diversify and appeal to larger audiences, so this blockbuster just might strike a chord with voters.
Most critics were surprised, even dismayed, to find Bohemian Rhapsody on the list of nominations. This Freddie Mercury biopic has been popular among audiences but has failed to impress reviewers, garnering a 49 out of 100 weighted average on Metacritic (in contrast to its 8.2/10 rating on IMDB). Critics point to awkward pacing, questionable handling of LGBT subplots, and director Bryan Singer’s sexual assault controversy, while fans praise it for Rami Malek’s transformative performance, its grand music sequences, and its triumphant themes.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has a unique cinematic voice marked by deadpan dark humor, surrealism, and grating orchestral scores (see The Lobster, available on Netflix, for reference). His latest film, The Favourite, is a historical period drama unlike any other. Wacky, sinister, and salacious, it covers the (somewhat) true story of two women competing for the favor of a feeble Queen Anne. It’s not exactly what you think of when you hear “Oscar winner,” but this unconventional female-led film has attracted a lot of awards attention for what seems more like an art-house classic.
Set in 1962, Green Book is a feel-good comedy-drama about an unlikely friendship between Dr. Don Shirley, a famous black pianist (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver (Viggo Mortensen), as they travel on a concert tour. It’s received criticism for its historical inaccuracies, including condemnation from Dr. Shirley’s own family, and some say it oversimplifies race relations, perhaps to make it more palatable to white viewers. Nevertheless, Green Book nabbed big awards at both the Golden Globes and the Producers Guild Awards, so it appears the controversy has had little effect on its awards chances.
Roma is both the first foreign film and the first Netflix film to be nominated for Best Picture. Shot entirely in black and white, it covers a period of a few weeks in the life of a light-skinned Mexican family and their indigenous (Native American) live-in housekeeper, through marital troubles, political riots, wildfires, and near-drownings. Netflix’s aggressive advertising has given this slow-paced, meditative film a wide audience, and it’s considered by many a cautious favorite for Best Picture.
A Star is Born
The fourth film of its name and general plot arc, A Star is Born features stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper respectively as a struggling artist and a seasoned musician who fall fall in love and battle mental illness. Critics have praised Lady Gaga’s big screen debut, and she’s already acquired a collection of awards for the original song “Shallow,” which also performed well on the pop charts. Originally, A Star is Born was a favorite for Best Picture, but its underwhelming performance in awards shows thus far has lowered expectations.
This biographical comedy-drama follows Dick Cheney on his path to arguably the most powerful Vice Presidency in U.S. history. Its star-studded cast includes Christian Bale (unrecognizable as Dick Cheney), Sam Rockwell, Amy Adams, and Steve Carell. Despite having well-received acting performances, Vice, with a weighted average on Metacritic of 61 out of 100, joins Bohemian Rhapsody as one of the worst-reviewed films to be nominated for Best Picture.
Find the full list of nominations here.