It’s that time of year again where I preview all the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Slightly after that time of year, actually, because I didn’t manage to get them all seen until the night of the ceremony, and then didn’t write down my thoughts. So the ceremony has already happened, and the results are already in. Still, you can’t stop a white man in his 20s from ranting about films. It’s just one of nature’s laws.
So, the Oscars. This year, it might have been the same stars and the same film tropes as always, but I was surprised to see that they replaced the traditional Oscar statuettes with miniature replicas of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. It might sound like a weird decision, but the Academy actually counted that as two more Black people being nominated.
Anyway, here’s my ranking of each Best Picture-nominated film, in reverse order:
It’s the question everybody was asking: “Why aren’t Hollywood churning out more biopics?” And, like Rohan before it, in 2022 Hollywood answered, with some timely biopics that shined a bit of light on the little-known, little-discussed figures of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Blonde was actually OK, to be honest, but that one had a few too many women crying in it for the Academy’s liking, so somehow, Elvis got the nom.
There is an inverse relationship between the fame of a person and the effectiveness of a biopic about them. Elvis, therefore, was doomed from the start. Elvis is so embedded into popular culture that he is by now a cultural palimpsest which has completely obscured anything remotely real about the man. Perhaps as a result, Baz Lurhmann was hired to direct this film, meaning that it would veer far away from realism and towards a kind of mythical portrayal. Baz delivers his trademark style, with absolutely every aspect of filmmaking turned up to 11 — overdone colours, caricatures rather than characters, ridiculous makeup, obvious CGI, and, holy fuck, that frenetic cutting where no single shot can possibly last more than 2 seconds — a filmmaking style which is, let’s admit it, very shit. Elvis is an absolute clusterfuck of a film which is too well-acted to be enjoyably bad, much too bad to be enjoyably good, and, especially because it’s almost three hours long, really quite boring.
Elvis sticks to the biopic trope of simply recreating iconic moments, repackaged and ready for your consumption, tied together by a series of run-of-the-mill expositional scenes, which are at least, if we’re being nice, unconventionally presented. It has presumably been nominated for Best Picture because (a) it is Hollywood self-pleasuring and (b) Austin Butler is committed and convincing in the role. Perhaps he deserved Best Actor, but the fact he was pipped by Brendan Fraser means Elvis feels ever more likely to be forgotten.
9. Avatar: They’re Back, and Bluer than Ever
Presumably included on the list because it got bums back on cinema seats, Avatar: It’s Morphin’ Time was pretty standard but surprisingly popular and surprisingly well-received. There were plenty of people who pointed out its similarities to the first film, but James Cameron cleverly sidestepped that criticism by waiting 13 years to release it. I don’t really have any interesting comments on this one, other to register my confusion at everyone saying how great it looked — the close-ups were amazing and unlike anything else, but the action scenes were clunky, rushed and too resemblant of video games to feel realistic. Hopefully Cameron will have sorted that out in time for Avatar: Capitalism is Bad, which comes out next summer.
8. The Fabelmans
I mean, it’s bloody Steven Spielberg, isn’t it. The man so great that there’s a whole miniature industry around creating content which is reminiscent of his films. When Steven comes to a studio and asks to make a barely-disguised childhood biopic, you can’t say no, can you? Not to the man who made Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park at the same time? When he says he wants to make it three hours long, surely you can’t refuse? When he hands in the script, and one of the first lines reads Movies are dreams, dolly, that you never forget. You just wait and see, when it’s over, you’re gonna have the biggest, sloppiest smile on your face, you can’t turn him down, can you?
7. Top Gun: Maverick
Nominated largely because Tom Cruise wouldn’t stop smiling at people by the urinals at The Academy HQ unless members voted for it, Top Gun: Maverick got an Oscar nomination. In all seriousness, the film is a figurative and literal blast. It’s two hours of pure moviegoing fun, and although it isn’t high art, it felt real. I couldn’t tell where the CGI ended and the reality began, which added genuine stakes, momentum, and gravitas to a plot which is basically just about firing a rocket from a very fast plane into a very small hole. It worked great for Star Wars; it worked great here. Why it works so well is another matter, but I’ll leave Freud on the shelf.
Anyway, I really think it’s quite important that good popcorn flicks can be nominated for Best Picture, so I’m glad Maverick is on this list.
6. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
Oh man. I’m sorry, Daniels — it’s not you, it’s me.
Everything, Everywhere, All at Once was the story of the Oscars, and it was a wholesome story. It’s great that an indie film not only hit $100m at the box office but also cleaned up the awards. It’s great that Asian-American actors are winning, and it’s great that this means Hollywood is more likely to throw money at weird concepts going forward.
Ultimately, putting this in sixth place is more about my personal preferences than it is about this film’s quality. It’s unique, it’s startling, it’s brilliant, it’s absurdist in a sense that few films are. But the style just wasn’t that enjoyable to me (see my earlier trashing of Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic pacing), and although an absurdist tone might make sense from a philosophical point of view, particularly given the context of infinite universes, a universe where everyone has sausage fingers just isn’t really that funny. For me. Personally.
BUT. Michelle Yeoh is fantastic, and the character they’ve written for her — ferocious, knackered, domineering, loving — feels unique in mainstream cinema. And although the other cast members pale in comparison, they’ve been responsible for a lot of heartwarming and hilarious moments over the awards season, so I love them all for that.
5. Triangle of Sadness
I had quite high hopes going into this one, and even a few weeks later, I still don’t quite know how I feel. On the one hand, it’s an absolute ride — bold, funny, unique filmmaking where you really don’t know what’s coming next. I liked the episodic nature of the film, I loved the performances, and it was shot nicely too.
But somehow, it left me more flat than its Palme d’Or had led me to expect. The film is direct in its messages — at one point, a room full of people scream “MONEY!” repeatedly — but that’s OK. I think subtlety is overrated. I think it’s more of a genre problem: I feel that satire often falls flat because it neglects character, and we need good characters to actually care. Triangle of Sadness is for the most part not particularly interested in scrutinising its characters to uncover the reasons why they act the way they do. Even the couple who we spend the most time with are not particularly fleshed out.
Having said all that, the final hour of the film is sublime. The bodily fluids flying as the ship captain and the Russian have a drunken university politics argument; the radical readjustment of the group when they land on a desert island; this is (sometimes quite literally) good shit. The idea that all our behaviours are societally mandated is a really interesting one — just a shame that it doesn’t run through the whole film.
4. All Quiet on the Western Front
Maybe the best-looking movie in this year’s nominations, the behind-the-scenes footage alone feels worthy of All Quiet winning an Oscar or two. It’s also really great that a foreign-language film can be included in this list without any great fanfare — perhaps a response to Bong Joon Ho’s iconic “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” comment.
The big headline with this film is that it completely disregards most of the plot points in the book it’s based on. This means no events are forewarned and no character is safe, which adds to the tension. I was surprised by some of the artistic choices which went into the changes — the ABBA number at the end of the third act seemed somewhat out of place — but by and large, they help to buoy a magnificent, appalling, claustrophobic, and unforgettable film to something approaching a masterpiece.
It was only after watching Tar that I learned that there have been a string of very real conductors who have been abusive and have subsequently been cancelled. It could then be argued that Tar is a veiled true story, but in reality, it’s so much more than that.
Maybe the best way to describe Tar is a kaleidoscope of character. We see her be frequently kind; we see her be suddenly cruel. She does as she pleases; she’s nobody’s fool. This is an artistic choice which is ever more significant as our cultural divides get more entrenched and we’re more often encouraged to view people through a certain lens. As expected, this film provoked The New Yorker to claim, bizarrely, that it’s a condemnation of cancel culture. And if anyone from the far right ever watched a film with a female main character, I’m sure they’d dislike it too. Because here we have everything: a whole woman, her incredible talents and her horrible flaws, her entire reality and even some portions of unreality too. Tar doesn’t fit into your preconceived character categories, and that’s so refreshing.
Cate Blanchett is mesmerising, one of the only actors who could have pulled off the role. Although Michelle Yeoh deserved the Oscar more (Cate has two already), this is the finest performance by any actor in the past year.
2. The Banshees of Inisherin
A breakup film that I watched one week after a breakup, Banshees of Inisherin was a tough watch for me. Thankfully, its bleak portrayal of the vanities and trivialities of human relationships really hit me where I lived at the time.
One of the more unspoken casualties of our current content glut is bleakness in cinema. As middle-of-the-road thoughtful films become pacier and more attention grabbing, Martin McDonagh reminds us that sometimes it all feels a bit hopeless, doesn’t it?
While Colin and Brendan’s past film history makes them extremely convincing ex-best mates, it’s Barry Keoghan that this tragedy really belongs to, in a storyline that demonstrates how even when we are treated unkindly, it doesn’t stop us from treating others even more unkindly. The metaphor for the Irish conflict that I presume is happening here is reduced to background noise — a few explosions on the mainland. Yet the film can explore both scenarios effortlessly because they are the same story on different scales: how we hold grudges, how we need community, how we worship those above us and neglect those below, and most of all, how we damage ourselves by doing damage to others.
Aside from all the bleakness, this film looks incredible, and it’s so funny. Not intellectual funny, either — there’s plenty of dumb humour here too.
- Women Talking
I won’t lie — I didn’t expect to be putting Women Talking at number one. In fact, if we’re being truthful, I don’t think I would have gone to see a film with that title if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture. But that’s why I do this every year — because sometimes, this happens.
Women Talking creates an entire world — so distinct from our own — in seconds of screen time. This makes the story feel mythical, or at least atemporal. Yet it still very much takes place in our world, and it does not need to hide behind metaphor or multiverse to make its points about humanity.
A group of Mennonite women discuss how they will respond to a series of sexual assaults that have taken place in their community, and that is it. Men are almost entirely absent, off bailing out the abusers among them. And yet somehow, it feels as if all human life is here. Anger, violence, and rage; the communal instinct; sex as a means of power; clinging to toxic relationships; the turmoil of transgender acceptance; religious doubt; unrequited love; the loss of innocence; the horror at the depths of the spirit. I’m writing like a wanker, yes, but it’s amazing to fit all this in one story, especially a story about something so specific.
I’ve said that Women Talking avoids metaphor, but this film could well be seen as the female psyche in action: the characters representative of emotions in response to assault, the barn surrounding them like a skull. It feels limiting to describe it as a MeToo movie, as that’s become such a lazy cultural touchstone, but it is quite evidently not the kind of film which would have been made 10 years ago.
Really, the reason this is number 1 is because every element comes together perfectly. Every actor is sublime, the framing is unique and interesting, the cinematography is eerie and adds to the sense of myth, it does not shy from the horrors of assault but it does not revel in them either. But most of all, the script is just flawless. Go see it.
So, those are my rankings. Having rhapsodized a fair bit there, it must be said that I’m a little disappointed in the nominations this year. I feel gutted that neither Aftersun nor Good Luck to You, Leo Grande were nominated. Both films are comfortably good enough to be on the list above, and Aftersun would be my number one by a mile. If there’s one thing you take from these rantings and shit jokes, it’s please watch Aftersun.
Even then, 2022/2023 wasn’t a year with an epoch-defining film like The Social Network or an enduring classic like Parasite. I’ve felt like this every year since Parasite, actually — are movies getting worse? Or is Elvis just dragging them all down?