Commentaries | Dec 10,2018
Today will see the 91st Academy Awards, the biggest single event in the world that celebrates cinema, but mostly Hollywood movies.
Of course Hollywood sometimes gives us good movies, which unfortunately not many people see. And this has been a headache for the Academy. They want to celebrate the arts but, and this is understandable, if such movies are too obscure and young people are not watching them, the Oscars will fizzle out of existence, much like they came into popularity.
Alas, we have a mediocre, derivative and predictable superhero movie nominated for the first time in the Academy’s nearly century-old history. Black Panther gives all the relevance that the Oscars would like to cherish in an age dominated by TV, social media and pornography.
Black Panther was very popular, currently only behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar in North American box office, not an awful movie and helps fight against a debacle that has haunted the Academy ever since #OscarsSoWhite.
The last factor was especially important and betrays how determined the Academy was to be as safe as possible when it came to diversity. Three of the nominated movies are about racial relations, two literally have the word “black” in their titles, another two were selected to comfort the LGBTQ community and yet another one is about a poor Mexican maid. It was almost too cruel to nominate a Dick Cheney biography as well.
Black Panther was as worthy of a nomination in the most respected awards ceremony for films as its plot was logical. A movie about the family drama of a king of a highly advanced African civilisation that kept its peace as Hitler killed millions of Jews, Europe colonised African countries and black people were enslaved and treated brutally in the United States does not deserve such high accolades.
Fortunately, the Academy has a list of Best Picture nominees that are not as politically shameless as they are shallow. Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical Roma is the most acclaimed, and the most beautifully filmed as well. It is one more impressive movie on Cuaron’s resume proving that he can make any kind of great movies, whether it is a personal, emotional movie such as this, or a post-dystopian thriller like Children of Men, a visual extravaganza on the scale of Gravity or a fantasy roller coaster such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
A close contender to Roma is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a funny, philosophical, angry movie full of memorable characters, perhaps not as good as the timeless Do the Right Thing, but close. It is the relevant movie that, if politics has to figure into calculations for the Academy to stay pertinent, should win. It can be justified for it is brilliantly put together, serving as political commentary to the United States, without seeming pitiful or monotonic.
It is a new perspective on race, in thatit argues the greatest threats do not only come from the likes of David Duke but also cultural mainstays such the Birth of a Nation, a movie that is still held in high regard for its technical achievements. For Lee, the movie, in its presentation and conceptualisation, is emblematic of a deeply ingrained image of the African-American in American society. It is an image - the black man chasing a young, beautiful, white virgin - that is recurrently evoked to whip up hatred and violence.
Green Book is also a movie that explores race relations. Brilliantly acted by Mahershala Ali, it was a complex movie about two friends who bond, not despite, but in revolt of the leading social and political consciousness of the period they lived in. It follows a road movie formula but makes up for its lack of unpredictability with the excellent and relatable character exploration of the two protagonists.
Green Book was not the only film based on a true story that received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice are movies about the lives of two very famous people that were well directed, brilliantly acted and carefully composed.
But both were too straight forward and illustrative; they wanted to make a point that has already been made. Bohemian Rhapsody, which has a deservedly applauded concert scene, wanted to tell us that Freddie Mercury was a gifted, innocent but weird musician that can shine on the stage, which we all knew.
Vice was a scathing cinematic reconstruction of Dick Cheney’s political career that paints him as the autocratically-inclined, cruel and greedy hawk that is the source of many of the US’ problems now, which was a view that was already out there.
Such thematic predictability is easier to swallow in A Star is Born. An entertaining and well-acted remake, it would not have received a second thought had it been directed by someone known as a filmmaker and starred a professional actress.
Most of us liked it because it was a genuine surprise to find out that the guy from The Hangover, Bradley Cooper, could direct with such nuance and that pop singer who is perpetually dressed in the weirdest outfits she could come up with, Lady Gaga, could put up a good performance. Take out these two ingredients, and A Star is Born would have been dead on arrival as far as most audiences and movie critics were concerned.
But The Favorite, about two ambitious women who battle for the attention of Queen Ann of Great Britain, brilliantly portrayed by Olivia Colman, was an entirely different animal.
Like every project Yorgos Lanthimos gets his hands on, here is an excellent movie that pokes fun at society, privilege, power and the entire idea of being human. He uses actors the way a pianist makes use of keys. A true student of cinema, every scene and shot are structured to fit within the plot thread and overarching theme of the film. It is an absolute delight to watch, and then quietly contemplate the hopelessness Lanthimos shoots our way every time he makes a movie.
But, of course, as exceptional as some of the movies in the Best Picture category were, the actual best movie of this year did not even get a nomination except for Best Screenplay. First Reformed was indeed too under the radar and was largely an exploration of a pastor’s loss of faith, beautifully and metaphorically evoked in the planet’s loss of its natural habitats.
It is the kind of brief, slow-paced introspective movie that is trying to understand the human condition at a time of anger and confusion. With an ending that raises more questions than it answers, it is Paul Shrader’s passion project that boldly tries to emulate Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson and succeeds. It is the sort of film that wins Best Picture in an ideal world.
PUBLISHED ON Feb 23,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 982]
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