In Volume One, I discussed the fourteen films I saw before the Oscar nominations were announced. Those were films I had wanted to see on my own before I decided to challenge myself to watch every single Oscar-nominated film this year. For this round, I’ll be discussing twelve features and one shorts category, which I selected chiefly because I found myself in a now-or-never situation since they were about to leave theaters. Most of them only have one or two nominations, and two are Best Picture contenders.
Overall, I found quite a few surprises with this batch—both good and bad. Because some of these films did let me down, I felt myself losing steam and motivation to watch a film each night. That said, I did do this to myself, and I am committed to this journey. So without further ado, here’s Volume Two…
At Eternity’s Gate
While this film is only nominated for Willem Dafoe’s lead performance as Vincent van Gogh, I really enjoyed the cinematography and general direction of the biopic. Certain elements of the film matched van Gogh’s unconventional artistic style, but the film’s script tried really hard to be the unconventional element. Props to the score and sound design—I was shocked that it wasn’t nominated in either of these categories.
As far as Dafoe’s performance goes, it played out exactly how you’d expect. In some ways, it really reminded me of his turn as Jesus Christ in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ—and this may be on purpose, as the film seemed to set up Vincent as a Christ-like figure. However, since this performance was nothing necessarily new or revolutionary, I am not sure why Dafoe was rewarded an acting nomination over other more exciting performances, especially John David Washington’s star turn in BlacKkKlansman.
Speaking of which, BlacKkKlansman is the perfect example of a film I wanted to see during its initial release but was unable to because of the MoviePass fiasco. I am a fan of Spike Lee’s work and was very intrigued by the true story behind the film. While I wouldn’t say this movie is my only favorite Best Picture nominee, I’ve definitely made room in my heart for it. The pacing, the editing—for which it is nominated—and the comedic moments helped this film discuss and connect race and racism in America from the ‘70s to the present day in a thrilling, yet nuanced way.
Every single shot in the movie felt memorable, and the performances were fantastic. I’m not surprised that Adam Driver snagged a Best Supporting Actor nod for this, but as mentioned, I was floored by Washington in his leading role and outraged that he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor.
Finally, even though Best Director is almost undoubtedly going to Alfonso Cuarón, I have yet to see Roma. In no way do I mean to discredit Cuarón, but it would be amazing to see Spike Lee finally win. As one of the most influential directors in the last three decades, Lee deserves to win this award, and I find it baffling that he has never been awarded this honor. Lee may be a long shot, but this would be an excellent surprise on Oscar Sunday.
OK, let’s address this now as I will have one other Marvel film to discuss in Volume Three. I know I keep saying that I’m a huge fan of comic books and all things pop culture, but I’ve been let down by the Marvel Cinematic Universe so many times in the past few years that Black Panther didn’t immediately appeal to me. The MCU keeps straying not only from source material but also the heart of the original stories in favor of cheap laughs and gimmicks that will ensure box office success. Yes, I realize that most films ultimately seek to have huge monetary returns, but few are so transparent in their quest as the MCU.
Thankfully, Black Panther was re-released for Black History Month, and I was able to see it on a large screen with an audience. I’m also happy to report that this film defied what I had come to expect from another Marvel film—it felt sincere and fully committed to telling Black Panther’s story. Sure, it still had a few cheap laughs, but they fit in with the overall story and did not take me out of the experience. I couldn’t agree more with its Screen Actors Guild win for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, as every single actor brought their A-game to this. Because of this, I’m not surprised that no single actor received an Oscar nomination, although Michael B. Jordan had to be on the shortlist for Best Supporting Actor.
The category in which Black Panther truly shines is Best Costume Design. The film is my personal pick to win, though Mary Poppins Returns holds a close second. The amount of research and thought designer Ruth E. Carter put into the estimated 1,000 costumes for this film would rival a period piece, the Academy’s usual favorite in this category. The costumes are inventive, authentic to the source material, and elevate each character’s storyline. Additionally, the technology and various techniques that were used to create these costumes should help persuade Academy voters to award this film with Best Costume Design, a first for this genre.
As the Swedish submission for Best Foreign Language Film, Border did not get a nomination in that category, but it was nominated for Best Makeup & Hairstyling. The fantasy film follows a female customs officer who soon learns she is actually a troll, and that there are others like her. Border ultimately plays out as a fairy-tale-turned-thriller. I can understand why it was nominated and wouldn’t be surprised if it won. However, it does come down to whether or not Academy voters prefer intense makeup design to create fantastical creatures such as trolls, or if they favor transformative makeup work that can turn an A-list ensemble into members of the Bush administration for Vice, or even the stunning, fanciful hairstyles featured in Mary Queen of Scots.
Even though I have seen less than half of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees, this film stole my heart. It is a devastating, exhausting story about one boy’s journey to validate his existence. The plot, in the simplest terms, is about Zain, a boy who sues his parents for being born without his consent. This almost trivializes the true heart of this film, which takes a hard look at what it takes to “exist” in this world. Without any type of identification papers, it is near impossible for Zain to do anything to better his life or that of his sister and makeshift family. Zain al-Rafeea’s performance is one of the best young performances I have ever seen. You feel every disappointment and lingering hope throughout his journey. With such a stacked Best Foreign Language Film category this year, it’s almost safe to say this will not win, but it sure did leave a mark on me.
I could go on and on about how this film mishandles the subject matter and how the story would have been much more believable, compelling, and fascinating had it been from Janet Armstrong’s perspective, but I won’t, because First Man received nominations in technical rather than narrative or performance categories—Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Production Design, and Sound Mixing. Certainly a shocking turn of events for perennial Academy favorite Damien Chazelle, but perhaps the most eyebrow-raising snub for the 91st Academy Awards as a whole was this film’s lack of a nomination for Best Original Score. Composer Justin Hurwitz won the award the first time he was nominated for La La Land, and even lost against himself in the Best Original Song category for the same film.
The sound and visual effects nods were well deserved, as the film showed space exploration through a thriller and sometimes even a horror lens, and this was only possible because of the sensory experience created that enveloped the viewer. While production designing the moon seems like a daunting task, I’m not sure this sets First Man above other nominations, such as the Afrofuturistic Wakanda in Black Panther or the highly stylized 18th-century England of The Favourite. All in all, I wouldn’t be flabbergasted to see this film come through with at least one win, but I would feel equally content if it goes home empty-handed.
Isle of Dogs
Hearkening back to his Fantastic Mr. Fox days, Wes Anderson’s Best Animated Feature Film nominee Isle of Dogs is rich with visual textures, and the stop-motion film fits seamlessly with Anderson’s signature aesthetic. However, I found the story to be fairly lackluster. Even though each shot was beautiful to watch, I don’t think this could compensate for the absence of a compelling, or even remotely entertaining storyline. I’m a little surprised it was nominated to be frank. That said, I am not surprised it was nominated for Best Original Score, as the music was what gave the plot any depth at all.
Minding the Gap
This Best Documentary Feature nominee snuck its way into my heart to tie for my favorite documentary of the year alongside Free Solo, as well as my pick to win the category. Minding the Gap manages to take a look at race, class, geographic location, and the culture surrounding toxic masculinity, all while giving each substantive topic its due reflection. This film links these complex subjects through the lens of skateboarding culture in a small Illinois town. It is breathtaking to see director Bing Liu’s self-awareness about why he felt compelled to make this film and how these broader societal themes are ultimately experienced on the singular level.
Every shot in this film is spellbinding. I am truly shocked that it did not manage to get a Best Cinematography nod, as some of the shots are so thoughtfully framed that the viewer experiences the moments through the eyes of the documentarian himself. See. This. Film.
Remember that show Caillou about the four-year-old boy who was very whiny and bratty, and in each episode, he learned some lesson that should have made him more bearable—yet the lessons never seemed to stick? Mirai felt uncomfortably similar. The film follows Kun, a boy who must come to terms with the arrival of his little sister and sharing the love and attention from everyone around him. Through four different magical “lessons,” one would expect Kun to grow a little each time, but it takes him the entire length of the movie before he finally learns any lesson. The animation was lovely, but it was hard to focus on anything other than Kun’s constant whining.
Before I had seen any of the Best Documentary Feature nominees, I would have guessed that this would be the frontrunner. I’m not sure if I felt this way because of the film itself or because of its subject matter, as RBG tends to be a beloved figure amongst most folks, aside from deeply partisan conservatives. After seeing this film, I believe it has been so well received because of who it was about and less so on the merits of the documentary. It was interesting to have a large part of the film focus on her marriage—given that most of us are already aware of her storied career—as narratives tend to pigeonhole women as either family-oriented or career-oriented but never both. It would be a nice nod to the legend herself to have the film win for Best Documentary Feature, but I feel as though it would come as a slight disappointment, as there are other more groundbreaking and compelling documentaries in the running this year.
I jokingly compared this film to Little Miss Sunshine, which is a gross oversimplification and really only works one scene—I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll know it when you see it—but the tones of the two films are somewhat similar. Shoplifters is about a group of people in Tokyo who find each other and form their own mixed-up family. In doing so, the film examines what it means to be a brother, a father, a mother, or a sister, even when the bloodlines aren’t so clear. As the title suggests, the film also dives into the culture of “stealing” and how this feeds into class anxieties and affects a family unit. As much as I enjoyed this film, I must admit that I have a feeling it will be my least favorite nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film category, which should speak volumes about the high caliber of foreign films nominated this year.
I really wanted to leave this film feeling assured that Glenn Close would emerge triumphant with the Oscar on February 24th. Lord knows that her moment is long overdue—and who wouldn’t love to see her win here? Close grounds the premise of the film and forces one to examine what one must sacrifice in order to be a mother, an artist, and of course, a wife. Oddly enough, the film did not make the already close Best Actress race any clearer, but it likewise did not muddle my firm belief of her as a frontrunner for the prize.
Best Documentary Short Subject
I watched all 5 of the nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject as part of a package presentation in theaters, and it was a lot. It started with “Black Sheep,” a story about a black teenager who must sacrifice a lot to survive and fit into his racist town on the outskirts of London. This was followed by “End Game,” which examines end-of-life care and the attitudes around it. Starting off with these two very heavy subject matters back-to-back did not leave me feeling too light-hearted, only to be compounded by “Lifeboat,” part of a trilogy documenting the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean sea.
While it is important to tackle these heavier subjects, I was drawn more to other shorts which dared to step outside of the “illuminate a problem and exit” formula typical of most short documentary works. Perhaps these shorts also donated money to their causes or contributed in another way, but this was not discussed in the films, and the viewer is not meant to leave with this knowledge.
That said, “A Night in the Garden” doesn’t offer a tangible solution to the problem it illuminates. Rather, I found this film compelling because of the way it illuminates the problem. A short in the truest sense with a run time of seven minutes, the film is comprised solely from footage of a Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden—yes, in New York City—in 1939. By eliminating the modern-day lens of commentary or talking head interviews, the film portrays this realistic event in cinematic proportions and tasks the viewer with drawing parallels to today’s similarities.
My other favorite and winner pick for this category is “Period. End of Sentence.” The film discusses the stigma around menstruation in a rural village in India and the lack of resources for its local women, while also offering a solution by connecting this village with a group of charitable California high school girls. These California girls helped raise the initial funds needed to send a pad-making machine to this village so that the women could be employed, have access to the pads, and take agency in their culture. “Period. End of Sentence.” leaves you with a sense of hope and knowledge about a problem that certainly impacts women around the world. In a time when the news is inundated with difficult matters and minimal offerings of hope, this documentary short offers a nice reprieve to the turbulence in today’s socio-political climate.