"A four day stretch of brain boiling sickness and uneven filmmaking" - I marathoned every Oscar Best Picture nominee while sick

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Every year when the Oscar nominations are announced I settle in for a challenging blitz through all of the Best Picture nominees that I didn’t catch throughout the year. Typically, given how niche some of these films are and how infrequently I get to the theatre, I end up watching the vast majority of the films in a very condensed window. It can be a rough stretch some years, particularly when the Academy’s tastes are further out of alignment with my own than usual (which, FYI, is pretty far), but I always end up enjoying it and invariably find some gems that I missed and subsequently fall in love with.

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This year, rightly or wrongly, I decided to go hardcore and burn through every film in a four day stretch while I was violently ill. It was a… unique experience, seeing these critically acclaimed, generally narratively intense movies through a thick feverish gauze of organ-defiling illness. It’s tough to say whether my bizarre fugue state actually helped or hindered my movie-watching experience, but overall this year’s Best Picture nominees feel like a middling crop, with one pretty obvious frontrunner, in my opinion. 

That said, I understand marathoning a bunch of emotionally draining, very lengthy films isn’t for everyone, so I thought I’d invite you along for my drug and virus fueled jaunt through what a bunch of mostly elderly white people have decided are 2018’s best films. Oh, and I’ve also gone ahead and rated each film by the venerable and definitely-not-entirely-made-up-for-this-feature Fever/Chill standard (with thanks to Dr. Mario), which is basically a standard assessment of quality with a hint of violent illness. It’s going to be bizarre!

Black Panther

This is the one Best Picture nominee that I actually saw around the time of its release, well in advance of my blitz. In case you somehow managed to miss the hype juggernaut, Black Panther takes us to the fictional nation of Wakanda where its newly coronated King T’Challa deals with a civil war when his long lost cousin Killmonger challenges his right to the throne. 

While it didn’t fall under the umbrella of my soul-devouring illness, Black Panther is an excellent film - going into my blitz I had trouble imagining a movie that could reasonably challenge it for Best Picture. It’s a Marvel film with real heart, and a master class in acting and cinematic direction that puts the focus on the characters rather than on how gloriously Marvel Studios can blow up a 30-story building in CGI. But since you’re presumably here for the body sickness horror, let’s move on...

Fever/Chill rating: 8.5/10

Roma

I’d heard very little about Roma ahead of awards season, but that struck me as just the sort of darling film critics adopt out of a sense of obligation rather than its inherent quality. I kicked off my Best Picture blitz with it because it was late at night and I was exhausted from a full day of being transformed into a trembling sac of volatile fluids aggressively perturbed by vindictive, microscopic gods. I was praying for a tonic to put me to sleep, as the first day of my illness was one of the worst; unlike Roma, my flu started in high gear and just kept accelerating. 

I’m not going to claim Roma ended up being a high octane thrill ride, but I’m happy to admit it was significantly more entertaining than expected. It follows the story of the maid to an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City during the tumultuous late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a period in which Mexico was plagued by upheaval and political violence, and manages to subtly introduce some of those conflicts into a slice of life narrative about class and privilege. There were still some significant periods where I felt the encroaching embrace of blessed sleep creeping across my fever-wracked body, but on the whole Roma managed to hold my attention much more thoroughly than I anticipated.

Fever/Chill rating: 6.5/10

The Favourite

Blech. I’d been hearing a lot of great stuff about The Favourite in the weeks that led up to my viewing/catastrophic illness, but then the day before I watched it I got a call from my mom in which she informed me it was both “bad” and “gross.” Clinging to my initial optimism, I imagined that at the very least it wouldn’t be boring.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Throughout The Favourite’s meandering tale of court intrigue and the bitter rivalry between two of Queen Anne’s favored handmaidens, I found myself repeatedly checking my phone, or leaving the film running while I rushed to deal with the more visceral consequences of the flu virus wracking my body. 

The three primary players are all paper thin and predictable, particularly Olivia Colman’s infantile, insipid Anne, and what wrinkles there are in the clotted plot utterly fail to redeem the interminable sequences where nothing of interest or consequence happens. Kicking off the second day of my sickness with this nasty little thorn turned out to be trend-setting - day two was the height of my illness, which began at a 10/10 and reached previously unprecedented moments of shattered consciousness and borderline feverish hallucinations. 

Fever/Chill rating: 3.5/10

Green Book

One of the absolute gems in this year’s Best Picture crop, Green Book is the inspired-by-a-true-story tale of African American jazz musician Don Shirley touring through the Deep South of the racially charged 1960s, accompanied by his white driver and bodyguard, Queens-born Tony Vallelonga. 

The film excels based on the strength of its excellent writing and superb turns by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Both actors deeply inhabit their roles in convincing fashion, and watching their nascent friendship evolve was just the sort of cockle-warming distraction I needed to pull my attention away from the diminutive villains attempting to liquefy all of my internal organs. The true miracle is that Green Book was able to crack the sickness shell enveloping my senses and penetrate my emotions with its wholesome goodness. 

Fever/Chill rating: 8/10

Vice

As someone who suffered acutely through Dick Cheney’s abominable manipulation of the US presidency in real life, I figured it would be thematically appropriate to watch a biopic about his career while gripped by a punishing physical malady. It was good, then, that the filmmakers managed to squeeze some genuine levity into a story largely about undermining the most powerful political office in the world, torturing political detainees, and illegally engineering a war for personal profit.

Unsurprisingly, the star of the show is the nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale in the titular role. Bale believably illustrates how a grunting, unlikeable individual rose through Washington to become one of the most influential political figures of his era primarily through deft maneuvering and unlikely personal magnetism. While there are significant stumbles throughout the film and it never fully captures the horror of living under a W/Cheney joint presidency, it nevertheless manages to convey some heady themes that are as relevant today as they were fifteen or twenty years ago. 

As my body trembled within its shell shocked and fugue state, Vice poignantly reminded me that the infirmity gripping my own body mirrored the distemper crippling American politics. Luckily, as the last film of day two, Vice marked the point when my illness started to gradually recede, so maybe we can extend the metaphor and assume we’re in the midst of a recession of the corruption of our modern political landscape? J/k fam, I know precisely how bleak and dessicated our shared political destiny is. 

Fever/Chill rating: 7.5/10

BlacKkKlansman

Adam Driver and John David Washington

(Image: © Universal)

Unlike the majority of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I was really looking forward to watching Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman - and for the most part it didn’t disappoint. John David Washington is killer in a breakout performance as Ron Stallworth, the African American cop who teams up with white officer Flip Zimmerman (steadily portrayed by Adam Driver) to go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan around the height of the organisation’s vileness in the 1970s.

The film suffers from a slow opening as it sluggishly establishes its lead and the atmosphere of an intolerant ‘70s Colorado Springs, but once it starts rolling (when the actual infiltration of the Klan kicks off) it rollicks along to an explosive climax. The slow start paired well with the gradual retreat of my illness but it didn’t necessarily contributed to the film’s gravitas. For a film about racism, politics, and America’s deep seated history of division, BlacKkKlansman is surprisingly funny at points. That said, after the satisfying conclusion of the main narrative, Lee doesn’t let us off the hook. He expertly weaves together footage from the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and reactions from America’s political leadership to bind the racial tensions of the disco-era with the still very much extant political and racial divide that haunts us today. 

Fever/Chill rating: 7.5/10

Bohemian Rhapsody

This is the film I’d heard the most hype about in advance of my Best Picture blitz, especially after it snagged Best Motion Picture - Drama honors at the Golden Globes. The story of Freddie Mercury, Queen, and their global ascendancy in advance of their historic performance at Live Aid, Bohemian Rhapsody is appropriately rock operatic in parts, but surprisingly dull in others. 

Maybe it was the faded shroud of sickness and my trembling enfeeblement, but I had trouble staying focused during some of the longer sequences of rambling dialogue. I’d rather have seen the film make more out of Mercury’s personal revelations and existential conundrums. Instead, these moments feel unearned or shoehorned in and didn’t land with any emotional weight. It felt as though the movie was skipping ahead to big moments of crisis without clearly mapping how we got there, but it is possible I was just passing out for long stretches and missing chunks of the film. 

Fever/Chill rating: 6.5/10

A Star is Born

I saved the best for last. Another movie I had pretty slim expectations of, A Star is Born wowed me by managing to connect all the dots that Bohemian Rhapsody failed to. The dual, inverted narratives, of one artist’s rise from obscurity to the dizzying heights of fame while another career flames out in spectacular fashion, deftly build to their most important moments in stark contrast to the way Rhapsody cheats ahead. Instead of feeling like I was expected to sympathize with people I barely knew, A Star is Born carefully constructs its characters from familiar fragments of their lives so that, when remarkable or terrible things happen to them, they feel earned and recognizable.

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Having been tortured by the flu probably didn’t help, but when the credits hit I was completely emotionally and physically drained. The quietest moments in A Star is Born play better than the loudest screams of many of the other films in this category, buoyed by tremendous acting from its leads and by the presence of mind to let scenes stand on their own merit, instead of a desperate reliance on emotional manipulation through musical cues or heavy handed direction. 

It also earns a full additional point for Dave Chappelle’s unfortunately brief, but ridiculously strong cameo. A Star is Born was the perfect coda to my sick-drunk odyssey across a landscape of wildly different, now half-remembered filmscapes, a sort of sickly sweet digestif capping a four day stretch of brain boiling sickness and uneven filmmaking. It felt like a splintered bit of debris that I was able to desperately cling to while the last waves of sickness pushed me gently towards the now foreign-looking shore of health.

Fever/Chill rating: 9.5/10 - Give A Star is Born an Oscar!