4. A Star Is Born
First the bad. A Star Is Born has a completely misguided ending, one that directly translates something from 1937 far too directly and thus robs both main characters of their realism. This is a problem with all previous versions and Bradley Cooper keeps far too much, ending the movie on a dud note.
That said, the first hour of A Star Is Born is borderline transcendent. The meet-drunk of star Jackson Maine (Cooper) and jobbing waitress Ally (Lady Gaga) is carefully and slowly built up until all the emotiona comes out during a duet on-stage performance of the film's signature anthem, "Shallow". Cooper's handling of the live music is the highlight, with smart footage shot at real festivals putting the audience right there on the stage. It's a knowing prestige picture, but it hits many of the right notes so that's not too egregious. The problems really do only come in when it has to beeline for A Star Is Born's prescriptive ending.
3. Black Panther
The first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture, Black Panther is truly a landmark blockbuster. And while so much of its awards campaign has hinged on the cultural significance, it's important to remember that it is also just a really good film. Ryan Coogler stepped up to the Marvel plate with something that ostensibly followed all the superhero beats yet thanks to a nuanced script also deconstructed the various societal ways we deal with colonialism and its remaining impact on the world. The villain set up in Avengers: Age of Ultron is killed and replaced by an Oakland orphan who wants to get even for hardship, leaving the hero to stop someone with an almost rational view of the world.
It may devolve into a rubbery CGI fight nearing the end, but the themes Black Panther is trading is are stronger than pretty much every other Oscar nominee.
One of the few bright spots in the otherwise disheartening Oscar nominations is that a black-and-white, foreign-language Netflix movie is the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. Alfonso Cuaron has taken the technical brio he's plied in the likes of Children of Men and Gravity and returned to his filmmaking roots with Roma, telling a visually captivating tale of a Mexican housekeeper in 1970s Mexico City that starts off delicately and slowly moves into subtle tragedy.
Like many films that didn't get in the running, Roma is impeccably constructed yet doesn't shout about it. Takes are long because they accentuate the drama, not to show off. The lack of music leaves a visceral soundscape in its wake. The casting of unknowns removes any pretense of ego from the equation, and the backdrop of political upheaval is unsettling in its careful overspill. Many will say you have to see this on the big screen, but it's great in whichever form - just see it.
BlacKkKlansman released in August before any major festivals and so looked like a cursory awards candidate. It's testament to just how raw its message is and how entertainingly Spike Lee delivers it that it's emerged as a proper frontrunner for Oscars. Adam Driver nabbed an Oscar nomination (surely the first of many) but the movie belongs to John David Washington, who gives the so-crazy-it-must-be-true story of a black cop going undercover in the KKK a relatable hook.
The line between bathos and pathos is dominant throughout the script and its careful performances, but that belies a real political charge, perhaps best in a joke about how David Duke wanting to install someone with his values in the White House, something dismissed in the 1970s but all too true in 2019; the final sequence that jumps forward to news footage of Charlottesville is a chilling underlining of the film's message and reminder that this isn't a story of our past.
It'll be a tragedy if BlacKkKlansman loses to reverse Miss Daisy on February 25.