Again this year, I have seen every one of the nominees for the Best Picture Academy Award. It is the fifth year in a row that I have done so, and in those five years this is the first time that the number of nominations swelled to the maximum of ten.
In comparison to previous years, I think this is a surprisingly weak group of films. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the last few years of risk-taking and boldness on the part of the nominees. Maybe I’m in a bit of a mood this winter. Or maybe 2022 simply wasn’t a great year for movies.
The offerings in the horror genre would suggest otherwise. I think Nope and Smile were two of the best movies I saw over the past twelve months, and their inclusion in the Oscar proceedings would do well to shake things up, but the Academy is historically leery of frightening their members. Instead, after a global pandemic that shuttered many cinemas, it seems that Oscar voters have twisted themselves into pretzels making sure that two of the highest-grossing movies of all time found their way onto the Best Picture ballot. This is an obvious effort to drive more eyeballs to the March 12 ceremony, or it could be that these were the most deserving films that the voters saw.
I have heard complaints about the absence of movies like Decision to Leave and Till, and maybe those complaints are valid. But clearly not enough voters watched those movies. I know I haven’t. Maybe we should all be watching more movies, or a more diverse swath of movies, than we do.
Well, here I go. These are the nominees for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award, ordered from what I feel is the least deserving to the most.
10. Triangle of Sadness
This film received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, and it took home the coveted Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. This raised Triangle of Sadness’ writer and director Ruben Östlund into rarified territory, since his 2017 film The Square also won the Palme d’Or. Only Micheal Haneke, Ken Loach, Shôhei Imamura, Francis Ford Coppola, and the brothers Dardennes (Jean-Pierre and Luc) have managed to twice win that prize.
Which makes me wonder what I’m missing. I consider myself an intelligent and somewhat cultured person. I enjoy the finer things. I’m as capable of being moved by a Pablo Picasso exhibit as by a Daredevil comic book. I’m not difficult to please. And there are things in Triangle of Sadness I like. There is an interesting assembly of characters from all walks of life. There is some pointed commentary about class conflict that I appreciate. However, I can’t help but expect better from a film that not only managed a nomination for Best Picture, but scored the Palme d’Or.
As the film begins, it seems as though it’s going to focus on a young couple named Carl and Yaya, played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean. Yaya is much further along in her modeling career than Carl, and money issues are threatening to tear them apart. Yaya’s status as a social media influencer scores her and Carl a free cruise, and that’s when the cast of characters swells like a balloon, relegating the two models to much more minor status in the story that it first appeared. We meet Dmitry, a Russian oligarch played by Zlatko Buric, who made his fortune peddling fertilizer. We meet Therese, played by Iris Berben, who is recovering from a stroke and can only say, “in den Wolken” (German for “in the clouds”) and “nein” (no). We also meet three of the ship’s crew, service staff manager Paula, played by Vicki Berlin, her put upon employee Abigail, played by Dolly de Leon, and the alcoholic Captain, played by Woody Harrelson. There are many more characters on the ship, including a kindly older couple who we later find out earned their fortune as war profiteers.
It is during this second chapter of the film, titled “The Yacht”, where Östlund makes the first of his socio-political statements. He clearly is intending Triangle of Sadness to be an exploration of class conflict. The guests on the ship are some of the wealthiest and most privileged people in the world. Yaya and Carl are only allowed to be here because of their external beauty. The rest of the people on the ship who don’t possess that level of wealth or beauty cook in the kitchen, scrub the deck or clean the cabins. In fact, the one staff member who took off his shirt and turned Yaya’s head, was reported to Paula by Carl, let go from his duties and escorted off the boat.
I don’t think Triangle of Sadness has much to say about class conflict that I haven’t heard before and more insightfully in other works, including films like Roma, Swept Away and The Rules of the Game. Östlund is prone to plainly stating his theme that the inequity of classes is a problem, and while that may be true, stating it alone doesn’t make for compelling art. At one point when the ship is tossed to and fro during a storm, the Captain and Dmitry argue over the loudspeaker about the merits of socialism versus capitalism. This debate seemingly comes out of nowhere, and floats over images of the passengers spouting vomit and diarrhea in an absolutely disgusting display. One guest spouts both simultaneously, and I challenge you to erase that image from your mind, because it’s emblazoned on mine like a scar. I would be willing to forgive such sickening imagery if the film had something interesting to say, but, as I typed earlier, it doesn’t.
Then the ship is attacked by pirates, and the survivors are swept over to a deserted island. This third chapter is a relief from the second’s mix of puke and fecal matter. And it turns out that only Abigail knows how to survive in the wild, and she successfully convinces the others to submit to her rule. As compelling as this third chapter can be at times, Östlund makes some bewildering choices. He adds a brand new character simply so Dmitry can accuse him of being one of the pirates, and that quickly gets buried. I have no idea what this character was supposed to add to the story. Then we see Dmitry hugging his wife’s lifeless body (I guess she washed up on the shore), but next time we see him, he’s the same jovial asshole he’s always been. It’s as if Östlund couldn’t figure out where else to plop that footage.
My assessment of Triangle of Sadness may come off as harsh, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the entire cast’s fine acting, as well as the cinematography. The island scenes especially are gorgeous. Obviously there are a lot of people out there that enjoy this movie much more than I do, (including the entire jury at the Cannes Film Festival), but I can’t figure out why. If a work of art is going to dare to be this unpleasant, it should at least reward me with a new and profound insight, and Triangle of Sadness simply doesn’t.
We have had a lot of musician biopics lately – Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Respect, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Straight Outta Compton, The Runaways, Get on Up, Love and Mercy… these are all films of varying quality, about real-life musical superstars, with their own built in fandom. That guarantees these movies a pre-existing audience, and that’s why studios are all-too-ready to greenlight these films, resulting in the glut of rock biopics we see today. (I’m sure that Jeff Beck and Christine McVie films are already in development.)
Director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis isn’t the first movie about the King of Rock n’ Roll. (Kurt Russell played Elvis Presley in a 1979 made-for-TV movie). But I am pleased that this movie skirts a lot of the clichés that pervade the rock biopic genre. The third act isn’t dominated by the title character’s struggle with drugs, although it’s there, to be sure. No, Luhrmann has made the sensible choice to anchor this film around the relationship between the singer and his parasitic manager Colonel Tom Parker (real name: Andreas van Kuijk). That gives Elvis a focus missing from many other biopics crowding the megaplex these days.
I’m very surprised to have typed that, because Lurhmann is a director whose work I have actively avoided for the past twenty years. With offerings like Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom, I dismissed Luhrmann as the poster-child for style-over substance filmmaking. It was more important for him to show you how quickly he could edit, how over-the-top he could direct his actors to perform, how many crazy angles he could capture with his cameras, than it was to tell a good story. Maybe Elvis is benefitting from my low expectations, but I have to give Lurhmann credit for some of the good choices he made.
Still, while I would recommend Elvis as a good movie, I don’t think it’s great enough to deserve a nomination for Best Picture. Tom Hanks, who plays Parker, is up for two Razzie Awards: one for Worst Supporting Actor, and one for Worst Screen Combo (Hanks and his latex-laden face and his ludicrous accent). While accents have never been Hank’s strength (remember The Terminal?) and the weirdly Oscar-nominated make-up and hair team of Mark Coulier, Jason Baird and Aldo Signoretti have Parker resemble Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers sequels, I wasn’t overly bothered by Hank’s performance. I thought he was appropriately menacing when he needed to be, and projected warmth when that was required for his character’s ends to be met. I honestly had more difficulty buying into Austin Butler’s Oscar-nominated turn as Elvis Presley. I think Butler is simply to slight-of-stature to pull off the Elvis character. He simply doesn’t embody the character to me. Maybe I’ve been subjected to too many Elvis impersonations over the decades, from Andy Kauffman to Dread Zeppelin’s Tortelvis. His performance is another good Elvis impersonation in my opinion, and doesn’t go beyond that. When I watch The Doors, I feel as if that’s Jim Morrison up on the screen, not Val Kilmer. When I watch Nixon, I feel as if that’s Richard Nixon on the screen, not Sir Anthony Hopkins. When I watched Elvis, I was always assessing Austin Butler’s performance.
The other areas where I feel Elvis comes up short involve Luhrmann’s choices and tendencies to overinflate moments that aren’t as important as he thinks they are. At the beginning of Presley’s career the singer was warned that his “indecent” dance moves were corrupting minors, and at a stop in Jacksonville, Florida, he was warned that if he were to perform in such a suggestive way, he would be arrested. Those with even a passing knowledge of Presley know that such an arrest never happened. So, in the movie, when Elvis does the very rock-n-roll thing and defies the order, shaking and wiggling the crowd into a frenzy, the stage is ambushed (in a mix of slow-motion and several impressive camera angles of course) and Presley is thrown in the back of a police cruiser. In real life Presley obeyed the orders and performed the set straight. Now, one could make the case that Luhrmann’s choice to have the arrest happen is the better dramatic choice, but it doesn’t lead to anything. There is no aftermath of the arrest or repercussion the singer pays. It’s an excuse to film a skirmish.
Similarly, there’s the filming of Presley’s ’68 comeback special. Parker had sold the sponsors on the idea of the program being a Christmas special, and that is factual. However, the film shows Parker wandering the halls of the studio, along with the sponsors, promising that Elvis is going to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus”. In reality the manager was rarely in the studio during the special’s production. The movie shows Butler conspiring with his bandmates and the crew to defy Parker’s wishes. Instead of the holiday sets Parker is expecting, instead we have Presley, clad in leather, performing on a small square stage surrounded by his fans. Now, because I work in film and television, I know how much pre-planning these productions require. This isn’t something Elvis could simply “slip by” his manager. These are expensive sets, and each number involves choreography, lighting and camera movements that require rehearsal. In truth, the actual “Parker” didn’t micro-manage Presley’s song choices and performing career as much as the movie depicts. The Colonel trusted Elvis to make the proper song choices for his career. Presley has been quoted saying he didn’t feel his audiences wanted social statements from him, and that he didn’t have a problem with other artists at the time making strong social statements. So songs like “If I Can Dream” and “In the Ghetto”, while different for Elvis, wouldn’t have bothered Parker. Also, the real Presley threw Parker a bone and performed “Blue Christmas” as part of the ’68 Comeback Special, not that this movie shows that.
This may seem nit-picky to some, but Baz Luhrmann, like me, works in film and television. He knows how things work, and when I see such inconsistencies, I find it a little insulting. As I watched it, I knew that there was dishonesty on the screen, and I don’t think there had to be. There is enough in the relationship of Elvis and the Colonel to tell a compelling story without resorting to falsehood.
What I thought the film did very well was show Elvis’ sincere reverence for the rhythm and blues that permeated the American south in the early 50s. A young Elvis is shown at a gospel service, and you can see how the music fills his soul and takes hold of his body. That respect and feeling for the music lived with him throughout his life. When he’s shown performing “That’s Alright” in Vegas towards the end of his career, Luhrmann flashes back to Elvis’s younger days as he took in a performance of the song by a blues musician. Elvis is also shown to have a strong friendship with B.B. King, and a reverence for performers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard.
So, I’m still surprised how much I enjoyed Elvis. I’m not surprised that it as well as it did at the box office. (It’s the second highest-grossing music biopic of all-time, behind only Bohemian Rhapsody.) I just wish Luhrmann was a more subtle filmmaker, although I think he has toned down a lot of the excesses I couldn’t stand in Moulin Rouge. Elvis probably doesn’t deserve to be here, but it’s still a good movie.
8. Top Gun: Maverick
Before this year, I had never watched the 1986 Top Gun movie from beginning to end in one sitting. Now that I have subjected myself to that cinematic equivalent of bubble gum – it tastes good, but there’s nothing to swallow – my big problem with the original Top Gun was the main character. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (played by Tom Cruise) is an entitled, irresponsible brat who gets the girl, the glory and the seventh, eighth and ninth chances for no good reason except the producers want him to. Top Gun is a great example of the hollowness of the majority of 80s cinema. It’s the type of movie more concerned with moving soundtrack albums and Tiger Beat magazines than telling a story.
The sequel was never going to be anything I would seek out, so when it was nominated for Best Picture, I went in grumbling. The opening shots didn’t allay my fears. Director Joseph Kosinski decided to ape Tony Scott’s 1986 opening sequence with painstaking detail, right down to Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun Anthem” and Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”. The following scene didn’t make it much better. We see Maverick, now a test pilot, has to push a plane designed only to reach Mach 8 speed to hit Mach 10 in order to be approved for continued funding. Going into the test, an engineer reminds Maverick that he only has to hit Mach 10 (no small feat) not Mach 11 or Mach 12. Sure enough, Maverick gets the plane up to Mach 10, and there is much rejoicing back at headquarters, but he keeps accelerating. Inevitably, he pushes the plane beyond its capability, and narrowly escapes with his life. So that’s millions of dollars in needless destruction, and most likely many of his co-workers’ careers down the toilet. Surely, I want to follow this character’s exploits for two more hours.
But Maverick always needs to get a break he doesn’t deserve, and this time it comes in the form of his old friend Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, who has recommended he lead a training exercise for a very complicated air offensive in enemy territory. Maverick shows up at his old stomping grounds from the first movie, and here we encounter the first new addition that makes this sequel so much more superior to the original – Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson played by Jon Hamm. He makes it crystal clear to Maverick that he is aware of his less-than-stellar record over the last few decades, does not share Iceman’s admiration for him, and would rather someone else – anyone else – get this assignment. That type of disapproval was something I felt was missing from the first movie, where I felt he was getting undeserved passes from superiors largely because he was his father’s son.
Rooster, played by Miles Teller is the other element lifting this sequel above the original. He is the son of Goose, Maverick’s partner played by Anthony Edwards in 1986. Maverick can’t help but harbour some guilt over Goose’s death in the first movie (even though everyone absolved him of any responsibility for it instantly), and that’s not helped by Goose’s animosity towards Maverick as the years passed. Maverick is also concerned with Rooster’s safety in a way we’ve never seen him with any other character before, which puts his recklessness that so defines him on a leash for once. Now that Goose is assigned to Maverick’s training program, our hero has another obstacle he has to overcome.
Finally, Kosinski has done a fantastic job shooting the flying sequences. Cruise, who is one of the producers, insisted on minimal use of green screen and computer graphics in filming. Instead, multiple cameras were mounted on the planes, putting the cast actually in the air. I was so much more invested in the dogfights in this movie than I was in the original’s, where the close-ups and the shaky-cam grew tiresome long before the end credits appeared. After everything that Maverick and Rooster endure in this movie’s climax, I actually felt relieved and happy for our hero when the younger pilot actually let his guard down. My eyes got a little watery. Maybe I’m a soft touch.
Having typed all that, I don’t think this movie belongs here. It is overly concerned with paying tribute to the original. Once again, the romance bears no importance at all to the main plot, but apparently we need someone to make out with Cruise or it’s not a movie. The mix of characters and structure make it too easy to predict where the story is going. Still, it was good to see Maverick humbled a bit throughout this movie, and the action sequences are genuinely thrilling. I doubt it’s going to win any of the six Oscars it’s up for (I think it’ll lose all of its technical nominations to Avatar: The Way of Water, although Lady Gaga could squeak out another Best Song victory), but the cast and crew should be pleased enough that they made an engaging thriller.
7. Avatar: The Way of Water
I remember seeing the first Avatar movie in 2009. I bought a ticket to see it in IMAX 3D, because a friend was convinced that this was going to push the entire filmmaking industry forward. While I will admit that the first Avatar movie was a dazzling technical achievement with its use of 3D and its motion-capture effects, when it comes to story and characters it came up short. The villains were cartoonishly evil, and if you studied the history of Indigenous North American peoples (or even watched Pocahontas), the narrative was insultingly familiar. Nevertheless, it became the top-grossing movie of all time and was nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Academy Awards.
So now we finally got a sequel, and Avatar: The Way of Water has quickly assumed its position as one of the all-time box office champs, in addition to scoring a spot amongst this year’s Best Picture nominees. I wasn’t overly excited to buy a ticket to this movie, and only did so I could write this blog, but once the end credits started rolling, I think I prefer this movie to its predecessor.
I certainly didn’t feel that way when the movie began. It opens with Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) leading their family in a battle against the same Earth-invader forces hellbent on conquering their gorgeous home known as Pandora. When Jake learns that the military leader Quaritch is still alive and obsessed with exacting revenge against him, he uproots his family from their forest home to live amongst the faraway water-based tribe known as the Metkayina. The heart of the movie involves the family’s efforts and struggles to adapt to their new surroundings. It is in and amongst the water where the movie really springs to life, triggering a fantastic sense of wonder.
Like the first Avatar, the new movie is something of a technical miracle. The story writer and director James Cameron dreamt up for this sequel involved water, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone considering his obsession with underwater exploration going all the way back to 1989’s The Abyss. Unfortunately, the motion-capture technology that was designed for the first movie wasn’t built for getting wet. So, the first step for developing this sequel was research and development of the technology. Thirteen years later the results are stunning.
To me, the highlight of the film is a gigantic underwater beast called a tulkun, which seems as massive as a whale but with the potential deadliness of a shark. As scary as these creatures can be, they are loved by the Metkayina people, and one of Jake’s children forms a bond with the one of them shunned from the rest of the herd. Of course, we learn that earthlings hunt these creatures for a fluid within their biological makeup. It’s these hunters which bring Quaritch closer to finding Jake and his family.
Which brings me to Avatar: The Way of Water’s gigantic flaw – Quaritch has sired a son, and he’s been raised amongst Jake’s family. Going under the name Spider (and played by Jack Champion), this kid is less of a character and more of a plot device. He makes choices that reveal absolutely no grounding of his character’s wants or needs. He is a tool Quaritch wields to draw nearer to Jake, but there are so many instances in this overlong movie where Spider shows way too much willingness to help Quaritch, who does nothing to conceal his murderous aims. At times he seems to genuinely enjoy his time amongst the villains. Spider is prime evidence of how amateurish a writer Cameron can be, and that the screenplay is the area of filmmaking where the least amount of effort was spent.
And yes, I typed already that the film is overly long. Cameron has attempted to justify the length saying, “The goal is to tell an extremely compelling story on an emotional basis, I would say the emphasis in the new film is more on character, more on story, more on relationships, more on emotion. We didn’t spend as much time on relationship and emotion in the first film as we do in the second film, and it’s a longer film, because there’s more characters to service. There’s more story to service.” Does Cameron feel no need for economy, or responsibility towards the story’s pacing? Perhaps not, as the enormous success he’s achieved over the past four decades has likely led him to view his ideas, dialogue and shot choices as sacrosanct. I think it shows a lack of self-discipline on his part.
Of course, the box office doesn’t lie, and I contributed to this movie’s financial windfall. But, as very good as I thought it was, I don’t foresee myself choosing to watch this a second time.
6. Women Talking
Sarah Polley’s career has been a fascinating journey. She was only six years old when she debuted onscreen in One Magic Christmas, and the very next year she worked with a director no-less renowned than Terry Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Just a few years later she became a household name in Canada by starring in the television show Road to Avonlea. When she reached adulthood, she continued to impress with her acting in films like Go, The Sweet Hereafter and Splice, but I think she has become better-known lately for her work behind the lens with her films Away from Her, Take This Waltz and now Women Talking. Polley’s directorial efforts are always thoughtful and literate, and she has quickly become a filmmaker for whose next offering I always keep my eyes open.
Women Talking is adapted from a novel by Miriam Toews, which was apparently inspired by events that took place in Bolivia. Polley’s film is deliberately more cagy about the place and time. When the film opens, we’re in a religious agrarian community where the women are treated as property. We are immediately let in on the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated on the community’s women by the men. The dialogue is very proper and old-fashioned, making me wonder in what year, even what century, this story is set. When a car drives around the community with the driver advertising the 2010 census through a megaphone, it has a jarring effect.
The large cast of women actors of every different age are all fantastic, and their characters have reached their breaking point with the men of the village. They have two choices: leave for a new and unsure life, or stay and fight for their safety against the men. Personally, my two favourite performances came from Sheila McCarthy and Jessie Buckley. McCarthy’s character injects the proceedings with a touch of levity and quirkiness, but she also has a huge heart, and has to confront the possibility that in clinging to her faith for so long she sacrificed the safety of her daughter. Conversely Buckley is the film’s raw nerve. Her character has been so hurt she can’t endure any of the other character’s wishy-washiness.
From where I sit, the women in between these two extremes hold the film back from being truly great. Rooney Mara’s character, Ona, gets the most screentime, and she is the object of adoration for August (played by Ben Whishaw), the principle male ally in the story. However, she comes off as perhaps too perfect. Her arguments make the most sense. She never really flies off the handle. It would be fine if she were the only character like that, but there are a fair number of women characters in the mix that share Ona’s virtues, and I would have liked them to be more distinct from each other.
As it stands, Women Talking comes off as a mix of Twelve Angry Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. The story gives these women very high stakes, which gives the collective decision of the ladies a true urgency. Polley’s eye is unflinching as she pointed her camera at some unsettling images, and I eagerly await her next film. I’m thrilled that Women Talking has gotten her so much recognition from her industry peers, but it hasn’t latched onto my psyche in the way Away from Her did.
5. The Banshees of Inisherin
This seems to be a favourite for many filmgoers amongst this year’s nominees. When The Banshees of Inisherin debuted at the Venice Film Festival it received a 15-minute standing ovation. It serves as a reunion of writer/director Martin McDonagh along with actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who all previously worked together on the much loved In Bruges in 2008.
There is a lot here to like. Farrell, Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan are all nominated for their performances. The setting couldn’t be more gorgeous; the movie was shot on the Irish islands of Achill and Inishmore, both situated around Keem Bay, which is home to what is popularly known as Ireland’s best beach. The cast and crew have all done a lovely job recreating a turbulent time in Ireland’s history: the last moment’s of the Irish Civil War in 1923. This is a very good movie that a lot of my friends love.
So, what’s holding me back from loving The Banshees of Inisherin? It’s the conflict between Farrell’s Pádraic character and Gleeson’s Colm. At the start of the film it’s clear that Pádraic is a dull simpleton who’s content with a modest existence consisting of his livestock and his evenings drinking at the J.J. Devine Public House next to Colm. It comes as a shock for Pádraic to learn that Colm no longer wants to be friends. Pádraic can’t accept this. That’s the conflict that sets the plot of The Banshees of Inisherin in motion. This very simple, low-stakes conflict seems to work for most audiences, and I, in no way, think that every conflict in every story has to be some earth-shaking calamity, but if we’re going to centre a story around the issue that someone no longer wants to be someone else’s friend – if McDonagh wants me to be properly invested – I personally need to know the cause. I need an incident to trigger Colm’s change of heart. Otherwise, the premise of this movie seems more appropriate for an episode of Corner Gas. (I can very easily imagine an episode where Hank obsesses over Brent no longer wanting to be his friend without ever explaining why.)
Of course, Corner Gas would never go to the dark places The Banshee of Inisherin ventures, and I think those gasp-inducing moments that have helped make this movie such a crowd-pleaser, but those moments also make Gleeson’s Colm character so puzzling to me. Colm appears to have grown more concerned with the legacy he’ll leave behind after he dies, has decided he has no more time to devote to mindless babble, and that means no more Pádraic in his life. That’s a valid choice a character can make, but his behaviour throughout the movie veers wildly. When Pádraic stands up to Colm, we actually hear Gleeson express admiration for his former friend. But then he leaves a horrific token at Pádraic’s doorstep, restating in the most brutal way that he wants nothing less than for Pádraic to leave him alone for good. I find it also puzzling that Colm’s brutality comes at the cost of his supposed legacy. McDonagh may be suggesting that Colm may not be all there mentally, but I don’t think Gleeson plays him that way.
So, those are my problems with The Banshees of Inisherin, but I still think it’s a very good movie. Farrell’s Pádraic character is a lot of fun in a stress-inducing way, kind of the way Adam Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems was. They just don’t learn. Pádraic does the exact wrong thing every time, no matter what his sister or bartender tell him. His obsession takes what is a very simple conflict and worsens it until it’s as ugly as it can get. McDonagh counters that ugliness with the sweeping beauty of Keem Bay and some old-fashioned Irish charm, and the result is a folk-tale for the ages.
4. Everything Everywhere All at Once
This is easily the trippiest out of the ten, and it is by far the earliest of the releases. It feels like it’s been a year since I saw this movie. (It was first released in Canada on March 25, 2022). Everything Everywhere All at Once, brought to us by the writing and directing team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, went so far beyond what anyone could have possibly expected, it’s not surprising that people haven’t stopped thinking and talking about it. I just finished watching a video on the Internet Movie Database that ends with Kwan and Scheinert pleading with viewers to buy a ticket to their movie. Those two alone are nominated in three categories at this year’s Oscars (Director, Original Screenplay and Best Picture). What a journey Everything Everywhere All at Once had over the past year!
There are so many elements that make this movie the surprise that it is. One of them is the unusual way Kwan and Scheinert utilize their veteran cast. North American audiences long ago relegated Michelle Yeoh to the “action heroine” box decades ago. Jamie Lee Curtis has wielded her sex appeal to varying success since the 80s in everything from Trading Places to A Fish Called Wanda to True Lies, but is trapped in a fat suit and shlubby clothes in this role that scores her first acting nomination in a nearly 50-year career. James Hong has been stereotyped as a restaurant worker in episodes of sitcoms like All in the Family and Seinfeld for so long, it’s so gratifying to now see him have a substantial role in a major movie now that he’s in his 90s. Perhaps most surprising is Ke Huy Quan, who was previously most familiar to North Americans as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Data in The Goonies. Everything Everywhere All at Once marks his first major role in two decades, and he more than holds his own with the rest of this stellar cast. Each of these veteran actors have been forced out of their comfort zones in this movie, and they all succeed in ways they haven’t previously in their careers.
Yeoh plays Evelyn, who is under tremendous stress as her laundromat is threatened with closure, and her relationships with her father, daughter and husband have grown more fraught. As her stress builds, she escapes into her imagination. We’ve had films where the hero reverts into the safety of their minds before, like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Sucker Punch and Dancer in the Dark, but Kwan and Scheinert use Evelyn’s imagination as an excuse to explore every corner and crevice of their creativity. The result is an emotional barrage. I lost count of how many alternate realities opened up for Evelyn. Some of them are hilarious. Others are heartbreaking. Others are joyful. Still more are bewildering. It’s tremendously fun and amazingly trippy.
Which is not to suggest that Everything Everywhere All at Once is wall-to-wall craziness. It may be the most intricately crafted of this year’s best picture nominees. Kwan and Scheinert tackle themes of existentialism, nihilism and Chinese-American identity. Editor Paul Rogers richly deserves his nomination, having been tasked with tying all the different realities and universe into a cohesive structure. The original cut of the movie was two hours and forty-five minutes long, and Rogers worked with Kwan and Scheinert to wade through the footage and figure out what audiences could do without, arriving at the current length that’s 26 minutes shorter.
Of all the Best Picture nominees, Everything Everywhere All at Once is the movie that takes the most chances, and all those risks have paid off in ways that no one on the cast or crew could have possibly predicted. The world of film is richer for it.
Here we have a perfect marriage between a filmmaker and an actor. This movie is the brainchild of writer/director Todd Field, who previously brought us such gems as In the Bedroom and Little Children. Tár is the first feature he’s directed in 17 years. Field is one of those guys that used the pandemic as an opportunity to complete a mammoth creative project, having written Tár’s screenplay in a twelve-week sprint during an early lockdown. There was no other actress Field ever entertained playing the role of Lydia Tár than Cate Blanchett, and if she had turned down the part there wouldn’t be a film for me to type about right now.
When I blogged about last year’s Academy Award Best Picture nominations, Cate Blanchett acted in two of them – Nightmare Alley and Don’t Look Up. Her performances in both those movies caused me to stop and discuss how much her talent is deepening and how she has to be considered one of the finest actors on the planet today. Tár simply reinforces that. I have to agree with Field – I don’t think another actress would be able to pull off what Blanchett does here. Meryl Streep? Perhaps, but I don’t know if she’d pull off the same subtleties that Blanchett does, or explode in the same rage she does at the film’s end. There is a confidence that Blanchett projects at this point in her career that makes me, the viewer, secure in knowing that anything she tries will be a wild success, and it’s always a pleasure to take in.
Field projects a similar confidence as a director. Tár is filled with gorgeous tracking shots through brutalist architecture. An early scene where Lydia, a renowned orchestra conductor, delivers a lecture at Julliard is a masterpiece – with the camera following her every step, and turning as she descends from the stage, continues her lesson while walking amongst her students, and by the end of it the camera has covered every inch of the lecture hall without blinking. It’s this speech where Lydia rails against political correctness, warning, “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity.” It’s moments like this which show us the type of artist Lydia is – confident, opinionated, provocative and arrogant. It’s easy to see why she is the success she is; she will always make a statement, and she’s impossible to ignore. You can admire her. You can hate her. Either way, you’ll have an opinion about her. That’s largely why so many people who’ve seen Tár have been mistakenly led to believe that this is a biopic of a real orchestra conductor, but Field made up this character out of thin air, which goes to show you how well the Lydia character is written how powerful Blanchett’s performance is.
Field’s film centres around the debates about cancel culture and political correctness that take up so much oxygen these days. Lydia is a character who gets revealed to us layer by layer as the story unfolds. The more we see, the more transgressions get revealed. Fascinatingly, because the above Julliard scene was captured in one long unbroken take, we are later made aware of the unfair treatment against her when an employee she fires edits the lecture footage to make her appear racist. Unfortunately for Lydia, that is just one example of invalid criticism amongst a history of sexual misconduct floating to the surface.
While I think the movie could have stood to be trimmed, especially after the climax, I appreciate that Field crafted Tár with a clear point of view. He’s not requiring you to agree or disagree with it. Tár is a piece of art that is demanding you to engage with it.
2. The Fabelmans
Steven Spielberg is one of the most important directors in the history of film. That much is beyond argument. He has been at the helm for some of the biggest blockbusters of all time like E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Jurrassic Park. He has also directed some of the most critically-acclaimed movies of all time, like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Several decades into his career, he isn’t slowing down, having guided West Side Story to a Best Picture nomination just last year, and he’s back amongst the competition this year with The Fabelmans, perhaps his most personal film yet.
I have long thought of Spielberg as someone put on this earth to do exactly what he’s doing. His skill and vision for filmmaking just seems innate. This story, for which Spielberg is credited with screenwriter Tony Kushner, confirms my suspicion. Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle) is a thinly-veiled avatar for Spielberg. Like Spielberg, the first movie Sammy sees is The Greatest Show on Earth. He has an uncle named Boris (played here by Judd Hirsch) just like the real filmmaker. Sammy casts the school bully in his amateur films in order to face his fears, just like Spielberg did when he was young. This is Spielberg’s most loving tribute to the craft of filmmaking, and as a fan I found it a fascinating look into how his mind works and what forces turned him into the artist he is.
But Spielberg goes further. Because he has such an instinctual grasp on who good movies work, he correctly chooses to centre his story around his parents. Mitzi and Burt Fabelman are impeccably played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. Burt is the more pragmatic parent, and that is clearly borne out of his own career struggles. He doesn’t want Sammy to have a harder life than he’s already having. Conversely Mitzi is more nurturing of Sammy’s pursuit of a life in film, herself having a passion for music. As Sammy grows up, he brings a film camera with him everywhere, including a family camping trip which includes Burt’s ever-present lifelong friend Bernie Loewy (played by Seth Rogen). As Sammy edits the footage of that camping trip together, he can’t deny the images staring back at him – his mother is engaged in a love affair with Bernie. Shattered, Sammy stops talking to her, and as the silent treatment grows she demands to know what she’s done to make him so upset. He motions for her to go inside his closet, the tiny space that has served as a cinema for the two of them since he first took up filmmaking. He shows her the footage from the camping trip, and she becomes aware that her secret is out. She emerges from the closet a crumpled, sobbing and repentant wreck. That image of Mitzi on the floor asking for her son to forgive her is probably what I’ll always carry with me from this movie.
Williams is absolutely fantastic in The Fabelmans, and she richly deserves to be among this year’s Best Actress nominees, a stacked category that also includes Blanchett for Tár, Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All at Once, Ana de Armas for Blonde and Andrea Riseborough for To Leslie. Mitzi is such an engaging character who carries the viewer along her waves of emotion. She’s a character who wants to do right by her family, her faith and her moral code, but she can’t deny her feelings. And her husband, who loves her dearly, is painfully aware of the truth, and what it ultimately means.
What both Mitzi and Burt have in common is their love for their children, and The Fabelmans does a great job showing the effect their struggles have on Sammy’s artistic journey. It goes without saying that anyone with a passion for film should watch this movie, but I think this movie is a rewarding watch for anyone with any passion. The Fabelmans is a movie about following your heart, and it’s bound to be one of Spielberg’s most timeless films.
And Dimetre would give the Oscar to… All Quiet on the Western Front
War movies aren’t my favourite genre of film, largely because of my own attitude towards war. I view war as the most disastrous result of human failure. When diplomacy is abandoned too early, or conducted incompetently, we get this epoch-defining monstrosity that robs civilization of lives, of dreams and of promise. Over the history of film, we have gotten too many war movies that focus only on the acts of the soldiers, elevating them to the pinnacle of heroism and among the best our species has to offer. So, it’s welcome when we get a more unflinching exploration of the folly of war, like this movie from Swiss director Edward Berger and screenwriters Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell.
The title All Quiet on the Western Front is likely to be familiar to anyone interested in film. Lewis Milestone’s version won Best Picture at the 1930 Oscars, and there was also a 1979 made-for-TV version starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine. Paterson and Stokell don’t view their screenplay as a remake of either of these earlier works, but as a fresh new adaptation for Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel inspired by his own experiences as a German soldier during World War I. Upon publication, that novel, while celebrated elsewhere in the world, was heavily criticized by many people in Remarque’s native Germany. The heaviest detractors were found in the emerging Nazi Party who felt the book denigrated the German war effort and exaggerated the horrors of war in an effort to promote a pacifist agenda. When Adolf Hitler rose to the role of Germany’s chancellor in 1933, Remarque’s book was one of the first to be publicly burnt.
Berger’s film stars Felix Kammerer (in his film debut) as Paul Bäumer, a young German whose sense of patriotism, along with that of the rest of his friends, was stoked by their schoolmaster, who refers to the young men as “Iron Youth” and romanticizes warfare as glory and duty to the Fatherland. We follow Paul and his friends as they gleefully enlist, painfully unprepared and unaware of the mounting number of German casualties coming out of battle. As Paul is given his uniform, he sees that the tag has someone else’s name on it. “It already belongs to someone,” he points out to his superior, who tears off the tag, hands it back to Paul, and drops the tag on the floor under his desk, where many other similar tags lay.
While Berger, Paterson and Stokell do a fantastic job showing the carnage and horror that lay in front of the poorly prepared soldiers in the battlefield, they alternately show the lack of trouble faced by the higher-ups in the war effort, like General Friedrichs (played by Devid Striesow) who shows no concern for his soldiers or the ground they’re losing as he senselessly redoubles his orders. Conversely, Daniel Brühl plays Matthias Erzberger, a German politician seeking an end to the madness, who meets with a French delegation that presents him with an armistice. It is clear that soldiers like Paul were not made privy to the behind-the-scenes machinations of Friedrichs or Erzberger. In the end, furious with Erzberger’s signing of the armistice, Friedrich rallies a group of soldiers, one of which is Paul, to take one last sweep of glory against the opposing armies in the final minutes before the ceasefire takes effect. It is a cruel and nonsensical manipulation of the soldiers who looked to him for tactics and expertise, and it’s soldiers like Paul, and not the General, who paid the ultimate price before the titular quiet took hold.
Three years ago, another movie about the First World War, 1917, was nominated for Best Picture. While typing about that movie, I remarked that while it did a great job showing how horrific the solders’ experiences were, I wanted to know more about who and what placed those soldiers in those positions. All Quiet on the Western Front achieves that to an infuriating degree. Ninety-five years after the publication of Remarque’s book, we still live in a world Russian soldiers are fed lies from their leaders who don’t give a damn about their safety or the innocent lives of the people they’re sent to kill. The futility of war is a lesson we sadly need more people worldwide to learn, which makes an old story like All Quiet on the Western Front sadly still too vital.