3 weeks ago
As the Oscar race begins to gel – some would say ossify – the season of the late-entry holiday surprises is upon us.
There’s usually at least one highly anticipated film that a studio sneaks to critics prior to awards voting that attempts to goose the race. This year that movie is Adam McKay’s Vice (opening Christmas Day), the fact-crammed biopic of Republican Vice President Richard “Dick” Cheney, with shapeshifter Christian Bale packing on forty pounds to play George W. Bush’s dangerous and powerful number two. Ever the Oscar bridesmaid with five nominations, Amy Adams plays his wife, Lynne.
Strong early buzz welcomes Vice, following in the footsteps of McKay’s The Big Short, which won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (a consolation prize). The new film has risen into the hallowed top eight to ten potential nominees for Best Picture. While Bale, nominated for Best Actor for The Big Short, has stepped up in a relatively weak Best Actor race to become the front-runner (unrecognizability is always a turn-on), and the popular Adams may toy with yet another win just beyond her reach, the darkly humorous and ultimately feel-bad film will not unseat the existing pack.
So what films are serious contenders, holding on for dear life since the early autumn festivals in Telluride and Toronto? Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born remains the one to beat, which shocks but doesn’t surprise me. My bias: I have little interest in big-budget remakes of a remake when so many stories of diverse people remain untold. And while the Barbra Streisand version features the youthful yumminess of Kris Kristofferson it remains relatively kitschy though a big step up from Babs’ Yentl.
Lady Gaga: you are no Judy Garland. I could stop there but, really, James Mason in the Bradley Cooper role? Let us pause for a moment of silence honoring the brilliant three-time nominee and star of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, among many other classics (Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest!). That was gravitas. He was a grown-up, not a guy in Birkenstocks and cargo pants in the dead of winter.
I’d refuse to be stuck in the past on principle but my current favorite among the pack leaders is Green Book, a crowd-pleasing character-driven period piece. It’s about Southern intolerance pairing two-time Oscar-nominee Viggo Mortensen and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as a Bronx Italian driver and his cultured jazz pianist boss.
In the current climate, there are problems here as well: a white male writer-director in Peter Farrelly, a movie that favors the perspective of Mortensen’s jamoke enough to make his role the Best Actor Nominee and Ali’s the supporting contender. But that reductionism fails to recognize the bromance’s fact-based roots and the deftly entertaining performances, writing and direction.
I’ve had to sacrifice my absolute favorite, Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaron’s black-and-white masterpiece Roma. I consider it the decade’s best movie. Yet I’ve heard grumbles about the opening scene in which the camera follows the rhythmic waves of soapy, dog poo cleansing water as if it were the waves of the Pacific, and the patient storytelling style it reflects. However, the real stake in the heart is that it has become the clear one-to-beat in the Best Foreign Language Film competition. It is likely to win there – and leave a spot for another film in its place among the Best Picture contenders.
At this point, the three movies directed by black men — BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther — will likely become Best Picture nominees but are long shots for the win. Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins may find their way into the competitive Best Director category, too, but there’s no guarantee. Black Panther‘s Ryan Coogler is restrained by the bias against comic-book crowd-pleasers.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-bait The Favourite, the vivid British Restoration three-way All About Eve has plummy roles for its leading ladies Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. All are likely to be nominated. However, I’m afraid all the frenetic energy and naughty bits Lanthimos (The Lobster) propels in the service of England’s Queen Anne sacrifices the intellect, intelligence and political savvy of its major female characters on the altar of spectacle.
On a lighter note of retro female empowerment, Mary Poppins Returns has just begun to screen for critics. Doubtless this Poppins, played by Emily Blunt in the Julie Andrews role, will not be popping her bodice. Opening on December 19th to serve the family audience opposite the adult-themed Vice over the Christmas holiday, Rob Marshall’s musical remake may be good enough for a box-office hit and a Best Picture nomination but is unlikely to seize the top spot. However, Blunt will elbow her way into the crowded Best Actress field.
Rocket-fueled First Man, a leading favorite out of Toronto, may be last out the door. The brilliant exercise by Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle has been caught in the winds of change. It’s just not the year for a savior white man movie. Newcomer Vice raises the affiliated question: Is it then the year of the demon white male politician movie? No. Neither is fashionable in 2018.