Movies

What It’s Like to Watch Every 2019 Oscar-Nominated Film, Volume Three

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Dearest readers, I must admit that I felt some major fatigue during this last leg of watching the final eleven Oscar-nominated films and remaining two shorts categories. As with the last batch, I dreaded having to watch some of these films, for reasons outlined below. But, I finished—and found myself pleasantly surprised by a handful of nominees. Read on for Volume Three.

Avengers: Infinity War

I mentioned this previously while discussing Black Panther, but just to refresh your memory, I have not been a fan of Marvel’s latest films. While all of the other Avengers movies were ultimately just building to this film, the story still falls flat because of all the ground it has to cover. There are so many characters and so many deaths that need to happen that the film felt more like a checklist than a cohesive story.

That said, Avengers: Infinity War is only nominated for Best Visual Effects. Considering there appears to be some type of effect in every single shot, I can understand why it got this nomination. I know for most of the technical categories, good execution means that the craft elevates the story without calling attention to itself. This latest Avengers installment fails at this. Yes, I understand that flashy visuals are sort of the point of this genre, but they are overwhelming in this movie. If quantity had anything to do with the requirement to win this category, this one would be hard to beat, but aside from that, I’d be shocked to see this movie take the prize.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

I loved this film! The Coen Brothers meant for this to be a miniseries, but I definitely think the segments work much better as vignettes curated together in this film. I thoroughly enjoyed “Near Algodones” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” but my favorite was the self-titled opening segment, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” It is sharp and shocking but also hilarious. Pardon my crudeness, but I have to admit that the manner of deaths in this segment add a levity to the story—considering the body count. This segment also contains the Oscar-nominated song “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” which, all things considered, is a fun(!) nominee.

I’m also ecstatic that the movie was nominated for Best Costume Design, as the costumes were so rich in textures and details, fitting together perfectly despite the different tones for each vignette. Likewise, I am thrilled with the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination because the whole anthology is an audacious take on fables for adults. The pacing and order of the vignettes seem purposeful and cohesive. Sadly, I think it has close to zero chance of winning anything, given the Academy’s voting patterns, but at least these nominations gave this film some much-needed attention.

Cold War

While Roma is certain to leave with a few statues on Sunday night, it is possible that Cold War may take the Best Cinematography one from it. Another black-and-white foreign film, Cold War is visually stunning. Even after walking out of the theater, I’ve caught myself daydreaming about certain shots. Pawel Pawlikowski certainly deserves this nomination for Best Director, as the narrative, performances, and breathtaking visuals all work together to build up this love story in the midst of difficult times. Sadly, because Roma is the film to beat not just in the Best Foreign Language Film race but also for Best Picture, Cold War will only have a shot if voters want to spread the love in the former category.

Christopher Robin

When I say I dreaded having to watch certain films, I had this Best Visual Effects nominee in mind. I was a fan of Winnie the Pooh as a kid, but the trailer for Christopher Robin freaked me out, as the styling of Pooh and his friends was a bit unsettling. But, after sitting down to watch it, I changed my mind. The beginning of the film pulled at my heartstrings purely for sentimental reasons, and Ewan McGregor’s performance was incredible, considering he was primarily acting with visual effects. Once the workers’ rights plotline was introduced, I was completely sold.

The visual effects in this film were so organic that it was easy to forget that the stuffed friends were not capable of moving on their own. Perhaps there are only a few folks who enjoyed the subtlety of the effects as much as I did, so I don’t expect the movie to win. However, the film ended up as a pleasant surprise considering how much I did not want to watch it initially.

Of Fathers and Sons

The title of this Best Documentary Feature Film could not be more fitting as it follows a father and his sons in an Islamic Caliphate. Director Talal Derki had to work extremely hard to garner the trust of this community, and the film shows things that are rarely seen by outsiders. The harrowing reality depicted onscreen is made even more daunting by the fact that the sons do not seem to be aware that their fathers are valuing a jihadi ideology above all else. The sons also embrace this radical way of life, growing accustomed to death since they are constantly surrounded by it.

Only when the father is injured does one catch a brief glimpse into the deep bond of the family, though this is quickly squandered during the events that occur in the latter half of the film. A small spoiler alert—the film doesn’t have a happy ending, so plan accordingly. Needless to say, Of Fathers and Sons is a heavy documentary, though Derki’s remarkable ability to capture daily life for fathers and sons in a Caliphate makes this film worth seeing.

First Reformed

Here is a film I was really excited to see, and it did not let me down. I love the concept of First Reformed as it marries two themes of American life—religion and environmentalism—that are rarely shown together onscreen, making its Best Original Screenplay nomination so well deserved. The movie follows a minister of a historical church in New England and the widow of an environmental activist; First Reformed examines how these two seemingly disparate characters can have similar motivations, and what happens when an attempt is made to merge said motivations.

In an ideal world, I would have liked for the film to be nominated for Best Cinematography, as the visuals matched the tone of the film perfectly. Ethan Hawke definitely gave one of his all-time best performances as Pastor Toller, and it is surprising that he was not nominated in the Best Actor category, especially since performances like Dafoe’s received a nod. I think that if A24 released the movie in the traditional “awards season” (i.e. winter) rather than in the early summer, it may have had a stronger chance at being nominated in these other categories. I doubt it’ll win, but I would definitely recommend watching this movie if you’re a fan of narratives with radical, unique concepts.

Green Book

I am not even sure if this can be classified as a hot take, as the majority of folks in my circles, and even many published critics seem to share my opinion. Why is this movie a frontrunner for Best Picture?! Aside from the tumultuous backstory about the Shirley family’s dissatisfaction with the film, it is painfully slow and dry. The story is tired and expected, and no other aspect of the film makes up for this side-eye-worthy plot. Is it really necessary to rehash the same old story of a racist white man who learns that racism is bad because he is forced into a situation with a black man and he has to make it work, thereby “growing” by learning to like this singular black man? It should be telling that a film that touts itself as a “story about racism” would choose to have the one central black character relegated to the supporting actor category.

I don’t think I’m saying anything new here, and yet Green Book garnered five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. As you can guess, it does not get my vote for that, nor do I particularly want Mahershala Ali to win Best Supporting Actor. While his performance in Moonlight was simply phenomenal, this particular role required the bare minimum from him. Narrative criticisms aside, I think the film should have been nominated for Best Production Design, as the rich colors and sets appeared vibrant and purposeful on the big screen. But, tl;dr it’s a hard pass from me on all other fronts.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

This documentary has a non-linear timeline and takes a magnifying lens to a small, rural county in the “black belt” of Alabama. Universal themes abound, such as life and death and enjoying everyday pleasures, but the setting is meant to shock viewers since it features a slice of America rarely seen on film. As someone who grew up in a rural county outside of Nashville, the documentary looked like the South I know—with long, winding roads across small hills, surrounded by farms, churches, and cemeteries.

After watching the Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Subjects, Hale County feels like it might work more effectively in a shorter format, given its relatively narrow scope. However, a case can be made for its impact as a feature since it forces the audience to stop and spend time with this community, as opposed to merely dropping in. With minimal interviews and interference with the subjects, the documentary seems much simpler than its competitors, but it is nice to see such an intimate film listed among other, more conventional documentaries. Hopefully, this signals a change in the types of docs that will catch the Academy’s eye in the future.

Never Look Away

If it wasn’t painstakingly obvious already, the Best Foreign Language Film category is clearly the most contentious race of the Oscars this year. Never Look Away could be described as the “normal” one in the category, as its narrative formula relies on tried-and-true techniques; the story covers roughly three different generations, from Nazi-controlled Germany in the 1930s through the post-war years of the mid-20th century, and centers around the broader question of what it means to be an artist and what can be art. Again, the plot was expected and typical for these types of period pieces, but the meta aspects of the broader themes elevated it to a film worthy of its nomination.

Never Look Away is also the third Best Foreign Language Film to also be nominated for Best Cinematography. Filming art and presenting the trials of previous generations’ transgressions give the film ample opportunities to create stunning shots. I would be surprised if the film won in either category considering the stiff competition, but the two nominations certainly speak volumes for the quality of this film.

Roma

Tied with The Favourite as the most nominated film, this frontrunner for Best Picture met all of my expectations and then some. I was actually expecting a slower, less eventful story, but the plot had me hooked the entire time. Cleo, the central figure of the movie, is connected with the water from the very first scene; much like water, she is necessary to her environment but immensely shaped and influenced by it as well. A live-in maid for the central family, Cleo finds a deeper connection with the folks she works for as the mother and children rally behind her when she goes through her own struggles with love and her pregnancy.

Roma is also nominated for Best Cinematography and is likely to win here. Shot in black-and-white, this stylistic choice elevates the textures and patterns found throughout Cleo’s daily life. Again, water plays such a central role in the film and is captured magnificently in light and shadow. Yalitza Aparicio’s nomination for Best Actress is a lovely surprise for this first-timer, and I’m glad this deeply grounded performance was able to garner recognition from the Academy.

If a film is a frontrunner for Best Picture, one could safely assume that it’s probably a shoe-in for Best Foreign Language Film. After all, how can a film be the best of the year if it is not the best in its own specific category? The only upset I forsee here is if Academy voters wanted to spread the accolades to the other excellent nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Finally, I would be floored if Alfonso Cuarón lost in the Best Director category. The pace of the film packs many emotional events into a pretty standard feature runtime, but by no means does the plot feel cluttered. Overall, I found Roma to be stunning visually, conceptually, and audibly—it’s nominated in the two sound categories as well.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Confession time—I really wanted to lie to all of you here, because I do not want to deal with the avalanche of shock that will come from this reveal. But, I feel the need to be perfectly honest about these reviews, so here’s the truth: I have never seen any Star Wars film. Ever. None of them. So naturally, I was very excited to see this film since it’s billed as a stand-alone that fits fairly early in the Star Wars timeline.

Unfortunately, I did not like it. This might be because I, as someone who isn’t a huge action film fan, had to sit through over two hours of an action/heist/fast-and-furious-but-in-space movie with minimal character development. Granted, it was nominated for Best Visual Effects, and said effects blended in seamlessly with the rest of the film—which is something that other films in this category did not handle so gracefully. As a non-expert in visual effects, it wouldn’t surprise me if Solo won for this reason. Other than that, however, I wouldn’t personally recommend this film, unless you’re in the mood for a lot of flashy action sequences carried out by cardboard characters.

Best Animated Short Film

While I believe many of the Best Animated Short nominees are available online, I enjoy seeing the shorts packages that theaters make available during Oscar season. When you see all five animated shorts back-to-back, it is easy to pick up on similar themes and judge the animation styles more closely. Many of the shorts this year were focused around parent-child relationships and how that changes over time. “Bao” is the Pixar submission this year, so it is the clear frontrunner and happens to be the first one directed by a female animator. While it is my personal favorite, I am also rooting for “One Small Step.” This short’s animation embraces the 2D format but revels in texture to make the colors really pop. “Animal Behavior” contained extensive dialogue and a complex plot, which doesn’t often happen with these animated shorts, while “Weekends” and “Late Afternoon” had very unique animation styles that separated them from the rest of the pack.

Best Live Action Short Film

I’m not going to lie—I did not like any of these Best Live Action Short nominees. But, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be “Fauve.” The short trusts its audience to play detective as to what kind of trouble two boys will find themselves in as they play a series of cruel pranks on each other until it is too late, leaving the audience and the survivor to handle the rest. It does not try to conquer too much and is a rather beautiful film to watch. “Marguerite” was the only one of the batch that did not feel like it was exploiting the audience; it tells the story of an elderly woman who was unable to live to her fullest potential due to societal expectations. “Madre” is an interesting single-room short that leaves the ending to the audience’s imagination, and the true crime story behind “Detainment” captured me as a true crime fan, though its execution was messy and unfocused.

Finally, I had some major problems with “Skin.” It received the most vocal response from the crowd and felt grossly manipulative. The short follows a boy whose parents are white supremacists, and he witnesses his father and other men senselessly beat a black father in front of his family. The story then takes a rather unexpected turn and seems to espouse some crude, troublesome politics. Because of its relatively high-profile cast and the pure shock value, I could see the film appealing to some Academy voters, but as with Green Book, I suggest that these folks take a closer look at the problematic ideologies endorsed by these works.

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