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Da 5 Bloods is everything you would expect from a Spike Lee Joint. Smart, fast-talking characters; sudden eruptions of violence; a strong sense of political indignation; an eclectic visual style. At times, Lee’s tale of Vietnam veterans returning to the scene of their earlier combat feels overdone, but what Da 5 Bloods lacks in subtlety it makes up for in power. The theme of legacies runs throughout the film, including the racial history of African American soldiers, the colonial legacy of the Vietnam conflict, familial ties including bloodlines and military camaraderie, national and personal trauma, while finance and immigration make appearances as well. The heady mixture can be disparate and the film lacks the focused punch of Lee’s previous film, BlacKkKlansman, but Da 5 Bloods is still a stylish, timely and urgent drama.
I know, I know, the awards were ages ago. I’ve been busy, whaddya want? Despite the various changes that took place, I enjoyed the Oscars ceremony. The absence of a host did not adversely affect things, although the opening speech from Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler suggested that any or all of these comedians would make excellent hosts in the future.
Other presenters were also entertaining, and it was especially pleasing to see the acting winners of last year presenting the awards for this year in pairs, Gary Oldman and Alison Janney presenting Leading Actor to Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody while Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell presented Leading Actress to Olivia Colman for The Favourite, whose acceptance speech was one of the most moving.
Alfonso Cuarón spent a lot of time on the stage, winning three awards personally for Roma, Foreign Language Film, Cinematography and Directing, the last of which was affectionately presented to him by his friend and last year’s winner, Guillermo Del Toro.
Performance highlights included the various nominees for Original Song, especially the eventual winner of this award, ‘Shallow’ (from A Star Is Born) performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry appeared in hilarious costumes that incorporated elements of all the nominees for Costume Design, was another highlight.
Some of the most significant speeches came from the newcomers, especially those in the Short Film categories. For their winning Documentary (Short), Period. End of Sentence, Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton gave an impassioned and empowering speech about women’s rights and the need for films like theirs to get this kind of attention. Similarly, Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb were inspiring as they received the award for Short Film (Animated) for their charming Bao. And with his first competitive Oscar win, Spike Lee gave a jubilant celebration alongside his co-winners Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, seeming to climb up the much longer form of his friend Samuel L. Jackson to receive a congratulatory embrace.
As is often the case, however, the Oscars are dogged with as much controversy as glamour. The most heated debate has been around Best Picture, and with good reason. In a year when such unusual fare as Roma and The Favourite and such provocative offerings as BlacKkKlansman were in contention, for the Academy to reward Green Book feels like a conservative cop-out. I don’t think Green Book is a bad film, but it seems remarkably unremarkable. Little in its subject matter or film style stood out, especially in comparison to the distinctive style and unusual content of the films mentioned above.
As is so often the case, the suspected politics of the Oscars are illuminating. Green Book presents a very simplistic view of US race relations, and it has been described disparagingly as Driving Miss Daisy with the racist in the front. Green Book charts the resolution of racism through a tale of one white man shaking off his prejudices, and in doing so saves a black man with companionship. It’s a white saviour story, where the journey of the white saviour is more prominent than that of the black man who is ‘saved’. It is therefore easy to see why Green Book’s victory annoyed Spike Lee as well as others. I won’t say I’m angry, but I am disappointed that after radical and surprising choices in recent years, Green Book feels like a Best Picture winner from earlier, safer times. Wackier choices next time, I hope.
Recently, I took on a new job which takes up rather a lot of my time. Therefore, I haven’t posted as much as I, and you, my devoted fans, would like. With the Oscars just around the corner, here’s my quick predictions for the awards, and a few of my own thoughts on them.
I’ve see all but one of these (hopefully get to Green Book one day). All have their strong points, some more than others. My personal favourite film of last year is up for multiple awards, but after its success at the BAFTA awards, I think this year AMPAS will, for the first time, award a film not in the English language the coveted prize of Best Picture. Roma is a magnificent piece of work that makes the ordinary extraordinary, all through the power of cinema. For that, I see AMPAS voting for Roma as Best Picture, and also Best Foreign Language Film for good measure.
Prediction – Roma
Preferred winner – BlacKkKlansman
Alfonso Cuarón for Roma
Yorgis Lanthimoss for The Favourite
Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay for Vice
Pawel Paliwkowski for Cold War
Much like Best Picture, I think the Academy will reward Roma, not least for the amazing direction and indeed multi-tasking of Alfonso Cuarón. I would personally vote for Spike Lee for his disruption of cinematic norms, but I see Cuarón picking up his second golden baldie.
Prediction – Alfonso Cuarón
Preferred winner – Spike Lee
The other day, a cat offered its opinion on the Oscar nominations. At any other time, this would seem strange, but Oscar season is when all opinions on film quality and aesthetic worthiness become, according to all and sundry offering opinions, The Truth. Whatever the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates for awards, everyone from a broadsheet critic to a tweeting cat knows better.
I have opinions on the nominations, but I’m more interested in what they represent rather than knowing, let alone deciding, The Truth about the best films of last year. I am pleased to see some of my favourites from last year nominated, and while other top films of mine have been largely or entirely overlooked, I don’t think the Academy members are wrong, just have different views. In the run up to the awards, I’ll post my views and predictions on the various nominees, but for starters, let’s consider the nominees for Best Picture.
The dominant story around the nominations is the inclusion of Black Panther. The first superhero film to receive this accolade, it is also a significant black film. A blockbuster with a predominantly black cast, that succeeded critically and commercially with its incorporation of commentary about racial history and isolationism, the nomination of Black Panther is a hugely significant cultural event. Criticism of this nomination is largely based around the film’s lack of aesthetic quality: seemingly the film ‘is not really good enough’ to be nominated.
These criticisms do not specify the standards by which film quality should be measured, and imply elitist attitudes against blockbusters and superhero films in general. This cultural prejudice is interesting, since while less harmful, it is no less a prejudice than that based on skin colour. Artistic merit is subjective, and while there may be critical standards that could be considered objective, perhaps from the practitioners such as editors and cinematographers, these standards are unlikely to be universally accepted. Therefore, it seems more appropriate, and certainly less arrogant, to embrace the various subjective positions and accept the wonderful diversity of perspectives.
Speaking of diversity, I wonder if a predominantly white superhero film would have attracted such discussion. The nomination of Black Panther probably is more a political statement than an artistic one, as the members of AMPAS present themselves as progressive. The other nominees also suggest this different approach, with only two of the Best Picture nominees focused upon white men. Of these, I am yet to see Vice so will post my review subsequently, but at the very least it seems to be a satire of conservative white power, a point underscored by Christian Bale’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.
A Star Is Born is probably the most traditional and conservative of the nominees, being a remake of a popular rags-to-riches story in which a man helps a woman while wrestling with his personal demons. I loved the film and have no problem with it being nominated, but I am glad it is the only typical nominee. The biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is also typical, but its focus on a gay musician of Asian descent makes it unusual. Films focused on gay characters have received limited awards attention, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight being earlier examples. I’m not the biggest fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, and controversy around its director may keep it out of the frontrunning, but I applaud its inclusion.
Another film with homosexual elements is The Favourite, a surprising inclusion because of its focus upon women but also because it is such an odd film. ‘Costume dramas’ do attract attention – see Sense & Sensibility, Elizabeth, Shakespeare In Love – but rarely with this level of frank sexuality and dark comedy. To me, it is another weird choice, and all the better for it. Roma I am yet to see, but from a racial and gender perspective it is refreshing to see a film about a working-class woman in Mexico recognised. Green Book casts an eye over American racial history, much like Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and Hidden Figures, and once I’ve seen it I’ll let you know what I think.
Speaking of American racial history, I am thrilled to see my favourite film of last year nominated in multiple categories. BlacKkKlansman draws attention to important events with contemporary parallels, while engaging with and subverting cinematic norms. Spike Lee has long been a public face of African-American cinema, and Academy recognition brings attention to this important film.
It is easy to read many of the nominations as political. I do not see this as a problem. Film and the film industry are political, and in an age of social media everyone can be politically engaged. By engaging with debates over representation through their attention to films that address gender, race and sexuality, the members of AMPAS demonstrate social engagement. Ironically, to perpetuate lofty and undefined levels of ‘artistic quality’ would be more elitist and out of touch, as AMPAS has long been accused of. This is a radical time, and what we see in these nominations are contributions to debate and discussion. One of the most prominent platforms in the world is contributing to the debate, and that is something I applaud.
After my last post’s batch of bad turkey, which certainly gave me indigestion, let’s celebrate what was great in 2018. There are only twelve slots in my (totally arbitrary and subjective) best of the year list; however, there are plenty of good entries as well as honourable mentions. Among these were some unexpected pleasures, including the grim but in places touching social realist drama Obey, and the charming comedy about family and race relations Eaten by Lions.
I caught some other British efforts at the Norwich Film Festival, including some great shorts as well as the features Waiting For You and The Isle. These films were striking in their use of evocative locations, including the south of France and the Scottish islands, as well as offering intriguing stories.
2018 was a good year for black filmmaking. Critical darling Steve McQueen returned with his fourth feature Widows, a heist thriller with sociological smarts to match its stylistic sheen, that dared to have women of colour standing up to patriarchy. Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie used music and location as an intricate and organic part of its story. A great surprise was Blindspotting, that offered thrills and laughs in equal measure, interweaving its politics with its narrative beautifully.
Even better was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a brilliant piece of work that combined a true story with period setting and gripping set pieces. BlacKkKlansman subverted genre expectations and performed a reclamation of cinema through its formal properties, delivering a powerful and contemporary message. The highest profile ‘black film’ was Black Panther. While its racial politics received criticism and there is still a long way to go in terms of equal representation, Marvel demonstrated that a mainstream blockbuster can have a serious engagement with racial politics and isolationism, and also be a huge financial success.
Marvel Studios followed Black Panther with Avengers: Infinity War, a staggeringly ambitious super-powered epic. With ten years and eighteen films behind it, Infinity War balanced its multiple storylines and characters with verve and aplomb. Amidst the colourful fun, Infinity War also performed a sober exploration of power, making it exceptional in the superhero genre and a highlight of the year.
Other superhero exploits came in animated form, as Pixar delivered Incredibles 2. Fans of the original waited fourteen years to revisit the exploits of the Parr/Incredible family, and Brad Bird and his team did not disappoint with an explosive action adventure that engaged with ideas around gender and our relationship with technology. Sony Animation maintained their hold on web-slinging property as Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse combined dazzling displays of digital dexterity as well as just the right level of postmodern knowingness, proving that universes stretch just as much as spandex.
Perhaps the year’s biggest thrills came from a mega-star rather than a superhero. After twenty-two years, five previous films and with a star approaching sixty, Mission: Impossible – Fallout was a fabulous continuation of this enduring franchise. Bathroom fights, stolen plutonium, mountain climbing/falling, helicopter chases and a halo jump led to a breathless and exhilarating experience, with genuine emotion giving the film heart to go with its heft.
Other exhilarating experiences came from Ready Player One – the second Spielberg of the year that joyously embraced new technology – and First Man, which delivered a riveting journey into outer space that focused on the rivets themselves. While these films had very different subject matters – dystopian future and the tension between fantasy and reality, historical drama about journeys into grief as well as to the Moon – both featured exquisite levels of detail, every bit as immersive and compelling as each other.
By way of contrast, Cold War was a quintessential ‘art film’ that was involving and enthralling despite its rigid formalism. Stark black and white cinematography, interpersonal and geopolitical concerns, intimate performances and a heartbreaking story united in one of the most emotional yet carefully contained films of the year. Speaking of heartbreak, A Star is Born was an equally uplifting and devastating tale of music and romance, demonstrating that Lady Gaga is a fine actor and Bradley Cooper a fine director. And in one of the year’s strangest and most striking works, Lynne Ramsey delivered You Were Never Really Here, a brilliantly immersive revenge thriller, more about mood and experience than plot and narrative.
Finally, after this preamble, it is time to announce Vincent’s View on the Top Twelve Films of 2018. Therefore, and without further ado:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve lunar landings
Ten Lady Birds
Nine Stars a-birthing
Eight Ready Players
Seven Black Panthers
Six Watery Shapes
Five Phantom Threads
Three Ebbing Billboards
Two Were Never Really Here
And a Blac-K-k-K-lansman.
With awards season now upon us, I look forward to the many offerings that 2019 will bring.