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Oscars 2023: Preliminary Thoughts


I’ve seen five of the ten movies nominated for best picture this year, which is a pretty high ratio for me. Overall I’d say it’s an eclectic list but hardly an unassailable one. The absence of films like Decision to Leave, RRR, The Woman King, Nope and others is glaring. I will probably catch up with a few more of the nominees in the coming weeks—I was already interested in All Quiet on the Western Front and Women Talking (an adaptation of one of my favorite books, by a top-notch director, starring some amazing actresses—it is extremely frustrating to me that it’s not on streaming and doesn’t have an Israeli release date yet), and given all the praise for it I’m now also intrigued by Triangle of Sadness. (I have zero interest in The Fabelmans and Top Gun: Maverick.) In the meantime, though, here are my thoughts on the nominees I have seen, in ascending order of how much I’d like to see them win the award.

Avatar: The Way of Water – Genuinely baffled by this nomination, which feels like a leftover from earlier in the fall, when Hollywood assumed that this movie, like the original Avatar, would be a major cultural event. Instead it just made a lot of money, without really doing anything that memorable—the visuals that were once groundbreaking are now par for the course, the themes have been handled better by films like Prey, The Woman King, and RRR, and the story is just kind of there. I get the feeling that for some people in Hollywood, The Way of Water represents a blow against the Disney (and particularly Marvel) machine, that they see it as a blockbuster with soul. But from my vantage point, it’s hard to see a meaningful difference between this film and the latest Thor or Doctor Strange movies—they’re all dumb, underwritten effects movies. The same Hollywood that knew better than to give Spider-Man: No Way Home an Oscar nomination last year should have done the same with Avatar.

The Banshees of Inisherin – I’m afraid I’m going to be the contrarian on this otherwise-beloved movie. It’s not an atrocity like McDonagh’s previous Oscar contender Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and there are some good elements—the four leads are excellent and rightly nominated in the acting categories across the board, and the core concept, of lifelong friends who break up because one of them feels trapped by a relationship that doesn’t challenge him intellectually, is an intriguing one. But it quickly becomes clear that McDonagh doesn’t have a second act for this story, and instead keeps repeating the same beats with increasing violence. I might have gotten more out of the movie if I knew more about the Irish Civil War, for which it is clearly an allegory, but absent that grounding it just felt like two solid hours of twee Oirishness.

Elvis – My reaction to this film is perhaps not unlike the one that some people have to Avatar: The Way of Water. I acknowledge that it’s not good by most accepted yardsticks, but I admire how much it is clearly an expression of its creator’s vision, and how much fun director Baz Luhrmann is clearly having with it. So yeah, there are a lot of knocks to be made against Elvis—Austin Butler’s magnetic performance is undermined by the fact that Luhrmann apparently decided to forestall the Walk Hard curse by giving his main character no interiority whatsoever, the history it’s relating has been vastly simplified, and then there’s whatever the hell Tom Hanks is doing. But against that you have the sheer, exhilarating spectacle of the thing, the way it makes you feel for Elvis as both an artist and a vulnerable person, and the fact that at any moment, there will be something interesting to look at or listen to. Whatever else you can say about Elvis, it is never boring.

Tár – I think the thing that most strikes me about this movie is that it has no connective tissue. It’s just one scene after another of Cate Blanchett’s superstar conductor going about her glamorous life, preparing for one of the most important performances of her career, and expounding on her profession and about music in a way that is both seductive and not a little annoying. It’s only through little hints that the film slowly builds our understanding of Tár as a brilliant narcissist, who may be a monster. It’s a magnificent feat of filmmaking in which every tool—acting, writing, directing, music—is used to make a point that is never explicitly stated, but which becomes inarguable. Really, if I have any complaint it’s that by the time I watched Tár, I already knew enough about it to know more or less where the story and character were going, when really this is a film that benefits from audiences going into it completely unaware of what they’re going to experience.

Everything Everywhere All at Once – So, if I loved Tár so much, why am I still picking this movie as my top choice? Maybe because I fell in love with it nine months ago and am still wowed by it. Maybe because the very existence of a multiversal science fiction extravaganza about a middle aged Chinese immigrant still feels like such a miracle. Maybe because I prefer a story about a flawed woman who has done a lot of damage but still finds a way to make amends and become a better person, to one in which she doesn’t. And maybe just because I like science fiction a lot more than straight drama, and I’ll always root for a great SF movie in this category. Most importantly, because Everything Everywhere All at Once is a great movie: smart, funny, exciting, made with tremendous thought and care, and in serious conversation with a lot of pop culture tropes that need a bit of reexamining. It’s probably not going to happen (my bet is either on Tár or The Banshees of Inisherin) but this is the movie I’d like to see take best picture.

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