Oscars 2019: My Two Cents

I found this year’s crop of Oscar nominees to be all very strong and enjoyable. Last year, though the premises of many of the films were good, I felt they didn’t deliver. Of course, there were certain films and performances I liked more than others. Let’s have a look at what I saw, and what I thought! In no particular order (SOME “SPOILER” INFO FOR SOME FILMS):

-Bohemian Rhapsody. Don’t mind what the critics say–this film was hugely enjoyable. Part of the difficulty may be that it has been billed as a film about Freddie Mercury, but if viewers perceive the film as a biopic about the entire band of Queen and it being a sort of musical biography, based around the songs, it makes a lot more sense. Queen fans and musicians will rejoice to see how various songs came about. That said, of all the members of the band, Freddie gets the most attention. Rami Malek deserves the best male actor Oscar. Not just for his musical performances and embodiment of Freddie Mercury, but also for the fact that his character has to cover a very wide range of emotions and scenes. He has to be shyly introverted, but also flamboyant, sexually avaricious, tender, and driven. Gwilym Lee as a dead-ringer for Brian May also does a wonderful rounded nuanced, subtle job, which should not go unnoticed. The film takes us right back into the 70s and 80s and the musical cultural that era. It’s what a great film should be–well done and very entertaining.

-Can You Ever Forgive Me? This is a gem of a film, well-crafted, well-acted, without a lot of flash, but so enjoyable from start to finish. Melissa McCarthy is absolutely terrific in this dramatic role, she creates a very rounded portrayal of Lee Israel, who is a most unlikable character. And it is no surprise that Richard E. Grant is nominated for an Oscar, because he absolutely steals the scenes playing the smooth-talking, gay English gentle(con)man. The on-screen chemistry between McCarthy and Grant is phenomenal, and this film should have been nominated for best picture, actress, and director.

-Roma. A stunner. This film deserves to go down not only in Oscar history, but in film history. It harkens back to the era of Italian neorealism films, and at the very least, it should be immortalized in the Criterion Collection ASAP. Visually, it is gorgeous to look at, and the emotion feels so close and real, thanks to the genius of Alfonso Cuarón (of whose films I am a fan). Certainly, Yalitza Aparicio does a marvelous job as a first-time actress and is a worthy contender for best actress. The simplicity of this film is deceptive, because it deals with a lot of complex subject matter, sophisticated themes, and issues of class and race. At times heartbreaking, at other times heartwarming. Note the symbolism of water associated with Aparicio’s Cleo. Marina de Tavira’s mother is certainly well done, but it is not extraordinary, and her part feels so minimal that I confess I’m surprised she was nominated for an Oscar.

-The Wife. I saw a slightly abridged version on an airplane, and I only wished for more. I confessed I was resistant, was afraid the theme was just clichéd. However, the film is the well-acted, and well-directed, that I was immediately hooked. It might remind viewers of an Ingmar Bergman film, which is not surprising considering that director Björn Runge is a Swede. Very tightly focused and intimate, both Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close do a marvelous job as a longtime couple whose tensions come to the surface as they arrive in Stockholm for him to be honored with the Nobel Prize. Sometimes the story felt a bit thin, that it needed a little bit more to it, and Close’s scenes as Joan Castleman is a young woman were minimal, as were scenes about Pryce’s writing career. We truly feel what Joan feels; with a minimum of gestures, we see everything she’s experiencing through her facial expressions–we all know a Joan. The ending feels a bit odd and rushed (again, it may be due to the abridged version I saw). As above with Tavira, I think the role is well done, but not extraordinary.

-Green Book. This film drew out the most frustrated reactions from me. It is a very fascinating subject. Peter Farrelly has brought to the big screen a fascinating musical figure that even those of us were musicians have never heard of. And when he actually chooses to, he explores some complex topics related to race, especially in scenes between Tony and Don with good dialogue. Mahershala Ali is very well cast as the difficult, guarded Don Shirley, and brings a degree of nuance to the performance. Many people have commented that it is not entirely accurate, and Don Shirley’s family protested quite sharply. However, my problem with the film was that it was overall just very superficial. Farrelly could have dug deeper, gotten into more of the racial issues sooner–it was 2018/19 and we viewers know what has happened in history, so get us to the meat of the story ASAP! My other major problem with the film was Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip. Mortensen is always a strong and interesting actor, but here I feel his portrayal of a Bronx Italian man did not move beyond caricature. He is certainly affable, and an interesting character, but the accent and the choices did not convince me Mortensen was really inhabiting someone else. To me, this was a casting problem. Bobby Cannavale or another Italian-American actor could have been a better choice. But we have to give Farrelly an A for effort, as it was a sizable task to take on a film like this–it was brave and necessary at a time like this in American history, where black-white relations are still under negotiation.

-The Favourite. I knew what I was getting into when I saw it. I knew it was a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and having seen The Lobster, my suspicions were correct: it is bizarre. The tone is just as dark and odd, as is the lighting. And overall, the film just feels at times silly. We don’t know anything about the backstory or history; everything is on the surface, it feels like it is there more to serve the director’s vision. What is this film supposed to be? A dark comedy? An Art Film? What are the motivations and reasons for things, beyond what we can see in Emma Stone’s Abigail? While Stone did a surprisingly good job and convincing English accent, and the always-wonderful Rachel Weisz was deliciously scheming, I did not feel Olivia Colman was regal enough to play Queen Anne. In this film, we see the what and the how, but never the why. The art direction was indeed superb, as were the costumes. But this kind of trying to be artsy for the sake of it comes across as pompous and annoying.

-A Star is Born. Mixed reactions. A writer friend had warned me that the script was weak, and I concur. Bradley Cooper is certainly an excellent actor, but the cause and effect (especially with how Jack and Ally fall in love) just doesn’t add up. At times the story just feels ragged and we wonder how things got to where they are. It feels like a collection of scenes, without a really through-composed storyline: scenes in search of a movie. Lady Gaga is surprisingly very good and deserves her Oscar nomination. When she is stripped of her fuss and feathers as a performer in real life, she truly has a vulnerability and ordinary girl-persona that is truly believable. (I have always felt that she is a better interpreter than she is an original artist; everything she does of her own accord as a pop singer is always derivative of someone else). We don’t get enough of her in the film, as the film focuses more heavily on Jack. Sam Elliott is indeed reliable and strong as Jack’s brother, but again, I think it’s nothing extraordinary. Overall, I felt this film was overrated.

I have to give a shout out to Mary Poppins Returns. Though the story is weak and odd (do kids really want to hear about mortgage payments?), the movie is pure entertainment and absolutely drop-dead gorgeous on the big screen. With a cast of superb actors (including a cameo from Dick Van Dyke!) and wonderful music, it’s a treat for kids of all ages. My elderly father said he was transported back to childhood and left the theater with a huge grin. Lin-Manuel Miranda really deserved an Oscar nomination (my father is a new fan), as did director Rob Marshall, and everyone who worked on any visual and costume elements.

I’ll stop here – it’s time to have dinner and watch the Oscars!