If this year’s Oscar nominations were the basis for a horror movie, it would be titled, “Revenge of the Anonymous Academy Member.” The nominations, which were announced Tuesday morning, read like an intentional rebuke to a year’s worth of beautiful, thoughtful films from every corner of the world.
The Academy Awards have never been a true indicator of quality, but 2019’s ceremony will almost certainly reward artists who catered to the laziest fantasies of people who support “resistance” only as far as it’s comfortable.
The current political moment is frightening and ugly, and escapism is always popular; that’s why we live under a deluge of superhero movies and recycled Disney. Right now, we still have no idea how many families were really ripped apart at the US-Mexico border, hate crimes are surging and President Trump’s government shutdown has left millions of people without access to vital services and hundreds of thousands of others are set to go without their second paychecks.
But in Hollywood, racism basically ended when a working class Italian-American drove a Black musician through the south in the 60s and it’s safe to laugh at former Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush because they weren’t as bad as our current president, even if they did erect framework for Trump to abuse his executive power with such abandon.
Fiction that anesthetizes anxiety and whitewashes the experiences of real individuals — the family of “Green Book” protagonist Don Shirley called the film “a symphony of lies” — looks as fake as an Ed Wood schlockfest next to art that tells stories about people who have been relegated to the background for most of history.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” for example, is a deeply mediocre and inaccurate biopic of legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, falsifying the timeline of his HIV diagnosis for dramatic effect and compressing the story of a non-white, queer man into an arc that lionizes the white people around him familiar to anyone who has ever seen an episode of "VH1's Behind the Music." And anyone interested in a tempestuous love story between two strong-willed musicians should see Best Foreign Film nominee “Cold War” instead of “A Star is Born” — but perhaps love and loss under totalitarianism is just too upsetting for industry veterans with a phobia of TMZ and a love of May-December romances.
What’s so sad about this perspective is that ignores smart engaging, and sometimes fun movies from talented people who want to tell stories by about characters who live outside of what industry power brokers find comforting. Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” depicts a single father and daughter struggling to survive despite PTSD and poverty, and the community that tries to help fix problems far beyond what compassion and a GoFundMe can cover. “Sorry to Bother You” is a surrealist anticapitalist comedy starring Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, and Steven Yeun as the world’s sexiest union organizer. “Eighth Grade” managed to depict the crushing terror of adolescence and the helplessness of parenthood in ways that the much-loved 2014 movie “Boyhood” couldn’t manage in nearly three hours.
And while it’s great to see Yalitza Aparicio get nominated for her debut in “Roma” and to know that “The Favourite” pulled in 10 nominations, it will hurt when they inevitably lose to far less ambitious movies.
It’s not even possible to argue that the Academy is picking from only the most well-known films: "Crazy Rich Asians" earned mountains of money on top of widespread critical praise, but reviving the theatrical romantic comedy was apparently not a difficult enough achievement to warrant notice.
It’s impossible to look at "Green Book’s" five Oscar nominations without thinking of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won Best Picture at the 1990 awards when Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” wasn’t even nominated. Lee may be up for Best Picture and Best Director in 2019 for “Blackkklansman” — his best movie in years — but history shows that voters love to give awards to feel-good movies about racism with white protagonists ("Crash" and "The Blind Side" have the hardware to prove it).
Between now and the televised ceremony on February 24, studios will spend millions of dollars to convince voters that their films are the best, that their actors did the best impersonation and that Nicole Holofcener’s Adapted Screenplay nomination for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is enough female representation.
During last year’s Oscar race, The Hollywood Reporter published its annual interviews with anonymous voting members of the Motion Picture Academy of America, which is famous for revealing just how calcified and conservative that body is. In it, one actress complained about feeling pressure to support "Get Out," the thriller about the horrors that live beneath genteel racism written and directed by Jordan Peele. She literally accused the filmmakers of playing “the race card” by pointing out that racism is still a problem.
One can only imagine what this year’s interviewees say about their decision to reward “Green Book,” Sam Rockwell in “Vice” and “A Star is Born” rather than "If Beale Street Could Talk," Michael B. Jordan in "Black Panther" or any woman director.
The sole comforting thought is that the people who end up going home as also-rans or who got ignored altogether are the future of film, and they’re the future of the Academy.