The top prize at the Academy Awards, Best Picture has become rather hard to predict over the past few years. Whether it was the Moonlight upset of La La Land in 2016 or the two-horse race between The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri last year, Best Picture has come down to the wire. This year will be no different with two favorites emerging in Roma and Green Book. The former would represent Netflix’s first time winning the top prize at the Oscars, offering up industry affirmation of the streaming service’s place within Hollywood’s elite. The latter has been the subject of great controversy, whether due to actor Viggo Mortensen and director Peter Farrelly’s various missteps on the promotional tour or in the film’s handling of race. Nonetheless, support for Green Book has remained strong and the film has picked up numerous Best Film designations during awards season. Green Book has certainly not been the only divisive Best Picture nominee, the category facing more scrutiny than it has in recent years with the inclusion of the Bryan Singer-directed Bohemian Rhapsody, the divisive Vice, or the first Best Picture nominated superhero film Black Panther.
In spite of increased scrutiny, the Best Picture nominees do reflect the consistent voting of the Academy with the eight films also representing the top eight films with the most nominations. Alongside Roma, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite tied for the most with 10 nominations. Though a costume film- which the Academy notoriously favors- the pitch-black comedy and eccentricity of the film make it an interesting nominee, representing the opposite sensibility of so many previously Oscar-nominated period films. Rounding out the nominees are A Star is Born and BlacKkKlansman, both of which emerged early on as potential nominees and maintained enough momentum to earn a nomination. Whether they can turn that momentum into a Best Picture win remains to be seen.
One of the most prestigious categories across Hollywood, the Academy Award for Best Director has notably been a predictor of past or continued success and individuality. On occasion it appears the previous work of its recipients has influenced the winners (last year’s win for Guillermo Del Toro felt like a ‘finally’ moment to many watching). This year’s nominees include five-time nominee Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman, and in the minds of many it seems ludicrous that the man has never won an Academy Award. Whilst it’s true that his latest feature seems to have resparked that tyrannical and truthful voice we first heard all those years ago with Do the Right Thing, the KKK-centric film seems to pale in comparison visually when placed alongside the other nominees. Paweł Pawlikowski‘s work on Cold War is fluid and classical, whilst Yorgos Lanthimos‘ work on The Favourite continues the growing trend of The Academy’s apparent acceptance of the more surreal and fantastical work present in the current film landscape (though its resemblance to Kubrick‘s Barry Lyndon no doubt helped on that front). Adam McKay‘s Vice direction on the other hand seems more typical, ruthlessly undercutting Dick Cheney’s multiple spouts of power with a postmodern and occasionally-flippant sense of humor.
However, Alfonso Cuarón seems to be the director to beat this year. His second directing nomination after his win with Gravity in 2014, Roma is a black-and-white traditionally-told drama with the sense and scale of an epic thanks to its elongated takes, wide shots and expansive extra work. Yet, throughout all of this it never manages to lose its sincerity or emotionality, telling a story close to Cuarón’s heart, that of a live-in housekeeper to a middle class family against the backdrop of the early 1970s in Mexico City. Meticulously crafted, every moment of Roma could be captured as a photograph worthy of praise. Cuarón’s insistence on focusing on the relationship between the family and Cleo grounds the bubbling student uprising in the background- told with such passion that it feels on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia whilst following a soon-to-be mother shopping for a crib. Roma feels timeless thanks to Cuarón’s touch, to the point where its emotional impact continues to linger in the mind long after those pristine credits have graced the screen.
Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón
True craftsman in every sense of the word and typically one of the hardest categories to predict, without cinematographers the visual aspect of visual storytelling would simply be lackluster. Matthew Libatique‘s work on A Star is Born manages to find intimacy and emotion within its grandiose concert scenes; showing us the experience from the performers’ points of view. Lukasz Zal‘s bold black and white visuals for Cold War construct every single shot as a miniature film thanks to the high-contrast power of the Zeiss ultra prime lenses that create some of the deepest blacks ever seen on screen. Robbie Ryan’s difficult time on The Favourite, thanks to Lanthimos’ insistence on natural lighting and little room for interference within shot composition, manages to nail the seasickness of the film’s subjects inside the vast open spaces of the palace. Surprise nomination Caleb Deschanel for intimate German drama Never Look Away is incredibly well-deserved too. Deschanel deftly uses Germany’s rich landscapes as the backdrop for cinematography that caters to the visual fluidity of the performances partly due to his inability to speak the language spoken within the film, allowing him to focus solely on the visual storytelling.
However, the powerhouse that is Alfonso Cuarón seems to continue his streak in this category. Not content with only writing and directing his intensely personal story about a live-in housekeeper to a middle-class family, he also served as acting cinematographer on the shoot. This means that every detail of the film’s visual storytelling, its artistic fluidity and emotional brilliance, is handcrafted and controlled by the man himself. Originally planned alongside his previous collaborator Emmanuel Labezki (Gravity), the shoot’s long length (108 days) and meticulous planning meant he was required to shoot the film himself, and arguably it couldn’t have worked out better. The tricky combination of naturalistic and simultaneously moody lighting throughout the film benefits from the black-and-white aesthetic, and the long-shooting period seems to have perfected the blocking of each shot as a miniature play thanks to the large crowds of extras and rehearsals needed throughout.