A Film Critic Pastor-Theologian On the 2019 Oscars

People often ask me if being a film critic doing a PhD on cinema and theology takes all the fun out of watching movies. I can understand the sentiment. Film-watching is supposed to be an enjoyable diversion, an escape from reality for 90-120 minutes into an imagined world of drama and wonder. Won’t academic research and writing film reviews drain all the pleasure out of cinema, slowly turning me into a critical curmudgeon? Now, midway through my PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, I can confidently state that growing in the knowledge of film history and theory (as well as philosophy and theology) has only enriched the experience and expanded my love for the Seventh Art.

Yet I still have a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards. On the one hand, art shouldn’t be a popularity contest or a game to win. Art is for invigoration, provocation, and contemplation, not TV ratings. On the other hand, I absolutely love cinema, so anything celebrating movies offers attracts me like a moth to a flame. Often the “bests” of the Oscars aren’t truly the best films of the past year. And this year in particular, the Academy has made a number of blunders which reveal a focus more on consumer ratings and less on film itself, such as their proposed “Best Popular Film” category, or presenting four awards—including Cinematography and Editing—during commercial breaks (a decision they rescinded after severe backlash).

I want to offer a few comments on twelve Oscars categories, highlighting what I predict will win, what should win out of the nominees, and what is actually the best in that particular category, regardless of the nominations. Consider this my small way of highlighting the true, the good, and the beautiful in cinema from 2018:

Best Foreign Language Film

Will Win: Roma

Should Win: Shoplifters

Actual Best: Roma

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s epic memorial to his childhood, Roma, is a formalist exercise with impressive black-and-white cinematography and slowly meandering pans and long-takes; its mise-en-scène is so richly complex you’ll feel the need to pause the film just to take in the scenery (and you can, because it’s streaming on Netflix!). Yet Hirokazu Koreeda from Japan is an artisan in empathy, and Shoplifters—about a misfit group of vagabonds turned into a makeshift family—is an affecting portrait of the significance of community, and perhaps an apt metaphor for the church. Whichever film wins, both are worth your attention.

Best Animated Feature Film

Will Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Should Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Actual Best: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

No film surprised or delighted me more in 2018 than an animated superhero film with a talking pig and Nicolas Cage. From the animation to the performances to the comedy to the action, Spider-Verse is spectacular. Simply put, it’s a perfect film in every way. Go see it immediately.

Best Documentary

Will Win: Free Solo

Should Win: Minding the Gap

Actual Best: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I am one of only two critics on Rotten Tomatoes who gave the intense rock-climbing documentary Free Solo a “Rotten” score. So I’d be disappointed if the heavily-marketed crowd favorite won over Hulu’s affecting Minding the Gap, an intimate and sincere look at three young men growing up in middle America, beautiful in its exploration of a gentle masculinity and overcoming generational sin and abuse. But the real tragedy is that the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? wasn’t even nominated—it’s a wonderfully Christian film in the best sense of the word.

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Roma

Should Win: Cold War

Actual Best: The Rider

While Cuarón deserves props for directing, writing, and filming Roma, it’s the other lush black-and-white foreign film, Cold War, which deserves the Cinematography prize; its framing, lighting, and images are exquisitely composed. Yet it’s Chloé Zhao’s neo-Western The Rider which impressed me most, the cinematography perfectly shifting from shaky verité-style handheld camerawork, to expansive wide shots of the Dakota badlands landscape, to dreamy slow-motion images of the bodies of horses and humans in dance-like movements.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: If Beale Street Could Talk

Actual Best: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spike Lee deserves an Oscar (see below for Best Director), but Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s supposedly unfilmable novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, is wonderfully timeless and timely; Jenkins’ subtle changes to Baldwin’s poetic prose keep the spirit of the novel within the cinematic medium. Still, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse truly captures the comic book style and substance, and raises really interesting questions about canon, intertextuality, and hermeneutics—which version of a character or story is most “true”?

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Green Book

Should Win: First Reformed

Actual Best: Eighth Grade

Green Book is the crowd-pleasing cinematic equivalent of saying “I’m not racist–I have a black friend!” So it’s tragic that Paul Schrader’s masterfully transcendent First Reformed—his first nomination, despite writing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ—will likely lose to such drivel. Despite my love for First Reformed, it’s comedian Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade which deserves more attention for its painfully authentic portrayal of middle school awkwardness; it honors those years of adolescence, and truly sees and loves those teens living in the social margins.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Amy Adams (Vice)

Should Win: Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)

Actual Best: Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)

If Amy Adams wins her first Oscar for Vice—an anger-inducing film which lives up to its name—I’ll just imagine it was for her fantastic work in Arrival, The Master, Doubt, or Junebug. From the nominees, Regina King deserves accolades for If Beale Street Could Talk, but my favorite supporting performance of 2018 is Haley Lu Richardson as a bubbly waitress in Support the Girls, one of the more authentic, honest, and insightful cinematic depictions of the food industry work environment, and a picture of pastoral patience and perseverance in the face of patriarchy.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)

Should Win: Sam Elliot (A Star Is Born)

Actual Best: Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Mahershala Ali’s performance is the best part of Green Book. Still, gravelly-voiced Sam Elliot in A Star Is Born feels like the culmination of so many great performances over the years from an underrated actor; Elliot has been steadily turning out excellent work and only now received his first Oscar nomination (plus, he’s a Portland native, a graduate of David Douglas High School!). But the most overlooked in this category is Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. The best villains are those whose motives and schemes feel justifiable on some level, and Killmonger’s pseudo-liberation theology ethic—colonize the colonizers!—certainly sparks theological reflection.

Best Actress

Will Win: Glenn Close (The Wife)

Should Win: Olivia Colman (The Favourite)

Actual Best: Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline)

I haven’t seen The Wife yet, but Glenn Close seems set up to win for her culmination of great performances spanning over four decades. Olivia Colman’s role as Queen Anne in The Favourite is vividly silly and Oscar-worthy, but my favorite performance of the year is teen newcomer Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline, the emotionally vibrant and aesthetically innovative coming-of-age film about mental health, art, and identity.

Best Actor

Will Win: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)

Should Win: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)

Actual Best: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)

Even after dozens of passionate performances over the years, Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller is one of his very best. I would encourage every seminarian to watch and discuss First Reformed, a film full of ecclesial, ethical, and ecological queries, blurring the lines between faith and doubt. But it should come with a warning: May Trigger a Dark Night of the Soul. First Reformed dwells mainly in the spirit of Holy Saturday, the negative space of languishing in tragedy until the dawn of Resurrection Sunday breaks into our reality and transcends the boundary between death and life. It’s my personal favorite film of 2018, though my “Best Film” pick below is far more hopeful.

Best Director

Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)

Should Win: Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)

Actual Best: Debra Granik (Leave No Trace)

In a year with so many fantastic films by great women directors—Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Susan Johnson’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, to name only a few—it’s unfortunate to see the all-male lineup of nominees. Still, thirty years after his prophetic Do The Right Thing was ignored by the Academy, it’d be cathartic to see Spike Lee finally win an Oscar for Best Director. Yet the truly best directorial work is from Debra Granik for…

Best Film

Will Win: Green Book

Should Win: Roma

Actual Best: Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace, a perfect cinematic parable with rich performances, powerful cinematography, and an affectingly simple-yet-complex narrative. Set and filmed in Portland, Leave No Trace follows a father, Will (Ben Foster), and teen daughter, Tom (Thomasin Kenzie), living off the grid in Portland’s Forest Park due to Will’s PTSD. From my 5-star review: “Leave No Trace subverts our expectations in the best way. Will and Tom’s relationship is complex and there are moments of tension, but it is far from abusive or sexualized. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better father-daughter cinematic relationship—they are honest and respectful of each other, and they share moments of both sadness and levity. There are no villains to be seen here; every character is genuinely good, and Granik’s script and camera is careful to view everyone on screen with a sense of care and dignity. Every single person in Leave No Trace is seen and depicted as just that: a person, a human being, a significant Other.” While I think Roma winning Best Foreign Language Film will mean its chances of also winning Best Picture are limited, leaving Green Book to (unfortunately) take top prize, Leave No Trace has truly left its own trace on my mind and heart. Seek it out and give it your full attention.

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Movie-watching and theological education go hand in hand for me. I’ve cherished watching and discussing films in the theater with professors Roger Nam and Dan Brunner—Dan watches every Best Picture nominee with his best friend each year, a wonderful spiritual discipline—and I also appreciate Leah Payne and Brian Doak’s “Weird Religion” podcast on popular culture. Plus, I’ll be returning to Portland Seminary to teach a 2019 summer studio course, “The Bible and Contemporary Culture,” which is all about cultural hermeneutics and the sacramentality of human experience, as well as exploring film from a biblical and theological perspective. More than anything, we’ll learn how to pay attention to what God is up to in our world. Let me illustrate what I mean from a conversation from the 2017 film Lady Bird:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.

Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I do?

SSJ: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.

LB: I was just describing it.

SSJ: Well it comes across as love.

LB: Sure, I guess I pay attention.

SSJ: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

Love and attention—our affections and our attention are intertwined. Film critic Roger Ebert once described movies as “empathy-generating machines,” artistic works which allow us to truly see and pay attention, to enter into worlds and environments in order to be transformed. Whether it’s in theaters or on your living room couch, may your own movie-watching habits foster such empathy for others this upcoming year.

Joel Mayward (MATS, 2017) is a pastor-theologian and film critic. The author of three books, he is currently a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews. Find his film reviews at www.cinemayward.com.

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