That sound you heard this morning — the cacophonous combo of joyous screams, disappointed groans, the gnashing of teeth and breaking of glass — can only mean one thing: the nominations for the 2022 Academy Awards have indeed been announced. Per usual, Oscars voters dished up a few extremely predictable choices, some lovely curveballs and curious lack of love for the lady we call Gaga. (Yes, House of Gucci is a freaking mess, but did you see what that “Father-Son-House-of-Gucci” dynamo did onscreen?!)
It’s also been an unusual awards season, in which so much of the typical Oscar-apalooza campaigning and marketing machine — the gala premieres, the gladhand receptions, the gauntlet of film festivals and Golden Globes, etc. ceremonies — was forced to scale down or press pause. And there’s a good chance that the majority of voters, much less curious folks who were interested in movies not starring superheroes, were fighting heavy eyelids while screening these big epics and intimate dramas from the corner of their couch. It was tougher than usual to keep up with what was generating chatter and what was D.O.A. That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t for-the-ages performances and stop-the-presses films that deserved not only your attention but the Academy’s recognition. So, yes while it’s subjective to say that Oscars got things “right” or “wrong”: the voters most certainly got a good deal of things “right” this time around.
Here’s an everything-you-need-to-know breakdown of the Best Picture category. (If you want to find out where they’re streaming, go here. That said: See them in theaters if you can.) You’ve got until March 27th to get caught up and/or fill in some viewing gaps.
Right, so we may have been a little hasty when we originally posted this reaction out of the Toronto International Film Festival regarding Kenneth Branagh’s highly autobiographical film, about a boy growing up in Northern Ireland at the exact moment that “the Troubles” turns a friendly neighborhood into a warzone. (Still, even with that hyperbolic headline, je ne regrette rien.) It’s shot in black-and-white, and is a mix of period-piece drama, social-issue handwringing, and a coming-of-age narrative that stops short of being overly sentimental while still being personal. Not to mention that it comes from an industry veteran — all of this is pure voter catnip. And after it won the Audience Award at TIFF, always a prominent awards-season bellwether, you could understand why this would have felt like a sure thing. The fact that it seemed to come and go without nary a peep when it went into wide release last year would have seemed like its momentum had slowed to a crawl. But it’s once again a strong contender, and well worth your time — it’s not only an extremely accomplished memory piece from the former “new Olivier” but one that knows how to gently pluck heartstrings rather than play power chords with them.
This one was a surprise. Yes, this indie about a child of deaf adults (see: title acronym) who dreams of being a singer has the muscle of Apple behind it, and won four awards at Sundance last year, including the Grand Jury Prize. It’s also…how to put this? The movie can be a little shameless in terms of really wanting you to have the feels, all the time. And while we admire the performances, especially Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as the parents, there’s the sense that you are watching several films — a regional bootstraps drama, a triumph-of-the-underdog tale, a quirky comedy, a portrait of an under-represented subculture — colliding into each other. There are feel-good movies, and there are aggressively feel-good movies. Guess which one this is? Which, in terms of winning this award, could be either a feature or a bug.
Don’t Look Up
We’ve gone on the record about Adam McKay’s latest, which hurls the world’s biggest metaphor at Leo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and the rest of humanity while lambasting all of us for being such dumb donkeys perpetually distracted by our phones and an insatiable need for likes and lolz. Which, ok, he may have a point there, but when you start equating critics (professional or otherwise) who have issues with your A-list Netflix comedy with not caring about the environment — you might come off as a little too righteous and defensive. So much of the self-regarding chest-thumping and trolling would be forgivable, too, if this were genuinely hilarious and sharp, only this blunt-instrument satire is too busy patting itself on the back to really go after your mind or your funnybone. If you want laughs, go see Moonfall. And while this does seem like a longshot in terms of a win, we also suggest you read this.
Drive My Car
Some folks had already started griping a few months back over the notion of a three-hour Japanese film about sex, grief and Chekhov plays being in the Oscar conversation at all, much less slated to place in the Best Picture race — and with the possibility of winning, to boot. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s extraordinary, graceful, and quietly moving tale of a theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima, who we wish could have snuck into the Best Actor category) dealing with a loss by throwing himself into a modest, multilingual production of Uncle Vanya, dominated critics’ year-end lists and numerous other voting organizations’ awards. It may be utopian to think marathon-length drama that adheres to a staunch less-is-more ideology could have bona fide crossover potential. But the kudos from various groups have already made it an arthouse hit, and its inclusion in this category means a whole lot of folks who wouldn’t normally give a long Japanese movie the time of day will be curious enough to seek it out now. The rewards that await them are a hundredfold. Drive My Car is as much a masterpiece as, say, Parasite, and many thought that subtitled (gasp!) movie couldn’t possibly win, either. Look how that turned out. Stranger things have happened. A boy can dream.
Personally, we could have seen voters nominating Denis Villeneuve as Best Director over nominating his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult sci-fi novel, about a young man who becomes an interplanetary messiah, for Best Picture. Instead, they did the opposite — and while we’re bummed not to see the visionary French-Canadian filmmaker in that category, it’s great to see his longtime labor of love competing for the big prize here. It’s an old-school epic, a swing-for-the-fences take on a hero’s journey with serious pedigree and even more serious technical chops. And though it’s not a flawless work (far from it), it’s a rare modern blockbuster that earns every inch of the big screen’s real estate, as well as the right to be taken seriously. It’s a long-term investment that’s already paid off for its patrons, and this nod is just a nice touch of spice on a delicious meal even if the movie does not win. Spoiler: It almost certainly won’t. Still great to see it among the nominees.
Will Smith was essentially assured one of the five Best Actor slots for playing the dogged, determined and doting dad Richard Williams, coach and father of tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams. The role is the exact showcase for his screen presence, his charm and his ability to channel slowburn anger. (It was less certain whether Aunjanue Ellis would get a deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination as well, so hearing her name called out this morning was a treat.) Yet this was another late-fall, studio-sponsored prestige picture that seemed to make barely a ripple when it first hit theaters (and HBO Max), and the inability to sell this movie to the right audience, i.e. people who still see movies with stars but without men and women in capes, made this a bit of a dark-horse candidate. Only this is a film that revolves around someone banging on every door, refusing to take no for an answer, knowing that he’s managing the real thing times two — so it makes perfect sense that a film so underrated and undervalued at first glance would come up from behind and reveal itself to be a possible champion. Whatever issue you have with Reinaldo Marcus Green’s tribute to Mr. Williams as a biopic, you have to admit that it nails the ambition and drive that helped make his daughters household names. That can-stop-won’t-stop mindset seems to have bled into the film itself as well.
It’s funky and idiosyncratic as hell, it’s a hangout movie with no real story to speak of, its leads were either relatively unknown or unfamiliar to movie audiences, and because Paul Thomas Anderson wanted his ode to the sweet, sweet San Fernando Valley of the early 1970s to be seen onscreen, it wasn’t available for voters to watch at home. All deathblow strikes against it Oscar-wise, right? Wrong. Thankfully, wrong. His offbeat, not-quite-a-rom-com flashback — it’s as much a memory piece as Belfast is, even if the writer-director was only three in 1973 — may be an acquired taste. But those who love it really love it, and this has been one of those movies that has kept snowballing as the months have gone by. Licorice Pizza‘s reputation preceded it by the time it went into wide release on Christmas Day, and even the occasional, oddly ginned up controversies around it have not stopped it from becoming a dark-horse favorite. It could not have happened to a nicer movie. This should be second on your list in terms of ticking off nominated titles to see, right after Drive My Car.
The biggest “Oh, hell yes!” surprise of the morning was hearing Guillermo del Toro’s carny noir — and his strongest movie since Pan’s Labyrinth — get namechecked among the nominees. A gorgeous, dark take on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel about a drifter (Bradley Cooper) who hooks up with a sideshow troupe, eventually becomes a celebrity mentalist and, y’know, loses his soul in the process is pitiless, but not merciless; he expects you to sympathize with his tainted protagonist even as you reflectively recoil from him. The fact that this minor gem of a film was released against Spider-Man: No Way Home right as a new Covid surge hit, only to get a stay of execution thanks to a re-release shot in black-and-white (!) and now a Best Pic nod? It’s almost enough to make you believe that miracles do happen to deserving movies. Will it win? It almost doesn’t matter. The nomination itself is the win.
The Power of the Dog
But you know what will win? Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s pageturner about two brothers — one an uptight, upstanding citizen one bowtie away from being a dandy; the other a roughhewn, repressed cowboy with a chip on his shoulder and prairie-dust on his boots — impressed and inspired hosannahs from the get go. And, perhaps surprisingly, it’s managed to keep a slow but steadily increasing momentum going since it first started garnering eyeballs on screens and via Netflix’s promotional push. It features career-best work from Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee and especially Kirsten Dunst, all of whom are rightfully nominated in the acting categories. Jane Campion is recognized as one of the finest working auteurs today — something that the tight control of the storytelling, impeccable framing and exquisite pacing here helped to remind folks after her being absent from feature filmmaking for a dozen years. It’s also a Western of sorts (cue sumptuous shots of lonesome plains and stomping herds), and the sort of movie that can be read ambiguously enough to fit a variety of meanings. Not to mention nods from the BAFTAs, SAG Awards and the PGAs. This is currently the frontrunner, and there’s very little sign of it slowing down over the next six weeks or so.
West Side Story
A canon-worthy musical, a brand-name director on his A-game, a textual update that corrects past mistakes while adding a new sense of urgency, a breakout star (congratulations, Ariana DeBose) and an exuberance that feels like it’s a “movie” movie: This new version of the Broadway classic may not have raked in bucks or made the expected splash it should have when it dropped right before the holidays, but its inclusion among the Best Picture nominees is not the least bit shocking. In a slightly weaker year, or if this had this come out a decade ago, you could see this being an awards-circuit juggernaut. Though it’s not out of the race exactly, there’s definitely the sense that it has a better chance in some of the categories outside of the big one. You should never count out the appeal of nostalgia, or the deft one-two punch of old-timey showbiz glitz with an injection of 2021 timeliness, of course. We just think the “power” lies elsewhere. (See previous entry.)