Each year around the start of December, two New York-based groups announce their picks for the best movies of the year. One of these groups, the New York Film Critics Circle, contains pretty much all of the New York-based movie critics you’ve ever heard (excepting those at the New York Times, who are forbidden to join by in-house policy). Another, the National Board of Review, is a group of mostly elderly film enthusiasts whose membership rolls are undisclosed. Both sound equally weighty. They’re not.
But, with its tasteful-middlebrow-old-person vibe, the National Board of Review has approximately the same taste as Oscar voters, so their picks for movies are usually in the same ballpark. The NYFCC, of which I have been a member for a dozen years, is a little bit artier. Most notoriously, the NYFCC declared the best film of 1941 was the arty Citizen Kane when the Oscar went to the sentimental pick, How Green Was My Valley. In recent years, NYFCC winners have tended to go on to get lots of Oscar nominations, although it’s now been six straight years that the NYFCC Best Picture winner failed to capture the Oscar in the same category. One of these winners, Carol, did not get an Oscar nom for Best Picture. The others all got major Oscar attention.
This year the NBR picked the feel-good race-relations dramedy Green Book, which I have already derided as “this year’s terrible Oscar movie.” Green Book is going to get a bunch of major Oscar nominations but I doubt it will win Best Picture. Twenty years ago it would have been a cinch. Today it’s too tame. Also the Academy (which has been opening the floodgates of its membership rolls to young minorities) is moving from a kind of condescending LBJ liberalism into a more angry, activist mood. As the critic Mark Harris noted, Green Book engages in what liberals see as both-sides-ism: The racist Italian goombah driver (Viggo Mortensen) has to learn not to be racist but is basically goodhearted, while the fancy pants concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) has to learn not to be so uptight. Both races have to learn from each other. Everybody wins! This is not the mood of the voters who gave Get Out Best Screenplay or Moonlight Best Picture.
The NYFCC went with the artier choice, Alfonso Cuaron’s stirring Roma, a memory movie about growing up in a wealthy Mexico City family looked after by a loving nanny. Cuaron also won Best Director and Best Cinematographer. Roma will have major hurdles to surmount to win the Oscar for Best Picture: It’s black-and-white, it has no stars, it’s so slow-moving that one critic I know walked out of it after an hour because it still wasn’t clear what it was about and, worst of all, it’s a Netflix movie. Netflix is making a lot of people in Hollywood rich these days, and they can’t forgive that! There is a purist strain of Hollywood types, led by Christopher Nolan, who think that Netflix is destroying what we think of as movies by issuing their films on TV, with maybe a couple of movie engagements to qualify for awards. This year, Netflix backed down a wee bit and agreed to release both the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Roma in theaters first. Roma debuted in a few theaters November 21, nearly a month before it will debut on Netflix December 14, but the Nolans of the world believe that isn’t good enough, that the 90-day theatrical “window” must be observed.
First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s knockout film drawing a link between jihadism and climate- change hysteria, won Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Ethan Hawke from the NYFCC but it runs contrary to prevailing Hollywood politics and anyway it’s a really small film that came out way back in May. The Favourite, a lesbian-tinged black comedy about the court of Queen Anne, is a bit too weird for Oscar voters, though it could win Best Actress for Olivia Colman as the sovereign. If Beale Street Could Talk, from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, is arty and sensitive and suitably leftist but it’s also a snoozer. I doubt Black Panther will win because it’s too entertaining. I can’t picture the Dick Cheney movie Vice winning anything except possibly Best Actor for Christian Bale. First Man, so far, doesn’t have strong support but I hope Oscar voters learn to love it as much as I do. Mary Poppins Returns? Hey, it’s a big, lovely, throwback musical. It’s delightful. I’d give it a nonzero chance. (My review will be posted soon.)
A Star Is Born is crap but it’s a big hit. Will it win? I have been saying no because it’s just a big, gooey melodrama and has no political component whatsoever. But this has turned out to be a lousy year for movies. It could win by default. And it has two big aces up its sleeve: It’s directed by an actor (like earlier Oscar winners Ordinary People, Dances with Wolves, Braveheart, Unforgiven, etc.) and it’s about show business. For seven straight years, the Oscar Best Picture winner has either had an urgent left-wing political message or has been about show business.