Once again, I have managed to see every single one of this year’s nominees for the Best Picture Academy Award. It was somewhat challenging this year with the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with there being ten nominees this time, but I’m happier this year because I managed to catch six of the nominated films in a cinema, while last year’s nominees were all caught on screens in my home.
As should be the case, I feel that all of these ten films are well-made. They all have elements to admire, and deserve the acclaim they’ve drawn. I must admit, however, that this year’s pack of Best Picture nominees doesn’t seem as impressive as previous years. For instance, I think last year’s nominees introduced us to more fresh new voices like Emerald Fennel and Shaka King, with their movies making bolder statements. But, like Cecil B. DeMille once said, “It is what it is.” (He probably said that at some point.)
It was a challenge getting to the movies over the past year. There were long stretches where cinemas were closed, and that impeded the number of movies I saw in 2021. It’s clear that Academy voters did a better job than me screening quality movies, which is one of many reasons I appreciate Awards season. Still, I’m surprised at the lack of love shown to The French Dispatch, yet another beautiful offering from the brilliant Wes Anderson, but somehow scoring not a single nomination. Otherwise, I’m a little surprised that Spider-Man: No Way Home received only a single nomination for visual effects when it contained so many great performances, particularly from Willem Dafoe. Nevertheless, I think this is an admirable group of ten nominees.
As in every year, I’m listing these nominated films from my least favourite to the one I feel is most deserving of the Oscar. I’m not a gambler, and I’m not overly concerned with predicting which film will likely score the Oscar when the awards get handed out on March 27. With that typed, let’s get going.
10. West Side Story
I have nothing against musicals. In fact, I was raised on them. I have a previous blog all about my life-long relationship with musical theatre. ( https://dimetrealexiou.com/2021/08/19/ride-the-cyclone-my-favourite-musical/ ) I remember my mother’s side of the family all gathering together when one of the television networks played the 1961 version starring Natalie Wood which raked in a stunning 10 Oscars at that year’s ceremony. Over time that version has grown problematic, mostly for casting Caucasian actors to play Puerto Ricans, and that’s a worthy criticism.
But sixty years ago, West Side Story was all the rage. It originally hit the stage in 1957 and scored two Tony Awards for choreography and set design. The original Broadway run lasted almost two years. Jerome Robbins’ choreography, coupled with Leonard Bernstein’s score, proved electrifying, bringing a sense of violence and danger to the dance steps, unlike anything audiences had seen before. It’s that element that truly distinguished this retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Sixty years later and this musical still had its fans. On top of the blockbuster 1961 film, it received major Broadway revivals in 1980, 2009 and 2020. The biggest news, though, came when none other than Steven Spielberg took on the task of directing a big-screen remake. Unlike the 1961 version, he would cast actual Latinos and Latinas in the Puerto Rican roles. The minor character Anybodys would be transformed into a trans male to reflect yet another section of society struggling for inclusion in post-war America. It was a production made with the best of intentions.
I’m just not sure it’s a project with much relevance in 2022.
There are a lot of people who really enjoy this version of West Side Story. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have struggled hard to make this story reflect our currently politically explosive times. The opening battle between the Sharks and the Jets was designed to draw parallels to the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, and the way Spielberg shot it is arguably as intense as his D-Day footage in Saving Private Ryan. Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are attractive and engaging leads, and Ariana DeBose is a revelation as Anita. (She landed an Oscar nomination for a good reason.) The choreography is exactly as kinetic as a production of West Side Story requires.
However, I feel I have to pose the following question: If you want to make a socially-relevant movie in 2022, why would you remake a musical from 1957 based on a play from 1597? Not to say that can’t succeed. Just two years ago I sang the praises of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. Gerwig found a bold new message to highlight from Louisa May Alcott’s text. I can’t say the same of Spielberg and Kushner with West Side Story. It’s still a love story between two people from opposite sides of the tracks, and we’re still sad when people die from gang warfare. And some of the old story beats seem terribly dated now. When Zegler’s Maria, who has only known Elgort’s Tony for a few days, reacts with fury at the news that Tony has killed her brother, she still clings to her love for Tony, insisting on staying with him. Women have come a long way in sixty years, and need to be depicted with more strength.
I think it’s great that the Puerto Rican roles have been more authentically cast, and making Iris Menas’ Anybodys character trans is an interesting idea. It would be more interesting if Anybodys had any impact on the plot at all, but they don’t, and that makes the effort put into the character come off as a meaningless gesture. I hope some trans members of the audience find some value in seeing a character like themselves up on the screen, but I also hope we get more compelling trans characters in the future.
The biggest impediment to this version of West Side Story’s relevance is the music. Don’t get me wrong – Bernstein’s score is classic, but that’s the problem. It’s classic. Music has gone through so many evolutions since 1957. A Broadway show about gang warfare could get away with a Leonard Bernstein ballet score back then, but watching rival gangs enacting violence to this music rings false in 2022. It’s too much of a throwback. What reaction can we expect a teenager ensnared in the Crips or Bloods to have watching this movie?
Spike Lee is reportedly adapting a hip-hop version of Romeo and Juliet to the big screen, and that immediately sounds like a more vital movie in today’s cultural climate. Until then, if West Side Story is your jam, this is a perfectly good version. Just don’t expect it to change the world.
9. Drive My Car
Grief is such rich territory to mine for art. It always has been. It’s a universal experience. Every one of us has lost someone close to us, and we will continue to experience more of that loss. Art can help by showing us that we aren’t alone in our grief, and can show us how we can carry on with our lives. Drive My Car is a great example of this.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film is an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a car passenger talking to the driver about his late wife and working through his grief in the process. Hamaguchi, who both wrote and directed this movie, has expanded on Murakami’s story considerably. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yûsuke Kafuku, a successful actor and director married to Oto, a talented writer who comes up with her greatest stories during the act of sex. When Yûsuke is away on work, the gig is cancelled at the last moment, and he returns home to find Oto having sex with a younger actor. After Oto suffers a fatal brain hemorrhage, Yûsuke notices the young actor at her funeral. Time passes, and Yûsuke is hired to direct a stage version of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, and the young actor auditions. Yûsuke casts him in the title role. As the young actor struggles to get closer to Yûsuke, the director sparks a growing bond with the driver hired to get him to and from work, helping him through his feelings about his late wife.
Nishijima is fantastic in the lead role, allowing us to see his internal struggles with minimal dialogue. Similarly, Masaki Okada has an electrifying charisma as the younger actor who is the cause of so much of Yûsuke’s torment. The best scene in the movie for me was these two actors sitting in the back of a car as Okada launches into a long story he was privileged to have Oto tell him. Hamaguchi lets the camera unblinkingly rest on Okada’s face as he mercilessly unleashes every sordid detail of his late lover’s words.
What keeps Drive My Car from getting higher up on this list is the false endings. I felt that the aforementioned monologue by Okada was a good moment for the film to start wrapping up, but Hamaguchi had different ideas. The movie keeps going, and there is a very nice scene of Yûsuke on stage with a deaf actress, and she delivers a nice Chekhov speech about grief. That seemed like a lovely note on which to go out, but Hamaguchi felt differently. We then get a scene with Yûsuke and the driver and they both share their feelings of grief, and I felt Yûsuke’s monologue was too much on-the-nose. His speech could have been titled “This Is The Message Of The Film.”
But there is a lot of value in Drive My Car leading up to this near-ending. Hamaguchi is obviously an artist with great scope and vision, and the western world would do well to keep an eye out for his future projects. And if you’re in need for art about grief, this movie is well worth your time.
8. Don’t Look Up
Towards the end of 2021 I was in quarantine, and was eager to get an early start on catching possible Oscar-nominated movies. Don’t Look Up had caught a tremendous amount of early buzz, and I had no idea what it was. When I looked into it, I saw that it was the latest effort from Adam McKay. I made no secret about how much I disliked McKay’s previous film Vice (https://dimetrealexiou.com/2019/02/23/and-the-nominees-for-the-2019-best-picture-academy-award-are/), but this was quarantine, so it seemed like a good way to chew up a couple hours. I got into my comfy chair, summoned up Netflix, and hit play.
Perhaps Don’t Look Up is the beneficiary of my low expectations, but I think it’s a fun political farce. The story centres around a comet on course to collide with our planet, and the scientists who discovered the comet (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) plead with the world’s political leaders to do what is necessary to avoid catastrophe. Their pleas, however, are met with the measurement of political ramifications should they choose to act or choose to deny the existence of the comet.
It’s a star-studded production. Meryl Streep plays the President of the United States. Jonah Hill has a ball as her top aide. Cate Blanchett is electric as a trashy talk show host. Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi and Timothée Chalamet also contribute to the fun. Yes, the subject matter explored in Don’t Look Up is serious, but, mercifully, McKay works with a more irreverent touch than he did with Vice. He’s no Oliver Stone, and I don’t think he should try to be. I’m not someone who feels that the presence of a few laughs subtracts from the weightiness of a topic. It can, on the other hand, make the the topic easier to swallow.
I have noticed some pointed criticisms coming this film’s way, mostly how the response to the comet is a very ham-handed analogy to the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fair point. McKay isn’t the most subtle storyteller in the world. I don’t think that goes so far as to make this a bad movie – just not a terribly deep one. Honestly, this movie probably has no business scoring its four Oscar nominations. (McKay and David Sirota are nominated for their original screenplay, Hank Corwin is up for the editing award, and Nicholas Britell score has been nominated.
My biggest problem with the movie is DiCaprio’s character, Dr. Randall Mindy. He sounds the alarm about the comet early, and can clearly see how the president and her staff are playing politics with the astronomical reality. Yet he constantly vacillates between crusading for the truth and doing the government’s public relations. Mindy is a character that does whatever McKay needs him to do at whatever time, and that makes him a wildly inconsistent and weak character. Fortunately, the characters that surround him are much more solid.
So not a great movie, but I don’t think the Academy Awards are hurt by Don’t Look Up’s presence. I doubt this movie will be remembered very well a decade from now, but it provided a bit of levity in the darkest depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s allow the cast and crew to have a cocktail and a dance at the ball.
7. The Power of the Dog
This movie represents a strong comeback for master filmmaker Jane Campion. It’s been nearly thirty years since she became the second woman nominated in the Academy Awards’ Best Director category for The Piano. (Lina Wertmüller was the first for 1975’s Seven Beauties.) Since that accomplishment, Campion has only directed five more feature films, The Power of the Dog being the latest, and the one returning her to prominence. Her mastery and style have made her comeback a big one, with The Power of the Dog leading the pack with a dozen nominations.
Like Don’t Look Up, I found this film on Netflix during quarantine. I wasn’t sure what I was getting. I was not aware Campion had anything to do with it – just that it was accumulating Oscar buzz. I saw that Benedict Cumberbatch was the star, and I like him. I’m not as rabid a fan of his like those who discovered him way back with Sherlock, but I think he’s been good in everything I’ve seen him do. This movie has nabbed him his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (The Imitation Game was his first in 2015.) He plays a gruff and savage rancher named Phil Burbank, who is, by all accounts, an awful person. A total alpha dog, he takes every opportunity to assert his dominance over every person that passes his way in the cruelest manner possible. One day in 1925 Phil and his brother George (played by Jesse Plemons) are on their way to market in Montana, and they stop in a restaurant run by a widow named Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst) and her willowy son Peter. Both mother and son are bullied mercilessly by Phil and his cowhand disciples throughout the meal, and after she is reduced to tears, George tries to mend fences. He becomes close to her and it’s not long before the two are married. Although her new husband is a great comfort to her, her brother-in-law Phil is a constant source of horror, and Rose worries incessantly about Peter’s trauma from having to grow up around his abuse. What she doesn’t anticipate is Peter finding out some dirty secrets about Phil – secrets that will give him the upper hand when dealing with his new uncle.
The Power of the Dog hinges on the battle of wills between Cumberbatch’s Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter. Campion’s screenplay, based on Thomas Savage’s novel, does a great job showing the gradual status change between the two, as Phil slowly confronts his true desires and Peter wields more control over the rancher’s urges. I’m not sure if there are filmgoers comparing this to Brokeback Mountain, but if there are I don’t think it’s an appropriate comparison. The Power of the Dog is not about a consensual homosexual relationship. Phil never admits his true sexuality to himself, and I don’t think Peter is drawn to the rancher in an erotic way. The boy is simply taking back power so he can protect himself and his mother. The story involves sex, but it’s not a story about sex or love at all.
Having typed all that, it’s easy to see how The Power of the Dog scored all its nominations. Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner took full advantage of the Australian countryside’s beauty, using it as a stunning stand-in for Montana. On top of Cumberbatch, Campion directed another three of her cast members to Oscar nominations. (Dunst is up for Best Supporting Actress, while Smit-McPhee and Plemons are both nominated in the Supporting Actor category.) It’s unquestionably a good movie, but I can’t pretend that it stayed with me long after I watched it. A well-made movie doesn’t necessarily translate into being transcendent art. Campion’s previous Best Picture nominee, The Piano, still gets talked about after thirty years, and I don’t see the same thing happening for The Power of the Dog.
6. King Richard
I’m not a big tennis fan. I enjoy watching it, but I don’t seek it out as a spectator sport. I cheered for Bianca Andreescu when she won the U.S. Open in 2019, but I couldn’t tell you who the top players in the sport are this year. However, I always knew about Venus and Serena Williams. How could you not? They were so dominant, and their personalities weren’t contained by the court. It makes total sense that these two athletes would get a movie about their lives.
What I didn’t understand is why the movie is, instead, about their father. I didn’t get it. At a time when it’s so important to elevate black female role models, why did producers Trevor White, Tim White and Will Smith choose to focus the story of Venus and Serena around Richard Williams? It seemed like a mind-boggling creative choice, and I held back from watching the movie.
Then the accolades for the movie came, and King Richard rose up as one of the favourites to win Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. Clearly, I was being too dismissive too quickly. I found a theatre where it was playing and set out to see it.
It’s a good movie. I enjoyed it. Smith gives one of the greatest performances of his career as Richard, the quirky, stubborn and bull-headed patriarch of the Williams clan. He’s a father who wants better for his daughters, and knows how much the deck is stacked against him in providing that opportunity for them, especially raising them in South-Central Los Angeles. I’m now convinced that Richard Williams is an interesting person, and a compelling figure in the story of the Williams sisters. They likely wouldn’t have become who they are without all of his tireless support, effort and guidance.
He’s also a maddening figure. He goes to enormous lengths to get the best coaches for Venus and Serena, and then he second-guesses their advice. In a fantastic domestic scene, Richard argues with his wife, played by an Oscar-nominated Aunjanue Ellis, who brings up his past marital infidelities. But these are fleeting glimpses of Richard’s human flaws. At the end Richard is shown to have made all the right moves, and is a candidate for Greatest Father of All Time.
Yes, he is shown to be incredibly reluctant to allow Venus to compete professionally, when she is clearly ready, but that’s just because he didn’t want her to fall apart like Jennifer Capriati. His job as a father is to protect his daughters, and he does so, but only relents when Venus herself tearfully pleads with him to let her play.
I am still not convinced that the choice to centre this entire movie around Richard Williams was the correct one. It’s the sisters who played the matches. It’s the sisters who have the victories. It’s the sisters who should be front and centre. I don’t think that takes away any credit coming the father’s way. He certainly should be a large part in any story about the Williams sisters. I just find it incredibly odd that he’s the title role in this movie, looming over titanic figures like Venus and Serena Williams.
At the same time, it is a highly enjoyable movie, showing the lengths a black family has to travel to rise above a gang-infested existence. The story is well-paced and Zach Baylin’s punchy Oscar-nominated screenplay provides Smith and his co-stars a ton of great moments. In addition to Smith and Ellis, Saniyya Sidney is wonderful as Venus, and Jon Bernthal is unrecognizable as coach Rick Macci. This is easily one of the most entertaining of this year’s Best Picture nominees, and as bewildering as this film’s existence is, it’s plenty inspirational as well.
Denis Villeneuve is one director who always gets my attention with every new project. I’ve been a huge fan ever since seeing his 2010 masterpiece Incendies, and subsequent films like Prisoners and Arrival only deepened my fandom. I hold such respect for his ability that I grew disturbed when he started working with pre-existing franchises. Blade Runner 2049 introduced him to a much wider audience, but I still haven’t seen it because I want Villeneuve to film his own ideas, not Philip K. Dick’s. When his newest film turned out to be Hollywood’s latest attempt to film Frank Herbert’s Dune, I was similarly perturbed. I saw the much-maligned David Lynch adaptation from 1984, and I hated it. Since then, the book has been called unfilmable, leading me to wonder why Villeneuve even bothered trying to make this. Had this movie not landed a Best Picture nomination, I probably would have left it alone.
And that would have been my loss.
No other movie in this Best Picture race carries the same scale of enormity. It’s amazing how far Villeneuve has come in his career since independent Canadian features like Maelström, Polytechnique and Incendies. Every setting in Dune feels massive. Every ship is colossal. It’s truly an awe-inspiring production.
But it’s not just artifice that makes Dune such an achievement. It’s filled with compelling characters who have a clear goal – to survive. It’s easy to point at Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides character as just another “chosen one” as seen in endless Star Wars and Matrix movies, but given Chalamet’s slight frame and the enormity of the deserts he walks through that could swallow him up with a single misstep, it’s easy to doubt the success of his mission. Also, allowances have to be made since Herbert’s novel came out in 1965, so as modern versions of the “chosen one” narrative go, it’s pretty early.
Chalamet is just one of many standouts amongst the cast. Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica Atreides treads a fine line between fragility and fortitude, seemingly set to expire at any second yet mustering up the spirit to carry on for another day to see her son survive. Oscar Isaac’s charisma is put to great use as Duke Leto Atreides, who has to fend off an attack and defend his people. Jason Mamoa and Dave Bautista give the movie bright moments of hope when all hope seems lost. But I was most impressed with Charlotte Rampling’s cameo as Reverend Mother Mohiam, who spills a secret about Lady Jessica – and consequently Paul – that changes the course of the narrative.
Villeneuve has proven himself to be a filmmaker capable of making the most massive of movies in which he can inject the tiniest of intimacies. In a country that has given the world filmmakers on the level of Norman Jewison, Denys Arcand, Ivan Reitman, Claude Jutra and James Cameron, I’m thinking that Denis Villeneuve might now be the most talented and capable filmmaker Canada has ever produced. I may still want him to return to filming his own ideas, and I may still prefer Arrival to Dune, but I can’t deny the enormous accomplishment that Dune is.
4. Nightmare Alley
My reaction to the films of Guillermo del Toro has been varied over the years. I thought Pacific Rim was stupid. I thought Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth weren’t as good as others said they were. I like Blade 2. I thought The Shape of Water was absolutely fantastic and deserved every Oscar it got and more. I consider it the greatest movie ever shot in Toronto, and I’m thrilled del Toro has decided to make my city his home. So I was looking forward to seeing his latest when it hit theatres, and while I don’t think it hits quite the same heights as The Shape of Water does, it was certainly worth the wait.
This isn’t the first adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. Director Edmund Goulding turned Nightmare Alley into a movie in 1947starring Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle, a carnie who runs a scam as a psychic, playing on the emotions of wealthy people suffering from grief over departed loved ones. Somehow del Toro found out about this story. His own father had been kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico in 1998, and one of the first things the hostage negotiator said to him was, “Beware of the ‘psychics’.” Sure enough, a pair of psychics quickly descended upon del Toro’s mother, saying they could sense her husband, that he loves her, and that he’s trying to reach her and that he knows she can save him. This manipulation and cruelty made a deep impression on the filmmaker, and shining a light on that is much of his motivation for making this movie. This movie comes from a personal place for del Toro.
Along with co-screenwriter Kim Morgan, del Toro has centred this movie around the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, played here by Bradley Cooper. The film begins with Carlisle among the lowest of the low, and near the middle he has risen to dizzying heights. Throughout it, Cooper holds our focus and proves a magnetic presence. He’s in practically every scene in Nightmare Alley. It’s an enormous challenge for a movie star, but Cooper is up to the task.
Surrounding Cooper are such luminaries as Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara and Ron Perlman, but I have to give special mention to Cate Blanchett. The woman is 52, and she is more gorgeous than I ever remember her being, but I’m convinced that she is among the most talented actors on the planet. In recent years she has perfected such varied roles as an Asgardian force of destruction in Thor: Ragnarok, a conservative anti-feminist crusader in Mrs. America, a trashy talk show host in Don’t Look Up, and one of the ultimate femme fatales in Nightmare Alley, Dr. Lilith Ritter. Her performance will prove to be one of the most memorable elements in this movie. She alone supplies much of the style on which Nightmare Alley depends.
Guillermo del Toro is clearly a filmmaker at the top of his game. This is a movie that won’t be forgotten for a long time. It’s a great story about hubris, which has proven to be fertile territory for some of the greatest fiction since storytelling began. Nightmare Alley has earned its spot in this race.
This one is a change of pace. I couldn’t find a screening in a theatre, and I was only able to see this at home through AppleTV. It’s not as stylish as Nightmare Alley, and it certainly doesn’t have the huge scale of Dune. It’s not the life story of beloved public figures like the Williams sisters. It’s not a throwback to an earlier time like The Power of the Dog. It’s a simple story of a fishing family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, except out of the four family members only one has the ability to hear. She also has a great singing talent, not that anyone in her family realizes it. But it’s not the sign language or singing that elevates CODA; it’s the tremendous heart.
CODA is about the Rossi family. Frank and Jackie (played by Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) are the parents, while Leo and Ruby (played by Daniel Durant and Emilia Jones) are the kids. The entire family is dedicated to fishing, as it’s all Frank feels he knows how to do. Frank, Jackie and Leo all depend on Ruby to be their ears and mouth, and you feel how much of a responsibility that is for her. She’s up in the wee hours of the morning and out on the boat with her father and brother, then it’s off to high school, where she often shows up smelling like that day’s catch. The family’s already shaky finances are suffering because of frugal buyers, but then the government mandates inspectors at the fishermen’s expense. The family is leaning on Ruby’s ears and mouth more than ever, but she’s feeling the urge to join the school choir, something that makes no sense to her family.
Eugenio Derbez plays choir director Bernardo Villalobos, who quickly recognizes Ruby’s singing talent and sets about encouraging her to develop her gift. He assigns her to prepare a duet with Miles (played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and a romance develops between them. She blossoms socially and singing becomes her passion. Villalobos tells her he wants to work with her so she can audition for enrolment at the Berklee College of Music. Everything Ruby ever wanted is within reach, but the Rossi family business is under more fire than ever, and she is depended upon more and more.
Jones is fantastic as Ruby. She shows such love for everyone in her family, but she so convincingly conveys such exhaustion from the pressure placed upon her. She is perfectly suited to serve as the fulcrum upon which this movie rests. I don’t know how accurate her sign language is, but it looks good to me. She’s a lovely singer. But not only is her love for her family clear, Kotsur and Matlin’s love for her is on full display in return.
Villalobos organizes a choir recital, during which Ruby and Miles perform “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Frank notices everyone’s attention on Ruby as she sings. Clearly his daughter has a talent people appreciate. That night he gets her alone and asks her to sing the song for him. She sits beside him and starts singing. He puts one hand on her cheek and rests the other against her throat. Even typing this now my eyes are welling up. Frank never realized his daughter had this talent inside her, and if he had a way of knowing he would have helped foster it all these years. In Kotsur’s eyes you see happiness and regret and love.
This movie’s heart is gigantic. I don’t know how Jones missed getting an Oscar nomination, but I’d love to see Kotsur take a statuette home. This is a movie anyone can appreciate. Not everyone is familiar with hearing impairment, but everyone knows family struggles. Everyone has experienced the drama involved with young adulthood, and finding your place in the world. CODA is a movie I was very happy to find, and I think you’ll feel the same way.
Kenneth Branagh has long been a puzzle to me. Even though he was capable of crafting a brilliant thriller like 1991’s Dead Again, he seemed to assume a personal responsibility as steward of the works of William Shakespeare, ushering Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and As You Like It to the big screen. I appreciate Shakespeare, but I don’t think Branagh should make that all that he’s about.
In 2011 he was hired by Marvel Studios to introduce Thor to a movie-going audience, and the result was an unexpectedly hilarious movie. I didn’t expect Branagh to show a flair for comedy, so maybe the guy didn’t take himself as seriously as I thought. He has lately showed varied sides to his career, sneaking in this black and white exploration of an Irish family caught in the middle of the Protestant/Catholic divide in 1969 between his Hercule Poirot outings.
Like CODA, Belfast benefits from a heaping helping of familial warmth. Jude Hill plays Buddy, the adorable young boy at the centre of the film. Along with his cousin Vanessa, Buddy has lots of fun running around his small block in Belfast that he knows every nook and cranny. Unbeknownst to Buddy, though, are the religious prejudices that are needlessly tearing his neighbourhood apart.
Branagh has skilfully crafted a charming movie with a fantastic sense of space. As Buddy runs through his one-block neighbourhood, we, in turn, acclimatize ourselves to the space. I absolutely love it when I feel like I know my way around a movie’s setting, like the Spanish mission in Vertigo, or the ranch in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I know a film is special when that happens.
The tragedy at the root of Belfast is that the violence set to erupt doesn’t have to happen. Branagh lets us see the quaintness of the lives populating this neighbourhood before everything went sour. Buddy’s parents, played by Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, are a rapturously loving couple clearly capable of providing a warm home, and Buddy’s grandparents (played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) are another source of comfort just a few doors away. All the ingredients for a happy life are in place for Buddy and his family, but the hatred outside the door is growing out of control, and there is a horribly inevitable decision Buddy’s parents are forced to make.
This is a story countless immigrants from old countries have lived. My own father and most of his siblings had to leave Greece because of political strife. Growing up as his son in a very multicultural neighbourhood, leaving the old country for a better life in North America just seemed like a normal choice many immigrants made, and I guess I took that choice for granted. Belfast dares to ask why things in the old world have to get so toxic, because it’s to everyone’s detriment, and it tears people who love each other apart.
And Dimetre would give the Oscar to… Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson is another filmmaker with whom I’ve had a tumultuous relationship as an audience member. When I saw Boogie Nights in the cinema in 1997, it was a transcendent movie-going experience. He showed such a unique vision, and it was exciting to discover a great new director. Punch Drunk Love was another fantastic movie… and then came Magnolia, a film everyone else seems to adore except me. To me it seemed like Anderson had disappeared up his own ass, willing to commit every ridiculous idea he had to film without asking if it had merit or not. Ever since, I’ve approached every Paul Thomas Anderson movie with trepidation, even if films like There Will Be Blood and The Master show that he is still a talented and visionary artist.
I did not expect Licorice Pizza to be as enormously fun as it is. This movie is a complete delight, anchored by two beautifully-written young characters played by Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman.
Licorice Pizza is set in the San Fernando Valley in the early 70s, and right away Anderson begins the film at the moment Gary first sets eyes on Alana. A fast-talker, the much younger Gary manages to get a date with her, and the relationship at the heart of this movie is set in motion. Licorice Pizza doesn’t really act as a story; it’s hard to say there’s a beginning, middle and end. Like real life, things just happen with Gary and Alana, and the movie simply acts as a record from the moment they met to the moment they both admit their love for each other.
The California setting lets loose with fantastic opportunities for showbiz ephemera to creep in. Among Gary’s many business ventures is a career as a child actor, and he was one of the stars of a film that, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s universe, is an obvious stand in for Yours, Mine and Ours, a 1968 family film starring Lucille Ball. Here, we get Christine Ebersole playing temperamental Lucy Doolittle in a stage show called Under One Roof. We also get Sean Penn playing Jack Holden, a stand-in for William Holden, and Bradley Cooper playing Jon Peters, the actual Hollywood producer who was involved with Barbra Streisand during the time period in which Licorice Pizza is set. It’s these crazy appearances that threaten to pull Alana and Gary apart, but also help them grow and develop.
Anderson doesn’t seem to judge whether Alana and Gary’s is a healthy relationship. That’s not Licorice Pizza’s aim. The movie simply invites you to come along for a ride with this couple and see if this goes anywhere. And it goes many places, and it’s breezy fun.
Only a filmmaker as confident and independent as Anderson would have the guts to make a film this loose, and if it were any less loose it wouldn’t be as special. After two years of a pandemic that has restricted us to our homes, we all deserve a movie as freewheeling and carefree as Licorice Pizza, and the movie deserves the Oscar for Best Picture.