This year’s Oscar nominees are a diverse group films, from tender examinations of grief, flashy satires on climate change to monumental Sci-Fi epics. It’s always difficult to rank such high level of quality but we’d be remissed if we didn’t try.
10. Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay’s satirical jab at the idiocy of the world calls for each person on this planet to wake up. Its strengths lie in its ability to be absurd while always keeping its characters so close to home, with Meryl Streep’s turn as a narcissistic President being the absolute embodiment of political figures across the globe, there is a no holds barred approach to how McKay wants to tell his story.
Its all star cast gives each character an element of depth, channelling the satire while also fully committing to McKay’s vision. But, as the film jumps from one plotline to another, the butt of the joke quickly becomes a nauseating realisation of the people it’s mocking. McKay certainly understands how to mesh important stories with his zippy popcorn style, but as Don’t Look Up berates and shakes the world the enjoyment does begin to dwindle. But, if McKay achieves the wake up call he is so desperately asking for, Don’t Look Up should be considered a success.
9. West Side Story
The first question that arises with Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story is whether it’s completely necessary, but watching a great director turn his attention to a beloved story is something interesting in itself. Adding to that, a correction of some notable casting mistakes that allows for the correct representation of its Latin American characters is always wonderful to see. Spielberg’s remake may not spring with energy as much as it thinks it does, but it’s certainly a crowd-pleasing musical that delivers on multiple levels.
At its best the film pops with vibrant colours and electric set pieces (especially during the song “America”) but its story of unrequited love feels slightly hollow, not being able to bring gravitas and harmony to the central romance that is constantly overshadowed by the rest of the film. But, the film deserves praise for its technical achievements, set design and a film stealing performance from Ariana DeBose.
8. Licorice Pizza
PTA’s coming of age tale is coated in personal nostalgia and much like the director’s other work he’s able to combine panache, humour and symbolism in so many of Licorice Pizza’s scenes. The issues however arise not in the way Anderson makes his film, but in the story he tells. For the most part though Licorice Pizza is about two wounded souls trying to find a place in the world and how they inevitably find direction in each other’s company.
The relationship between the film’s central characters makes sense emotionally and mentally. One is an overly confident teen who talks and acts like a 50 year old gentleman and the other is a 25 year old woman unable to find a place in the world, both of whom find solace in each other’s company. But, for a film that teeters so much on being inappropriate, some of the story choices do unfortunately send it over the edge.
Kenneth Branagh’s grounded and personal recollection of growing up in Belfast is a joyous surprise. A director who’s made a living from films that harness so much showmanship, not always in the best way. But, you can’t deny the respect Branagh achieves for braving such adaptations of Shakespeare, Frankenstein and Agatha Christie, making it all the more shocking to see him make a film with such a grounded tenderness and social awareness.
Set during the barbarity of the 1960’s in Belfast, Branagh captures both horrors and nostalgia in a modest black and white which gives the film a sense of personality, something in which his other films often lack. Unlocking a universal nostalgia in its audience is the film’s most impressive feat, and despite the film occasionally giving in to its own director’s flashiness and showmanship, Belfast is still charming from start to finish.
6. King Richard
Will Smith’s turn as Richard Williams is a career best for the star. Brash, stubborn and often sympathetic, Smith shows so much versatility in the role that it’s hard to bet against him come Oscar night. But, King Richard is much more than a vehicle for its performances, achieving something quite wonderful on its own. While it might not show every crack in its real life lead character, the film still finds celebration in the singularity of Richard Williams, while never failing to challenge the man he really was.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s drama takes elements from the overplayed sport genre but manipulates them into its character piece story. It makes it feel fresh and raw in a crowd of biopics that are so mundane and while the film will mostly likely be remembered for Smith’s performance, you cannot deny the understated versatility the film has when telling its story.
Sian Heder’s family drama is a feel-good romp that, while built on formulaic foundations, grips your emotional core. CODA benefits greatly from its representation but more importantly it doesn’t coddle its characters, which allows each individual to be defined by their personality and flaws rather than the disability that life has handed them.
CODA is performed excellently by its charismatic cast and while it swims in very forgettable waters at times with its High School drama it’s the magnitude and sweetness of its family drama that always bring it back to a grounded level. Too many times we’ve seen films of a similar ilk become lost in their own mediocrity but CODA is proof that it doesn’t matter what formula you choose for your story, it’s more about what you explore and what you really want to say.
4. Nightmare Alley
Guillermo Del Toro has established himself as one of the most self-assured and emphatic filmmakers of the past 30 years because of his tight grasp on the visual medium. His films always eerily balance fantasy and reality so poetically and Nightmare Alley is no different, finding mystique in its visuals and creativity in its storytelling. From start to finish Del Toro creates intrigue, but it’s the director’s understanding of what his audience wants that makes the film so captivating.
While the runtime at first seems drawn out with its main character not really finding their purpose until half an hour in, by the end it all fits effortlessly into the Noir-eque story being told. It’s a film that doesn’t instantly show its quality like the director’s other work, but if you sit with it and rejoice in a film that oozes style and personality, you’ll be rewarded with what feels like a pure shot of cinema.
3. The Power of the Dog
For most of award season Jane Campion’s Western has been doing the rounds, finding success in its screenplay, performances, direction and for the film as a whole. Very often a film’s success in award season becomes more about the filmmaker’s legend more so than the film itself, but The Power of the Dog might just be Campion’s best film since The Piano (1993).
The film’s rough around the edges tone compliments it’s more subtle and gentler parts wonderfully, challenging masculinity in a landscape known for macho bravado while also being an outlet for powerhouse performances by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. But, it’s the balance of brazen theatrics and sneaky undertones that make The Power of the Dog so subtly brilliant.
2. Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s slow-burner is a quiet and thoughtful examination of grief. The director took the source material from Haruki Murakami and found room for exploration and expansion, while never losing the core of its central character. People may argue that a 3-hour runtime is excessive but there is also an argument to say it’s imperative, finding deep meaning in scenes of very little and allowing the film to explore the complicated and vast differences in the lost feeling shared between driver and passenger.
Hamaguchi understands that grief is much more than a singular emotion, he fuels it with intriguing scenes of soft rage, confusion and devastating loss all while challenging ideas of Art vs. Reality and the understanding of a loved one’s secrecy. There are not many films nominated for Best Picture this year that travel so deeply into emotional complexity, finding so much volume and exploration within the doors of its red Saab, making Drive My Car a very unique film in a group of nominees already boasting so much singularity.
Denis Villeneuve has established himself as one of the very best spectacle filmmakers, mixing elements of arthouse and scale to create a new kind of blockbuster experience that can only be rivalled by Nolan. It’s up for debate where Dune sits among the plethora of modern classics the director has made but what Villeneuve has achieved is the visualisation of a source material that’s so vast, without ever getting bogged down in the inconceivable detail that it has.
From its meticulous visuals to the hefty room shaking score by Hans Zimmer, Dune is not only creating worlds that Frank Herbert envisioned, but giving a whole new cinematic stamp to the legendary story. It is, first and foremost, an experience. One in which every scene feels rife with detail and history, something that will hopefully grow with the upcoming sequel. Villeneuve took on an adaptation that has been otherwise cursed cinematically and weaved his own interpretation, one that demands engagement and leaves in awe of its magnitude.