All the World’s a Screen: Best Picture is a showdown between popular and praised films

“A Star is Born,” which stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is one of two musical films nominated for Best Picture at the 2019 Oscars. (Photo from IMDb)

With just two weeks left until the 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24, everyone who actually takes them seriously (including yours truly) is scrambling to watch (or rewatch) the nominated films. I personally haven’t yet caught up with all of the Best Actor/Actress performances or Foreign Film nominees only because I’m busy rewatching the Best Picture nominees, straining to make sense of the bunch.

In my last column, I looked at the sociopolitical nature of four of the Best Picture nominees and discussed how their inclusion in the category reflects the Academy’s shift toward recognizing socially conscious and relevant films (or at least those that put on a facade of social consciousness).

Now, we have to reckon with the other four nominees — “Roma,” “The Favourite,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born” — because the winner may be one of them.

Instead of socio-political films, here we have movies about the arts: two films about music and two about, well, film (specifically, what film can be when it’s at its best). The dichotomy here is startling and fascinating: While two of them are wildly popular and beloved by fans, the other two are untouchable critical darlings.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” has baffled the minds of film buffs everywhere, leaving them confused about the Academy’s serious consideration of  a historically askew biopic shrouded in Bryan Singer’s sexual misconduct allegations. It’s murky ground to tread, but that had absolutely no effect on “Rhapsody’s” supporters. According to Box Office Mojo, it finished as the 12th highest-grossing picture of 2018.

The Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic is a fascinating case study. Its vehement defenders turn a deaf ear to the critics —  they take a “haters will say it’s fake” stance but actually mean it. The film’s unforeseen lifespan is arguably the main reason it has recieved far more accolades than anyone (including, presumably, the filmmakers themselves) ever expected.

Part, if not all, of “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” mass appeal is in its subject matter. Throw the titular song on at any given moment and you’ll inject a new energy into any gathering. I’d even go a step further — throw any Queen song on and you’ll get the same result. Good music (and good music played loudly in a theater) has the power to make a bad film sort of good. Nevertheless, “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t the only musical up for Best Picture.

“A Star is Born” is a cathartic tale of love and heartbreak — two film themes that never get old. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut sits in a sweet spot that any big studio project covets: It is both acclaimed and admired, technically praised and emotionally appreciated. While “Bohemian Rhapsody” fits the latter, it falls significantly short when it comes to the former.

On the other hand, “Roma” and “The Favourite” are both critically praised, but have likely fallen under the average moviegoer’s radar. (It’s safe to say a black-and-white foreign film and a historical dark dramedy are slightly less appealing than watching Queen or Lady Gaga.)

Before the nominations were announced, “A Star is Born” was the general consensus pick to win Best Picture. Both “Roma” and “The Favourite” have received 10 nominations each, a good sign the Academy is absolutely not passing them by. Combine that with the lack of recognition “A Star is Born” is getting from other major awards shows and it looks like the Academy isn’t as hot for Cooper as was expected.

It all comes down to this: “Roma” — a minimalistic tale of an unspoken inner-life. “The Favourite” — a triangular power struggle for the ages. One is quiet, the other loud. One is about a humble protagonist, the other about a prideful bunch. Both are meticulously crafted,  staged, filmed and immaculately acted.

They aren’t extremely popular, but, at least in their minds, the Academy has already paid respect to popular films just by placing “Black Panther” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its most prestigious category.

In the end, the Oscars will please some and disappoint others. But before that happens, it’s up to each individual to decide what they want to see in the Oscars:  a service to the masses in which popularity trumps quality, or a decisive measure of the true Best Picture.

Isa Uggetti is a sophomore writing about film. He is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “All the World’s a Screen,” runs every other Tuesday.