Best Picture Countdown #3: Roma

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”Marina de Tavira as Sofía in Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical drama Roma has become the Awards season darling over the last few months, racking up heaps of praise from critics and audiences alike – though many viewers never had the chance to see it on the big screen. Despite a limited theatrical run, Roma, currently streaming on Netflix, has dominated the awards circuit and steamrolled over films once considered favorites for Oscar night. Though, as someone who had to watch it in her living room, perhaps a film that is so personal and evocative is best seen in a more intimate setting.

Roma_theatrical_poster

Roma is a film that looks simple on the surface – following the life of a housekeeper and her interactions with the family she works for in Mexico from 1970 to 1971 – but, as it unfurls onscreen, develops into a deeply nuanced film with a multi-tiered message that audiences are free to interpret how they see fit. Some might relate to Cleo’s struggles, some to Sofía and her troubled marriage, some to Teresa as a concerned spectator in the lives of loved ones, some as the children who are unaware, yet so intrinsically involved in events they have no control over.

The only reason this film doesn’t rank higher for me personally is that I found parts of the narrative to be aimless – naked hotel-room martial arts included. I mean, I’m all for films that don’t follow a standard story structure, as it allows for a more thorough exploration for the viewer, but this film didn’t hit quite as hard for me as other Best Picture nominees. Still, after the credits rolled, I fund my mind dissecting and rolling over the events of the film, trying to piece together moments I might have missed, and lining up motivations that perhaps evaded my notice, so, even if it wasn’t my favorite, Roma lingered in my mind in a profound manner. So much of this film is revealed through subtleties and in what is left unsaid. The screenplay’s universality, crafted with love and precision by Cuarón drawing on events from his own childhood, makes it a front-runner for the Best Original Screenplay award.

Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo is a triumph, as she exudes an earnestness that makes the character both sympathetic and relatable. Keeping the character grounded gives her an honest quality, one that makes her compelling to watch, and invests the viewer in her journey. However, facing Gaga, Colman, and Close will be a tough battle to win, though Aparicio, if she walks away with the gold on Oscar night, is 100% deserving. Same goes for de Tavira, who gives an understated performance as the suffering matriarch who aims to keep her family together as she feels her life falling apart.

However, since I interpreted the writing as one of the strongest facets of this film, I also found myself connecting more with the “behind the scenes” efforts. The cinematography is excellent, as is the production design, and I won’t be surprised if it nabs trophies for both. It might sound superficial, but a film that is already beautiful in its writing and performances is often buoyed even more when it looks beautiful, too, and Roma is no exception to that. And Cuarón, the favorite for Best Director, wholly deserves to take home that honor for the extensive work he put in to make this project what it is.

Whether or not it takes home the Best Picture gold – and I’m pretty sure it will – Roma is basically a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film, and is virtually guaranteed to score multiple awards on Oscar night. Seeing a project that Cuarón put so much effort into earn so many accolades is rewarding in itself, especially because he is a filmmaker who comes across as someone who connects deeply with, and is steadfastly dedicated to his craft. And the fact that this film was made for Netflix count have a big impact on the way films made for streaming are treated by the Academy. As it currently stands, I believe this stunning film will go 5 for 10, but I won’t be surprised if it takes home even more.

Oscar Nominations: 10
Best Picture
Best Director (Cuarón)
Best Actress (Aparicio)
Best Supporting Actress (de Tavira)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

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Best Picture Countdown #4: A Star is Born

“Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All the artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.”Sam Elliott as Bobby Maine in A Star is Born (2018)

Early into awards-speculation season, Bradley Cooper’s highly-anticipated directorial debut A Star is Born seemed a clear front-runner for some big trophies, but as awards season reaches its peak, the film has become more of an underdog. The latest in a string of four remakes, A Star is Born chronicles the turbulent love story of rock star Jackson Maine and aspiring songstress Ally – played by vocal powerhouse Lady Gaga – as they struggle to balance the pressures of fame and their personal demons while preserving their relationship and passion for music.

220px-A_Star_is_BornThis film manages a monumental achievement in telling a story that has been told before, yet still making it emotionally engrossing for the viewer. I personally had some issues with the ideas presented in the film – such as the message the last song (as beautiful as Gaga sings it) seems to be giving – which spurred some disappointment. But disregarding my little quibbles, the narrative strikes familiar beats and treads well-known ground, and yet, feels fresh and new, in large part thanks to sizzling chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. Their mesmerizing performances make this film.

Despite what might be a career-best performance by Cooper and a thrilling big-screen debut by Gaga, the competition in both Best Actor and Actress categories is fierce – probably a little too fierce. Jackson Maine has to battle both Dick Cheney and Freddie Mercury, and Ally must take down a wife and a queen. But even if there are 99 other nominees in the room that night, I’m sure B-Coop and Gaga would pick one another to win.

And as much as I would LOVE for Sam Elliott – who is egregiously underrated, despite having one of the best narrator-voices out there – to take home the gold for Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali’s performance in Green Book has been stomping over the competition all season, and that train doesn’t seem to be stopping. If Elliott had a bit more screen time it might be a different story, but despite it all, he gives an excellent performance as the growly-voiced brother of Cooper’s troubled crooner.

Obviously, at least one award is essentially guaranteed for this film, and that is Best Original Song for “Shallow.” I had chills the first time I heard a snippet of it in the trailer. It’s a great song and fully deserves the victory, end of. Cinematography also has a fair chance – it’s a gorgeous film, which makes it all the more shameful that Cooper is not nominated for his brilliant directing – but Adapted Screenplay has become a bit of a long-shot as the season rolls ahead. The other awards are all more or less toss-ups, too.

Even if it has become an underdog, and the blazing praise it received upon release has petered out to a respectable glimmer, A Star is Born cannot be fully counted out – not when it has resonated so deeply with audiences, through both the music and the story. It is a film born of passion, and that shines through onscreen – but I have my doubts it will take home the ultimate prize. Still, I am predicting that the film will go 2 for 8 on the night, though I’m hoping it will get 3.

 

Oscar Nominations: 8
Best Picture
Best Actor (Cooper)
Best Actress (Gaga)
Best Supporting Actor (Elliott)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Sound Mixing
Best Cinematography
Best Original Song

Best Picture Countdown #5: Black Panther

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”Chadwick Boseman as T’Challah in Black Panther (2018)

In a world where audiences are growing weary of superhero movies in spite of their box office dominance, it is difficult for comic book films to break free from formulaic constraints and genre tropes. But Marvel’s Black Panther defied the odds by subverting expectations and earning the first ever Best Picture nomination for a superhero film.

Black_Panther_film_posterBlack Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, chronicles the rise of T’Challah as the titular hero as he seeks to protect the ones he loves and the country of Wakanda from a foe who threatens to expose their secrets to the world. It is one of the first Marvel movies to think “beyond the cape,” as it features a unique world and culture, a fully three-dimensional villain with motives that mark him more man than monster, and gorgeous effects, costumes, and music that combine to weave a powerful story while maintaining Marvel’s trademark spectacle, heart, and humor. It is also probably one of the Marvel films that audiences can connect with the most, and helped to reinvigorate weary audiences and amp them up for future films.

Though Black Panther did not garner any acting nods, I will not be surprised if it scores wins for both Production Design and Costume Design; particularly the latter. The costumes are all fantastic and gorgeously designed, though The Favourite will be a tough contender to beat.

Ludwig Göransson’s score is also up, but it will be a challenge to take down the likes of returning champion Alexandre Desplat and Terence Blanchard, but it could be anyone’s game, especially since Göransson’s efforts helped set the tone of the film and gave it a distinct, rich sound. Less likely is a Best Original Song victory for “All the Stars,” simply because ASiB is almost guaranteed to win.

At first, I understood the opinion of those who believe this film is unworthy of such distinction, even though I didn’t agree. After all, I don’t think Black Panther is the best superhero film ever, and many deserving films (*cough* The Dark Knight*cough*) have been unjustly ignored by the Academy in the past. But Black Panther‘s nomination isn’t about those snubbed films. The Academy has changed over the years, and the fact that it is finally acknowledging the profound effect of superhero movies on the world of cinema is a monumental step forward for “popular” films. In what seems to be an endless stream of films featuring masked crusaders, multi-hero team-ups, and high-stakes battles to the death, Black Panther is commendable for producing a fresh, engrossing story featuring relevant real-world issues and introducing characters that have already become some of Marvel’s most fully-realized and compelling.

Regardless of its massive and well-deserved success, I don’t think Black Panther will be able to topple the other favorites in the race for Best Picture this year. It is a great film – and a phenomenal superhero film – but T’Challah and co. will be facing the fight of their lives on Oscar night. But I sincerely hope it does not go home empty handed, and am predicting it will go 2/7 on the night. I am also looking forward to seeing the stunning cast on the red carpet, representing this fantastic film!

Oscar Nominations: 7
Best Picture
Best Original Score
Best Original Song
Best Costume Design
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing 

Best Picture Countdown #7: Vice

“I can feel your recriminations and your judgment, and I am fine with that. You want to be loved, go be a movie star. The world is as you find it. You got to deal with that reality, and there are monsters in this world.”Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice (2018)

 Of all the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Vice, directed by Adam McKay, might be the most divisive. Depicting the rise to power of former Vice President Dick Cheney and his involvement in several critical moments in American political history, this film is at parts an illuminating look into the elusive “perhaps this happened” and also a bleak, almost nihilistic approach to exposing corruption of power when it is placed in the hands of a “monster.”

Vice_(2018_film_poster).png I personally went into Vice not expecting to see “true events” depicted verbatim, especially considering the film is classified as a “dramedy,” not a straight-up biopic. Treading the line between fiction and reality is precarious for filmmakers, and that seems to be what much of the criticism of this film is based on. Obviously, since Cheney himself was not involved in the making of the film, the audience needs to take it with a grain of salt and an open mind, regardless of political affiliation. But watching it, I found parts of it eerily compelling in the same vein as a car wreck – because, although we may never know exactly what went on behind closed doors, the very possibility is terrifying. I might dare to suggest many elements came across as plausible, though that might just be a testament to McKay’s writing, which is deservedly nominated. Films do not need to be “accurate” to be “true.” And maybe, some folks don’t like exploring the mere possibility that our elected officials have hidden agendas. But, I don’t want this to turn into a political tirade, so…

Much like Bohemian Rhapsody, this film is buoyed by a transformative performance by leading man Christian Bale, who is at times utterly unrecognizable as Cheney, with no small thanks to the makeup and hairstyling team, which are a front-runner for the Oscar. It looks to be a two-horse race between Malek and Bale for the Best Actor gold, with Bradley Cooper a semi-distant dark horse, but I won’t be disappointed by either result. Amy Adams turns in a sharp performance as Lynne Cheney, but, as much as I’d love to see her take home a victory for Supporting Actress, I think the odds are stacked against her this year. Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush is riveting (and almost cartoonish) to watch, but it is not likely enough to elevate him above the fierce competition in the supporting actor category.

Now, the real strength of Vice shines in the editing. Some critics may not agree, but Hank Corwin masterfully maneuvers this film through rapid switches in tone (there’s a Shakespearean exchange between the Cheneys, a marvelous scene where political officials are ordering “dinner,” and important conversations inter-cut with scenes of Cheney fishing) in order to keep the film from flying off the rails. Precise editing also prevents the film from losing the messages it’s trying to deliver, and when placed in conjunction with McKay’s writing, the combination makes the editing a standout. It’s already gotten a BAFTA for editing, so that momentum might carry over to the big night.

As much as I personally enjoyed Vice, as a critique, an exploration, and an artistic approach to uncovering “truth,” I won’t deny that it is problematic for valid reasons, and, as a result, I doubt it will take home the ultimate prize come Oscar night. However, I am predicting Vice will take home two awards, and end up going 2/8.

Oscar Nominations: 8
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor (Bale)
Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell)
Best Supporting Actress (Adams)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing
Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Best Picture Countdown #8: Bohemian Rhapsody

This is when the operatic section comes in.” – Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Bringing up the rear in my Best Picture countdown is the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by *redacted* and Dexter Fletcher. It’s earned a boatload of money all over the world and is both a visual and auditory spectacle, but when stacked against the other nominees in this category, this film strikes a bit of a sour note.

Of course, the major highlight of this film is Rami Malek’s eclectic and electric performance as Mercury. It’s clear in every nuanced look, flamboyant movement, and subtle – or not so subtle – gesture that Malek poured his heart and soul into this role, and his Oscar nomination is no great surprise. At this point, it seems to be a two-horse race between Malek and Christian Bale, with dark horse Bradley Cooper not far behind. It’s only a shame that the overall film – despite excellent supporting performances and brilliant editing, and, I’m sure, no thanks to production issues – does not quite elevate itself to the same level.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a bad film – but, it’s not what I’d call great. While Queen’s music and Freddie Mercury’s legacy have endured for decades, this film is, by contrast, almost forgettable. It doesn’t even play like a biopic because it glosses over and adds a saccharine, almost stereotypical sheen to several of the depicted events, which makes it feel fictional and disingenuous. There are times where the film feels raw, and intense – the Live Aid performance in particular, which is also an astounding accomplishment in editing – but at other points, it feels… fake. Fudging dates and swapping facts might come across to some as taking creative license, but, it can also read more as an attempt to revise history, and inject needless drama into what is already a compelling story.

Beneath the flashy costumes, legendary music, and Malek’s incredible performance, this tale of a band’s turbulent rise to stardom fails to dig as deep as it should. Historical inaccuracies and director controversy aside, I will be stunned if it takes home the gold on the 24th. A win for Malek, though, would be well-deserved. All in all, I’m predicting Bohemian Rhapsody won’t go home empty-handed, and will go 1/5 on the night.

Oscar Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Malek)
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Film Editing

Best Picture Countdown #1: Call Me By Your Name

“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything … what a waste!” – Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman, Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Rating: R
Runtime: 2hr 12min

Call Me By Your Name follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Chalamet) and his evolving relationship with his father’s grad student assistant, Oliver (Hammer) over a summer in Northern Italy in the early 80’s. As their emotional and physical intimacy develops, Elio learns valuable lessons about sexuality, relationships, and the warring sweetness and grief that comes with love.

CallMeByYourName2017Of all 9 nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age drama about a sensual summer in Italy hit the hardest, spoke the loudest, and shone the brightest. It rocketed to the top of my personal list the moment I stepped out of the theater and has remained there ever since, though it wasn’t the last nominated film I saw. Upon reviewing all the nominees, Call Me By Your Name felt like the most well-rounded film; the music, the cinematography, the directing, the acting, the visuals, and the writing all combined for an utterly compelling cinematic experience, and I think it deserved more than the 4 nominations it received.

This film’s premise isn’t overly complicated – at the basest level, it’s a summer romance. And yet, it is so much more. Call Me By Your Name is an exploration into the complexities of human sexuality, a celebration of first love and savoring every sweet moment before an inevitable goodbye, and each small moment or movement – whether it be dancing in the streets,  yearning for watch-hands to tick faster, a long bicycle ride in the balmy heat of summer, or the music of a piano soaring through a room for an audience of one – bears significance. This film is a warm sweater on a rainy day, a dip in a pool beneath the scorching sun, a snapshot of a happy memory pinned to a cork board, and the sort of movie that invokes emotion without trying too hard to jerk at the heartstrings.

Gary Oldman is a juggernaut in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and has been collecting hardware all season, but I am actually pulling for underdog Chalamet to pull out a win. His performance as Elio was breathtaking, even in moments of silence. He perfectly captured and expressed the feelings of being young, in love, and uncertain – my heart broke when he called his mother near the end of the film and asked, “Can you come get me?” with his back hunched and voice breaking. Honestly, I think he deserves the award for the last two minutes/credits sequence of the film alone. Even if he doesn’t win, a thousand gold stars to him. A THOUSAND, I SAY.

The chemistry and rapport between Hammer (who was unjustly snubbed for a Best Supporting nod, if you ask me) and Chalamet sold the romance 100%; their interactions felt genuine, their conversations natural, their hesitations understandable, and the evolution of their feelings for one another was an earnest, well-paced, and nicely developed journey, not just a mechanical “point A to point B to point C” narrative. It’s refreshing in a romance to see the less confident, more nerve-wracked person (Elio) being the one to initially make a move, contrasting with Oliver’s internal conflict over whether or not to act on his feelings due to the potential complications – a small subversion of genre expectations. The ups and downs of their relationship unfold with authenticity and passion and reveal both the positives and negatives of a consuming summer love and how it can make a heart soar, or sink, depending on the circumstances.

The rest of the cast is also excellent in their roles, especially Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman. His speech to Elio in the last third of the film is, in my opinion, the most poignant and powerful piece of writing (and one of the overall best acting feats) seen onscreen in all of 2017. If you glean nothing else from this film, that quote – the one I put in at the top of this post – is a message that should be taken to heart, and called upon when grief seems to usurp all other feelings.

For moments like that, and for several others, I’m predicting a Best Adapted Screenplay victory for James Ivory’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel. When a screenwriter takes care of the characters and manages to add their own flair while remaining faithful and doing justice to the source material, even if they must make changes, it’s obvious that a lot of attention and care has gone into the effort. Ivory’s screenplay is superb; jam-packed with emotion and moments that linger in the mind and heart, and his words, combined with the excellent performances, made the characters feel alive. Even the smallest statements, the most subtle looks or phrases or movements, the softest sighs or simplest glances, have power in this film, and the writing is a huge part of that. I also think – like Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards – that Gudagnino was snubbed for a Best Director nom, but whatev… nothing to be done about it now.

I’m rooting for Sufjan Stevens to take home the Best Original Song award for his song “Mystery of Love,” but it’s probably going to get downed by The Greatest Showman‘s “This is Me,” or Coco‘s “Remember Me” – which is fine, because those songs are total jams. Regardless, I look forward to seeing Sufjan perform the song on Sunday night.

If Call Me By Your Name takes home the gold for Best Picture tomorrow night, I will actually scream and jump up and down in my living room, and I don’t even care if my neighbors get pissed. This film is a triumph – the kind of film you want to embrace and carry its warmth with you for as long as you can, or recall in moments of grief. It might be considered a long-shot in all categories but one, but this masterpiece deserves the highest honor on Oscar Night, and I’m really hoping that it emerges as the champion – but even if it doesn’t, it’s still my top film of 2017.

Oscar Nominations
Best Actor (Chalamet)
Best Original Song
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Picture

For my full review of Call Me By Your Name from earlier this year, click HERE!

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