Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Reviews Potential Oscar Favorites

Nov 23, 2018

Theater critic Harlan Jacobson says 'Green Book' won audience choice awards at several film festivals
Credit Universal Pictures

First and foremost is the long-awaited Roma by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Roma is autobiographical, a sense memory of growing up in Mexico City during the 1970s. It’s a gorgeous, deeply observant lens on lived experience that is emotionally faithful to the task at hand: remembering when the tectonic plates shifted on a family, and the floor gave way on comfort. Roma is named for the privileged neighborhood in Mexico City, which Cuaron — having now achieved untouchable status among directors for his previous films Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and the Oscar-winning Gravity in 2013—renders with exquisite attention to detail from a modest $20 million budget via Netflix. 

In silvery black and white 65-millimeter film, the story concerns the quiet everyday life of a family: wife, husband, a doctor supporting a family, including a 9-year-old boy we understand as Cuaron, a dog and a nanny. As the wife, Maria de Tavira, is the sole, celebrated professional actor, the rest are largely non-pros for whom Cuaron hunted after the decade long gestation of the script, which he’d planned as his next film after Children of Men in 2006. As Roma continued to bake, Hollywood intervened with Gravity, which gave Cuaron license to kill. In Roma, he does. 

It opens with the nanny, Cleo, played by the provincial Yalitza Aparicio, mopping the floor, the kids running in, Sofia the mother cutting across the frame like a frigate. Soon enough the father will return home and shift the story into second gear, after the nanny hurriedly cleans the daily donated dog poop to the inner breezeway. Dr. Antonio announces he’s going to Quebec City for a conference, but instead takes up with his young mistress with whom he’s spotted at the local cinema.  The narrative then settles in on the two women, the shocked wife, Sofia, and the nanny, Cleo, coalescing around the need to maintain life after the wound. Class, gender, race, status are all undercurrents in a layered portrait that is worthy of referencing some of the greats of neo-realist cinema. 

What that means for movie goers for whom the late Stan Lee is their polestar, is that they must understand this is not a fireworks show. It’s the chance to appreciate what high art does: let you into someone’s inner sanctum like a fly on the wall, and watch real people, without capes but who possess super powers nonetheless, make sense out of life, frame by beautifully composed frame -- scripted, directed, cast, shot and edited by an artist working on a big canvas. 

Roma won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September. I saw it days later at the critical Toronto Film Festival. It opens in theaters in Mexico City, LA and our own beloved New York, this weekend, before coming to a big screen via Netflix near your pajamas, Dec. 14. You can do it, you should do it. Open your doors of perception, break on through to the other side.

Speaking of driving, you might want to catch Green Book, which if the Oscars downshift to their usual level of mediocre but well-meaning films—a la Spotlight a couple years back -- is my bet for best picture. Dumb and Dumber brother Peter Farrelly makes a career move, though no Oscar nomination for director is the bet here, with his stretch into easy, spoon fed melodrama, co-writing and directing this race-themed story set in 1962. It concerns Bronx Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip Vallelonga driving Jamaican American jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley in a green Caddie across the south on a concert tour undertaken as something between a one-man civil rights drive during the freedom march era and a pulse-quickening adventure. The Caddie pauses, and Shirley sees black field hands, and they see him. A maître de won’t seat Shirley for dinner at the whites-only country club where he’s booked to perform. Tony Lip has a gun on his hip when ivory fingers dig them both into a hole.

Green Book is based on a true story, and as such it’s imagination is handcuffed by its fidelity to Tony Lip’s account, rendered by his son Nick, who has a story credit on the film. As it opens, Tony Lip is a Bronx bouncer, and Shirley is a gay prig who sits on a throne in his Carnegie Hall apartment. Mortenson, whom I’ve often liked – most recently in Captain Fantastic, Eastern Promises and all the way back to A Walk on the Moon in 1999—plays the Italian Bronx as if the Caddie ran on olive oil which is spilling out the windows. As Don Shirley, Mahershala Ali—a magnetic TV character in Treme and House of Cards -- went boom in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlightas the dad and drug dealer everyone would want. In Green Book, he delivers no mean feat: condescension from a racially inferior social position. 

As the trip begins, he thinks Tony Lip’s wifebeater b.o. is the price he has to pay to make it from Pittsburgh to Indiana and Cedar Rapids before heading south for concert stops in Kentucky, Memphis, Little Rock, Baton Rouge, Tupelo, Birmingham, Macon, and Raleigh among others. 

Not a promising beginning, but the pianist intuits something deeper about his trip with Tony Lip. Shirley packs a copy of The Negro Motorists Green Book, a mid-century survival guide of black restaurants and hotels written by one Victor Green, likely unfamiliar to white history.  

The underlying assumption in both Green Book and its grandma, Driving Miss Daisy, with Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in 1989, is that we have a class problem in America that we misidentify as a race problem. In Green Book, things have flipped. Yes, they learn about each other, but the overwhelming vector is now black to white. Green Book’s novelty lies less in Tony Lip’s conversion from talking about driving around an eggplant into becoming a frontline civil rights enforcer, than it does in Shirley, the Jamaican-American artist, coming home to a White Christmas. 

I saw the film twice — once at its world premiere in Toronto, where it won the audience award and I was a little dubious, and again at the New Orleans Film Festival, where it also won the audience award.  The Oscarologists, and I guess I agree, all now say Green Book has a good shot at going all the way. That’s if the Academy crowd can’t bear to part and let Roma through. 

When you’re done with the turkey, why don’t you go take a gander.