Sunday, March 12, 2023

So I Watched All the Oscar Nominees for Best Picture


I don't always care about the Oscars. I don't even watch the ceremony every year. But this year I happened to notice that I had seen a few of the nominees for Best Picture already, so I figured: why not watch them all? So I did! And here's what I thought about all of them in a series of mini-reviews!

Overall I have to say I was pretty impressed with this year's crop of Oscar nominees. I found something to like about all of them, and some of them I thought were really good. One film stands far and above the others for me, but overall I can say I'm glad I watched all of these. I kind of hate ranking things precisely, so below is sort of my order of overall preference. But really who cares what I think? I guess we'll see what the Academy thinks a few hours after I post this!

Everything Everywhere All At Once

I've been meaning to write about Everything Everywhere All At Once ever since I first saw it last year. But what to say about something I love so much? What do you say about an emotionally and philosophically deep exploration of the multiverse via the story of one Chinese-American family as they struggle with laundry and taxes? How do I talk about the sheer originality of the ideas and a film that puts everything into itself all at once, and more, a film that gives voice to something I've deeply suspected for a long time: kindness and silliness are not a retreat from the horrors of reality, but a means by which we face it?

When I went to see it a second time, I loved it even more, thinking it just might be the best movie ever made--at least in this universe. The only thing that continues to surprise me about this movie is how much everyone else seems to love it, too, even people who aren't normally science fiction fans (like, presumably, most Oscar voters?).

For me this list is basically Everything Everywhere All At Once ... and then everything else. But this is less a reflection of the quality of the other nominees and more a sign of that Everything... has found a place on my top 5 or 10 films of all times, places, and universes (at least that I've visited).

Women Talking

Women Talking is a more traditional Oscar film, but a bit odd nonetheless. Loosely based on a true story, it features the women of an Amish-type community coming together to make an impossible decision after horrific events have torn apart their community. It is mostly, well, women talking, but the philosophical and emotional subtlety of the characters' positions on the issue, the quality of acting, the cinematography, the score, and just the fact that the viewer will be thinking about this one for a long time after watching all come together to make a profoundly strong film. That is, at least, if I as a man get a say in it (which to be fair, I may not). The biggest surprise is that Frances McDormond's part is much smaller than I thought, which is just a testament to the power of the other actors.


Tár feels more like a traditional Oscar film, at least at first: a woman conductor navigates her way in in the high society of Western classical music. And who doesn't love Cate Blanchett? For Lord of the Rings fans, she'll always be the Dark Warrior Queen of our hearts. But then the film turns... kinda weird. And the viewer isn't quite sure what to think, who to believe, or who the main character really is. And, of course, there's Hildur Guðnadóttir's excellent score (she also did the score for Women Talking). One of my criteria for ranking Oscar movies (to the extent that these are strict rankings) is whether you'll be thinking about a movie long after you watch it, and Tár definitely fits the bill there.

Banshees of Inisherin

Take two great actors, give them a semi-humorous premise of life-long friends having a falling out for apparently no reason, add some gorgeous scenery and a brilliant score, and set it on a tiny island off the coast of Ireland 100 years ago against the backdrop of (and metaphor for) the Irish Civil War, and you get a sure-fire Oscar contender. Colin Farrell and Brenden Gleeson are simply a delight, as is Farrell's pet donkey, Jenny. I admit I probably would've gotten more out of this one if I were more familiar with the Irish Civil War, but like most of the films on this list, I can say I'd be happy to watch it again sometime.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Here in the middle is where the rankings get even fuzzier for me. Sometime after watching Saving Private Ryan, I realized I didn't need to watch super realistic war movies anymore. I've long been a pacifist both by personal inclination and philosophical conviction. I already think war is a scourge on humanity, so even anti-war war movies don't always do much for me. So this was the last of the bunch I watched. Much like the generals in this film, I figured, sunk-costedly, that I had come this far, I might as well grind on to the end ... But unlike the pointless human slaughter of WWI, I was glad I watched All Quiet on the Western Front. Is it a horrific depiction of a particularly horrific war? Yes. It's not for the squeamish. But it is extremely well-done. Even an old pacifist like me was profoundly affected by this weirdly beautiful film about an exceedingly ugly war. It makes me want to read the book (one of those books everyone but me read in high school...).

Triangle of Sadness

Triangle of Sadness sits firmly in a genre that seems to be popular lately, one I like to call, "Let's hate rich people while simultaneously being kinda obsessed with them." (Other fine entries in this genre include The Menu, Succession, the Knives Out movies, etc.). We meet a couple of models who fight about money, but seem to have plenty of it. They go on a luxury yacht cruise with even richer people, and ... hijinks ensue that lead to some really great moments, like the American socialist captain (Woody Harrelson) and Russian capitalist passenger (Zlatko Burić) arguing about Marxist economic theory on a literal sinking ship. Then there's a sort of Rousseau-like new society, but with a very Nietzschean "ressentiment" turn. I think it was that third act didn't work as well for me, but then again, maybe Tears for Fears is right and everybody really does want to rule the world.


Say what you want about Baz Lurhmann, the guy doesn't make boring films. Often overwhelming, yes. But boring, never. And Elvis is no exception, at least until he makes the rather odd choice to spend a third of this long movie in Vegas. Maybe that's a more interesting part of Elvis's story than I think? Nonetheless, I thought the first part of the movie was great, as is Austin Butler's performance (look for him soon in Dune, Part Two!). The movie doesn't shy away from the racial politics surrounding Elvis as a performer and phenomenon, and lest people like me who weren't around the 1950's forget, Elvis was a Really Big Deal who, like him or not, changed popular culture forever. But... what's up with Tom Hanks? I guess the guy he's playing really was that weird. But still, weird. (As a resident of Tennessee, I feel I must implore you, dear reader, to visit Graceland in Memphis at least once. It's well worth the pilgrimage whether you're an Elvis fan or not.)

The Fabelmans

Like most nerds, I love Steven Spielberg. The Fabelmans is a solidly-made film that feels personally important to Spielberg. Overall it's a really good biopic, with just a few names changed to protect, well, nobody, because we all know this is about Spielberg's life. And of course you get a nice John Williams score. "Self-indulgent" is too harsh a take on it, because Spielberg is obviously also having some fun with it, as in my favorite part: David Lynch as legendary director John Ford, giving advice to a young Steven, er, Sam. I also loved a bully telling the main character, "Don't put this in your movie," while we're, you know, watching that very movie. Hilarious. And others may disagree with me here, but if any director in Hollywood is entitled to a bit of public navel-gazing, it's Steven Spielberg.

Avatar: The Way of Water

I saw Avatar: The Way of Water twice. In IMAX. It's one of the most visually beautiful films I've ever seen. I could watch those sea creatures swirling around for hours and hours. It's also an extremely dumb movie with regressive themes about gender and colonialism ("a father protects" ... okay, sure, but why so patriarchal about it? And the white dude is now in charge of the natives and goes to be in charge of other natives?). It's not particularly interesting as science fiction, not even its environmental themes. It's all of these things at the same time. Much like the original Avatar. If you kinda like the story, I'd recommend reading a much better version in Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest, which I once reviewed as "Like Avatar, but Not Stupid." I'm not surprised The Way of Water is nominated, but I'd be surprised if it were to win. One thing I appreciated philosophically was the further elaboration of the Gaia-like worldview about Ewa, how we are all part of a larger reality (something I'm thinking about as I explore nondualism in South Asian Buddhist philosophy during my sabbatical). In addition to all the other things Cameron is ripping off with this franchise, now he's even ripping off James Cameron's Titanic with a lengthy boat sinking sequence. But it's all sure pretty to look at.

Top Gun: Maverick

A sequel to a beloved movie released 35 years ago could be a disaster, but Top Gun: Maverick is pretty good for what it is (it's about as much a commercial for the US military as the original). I don't hate Tom Cruise as an actor. I think he's pretty good and shows how his character has developed over the last several decades. And there's a cameo from someone you might not expect, and then Jennifer Connolly for some reason (not that she needs a reason). I'm not sure how this movie got nominated for Best Picture. Sound or other technical categories, maybe? But Best Picture? It must be hard to film all those speedy planes and shooting and mayhem against some shadowy "enemy" (on that point, I almost feel like the movie wants another Cold War just to make the movie more engaging... which sort of skeeves me out). Again, it's not a bad movie, but it is at the bottom of my list. I'd be puzzled if it were to win for Best Picture, but weirder things have happened (like a 60-year-old Navy pilot totally schooling a bunch of cocky 20-somethings).

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