The 2019 Oscar nominations were revealed this morning, with the Academy members showing a lot of love for “Roma” and “The Favourite.” But even more than the question of who takes home the trophies on Feb. 24, this year’s nominations are exciting for the conversations they have the potential to spark. Act Four contributor Sonny Bunch and I got together to talk about the contenders.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Sonny, I’m in a slightly unusual position when it comes to this year’s Oscar nominations. I had a baby last spring and was either on leave or getting acclimated to a work schedule that includes juggling care for a tiny human, so I’m desperately behind on the cinema of 2019. Normally, I’d have at least a couple of strong opinions or a sentimental favorite, but this year, I’m going to be playing catch-up now that the nominations are out. You, unlike me, have seen a lot of these movies, so what are your initial reactions?
Sonny Bunch: The biggest surprise of the morning, I think, is the huge number of nominations for “BlacKkKlansman,” which grabbed six, including Best Picture and Best Director for Spike Lee. Interestingly, this is Spike’s first nomination as a director (he’s gotten a couple of others, for documentary and writing). It’s a good nomination, even if this isn’t my favorite of his films (indeed, I gave it a thumbs down on the ole Tomatometer): You can feel his stamp on every scene. Of the films you have seen this year, which were you happiest about getting a nomination, Alyssa?
AR: This is 100 percent about how few movies I saw in 2018, and maybe 2 percent about the movies themselves, but I’m excited about the nominations for “Isle of Dogs” and “Black Panther,” more because of the conversations they’re likely to start than necessarily because I’m certain that they’re the best films nominated in their respective categories. I will admit to being a very easy mark for Wes Anderson’s stories about willful children who are furious about the world as it is and slowly figuring out what they can and can’t do about it. But I also think that “Isle of Dogs” sparked some good film writing about cultural appropriation that is worth resurfacing as part of a broader discussion of that subject. And while I don’t think “Black Panther” is likely to be my best movie of the year once I’ve seen more things, I think it would be really useful for us to talk about what makes for a truly great superhero movie, and how superhero movies, which are now the dominant form of entertainment, fit into our conversation about what culture is great and why. What about you?
SB: I too am glad that “Isle of Dogs” got some nominations, including best original score. What’s interesting about “Black Panther,” in my humble opinion, is how few nominations it got in major categories. A few technical categories, a few music categories. But aside from Best Picture, it’s shut out from the major trophies. Which is ... interesting, given its outsize gross in the U.S. I’d have liked Michael B. Jordan to get a nomination. Between this and “Creed II," he really had a great year.
AR: I totally agree with you about Michael B. Jordan. He and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler have something really special going on together. I don’t know if you’ve seen “Fruitvale Station,” the first movie they did, but the range Coogler gets out of Jordan, from the goofy tenderness he displays in “Fruitvale Station,” to the myopic political righteousness that defines Killmonger in “Black Panther” is just fascinating to see. I am really, really looking forward to “Wrong Answer.”
SB: If “Isle of Dogs” is a problematic fave, what does that make “Green Book”? And is the story of the Italian American stereotype driving a dignified African American gentleman around the South the best picture front-runner? Or are things swinging toward “Roma”? I’m deeply ambivalent about “Green Book,” as I’ve written for you. But I have to say: The vitriol surrounding it and the fact that the campaign against it has so much to do with stuff that takes place outside the world of the film (tweets from writers; complaints from the family of Dr. Shirley), I’m drifting toward the anti-anti-“Green Book” camp. The movie is mediocre, but pretending it’s the root of all our societal ills and treating it as such strikes me as deeply weird.
AR: I am TERRIBLE at this sort of Oscar bracketology, so I am not going to hazard a guess here, but I could also see a scenario in which Mahershala Ali gets a statuette and the movie gets shut out otherwise. I still need to see “Green Book,” of course, but I will be curious to see if someone teases out a strain in the dialogue that I’ve been thinking about as the whole mishegas has played out. It’s exhausting narratively and politically that so many movies end up being about how white people learn that the world is not the same for everyone. But at the same time, given that a lot of the left is focused on a kind of reverse-red-pilling and getting people with privilege to look at the world in a different way, I wonder if there’s a movie to be made about a white character coming to consciousness that wouldn’t fall into those tropes.
SB: Speaking of movies that don’t rely on white people to raise consciousness: “If Beale Street Could Talk” never managed to find any momentum during Oscar season. Which kind of surprised me; it felt like a shoo-in for a number of nominations, at least.
AR: Do you think part of that was the release strategy? It seems like it took a while to roll out wide, and so it just sort of got subsumed in the shuffle. But reasons for it aside, it does strike me as very weird that the movie didn’t manage to find a foothold in the conversation, given that Barry Jenkins directed a Best Picture winner and that it’s an adaptation of a really terrific James Baldwin novel.
SB: I do think “Beale Street” got lost in the shuffle: It rolled out late in the year, and then incredibly slowly. It’s barely on 1,000 screens now, according to Box Office Mojo, and the advertising campaign seems muted, at best. “Vice,” on the other hand, seems to have bullied its way to a slew of major nominations: Despite mediocre reviews and middling performance at the box office, “Vice” opened wide, had a huge ad campaign associated with it, and nabbed eight nominations, including actor, director, and best picture. Let’s also be honest: “Beale Street” got hurt because it’s the smallest of the movies about race in a year dominated by movies about race. “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther” and “Green Book” sucked up a lot of the oxygen that “Beale Street” might have gotten in any other year.
AR: Pivoting from “Green Book” to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this is the problematic favorite Oscars!
SB: As a filthy reactionary, I find this all quite amusing rather than troubling. I’d say the worst thing about “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” being nominated for best picture is that they’re just not that good? Entertaining, sure, but not particularly artful. At the very least, the Think-Piece Industrial Complex will have fuel for the next several weeks.
AR: And as the painfully sincere half of our partnership, I’d say that I feel for actors like Mahershala Ali and Rami Malek, who are out there gamely defending their work in projects that have sparked some really difficult conversations. It can both be true that this set of nominations throws another fuel core on the Think-Piece Industrial Complex and that some of these conversations [are] worth having. What do we expect from actors who work on projects where directors turn out to be behaving abusively on set? Given the #MeToo revelations, should actors not take roles with directors or co-stars who have been accused of heinous behavior? What should an actor do if it turns out that a script was produced under circumstances that may have produced an uncomfortably slanted story?
SB: There are two kind of separate issues here, though, right? On the #MeToo stuff, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying you won’t work with a guy who you find personally gross. I think organizing a systematic effort on this front reeks of the black list. As far as “slanted stories” go ... well, what story isn’t slanted? What historical drama hasn’t elided facts or smoothed over rough edges? Who gets to decide which elisions are kosher and which are no good?
AR: See, this is why I think these are worthwhile questions to ask! They produce good answers! Beyond the question of the nominees, what do we think the ceremony is going to be like? The Oscars lack a host for the first time in a while, which likely means the most interesting moments will be the speeches. For that reason alone, I’m rooting for Spike Lee to win.
SB: My nightmare is that they decide “no host” means “we need more musical numbers.” Easily the most disposable part of every show anyway, if the song and dance bits take center stage I’m going to have to hit the bottle a lot harder than usual even earlier in the show. Though that might be preferable to ABC’s synergistic efforts to hype the “Avengers” franchise. I saw some chatter about the show “reuniting the Avengers.” Reuniting them ... how? When have they not been reunited? They’re going to be in a movie later this year! They were in one last year!
AR: And we all know they’re not actually dead!
SB: Who do you think would give a more “interesting” speech: Spike Lee or Adam McKay? I can imagine either of them going on a real tear.
AR: I’d vote for Spike Lee if only because we’ve seen McKay give an Oscar speech before, when he won for “The Big Short.” He’d definitely have *new* things to say now. But I want to hear Lee, just because he hasn’t won Best Director, and because I think he might be interesting in unpredictable ways.
SB: It’ll never happen, but I’d like to see Pawel Pawlikowski win for “Cold War.” Again, as a filthy reactionary, his take on the deformation of art and society under the strain of communist totalitarianism really sang to me. It was one of the best films of the year — and pleasingly brief, at only 88 minutes. More filmmakers should take note!
AR: If only the ceremony itself would be that brief!