It’s been a rocky road to the 2019 Oscars. Controversies surrounding the upcoming ceremony have taken up much of the news coverage about Academy Awards night, shifting attention away from what the event is meant to be – a celebration of cinema and all that goes into making a film. To help get back into the Oscars spirit, here’s a reading list of articles that go deeper into the worlds explored by this year’s best picture contenders and some other key films.
The 91st Academy Awards will be held in Los Angeles on February 24. The ceremony will be broadcast in India on the morning of February 25 on Star Movies, Star Movies Select HD and the streaming platform Hotstar.
Radio Times has a useful roundup of “everything you need to know”, including the presenters, major snubs, the possible ways the Academy will fill in the gap between presentations, some predictions and a look at how the nominees have fared at other recent award ceremonies, such as the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards.
Best Picture nominees
Eight films have been nominated for Best Picture, with Roma and The Favourite leading the pack with 10 nods apiece.
Ryan Coogler’s superhero film is not your average Marvel Comics adaptation. It has a predominantly black crew and cast led by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright, strong female characters and a celebration of the African roots of the American black community.
Black Panther follows T’Challa (Boseman), who, after his father’s death, takes over as king of Wakanda, a highly advanced country that is also a treasure trove of the indestructible vibranium metal. T’Challa’s claim to the throne is challenged by Killmonger (Jordan), who, disillusioned by the treatment of African Americans, has different ideas on how to rule the kingdom.
Black Panther is the first superhero film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It is also in contention for Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Original Song (All The Stars) and Costume Design. However, the film’s importance extends beyond the awards season.
- In an article in The Atlantic titled “The Provocation and Power of Black Panther”, Vann R Newkiri II contends that Black Panther’s real victory is in “its contemplation of identity, responsibility and the future of a [African] diaspora”. He describes the film as a “fantasy about black power”, which provides tantalising possibilities of what could have been in a world without colonialism.
- This reimagination of an Afrocentric world was woven into the costumes and production design. The New York Timesinterviews costume designer Ruth E Carter on how she envisioned “a futuristic African reality – made up of diverse tribes and untouched by colonisers”. Carter explains T’Challa’s Black Panther costume and the Zulu flared headresss for women, called isicholo, which inspired Queen Mother Ramonda’s hat.
- In the Vanity Fair video below, Ruth E Carter breaks down some of these designs in the context of T’Challa’s entrance scene.
The true story of a black police officer who, in the 1970s, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, inspired BlackKkKlansman. Spike Lee’s film, based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman, follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who poses as a white man on the phone to gain entry into the white supremacist group. When the Klan summons Stallworth for a meeting, he sends his white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to represent him.
The film has also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Driver), Best Director (a first for Lee), Editing and Original Score and Adapted Screenplay.
- A profile of Ron Stallworth in The Guardian summarises his journey, from his experience as the only black officer in the police department to how a correspondence with the Klan led to the audacious undercover operation. “Fortunately the people I was dealing with weren’t the brightest bulbs in the socket,” Ron says in the article. “It was so hilariously funny that this was even taking place. But funny as it was, it was an investigation that we took seriously – because the Klan’s intent was very serious.”
- For the original score nomination, Lee worked with frequent collaborator Terence Blanchard. Lee and Blanchard speak to IndieWire about the Jimi Hendrix-feel to the main theme, the use of Prince’s posthumously released Mary Don’t You Weep in the end credits, and the inclusion of music from Lee’s Inside Man in the closing sequence. (Lee had used AR Rahman’s Chaiyya Chaiyya for the introductory scene of Inside Man.)
- The video below goes behind the scenes of the film’s shoot.
In contention for the Best Picture award is Bryan Singer’s Freddie Mercury biopic, starring Rami Malek as the Queen front man. The film traces the band’s rise and the turbulence in Mercury’s personal life, and includes his sexuality and his struggle with AIDS. Bohemian Rhapsody has also been nominated for Best Actor (Malek), Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.
- Before Freddie Mercury, there was Farrokh Bulsara. Born in 1946 in Zanzibar, the musician spent his early years in India. He went back to Zanzibar in 1963, and the family moved to England the next year. When he turned 18, Bulsara legally changed his name to Freddie Mercury. Insights into Mercury’s formative years are offered by Anvar Alikhan on Scroll.in. Alikhan spoke to Mercury’s former schoolmates from his years at a boarding school in Panchgani, where he played in a band called the Hectics. Fellow band members describe Bulsara as “the only real musician” among them. His schoolmates nicknamed him “Bucky” because of his prominent overbite.
- Rami Malek’s transformation into Mercury has been another talking point. In an interview to New York Times, Malek said, “It’s not lost on me that this could go terribly wrong, that it could be detrimental to one’s career should this not go the right way.” Malek wore artificial teeth during the shoot, and consulted a dialect and a movement coach too.
- Insight into the work of various teams, especially make-up, in Malek’s transformation is offered in a 16-minute documentary, Becoming Freddie.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s period comedy is a dramatised account of the competition between Sarah Churchill and her cousin, Abigail Hill, to be close to Queen Anne, the eighteenth-century English ruler. Oliva Colman plays Anne, Rachel Weisz is Sarah and Emma Stone is Abigail.
Apart from Best Picture, The Favourite is up for Best Actress (Colman), Supporting Actress (Weisz and Stone), Cinematography, Costume Design, Best Director, Editing, Production Design and Original Screenplay.
1. Colman’s depiction of Queen Anne as childlike and dim-witted but also worthy of empathy has won her the BAFTA and Golden Globe awards and tipped her as a frontrunner for an Oscar. In reality, Anne may not have been as eccentric, or even bisexual (she was married, and unsuccessfully tried to have children). An article in TIME helps separate fact from fiction.
Lanthimos does not claim the film to be a factual account. In an interview, he said, “Some of the things in the film are accurate, and a lot aren’t” – but knowing the historical background (as well as what should be taken with a pinch of salt) helps better understand the film’s universe.
2. An article in The Atlantic, (which has some spoilers) makes interesting observations about how women in the film use movement to undercut notions of femininity: “Throughout The Favourite, the three women fight to seize and maintain power through various forms of royal-court intrigue. But understanding what makes these characters so compelling and distinctive requires noticing exactly how they navigate the physical space around them – how they move and how they walk...they stomp, gambol, splay their legs.”
3. The video below shows a key dance sequence, of Sarah and a courtier, which also offers insight into Queen Anne. The footage is accompanied by Weisz’s analysis of the scene.
Green Book is similarly loosely inspired by true events. Peter Farrelly’s comedy is based on Tony Vallelonga, a working-class Italian-American who served as a driver and bodyguard to African-American musician Don Shirley during a concert tour of the racially segregated South in 1964. The film, starring Viggo Mortensen as Tony and Mahershala Ali as Shirley, traces their evolving friendship as they confront racism in many forms over the course of the trip.
Green Book, co-produced and co-written by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, has been the subject of controversy over its alleged inaccurate depiction of Don Shirley. Some critics said the film, by focussing predominantly on Tony, plays into the “white saviour” narrative.
Oscar nominations include Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Mortensen), Best Supporting Actor (Ali) and Editing.
- An article in The Guardian gives some more insight into the real road trip that inspired Green Book : “Shirley debuted playing Tchaikovsky at age 18 with the Boston Pops in Chicago but was diverted from a classical career, he told his family and friends, by the impresario Sol Hurok, who advised him that ‘colored” performers had to work elsewhere.”
- The film’s title comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for black people planning road trips that helped them find hotels and restaurants that did not discriminate against them. An article in the Smithsonian explains why the Green Book was vital to African-American car owners and businesses.
- The video below features scenes from the film and interviews with Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, and the cast.
Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical portrait of 1970s Mexico has been nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Foreign Language film, along with eight other nominations, including a Best Actress nod for first-timer Yalitza Aparicio. Roma follows a housekeeper who juggles her personal hardships with domestic responsibilities. Cuaron has dedicated the movie to his nanny, Liboria Libo Rodriguez, on whom Cleo is partially based.
The film’s other nominations are for Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira), Directing, Cinematography, Screenplay, Production Design, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.
- Understanding the film’s socio-political context is vital for a more thorough understanding of its universe. The Conversation has a handy explainer of the political background, characterised by rising dissent against the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was crushed through violent police and paramilitary action, as well as the condition of domestic workers in Mexico.
- Alfonso Cuaron shot the film himself, after his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki had to drop out over scheduling conflicts. IndieWire reported on a conversation between the two on the film’s monochrome cinematography. “Black and white was part of the DNA of the film,” Cuaron tells Lubezki. “When the idea manifested, it was about the character Cleo, the tune was memory, and it was black and white.”
- In a video on The Hollywood Reporter , Cuaron gives a walking tour of Mexico City, including the places where he grew up and where Roma was shot.
A Star is Born
Two stars were reborn during the making of this film – actor Bradley Cooper in his first stint as director, and singer Lady Gaga in her debut acting role. The film follows the relationship between an alcoholic musician who launches the singing career of a talented young woman. As her popularity grows, the relationship falters. The film has been nominated in seven other categories: Best Actor (Cooper), Best Actress (Lady Gaga), Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott), Cinematography, Original Song (Shallow), Sound Mixing and Adapted Screenplay.
- A Star Is Born is the third Hollywood remake of the 1937 film of the same name (there’s also an unlicensed Bollywood version, Aashiqui 2). The 1937 original had similarities with the 1932 film What Price Hollywood?, which “some film buffs call...the true first version of A Star Is Born”, writes Alissa Wilkinson in Vox.com. The article compares the four films, their similarities and differences, and attempts to explore the enduring popularity of the love story between a jaded artist and an ingenue.
- An article in The Independent looks at how each film examines and reflects the era in which it was made.
- Thrillist delves into what went into creating Shallow (video below) to understand how one of last year’s most popular songs was born.
Adam McKay’s biographical drama examines the rise of American politician Dick Cheney, George W Bush’s powerful Vice President between 2001 and 2009. The film shows how Cheney spotted an opportunity to wield unimaginable influence by assuming the role of deputy to a largely ineffective president. The movie claims to be close to reality, but critics have pointed out that it has taken liberties with the truth.
The cast includes Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife, Lynne, Sam Rockwell as Bush and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration.
Vice has been nominated in eight categories altogether, including Best Actor for Bale and supporting nods for Rockwell and Adams. It has also been nominated for its direction, editing, screenplay and make-up and hairstyling.
- The Hollywood Reporter has a basic guide to the real politicians portrayed in Vice, which helps non-Americans get acquainted with the finer points of Washington politics. The photographs of the politicians against their Vice versions highlights the film’s strong suit – the near uncanny resemblance between real and reel.
- Newsweek interviews Bale to examine the most stunning transformation of them all – of the lean and muscular actor into the portly Cheney. Bale gained over 20 kilos and “went down a rabbit hole of interviews...to master Cheney’s mannerisms, grunts and Darth Vader grumble until they all became muscle memory”.
- The technical process of creating Cheney’s look is examined in a Deadline interview with Greg Cannom, who has been nominated for an Oscar along with Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dehaney for makeup and hairstyling. The process involved an elaborate prosthetic face cast and add-ons on the nose and the back of his hands. Time spent on make-up could go up to nine hours.
These three films weren’t nominated for Best Picture, but are competing for other major awards and are among the most interesting movies in the race.
Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski’s period romance-drama is in contention for Best Foreign Film as well as Cinematography and Directing Awards. Set during the Cold War era of hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, the film follows the frequently interrupted romance between two Polish musicians (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot). As they seek to escape Poland’s repressive regime, they find their ideologies and motivations at odds.
Cold War is the second black-and-white movie in the Oscars race after Roma. Its cinematography, with sharp contrasts and the use of the box-like 4:3 aspect ratio, has wowed cinephiles. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal told Film School Rejects about why he and Pawlikowski chose black-and-white. “In Poland, there was no colour in those days, in those years,” Zal said. “There wasn’t a choice. Everything was less cluttered, with things, with information, with everything. Everything was more black and white.” The contrasts were achieved despite shooting on digital rather than celluloid.
Another strong contender for Best Foreign Language Film is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. The Palme d’Or-winning Japanese drama is centred on a poor family in Tokyo that shoplifts to get by. They take in an abandoned five-year-old girl after learning that she has abusive parents. A series of lies and secrets threaten start pulling the family apart.
Shoplifters shines a light on the poverty lurking beneath Japan’s ultra-modern veneer. An article in The Japan Times wonders whether the film’s popularity may bring to light darker aspects of the country’s economy: “...Shoplifting nationwide is estimated to set the country back about ¥400 billion ($3.6 billion) each year, ” writes Jake Adelstein. “Studies by the National Police Agency and other organisations indicate that the majority of shoplifters are motivated by economic strife, especially the elderly...72% of all cases involving a person aged 80 or older who are arrested for shoplifting involve food. Eighty-three percent of all such arrests involve theft committed at a supermarket.”
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The mantle is passed from Peter Parker to black-Latino teen Miles Morales in this animated feature directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman. The film is part of Sony Pictures’ offshoot of the Marvel-owned franchise and exists in a different cinematic universe from Marvel Studios’s Spider-Man films, which star Tom Holland.
Miles Morales was introduced in the Spider-Man comics in 2011 and becomes the web-spinning superhero after Peter Parker’s death. Spider-Verse follows Morales as he trains to become Spider-Man, only to learn that there are at least five different Spider people in various dimensions, all of whom have landed up in his part of the multi-verse. The Spider people then need to unite to ward off a looming threat.
The film, whose voice cast includes Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali and Brian Tyree Henry, has been nominated in the Best Animated Picture category, alongside Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, Mirai and Ralph Breaks the Internet.
An article in ScreenRant contends that the animated feature is the “first movie to properly understand the meaning of Spider-Man”. Morales’s challenges are unique because, unlike Peter Parker, he exists in a world where Spider-Man is already a phenomenon: “With his love for graffiti and music, Miles is not the same every-man that Peter is. Indeed, as an American teenager of color, he reflects the modern and diverse world that we live in. However, he also serves as a literal embodiment of how fans from every corner can see themselves within Spider-Man.”
The video below sheds light into the animation style of Spider-Verse, the colour schemes of which pay homage to its comic-book origins.