A wonderful movie finally got its due last 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, named the best picture of 2018 by the National Society of Film Critics.
I say this neither modestly nor impartially, being the society’s chairman and an ardent admirer of “The Rider,” first screened at Cannes in 2017 and released last April by Sony Pictures Classics. An achingly beautiful weave of narrative and documentary filmed on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, it narrowly bested 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 last Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, presented in typically glitzy, boozy fashion by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The disregard was, in some respects, mutual. The critics society showed little love for the movies that ended up winning Globes for best picture: “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
I do not bring all this up to point out some yawning chasm between highbrow critical taste and lowbrow popular sentiment. The two organizations actually found a fair amount to agree on. Both bestowed acting prizes on Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) and Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), and the Globes gave “Roma” prizes for direction and foreign-language film.
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. I’m thinking of such movies as “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.”
And so I started watching the Golden Globes with the understanding that there were a number of fine, even inspired decisions the Hollywood Foreign Press could make. But “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” are a dumb-and-dumber cinematic combo that feels like a blight even on the Globes’ inglorious history.
The counter-argument is that both films have afforded audiences a lot of pleasure. I myself wasn’t entirely immune to the charms of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” although Rami Malek’s fine leading turn as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury felt ill served by the movie’s cowardice in sanitizing the complicated matter of Mercury’s sexuality.
As it happens, another real-life LGBT musician is at the heart of “Green Book” — or he would be, if director/co-writer Peter Farrelly were more genuinely interested in the particulars of Don Shirley’s life. Instead the film has turned him into a dry comic foil for a vulgar but gradually repentant racist played, with rascally warmth, by Viggo Mortensen.
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.
Certainly it sets a very low bar for the embattled Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with its misguided populist ambitions and its fruitless search for an Oscar host. By all means let us watch the Academy Awards and hope, for their sake and ours, that they fare better. But please, watch “The Rider” first.