“That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” “Best Picture Nominees” Chapter 86
By Bruce Williams
Every year over the past 15 or so I’ve watched all the Best Picture nominees for the Academy Awards with a sense of duty—a nod to what amounts to American Culture in its most obvious form—cinema. This has included such movies as Phantom Thread (2017)—a Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle about a 1950’s London dressmaker (that short synopsis almost puts me to sleep by itself) and a handful of musicals, which are always a genre I struggle with (they’re singing their lines!) I have viewed all ten of these nominees (there were too many this year by the way), and here’s my take:
This beautifully stylized ode to carnies everywhere features Bradley Cooper in the lead as well as the usually dependable but here overwrought Cate Blanchett. Ultimately defeating, it depicts the rise and fall of a con artist as he devolves into a (literal) caged animal. If the cosmetic surgery rumors are true about that golden everyman Cooper, and he starts looking more like Kenny Rogers I’ll be sorely disappointed in him.
Don’t Look Up
The early reviews on this one were mostly pans, but it was streaming for free so we watched it with some popcorn on the couch (real butter). It was better than expected, once you get past Jennifer Lawrence’s mullet (I’ve always liked her—ever since her stoic turn in Winter’s Bone). A biting commentary on today’s practiced ignorance, with some willful adherents wearing it like a badge of honor. I’ll let you draw your own parallels.
Movies like this are created for the big screen and the Cinematography category. Slow but beautifully crafted, this Dune was a huge upgrade over the original but definitely not the Best Picture this year. I haven’t decided if I like Timothee Chalamet as an actor yet—we’ll see when he’s less hair and prance, and more meat and chops as his career progresses. There’ll be a sequel, whether you asked for it or not.
Drive My Car
Almost three hours long with subtitles, I devoted a Thursday afternoon to this Japanese entry. One man’s attempts to reconcile the sudden death of his oft-cheating wife—left me thinking he needed to grow a set while watching him sob on the shoulder of his female driver years after his betrothed’s aneurysm—on the cusp of his apparent dumping, no less. Love is a queer beast, I guess. And actors depicting actors…there’s some layering here. The scenes with the Korean sign language actress stole the show.
This semi-autobiographical drama from Kenneth Branagh set in the Ireland of his youth was my 2nd favorite this year. The quiet sidebar love story between his grandparents (grizzled Dame Judy & Ciaran Hinds) is touchingly lovely, as are the gentle insults they toss each other’s way in their thick brogue accents. A critique, if even indirectly, about the ludicrousness of religious wars, whether they’re Catholic/Protestant or Sunni/Shia, or whatever flavor of ‘believe like we do—or die!’
I had high hopes for this less-than-blockbuster, and I did laugh out loud at least four times while viewing it in the theater with my wife, but this entry was all over the place and never quite addresses the problematic reverse-Lolita situation it creates, even if the intense interest still flows male-to-female. The lead actress—one of the Haim sisters of singing fame—while not a traditional beauty with her crooked teeth and awkward gait—still manages to be somewhat riveting here.
The Power of the Dog
I love Westerns, and I did enjoy this different take on love in the Wild West as well as the sinister twist this one took at the end that I didn’t quite see coming. Benedict Cumberbatch as a narrow-eyed, self-loathing, slightly sadistic lead is spot on, and I’m starting to think Jesse Plemons is one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood. And when the little girl from Interview With the Vampire is now playing the matronly mother figure, you know you’re getting old.
West Side Story
If Spielberg wanted to update this classic he should’ve moved it to LA and had the Bloods and Crips dancing with choreographed fist-fighting. Snoop Dogg doing a twirl, maybe. There is something patently ludicrous about tough, pirouetting dancers, but here you have it. A game remake of the old Romeo and Juliet—Spielberg even somehow makes it look like a colorized version of an original, and I like his Maria—but by no means Best here.
Both confoundingly stubborn and single-minded, Will Smith’s Richard Williams is the driving force behind the sisters’ rising successes. The young Serena couldn’t have been cast any better as well. A good story we all know the outcome to, and really one of the better entries this year, but I’m always looking for the one that sticks with you—and that’s the last film listed here…
Hands-down my favorite to win the Oscar. Sweetly satisfying while projecting hearing-impaired individuals as being multi-faceted and capable of the full range of human foibles: self-centeredness, fear, rage, sexuality…and magnanimity. 20-year old Emilia Jones is a budding star—both singing and performing ASL seamlessly. Winner of the SAG award for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture (usually a precursor for the Oscar), here’s to hoping the best picture actually wins Best Picture this year.
So my annual labor of love is over. I must admit—I finally finished West Side Story while I was writing this. We Yanks are more than Big Gulps and tube socks; Kardashians and mass shootings. We have some culture—Broadway and Hollywood for two. The Best Picture category filters it down to the cream of the crop and provides a yearly succinct glimpse into a sliver of what it means to be an American.