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The Oscars’ best-picture race is unpredictable, polarizing—and problematic

Critics have branded nominees as racist ("Green Book"), elitist ("Roma") or just plain awful ("Bohemian Rhapsody").

Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Green Book,"

Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Green Book," one of the movies nominated for best picture. Photo Credit: AP / Universal Pictures

Polarizing, problematic and unpredictable — that’s this year’s best picture Oscar race in a nutshell.

Now on its 91st year of handing out Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences knows full well that you can’t please everybody. Whether it’s giving the top Oscar to “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain” or nominating only white actors two years in a row, the Academy has endured its share of criticism. In most cases, it manages to bounce back swiftly.

This year seems different. The Academy is facing new levels of displeasure — from the public and from within its own ranks — for a long list of reasons. The Academy’s inability to find a host has been an embarrassment, as has its recent tendency to announce and then retract unpopular decisions, such as relegating several categories to the commercial breaks. Then there are the movies themselves, which have been criticized as racist (“Green Book”), elitist (“Roma”) or just plain awful (“Bohemian Rhapsody”). Heightened sensitives, rancorous politics and the nation’s generally foul mood have created a perfect storm for an unprepared Academy.

Nowhere is this better reflected than in the best picture category. The film that wins will in some way also lose, becoming the new emblem of a festering issue or sociopolitical problem. Here’s how one of the strangest Oscar races in recent years is shaping up.

THE LONG SHOT: 'VICE'

Adam McKay’s comedy about former Vice President Dick Cheney earned high praise for Christian Bale in the title role. The film’s overall tone of vicious mockery, however (Cheney’s multiple heart attacks, for instance, are a running gag), divided critics. “Vice” seems unlikely to win — it’s more spoof than biopic — but its nomination does little for Hollywood’s reputation as a bastion of blind liberalism. 

THE CRITICAL DARLING: 'THE FAVOURITE'

Yorgos Lanthimos’ story about two women (Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone) competing for the affections of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is not your mother’s period piece, but a wickedly funny and sexually shocking comedy-drama. That may explain why it has left viewers a little colder than critics. Look for this one to lose most of its 10 nominations, save for costume design, production design and original screenplay.

YESTERDAY’S NEWS: 'A STAR IS BORN'

It was the movie that had everything: Romance, tragedy, pop music, Bradley Cooper at his sexiest (also in his directing debut) and Lady Gaga at her most authentic (and in her first proper film role). So, what happened? Overexposure and too much hype, perhaps. As the weeks went by, the film’s Oscar fortunes waned, and Cooper ended up without a nod for best director. Now the film’s only probable win is original song, for Gaga’s power-ballad “Shallow.”

THE BIG DISGRACE: 'BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY'

This biopic of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), the lead singer of Queen, has been criticized for just about everything you can imagine, from its formulaic script to its skittish handling of homosexuality to its director (Bryan Singer, ousted midproduction and recently accused of sexually assaulting minors). None of that, though, stopped the movie from earning high audience scores and piles of money ($854 million worldwide). Malek will probably follow his Golden Globe with an Oscar for best actor, but voters probably won’t give best picture to this problematic movie.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE: 'BLACKKKLANSMAN'

After more than 30 years of Academy snubs, Spike Lee — “Do The Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” — finally gets nominated for best director and best picture. Critical praise for Lee’s latest, based on the true story of a black cop (played by John David Washington) who helped infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, has been near-unanimous, but let’s be honest: This is not the director’s best work. He also seems unlikely to win. Lee may still snag his first competitive Oscar, however, for adapted screenplay.

THE POLARIZER: 'GREEN BOOK'

The true story of a black musician, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who tours the segregated South with a white driver, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” was meant to be upbeat Oscar bait with messages of tolerance and equality. It was — but many also found it hopelessly outdated, full of offensive tropes and stereotypes that belied the movie’s own subtle racism. Add in another director with a #MeToo problem (Peter Farrelly) and “Green Book” starts to look like a poor choice. Can it win best picture? Probably not. Its recent award from the Producers Guild of America is a good sign, but the absence of an Oscar nod for directing is a very bad omen.

THE FRONT-RUNNER: 'ROMA'

Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white drama about a maid and her middle-class employer goes into the Oscars with 10 nominations, rivaling “The Favourite” for the most of any film. “Roma” has been rapturously reviewed by critics, but as for the public’s reaction — well, we may never know. “Roma” was produced by Netflix, which doesn’t allow its ratings or ticket sales to be monitored in the usual ways, so there’s no way to confirm how many people have seen it. If “Roma” wins best picture, as seems likely, it would be the lowest-grossing winner to date and perhaps for all time, since its box-office tally is theoretically $0. And just to complicate matters: A win for Netflix, already a controversial company in Hollywood, might suggest that the Academy is giving up on theatrical moviegoing and, like so many of us, giving into watching from the couch.

THE CROWD-PLEASER: 'BLACK PANTHER'

Voting is a sacred duty and must be done with the heart, of course. The Oscars could do worse, however, than to vote “Black Panther” for best picture. On a Venn diagram of artistic quality, cultural impact and commercial success, this is the movie with the greatest overlap. Just for the fun of it, imagine the elation in the Dolby Theatre after the opening of the envelope and the reading of the title. Then think of how much goodwill the much-maligned Academy would earn in that one fell swoop. It’s an unlikely scenario, though at this Oscars, nearly anything seems possible.

Where to watch

Before the show

“E! Countdown to the Red Carpet” (1 to 5 p.m., E!)

“Countdown to the Oscars, Live!” (1 to 4 p.m., WABC/7)

“E! Live from the Red Carpet” (5 to 8 p.m., E!)

“On the Red Carpet at the Oscars” (5:30 to 6:30 p.m., ABC/7)

“Oscars Opening Ceremony: Live from the Red Carpet” (6:30 to 8 p.m., ABC/7)

The show

“91st Annual Academy Awards” (8 p.m., ABC/7)

After the show

“E! After Party” (11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., E!)

“On the Red Carpet After the Awards” (12:35 to 1:35 a.m., WABC/7)

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