USA TODAY film critic Brian Truitt predicts who will take home an Oscar this year and who really deserves it.
Outcry over Oscar-nominated movies isn’t unusual, especially in the competitive Hollywood arena where one movie’s disaster is another movie’s gain.
Just look at modern history: Last year’s best picture contender “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was castigated by critics for letting its racist cop (played by Sam Rockwell) off the hook by the time the credits rolled. “Selma” played with the facts around President Johnson’s support of Martin Luther King Jr. “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was famously embroiled in scandal, with some claiming it glorified torture.
And “The Birth of a Nation” never made it into the 2017 Oscar race after being hobbled by filmmaker Nate Parker’s personal history.
But in the social media-drenched climate of 2019, the fires have been particularly quick to burst out. Here’s a guide to the best-picture nominees that are dealing with contentious debates leading up to the Academy Awards on Sunday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET/5 PT).
Predicting the Oscars: Who will win — and who should
‘Green Book’ is called out for accuracy
For an ultimately uplifting story of the real-life relationship between black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American chauffeur Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” has been one of the most polarizing films of the year, with some critics chastising its portrayal of race relations, told predominately from the white character’s point of view.
Shirley’s family has called into question the veracity of key details, calling “Green Book” a “symphony of lies,” and asserting they were never consulted for the project. The filmmakers have stood by the story and Shirley backs up many plot points in newly released interview tapes. “I think people need to go back and hear what Dr. Shirley has to say for himself,” Ali said after winning a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance.
The filmmakers have dealt with personal tumult as well. In January, reports from 1998 resurfaced, chronicling director Peter Farrelly’s old habit of flashing his penis as a prank on movie sets. Farrelly said he was “deeply sorry” for his past behavior.
Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, came under fire for a 2015 tweet in which he supported then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s discredited claim that Muslims in New Jersey were seen on TV cheering the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Vallelonga apologized and has vowed “to do better.”
Fire danger level: Moderate. Though getting hit from all directions, “Green Book” still has a lot of love in Hollywood, as evidenced by key wins at the Golden Globes and Producers Guild Awards.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has a Bryan Singer problem
Although everyone agrees Rami Malek crushed it as Freddie Mercury, the fan-favorite Queen film arrives in the best-picture race laden with controversy. The biggest issue? Singer, the biopic’s original (and still credited) director. He was fired toward the end of production, which is messy enough. But in January, The Atlantic published a lengthy report detailing allegations of Singer’s sexual misconduct, in some instances with minors. The 53-year-old director has denied any wrongdoing, calling the report “a homophobic smear piece.” Queen guitarist Brian May has apologized for previously defending Singer.
Meanwhile, a chorus of LGBTQ voices have accused “Bohemian Rhapsody” of botching its portrayal of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality and suggesting that being gay was the frontman’s downfall. Producer Graham King has insisted that the intention wasn’t to equate “being gay means being dark.”
Fire danger level: High. In the #MeToo era, Singer’s sullied name remains an albatross around the neck of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the Oscar race, especially given that the film centers on a gay icon.
‘Vice’ pits Hollywood against Republicans (again)
The gonzo biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney was always going to be a flash point for political controversy, depicting him with ruthless ambition and cunning. Time wrote that “Vice” turned Cheney (played by Christian Bale) into a “cartoon villain,” while the National Review called it “conservative vitriol” and “bad history.”
“We really did our best to be accurate with the historic timeline,” McKay told USA TODAY, calling “Vice” an incredible story, “regardless of your political leanings.”
Fact-checking ‘Vice’: Did Dick Cheney really do all of that?
Piling on: While accepting the Golden Globe for best actor, Bale said, “Thank you to Satan for giving me inspiration.” Cheney’s daughter, Wyoming U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, fired back by tweeting a 2008 article from The Independent about Bale’s arrest for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister. “Satan probably inspired him to do this, too,” she wrote. (Bale was never charged for assault, with Crown Prosecution Service citing insufficient evidence.)
Fire danger level: Low. There’s too much blowback directed at other movies to really knock “Vice” too hard.
Does ‘A Star Is Born’ have issues with agency?
Ally and Jackson’s love story has been a favorite this Oscar season, despite an anemic showing at awards shows of late. While the re-imagining of the classic Hollywood tale has avoided major cultural missteps, some have found the film’s change of focus from Ally to Jackson in the second hour problematic.
Vox took issue with Ally’s lack of agency in the script, while also calling out “A Star Is Born” for failing to present an “alternative representation of women excelling in a career independent of a man’s actions, direction, success, or reaction to her success.”
The New York Times weighed the film’s agenda around gender, noting that “for all its romanticism, the movie reads as a pessimistic take on heterosexual romantic relationships. Here, lasting equality between a man and a woman in love – artists in the same field – isn’t just difficult, it actually kills the guy.”
So is Bradley Cooper’s version a modern enough retelling? Agree or disagree, it won’t matter much come Oscar night, as such squabbling has been drowned out by the film’s die-hard fans.
Fire danger level: Low. Love trumps nitpicking where this “Star” is concerned.
Could ‘Roma’ dethrone the theater experience?
Critics have lavished praise on Alfonso Cuaron’s epic tale of life in 1970s Mexico, but theater geeks have taken issue with how Netflix rolled it out, putting the film in a handful of theaters before it arrived on the streaming service. Critics have called this a cosmetic release and maintain that Netflix’s distribution plan, placing movies online at the same time as in theaters, threatens moviegoing at large.
A best picture win (the highest prize in the film industry) for Netflix could resurface the question: Are movie theaters still relevant?
Even after winning two Golden Globes, Cuaron was asked about Netflix backstage in a testy exchange. “A Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixtec, without stars – how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release?” he replied.
Fire danger level: Moderate. Academy voters are still largely comprised of older film purists, and “Roma” remains a threat to their filmmaking status quo.
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