After dozens of forays to FilmScene and local multiplexes in 2018, crunching countless popcorn kernels in anticipation of celebrating the best of the best come February 2019, it was both anticlimactic and disappointing to see a line-up of Best Picture nominees that included the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, Green Book and Black Panther.
That’s not to say these films are without merit — well, at least one of them is without merit, and it’s not the one with the platinum soundtrack from Kendrick Lamar — but they seem so minor league when you think of the films that could, should have gotten a boost from the Academy Awards.
Like many of my fellow cinephiles, I had my Best Pic picks lined up by New Year’s Eve; in a few places I agreed with the Academy, others, not so much. So, without beating around the bush (or Cheney. Sorry, Vice, I seemed to have forgotten to include you), here is an alternative top eight.
Yes, this one made the Academy’s line-up as well. It likely won’t take home the little gold man, but it’s probably my favo(u)rite film of 2018.
As someone who’s watched the soapy costume drama The Other Boleyn Girl approximately 67 times and loved every second of it, I don’t require my British historical fiction to be particularly polished. And yet The Favourite is — it has a coy sense of humor, an undercurrent of dread and intrigue, and a truly special, unsettling performance by Olivia Colman as a manic-depressive Queen Anne. The Favourite is unabashedly queer, themes of gender and sexual politics woven into the gorgeous fabrics of its 18th-century costumes.
The odd tone of Yorgos Lanthimos’ film likely won’t jibe with every movie-goer, but all you peasants, whether uncomfortable or entranced, should readily bow at its feet.
(Sidenote: I’m pleased to see the three principle cast members nominated for acting honors, but how Emma Stone can pass for a supporting actress is beyond me. I swear she has more screen time than Colman, nominated in the Best Actress category. The Oscars are truly an unknowable being or, more bluntly, arbitrary as hell.)
This may be an odd thing to say of a movie I adored, but I’ve never cried at a film as much as I did watching Eighth Grade from the back row at FilmScene. It’s not that this movie is sad, per say, but there’s something poignant — in this case, both empowering and embarrassing — about seeing yourself truly represented in a piece of art.
Kayla (played to perfection by Elsie Fisher, a huge Best Actress snub), is an insecure eighth grader in her last week of school, intent on capturing a modicum of confidence, a friend or two and a few happy memories before kissing middle school goodbye. At home, Kayla shouts into the void of the internet, making stuttering self-help videos on YouTube with an average of one or two views each, and incessantly liking the Instagram posts of her classmates. Meanwhile, her adoring father tries to walk the fine line between being supportive and validating to his daughter and giving her the independence she craves as a young teenager.
Though I didn’t use social media until high school, Kayla’s character — constantly nervous without a definitive source of her insecurity — is very much me and plenty of other “quiet” kids at that age. First-time director Bo Burnham, a comedian I’ve followed since his own early days on YouTube, has created an authentic, intimate, loving and, yes, often cringey depiction of female adolescence in the 21st century. Even if you weren’t moved as I was, you’ll no doubt find a lot to cheer (and dab) for in Eighth Grade.
Take a contemporary film and strip away the CGI, fantastical settings, elaborate costumes, plot twists, thematic score, sweeping camera shots, comedy and even its color. For many of the movies made in 2018, there wouldn’t be a lot left, and that’s not inherently bad. But it makes a film like Roma seem like it’s transported from another time, and you’re not sure if it’s the past or the future. It urges you to lean in and listen.
Roma, another official Best Picture nominee, is a deeply personal film from auteur director Alfonso Cuarón, a slice-of-life story about a housekeeper tending to a broken family in early 1970s Mexico City while experiencing her own coming of age. With situations ranging from relatable to breathtaking, quirky to heartbreaking, Roma is affecting without being “difficult,” even-paced without being “slow.” It’s worthy of the hype, and certainly a Netflix watch.
If it doesn’t nab Best Picture, it’s at least a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film. But the Oscar I’d be most interested to see it score is in the Best Actress category for star Yalitza Aparicio, the first indigenous woman nominated for an Academy Award.
If Beale Street Could Talk
The film I was most surprised to see snubbed in the Best Picture category was Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name.
Despite rave reviews, I didn’t expect to adore If Beale Street Could Talk, since I’m not big on romance narratives. But it didn’t take long to remember why I loved Moonlight in the first place — the gorgeous cinematography, nuanced performances, thoughtful examination of complicated relationships, an appreciation for the city in which its set — and realize the same attributes applied to Beale Street.
The film follows Tish, a 19-year-old black woman in late-’70s New York City, whose fiancé Fonny has been falsely accused of rape. As their families struggle to exonerate Fonny, Tish finds out she’s pregnant. The film jumps back and forth in time from the fairy-tale beginning of the couple’s relationship to their stark, sordid present. But whether they’re dancing in the street after securing their first apartment or comforting each other from opposite sides of prison glass, love colors every scene.
The characters are sweet (admittedly sometimes a little too much so), the settings feel lived-in, Jenkins’ use of straight-on close-ups that drift in and out of focus remain effective in capturing characters’ states of mind, and issues of racism, both institutional and casual, are examined in a way that reminds one how far we’ve come in the past 40 years, but more importantly, how much, much further we still have to go to forge an equal society.
I was not surprised to see First Reformed left off the official Best Picture list — the Academy loves socially relevant dramas, but Paul Schrader’s latest film is downright dark, filmed in a straightforward style but with touches of ambiguity and esotericism that aren’t the bread and butter of an academy that deemed Crash a nuanced cultural analysis. Schrader did, however, secure a much-deserved nomination for Best Screenplay.
First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke at his very best (though it’s hard to compare this quiet performance to his more manic, Oscar-nominated turn in Boyhood), as Reverend Toller, a priest with a sad past, charged with providing tours and sermons at the 250-year-old First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. First Reformed is owned by a megachurch a few miles away, which in turn is supported by the head of a massive corporation responsible for global pollution.
Toller is approached one day by a pregnant woman (Amanda Seifried), concerned about her husband, Michael. Michael is an ex-environmental activist, consumed by his fear for the earth’s future and repulsed by the idea of bringing a child onto a condemned planet. From the moment Toller sits down to have a conversation with Michael, his life sets off on a new and dangerous course.
Watching films with climate change at their center is never particularly attractive to me — it doesn’t take long for the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness to take over. But First Reformed addresses that discomfort, and draws apt comparisons to religious fear, faith, denial, hypocrisy and extremism. It may not be the easiest watch, but Schrader’s film manages to be both important and entertaining.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
There are no perfect movies, but I believe there are perfect movie-going experiences, from which you can walk away feeling thoroughly ravished in spite of a film’s flaws. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one such experience, or at least darn close — a impeccably paced film with layered characters, captivating performances, an avoidance of clichés and a Lady Bird-eque balance of comedy and drama. To top it off, it provides excellent representation of gay and lesbian characters without the film being “about” their sexualities.
Based on Lee Israel’s memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? stars Melissa McCarthy as Israel, a lonely, misanthropic, cat-loving washed-up writer struggling to pay her rent in New York City. Around the same time she stumbles upon a new friend — the flamboyant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel’s match in terms of wit, bitchiness and love of stiff drinks — Israel discovers a new talent for forgery. Using her intimate knowledge of famous writers, she crafts fraudulent personal letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward and sells them to wealthy collectors. Of course, Israel’s quick-money scheme catches up with her, but if you’re expecting an ending as moralistic and seemingly sincere as the film’s title, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t see fit to nominate this small but exquisite story for Best Picture, I’ll simply cheer on McCarthy and Grant in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories, respectively. Oh, and don’t miss McCarthy’s Fresh Air interview, in which she discusses the ways she relates to Israel. It was the main reason I sought out the film.
No documentary has ever been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. If the Oscars really wanted to shake things up this year, giving Free Solo a nod beyond the Best Documentary Feature category would have been headline-grabbing and not as disingenuous as, say, nominating a formulaic, poorly reviewed, Queen karaoke biopic directed by an alleged serial sexual assaulter that just happened to make millions at the box office.
But I digress.
Free Solo may not be the most Important or Groundbreaking documentary released since the formation of the Academy Awards, but it’s an all-around awesome film. Literally awe-inspiring, Free Solo profiles rock climber Alex Honnold, who prefers to scale cliff faces without ropes. Honnold is one of the more nuanced characters to come out of 2018 — humble, self-aware and hungry for love, while also pinning his life on the flawlessness of his hand and foot holds, and putting those who do love him in the unenviable position of sitting back and watching him risk his life rather than invite his resentment. You may not fall in love with Honnold yourself, but watching him free solo climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, a superhuman achievement if there ever was one, is as captivating, gut-wrenching and high-stakes as all the year’s action movies combined.
You won’t find me griping about this nomination. BlacKkKlansman deserves its shot at Oscar dominance, if not on its own merits (for which there are plenty), but in homage to Spike Lee’s remarkable career. (Hell, if they’re giving career awards to Gary Oldman for that ham of a Winston Churchill performance, Lee deserves one.)
BlacKkKlansman recounts the exploits of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department, who manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, thwart many of its elicit activities and befriend Grand Wizard David Duke by impersonating a white racist over the telephone. Lee’s film, opening with a title card reading “Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” takes plenty of creative liberties with Stallworth’s story — including pumping up the drama by making Stallworth’s partner (played by Adam Driver, the only BlacKkKlansman actor to be nominated for a 2019 Oscar) Jewish, and adding a few extra bomb threats for good measure — but it’s refreshing to see a film this bold in both its retelling of history and its commentary on that history.
Are critiques of the film valid? Absolutely. But from its surreal and comical opening scene to it’s surreal and heart-wrenching final montage, BlacKkKlansman proves a distinctive, stylish and audacious representation of America in both 1978 and 2018.
I have nothing much to add about Tully, the Diablo Cody-penned, Charlize Theron vehicle about a dissatisfied mother of three, that I didn’t express in my review from May, except to say it deserved a genuine Oscar campaign from Focus Features, and a nomination of some form. You can never celebrate too many good dramedies, too many Charlize-Theron-gained-weight-to-give-you-an-authentic-experience-damnit performances or too many films with actual, unerased, unashamed, nontoxic bisexual representation.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
I’m not sure I can review this movie objectively since I, like many in the area, was beguiled by the mention of Iowa City midway through. Putting that aside as best I can, I’d still have been tickled to see The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in the Best Picture line-up. Its status as a stylish Western directed by the Coen brothers makes it Oscar fodder, but its release on Netflix and anthologized format — containing six self-contained stories, distinct except for their setting in the Old West and fable-like messages — would have made it a unique selection.
Three Identical Strangers
There’s stranger than fiction, and then there’s Three Identical Strangers. Exploring the circumstances that led to (and followed) a set of identical male triplets, adopted out to different families and with no knowledge of each other’s existence, reuniting at the age 19, this documentary is rapturously entertaining from beginning to end, even as it breaks your heart and makes you want to shake your fist. Why it was passed over for a Best Documentary Feature nomination I will never understand.
I didn’t truly expect to see Hereditary as a Best Picture contender, but I couldn’t resist holding out hope Toni Collette might sneak a Best Actress nom. At once artful, campy and deeply disturbing, and with stellar performances to match, Hereditary, like Silence of the Lambs and Get Out, deserved an exception to the Oscar aversion to horror. The film’s divisiveness among audience members may have contributed to its snubbing, but Hereditary remains one of my 2018 favorites and the kind of film I expect to watch annually, probably around October.
A Star Is Born
I went into the theater fully expecting to detest this schmaltzy tale-as-old-as-time in which a rich and famous man plucks a talented young woman out of obscurity, helps her become a star and then resents the hell out of her, but dammit if I wasn’t charmed by this smash hit of a movie musical. Points for tour-de-force performances and a killer set of songs (“Shallow” is getting all the credit, but come on — between the song itself and the flawless scene in which it’s performed, “I’ll Always Remember Us This Way” is the real winner.) If it wins Best Picture come Feb. 24, you might just catch me cheering.
Avengers: Infinity War
Those advocating for Marvel Cinematic Universe representation in the Best Picture category had probably their best shot with Black Panther, and the shot was sunk — not only was Black Panther critically acclaimed, visually singular (thanks, Hannah Beachler) and a fan favorite, but it achieved cultural significance beyond its budget and box office, featuring historic representation in a major superhero flick and a plot that drew from real social issues.
And yet, Infinity War. Wow. While Black Panther played like a great superhero film, Infinity War felt monumental. Despite a whopping budget and enough star power to forge a new Mjölnir, the odds were good that Infinity War would disappoint. Beyond doing justice to the many, many characters and plots unfolding in its runtime, I think directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s greatest achievement here is their near-perfectly orchestrated tonal shifts. The humor was on-point but not distracting, the sky-high stakes set by Thanos felt real (and yet fighting him never felt futile — our heroes stood a chance, so long as they put aside their differences and personal baggage. And like real human beings, they often could not), and the Russos managed to squeeze emotional climaxes out of the likes of Star Lord, Thor, Iron Man, Gamora, Scarlet Witch, Vision and the big purple villain himself, Thanos. It was controlled chaos at its most effective and entertaining.
Alas, I am (generally) of the belief that Best Picture nominees should be able to stand alone, and you have to watch at least five MCU entries to really appreciate, and perhaps even understand, Infinity War — not to mention it leaves you begging for its own sequel, Avengers: Endgame. But if Empire Strikes Back and Return of the King are Best Picture-worthy, and I believe they are, I guess I don’t really have an excuse for leaving Avengers: Infinity War off the list on that factor alone — even if Spider-Man’s “I don’t feel so good” line wasn’t quite as unforgettable as “I am your father” and “You bow to no one.”
(Did… did I just reserve my longest rant for Avengers: Infinity War? Oof, it’s been a hell of a year.)
Even more honorable mentions, because there were too many good movies last year and, yeah, maybe they don’t all deserve Best Picture, but they’re still better than Bohemian Rhapsody
Sorry to Bother You — Imperfect? Yes. Unforgettable? Absolutely. Boots Riley’s bold sci-fi comedy deserves some trophies.
Shoplifters — You’ll fall in love with this family, and question the very nature and definition of family. Plus, for God’s sake, it won the Palme d’Or!
A Quiet Place — An intriguing premise, slick cast and surprise compatibility with audiences make this Iowan-born film greater than the sum of its parts.
Wildlife — Though it was rather joyless, it’s sad to think of this remarkable movie remembered only as failed Oscar buzz.
Border — From Force Majeure to The Square, Sweden has a way with tense, strange and unmissable cinema. Border is no exception.
Widows — The wives of four deceased thieves pull off a heist to pay their husbands’ debts. But in the end, it was Viola Davis who was positively ROBBED.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — Hypnotic animation, an engaging storyline and adorable characters. No matter your age, you’ll feel like a kid on Christmas morning.
Did I shortchange any of your 2018 favorites? Am I woefully misguided? Does Bohemian Rhapsody have any redeeming qualities apart from featuring the timeless music of Queen? Let me know in the comments or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org — I enjoy a good challenge.
The 91st Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. on ABC. To celebrate and commiserate during the ceremony with fellow local movie nerds, consider attending FilmScene’s Blue Carpet Bash.