The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Roma,” click here.
I’m so glad “Roma” hits Netflix on Friday, because it gives me another chance to talk about “Mudbound.”
The tens of readers of this column know exactly how I feel about “Mudbound,” the Netflix film that was briefly released in theaters last year to make sure it qualified for the Oscars. “Mudbound,” about two families — one white, one black — living in post-WWII Mississippi, is one of the great modern American films. Its theme goes to the core of race relations in America. The cinematography is breathtaking, the performances are stunning and Dee Rees’ direction is both sensitive and brutal. But the film got absolutely screwed at the Oscars, receiving only four nominations (and best picture wasn’t one of them). “Mudbound” should have taken the Oscars by storm, yet it got nothing but crickets from the Academy.
“Roma” is in a similar situation. A few weeks in a few theaters (including some local ones), and then national distribution to a TV, iPad or phone near you. And, just like “Mudbound,” it’s an extraordinary film. Set in 1970s Mexico, it’s the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, in an astounding debut performance), a maid/nanny who works for a wealthy family entitled enough that the kids just drop their coats on the floor when they come home. In terms of its awards trajectory, it’s hanging steady with “Mudbound,” with three Golden Globe nominations (“Mudbound” received two). It is already at or near the top of a number of end-of-year lists, which is exactly where it belongs (“Mudbound” was also critically recognized). But what about the Oscars? Will the Netflix curse continue?
“Roma” has its share of strikes against it. It’s a foreign language film, something the Academy hasn’t nominated for best picture since 2012. It’s in black and white. None of the actors are big names in the United States. But it does have one not-so-secret weapon, and his name is Alfonso Cuaron.
The writer-director is a known quantity to the Academy — he’s won two Oscars and been nominated for four more. He’s not only helmed critically acclaimed movies like “Gravity” and “Children of Men” but hugely popular ones, including “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Dee Rees has directed … not much.
I don’t think it’s a race or gender thing (though I believe that if Rees were a man, her 2011 film “Pariah” would have landed her on everyone’s list of up-and-coming directors). In the end, the Academy is not adventurous. Recognizing “Mudbound” for the artistic achievement that it is would have required two big steps: lauding a film that was delivered in an unconventional manner, and lauding a film from a largely unknown director. With “Roma,” the Academy only has to take one risky step, and Cuaron will handle the rest.
I want “Roma” to get Oscar recognition, and I expect it will. When it does, though, I won’t be able to help but be a little bitter. It’ll somewhat prove what makes me the most cynical about the Oscars — it’s often not the quality of the movie that matters. Sometimes, it’s all in a name.
By the way, “Mudbound” is still streaming on Netflix.
For more movie musings, follow Kristen on Twitter: @kpagekirby