Man, have I been off the grid. But you know what, so have movies. Movies on one hand have been easier to see than ever with so many studios opting for streaming release over theatrical. That being said, quantity does not always yield quality, and I’ve been hosed by so many films lately that my critic brain just kind of switched off.
But then the Oscar nominations came out and something that’s never happened before, happened. Ten films were nominated for Best Picture…and I had not seen even one of them! Some of them I didn’t even recognize! Usually by Oscar nomination day, there are a handful of nominees I’d seen already, and I make it priority to see the rest before the ceremony and report out what I think.
This singularity got me thinking 1) How does this even happen? and 2) What have I been watching instead and why not these ten films?
One possible answer would be that these films were not easily available to stream, and going to the theater has not been as easy or as safe over the past year. But in actuality, half of them were released on streamers, several of them months and months ago! The only other reasonable possibility is that these films just did not rise above the fluff in terms of marketing for my attention. I’ve watched a lot of stuff over the past year, and for not one of these ten films to find its way to my eyes at some point just shows that the quantity is having an effect. The immediacy is gone. I knew Dune was on HBO Max. I knew I loved Denis Villenueve, but I also figured…I’ll get around to it, so guess it’s another episode of Ozark. I’m not saying this is necessarily bad, but it is an eye-opening realization on my viewing habits. And note, it’s not just been Love is Blind, Australian Survivor, and Superhero shows for me. I’ve seen some great films like The Tragedy of Macbeth, Tick, Tick…Boom!, and my previous favorite film of the year (which got 0 nominations) The Harder They Fall, but these ten just snuck by me.
Anyway, it’s time to rectify this situation. I have gone and watched all ten Academy Awards Best Picture nominees and reviewed them. Rather than write ten lengthy individual reviews, I’ve opted to take an approach an English Professor at the University of Michigan taught me, and I’ve produced ten micro-reviews instead. Not unlike the situation I’ve described above, this tactic will allow me to trim out the fluff, not overwhelm you with pages of nonsense, and put the facts before you in one easy to access mega-post. I’ve also decided to forego my usual A-F grading scale and instead rank these films against each other from 1 – 10, 1 being the best of the best. I’ve listed them below in alphabetical order, so not to spoil the rankings by order or appearance. Enjoy!
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Caitrona Balfe
Belfast is set at the onset of the Northern Ireland Conflict that began in 1960s. This film has a throwback feel with lots of Van Morrison to keep you from getting too much of a Fellini vibe. Branagh gets incredible performances from his cast, and the story clips along nicely (Belfast has the shortest running time of the ten best picture nominees). The great thing about this movie is the nine-year-old Buddy played by Jude Hill. His wistful perspective of what’s happening is the strength of the film. We don’t care about what’s happening. We don’t care about the history. We care about what Buddy wants because he had no influence over what’s happened to the only life he’s ever known. Belfast puts us in Buddy’s shoes and makes us examine what’s happening through a child’s eyes, which is powerful. The film does a serviceable job at showing us how quickly the rules of society can change. Branagh leans on American westerns like High Noon or The Man who Shot Liberty Valance to put us in the center of the action, and while these comparisons are fair, they are not perfect nor accessible to the general audience. At the end, while an impressive and well executed film, Belfast ultimately falls short of greatness. The film hinges on a family that must decide if they stay or leave, and that is intense. The film does stick the landing,(thanks to Judi Dench) but the nostalgia that comes before it is hit or miss. It is a complete story though, which is more than I can say for some other films on this list. And if some “Tupelo Honey” played at the end, I might be inclined to push it up one more notch.
Ranking: #7 of 10
Director: Sian Heder
Screenwriter: Sian Heder
Cast: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur
Based on the French film La Famille Belier, this American adaptation features Emilia Jones as Ruby, the only hearing person in her deaf family (CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults). The pressure of being the voice of her family, while feeling pressured to silence her own voice when it comes to her dreams is fully explored in this emotional and beautiful film. CODA is simple in structure, but executed wonderfully, avoiding melodrama and utilizing its talented cast including the aforementioned Jones along with real-life deaf actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant. CODA does fall into some genre trappings including the savior teacher routine, portrayed with flair by Eugenio Derbez. Those who enjoyed last year’s phenomenal Sound of Metal will recognize some common ground here, and while Sound of Metal handled those themes more successfully, CODA provides a more heart-warming and accessible story that is not as focused on the deaf community as it is on the dynamics and differences that can exist within one family. CODA is cliché and formulaic, but it’s also heart-warming, sweet, and fulfilling as a movie experience. This is the year’s feel-good favorite, and so while it is not the best film on the list, there’s a very real possibility it wins Best Picture anyway.
Ranking: #5 of 10
Don’t Look Up
Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriter: Adam McKay
Cast: Everyone who’s anyone
This movie. What we have here is a thin storyline and a flood of characters all trying to hammer the audience with a message. That worked with The Big Short, but for one reason or another, it doesn’t quite work here. This movie is fun; don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of a mess. When a couple of Michigan State University (Go Green) faculty astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet heading towards planet Earth, essentially everything you hate about people, society, culture, and the media happens. Personally, this film could have been a Veep style limited series with fast one-lines, witty retorts, but most importantly room to breathe. Confined to a feature film, this movie loses its significance and boils down to a preaching to the choir film rather than something more of a relevant discussion piece. The film does unearth some sad truths about people, America, and media bias, but kid gloves are used where films like Wag the Dog give the audience a chance to feel, think, and question what they’re seeing, how this exaggeration evolves, and time to ponder the cautionary feelings associated with it.
Ranking: #8 of 10
Drive My Car
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Screenwriter: Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima
This is one of the benefits of the ten nomination best picture category. A film like this deserves to be recognized as one of the best films of the year, and while one of the reasons for the expanded category was the recognize more commercial favorites, a three-hour Japanese powerhouse film like this would have otherwise been overlooked. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yûsuke Kafuku, a relatively successful actor, whose life is marked by tragedy. Still grieving stoically, Kafuku decides to take a job directing a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. Throughout the pre-production of Vanya, Kafuku is assigned a driver named Misaki (Tôko Miura) to usher him to and from rehearsals. While they drive, Kafuku listens to a recording of his late wife reading Uncle Vanya aloud. As time goes on, Yûsuke and Misaki realize they are going through a similar phase in their lives, and the narrative unfolds from there as an introspective character analysis on the effects of loss, love, grief, and guilt. This is a powerful movie with amazing performances that deserves to be seen and felt.
Ranking: #2 of 10
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Denis Vileneuve, Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth
Cast: Rebecca Ferguson, Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya
This movie had my anticipation at an all time high, and spoiler alert – this may have been to its detriment. Director Denis Villeneuve has reached Christopher Nolan level of admiration from me. I love his attention to detail, visual style, genre breaking confidence, and overall cinematic style. Every film he’s made has been amazing to me and I’ve seen them all. On the heels of my favorite of his films, Blade Runner: 2049, I heard he would be directing and adaptation of Dune, and I was beyond excited. I’m a modest fan of the original David Lynch adaptation from 1984 acknowledging its faults and my bias towards Lynch. Villeneuve is also afforded some bias, but if a movie ever felt like half or even a quarter of a movie, it’s Dune. Dune adapts the best selling sci-fi epic novel by Frank Herbert about a distant future interplanetary conflict over the rightful ruler of the dessert planet Arrackis, the sole source of a coveted resource known as spice. The story, its characters, and their motivations are complicated, and Villeneuve’s film does little to assist the viewer in this regard. While faithful to the central story of the novel, Villeneuve uses terms, names, and relations with little to no context almost assuming viewers will come in with prior knowledge of who the Bene Gesserit are or how the Sardaukar forces work and what they want. In short it’s a lot to take in and a frustrating experience to say the least. The visuals of the film do not disappoint and s sequel has already been green lit, so like the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, time may be kind to this film as the beginning of a modern sci-fi masterpiece, but on its own with no continuation on the horizon until 2023, we’re left wanting.
Ranking: #10 of 10
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenwriter: Zach Baylin
Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal
I had never read about or seen interviews with Richard Williams before seeing King Richard. After seeing it, I feel like I really understand and know him though – which speaks to the volume of Will Smith’s performance in King Richard. The film his the formulaic beats of decent to good sports biopics, but the performances in this film are incredible. Take, for example a scene early in the film where Richard is beaten for standing up for his oldest daughter (the first time). In many films, this scene is simply a plot point and motivation builder, but in the hands of Will Smith, his face, his voice, the reactions – it all strikes emotional paydirt. The great stories in sports are about the people who zigged when others zagged, especially under pressure. This movie has that in spades. It’s a real-world super-hero movie; The Incredibles…with tennis. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s not a masterpiece of cinema. It’s played to display our human flaws, and for all the heart-string tugging. It endlessly references the dramatic irony of all of us knowing EXACTLY how this plays out. What you’re left with is character and performance, and those two factors elevate King Richard into the rarified air of a Best Picture nominee and deservedly so. It’s a joyful watch. Where some movies take a little story and build it up. Here we have SO much story, and the challenge is to attempt to pare it down to just a feature length. Be aware though that this is Richard’s story more than his daughters’, and that is what makes it work. I mentioned this how many times now? Will Smith will get his Oscar… unless Andrew Garfield wins it.
Ranking: #6 of 10
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, and a series of scene-stealing others (both credited and non-credited)
The work of Paul Thomas Anderson has accumulated into a roller-coaster progression of original, wild, dramatic, cinema. In Licorice Pizza his 9th feature film, Anderson departs the cognitive complexity of The Master and Inherent Vice for the (slightly) lighter west-coast fare of his films like Punch Drunk Love. Licorice Pizza is a coming of age love story set in the late 1970s centralizing around Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman). Alana works for a photography company that takes school pictures, and she meets Gary at picture day at his school; he’s 15 – she’s 25. The shocking age difference is a commonly addressed element of the story, but there does not seem to be any agenda attached to it, rather it’s just something the characters have to figure out for themselves. For its problems, the film is still very good. The meandering story is compelling and Gary’s charisma as he tries to “fake it till he makes it” is a perfect contrast to Alana’s lack of confidence. The performances of the central couple carry the film, but Licorice Pizza is not without its diversions, some of which are welcomed like Bradly Cooper as Hollywood hairdresser Jon Peters and Sean Penn as actor-producer extraordinaire William Holden. However there are also some that could be left behind including a weird couple of scenes involving John Michael Higgens cartoonishly speaking fake-Japanese. Another fascinating theme to the film is the attention to family both on and off screen. Haim essentially plays a fictional version of herself, and her parents and sisters are her real-life parents and sisters. Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was a frequent collaborator with Anderson. George DiCaprio (father to Leo) and Sasha Spielberg (daughter of Steven) have small roles in the film as well. Additionally, one blink and you’ll miss it cameo of another Anderson-regular is brilliant! While the film is not perfect, to me it ranks as one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s top five films, which is indeed saying something.
Ranking: #4 of 10
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriter: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette
This is a pretty slick movie. It started slowly, and for a minute there, I was questioning its place on this list, but as del Toro started weaving the web he weaves…this thing got its claws into me, and I loved it. Bradley Cooper plays Stan, a down-on-his-luck man with a secret past. When Stan stumbles upon a traveling carnival, his curiosity leads him to inquire on a job. While there, he sees a lot of strange stuff, but he’s most enamored by Molly (Rooney Mara), a mentalist’s assistant. It’s at this point that everything could be considered spoiler as nothing is quite what you think from here on out. Cooper is excellent as Stan and plays into each and every character turn perfectly. The supporting cast including Mara, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, and a host of del Toro favorites light up the screen in this weird, freaky, dark fairy tale about the dangers of greed and ego that is instantly transferable to plenty of contemporary corporate America situations. I think we all know a Stan (or maybe you are a Stan). Unfortunately for me, however, I think in this metaphor, I’m the mentalist.
Ranking: #3 of 10!
The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion
Screenwriter: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons
There is a lot going on in this film. For my money, this is the film to beat this year, and if it were released last year, Nomadland would have had a tougher time having the year it had. In The Power of the Dog, rancher brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) take a pitstop at an inn during a cattle drive in 1925 Montana. The inn is run by Rose (Kirsten Dust) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who are more than used to the rough and tumble rancher types who often pass through. Phil is one such rancher, but George is ready to be off the trail and is immediately taken with Rose. What follows is a deeply psychological drama about love, loneliness, and well…power. The film is shot beautifully by writer/director Jane Campion, and the acting is extraordinary. Cumberbatch’s performance is pitch perfect as he slowly unpeels the layers to Phil, but Dunst, Plemons and Smit-McPhee are beyond captivating as well; it’s a shame Plemons and Smit-McPhee are nominated in the same category. This is the first film I’ve seen in years that resonates with the cinematic heights we enjoyed more often pre-pandemic. It’s smart, moving, beautiful, and worthy of repeat viewings to fully appreciate it.
If I were the other nine films nominated for best picture, I would most definitely beware the Power of the Dog.
Ranking: #1 of 10!
West Side Story
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Tony Kushner
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose
As a former high school English teacher, I am more than familiar with West Side Story as well as its Shakespearean source material. Director, Steven Spielberg does not move the needle too much from the 1961 original. The plot remains unchanged and all the emotional points remain the same – so…it’s still really sad. What he does do is give us an appropriately diverse cast, more lavish sets, and a nostalgic homage to a film that deserves it and is as relevant today as ever. We also have some deviation from the original song order and entirely new dialogue, which freshens things up. The freshest element, however, has to be some fan service that comes in the form of a new character, Valentina played by Rita Moreno, the original Anita from the 1961 film. All this to say, this is a fine update to a beloved movie musical that is sure to also become beloved, but compared to these other films nominated for best picture, it falls short. Spielberg is smart enough to keep the music primary and dazzles us with his talented, young cast. This is a film worth seeing, but will fall out of the Academy conversation pretty quickly.
Ranking: #9 of 10!
- 1. Power of the Dog
- 2. Drive My Car
- 3. Nightmare Alley
- 4. Licorice Pizza
- 5. Coda
- 6. King Richard
- 7. Belfast
- 8. Don’t Look Up!
- 9. West Side Story
- 10. Dune
For making it to the end, I invite you to take a copy of The People’s Critic’s 2022 Oscar Dinner menu as a souvenir! Enjoy the Show!
Good to see you back! Your writing and reviews are so well done . I feel more prepared for this years Oscars.