A wonderful movie finally got its due this weekend, drawing top honors from an organization consisting of some of the country’s leading entertainment journalists. I am speaking, of course, about “The Rider,” Chloé Zhao’s quietly heartbreaking portrait of a fallen Lakota cowboy reconsidering his dreams of rodeo stardom, which on Saturday was named the best picture of 2018 by the National Society of Film Critics.
I say this neither modestly nor impartially, being both the society’s chair and an ardent admirer of “The Rider,” which first screened at Cannes in 2017 and was released in April by Sony Pictures Classics. If its reach has been modest (earning just over $2.4 million at the U.S. box office), its staying power has been extraordinary. An achingly beautiful weave of narrative and documentary, Zhao’s movie was the surprise winner at November’s Gotham Independent Film Awards, one of the first events of the season, and it captivated enough of my fellow critics to pull off a hard-won NSFC victory after four increasingly tense and competitive rounds of balloting.
Its nearest rival in the society’s best picture race was, unsurprisingly, the much-admired Mexican drama “Roma,” which nonetheless could console itself with prizes for foreign-language film and for Alfonso Cuarón’s direction and cinematography. Trailing a bit further behind were Lee Chang-dong’s masterful psychological thriller “Burning,” which won the supporting actor award for Steven Yeun’s performance, and “First Reformed,” Paul Schrader’s aesthetically rigorous portrait of a priest played by Ethan Hawke, who handily won our lead actor prize.
None of these fine movies, it should be noted, was up for best picture at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, presented in typically glitzy, boozy fashion by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. The disregard was, in some respects, mutual. There was little NSFC love for the movies that ended up winning the Globes for best musical or comedy and best drama, respectively: “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly, and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” credited to the director Bryan Singer (who was replaced during production by Dexter Fletcher). “Green Book” also took the supporting actor Globe for Mahershala Ali’s performance as the late pianist Don Shirley, while “Rhapsody’s” Rami Malek won best actor in a drama for his transformative star turn as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
I do not bring all this up to point out some yawning chasm between highbrow critical taste and lowbrow popular sentiment, a chasm that I have never really believed exists. There are, and always have been, brows of every persuasion on all sides. Every critic, after all, is a moviegoer — and every moviegoer, I’m convinced, is a critic, temperamentally if not professionally.
There’s also the fact that despite its well-known celebrity fixation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., a group of about 90 entertainment journalists working for predominantly non-U.S.-based publications, should not be confused with the moviegoing public at large. Nor does it function as a representative wing of the film industry, even though it can function, on occasion, as a harbinger of what the Academy Awards will bring.
As absurd as it might seem to compare two such different voting bodies in the first place, the National Society of Film Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press actually found a fair amount to agree on this weekend. Both organizations bestowed acting prizes on Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) and Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), and both were sufficiently impressed with “Roma” to give it prizes for direction and foreign-language film. (“Roma” was not eligible for the HFPA’s best picture prize, which is — snort — reserved for English-language films only.)
No one would fault these winners for repeating their victories at the Oscars in February, and there’s a decent chance that some of them will. Nearly every awards season, for better or worse, bends toward a well-meaning if often misguided notion of consensus. We all like different things, but there are usually a few pictures and performances most of us can agree on, even if some of the more interesting, divisive and difficult possibilities — which is to say, some of the best movies of the year — inevitably fall by the wayside.
My own feeling is that an exceptionally good year for movies, a year as rich and varied and overwhelming as 2018, should produce as little consensus as possible. One of the benefits of awards season, perhaps even the only one, is that it allows us to shed light on a vast range of deserving pictures, especially those pictures trying to find their audiences without the benefit of a lavish Oscar campaign.
I’m thinking of movies like “Private Life” and “Leave No Trace” and “Happy as Lazzaro” and “Support the Girls.” I’m thinking of “Annihilation” and “The Sisters Brothers” and “Bisbee ’17” and “You Were Never Really Here” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” and “Sorry to Bother You.” All these pictures — and many others — deserve more than they’ve gotten this season. What they deserve most of all is a smart, appreciative audience.
And so I started watching the Golden Globes on Sunday night with the understanding that there were a number of fine, even inspired decisions the HFPA could make, if they felt moved to make them. Of the Globe nominees, my own vote for best comedy would have been “The Favourite,” though I’d have been delighted by a win for “Crazy Rich Asians,” a stylish, elegant romp that, quite apart from its representational virtues, has almost single-handedly restored the romantic comedy as a force in studio moviemaking.
And there were terrific possibilities on the drama side, among them three vital, vibrantly imaginative pictures about the intractability of race and the elusiveness of justice: Ryan Coogler’s thrilling “Black Panther,” Barry Jenkins’ achingly romantic “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Spike Lee’s incendiary, electrifying “BlacKkKlansman.”
There was also, of course, the audience-approved emotional juggernaut of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” which nearly everyone had expected to cement its status as this year’s awards-season heavyweight. In a season that kicked off with the motion picture academy’s much-derided attempt to introduce an Oscar for “best popular film,” a win for a picture this critically and commercially successful might well have showed up that decision for the pandering, faux-populist gesture it was.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Neither Cooper nor his star, Lady Gaga, prevailed in their respective categories Sunday night, and “A Star Is Born” was kissed off with an entirely predictable song award for its signature tune, “Shallow.” And speaking of shallow, the top film prizes went to “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a dumb-and-dumber cinematic combo that feels like a blight even on the Globes’ long and frequently inglorious history. Has the HFPA ever served up a more embarrassingly retrograde pair of winners in the same evening than these two, a more bumbling double dose of cinematic mediocrity? After a few minutes scanning Wikipedia, I feel fairly confident in saying no.
The counter-argument, of course, is that both “Green Book” and especially the smash hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” have afforded audiences a lot of pleasure, and most of those pleasures are tied to their performances. I myself wasn’t entirely immune to the charms of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even if those charms wore awfully thin as it went on. The highs of that overflowing Queen soundtrack could only do so much to overcome the picture’s tediously rote biopic structure, and even Malek’s fine leading turn felt ill served by the movie’s dramatic cowardice, its insistence on sanitizing the complicated matter of Mercury’s sexuality for mainstream consumption.
As it happens, another real-life LGBT musician is at the heart of “Green Book” — or he would be, if Farrelly and his co-screenwriters were more genuinely interested in the particulars of Don Shirley’s life. Instead they have turned him into a dry comic foil for a vulgar but gradually repentant racist played, with rascally warmth, by Viggo Mortensen. The well-worn formula of the interracial buddy dramedy is used not to erect a bridge between its two main characters so much as to draw a false equivalence between them, to provide a concession to black viewers and a balm for white ones. It’s charming, sure, though never quite as charming as it is tone-deaf.
It says something that even in the year of “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a picture as politically regressive as “Green Book” turns out to be the Globes’ idea of a smart, important movie about race. It also says something that in a year with such an embarrassment of cinematic riches, the HFPA chose to single out two of its lousiest nominees.
Certainly it sets a very low bar for future organizations — even the embattled academy, with its misguided populist ambitions and its fruitless ongoing search for an Oscar host — to clear as this interminable season progresses. By all means let us watch the Oscars and hope, for their sake and ours, that they fare better. But please, watch “The Rider” first.