In a few hours, we will reach the end of an Oscars season that has been occupied primarily with the question of how to get people to care about the Oscars. And with a whole host of misguided schemes aimed at achieving that goal. It’s how we’ve gotten an Oscars ceremony that can’t spare an invite for the star of a best picture nominee, but has room for such luminaries of Hollywood as Tony Hawk and DJ Khaled. A ceremony where there’s no time to recognize awards for costuming or editing, or give Samuel L. Jackson a lifetime achievement award, but will feature a musical performance of a song that isn’t even nominated for best song. A ceremony that has invented a new “fan favorite” award in the hopes of throwing something in the direction of Spider-Man: No Way Home for being a box office hit (Don Draper voice: that’s what the money is for!), but which might actually end up going to a direct-to-streaming version of Cinderella starring Camila Cabello, because it turns out that the normies who made Spider-Man a hit won’t squat on a twitter hashtag for weeks on end just to get it some meaningless recognition.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about these choices and what they say about the state of Hollywood and its place in the culture. But no one, as far as I can tell, has pointed out the obvious: that if we weren’t gnashing our teeth over whether Volodymyr Zelenskyy should be invited to speak during the ceremony, there would be nothing to talk about, because this year’s slate of best picture nominees is terminally boring. I’m not even saying they’re bad. Bad would be an improvement. This year’s films are, for the most part, perfectly nice, classic Oscar fare, and destined to be forgotten by the end of this week.
OK, so I’m being a little unfair: maybe the two best picture nominees I haven’t watched, Belfast and King Richard, are shocking cinematic achievements instead of the middle of the road dad movies they appear to be. And people seem to really like Drive My Car (rightly so!). But unlike Parasite two years ago, it’s not a movie that has captured the public imagination. Which is the problem, really. Not a single one of these perfectly well-crafted movies has managed to garner a tidal wave of strong reactions, even among the people who really care about the Oscars. There doesn’t even seem to be a movie that people are rooting very strongly against, an Oscar villain like Green Book or La La Land. We’re used to seeing a narrative of controversy converge around one or two nominees, and this year that has repeatedly failed to happen. The outrage fodder was there—Licorice Pizza is weirdly tolerant of a relationship between a teenager and a twentysomething and has multiple scenes of anti-Asian racism; CODA depicts its deaf characters as bizarrely incapable of functioning in the hearing world; The Power of the Dog buries its gays—but again and again, it failed to ignite. And absent anything to talk about, is it any surprise that this year’s Oscars are struggling to attract an audience?
But what do I know: I’m the person who was going to watch another Oscar nominee last night, and instead ended up binge-watching the second season of Bridgerton, so probably I’m part of the problem. Instead of debating that, here are my thoughts on the best picture nominees I did watch, in ascending order of how much I’d like them to win the award. You will note that the films I had serious problems with are ranked higher than the ones I had nothing to say about, because at least they got some feeling out of me.
Nightmare Alley – I’m going to say this a lot during this post, but I honestly have no idea why this movie was nominated. My best guess is that it’s a poke in Disney’s eye for strong-arming distributors into stealing its screens for more Spider-Man showings, contributing to its box office failure. On its own, this Old Hollywood remake is as visually lush and tonally schmaltzy as any of Guillermo del Toro’s movies, but without the warmth and earnest feeling that characterize even his darkest, bleakest efforts. I’m not sure what the value is in a cynical del Toro movie, and I certainly don’t see how it ended up being recognized as one of the best movies of the year.
Don’t Look Up – I’m someone who was generally positive towards this climate change satire, and I still don’t get how it ended up with a best picture nomination. Did Adam McKay and David Sirota successfully sell the spin that praising this movie was a meaningful act of climate change activism? As a star-studded comedy, and a political satire, it’s generally pretty successful (though to my mind the most effective part of its satire, its portrait of self-appointed tech prophets and the politicians who swallow their malarkey hook line and sinker, is also the aspect of the film that has been most comprehensively ignored). But ultimately, it’s a film that is a punchline, something we’ll remember for inspiring a hashtag, not as a cinematic work in its own right.
CODA – This is an extremely sweet family drama with an unusual twist that works so long as you don’t think about it too hard. If you do, you start asking uncomfortable questions. Like: is it really plausible that the deaf parents and adult son in this movie have so few tools and techniques for interacting with the hearing world that they’d outsource every single aspect of that task to the one hearing member of their family, who is also a teenage girl? Were they planning on having her stay home forever to act as their interpreter? While it’s cool that deaf actors have gotten these meaty roles (including a very likely best supporting actor winner), by the end of the movie I was squirming a little at how these characters were being depicted.
West Side Story – This is actually a really lovely movie that preserves a lot about the original—the choreography, most obviously—while updating it in clever and necessary ways—casting actual brown people as brown characters, making slight changes to the book that highlight the ways in which this story was always about white resentment and immigrant struggles, the role it gives to Rita Moreno. And to top it off, it’s a magnificent showcase of Steven Spielberg’s abilities as a filmmaker, just effortlessly pulling off song and dance sequences or camera tricks that for any other director would be the highlight of their career. But through it all, I kept wondering: who asked for this? Is West Side Story such a vital cultural landmark that it needed a new version for a new generation? Or is it a good but extremely dated musical that could have been left in its place of honor while the rest of us moved on? The impression left by Spielberg’s West Side Story is of one man’s passion project, which is utterly indifferent to the question of whether there’s an audience for it—which, as it turns out, there wasn’t.
The Power of the Dog – This is about as slick and well-crafted as a modern Western can get, with beautiful vistas, excellent performances from the whole cast (Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better, except possibly in the miniseries Patrick Melrose; it’s probably not a coincidence that he’s at his best when deconstructing the smartest guy in the room persona that made him a star), and a tight, clever script. It’s also an incredibly nasty movie, to a degree that doesn’t seem to have been reckoned with by critics and fans. I guess it’s a point in a film’s favor that it has lingered so powerfully in my mind even though I watched it almost three months ago. But when the reason for that is the bad taste it has left in your mouth, it’s hard to call the result “good”.
Licorice Pizza – There’s a buy-in to this movie—you have to accept that a twenty-five-year-old woman, be she ever so lost and uncertain about her first steps in life, would find anything romantically and sexually interesting about a fifteen-year-old boy. And unfortunately, instead of interrogating that question, Licorice Pizza seems determined to lean into its problems—for all that Alana Haim gives a great performance, it’s telling how little the script seems interested in her as a person rather than a love interest, never asking, for example, why she doesn’t appear to have any friends her own age. If you can clear that hurdle, though, you’re rewarded with typical Paul Thomas Anderson-ian excellence, a depiction of LA in the 70s that is so weird and specific that it has to be taken from real life, some absolutely thrilling set-pieces, and a very sweet friendship between the two leads—that, unfortunately, the film can’t stop itself from turning into a romance at the last minute.
Dune – There are a lot of problems with this movie, some of which I’ve already written about—its deliberate shying away from the weirdness of the original novel in favor of Game of Thrones-esque fantasy politics, its boring visuals, the downplaying of Lady Jessica. But watching it, I got a feeling not unlike the one I had watching the first Lord of the Rings movie twenty years ago—that this was an adaptation rooted in serious thought about the original work, and in specific, goal-oriented choices. I don’t agree with all those choices—though in some cases I feel like this adaptation gets at the heart of the novel as few previous attempts, or even its fandom, have managed to do—but the very fact that they’ve been made gives me hope that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is going to be the great fantasy epic of this decade.
Drive My Car – It’s kind of incredible that a slow, frequently-silent meditation on grief and art, featuring long scenes of driving and even longer sequences pulled straight out of Uncle Vanya, has won over basically everyone who has seen it, but I am no exception. And really, this is a film that wears its length lightly, that persuasively argues that it needs its three-hour running time to do things like introduce us to the marriage that will linger over the rest of the movie, to convince us that it is strong despite its problems, so that its sundering by death comes as a shock. To linger over the coming-together of a disparate troupe of actors from all parts of the world, so that their ultimate creation of a coherent, affecting piece of theater—and its ability to resonate with their own struggles—feels all the more triumphant. And to take its time with the friendship that develops between the play’s bereaved director and his taciturn, working class driver, to ultimately reveal how much they have in common and how they can help each other. I might have liked a few less melodramatic turns of plot towards the end of the story, but that doesn’t take away from the film’s overall effect, which is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
And here are some thoughts on several films nominated in other categories, in ascending order of how much I would have liked them to be nominated for best picture:
House of Gucci – For the life of me I cannot understand why this was the Ridley Scott movie that captured public attention last year and not the infinitely superior The Last Duel. The trailers all make this seem like a twisty crime melodrama or at the very least some trashy fun, but the actual film is tedious, failing to draw any meaningful connection between the boardroom politics that take up most of its runtime and the sensational murder for hire that caps off its story. I had a better time reading the wikipedia entry about the actual events it depicts.
Being the Ricardos – Much ink has been spilled about how badly miscast Nicole Kidman is as Lucille Ball in this movie. And she is, but to focus on that fact is to situate the film’s original sin in the wrong place. The problem with Being the Ricardos isn’t that Kidman isn’t funny, but that the film itself doesn’t think that being funny is a particularly important thing for a depiction of Ball to stress. For that matter, it doesn’t seem that interested in Ball at all, choosing instead to place its emphasis on Desi Arnaz (played by a no less miscast Javier Bardem who nevertheless walks away with the movie, because he’s been given the meatier role) and on an objectively trivial episode in his and Lucy’s lives. Aaron Sorkin writing about trailblazing women: not even once, guys.
tick, tick… BOOM! – If one good thing came out of Disney’s misbegotten efforts to land an Oscar nomination for Spider-Man: No Way Home, it’s that in doing so it drew renewed attention to Andrew Garfield, and reminded people how great he was in this well-regarded but somewhat overlooked movie. In a way, this is the anti-West Side Story, in that it persuasively argues for the vitality and importance of Jonathan Larson’s work at a time when his most famous musical has become something of a punchline. (It probably doesn’t hurt that unlike RENT, tick, tick… BOOM! was reworked by other writers before making it to Broadway and then the screen.) The result is an excellent musical in its own right, a beautiful homage to an artist gone too young, and a meditation on the costs of dedicating your life to a dream.
The Tragedy of Macbeth – A Shakespeare adaptation feels out of character for the Coen brothers, even if it’s just one of them this time. But then you get half a scene into this version of Macbeth and realize: oh, this is a story about a greedy man who descends to ever-greater depths of depravity in his pursuit of power and wealth; that makes sense. And indeed, a Coen Macbeth turns out to play much like a crime drama—albeit one with gorgeous, hyper-realist production design and direction, and some genuinely creepy realizations of the play’s fantastic elements. Denzel Washington gives a magnificent performance that feels almost effortless, his Macbeth remaining allegedly reasonable and statesmanlike even as the blood stains him more and more. And, for all that this is a straight-faced, faithful adaptation, it’s also slyly funny, finding the ridiculous in its grasping, power-hungry heroes as a classic Coen movie should.
Flee – Crowned with an unusual array of nominations—best animated film, best documentary, best international film—this feature-length interview with “Amin”, an Afghani refugee living in Denmark, starts out simple, and very quickly overwhelms you with its harrowing, heartbreaking story. With simple animation that nevertheless produces some stunning visuals, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen dramatizes Amin’s journey, the dizzying speed with which he and his family lose any sense of safety in Afghanistan, the increasingly desperate attempts they make to reach a country whose laws won’t allow them to be shipped back into danger, the inhumanity with which they’re treated by smugglers and officials alike, and the breakdown of the family’s structure under the strain of these experiences. Through it all, it conveys the psychological toll these experiences have taken on Amin, who was a child when he left Afghanistan and a teenager when he arrived alone in Denmark, and who is only starting to grapple with the impact these experiences—and the secrets he’s had to keep—have had on his life and psyche.