Roma

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Every year at Oscar time I do a kind of two-pronged prognistication that runs as part of the Journal’s Oscar package. I try to guess who’s going to win in the major categories, and I also say who or what should win. My gifts as a handicapper are seriously flawed. Every year I get at least one category wrong because, I don’t know, I haven’t kept up with all the backlashes to the backlashes. And every year I cling to my convictions about the shoulds and tell myself it’s not about the horse race but the films themselves—which is naïve, I know, but that’s my story and I’m stuck with it.

This year, though, at least in the best-picture category, it’s about something else that transcends the usual considerations—the looming presence of Netflix as the distributor of “Roma.” I think “Roma” should win—Alfonso Cuarón is the most important director working in movies today, and “Roma” is a masterpiece—and I actually think it will win, though there’s always that business about backlashes. And in this case there may be yet another backlash about the business itself, because Netflix is spending tens of millions of dollars—the New York Times says $25 million—on promoting “Roma” in the hope of winning best picture. That would be an astonishing coup for a new media giant that’s basically in the business of streaming video to TV sets, meaning it represents the biggest threat ever to the concept of people going out to see movies on big screens in movie theaters.

In fact, Netflix has been working both sides of the “Roma” street with phenomenal success—streaming it to subscribers and, at the same time, showing it as it should be seen, on big screens in theaters around the country—and as it should be heard, in Dolby Atmos, which is a new experience in immersive technology. But here I go again with my shoulds—theatrical films should be shown in theaters, and that’s where you should see them.

The truth, of course, is that movies are in decline—everyone knows that, or should know it. Most of the action is on TV, the future of motion pictures is online, and Netflix is the best model at the moment of how that future will work. All of which brings us back to this year’s Oscars, which, like it or not, are about transition and dislocation and fundamental change that’s being dramatized by Netflix’s presence at the table. I think “Roma” should win, as I said, but whether or not it does, there’s reason to rejoice that this pivot point in the Oscars’ history has been provoked by a motion picture of truly rare distinction. This time it really is about the films themselves.

I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.

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Joe Morgenstern