'If Beale Street Could Talk' Isn't a Movie, It's Art
If it's not already, I can assure you this is most definitely going to be a very strange awards season. Who is going to win Best Picture?
At the first major show of the year, the Golden Globes, one movie that critics (any myself) thought was very bad and one movie that critics (and myself) thought was very problematic took home the night's two biggest awards, practically guaranteeing Oscar nominations for Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book. Then there's of course Roma, the typical artisan masterwork; A Star is Born, the typical Hollywood mythmaking stargasm; and BlacKkKlansman, the typical cultural critique.
Now at long last, I'm proud to announce that we have a movie worthy of carrying the industry's highest honor. Well actually, more accurately, the award that should carry the industry's highest honor. I'm fairly certain that the Academy Awards' Best Picture is not it. Years of personal fandom and decades of retrospective have informed me of the truth, that Best Picture is a race won by narrative, leverage and politicking. Not merit. But hey, welcome to Hollywood baby.
So If Beale Street Could Talk will not win Best Picture. Per Oddschecker, it's going off at about 25-to-1. As best I can figure, it's because director Barry Jenkins won the same award for his first feature, Moonlight, and this one is too much like that one and the establishment doesn't really think he's waited his turn long enough to win again? (They love anointing a next-in-line-to-the-throne, but loathe having to actually give anyone the seat.) But after finally seeing the movie this week, I can tell you it absolutely deserves it.
"If Beale Street Could Talk is, above all else, a love story." Such was the first line of the film's promotional read on basically every podcast I listen to. Such is the truth. At its core, this movie is hopelessly romantic. Jenkins captures love, like real life-messy-lived in-till death do us part-young love. The primary narrative is intercut with these scenes of protagonists Fonny and Tish falling in love.
They aren't flashbacks, exactly, more like memories. Harmonies of stringed instruments play in the background, the light silhouettes our lovers just so, their touch lingers. It's not exactly accurate, obviously, but reaches almost a higher plane of truth. It's true to experience. Instead of showing what it was like, these scenes capture what it felt like to be that person falling in love at that time in that place.
Meanwhile, that primary narrative I mentioned is an utterly devastating look at race relations in America (or, I'd like to ignorantly believe, of simply Harlem in the 1970s). Without spoiling anything, because this is in the trailer, Tish is pregnant and racing to free wrongly-imprisoned Fonny before she has her baby. The cultural deck is stacked against them. They cannot win. The "power of love" will not prevail.
But where other projects might turn that resentment into hate and aggression (see: BlacKkKlansman), Jenkins steers it toward perseverance. There is undoubtedly anti-white sentiment in the movie ("the white man has got to be the devil" says one character), but it's played through the lens of subjectivity. Through once again, experience. This is even more devastating, and truly rips right through defensiveness and produces, if I may be so bold, empathy.
This rose-like construction--beautiful soft flowers on top and thorns beneath--is perfected by Jenkins' craft. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the cinematography literally took my breath away in a few moments. Somehow, the fairytale and the nightmare are both captured with the same aesthetic.
As for the cast, in just two movies Jenkins has shown a generational ability to find previously unknown actors and cast them in star-making roles. KiKi Layne and Stephon James, who play Tish and Fonny, fit the bill. Add to that Brian Tyree Henry, who gives the movie about 12 absolute show-stopping minutes, and Regina King, who just won a Golden Globe for this role and very well might nab an Oscar as well, and you've got a formidable cast.
Despite all of this gushing, the aspect I'm most impressed by is actually the script. It's really funny in a few scenes, and will make you want to cry in others. Filmmakers have been adapting books to the screen for decades, but I can think of few scripts that have created a successful adaption while still preserving the magic of the words on the page. Through a voice over from Tish's character, we get the literal prose of James Baldwin's original novel, and it somehow fits naturally into the movie while preserving the gravity of its original form. And let me tell you, 99% of the time voice over is lazy and bad and I hate it. That's so hard to pull off, yet he did it.
Because Barry Jenkins doesn't make movies, he makes art.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Yes, I know what you're going to say. And you're right. This movie is funny! When compared to the melancholy underscoring the movie mentioned above and below it on this list, it may even seem a little silly. But it's also kind of a nightmare for its main character, played by Bill Murray, who cannot escape the events of a single day in his life no matter what he tries. Unlike the others, the movie lets viewers off the hook with a release of that tension into a happy ending, but for a large chunk of the movie it's kind of a hopeless situation!
And besides. It's iconic, and if you haven't seen it this is your friendly reminder that you really need to, like right now. People forget how sweet the love story at the center of it is, which becomes the driving force. Lastly, similar to Beale Street and Eternal Sunshine, it plays with fantastical elements in a way that gets at true to life themes, and does a really great job of subverting the usual chronological structure of a narrative.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
When I rewatched this movie this week, I asked myself quite sincerely, "was this the greatest screenplay ever written?" I realize that's an unfair title to give to any one movie, but when you combine the formal inventiveness of this premise with the way all of these seemingly crazy puzzle pieces fit together into a perfect frame, I'd say it at least needs to be on the short list.
Jim Carrey (doing his serious actor thing) and Kate Winslet are fantastic in their portrayal of lovers with some serious personal issues (supporting roles from Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood). It's such a thought-provoking piece of art, making you question the purpose and validity of memory as well as the threshold of love against loneliness (and a bunch of other things!). I hesitate to call it a masterpiece...but...I can't deny it. One of my all-time favorites.