This year’s Academy Awards is set to be one fit for screens of any size, with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma – a Netflix production – earning 10 Oscar nominations.
On Tuesday morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its nominations for the 91st edition of the Oscars, with Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite tying Cuaron’s film with 10 nods, and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born tying Adam McKay’s Vice with eight.
But while last year’s Oscars was a mostly predictable affair – Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which landed a near-record 13 nominations, won best picture, a result many industry-watchers had counted on since it dominated the fall film-festival circuit – this year’s race is now certified as the wildest, and ugliest, in recent memory.
First, consider the ongoing societal conversations rightly turning the film world inside out. There’s #MeToo, an issue that a good portion of Hollywood would prefer locking away inside, say, John Lasseter’s new desk at Skydance Animation. There’s #OscarsSoWhite, which isn’t going away despite everyone’s best performances of progressive lip-service. And there’s the underlying issue of how show business can continue operating as, well, a business, given the massive disruption from streaming giants such as Netflix, and the central philosophical question of “What is a movie, any way?”
Each of this year's best picture nominees must reconcile with these issues, and whichever film the Academy decides to put on its pedestal will say volumes about just how prepared the industry is for the future.
Take Green Book, which is shaping up to be this year’s Driving Miss Daisy – a purportedly nuanced look at racism that is mostly an excuse to explore one white character’s journey toward tolerance. An added toxic bonus: It was conceived by a white director (who happens to have a history of flashing his penis for yuks) and two white co-writers (one of whom has displayed enthusiasm for an Islamophobic conspiracy, care of Donald Trump).
The inelegant and frequently superficial Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, also up for best actor for Rami Malek, arrives courtesy of a director (Bryan Singer) who was fired mid-production, and is facing a lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault.
Vice, which also netted nods for stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, portrays former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney as one of history’s greatest supervillains, but does so in the most hectoring and condescending manner that its politics become unbearable no matter which side you sit on the left-right divide.
Even though it has liberal bona fides and acts as everything Green Book isn’t – namely, it is thoughtful, provocative and challenging – Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman arrives with its own baggage, too. There are the critiques (including from fellow filmmaker Boots Riley) that Lee has delivered a too-slick and politically ambivalent satire, one which makes palatable historically racist law-enforcement agencies.
Matters are both less and more complicated for Roma. While Alfonso Cuaron’s depiction of class in 1970s Mexico City has inspired a small contingent of skeptics, it’s mostly adored, and with Tuesday’s announcement becomes just the 11th foreign-language film to be nominated for the Oscars' top prize. Yet it also arrived in the world thanks to traditional Hollywood’s arch enemy, Netflix. If it wins, it would signal a seismic shift in how movies get made.
A similar argument could be made for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. It arrives from Disney, the most old-school of studios, but it’s also a superhero film, the first blockbuster of its kind to net a best picture Oscar nomination. And that’s likely as far as it’ll go, too, given that all the industry gatekeepers (at least those outside Fortress Mickey) would drop dead were a comic-book film to be declared best picture of the year, and all the precedence that would set.
The only films that arrive with little to no controversy are Lanthimos’s The Favourite (although it does beg comparisons to the Trump age) and Cooper’s A Star Is Born. But although the latter movie is highly regarded among critics and audiences, what will it say if the Academy honours a remake of a remake of a remake?
(Meanwhile, Oscar’s favourite sons of 2017, La La Land’s Damien Chazelle and Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, each got the cold shoulder this year, despite directing films – First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk, respectively – that more thoughtfully reflect conversations of power and privilege, and do so with artful eyes toward exploring humanity’s basic journey of love and loss.)
This car crash of problematic nominees will further lead to a pileup of epic proportions, once factoring in the speeding death-trap that is the Academy itself. Going host-less for the first time in three decades – and compounded by a series of inside-baseball controversies roiling its membership – the Academy Awards is thick in the middle of an identity crisis. It has to deliver an entertaining show under the course of four hours (please, god), all while appeasing its broadcast overlords at ABC, every single artist in Hollywood and anyone out there who still makes the effort to trek outside their Netflix-equipped living room/kitchen/washroom to visit a theatre. Understandably, it’s a difficult and probably impossible balancing act.
As with most years, the 2019 Academy Awards are not about singling out what the “best” pictures are. They’re a glitzy referendum on the state of the industry, a star-studded weather report on which way the winds are blowing. And this year, there’s a hurricane headed toward the Dolby Theatre.
The 91st Academy Awards will be broadcast live on Feb. 24 on ABC and CTV