The nominations for the 91st annual Academy Awards have been announced and as usual they consist of mostly the expected names set by the precursors with a few major surprises. Netflix’s Roma, a black and white Spanish-language film, and Fox Searchlight’s The Favourite lead the pack with 10 nominations each. Not far behind are fellow Best Picture nominees A Star Is Born (8), Vice (8), and Black Panther (7). The other three Best Picture nominees –BlacKkKlansman (6), Bohemian Rhapsody (5), and Green Book (5)- all had a nice morning as well, including scoring highly coveted nominations in Best Film Editing and an acting category.
One of the positives of awards season is that it can help shine a light on films and performances that may otherwise go completely unnoticed. But the structure of it leads to inherent bias. It’s simple. The vast majority of films (and performances therein) that are mentioned throughout the season come from the prestige fare that hits the fall festivals and is specifically sold as awards material. This is a necessary evil. Most of these movies don’t have the gargantuan marketing budgets required to make the average person aware they even exist. They’re financed and made on the hope of snagging some of the publicity awards season provides.
It’s still frustrating to see the same names pop-up though, even if they are deserving. I’d like to mention some standout performances from movies this year that you won’t see on all these nominations list. Some of them forgotten because they come in commercial films not on the awards radar, some forgotten due to the spotlight being on other turns in the movies.
Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider
In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft a novice. She’s not yet a master of raiding tombs. So when she’s thrust into a globe-spanning adventure the physical struggle is real. The film’s action sequences love to put Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander through the ringer. She grunts and shrieks and makes mistakes, sometimes putting her foot in the wrong place or grabbing the wrong thing for support. If the film’s character moments fall a bit flat it’s more than made up for by the kinetic set pieces heightened by the illusion that you’re watching Vikander perform these stunts in real-time (some she did, others she didn’t). There’s a level of authenticity to her movements and accompanying facial expressions usually reserved for Tom Cruise.
It’s not like Vikander was out of shape or anything. Much of the movie’s press tour was her talking about her insane workout regime to prepare for the film. But the commitment from both Vikander and the filmmakers to making Croft someone taking out of her element is oddly refreshing. Whenever she succeeds, it feels earned rather than inevitable. *MINOR SPOILER ALERT* When she discovers her father is still alive in a cave on the island, Vikander somehow manages to blend exhaustion, fear about what’s next, and heartfelt relief all into a single facial expression.
Tomb Raider made just $274M on a budget of ~$100M. That’s right around the break-even point when factoring in marketing for a film of this ilk. Whether or not Warner Bros will give it a sequel likely comes down to if people warm up to it over the next year on home video and streaming. I hope they do, because Alicia Vikander is the perfect Lara Croft. If this isn’t the successful action franchise built around her, hopefully there will be another that recognizes she’s deserving of a great vehicle.
Cedric the Entertainer in First Reformed
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a peculiar thriller about existential crisis -environmental, spiritual, institutional- has received a lot of deserved praise throughout the year and into the start of awards season. The film looks poised to ride its script and Ethan Hawke’s lead performance all the way to Oscar night. But its most revelatory offering comes via a quiet supporting performance from none other than Cedric the Entertainer (credited as Cedric Kyles).
He plays Joel Jeffers, the leader of a megachurch offering counsel and support to the dwindling Dutch First Reformed parish figureheaded by Hawke’s Reverend Ernest Toller. Jeffers is a company man. He’s planning a big 250th anniversary celebration for Toller’s church. When Toller brings his newfound climate change concerns to Jeffers (and the industrial tycoon who sponsors Jeffers’ church), Jeffers scoffs it off as something they shouldn’t be concerned with as they prep for a sestercentennial that’s now become a large, political event. To Jeffers, the possibility of climate change and his booster’s role in such is a potential PR nightmare and nothing more; something with no upside to be found in even pretending to acknowledge.
Through a few well-mannered Jeffers-Toller conversations the film’s larger conflict shines. Cedric’s composed line delivery and faux-concern form the perfect foil for a Hawke performance that at this point has become unhinged. Jeffers is a master at this. He even tries to flip the conversation into being about Toller’s son who died in the war, essentially telling Toller in the most friendly, Christian way possible, “Drop this one, or we’ll bury you.” The scenes almost play is if it’s Toller who’s the stubborn asshole. That’s thanks to a performance by Cedric that’s warm and manipulative in equal parts. When Hawke pleas, Cedric leans back a bit and his eyes widen. It’s not that Jeffers can’t understand Toller’s concerns, he just has misplaced priorities. The businesslike cadence Cedric speaks with at times, as if he’s answering questions at a press conference with prepared statements, is what finally makes Toller realize that loyal service to the institution that governs his faith and service to this environmental cause are in fact mutually exclusive.
Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale
It feels weird to call 2018 a breakout year for Cynthia Erivo considering she’s already won a Tony and a Grammy for her work in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, but it certainly was a breakout at the movies. Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale and Steve McQueen’s Widows marked her first two film roles. While McQueen’s film opened to critical acclaim and awards buzz, it’s Erivo’s performance in the former that stands out the most. El Royale is one of those “take a bunch of characters with different mysterious backstories and gather them in the same place then see what happens” movies. A loaded cast of stars all do fun work but from beginning to end it’s Erivo who shines the brightest.
She plays Darlene, a struggling singer, and the closest thing the ensemble has to a decent, innocent person. She’s much smarter than she initially lets on but the lying and violence and scheming and general mysterious aura of everything are all still new to her. Erivo plays the early scenes wide-eyed and overly polite. Darlene is someone just happy to have a bed. She doesn’t begin to let on a more perceptive side until a long, multi-faceted conversation with Jeff Bridges’ character. It’s a riveting scene. Despite the friendly nature of the conversation the viewer can tell something’s not quite right due to subtle discomfort the actors exude. Such is to be expected out of a master like Bridges, but seeing it from Erivo (whom I’d never actually watched before) was awesome.
There’s also the singing. A key sequence in the movie relies entirely on you believing that another character (Dakota Johnson) could be so transfixed by Darlene’s singing that she completely ignores everything else for a moment and lets a big chunk of cash get away from her. I bought it and then some.
John Cho in Searching
I wanted to hate Searching and assumed I would. It premiered at Sundance to great acclaim, but I still wasn’t buying it. You know how Sundance-goers can be. A missing teenager movie set entirely on phone and computer screens? Sounds like some cheap “millennials be crazy” gimmick to me! But as usual, I was being an ass. Searching is great, and John Cho is great in it.
The film’s structure and style (it really is all done on screens) takes away the things that an actor can usually lean on. You can’t chew scenery ff there’s no scenery to chew. As a widower whose seemingly straight-edge daughter goes missing, Cho is tasked with channeling the darkest of emotions via FaceTime. It’s a remarkable performance by someone who’s quickly established himself as one of our finest working actors. In a single shot, he’ll go from heartbreak to illogical paranoia to furious anger. It’s believable because a missing loved one could do that to you, sure, but also because Cho shows no discipline. Not that a director really could block these scenes, but they really are just the actor getting inside the character and improvising not necessarily the lines but the expressions.
Cho picked up an Indie Spirit nom for his performance and could pop up on some critics lists, but that’ll be it for him this season. Searching is just not the type of film that lands with awards bodies. But don’t get it twisted. This is one of the finest bits of acting to grace the screen this year. Cho has come a long way from being one of the MILF guys in American Pie and a titular character in a stoner franchise. When you watch this and the fantastic Columbus from last year, it’s easy to imagine a trophy in his near future.
Lily James in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
You know going in whether the Mamma Mia! movies are your thing or not. They don’t try to hide themselves or sell anything they aren’t. Either you love watching hot people dance around on sun-drenched sets while singing ABBA tunes, or you don’t. A lot of people do, as evidenced by Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again grossing almost $400M. The undeniable star of the sequel is Lily James. As a young Donna Sheridan she sings and shakes her way to perfectly channeling Meryl Streep’s apparently iconic performance from the first film, overalls and all.
James could’ve easily shown up for work with her impressive vocals and good looks and probably gotten the job done. These movies don’t ask for much on the dramatic front. But it’s clear she spent a lot of time watching Streep and practicing in front of a mirror to truly create a younger version of the character rather than just someone who looks younger and shares the name. Donna Sheridan moves in a way only Donna Sheridan does. It’s like there’s always music playing in her head. She takes “you can jive” as a mission statement.
The sequel/prequel sees young Donna first meeting and dot-dot-dotting with the three possible fathers of Sophie. Through James’ pure energy these sequences never feel tired despite their predictability. It’s easy to build a musical sequence around her. She’s infectious. She’s quietly been everywhere the last few years (she was Cinderella, she was on Downton Abbey, she was in Baby Driver and Best Picture nominee Darkest Hour last year) and yet Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again feels like her true breakout. It’s one of those turns in a movie musical that combines genuinely great singing with unapologetically campy acting. Perfect casting. Perfect performance.
Tom Hardy in Venom
Is it possible for a big-budget superhero movie to be an auteur film with the auteur being the lead actor? Probably not. But Venom is the closest we’re ever going to get. Mocked for its zaniness and early-2000’s feel (which are actually strengths here) by critics and fans conditioned to believe that the MCU formula is the only way to do a superhero movie, Venom has laughed its way to $850M at the worldwide box office.
Tom Hardy, our hardest-working movie star, plays Eddie Brock. Eddie is a stubbornly serious journalist whose commitment to bringing down billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) despite everyone in his life telling him to chill costs him everything…his job, his sanity, his longtime girlfriend (Michelle Williams). When an alien symbiote finds its way inside Eddie and gives him the violent (and always hungry) alter-ego Venom, Hardy gives a dual performance that’s so batshit crazy the film’s questionable internal logic and visual effects are forgivable because you can’t take your eyes off its star. Watching a good actor go all-in on the ridiculous -bouncing around, talking to himself, calling himself a pussy- without fear of being laughed at is one of the great joys of being a moviegoer. It’s an actual performance. He gives the character his own physicality and visual unpredictability that isn’t reliant on computer-generated effects (something he also does well in big movies such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight Rises). It’s one of the most human performances in this genre, which is odd considering Eddie isn’t exactly a human anymore.
Maybe Venom is more ironically fun than it is good. Something about it works. That something comes from Tom Hardy. The restaurant scene in particular is one of the more chaotic, hilarious things I’ve seen on film the last few years.
- Anne Hathaway in Ocean’s 8
- Andrea Riseborough in Mandy
- Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds
- Barry Keoghan in American Animals
- Charlie Plummer in Lean On Pete
- Colin Farrell in Widows
- Domhnall Gleeson in The Little Stranger
- The voices of Jim Cummings and Brad Garrett in Christopher Robin
- Molly Parker in Madeline’s Madeline
- Rachel McAdams in Game Night
- Tom Waits in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
- Zoë Kravitz in Gemini
If you haven’t heard, A Star Is Born is a smash hit. Bradley Cooper’s musical drama, which co-stars Lady Gaga and marks the fourth reimaging of the original 1937 film, has become a pop culture phenomenon on a level usually reserved for blockbusters where the characters wear capes or carry lightsabers. It’s grossed over $350M at the worldwide box office on a budget of less than $40M (as of writing, it’s the only film in the domestic top-ten for the year that’s not part of a franchise). It’s received widespread critical acclaim, currently sitting at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and 88 on MetaCritic, and it’s widely expected to be a juggernaut throughout awards season (shameless plug). The movie isn’t without its detractors, but they’re a pretty clear minority. A Star Is Born is one of the most significant cultural events of the year any way you slice it.
It’s easy to see why A Star Is Born has shown such widespread appeal. The movie repackages classic sensibilities into something that is so obviously now, taking a basic story that’s (literally) been told many times before and turning it into one of the more refreshing studio offerings in a long time through sheer emotional intelligence and chemistry between leads. It’s irresistible from its opening moments. Unabashedly romantic, yet more poignant in its handling of artistic existentialism and addiction’s impact on a relationship than you expect, A Star Is Born hits every emotional note.
Of course, much of the film’s relevance and staying power can certainly be attributed to its soundtrack, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and spent three weeks there, becoming the first movie soundtrack to do so since that of High School Musical 2. “Shallow,” the lead single from A Star Is Born, became Lady Gaga’s longest running #1 song, an impressive feat considering she’s had fifteen different tracks enter the top-ten. More importantly than chart data, however, is the vast majority of the songs from A Star Is Born being actually good, as opposed to actually bad. A musical (or a music-driven drama, depending on how exactly you want to classify the film) is only as good as the songs therein.
The stylings of the soundtrack jump around from country to blues rock to glam-pop to piano ballads. It’s a simple but enjoyable sonic experience, one that makes a point to always keep the emphasis on the lyrics relevant to the film’s story. The album isn’t merely a collection of songs played in the background for a few seconds during the film; it is the film. A great soundtrack should mirror the experience of watching the film. A Star Is Born certainly does that.
That’s why I’m here. As your friendly neighborhood A Star Is Born expert who’s seen the film four times and listened to the soundtrack so many times that I’ve memorized Gaga’s breathing patterns on each song, and as an online person doomed to rank anything and everything, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time arguing with myself about what the best and worst songs from the movie are. I love this movie so much that I’m currently planning a day-trip to 44.6148° N, 69.1209° W. So I ranked all eighteen tracks. Both song quality in a vacuum and how they play within the context of the movie factored into these rankings. If you disagree with my choices, so be it. Just don’t try to lecture me because *Jackson Maine voice* you couldn’t be my dad if you fuckin’ tried.
#18) “Music To My Eyes”
The only song from the movie that’s legitimately bad. I had to make a separate Spotify playlist with the entire soundtrack minus this song. Not only does the instrumentation lull me to sleep but the lyrics are a really bad and repetitive extended metaphor. “I wanna learn your every line / I wanna fill your empty spaces / I wanna play the part to reach your heart”…okay, c’mon now. It’s the worst song Gaga has ever written (don’t you dare suggest something from ARTPOP is worse. Respect ARTPOP you heathens).
#17) “I Don’t Know What Love Is”
It’s not bad. Gaga flexes her big voice and Cooper’s soulful bellowing assists her nicely. It’s just boring compared to the other duets and doesn’t really have a role in the movie. I’m pretty sure it features maracas too; a cool instrument, but not a particularly fitting one here.
#16) “Out Of Time”
No lyrics for this one. It’s one of those warm-up grooves a band plays to open the show while they’re waiting for the singer to finish wiping his Percocet powder into his last glass of whiskey (at least if that singer is Jackson Maine). But it’s easy to pick up a rhythm and tap your foot to it, especially when the bass kicks in halfway through.
#15) “Too Far Gone”
This would rank higher if it wasn’t just a minute and a half long. Cooper singing “Please don’t tell me I’m too far gone, I can’t go on if I ain’t livin’ in your arms” sort of sums up his whole character. He’s got a guitar case full of destructive demons and the only reason he has to live is Ally (Gaga), which is an unfair responsibility to put on a person you love.
#14) “Heal Me”
One of Ally’s sellout bops, “Heal Me” and the rest of the bunch aren’t nearly as bad as some would have you believe, at least not intentionally so. Those folks are not reading the film correctly. The movie isn’t anti-pop; it stars one of the two or three biggest pop stars of the century, for god’s sake. But Jackson Maine’s personal problems and jealousy cause *him* to become anti-pop. When one person in a relationship is an addict, naturally, everything for everyone becomes about them and their addiction. It’s very tough, but it’s real. From its opening moments, this is a film from Jackson’s perspective. Folks not consciously realizing that is what’s caused them to be confused, and thus think the movie hates pop music.
#13) “Is That Alright?”
One of Gaga’s weepy ballads. Not the strongest by any means, but a beautiful little throwaway nonetheless. She’s such a damn good singer. This movie understands that it’s hard to top her sitting behind a piano. It’s an ode to Jackson, whom Ally loves deeply despite every sign saying that the love isn’t healthy. “Family dinners and family trees / Teaching the kids to say thank you and please” *wipes tear*, the future the Maines never got to have.
#12) “Before I Cry”
Gaga ballad. A very good one. I bumped this over “Is That Alright?” because the music backing her is a bit more interesting.
#11) “Black Eyes”
The first and heaviest song we hear in A Star Is Born, “Black Eyes” plays a very important role. It has to make us believe that Jackson Maine could be a rockstar. I certainly bought it. While his singing during the chorus sounds like me half-drunk doing a Creed impression, the song still rules. Few sounds are cooler than that southern rock blend of electric riffing and piano.
#10) “Diggin’ My Grave”
Okay, this song fucking rules. It sounds more country than I usually go for, but I can’t help it. The chorus is probably the best Cooper and Gaga sound singing simultaneously. It also features the best guitar solo on the whole soundtrack, courtesy of Lukas Nelson (son of Willie). I watched the Country Music Awards in their entirety solely to see Kacey Musgraves and this is better than anything nominated for song of the year. Diggin’ my, diggin’ my, diggin’ my…
#9) “La Vie en rose”
Not an original of course. Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” is an artifact of the big band pop era, and one of the most commonly covered songs of all-time. But it ranks high because Gaga absolutely kills it, and it gets bonus points for its role in the movie. This is where Jackson falls for Ally. His desperation for a drink after a show sees him unwittingly stumble into a drag bar just in time to watch Ally perform. He is instantly transfixed. The red lighting in the bar makes his boyish smile glow. When she lays back on the bar and hits that last big note, then turns her neck and looks him in the eyes…I felt that.
#8) “Hair Body Face”
Another one of Ally’s sellout bops. My favorite thing about these songs is that if Gaga & Co. really are trying to mock and critique the state of pop, they’re not doing a great job, because the tracks are unironically good. This sounds like it could easily have been cut from The Fame, which is now ten (!!!) years old.
It’s kind of a narcissistic song but oh well, “I told my dyin’ daddy that I had to run away / Looked him in the eye and said there ain’t no other way”. Some nice electric guitar from Gaga regular Tim Stewart as well.
#6) “Why Did You Do That?”
Colloquially known as the “ass jeans song”, this is the best of Ally’s sellout bops, and marks a turning point in the movie. It’s a big solo hit for Ally. Jackson hates the pop direction of it, hates that she performs it on SNL backed by dancers showing a lot of skin, and hates that it features the line “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come around me with an ask like that?” His jealousy is what causes that unfair hate, and it leads to the Bathtub Scene/Scene 98, perhaps the finest scene in the movie. The song itself is the perfect 2018 pop song; it both became a meme and features a repetitive hook that’s frustratingly catchy.
#5) “Maybe It’s Time”
A nice, quiet little song and the best Jackson solo cut. Its first appearance in the film comes early as Jackson plays it for a couple of people at the bar while he waits for Ally to get ready. It’s a song about the struggle of change, a bit ominous if you know where the film is headed going in.
#4) “Look What I Found”
Ally’s solo debut. First we see her sounding it out in a diner, then laying it down in the booth- struggling at first but figuring it out once Jackson suggests she play piano along with recording the vocals. It’s a great pop-rock cut, even if the opening lines are contradictory…”I’m alone in my house, I’m out on the town”. IT CAN’T BE BOTH ALLY.
#3) “I’ll Never Love Again” (Film Version)
Here we go, we’re into the big three.
Jackson Maine commits suicide at the end of the movie. He can’t live a sober life, and the realization that he almost ruined Ally’s career and is holding her back (explained harshly by the sleazy manager) is too much for him. The film ends with Ally performing this ballad (written but never performed by Jackson) to a packed theater. Even the most cynical will tear up a bit. The camera moves around Ally on stage as she belts out the heartbreaking words, we occasionally cut to brief images of key moments in the film, and then as the song winds down: BOOM, hard cut to Jackson rehearsing it on the piano just days before his death. It’s the most powerful single moment in the movie, one of many choices made by Cooper that suggests sometimes the most simple cinematic language is the most effective, and the reason why I’ll always prefer the film version of the song over the extended version.
A huge hit, a pop radio sensation, something destined to be a karaoke duet classic for decades. You’ve heard “Shallow.” It’s the film’s signature song. It’s the “star is born” moment in A Star Is Born. Ally flies to Jackson’s show. He starts playing a simple arrangement and singing a verse with a melody she recognizes, because it’s the song she was writing in her head and teased for him in a parking lot the evening prior. She comes in from side stage and starts singing. At first, she’s a bit timid during her verse, then she begins gaining confidence during the chorus, and by the time she gets to the belting of the bridge she’s fully into it. It goes viral. Ally is a star.
Yeah, the song is great too. It puts the two stars and their chemistry front and center, backed by some simple but instantly recognizable acoustic picking. The chorus is a show-stopper. If you don’t like “Shallow” you’re honestly just a fucking asshole. It’s going to win the Oscar and it deserves it.
#1) “Always Remember Us This Way”
I’ve gone back and forth on “Shallow” vs “Always Remember Us This Way”. On one hand, “Shallow” includes Bradley Cooper and shows off the palpable chemistry he has with Gaga. On the other, “Always Remember Us This Way” is all Gaga, who’s obviously the better singer of the two. In the movie, “Shallow” serves as Ally’s big breakout and kicks the narrative tires into motion…but then again, “Always Remember Us This Way” is shown with Ally performing it by herself on stage, Jackson looking on and realizing she’s become a bigger star than even he imagined. That’s just as important, right?
Both have a killer chorus. Are you an “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in” person or a “So when I’m all choked up and I can’t find the words” type of lad? I suppose what tips the scale for me is the backing instrumentation and style. “Always Remember Us This Way” is a piano ballad that would be at home on an Elton John greatest hits album. Gaga’s vocal is explosive. The climax is as simple as her crooning “Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo hoo hooooooooo”. I can’t get this song out of my head. I am obsessed.
That’s all I got. If you still haven’t seen or heard A Star Is Born, do yourself a favor and spend a couple hours with it. The film is still in theaters across the country and the album is available everywhere.