2019 Oscar Preview: Best Picture

Award season is almost at a close, and we’re only two weeks out from the 2019 Oscars.

Let’s start our preview with Best Picture.

Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

The conventional wisdom was that Black Panther would get a nomination, but nothing else.  Hollywood would pat itself on the back for honoring a tentpole superhero flick, and then promptly return to awarding films about fish “love.”  That was, of course, before Black Panther took top honors at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.  The SAG awards are the best predictive award show for the Oscars for a reason – the actors are by far the largest voting block in the Academy.  Additionally, the abandoned proposal for a “popular film” category means that the Academy is getting nervous about the lack of awards for true blockbusters over the last few years (Best Picture hasn’t gone to a move that’s made over $100 million domestically since 2012).  Conclusion: Black Panther is a contender.

Blackkklansman (Directed by Spike Lee)

The late career makeup award is a time-honored Oscar tradition.  Just think about Al Pacino winning Best Actor for 1992’s lackluster Scent of Woman instead of any role he had in the 1970’s.  Great directors are more likely to be snubbed than great actors, with heavyweights like Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley Kubrick never winning Best Director honors.  Blackkklansman is Spike Lee’s most commercially successful movie in a few years, and it has the added bonus of being some of his best work.  It feels like Lee could finally get that Best Director Oscar, but given the competition, Best Picture might be a stretch.  Conclusion: Blackkklansman is a borderline contender.

Bohemian Rhapsody (Directed by Bryan Singer, so says the credit)

An entertaining, yet ultimately paint-by-numbers rock and roll biopic, I’m surprised this one got nominated. The Golden Globes were overly generous to it, but the Globes mean exactly squat when predicting the Oscars. It’s simply not an Oscar caliber movie, and this is coming from someone who gave it a positive write up. Conclusion: Bohemian Rhapsody is a pretender.

The Favourite (Directed by Yorgos Lathimos)

This feels like the “actor’s movie” of the Best Picture selections. I mostly say that because it’s a period piece, and because it’s been winning a lot of individual acting hardware. That said, it didn’t win best ensemble at the SAG Awards, so I question whether it has enough umph to win the top prize. Besides, the Academy is rarely kind to comedies.  In the last fifty years, only six comedies have taken top honors (The Sting (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Forrest Gump (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Artist (2011), and Birdman (2014)).  Conclusion: The Favourite is a borderline contender.

Green Book (Directed by Peter Farrelly)

Green Book was an early favorite and checks most of the Oscar boxes. It’s a period piece, it has a strong cast, and it contains themes dealing with race relations in America. It’s also been a lightning rod for controversy. That, and it didn’t really resonate with critics or audiences. I think the voters end up putting the green book back on the shelf. Conclusion: Green Book is a pretender.

Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Roma is a heavyweight. Cuarón has created a neo-realist film that is comparable to the films of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Fredrico Fellini.  It’s beautifully shot, achingly sad, and not entirely without humor. Cuarón has been honored by the Academy for Best Director for Gravity (2013), a film that would have won Best Picture in almost any other year it was nominated.   All that being said, the Academy has never, not once, given Best Picture to a foreign language film.  Then again, there’s a first time for everything.  Conclusion: Roma is a contender.

A Star is Born (Directed by Bradley Cooper)

A Star is Born got a lot of early buzz, but that buzz has faded.  For award show purposes, A Star is Born is Bradley Cooper’s character.  The other nominees are Lady Gaga’s character.  I just don’t see this movie turning things around, and it’s telling that Cooper wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  A Star is Born was well received by critics and audiences, but not by award show voters.  Conclusion: A Star is Born is a pretender.

Vice (Directed by Adam McKay)

Critics didn’t like Vice, and neither did audiences.  That said, the movie is getting some love for Christian Bale’s transformation into Dick Cheney.  However, every year there’s a movie nominated for Best Picture on the strength of the lead actor’s performance and not much else.  A good example of this phenomenon is Phantom Thread (2017), from last year’s show.  Daniel Day-Lewis was great in it, but the movie was kind of dumb.  Vice is this year’s Phantom Thread.  Conclusion: Vice is a pretender.

Conclusion & Prediction

There you have it.  If this were back when only five movies could be nominated for Best Picture, you would have Black Panther, Blackkklansman, the Favourite, Roma, and probably A Star is Born.  I think it’s going to come down to Roma or Black Panther.

So, what is Hollywood more nervous about?  The Oscars losing value because of too many fish “love” movies winning, or not giving foreign language films enough support over the years?  All the gold in Fort Knox couldn’t rectify decades of awards for Hollywood movies over superior foreign films, especially during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s when the some of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema were coming out of France, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.  I don’t think this is a big concern for the folks in Hollywood.  Remember, with the exception of a dozen or so British movies and The Artist (2011), the Best Picture Oscar is best understood as the award for best American film as viewed with a short term evaluation.

Therefore, I predict that Black Panther will win Best Picture.  Wakanda Forever!

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

 

 

2018: A Noisy Year, and Time for Changes

I’ve been writing the same, tired “Year in Review” article for a few years now. With the exception of one particularly creative dive into Boethius, admittedly a deep track reference if there ever was one, these write ups have been unremarkable and, I confess, lazy.

I’ve been doing this blog for almost seven years now. I don’t think our pop culture discourse has ever been noisier. It also, has never been less creative.

I read the same article about the same movie probably four or five times, every time. The assessment of film has become of an inescapable groupthink, which more often than not settles on analysis that is an inch deep and a mile wide. This problem isn’t unique to film, it’s in writing about television, sports, politics, basically all of journalism. We’re drawn to the hot take, the short article, the snarky humor, the bland repetitive analysis.

So what does this have to do with the state of popular culture in 2018? After all, 2018 was the year that brought us the best superhero movie (Black Panther), the best series finale of a television show (The Americans), Spike Lee’s return to form (Blackkklansman), and Steven Spielberg’s return to blockbusters (Ready Player One). The year’s biggest movie, globally, was the culmination of a massive series of films the likes of which we haven’t seen before (Avengers: Infinity War). These are real achievements, but something about them feels hollow. That isn’t right.

Film is about images. Roger Ebert understood this and repeated it often. What is lacking from the conversation is how those images make us feel. What they mean. In the moment, and more importantly, in the next moment.

Everything isn’t meant to be compared to everything else before it. With so many legacy movies, series, and filmmakers out there, we’ve been obsessed with just that – legacy. Legacy before the ink of history is even dry. This constant comparison makes art disposable. The art isn’t appreciated for what it is, but for how it measures up to other art. This, in case I’m not being clear, is a bad thing.

You could write about Blackkklansman and compare it to Lee’s earlier work, or you can talk about how Lee uses the film as a sledgehammer to shake the audience out of complacency. You could knock Spielberg as overly nostalgic, or you could point out how he uses nostalgia as a tool to reveal the humanity of an artificial world in Ready Player One. Black Panther is many things to many people, but instead of writing about what everyone is talking about, you can look deeper and see how and why Ryan Coogler’s best shot is when Killmonger walks into the throne-room. Ignore the noise – what does art mean to YOU? That is what I’m to endeavor to answer in the future.

That brings me to what’s changing on this page going forward:

1) I’m not writing traditional reviews anymore. See a movie or show, or don’t. I’m going to be writing about my impressions beyond simply answering whether art is good or bad.

2) Historical context needs time to develop. A new rule: a film or series needs to be at least five years old to have its influence discussed, ten to be understood, thirty to be fully appreciated.

3) I’m changing up the format a bit and working on a few other changes. It’s time.

4) I’ll still do Game of Thrones and maybe other Power Rankings, but I’ll be more thoughtful about a character or group’s story in the broader context.

5) I’m going to write about more random topics. I like to do that.

Thanks for sticking with this experiment that I started in 2012. I’ll do my best to continue making it worthwhile.

D.G. McCabe

December 21, 2018

(C) 2018

Black Panther (2018): T’Challa’s Character Arc

Instead of writing a traditional review of Black Panther, I’m going to dive right into some analysis.  Before I get into spoilers, here’s a link to the trailer for the movie:

A good amount of pixels have been spent praising Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in Black Panther.  Killmonger is one of the most interesting characters in any Marvel film, and Michael B. Jordan is one of the finest actors working today.  One of the things I like the most about Black Panther, however, is that the compelling antagonist doesn’t overshadow the protagonist like it does in numerous other superhero movies (e.g. The Dark Knight (2008); Spiderman: Homecoming (2017); Batman (1989); Superman II (1980)).  T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) journey is every bit as interesting as Killmonger’s.

On the surface, Wakanda is a utopia, but below the surface lies a troubling adherence to traditions that cause most of the problems in the movie.  To move forward, Wakanda needs a leader who will dispense with tradition when those traditions no longer make sense.  T’Challa becomes that leader by the end of the movie, but it takes some work to get there.

In Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa dips his toes into breaking with tradition.  At the beginning of Civil War, he has already taken on the role of the Black Panther even though his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), is still alive.  He makes alliances with outsiders in Civil War, but notably, this is done to bring his father’s murderer to justice.  In other words, the alliances are meant to temporary at first.  The fact that T’Challa extends these relationships beyond their initial purpose shows that he has some flexibility as a character.

During the first part of Black Panther, we see T’Challa largely following in his father’s footsteps.  He performs in the same rituals as his father did, and fails to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice just like his father did before him.  This makes sense.  T’Challa has been raised to continue on a thousand-year old tradition.  Breaking with that tradition does not come easily to him.

What T’Challa learns, however, is that being flexible with tradition bears fruit, while following established protocol for no other reason than “this is how it’s done” leads to problems.  He spares M’Baku (Winston Duke) in trial by combat, which leads to an alliance later.  In contrast, when he fails to question whether trial by combat is such a great idea to begin with, he temporarily loses his throne to Killmonger.

The turning point for T’Challa is during his second visit to the ancestral plane.  While he is angry at his father for abandoning his nephew (Killmonger) on the streets of Oakland, when he tells the previous kings that they were “all wrong,” he isn’t doing so out of anger.  T’Challa realizes in that moment that following the old way, with its isolationism, trial by combat, and rejection of outsiders has failed in its essential purpose.  While these conventions were established to keep Wakanda safe, they have instead made it vulnerable.

Had Wakanda not kept the tradition of trial by combat alive, Killmonger would have not ascended to the throne.  If T’Chaka had just taken his nephew in as a child in the first place instead of rejecting him as an outsider, there would have been no Killmonger.  If Wakanda hadn’t kept itself isolated, and helped the peoples of the African diaspora throughout history, there would have not have been anyone like Killmonger.  T’Challa realizes all of this before the end of the movie, seeks to learn from the mistakes of the past, and plans to build a better future.

This is for the best.  An isolated Wakanda will do no one any good once Thanos comes around in May.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe