With the Oscars around the corner, here’s another batch of reviews of some films I’ve seen recently in my quest to be a knowledgeable Oscar viewer for once. The films I’ve seen in 2019 have generally been a lot more enjoyable than the ones I watched in the fall, though I have criticisms of most of them!
Mary Queen of Scots, dir. Josie Rourke
This film was a mess. It could have been far more enjoyable if it had leaned into its messiness, but instead it was a strange, hollow narrative with some great performances from Saoirse Ronan (with a slightly-questionable Scottish accent) and Margot Robbie (who did a valiant job of pretending she was ugly). The political drama at the centre of the film was not particularly well-realized. There were hints of a camp consciousness that I really wished the film had explored further, particularly in Robbie’s Elizabeth. There was so much promise in her increasingly bizarre appearance coupled with the scene in which she makes paper crafts while drinking wine as her nemesis has a baby. However, the film as a whole never lived up to that potential. It was still kind of enjoyable in its messiness, particularly in the absurdity of Ronan’s Mary being cast as a gay ally. Also the part where Elizabeth snatches her own wig. I saw this one with my coworker and her roommate, and when it was over we sat in silence for a moment before saying, “I don’t know what just happened.” It was simultaneously insane and boring. (Really, it was mostly boring with some insane moments.)
If Beale Street Could Talk, dir. Barry Jenkins
This was my Oscar pick until it was snubbed quite thoroughly, but I will not dwell on that! (Though it really is terrible.) Screen adaptations are always a tricky beast, and I imagine the pressure of adapting James Baldwin’s work must be immense. I probably would have side-eyed this project had it been done by anyone but Barry Jenkins, who managed to capture the tenderness of the novel while staying faithful to the particular advantages of film. (The cinematography was absolutely beautiful, and the use of colour symbolism was a gorgeous touch. The costume design was just wonderful! Oh, and the score – so lush and evocative.) The love story at the heart of the film is as touching and fully-realized as in the novel, but Jenkins engages with the political aspects of the story a bit more overtly. In particular, the film mixes in archival photographs of police brutality and Black prisoners over Tish’s narration in order to situate the story of Fonny’s unjust incarceration within the climate of systemic racism. It’s hard not to speculate that this political message (and exclusive focus on complex Black characters, of course) might have prevented this wonderful film from reaching the mainstream success one would expect of a project directed by a man who just won the Oscar for Best Picture two years ago… Anyway, please go see this one. It’s just beautiful.
Vice, dir. Adam McKay
While Vice definitely verges on self-impressed at times, the outstanding performances by Christian Bale and Amy Adams make it hard not to enjoy. Bale is obviously transformative, literally unrecognizable in this role. Amy Adams’ performance is subtle and nuanced; she plays Lynne Cheney as a sweet, agreeable woman with a venomous hunger for power lurking just below the surface. Some of the other performances, while enjoyable, are a bit broad (Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush in particular, though the resemblance is uncanny). I won’t spoil it, but the reveal of the narrator’s identity feels forced for the sake of cleverness. (Indeed, this is a fictional invention on McKay’s part.) The scope of the film is ambitious, which leads to an erratic feeling. There’s Cheney’s personal life (especially the friction between his political ambitions and the fact that his daughter Mary is a lesbian), there’s his ascent to power, there’s the wider historical context. It’s trying to do so much that it fails to fully realize any of its aspirations. The ultimate political message of the film, delivered in a direct address monologue, is that if Dick Cheney abused his power while in office, the American people wanted it. It’s a tempting idea: that decades of democratically-elected politicians chipping away at civil liberties with the full knowledge of the people have delivered us to this point in history. But the reality of the Bush-Cheney White House, as well as the current administration (which the film certainly wants us to draw parallels to), is not so cut and dry. The blame for the political climate cannot be placed squarely on the shoulders of the American people. What about the imperialism that created America in the first place, the capitalism at the heart of the political system? It’s a film that plays around with form and that asks a lot of big questions, but ultimately I found it ambivalent in making any truly interesting points. That said, it’s still enjoyable – if you can get past its smugness.
The Favourite, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
This is the over-the-top period drama I wanted Mary Queen of Scots to be. The performances are uniformly wonderful. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is bubbling with overblown emotion while displaying more subtle affect; Rachel Weisz’s brusque Lady Marlborough is simply brimming with ambition, and her fall from grace is rendered brilliantly. (Emma Stone is great, too, but since she’s nominated in the same category as Weisz I’d have to take her out of the running.) The cinematography is inspired, with fisheye shots suggesting emotional isolation. (I’ve discussed this before when writing about Alias Grace, but I love when historical films draw attention to the fact that they are films through their cinematography, suggesting anachronism in the use of technology.) You could get lost in the extravagant mise-en-scène. I loved the costume design: the delightful anachronisms (the prints! the denim dresses! redbottoms!), the colour symbolism (Abigail and Sarah switch colour palettes as their power dynamics shift), the naturalism of the women’s appearances contrasted with the extravagance of the male characters. We can really see the facial expressions of the women, whereas the men’s emotional depth is precluded by the layers of makeup and enormous wigs. Speaking of the male characters, none of them are particularly important narratively; Masham functions only as a way for Abigail to get closer to the Queen, which is a delightful inversion of the usual power dynamics. The men posture and preen with no real potency. In the world of this film, men are basically irrelevant – they aren’t even needed sexually. The Favourite is hilarious, richly textured, and completely enjoyable. I’d love to watch it again – there’s just so much going on visually and thematically, I think it invites a repeat viewing.
(ALSO Rachel Weisz in breeches is everything. We are so lucky.)
Roma, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
I went into Roma knowing the following things: 1) It’s a co-production between Mexico and the US (and it’s in Spanish); 2) It’s a Netflix original (though it was also released in select theatres I assume to make it Oscar-eligible); 3) It is highly favoured to win Best Picture; 4) It’s in black and white. 1) and 2) combined to make the prospect of 3) appealing; the Oscars are so blatantly stuck in the past that I’m excited by the possibility of a foreign-language streaming service original winning the top prize, though one could argue that the Academy’s historic ambivalence towards both foreign films and non-traditionally-distributed content points to its increasing obsolescence in today’s media landscape. Anyway, I was ready to end up thinking 4) was a cheap signifier of artistic merit, which is how I viewed the artsy shots in Beautiful Boy.
It very quickly became evident to me that Roma is a deliberate nod to Italian neorealism of the 1940s: its focus on the everyday life of the working class, its heavy use of children, the non-professional actors. (Speaking of which, Yalitza Aparicio was so phenomenally expressive in the leading role of Cleo.) The black and white is then excusable, but I’ve talked to a few people who aren’t familiar with Italian cinematic history who still find the choice strange. It’s a clever nod (and the film is certainly a stellar modern take on the genre), but to fully work it requires specialized knowledge. That’s nothing new for the Academy, which has for decades generally gone for arty films over popular offerings. (See this year’s controversy over the proposed Best Popular Picture category…) Not every film has to be accessible, but I can’t really blame people who aren’t film buffs for not quite getting some of the artistic choices here.
That said, if we can get past the black and white issue, this is a stirring, stunningly-shot film that is at its core about women’s resilience in the face of men’s betrayal. The class difference between live-in housekeeper/nanny Cleo and her mistress Sofía is blatant both visually and behaviourally; their dynamic is fascinating because Sofía does genuinely love the vulnerable and emotional Cleo while never quite treating her like a family member. (At the beginning of the film, Cleo has just settled in to watch TV with the family when Sofía asks her to get her husband a cup of tea.) Yet there is a bond and solidarity between them that transcends these boundaries. Sofía is incredibly supportive of Cleo’s pregnancy, even when the father wants nothing to do with her or the baby, and thanks to Cleo’s loving care of Sofía’s four children, they remain basically carefree even when their father leaves his family for another woman. Sofía tells Cleo that women are always alone, but this is not true, and the film knows it: women have one another.
In my cynicism I think the Academy will probably prove the betting people right and give Roma best picture, partially because it’s a beautiful, well-constructed film, but partially because they’re going to have to acknowledge Netflix sooner or later or risk irrelevance, and it’s relatively on brand to reward a film that makes slightly esoteric nods to film history written and directed by a guy who’s already won an Oscar. I’m not saying Roma doesn’t deserve the award, but the Oscars are entirely political and I’d wager there’s a lot going on behind the scenes when it comes to a foreign-language Netflix original being so heavily favoured to win the most coveted prize in the film industry.
Anyway, my pick out of all the Best Picture nominees has to be The Favourite, but I’d be happy if Roma won. Best Supporting Actress is an incredibly stacked category and realistically anyone could deservedly win, but I’m hoping for either Regina King (to make up for If Beale Street Could Talk being snubbed!!) or Amy Adams (because SHE DESERVES AN OSCAR!!!). Glenn Close is a shoe-in for Best Actress, but The Favourite‘s recent success at the BAFTAs makes me hope for an Olivia Colman upset. The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories are pretty bad, so I’m just hoping A Star Is Born/Bradley Cooper win as little as possible. Yes, I am petty and bitter. What else is new?