With the Oscars around the corner, I’m doing blurbs for each of this year’s Best Picture nominees in lieu of full reviews. (I don’t plan anything I do, so I’ve linked to ones with reviews already published…) I’ve ranked the films from best to worst below as a method of organization. Occasionally I’ll reference my own rankings of other Best Picture winners, which you can find in a more complete fashion on my Letterboxd. Spoilers of many stripes follow.
1) Licorice Pizza, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, with Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman
Let’s imagine, by some delicious miracle, that Licorice Pizza should win Best Picture in a haze of smoke scented like anise and hot mozzarella cheese. It would probably be one of the twenty-five best movies to win this award, but I think it says something about this class of Best Picture nominees that Licorice Pizza is basically its only shot to place a film in the top quarter of Best Picture winners. I am fairly sure that Licorice Pizza is at least as good as The Deer Hunter, but that’s not something I can say about Drive My Car or The Power of the Dog. But it would still take a miracle for that to happen; once again, it’s not going to be the year for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
I don’t know what’s next for Alana Haim. I don’t know that there’s a lot of range in the kinds of roles she’d take on, and I don’t know if she’s interested in acting in movies that aren’t written around her by a family friend. The more I think on it and compare her work to other recent performances, the more I convince myself that this is really the best performance of the decade so far. Haim is so extraordinarily believable, and Alana is so many different things, and that is a treacherous road for a performance to walk. Alana is prickly and generous. She is self-aware but lies to herself with feverish abandon. She would make a pretty fair entrepreneur in her own right, or a good politico, but she displays her immaturity and naivete in both settings. She can give it but struggles to take it. In the past few years, there have been so many terrific performances from young actresses who dominate their films: Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose, Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir, Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma., Julia Garner in The Assistant. I think I’d take Haim in this movie above all of them, because Haim manages to show so much of this drifting young woman without ever losing our ability to believe in her as a person who wants to stick a flag in the first patch of solid ground she can locate.
2) Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, with Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura
I’ve complained about this with Marriage Story, a movie I thought was a little facile even before it reached the last act, and I’ve complained about this with CODA. Fair’s fair. Drive My Car uses Uncle Vanya to do its emotional work in its own last act, just as Marriage Story steals from Company and CODA steals from “Both Sides Now.” There’s a deep literalism in both of those which reveals a lack of imagination on the part of the writers. “Being Alive” has the same meaning for Bobby in Company as it does for Charlie in Marriage Story, about recognizing a personal failure to connect. “Both Sides Now” is about gaining the experience to become wiser, as Ruby does in CODA with her family watching her sing. (To see how this kind of thing can be done successfully, see the final scenes of Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert, Sullivan, and Braham reveal that the success of The Mikado has failed to fill the holes in their personalities. With Braham, who after some sobriety has returned to the safety of the bottle, this suffuses a surprisingly melancholic interpretation of “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” forcing us to hear those lyrics through a fuzz of despair rather than its typical serious whimsy.) I object to those moments in much the same way that I object to plagiarism. We ought to reference for shorthand or vibes, but alluding in order to copy a previously held emotion is a bankrupt choice.
For a few wonderful moments, I thought that Drive My Car would avoid the end of Uncle Vanya, which it had studiously been keeping away from despite pulling dialogue from much of the rest of the play. But then it goes ahead with that scene which ends with Sonya telling Vanya, poignantly, “We shall rest.” I like the interpretation of it, signed by Park Yoo-rim, and Hamaguchi keeps his camera still to preserve the flow of the sequence. But the film already had that moment. It came when Yusuke told Misaki that “we’ll be okay” as they stood at the ruined home that she escaped. The embrace they share, the moment when he looks at this young woman and can say that he wishes his wife was still alive, the recognition that she is carrying a grief that she has been equally reluctant to unload, “we’ll be okay.” All of it adds up to something not so far away from “We shall rest,” and I thought the film was going to spin in that direction rather than using Uncle Vanya as a surety. That sequence at the end of the play is moving even when it’s merely being read on the page and not seen with flesh and blood. I sort of hate that it uses a crutch it never needed; Yusuke’s tears after an entire movie of stoicism are the most powerful images of the whole film.
3) The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee
Like most revisionist westerns, The Power of the Dog isn’t covering any new territory that I can see. And like The Piano, another of Campion’s strikingly beautiful films, it suffers from some inexplicable characterization choices which muss up an otherwise strong screenplay. (In The Piano, it’s Anna Paquin tattling on Holly Hunter; in The Power of the Dog it’s Kirsten Dunst’s rapid and debilitating alcoholism.) What we’re left with here is a good movie on basically every front, but without greatness anywhere. I prefer it to the westerns, so-called, that Quentin Tarantino has made in the past decade, but it does not come all that close to the standard of westerns by other auteurs in that same time span. The Coen Brothers and especially Kelly Reichardt are simply working at a higher level in this genre right now. When I think about this movie, it’s in wanting to compare it to other films more than to seize on what it’s doing on its own terms. It has the conscience and vistas of something like The Big Country or Wichita, but short of being more actively prestigey than those two films I struggle a little to find much of a difference in overall quality or effect.
The criticisms of the movie that are worth taking seriously—leaving out the Sam Elliott brigade and anyone who can’t get further than “it’s boring”—tend to center on the film’s “coldness.” The translation here is that the film is more competent than it is affecting, and although I rarely put much truck in this kind of critique, I’ve struggled to avoid it for my own reading of Power. Short of the Dunst plotline, I really don’t have any real criticisms of the movie. I don’t have any issue with the plaudits for its cast, its crew, or for Campion. And its most interesting elements have to do with Cumberbatch’s Phil, a man living in the Western United States at the same time as the similarly nostalgic Tristan Ludlow or the similarly hirsute dog, Balto. His nostalgia for a time he’s never really experienced directly is the movie’s most fascinating element, and it’s sort of too bad that it sets that aside primarily to make the story move in the second half.
4) King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, with Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis
One of the better casts of the year in this movie. Smith, Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, and Demi Singleton are seamless together, and they have to be because there’s a lot in this movie that’s meh in execution. Robert Elswit’s cinematography is, shockingly, a little clunky, and the screenplay is as paint-by-numbers, as, well, a sports biopic. But the story is great, and the story is relying far more on Smith and Sidney than it is on Zach Baylin. (With no disrespect to Ellis, who’s pretty good in this, I was a little shocked that it wasn’t Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams getting the awards season appreciation. I thought she was totally outstanding as someone who knows how good she is at tennis but is still very much a teenager, with all of the positives and negatives being a teenager comes with.) King Richard may be written like it’s Remember the Titans, but really it’s in the tradition of Sounder, down to the Louisiana origins of the families’ patriarchs. Like Sounder, King Richard is focused on a positive depiction of an African-American family in the face of prejudice. Like Sounder, the parents in King Richard are primarily concerned with getting something better for their children than they had themselves, and they recognize that success will come at a real cost to themselves. In Sounder, a film set in Louisiana during the Jim Crow ’30s, the stakes are higher for the Morgans than they are for the Williams, and the solutions are less grandiose. The film ends with the family’s eldest son being sent off to school a long ways off while the farm rests on his recently disabled father, his mother, and his little brother. It’s still a huge step for the family to take, and it requires boldness, a willingness to risk all to gain all.
This is Richard Williams’s thesis in King Richard, and it’s that thesis which makes him resolutely unpopular. It alienates everyone on the tennis circuit, not excluding multiple coaches that his daughters have had. It alienates him from the press, who are more than happy to turn in him to a villain. It alienates him from his wife and daughters, who tire of Richard’s dogged belief that Venus and Serena, for all their talent, should not turn pro until they’re much older. Heck, Richard even gets beaten up for challenging the gangs in Compton. But it works, in much the same way that we expect that sending David to school in Sounder will work. Venus gets outgamed by the world number 1 in her second professional match, but the shoe contract offers come in anyway, and well, we know the rest. There have been so many complaints about the fact that King Richard isn’t really about Venus or Serena first and foremost, and there have been others which critiqued the inherent bias of a film produced by the Williams sisters about their dad. Honestly, I don’t know that either one of those critiques really hits the mark. There will be time for the Venus and/or Serena biopics later, surely, once more of their lives have been lived. King Richard is, at its heart, about a man who loves his daughters and wants everything for them no matter what it costs him. He is the manifestation of Sidney Poitier’s excoriation in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: “You did what you were supposed to do because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me, like I will owe my son if I ever have another.”
5) Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro, with Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara
Nightmare Alley, like fellow nominee Dune, suffers from the televisioning of its story by adding unnecessary backstory. Anyone who has seen the Goulding Nightmare Alley knows it begins briskly and without any of the totally superfluous flab that deadens the initial impact of the Del Toro Nightmare Alley, and while I don’t like comparing remakes to originals, this is instructive. Nightmare Alley is like a good cover of a better original song, but the reason it lags is because of our totally unnecessary introduction to Stan Carlisle. In 2021, this character is a potentially dangerous drifter with hard edges and an ingrown sharpness. In 1947, that sharpness translated as keenness, and it was possible to understand the character as someone too big for his britches more than someone who’d strangle a rival with his belt. Del Toro has chosen what is obvious instead of what is interesting, and it’s a choice reflected in the hugeness of the production design. I won’t argue with the craft of the sets and props in this film, which are obviously great work. But it’s speaking to the vastness that del Toro wants to imbue this film with, rather than the smallness that befits a con man like Stan Carlisle. The vastness shows up in the performances as well, even the casting. Cooper is playing this one big, maybe as big as he played his trip through the Delaware Valley in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Toni Collette is big, Cate Blanchett is big, Richard Jenkins is absolutely enormous, and Rooney Mara is famous when her character ought to have been in her early twenties.
We’ve reached a tier where even if I don’t think the film is all that effective, at least it has images. Dan Laustsen, the DP, may well be the MVP of Nightmare Alley even more than the crews that worked on the film’s mise-en-scène. There are close-ups of Cooper which are really potent, like the one at the very end of the film, but he also manages to tell the stories of Stan Carlisle and The Great Stanton through light and color. The del Toro green, a little sicker than it is in Pan’s Labyrinth and much paltrier than The Shape of Water, is here for the carnival scenes. And that’s put in counterpoint with the golds of the stages and clubs where Stan performs his mind-reading trick, and the stark, horrible gray-white of the wintry scene where Molly’s conscience triumphs.
6) Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson
More good images here, and more good sound work and production design. I maintain that this film has the feeling of a limited series more than it does a movie, complete with all the problems in pacing that one typically ascribes to that barren landscape of television not unlike the surface of Arrakis. With more distance between me and my viewing, I think it’s incredible that they found so many people to give so many anti-charismatic performances. It’s not just Chalamet who’s wooden, but basically everyone who’s not Oscar Isaac who has been subdued into oblivion. Unfortunately, we know what happens to Duke Leto.
I think Dune—or Dune: Part One, as I’m sure we’ll all call it after the Weimar Republic period that predates Dune: Part Two—has shown us pretty definitively the limits of Villeneuve’s imagination. His American films continue to cast great actors and continue, with the increasingly lonely exception of Amy Adams in Arrival, to find ways to make these people papery and unexceptional. The images of Dune are pretty impressive stuff, even if struggles to do anything colossal or awe-inspiring short of the sandworms. All I know is that even Phantasm manages to do something more interesting with “Fear is the mind-killer” than Dune, which has been good for memes and I don’t know what else.
7) CODA, directed by Sian Heder, with Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur
In this movie, a satisfying ending is predicated on a bright student going to a college in Massachusetts that costs about $50,000 a year in tuition. Are you sure we didn’t manage to squeeze Spider-Man: No Way Home into this list of Best Picture nominees?
From here on out there’s not that much difference between each nominee in terms of overall quality. CODA probably has the worst screenplay out of this bunch—and I mean the whole field, not just this group of four—but the acting works often enough that watching this movie isn’t unpleasant. CODA has done something very interesting as it sneaks towards what the experts all believe is a Best Picture win; it’s managed to make exceptional people relatable. Parents see themselves in Frank and Jackie, the adventurous in the former and the protective in the latter. Their children see themselves in Ruby. It’s hard to know who sees him- or herself in Miles, Ruby’s boyfriend, but surely that person can’t have much self-esteem to see oneself as the whitest loaf of white bread. CODA has managed to take a highly specific situation, the story of a single hearing child in a Deaf family who loves music, and discovered the path to making it as generic as possible. The focus on relatability at all costs is the same thing that annoys me in Inside Out, though at least Inside Out has memorable images.
I really liked Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin in this movie, though Emilia James and Daniel Durant are solid enough; there’s obviously some chemistry in this family, although it’s definitely a lite version compared to what’s going on in King Richard. James never does have the ability to hold her own in a scene with anyone who’s not in her age bracket, which means that a lot of the wonderful work that Kotsur and Matlin are doing barrels through James. The scene where Frank feels Ruby’s vocal cords moving as she sings at the end, the scene where Ruby confronts Jackie about not wanting a hearing child…these are essential scenes because they are actually specific to the scenario. (The standout moment of the whole film for me comes when Jackie tells Ruby that if she were blind, Ruby would probably be interested in painting. It’s such an offhandedly cruel moment born of self-defense, and Matlin nails that feeling.) The scenes with James and Eugenio Derbez, on the other hand, are like a knife scratching a plate. They are nearly as important to the story as anything Kotsur or Matlin give us, but they have all the gravity of a weepy scene from the later seasons of a Freeform show.
8) West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, with Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort
There has to be a difference between “this is a really pretty frame” and “this is good filmmaking.” There just has to be, because if there isn’t a difference, narrative filmmaking is dead. I’m not talking about this like I’m Armond White and I need to denigrate West Side as “woke farce.” (For an outstanding review which considers the weakness of Spielberg’s “checklist” approach to the film, find Richard Brody.) I mean that I don’t understand what the point of the camera movement is, why there is so much lens flare, why colors stream in incessantly through windows, why Tony has to trample himself in puddle. It’s all very pretty. It’s all very technically impressive. It’s all very empty. I wouldn’t call this farce, but I can’t help but feel that Spielberg and Kushner and Kaminski are doing a kind of self-parody, as if they’d been charged to make West Side Story in the manner of Spielberg and Kushner and Kaminski. So they moved the camera, made the characters more obvious, and amped up the diffusion. Meanwhile, no one seems to have informed any of the actors that this works better if they’re playing people rather than culturally enduring characters. In Amadeus, Mozart’s defense of The Marriage of Figaro is that anyone would “rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules.” In a film where everyone from Tony and Maria to Riff and Bernardo to Krupke and Schrenk are hairdressers, why does it always feel like Hercules is whispering in our ears?
9) Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence
It really isn’t such a bad disaster movie, all things considered, although what I keep telling myself when I say that is that I’m comparing Don’t Look Up to The Core. What keeps this film from being a more compelling disaster movie is that its focus is simply too broad, which, of course, is why the film was written to be satirical. It’s not all that successful on that front either, which is why Don’t Look Up is an ugly duckling more likely to be eaten by a heron or harrier than it is to grow up to be a beautiful swan. The best jokes are not the ones which are trying to make some kind of point—in fact, the more politically pointed the joke, the more likely it is to elicit a groan—but the ones which speckle the film with absurdity.
Let’s talk about the good, because most people don’t do that. I really like the visual effects in this movie, and Nicholas Britell is always going to write a good score. DiCaprio is not at all bad in this, it’s the most life I’ve seen out of Lawrence maybe since mother!, and as ever, Timothee Chalamet’s destiny is to play supporting roles with indecent levels of wacko charisma. Conceptually it’s interesting, it doesn’t feel long when you watch it, and perhaps appropriately for a movie which is trying very, very hard to be timely, I would love to understand it from the perspective of someone less online. I watched this with my parents and my wife over Christmas, none of whom could tell you who David Sirota is or what Adam McKay gets snippy about on Twitter. They all liked it pretty well. I had a nice time, even if I was rooting for a Bronteroc to eat the real Meryl Streep by the end of her first scene. It’s one of the worst performances I’ve seen by a major actor in a major film from this past year.
10) Belfast, directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Jude Hill and Caitriona Balfe
A lot of Oscar pundits have noted that CODA has basically taken the place of Belfast in terms of family drama cum warm hug feelings, and I don’t disagree with that. Where the difference lies for me is that Belfast, from a craft perspective, is almost maddening. There are so many sequences in this movie where Branagh wants us to feel what Buddy is feeling, which is to say confusion. It’s one thing to signify confusion or terror or some other like feelings, and it’s another to stitch shots together seemingly at random to do so. The movie eventually calms down a little bit, and the photography and editing alike become less frenetic and more traditional, with the exception of the film’s one really fun scene: lootin’ the soopermarket. (I’m typically immune to cute kid stuff, but Jude Hill delivers the line “WE’RE LOOTIN’ THE SOOPERMARKET!” with such gusto both times that it’s kind of irresistible.) That one develops more control, possibly because Ma is in that scene along with Buddy, but even this is a sign of bad choices. Confusing because we’re supposed to be put in the mind of a child is one thing. Jarring because the editing is ludicrous is quite another. I found myself wishing for the relative success in storytelling that one gets in like, Thor.
What Belfast gains in comprehensibility it gains also in predictability. Belfast is a repetitious picture. Some of that repetition comes from knowing exactly who all of these people are because you have seen every one of these characters in a movie dozens of times before: the idealistic but absent father, the tough and worried mother, the ailing and kindly grandfather, the wise and sharp grandmother, and above all the innocent and uncomprehending child. (The marketing on this would have us believe that Kenneth Branagh based this on his own childhood, but there are Andy Hardy movies that don’t indulge in this much archetypal banality.) More of the repetition comes from repeating shots of the Belfast skyline in color at intervals, repeating the song from High Noon, repeating the same scene between Balfe and Jamie Dornan over and over as he tries to convince her to leave and she rebuffs him. Even with credits this picture comes in under 100 minutes, but it feels so much stodgier than a film that brief ought to be. I don’t have an issue with any of the performances in this movie. Balfe really did get snubbed, though I can understand why there might have been some category confusion for her. Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench are both quite charming in that old folks kind of way, and it’s nice particularly to see Hinds get some recognition. I think Dornan is actually pretty good in this as well, even if he’s less of a joy than he is in Barb and Star. But the screenplay, the cinematography, the editing, and even Van Morrison don’t allow them to leaven the film in any meaningful way.