Look, I love the Academy Awards as much as the next guy. It’s one of my absolute favorite events of the year, and I will breathlessly speculate and watch all approximately seven hours of the live telecast in order to see what wins Best Picture.
That said, 2018 was an exceptional year for movies, and there’s very few spots at the 2019 Oscars. I saw … let’s just say an almost-embarrassing amount of movies last year (RIP Good Moviepass), many of which were exceptional and did not get their due when this morning’s nominations were unveiled.
But let’s peek into an alternate dimension–one where everything that got nominated this morning didn’t, and where we have to come up with five new contenders for every category (or 10 in the case of Best Picture). Here are my picks for the best movies, performances and achievements that should have been nominated for the Oscars.
Click here to visit my lists for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Directory and Best Cinematography.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
Four guests arrive at the El Royale, a former novelty hotel on the California-Nevada border that’s fallen into disrepair. Then everything goes to hell. This twisting, turning puzzle-box of a movie is constantly surprising, suspenseful and inventive. The cast is a great mix of established stars (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges and Chris Hemsworth) and new, rising talents (Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman and movie MVP Cynthia Erivo). The movie wrestles with Christian themes of forgiveness, deception (of self and others) and whether redemption for a sinner is truly possible. There’s Nolan-style formalistic toying with time and perspective, leading to sequences that viewers will remain with you for years. There’s just enough weird symbolism poking around the edges to stimulate fan theories for decades (my favorite involves whether the hotel itself is a form of Purgatory). It’s a shame this intelligent thriller received no recognition at all at the Oscars.
Gentrification. Police brutality. Black identity. White identity. Passing down your sins to the next generation. These are just some of the heavy themes that Blindspotting covers. But while the movie can get just as heavy as any of these fellow dramas, there’s also a certain lightness and playfulness to it. Characters flow in and out of stylized, spoken-word dialogue. Hilarity comes from the mundane. Holding it all together is the most interesting friendship of any 2018 movie, Collin and Miles, who react in very different ways to their changing city, culminating in two different heart-stopping climaxes. It’s hard to fully explain Blindspotting, but it’s a movie everyone should see–and it’s clear the Academy didn’t, or it would have been nominated for Best Picture.
Full disclosure: I am a church kid. I grew up in church my entire life, and spent some of my formative years at a Pentecostal church (before writing for a Pentecostal national magazine as an adult). I say all of that to say: This has to be the most inside-baseball look at the Pentecostal church, and I love it. Better than any Christian movie, this is a movie that understands how Christians actually talk to each other, how faith manifests in daily life, and how a simple theological argument can ravage and tear apart a church. Led by a brilliant performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Come Sunday tells the true story of Carlton Pearson, a megachurch pastor who says he heard from God that everyone is saved–Jesus is not the only way to eternal life in heaven. What makes Come Sunday so smart is it never takes a side on whether Pearson heard correctly from God–Pearson clearly believes he does, and his church clearly believes he is mistaken. Your interpretation of Pearson’s beliefs change whether you view him as an underdog fighting a flawed institution or a tragic Shakespearean hero whose one tragic flaw (he cannot admit he was mistaken) will doom everything and everyone he cares about. Both films are equally enjoyable, and I have no clue how they accomplished that. Jason Segel, Martin Sheen and Lakeith Stanfield round out the talented ensemble. Curious? This film’s on Netflix, so go watch it right now.
THE FRONT RUNNER
This movie about a powerful man whose private misdeeds catch up to him and cost him his political office was almost too timely to be successful, releasing in theaters just five weeks after the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings rocked the country. I think the proximity of those hearings–plus all the injustices unearthed by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements–made people wary about this film. I read plenty of reviews saying The Front Runner even agrees with the main character’s quixotic vision that private life should have nothing to do with the public life, a political statement that outright turned off many. But respectfully, The Front Runner has a much more complicated message than, “Let these powerful men live their lives and have whatever office they want.” If anything, this dramatization of Gary Hart’s 1988 campaign makes the salient point that it’s not the powerful men at the center of these storms or the media who broke it who will pay the steepest consequences, though they feud with each other. It’s the people surrounding the powerful. It’s Donna Rice, portrayed in a small but moving role by Sara Paxton, who suffers as first Hart and then the journalists chasing him use and discard her while treating her like she’s nothing. It’s Oletha and Andrea Hart, his wife and daughter, who suffer as journalists bombard their house and destroy their personal lives through no fault of their own. Maybe Hart is the one screaming against the system–but he’s not the real victim here. And that’s not even factoring in the strong ensemble cast, Jackman’s compelling lead performance and the screenplay’s almost Sorkin-like banter and dialogue constantly happening in a low hum in the background. It’s a shame The Front Runner was never even an outside contender for this year’s Oscars.
Gemini has mood for days. One of 2018’s most gorgeous films finds a celebrity assistant (Lola Kirke) on the run from detectives (led by John Cho) who believe she murdered her boss, starlet Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). But both she and viewers know that she didn’t do it, so she needs to solve the mystery before she is caught. The movie’s twist alienated some viewers, but it’s still an original showcase of both acting and mood and a fresh update to the neglected film-noir genre.
THE HATE U GIVE
Here’s my hot take of the year: inexplicable awards magnet BlacKkKlansman is not a very good movie. In fact, its script is basically the liberal equivalent of God’s Not Dead 2. (But that’s a future blog post…) I love a good politically-charged call-to-action movie, and I think racial tensions are one of the most important issues our country is facing right now. But it’s amazing to me that BlacKkKlansman is getting all the love when just a couple months later, The Hate U Give came to theaters and was more relevant and emotional, while boasting better acting, direction and writing. Neither film works in subtleties–I mean, the main character of The Hate U Give is literally named “Starr,” with a storyline ripped from the headlines and a few incredibly on-the-nose lines of dialogue–but boy is it effective at making you feel the struggle of today’s African-American community. The Hate U Give is about Starr, who witnesses a police officer shooting an unarmed black man, her friend Khalil, and who must then decide what to do with this information. Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall and especially Russell Hornsby bring incredible performances. But what I love about this movie is its mix of passion and fairness. By the end of the movie, Starr has becoming fully politically activated, leading riots in the street for racial equality and giving interviews on news channels. You’re with her every step of the way, feeling the crushing weight of the system’s unfairness, the pain of discovering her white friends may harbor unspoken racial biases against her, the immediate confusion of the shooting. But the film isn’t just raw emotions. One of my favorite scenes of the year involves a conversation with her police uncle, Carlos (played by Common), who explains why the shooting of an unarmed suspect could happen as part of police protocol and neatly gets to explain the other side’s stance without demonization. It’s a debate Starr more or less wins, but the movie is not so dogmatic as to insist the other side doesn’t exist or even have some valid points–it just disagrees. In a politically extreme world, I think that’s a great characteristic.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
This is the one that surprises me the most, given that Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight literally won Best Picture (sorry, La La Land) a couple years ago. If Beale Street Could Talk is no less moving, technically excellent or righteous anger-inducing. It’s a shame Academy Award voters overlooked it.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
I thought the last thing we needed was another Spider-Man movie. What I couldn’t have known is that Spider-Verse knows we are at peak Spider-Man, with far too many Spider-Men crowding our screen over the past two decades–and leans into it, gets way self-aware and just enjoys itself. I have seen this movie twice, and I don’t think I stop grinning for the entirety of either screening. There was not a more fun movie in 2018, and there’s a case to be made that this is the best movie about a black superhero released this year. Spider-Verse has a unique artstyle that makes it one of the most beautiful animated films ever released. It’s a love letter to comics fans, an emotional coming-of-age story any filmgoer can appreciate, and unquestionably one of 2018’s best movies.
Thoroughbreds is dark, twisted and totally off its rocker. I loved it. In a way, it makes sense that the Academy Awards wouldn’t celebrate this movie about two teenage girls who decide to murder one girl’s stepfather just because they don’t like him. But the themes in this movie are so richly developed, crossing diverse subjects like the way we treat and discuss personality disorders to the way people in different classes relate to one another. The soundtrack, cinematography and direction are all just off-kilter enough to be distinctive and set a mood. The movie’s spiral into a surprising but ultimately unsurprising third act is deeply satisfying. Plus, Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke dazzle in their depiction of a toxic friendship. Thoroughbreds’ weird, offputting tone and subject material won’t be for everyone, but then again, neither is The Favourite–and that got nominated for Best Picture.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
Also known as the documentary that made everybody weep uncontrollably in a movie theater. Seriously, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the most warm, fuzzy, emotional movie of the year, and this was a year when Paddington 2 came out. The documentary shows how Fred Rogers, an ordained minister, became a childhood television host in order to give kids what they most desperately needed: pure love. The rest of the movie breaks into the psychology of him and his viewers. It’s captivating, beautiful and will make you want to be a better person. It’s the opposite of the daily news and the antidote to all the maddening things happening in the world. It was indisputably my favorite film of 2018, and it didn’t even get nominated for Best Documentary.