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Intermediate Oscar Thoughts


We’re about a month out from Oscar ceremony, and fittingly for a pretty sleepy slate of nominees, the discourse surrounding this year’s awards has already died down. The Barbie nominations brouhaha seems to have settled (after some eruptions that did not cast anyone in a particularly good light). Inasmuch as there’s an Oscar villain this year, it’s probably Maestro, but since it doesn’t seem to have a hope in hell of winning anything, that’s not enough to get anyone really worked up. What we have instead is a bunch of fairly middle of the road movies, many of which are available on streaming. Which makes the prospect of continuing to catch up, not only with the best picture nominees but with downballot nominations, a fairly attractive ones. I don’t think I’m going to watch every movie on the Oscar ballot—for one thing, I’m not masochistic enough to subject myself to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. But I think that by the time the ceremony rolls around on March 10th I will be able to offer knowledgeable opinions on most categories (I’m sure that won’t lead to disappointment or anything). Here are thoughts on a bunch of films with nominations up and down the ballot.

The Color Purple (dir. Blitz Bazawule) – Here’s where I have to confess that this story in all of its convolutions—book, movie, musical, and now the movie of the musical—is something that I have somehow managed to remain completely ignorant of. Beyond a vague awareness that it was historical fiction about the lives of African-American women, I went into this film completely in the dark. Unsurprisingly, this version of The Color Purple turns out not to be the best way to become acquainted with it, so take my underwhelmed reaction with a grain of salt. But like a lot of musical adaptations of previously existing material, it feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of the story, one that shortchanges much of the cast, and rushes through plot and character arcs—a years-long imprisonment, an abuser’s change of heart—without allowing them to develop any emotional heft. What’s supposed to make up for that, of course, are the songs, but the ones in The Color Purple are largely forgettable—albeit filmed with some verve, and featuring impressive choreography. Even glimpsed through this flattening medium, however, the story the film tells is a compelling one, fully of thorny topics and challenging turns of plot. (Though I have to say, for a film made in the 2020s, it is disappointing how blink-and-you’ll-miss-it the handling of the heroine’s gayness is.) And even though the three main characters never feel like more than sketches waiting to be filled in, the performances, by Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, and Danielle Brooks, are extremely winning. At the end of the day, though, the best compliment I can pay this version of the story is that it has made me want to seek out better ones, starting with the book.

Napoleon (dir. Ridley Scott) – Of all the many people who received the biopic treatment in 2023, Napoleon Bonaparte arguably has the greatest claim to being a genuinely ambiguous and conflicting figure. So it’s a bit of a shock when you get maybe half an hour into this cinematic handling of him and realize its take is “what if this guy was kind of weird and off-putting?” Boorish, petty, socially awkward, sexually inept, riddled with mommy issues, and deeply vainglorious, this version of Napoleon verges on a Death of Stalin-style caricature. Which, to be fair, is not an entirely indefensible approach—a person doesn’t declare themselves emperor and try to conquer the world without having at least some things wrong with them. But so deep is the contempt towards Napoleon that runs through this movie, so unwilling is it to acknowledge that he had any positive traits or meaningful accomplishments, that one eventually has to wonder why it was even made, unless it was to wag a finger at anyone with the temerity to find him interesting. Still, Scott is, if nothing else, a fine craftsman, and despite a very bitty script, Napoleon is fun to watch. It has gorgeous interiors, thrilling battle scenes, and some lovely cinematography (I shouldn’t be so surprised by this, but the sheer legibility of the film’s nighttime and action scenes, and the fact that the lighting and color grading are both so well done, are an almost physical relief). And despite the very weird characters they’ve been asked to play, Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby both give top-notch performances. Napoleon isn’t what you might call a good movie, but it’s a lot more entertaining than many better-regarded films (and certainly many better-regarded biopics) from last year.

Nyad (dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin) – I admit it, I went into this film expecting to be underwhelmed—because it’s a sports movie, because it appears to have scooped acting nominations from Margot Robbie in best actress and Julianne Moore in best supporting actress, and because there have been some well-publicized doubts cast on the real Diana Nyad’s swimming achievements. But what do you know, this is a genuinely enjoyable and satisfying movie. To begin with, this is down to Annette Bening and Jodie Foster being total pros who instantly make you fall in love with their characters, a pair of sixtyish lesbian best friends who bicker constantly but can’t live without each other (Foster, in particular, hasn’t had a role this magnetic in years). But things, of course, get taken up a notch when Bening, as former marathon swimmer Nyad, decides to once again attempt the Cuba-to-Florida swim that defeated her in her twenties. The rest of the movie is structured around multiple attempts at the swim, which are shot with an immediacy that conveys both the beauty of the ocean, and the dangers that emerge in each attempt—rough weather, allergic reactions, killer jellyfish. It’s that immediacy, as well as the sheer insanity of the endeavor, that ends up short-circuiting a lot of sports movie clichés that the film could otherwise have fallen into. As much as Nyad’s determination and strength of will are necessary to achieve her goal, they also endanger it—when she refuses to give up under life-threatening conditions, when she alienates her teammates (including a delightfully ornery Rhys Ifans as her navigator) with her intransigence and single-mindedness, and when she ignores the sacrifices they’ve made in order to support her. It sounds trite to say that this is a film about realizing that you can’t do this sort of thing alone, but Bening so convincingly makes Nyad the kind of asshole who does seem to believe in her own superiority, that when she finally comes to this realization, it feels entirely earned.

Past Lives (dir. Celine Song) – One way to describe this gorgeous, achingly romantic movie is as an anti-romcom. What if there were two people who kept meeting and feeling a profound connection to each other, but who were separated by circumstances, and who, because they have dreams and plans and lives they actually quite like, did not drop everything and run to the airport to be together? What if they went on to have good and happy lives? What if they met again? This is what happens to Nora and Hae Sung, childhood sweethearts from Korea who are separated when Nora’s family emigrates to Canada, and who reunite in their thirties. Nora is a playwright in New York and happily married. Hae Sung is an engineer in Seoul who is debating getting married to his long-term girlfriend. They still feel an intense connection—stars Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, as well as being gorgeous, are fantastic at gazing longingly at each other—while also realizing how the circumstances of their lives, and the people they’ve become in the interim, mean they don’t really fit together. The crisp, perfectly-turned script, the nimble direction, and Lee and Yoo’s soulful performances all combine keep you pitched on a knife’s edge of conflicting desires. You can’t help but feel the romanticism of this relationship, to want these two people to throw everything in their life away and pursue what they have together. But you also want them to know better, because part of the movie’s magic is that it has drawn both characters so well—in particular, delineating the ways in which immigration, and staying put, has changed them both in ways that are irreconcilable—that you know such a choice would be untrue to their deeply-felt humanity. In an Oscar season full of bloated, meandering stories that can’t find the heart of supposedly world-changing events, Past Lives is perfectly-formed chamber piece that cuts more deeply than almost any other movie on the ballot.

Rustin (dir. George C. Wolfe) – In this biopic-heavy Oscar season, Rustin is the film that most exemplifies the key pitfall of this format, the mediocre-to-bad movie that acts as a delivery method for a great performance. Colman Domingo has been rightly praised for his turn as Bayard Rustin, as he plans and organizes the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His performance is at turns idealistic, frustrated, canny, yearning, and nerdy, and he touches not only on Rustin’s fraught relationships with other leaders of the civil rights movement, but on his complicated, precarious position as a gay man in a movement that does not yet connect that struggle with its own. (As if that were not enough, Domingo has also been one of the most delightful red carpet presences in this year’s awards circuit, including some outfits that have made the twitter Menswear Guy stand up and applaud.) But the movie around him is plodding, overwritten, and chintzy-looking. One of its key points is the ricketiness of the civil rights movement in this moment in history, as political infighting, ideological disagreement, and personal resentment threaten to tear it apart. But instead of trusting skilled performers like Jeffrey Wright, Chris Rock, CCH Pounder, and Glynn Turman sell this discord, and the ways in which it was eventually resolved, the film pounds the point into the ground with over-obvious dialogue, endless exposition, and trite plot developments. Good on Domingo for his best actor nomination, and here’s hoping it leads to roles in films that are worthy of him.

Society of the Snow (dir. J.A. Bayona) – Call it the Yellowjackets effect. The viral success of the Showtime thriller has got everyone talking about real-life stories of plane crashes, wilderness survival, and of course cannibalism. So a new filmic treatment of the ur-narrative of such stories, the 1972 Uruguayan Air Force 571 crash in the Andes and its survivors’ incredible 72-day battle against the elements, is hardly a surprise, even if it’s covering very well-trod ground. If you know anything about UAF 571—from two previous movies, several books, and many documentaries—this version probably won’t reveal anything new, or even offer a new perspective on the story (a surprising narrative choice around the midpoint is perhaps the closest the film comes to doing something unexpected with its subject matter, and even that is not as impactful as the film clearly thinks). Still, this is a story that’s worth retelling. Firstly, because modern cinematic and effects techniques allow director Bayona to make the desperation of the survivors’ situation, and the immensity of their achievement in making it home alive, so much more palpable. But also, because unlike the fiction inspired by this event, with its focus on psychopathy and dark magic, what the real tale of survival in the Andes reveals is the profound love and devotion that the crash survivors showed each other. Though it doesn’t stint on disturbing visuals like festering wounds, black urine, and of course picked-clean human bones, Society of the Snow is ultimately an inspirational movie, in which human connection and the indomitable will to live manage to claw something back from a seemingly unsurvivable situation. I’m not sure I would have given it an Oscar nomination—or maybe another way of putting it is that this the sort of satisfying, meat-and-potatoes filmmaking that the Oscars used to be all about, and which is now only possible in foreign film industries and on streaming. But if you’re looking for a well-made, visually impressive dramatic treatment of this incredible story, I highly recommend it.

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