Ranking the 2018 Best Picture nominees
‘Green Book’ for the top prize? Really? Were they serious?
By Todd Hill
Talk to most filmmakers, and they’ll tell you they would take a hit picture over an award any day. Everyone knows what a hit looks like; a dollar figure always comes attached. But what, exactly, does an Academy Award for Best Picture even mean anymore?
Settling on what it meant in 2018 is especially challenging. The annual lineup of Best Picture nominees is always a bit of a mishmash, a comparison of apples and oranges, particularly now when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems so conflicted about what exactly is intended by advancing the art form of cinema. (Hint — it should have very little to do with crafting a watchable awards show.)
Just consider 2018’s nominees for the top Oscar — “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Favourite,” “Green Book,” “Roma,” “A Star Is Born” and “Vice.” Or to put it another way — a superhero flick, a mea culpa for a long-spurned director, a glorified music video, British art film, “Driving Miss Daisy” redux, Mexican movie, remake of a remake of a remake, and a political screed.
How does one pick a winner from that hodgepodge? For the record, Academy voters went with “Green Book,” for reasons that may have had little to do with the quality of that or any of the other nominees. The perceived frontrunner, “Roma,” was primarily seen on the Netflix streaming platform, not in theaters, and Hollywood’s old guard (Steven Spielberg, et al.) had a real problem with that.
In an attempt to clear up this confused jumble, at least for me and perhaps some people reading, I have endeavored to rank 2018’s eight Best Picture nominees in terms of personal preference, a ranking that takes into account both my own feelings about the films in addition to how well I think their creators accomplished what they set out to achieve.
I’m not asking for anyone to agree with me, of course. My one-through-eight may be your eight-through-one. I’m just hoping this summation holds up, say, five years from now. The previous year’s still does — well, sort of.
Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical take on his childhood in Mexico City, as seen from the perspective of a house servant (Yalitza Aparicio), should’ve been the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s likely to be as forgotten, and to go as unwatched in later years, as the movie that took the award, but in terms of both craft and emotional impact “Roma” is the clear winner in a year when many of the Best Picture nominees seem to have been chosen for political reasons rather than artistic ones. And yes, that’s damning with faint praise. There are few directors working today other than Cuaron who are exhibiting such a consistent grasp of their abilities at this high a level, which is another way of saying that “Roma” is not Cuaron’s best movie (will he ever top 2006’s “Children of Men?”).
For the first three-quarters of its running time “Roma” just pokes along, following Cleo, the maid, as she makes beds, cleans up dog poop, doesn’t clean up dog poop, and bonds with a family that knows next to nothing about her. She also becomes pregnant courtesy of a rotten, martial arts-loving boyfriend who quickly abandons her. Courtesy of Cuaron, each scene is a beautiful thing to gaze upon, but the movie may try the patience of many until it drives home how profoundly other people in our lives can affect us, regardless of their social status. At a time when immigration from south of the border was tearing Americans (if not America) apart, “Roma” clearly promoted greater empathy and understanding for our fellow (wo)man.
Oscar nominations, 10 — Best Picture, Director (Alfonso Cuaron), Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira), Original Screenplay (Cuaron), Foreign Film, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 3 — Director, Foreign Film, Cinematography.
A Star is Born
Late in 2018 I screened all four “ASIB” titles in rapid succession in an attempt to rank them from best to worst, only to ultimately throw up my hands as far as the 1937 and 1954 films and this version are concerned. I think most of us can agree that the 1976 treatment is wretched. This film, which remakes and improves on the 1976 “ASIB,” is one of four 2018 Best Picture nominees that performed well at the box office, a marked contrast to the relative obscurity of most Best Picture lineups. In other words, it should prove eminently re-watchable. I would argue that the first 45 minutes of this film, when Bradley Cooper’s fading alt-country singer and Lady Gaga’s rising star first meet and quickly fall for each other, are stronger than anything found in any of the other nominated titles.
Alas, the movie can’t sustain that energy; what movies can? Somewhat mystifyingly, this “Star Is Born,” an early favorite to win Best Picture, fell off its perch fast, ultimately only winning the Oscar for Best Original Song, the ubiquitous “Shallow,” which was promptly covered by scores of musical artists. Each “ASIB” has reflected not so much the culture of its time as the movie-making culture, and many of this version’s flaky character motivations and other weaknesses may be attributable to that. But I’ll take the position today that this movie, more than any of 2018’s other Best Picture nominees, will have the longest shelf life.
Oscar nominations, 8 — Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Song, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 1 — Original Song.
There’s a built-in audience for costume dramas — you know, the cozy “Pride and Prejudice” crowd. “The Favourite,” while very much a costume drama, is so not the movie for them. It’s perhaps closer in tone to Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975), but anyone who found that costume drama too edgy will certainly want to stay away from this knife-edged film. Written and directed by Yorgis Lanthimos, known for challenging fare, “The Favourite” revels in people behaving very badly in Regency-era England. It’s breathtakingly nasty. There are very few people in my sphere I would feel comfortable recommending this movie to, but critics absolutely adored it.
And critically, there’s much worth recommending here. The direction is exquisite, and the acting is truly top-shelf, garnering Oscar nominations for three actresses, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Colman won, Weisz deserved to. The fact that the story was timely upon its release may or may not have been intentional. Colman’s Queen Anne is seldom of a right mind, but is nonetheless surrounded by would-be sycophants willing to debase themselves to no end in order to be close to power. Any possible similarity between this plot and any real-life events occurring anywhere in the world is purely what you choose to make of it.
Oscar nominations, 10 — Best Picture, Director (Yorgis Lanthimos), Actress (Olivia Colman), Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone), Original Screenplay (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), Film Editing, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design. Oscar wins, 1 — Actress.
It’s precisely what you may have heard — “Driving Miss Daisy” in reverse, with a working-class white man chauffeuring an educated, cultured black pianist around the American South in the early 1960’s, shortly before civil rights became the law of that land. And just as 1989’s “Daisy” didn’t deserve to win its Best Picture Oscar, neither did “Green Book” merit the top prize that it also took home. This film is the cinematic equivalent of the out-of-touch white guy who tries to prove he’s not racist by pointing out that he has a “colored” friend (or so he thinks). And its big Oscar win shows what preferential voting can do, elevating what was considered the least problematic movie by the largest group of voters, which also tells you a lot about the year’s confusing mish-mash of Best Picture nominees.
All that having been said, I found watching “Green Book” a perfectly pleasant experience. It’s a mild crowd-pleaser of a flick, and in the two lead roles Mahershala Ali and especially Viggo Mortensen are both excellent. It’s just kind of embarrassing that this film was even nominated for the Academy Award that it ultimately won.
Oscar nominations, 5 — Best Picture, Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Original Screenplay (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Curie and Peter Farrelly), Film Editing. Oscar wins, 3 — Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay.
For your enjoyment, here’s a link to Queen’s Wembley Stadium performance at 1985’s Live Aid (yes, the crowd really was that huge). Now you don’t have to bother with seeing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” For several years now, the Academy has struggled to reverse the declining ratings of its annual broadcast, and it’s conceivable that efforts to diversify the membership are now bearing some fruit with popular, box-office hits like this one earning major nominations. But “Bohemian Rhapsody,” about the creative arc of the rock band Queen and its frontman Freddie Mercury, in no way deserved a nod for Best Picture.
The film never rises above a certain level of mediocrity. It can also be faulted for soft-pedaling the sexuality of Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991, although that may have brought the movie to a wider audience. And while it makes me nervous to see someone win the Best Actor Oscar for a debut leading performance, I have to admit that Rami Malek — well, the award clearly should’ve gone to the un-nominated Ethan Hawke for “First Reformed,” but Malek, portraying a very swish Mercury, lip-syncs with the best of them.
Oscar nominations, 5 — Best Picture, Actor (Rami Malek), Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 4 — Actor, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing.
The Academy has a long history, not exactly a proud one but certainly accepted, of bestowing makeup Oscars on long-overlooked filmmakers. Spike Lee should have gotten some kind of Academy Award for his 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” (he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, losing to “Dead Poets Society”). There were any number of other times Lee could have won, but instead he got a makeup award for “BlacKkKlansman,” far from his best work. Lee is hyper-sensitive to America’s racial failings (someone in the film business has to be), which has led to his making a series of movies that have felt like variations on the same theme. This is his latest; we’ve seen it before.
It’s based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer in Colorado who went undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan during the 1970’s. Essentially, the more believable aspects of the movie were concocted for the screen, while the most ridiculous incidents depicted actually happened. The film is sloppy, with three or four endings when one would suffice and that the last one, footage of the 2017 death of a protester during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Leave it to Spike Lee to effectively remind us of one of the lowest points in recent American life.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Director (Spike Lee), Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Adapted Screenplay (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee), Film Editing, Original Score. Oscar wins, 1 — Adapted Screenplay.
Adam McKay chose “Vice” for the title of his latest film, but “Vile” or “Venal” could have sufficed just as well. The filmmaker got the timing right when “The Big Short,” his flashy expose on 2008’s Great Recession, came out in 2015, but former Vice President Dick Cheney was on no one’s mind when McKay released this withering take on the divisive public figure — and still isn’t, to be honest. Christian Bale does his usual shape-shifting turn as the title character; he so resembles Cheney that it’s eerie. Possibly even better is Amy Adams, who infuses the character of Cheney’s wife, Lynne, with an ambition that is overweening and gross.
“Vice,” which was no doubt nominated for Best Picture because of the stance it takes on the contemporary corruption of American political conservatism, feels like something the liberal gadfly Michael Moore could have made, which once upon a time could have been construed as a compliment. But just as the dreary partisanship of today’s political landscape has rendered Moore’s documentaries obsolete, so too does “Vice” add a harsh voice to a debate many exhausted Americans are trying to distance themselves from. By the time McKay’s film blames Cheney for not just the war in Iraq (rightly so), but Trumpism, the opioid crisis and the wildfires in California, I had tuned out.
Oscar nominations, 8 — Best Picture, Director (Adam McKay), Actor (Christian Bale), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Supporting Actress (Amy Adams), Original Screenplay (Adam McKay), Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling. Oscar wins, 1 — Makeup and Hairstyling.
Will the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture also be the last? I wish. The genre puts me to sleep, always has, and in that rare instance when I once again encounter one of these monotonous flicks I routinely find that my opinion hasn’t changed. “Black Panther” is exceptionally well made, with some of the best production design and easily the most amazing costumes of any film released in 2018; its Oscar wins are well-deserved. It’s also a determined celebration of diversity, one of the reasons it garnered a Best Picture nod.
But its utter domination of the box office during the year should’ve been reward enough. To non-fans like me, “Black Panther” is just another doomy, humorless saving of some fantasy world from apocalypse that I would’ve been quite content never to have seen. Apart from the occasional bravado performance (Heath Ledger in 2008’s “The Dark Knight”), I continue to feel that the Academy should leave this genre out of consideration for the major Oscar categories. History will not judge the Academy kindly if it continues to do otherwise, but isn’t getting things wrong what the Oscars do best?
Oscar nominations, 7 — Best Picture, Production Design, Costume Design, Original Score, Original Song, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 3 — Production Design, Costume Design, Original Score).
For further consideration
The Oscars have gotten this sort of thing wrong throughout their history, but nonetheless, it’s still sad when my personal pick for the best picture of the year wasn’t even nominated for the honor. In fact, “First Reformed,” directed by Paul Schrader and starring Ethan Hawke as a priest in deep despair, garnered just one Academy award, for Original Screenplay (Schrader). But at least Academy voters were consistent in their dismissal of this film. Although the Best Actor Oscar Hawke deserved went instead to someone who lip-synced to Queen’s greatest hits, the greater insult is that he wasn’t even nominated for the honor. For what it’s worth, I fully expect Hawke to be in contention again.
What’s perhaps more unfortunate is that the year’s top Oscar went to a middling effort that should have gotten lost in the shuffle, when 2018 was otherwise such a vibrant year for American film, across so many genres. But each of the superlative titles I’m about to mention here was saddled with issues or distractions that predictably conspired to keep it off the list of Best Picture nominees.
Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” may be a touching portrait of a rodeo rider grappling with an uncertain future, but what is it, exactly — a drama or a documentary? Maybe voters weren’t sure. The lovely “If Beale Street Could Talk” appeared to confirm the certain arrival of Barry Jenkins as one of today’s leading American filmmakers, but he had just won it all a year earlier for “Moonlight” (I like “Beale Street” better, for the record). “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s affecting examination of adolescence, deserved a Best Pic nod, but “teen movies” have long been ghettoized outside the awards mainstream. The same goes for the excellent “Paddington 2” (kiddie flick), “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (remarkably solid Tom Cruise actioner) and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (Just a cartoon? Hardly, it’s so much more).
About this project
Some people vow to visit every continent on the planet, others to read everything Shakespeare (allegedly) wrote. I’ve never had much interest in doing either, but I am committed to seeing every motion picture ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, back to the very first ones in 1927–28 (specifically, I’m talking about films nominated for Outstanding Picture, Outstanding Production, Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture and Best Picture; I’m not sure why the Academy has seen fit to change the name of the award so frequently).
I don’t for one moment presume to operate under the assumption that the Best Picture nominees over time consistently represent the best American filmmakers have had to offer, which is why with each slate of nominees I also briefly consider the consensus critical picks for the best movies of that year(s). Yes, there’s a lot of overlap, but not as much as there should be.
So, why am I taking the time to watch and then write about so many (563 following the 2020 Academy Awards) often sub-par movies? As anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Oscars knows, the voters often get it wrong, which isn’t so much fascinating as it is frustrating. The Oscars, however, have always mattered to the film industry, and matter still (the annual awards telecast, not so much). Each year’s Best Picture nominees help to paint a picture of how Hollywood saw itself at that time, they provide us with glimpses at trends in movie history that could be gone for good.
Most of all, they supply context. Think this year’s slate of nominees was the best ever? The worst? I can virtually guarantee you that’s not the case. No, really. You’d be surprised.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.