film

2018 Was a Great Year for Film. 2019 Is Going To Be An Awful Year for the Oscars by Keith LaFountaine

2018 was a great year to go to the movies. Whether you prefer huge, bombastic blockbusters like Mission: Impossible — Fallout or, even if you prefer to focus on indie films with small budgets and big hearts, like Jim Cummings’ masterpiece, Thunder Road, there were a ton of good films that came out last year. One would think, given the impressive quality of many 2018 releases, that the 2019 Oscars would be incredible (perhaps even the best show of the decade). Sadly, it’s becoming quite clear that while 2018 was an incredible year for film, 2019 is going to be an awful year for the Oscars.

There are a number of reasons for this, but there are three main ones we can hone in on right now.


I. “MEH” NOMINEES


I, like many folks who were anticipating award-season in late 2018, was appalled when the Oscar nominee list was revealed. Films with average or bad reviews, like Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Green Book made it into the Best Picture categories while universally acclaimed films like Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? were not.

The Best Director lineup was, yet again, all male despite two of the best films of the year — Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? — delivering indie box-office success and near-unanimous critical praise. Bradley Cooper was snubbed for a Best Director nomination, despite his (debut) film getting better reviews and pulling in more money than Adam McKay’s Vice. Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece, If Beale Street Could Talk was snubbed in almost every category (including Best Director and Best Picture) despite having near universal acclaim and Jenkins’ personal status of already having an Oscar on his shelf (for his 2016 film, Moonlight).

Something is clearly off here, and while certain aspects of these nominations (like the Best Director lineup being all men) will feel like deja vu for most folks, films like Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody give a lot of people (myself included) flashbacks to years when mediocre, problematic films like Crash beat out masterpieces like Brokeback Mountain and Munich.

While there are some bright spots this year, like Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece Roma, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite all being up for Best Picture, it’s easy to notice that the nominations this year have been noticeably lackluster.

To illustrate what I’m talking about when I mention critical scores/reception and the disparity between the 2019 Oscars and previous years, check out the critical reception of the nominated films below for 2019 and 2018.

Critical Acclaim of 2019 Best Picture Nominees (Out of 100)

Critical Acclaim of 2018 Best Picture Nominees (Out of 100)

Not only are there fewer nominees in 2019 (8, as compared to last year’s 9), but also those nominees scored consistently lower with critics than last year’s nominees. Even 2018’s lowest-scored film — Darkest Hour, which received an average score of 75 from critics — was far better received than Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Green Book.

In fact, while the average critical score of each ceremony’s entire Best Picture lineup remains roughly the same (in the 75-78 range), Bohemian Rhapsody is the second-lowest reviewed Best Picture nominee in the past decade, only beat by the critically panned Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

It is a small comfort that the lowest-reviewed film has not won Best Picture in the past decade (which is fair; in a ceremony to award the “Best Film” one should not be awarding the worst of the bunch), but it’s interesting that critically panned films — like The Blind Side, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Bohemian Rhapsody — all suffer from essentially the same thing: tone-deaf storytelling and messy execution.


II. A LACK OF ORGANIZATION


The 2019 Oscars have felt surprisingly disorganized this year. With their lack of a host after the Kevin Hart scandal, their announcement to give out the Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Short Film Oscars during commercial breaks (an announcement that has received universal disdain from filmgoers and filmmakers alike) while also saying they will focus on musical numbers during their 3-hour runtime, it feels like the Academy doesn’t know what they’re doing this year.

This is further augmented by the consistent scandals that have followed some films — like the massive expose on Bryan Singer’s sexual assault allegations and Rami Malek’s consistently tone-deaf response to questions about working with the director on Bohemian Rhapsody, to revelations of Green Book director Peter Farrelly’s own sexual misconduct allegations and co-writer Nick Vallelonga’s Islamaphobia.

Most notable of all is the Academy’s decision to go without an Oscar host, something they haven’t done since 1989. It’s also important to note that, that year, the Academy pushed musical numbers and performances to fill time, leading to that year becoming known as one of the most embarrassing years for the Oscars in the history of the ceremony’s 89-year lifespan.


III. A LACK OF RESPECT FOR THE MEDIUM


While I already mentioned the Academy’s decision to give out the Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Short Film Oscars during commercial breaks, I think it deserves a larger spotlight. Not only is it disrespectful to the nominees this year, but it’s also disrespectful to the medium of filmmaking itself.

Alfonso Cuaron put it best in his recent tweet.

Couple this with the disingenuous claim that this move was done to save time (even though they could easily cut time in other places if they wanted to), and it seems that this claim is as silly as it is disrespectful. At an award ceremony that is dedicated to recognizing achievements in filmmaking, it seems astonishingly dumb not to award two of the most important aspects of filmmaking and the creators of the nominated short films, who worked hard on their films just like everyone else.


Ultimately, the 2019 Oscars feel like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Only time will tell whether any of these issues are fixed, or if the Academy decides to double-down on their awful decisions. Regardless, let’s not forget that 2018 was an incredible year for film. A bad award ceremony can’t take away that fact.

"Velvet Buzzsaw" Is a Searing Indictment of Art Dealers That Doesn't Quite Stick Its Landing by Keith LaFountaine

The art world is notoriously classist and money-driven. Controlled by a small group of dealers, art critics are often less driven by the quality of the art in front of them and more by how many dollar signs pop out at them. This is part of the reason why it is so hard for young artists to break into the business -- in addition to being a highly competitive, highly saturated market, the subjectivity of the art world is poisoned by the greed of those who guard its doorway.

Velvet Buzzsaw immediately presents itself as a scathing indictment of these kinds of art critics and dealers. They are vain and selfish; they are more than satisfied to give a bad review to an artist out of personal spite, and will just as easily exploit a dead man's work for profit, even when he has asked for his work to be destroyed.

It's this central theme that drives the majority of the film (even the more surreal, horror-driven aspects of it) and I can see what Dan Gilroy is trying to do. By contrasting the modernist, sleek world of these rich dealers and critics with the grungy, eerie work of a dead hermit (and the effect the latter's work ends up having on the former) is inherently an interesting concept. It's also one that is easy to convolute. Unfortunately that is what has happened here.

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Parallels will be made to Nightcrawler, though I don't think such comparisons are fair. While both films serve as searing condemnations of practices in their respective fields, I think Velvet Buzzsaw is more ambitious. It attempts to embrace its own peculiar oddities to such an extent that they lose their visual value. It can also be difficult to wrap one's head around Gilroy's visual style and the goal of his narrative. While it's easy to see what he's trying to say, how he's trying to say it also tends to hamper the film's overall quality. So, in other words, Velvet Buzzsaw deserves accolades for its sheer ambition, but it's that ambition that hurts the film in the end.

There's some really good stuff in Velvet Buzzsaw, and it's presented with a zany, effervescent charm that seems to come to Gilroy effortlessly. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is great, and the supporting cast is impressive as well, even if some of those folks are extremely underutilized. However, at the end of the day your enjoyment of the film will greatly depend on how much you buy into the surrealistic aspects of the narrative, especially once the film reveals its head-scratching conclusion.


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“VELVET BUZZSAW” ★★★

written and directed by DAN GILROY

Rated R || 112 MIN || Released 1 February 2019

"A Star Is Born" Is a Masterfully Crafted Exploration of Stardom and Alcoholism by Keith LaFountaine

It would be easy to write off A Star As Born as just another remake of a tired love story. On the surface, Bradley Cooper's directorial debut does hit similar plot beats that its predecessors have tread down; however, Cooper and Lady Gaga (in a defining, likely award-winning performance) find humanity in characters that previously felt like plot devices.

In fact, every moment in Cooper's film feels refined and important. The smallest interactions inform our protagonists and their arcs -- from Ally's father huddling around to watch her breathtaking performance of "Shallow" on YouTube with his friends, to Bradley Cooper taking in the friendly banter at the drag bar he winds up in after a gig. Not only does that deepen our characters, it also provides more texture and nuance to the film itself; the world feels lived in, not artificial.

A Star Is Born follows Jack and Ally, the former a musician struggling with alcoholism and depression, the latter a starry-eyed, aspiring singer and writer. While this set up feels very dry from reading it (likely due to the fact that the plot was derived in 1937), Cooper's deft direction and Lady Gaga's mesmerizing performance breathe new life into this concept and make it into an astounding experience.

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Hollywood has a tendency to lionize struggling male artists, often to such a degree that the female lead's entire role is to support the male lead. While A Star Is Born does dip its toe into the waters of romanticization when it comes to Jack's alcoholism (mainly in the first act of the film), it's refreshing how Cooper treats Ally as an equal partner (revolutionary, I know). In fact, her arc is just as important as Jack's; they are intertwined, but also independent. One understands that, while Ally is supporting Jack through his struggle, she is not waiting on his beck and call. It's this sense of narrative equality that makes the final act so devastating.

Cooper also treats Jack's alcoholism and depression with the degree of delicacy it deserves. His performance and his direction both show how complex addiction and depression are. As devastating as it was to watch Jack's arc unfold, it was comforting watching Cooper treat it with the gravitas it deserves.

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A discussion of A Star Is Born is not complete without mentioning the music. This is part of the reason Cooper's version of this story is the defining one, in my humble opinion. "Shallow" is an incredible song; it could have been released as a single not associated with this film, and it would do well on the radio. It's catchy, emotional, and impactful. As is expected, Lady Gaga's musicianship remains as confident and powerful as ever. What is surprising is Cooper's abilities behind a microphone and on the guitar. One gets the sense that this is truly a troubled musician, someone who escapes into their work to avoid the realities of their life. This is especially true when we see Jack and Ally perform "Shallow" together for the first time; there's a glint that appears in Jack's eyes -- it's knowing, happy, excited even. We get the feeling that Jack is, for the first time in a long time, excited to play. Not only is that exciting to watch, it is to integral to the efficacy of the plot.

"Shallow" is not the only hit from this film, though. Every song that we hear, from Jack's blues-rock singles to Ally's pop numbers are catchy and impressively written. Yet, there is a clear difference drawn between the music Jack and Ally write and sing together, and the music they play alone.

A Star Is Born could have been bad; it could have felt dry, tired, and repetitive. The story has been told so many times that retreading similar themes and plot points would have been easy. However, Cooper, Lady Gaga, and the rest of the team that worked on this film injected life, pathos, and sympathy into this project. Every emotional beat, from the end of the first act to the ending moments, feel earned and honest. A Star Is Born is technically a remake, but it earns its distinction as the defining version of this tragic story.


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“A STAR IS BORN” ★★★★★

directed by BRADLEY COOPER

written by ERIC ROTH, BRADLEY COOPER & WILL FETTERS

Released October 5, 2018 || Rated R || 136 MIN