And the nominees for the 2024 Best Picture Academy Award are…

It’s February again and, as usual, we have a brand-new list of Best Picture nominees, put out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s a list I await ravenously – firstly, because I love movies, and secondly, it’s usually a list, top to bottom, of outstanding examples of the medium. It’s gotten to the point that for the past few years I’ve tried to predict what movies will make the list, and I try to see them before the nominations are announced. Come nominations morning, I had already seen half of them.

For me, the Oscars are all about the films. I have no shame in my fashion-illiteracy, so the red-carpet mayhem generates no interest from me. (Was the swan dress Björk wore to the 2001 ceremony really much worse than other outfits we’ve seen over the years?) I have even stopped caring that much about who wins each category – I really think the nomination is what matters, since that’s how I make use of the Oscars.

This year’s ten nominees are a fine bunch. I recommend them all. I’m not sure that the best of them match the best of previous years. Previously, I’ve highlighted Black Panther, Promising Young Woman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as the most deserving of their respective year. Do any of the following ten films match the heights attained in those gems?

As usual, there are movies I wish were on this list, but aren’t. Wes Anderson remains one of my favourite filmmakers, and while Asteroid City perplexed many in the small audience it drew this past summer, it left me grinning from ear to ear, to the point where I have to single it out as my favourite movie of 2023. And while many people reading this are aware of my affinity for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most objective filmgoers would have to concede that Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 dealt with themes and emotions at least as deftly as many of this year’s Best Picture nominees.

But we aren’t here to grouse over snubs. The ten nominees are all deserving of celebration, and I’m here to type about how deserving each of them is. This has nothing to do with predicting who will win the big prize. As I’ve previously typed, I’m not really that concerned over who eventually wins. And happy news – I managed to watch ninety percent of this year’s nominees in actual movie theatres!

As is my annual tradition, I’ll go from least deserving to most. Here we go.

10. Maestro

I first became aware of Bradley Cooper from 2009’s The Hangover. As dumb as that movie is, he quickly went on to establish himself as an actor to take seriously in films like Limitless, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. In 2018 he became an auteur, producing, directing and acting in A Star Is Born, scoring a slew of Oscar nominations in the process. Five years later he has repeated that feat; Maestro has drawn seven nominations, including Best Actor for Cooper and Best Picture. As astounding as Cooper’s career trajectory has been in the fifteen years following his turn as the handsome guy in the copy-and-paste version of Dude, Where’s My Car?, I find his choices for directorial projects less than enthralling. Did we really need a fourth version of A Star Is Born? And now that I’ve seen his follow-up turn as producer/director, I’m a little confused with what Maestro is trying to say.

I was raised on classical music, so the name “Leonard Bernstein” was one with which I was familiar from a very young age. I knew that he was one of the most renowned symphony orchestra conductors of the 20th century, and he composed the music for West Side Story, amongst other stage musicals. I knew nothing about his sexual orientation, right up to when I selected Maestro on Netflix’s menu screen. And that get’s to the heart of my problem with this movie.

There is music in Maestro – lots of it – but the movie has precious little to say about it. Conversely, Cooper, in both his role as director and screenwriter (he co-wrote this with Josh Singer, and they’re both up for Best Original Screenplay), has everything to say about Bernstein’s sex life, as if that is his real legacy. And I suppose that could have been made interesting if Cooper had shown Bernstein struggling in a way, but that doesn’t happen.

Maestro begins with Bernstein (Cooper) waking up to a phone ringing. He’s laying next to an unclothed man, and the person on the other end of the phone says that this is the night he has to fill in at the last minute as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. This is 1943. Homosexuals were very much still in the closet, but Maestro shows Bernstein very freely and openly smooching men and holding their hands, grinning ear to ear. When he meets Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan in an Oscar-nominated performance), it comes off as just another romantic attraction to which he is prone. I would describe this movie’s character of Leonard Bernstein as a promiscuous New York bohemian, completely unbothered by the hang-ups of others, and very eager to openly display his affections. I believe that Leonard loves Felicia, but I also believed that he loves David Oppenheim (played by Matt Bomer), and that he loves Tommy Cothran (played by Gideon Glick).

Leonard Bernstein may be the title character of Maestro, but I would argue that it’s Felicia who is the protagonist. She is the one who goes on the emotional journey, not Leonard. His behaviour and emotional state changes little over decades this movie covers. Felicia falls completely in love with Leonard, and Maestro makes it clear that she knows exactly who he is, along with what all of his proclivities are, when she begins building a life with him. They get married and they have a family, and it all works until it doesn’t. Felicia has been harbouring anger towards Leonard, anger that has been building over time, and it explodes in a misdirected torrent where she claims he isn’t properly fostering his talent as a musician, and that he hates himself. I was frustrated witnessing this argument, because as far as I could tell Leonard accepted all the various sides of who he was and had built one of the greatest musical careers of the day, rendering of all Felicia’s complaints moot.

My favourite part of Maestro takes place in the wake of the destruction of Leonard and Felicia’s marriage. Felicia is sitting with Leonard’s sister Shirley (played by Sarah Silverman) who tries to comfort her, saying, “Listen. You know Lenny loves you. He really does. He’s just a man. A horribly aging man, who cannot just be wholly one thing. He’s just lost.” Felicia takes this in, but shows how far she has come since the end of her marriage, and how much she has reflected on her time with Leonard. She replies, “No. Let’s not make excuses. He didn’t fail me. No. It’s my own arrogance, to think I could survive on what he could give. It’s just so ironic. I would look at everyone, even my own children, with such pity because of their longing for his attention. It was sort of banner I wore so proudly: I don’t need. I don’t need. And look at me now. Who’s the one who hasn’t been honest?”

Mulligan is astonishing in that scene, allowing the emotions Felicia has denied for all those years to boil over. It is Felicia who embarks on an emotional journey in Maestro, not Leonard, and Mulligan navigates every step of that journey with incomparable skill and grace.

Very soon afterward, we get a scene of Leonard conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. Here is where cinematographer Matthew Libatique fully earned his Oscar nomination. He starts out on a very wide shot where we get to see the orchestra dwarfed within the majesty and age of the cathedral’s nave. Then, Libatique’s camera slowly circles around the orchestra, and as the music reaches it’s climax, he pushes in on a close-up of Bernstein fully entranced within the song’s embrace. Cooper’s expression is one of orgasm. As the music calms into its denouement, Libatique’s camera pulls away from Cooper, and it circles outward, coming to a rest behind Felicia’s shoulder as she watches Leonard from a distance. It’s a beautiful sequence, and it is evidence of what Cooper and Maestro do right.

Maestro is soaked in style, and much of it is executed well. Many of the scene transitions are gorgeous. It shows that Cooper knows how to properly take advantage of the film medium’s strengths when telling a story. Another one of the film’s best sequences involves Leonard showing Felicia some of the music he’s been writing, and we are treated to ballet-dancing sailors. This references Bernstein’s 1944 ballet Fancy Free, the story of three sailors on shore leave. We can see how easily Leonard is seduced by these sailors, and how much it amuses Felicia. It’s another beautifully-staged sequence.

As strong as Cooper’s style is, he is prone to wielding it in a way that makes the narrative difficult to follow. There are large time jumps, and while we marvel at some of the transitions from scene to scene, when we land in a new situation it can take us a while to figure out where and when we are.

For me, Maestro was a mixed bag. Cooper is obviously a talented actor and filmmaker, and Mulligan is heart-breaking as Felicia. But I think my biggest problem with Maestro is that Leonard Bernstein’s musicianship seems incidental to the story. How different would the story be if the title character was a great dog-trainer instead of a musician? There would be more dogs and less music, but the narrative would play out the same. So, I have to put Maestro at the bottom of this list.

9. Oppenheimer

If this list has a hot take, this is it. Most of the predictions I’ve seen have this movie a shoo-in for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor. I’ve seen some people call this the greatest movie Christopher Nolan has ever made. So, what’s my problem? Why is Oppenheimer in ninth place?

I’m a member of Generation X. We came of age during the 1980s, under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation as American president Ronald Reagan ratcheted up the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union to a fever pitch. I was terrified of nuclear weapons, and I found out who Julius Robert Oppenheimer was when I looked up to see who the idiot was who invented them. Then, in 1990, Life Magazine published a list of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century, and Oppenheimer was among them. It was here where I read that after witnessing the first test detonation of the atomic bomb, he spent the rest of his life campaigning for disarmament. It was here where I first became aware of his appropriation of the verse from the Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Immediately I saw the man I hated in a new light, and I knew that his life story would be fascinating.

Oppenheimer tells that story… in part. It takes a long while to get there. The Oscar-nominated screenplay written by Nolan, adapting American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, is also interested in allegations that Oppenheimer (played in an Oscar-nominated performance by Cillian Murphy) was a communist. It’s also very interested in Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr. in another Oscar-nominated performance), who believes that Oppenheimer said something disparaging about Strauss to Albert Einstein (played by Tom Conti), and as a result becomes hell-bent on ruining Oppenheimer’s reputation.

I’m sure there are members of Oppenheimer’s enormous audience who find the communism stuff and the Strauss obsession just as fascinating as the title character’s horror when he beheld what he created. After all, the film was one of the biggest hits of 2023, grossing close to a billion dollars worldwide. I just know I went into Oppenheimer knowing what I found fascinating about the man, and I was constantly confronted with matters I found a lot less compelling. Honestly, how scandalous can a 2024 audience find allegations of communist ties? We all know how much hogwash the Red Scare was. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist paranoia may have ruined careers and reputations at the time, but decades have passed, and if a character in a movie isn’t a full-on disciple of free-market capitalism, how deeply, in 2024, are we supposed to care? I was equally exhausted by Aaron Sorkin’s belabouring of this plot point in 2021’s Being the Ricardos. It wasn’t the most fascinating aspect of Lucille Ball’s life, and it sure isn’t the case with J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The overwhelming majority of the film’s post-war narrative is swallowed up by the Lewis Strauss plot, involving details of which I was unfamiliar. Nolan directs these scenes with plenty of panache and flair, making the most of the clinical boardroom settings. However, I could only care up to a point, no matter how much Downey, Murphy and Emily Blunt act their hearts out. (Blunt is nominated in the Supporting Actress category for her role as Julius’ wife Kitty.)

So, while I found Maestro to be overly focused on Leonard Bernstein’s sex life, I found Oppenheimer to have too many foci, which may mean not a focus at all. I realize I entered the film with a bias, because I wanted it to be about the scientist regretting his invention, and Nolan doesn’t have to do what I want him to do. I just don’t understand how anyone can care that much about the communism and Strauss stories.

In the end, I’m guessing that they really didn’t. What Oppenheimer does exceptionally well is detail the creation of the bomb, and show us the man behind it. Murphy was born to play this kind of character. I know him best for playing villainous characters in Red Eye and Batman Begins, but he’s also perfect for this tightly-wound bookish man with so much going on inside of his head you’d pass out if you got a glimpse of it. Nolan does a great job showing the pressure the military and scientists were under to beat the Nazis to creating the atomic bomb, to the point that they lost sight of how horrific the atomic bomb actually was. I think what audiences responded so well towards was the lead-up to and the execution of the first atomic blast. My favourite scene was Dr. Oppenheimer’s addressing his team after the test, but recoiling in terror as he sees everyone burned in atomic fire from his invention. That was handled masterfully.

Oppenheimer wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be, and that’s my problem. I’ll concede that everything that’s in this movie is done well. All of the acting is good. By now, Nolan has achieved so much success in his career that you can tell every move the camera makes, and every trick he pulls off in the editing booth, is executed with the utmost confidence. He is one of the most celebrated directors of our age for a reason. Not every filmmaker has an Inception or a Memento in them. But the 1990 version of me became fascinated with J. Robert Oppenheimer for a reason, and the 2023 version of me left the theatre somewhat frustrated with what Nolan gave him. Would a movie more focused on Dr. Oppenheimer’s fear of his own invention have grossed almost a billion dollars? We’ll never know. As it stands, the movie we got is sitting in the ninth spot on this list, to the certain chagrin of an enormously successful filmmaker who no doubt sips his Earl Grey tea out of a gold-plated cup in his palatial mansion, and has no knowledge or interest in my hang-ups as an audience member.

8. Barbie

And here we are with the other half of the Barbenheimer phenomenon. The whole joke behind that meme was how these two movies that hit theatres on the same weekend last summer, couldn’t be more different, and that’s very true. However, they both come from highly regarded filmmakers and screenwriters. In the case of Barbie, Greta Gerwig and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach went in a direction I would have never imagined. The fact they succeeded to the extent they did, scoring 2023’s biggest box office smash in the process, is testament to their talent, instinct and skills.

With its pink colour scheme and confectionary pop soundtrack, Barbie looks like mindless fun, but as everyone from Ted Cruz to Jenna Bush Hager will tell you, it’s a message movie. If you know Gerwig (who previously helmed Lady Bird and Little Women) and Baumbach (known for Greenberg, While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story), you have to expect some level of thoughtfulness in everything they do. They aren’t people who can just turn their brains off. Those who went into Barbie expecting a movie that would do nothing more than shut their daughters up for two hours weren’t paying attention.

Even though I’m a middle-aged guy, I’ve always considered myself a feminist. All that means (to me anyway) is that I believe women are entitled to the same rights, earnings and standing as men. I can’t understand people who believe otherwise. That’s all this movie believes too. By beginning the story in a world where the Kens have less rights and standing as the Barbies seems to have ruffled the feathers of many who live their lives hell-bent on upholding the status quo. What they fail to understand is that Gerwig doesn’t believe in the Barbie Land at the movie’s start either.

When Stereotypical Barbie (played by the movie’s producer Margot Robbie) and Beach Ken (in an Oscar-nominated performance by Ryan Gosling) travel to the real world, they both have different reactions to what the movie labels as “patriarchy”. A lot of us in the real world give ourselves plenty of credit for how far we’ve come in the name of gender equality. There are many countries who have female heads of government. My city, Toronto, is currently ruled by its third woman mayor. But, as Barbie shows, our progress towards true equality is only going to come so quickly after millennia of male dominance. The men in the real world catcall Barbie, something that never happens in Barbie Land. Products in the real world are marketed toward and celebrate “alpha males.” By immersing us first in Barbie Land, and then showing us the real world through the perspectives of the dolls, Gerwig forces us to look at our society through fresh eyes.

Barbie is a remarkable movie, and I was way more impressed than I thought expected. Even though I knew how talented Gerwig and Baumbach are, I didn’t expect them to be able to wring such insight from a movie about a pretty doll. I honestly should have known better, since Gerwig previously pulled some startling meta shenanigans in 2020 when she had Jo March write Little Women during Little Women.

Barbie would be higher on this list were it not for two words: Will Ferrell. No, I’m not a fan. Never have been. He screams and yells. That’s his schtick. He picked up where Chris Farley left off. I’ve always been uncomfortable with comedy based around self-degradation, and that’s always been at the basis of what he does. Admittedly, he has a small role in Barbie, but it kicks a big hole in everything that Gerwig set up, and I have no idea why she included him. And it makes little sense to the story. He plays the head of Mattel, and he’s depicted as being all about what’s profitable. But Ken changes things and Barbie’s Dream House is replaced with Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House. Because it’s flying off the shelves, you’d think this make the CEO of Mattel ecstatic, but no. Ferrell is committed to put everything back the way it was and get Barbie back in her box. That makes no sense to me. I have no idea who Ferrell’s character is supposed to be. If he’s profit-motivated, and Mattel is making profit, what’s his problem? If he’s profit-motivated, but cares about the dreams of little girls (but not in a creepy way), then I have no idea who his character is. That’s a needless scar on what is otherwise a flawless screenplay.

Still, Barbie has to be praised for the impact it’s had. America Ferrera (who landed a much-deserved supporting actress nomination) delivered a monologue that had people cheering at the screening I attended, all about the unreasonable expectations women endure every single day. Maybe this enormously successful movie will live on in the little girls who see it, and as they grow up into women, they’ll push this world to evolve into a more equal place.

7. Poor Things

Barbie isn’t the only feminist movie nominated for Best Picture this year, yet Poor Things has sparked much less discourse than Gerwig’s film. However, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest offering is easily the craziest movie on this list, involving animal hybrids, brain transplants, sex work and a whole bunch more.

Poor Things is produced by Emma Stone who also scored a Best Actress nomination for playing Bella Baxter, a recently deceased woman who has found her life restored by a strange scientist played by Willem Dafoe. At first Poor Things resembles a monster movie, with Dafoe and his assistant played by Ramy Youssef disobeying the laws of nature, resulting in unholy, undead lifeforms. As we invest in Bella’s journey, and witness her steady growth, Poor Things becomes the story of a developing woman unfettered by anyone’s expectations, refusing to apologize for her choices or the rejection of the people who seek to control her.

The only previous movie I’ve seen directed by Lanthimos (who is up for Best Director this year) was The Favourite, so I wasn’t well-prepared for many of the nuttier detours Poor Things takes. Jerskin Fendrix’s unconventional musical score gives the movie this constant off-kilter feeling. A pervading surrealism pervades through the overwhelming use of painted sets. Add in the animal hybrids, and the highly-stylized performances from Stone and Mark Ruffalo (nominated for supporting actor), and Poor Things can be a confounding movie. It’s probably not for everybody, but it’s also a movie that the right audience member will absolutely adore.

But as I typed off the top, I believe Poor Things is about Bella learning that she has power, and that it’s hers to wield. I enjoyed that Ruffalo’s character began so domineering, but as Bella came to need less and less of him, he grew more and more pathetic in his increasing desire for her. She fearlessly seeks out new experiences, drawing pleasure from them for as long as she can, and leaving those experiences behind without regret once she gets bored. We, as an audience, can get uneasy with all the chances Bella takes, but her ascent from the low place she began is truly rewarding.

As much as I enjoyed this strange movie, I don’t understand Bella’s ultimate choice to be with Youssef’s Max character. After everything she has gone through with Ruffalo’s character, along with an assemblage of other men, you’d think she’d learn she doesn’t need them to live a fulfilling life. And if she decided that she did need a man, after becoming aware of everything that Dafoe and Youssef’s characters did, why would she give all of her trust to either one of them?

As much of a sticking point as that is for me, it’s just a small part of Bella’s journey that you can overlook if you want. It’s good to have a movie as wild as Poor Things among this year’s nominees, and Lanthimos confirms his place among the most important filmmakers working today.

6. Past Lives

Easily the most romantic of this year’s Best Picture nominees comes from Korean-American writer and director Celine Song, and an incident she experienced in a bar in New York’s East Village.

“There’s a bar in the East Village that I ended up in because I was living around there,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I was sitting there with my childhood sweetheart who flew in from Korea, now he is a friend, who only really speaks Korean, and my American husband who only really speaks English. And I was sitting there trying to translate these two guys trying to communicate, and I felt like something really special was going on. I was sort of becoming a bridge or a portal between these two men and also, in some ways, these two worlds of language and culture. Something about that moment really sparked something, and then it made me really feel like maybe this could be a movie. So it started from a pretty real thing that happened to me.”

Song started her screenplay with a young girl named Na Young and a young boy named Hae Sung. They both have crushes on each other and walk home together from school every day. The crush has no choice but to stop in childhood, because Na Young’s family moves to Toronto, leaving Hae Sung in quiet devastation.

Past Lives moves forward a dozen years, when Na Young (now played by Greta Lee), who has taken the anglicized name of Nora Moon, is now making strides as a writer in New York City. Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo) is still in Seoul studying engineering. The two reconnect through social media and soon are having frequent lengthy and increasingly romantic talks over Skype. When it becomes clear that neither of them can visit each other any time soon, Nora says she needs an indefinite break from the calls. She attends a writers’ retreat, and meets a novelist named Arthur (played by John Magaro). Hae Sung takes a position in China and begins a romance there.

Song moves the story forward another dozen years. Nora and Arthur are now married, and Hae Sung is finally going to New York to visit, and this is when Past Lives gets into the muck of everyone’s expectations, fears, insecurities and unaddressed emotions.

Past Lives repeatedly brings up a Korean word, “In-Yun”. As Nora explains, “it’s specifically about relationships between people. I think it comes from Buddhism and reincarnation. It’s an In-Yun if two strangers even walk by each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush. Because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been 8,000 layers of In-Yun over 8,000 lifetimes.” Song is clearly suggesting that there is, at the very least, a thick quantity of In-Yun between Nora and Hae Sung, but at the same time the marriage between Arthur and Nora is so sweet and loving. In fact, when Nora was giving that explanation of In-Yun, it was to Arthur at the writers retreat when she was trying to get him to kiss her. The situation opens up so many questions about the nature of love.

If, in this current life, Nora and Arthur are married, does that suggest a similar relationship in previous lives? Given how they come from different parts of the world, how much of their marriage is determined by fate? If some sort of chemistry remains between Nora and Hae Sung after a quarter century, is that due to some unexplained outer force like fate or In-Yun? If a love that fate has determined doesn’t get to bloom, can those two people go about their lives in a fulfilling way?

Greta Lee and Teo Loo both give charming lead performances, and Song has set them up beautifully with her writing and direction. Past Lives is an engrossing exploration of love that spans the globe and the ages. Even if you don’t have a first love with whom you’ve lost touch, this movie will make you both think and feel.

5. Anatomy of a Fall

There haven’t been a lot of mysteries in the Best Picture race in recent years. Sure, movies like Get Out, Parasite and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri possess elements of a mystery, but it feels like it’s been a while since this category has followed the structure of a crime getting committed, evidence getting collected, and the suspect going on trial. A good mystery is pre-occupied with bringing the truth to light, and that is absolutely Anatomy of a Fall’s obsession, but director and co-writer Justine Triet is very sneaky about it.

Anatomy of a Fall won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and I’m sure French audiences loved it, but typing as a North American film lover, I found the movie particularly fascinating for how different the French court system is from what we’re used to on this side of the pond. As lawyer for the Paris bar Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse confirmed about the on-screen proceedings, French justice draws strongly from its Latin origins, where the accused is constantly exposed and available for questioning at all points of the trial. I’m sure writers Triet and Arthur Harari took liberties to make the French court more thrilling than it really is, but the legal proceedings are a big part of what makes Anatomy of a Fall so engaging.

But they’re only a part.

The movie is only partly an investigation of a man’s fatal fall from a high window. At its heart, Anatomy of a Fall is about the dissolution of a family, and it’s that tragedy that draws us in and keeps us glued to the screen. The fragile heart of the family is young Daniel, the visually-impaired piano prodigy who is newly fatherless and dangerously close to having his mother locked away in jail. Who will take care of him, and who can he trust? How high a priority is Daniel’s welfare to either the defence or the prosecution?

As juicy as the plot is, it is Sandra Hüller’s performance as celebrated writer Sandra Voyter is what elevates Anatomy of a Fall to greatness. Triet made this movie expressly so Hüller could star in it, and it worked out magnificently. Voyter is a powerful woman who refuses to apologize for her success. Hüller is so natural in her speech patterns, punctuating the ends of her sentences with an upwards “yeah?” like we imagine an intellectually-curious woman like Voyter would. She portrays the novelist as very sure of herself and confident, even as our doubts about her multiply. Hüller’s Best Actress nomination this year is richly deserved, and I think she has an outside chance of walking away with the Oscar.

Anatomy of a Fall is not nominated for its cinematography, which is an area where my patience was tried. The scenes at the chalet where the fall took place are shot in shaky-cam style, which I don’t think suits a movie intended for the big screen. (Yes, it’s my own hang-up, but you chose to read this.) I suppose Triet intended for those scenes to have a faux-documentary feel, but I didn’t appreciate it. The scenes in the courtroom are shot with the camera placed on proper tripods, dollies and jibs, and they were my favourite scenes.

Still, Anatomy of a Fall is an emotional thrill-ride. The family’s fracture elicits tangible sadness, while the prosecutor chips away at your allegiance with Voyter. Even after the end credits appear, we’re left to wonder if truth won the day.

4. The Holdovers

I’ll admit it. I’m biased towards any movie Alexander Payne makes. I adored Sideways and The Descendants. I even had the privilege of working on Downsizing, possibly his weakest film. (Early on in the movie during a party scene, you can see my back if you look past Matt Damon.) Payne is a great guy, and when I found out The Holdovers was coming out, I was upset I didn’t get to see it at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I did get to check it out in October at the Austin Film Festival. I was very pleased to see that Payne regained his footing from that Downsizing misstep, helming a future holiday classic in the process.

As big a fan of Payne as I am, I have to concede that the real star of The Holdovers is screenwriter David Hemingson. All of his previous writing credits have been on television shows like How I Met Your Mother, American Dad!, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Black-ish, so it’s very impressive that he so masterfully crafted his first produced feature. In telling the story of a boy’s boarding school over the 1970 winter holidays, Hemingson balances out the emotional journey of not only the resentful instructor (played by an Oscar-nominated Paul Giamatti), but the abandoned students left in his charge. While the instructor, Paul Hunham, himself an alumnus of this school, takes pleasure in his ruthlessness when doling out low grades and detentions, the head cook Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph in another Oscar-nominated performance) is much more understanding, having recently lost her own son to the Vietnam War.

Hemingson’s story unfolds very organically. He establishes who his main characters are very quickly. We see why Hunham is as rigid as he is. On the other hand we have student Angus Tully (played by Domenic Sessa in his acting debut), forced to endure Hunham’s misplaced resentment and ire, and Mary serving as the leveller. As things go wrong, all three have to step outside the confines of the campus, and for the first time Hunham has to defy the rules. (Gasp!) Little by little, teacher and student lower their defences, and an understanding develops. And all the while Hemingson lets loose with some killer dialogue. Like when Hunham and Mary discuss her deceased son.

“He was a great kid. I had him one semester. Very insightful.”

“Mm-hmm,” she replies. “He hated you. He said you were a real asshole.”

Leaving Hunham to answer, “Well, uh, like I said… sharp kid, insightful.”

Hemingson makes it clear that Hunham’s bitterness has developed from a legitimate place. He may be a master of the academic world, able to spout ephemera from ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian history at the drop of a hat, but he has written off today’s society, convinced it contains nothing of value. Is he prepared to impart that same bleak outlook onto a vulnerable student with their whole life ahead of them? As the story progresses, he is forced further outside his comfort zone, teaching life lessons not found in textbooks.

There is a lightness and fun present in The Holdovers that convinces me it’s going to have a long shelf life. Payne has led his cast and crew to perfection; there is nary a misstep in any of the performances, and the camera soaks in the New England winter in all of its chilly glory. It may not the most ambitious of Payne’s films, but those aren’t the types of movies we always need, and those aren’t the only movies that deserve recognition. The Holdovers’ simplicity is heartfelt, and that’s key when showing how important growth is at every age.

From now on, come winter-time and when the schools let out for the holidays, find a way to watch The Holdovers. I’m sure it will be a holiday-time staple at repertory cinemas from now until the end of time, a status it richly deserves.

3. Killers of the Flower Moon

There are certain artists that I think we should all be grateful for existing at the same time as us. David Bowie is one. George Carlin is another. Eighty-one-year-old Martin Scorsese will, without a doubt, forever be known as one of the most important figures in the medium of film, and we are certainly lucky to be alive at a time when he is still giving us new material. Every single one of his movies moves the artform forward in its own way. (Maybe even The Age of Innocence. I’m not sure about that one. I saw it once a long time ago, and I didn’t want to see it again.) Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, After Hours… Any filmmaker would be fortunate to have made just one of these classics. Scorsese made all of those. So, when this guy bestows upon us a new opus, I am there in the theatre to give it the respect it deserves.

If only studios would treat Scorsese accordingly.

Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the Osage tribe located in Oklahoma. About a century ago, when the Osage were forced by American authorities to live their lives on parcel of land, that land struck oil andthey became the richest people, per capita, in the country. Mysteriously, over the next years, those Osage people suffered a slew of wrongful deaths, and their wealth was conveniently transferred to Caucasian people. All of this was detailed in David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name, and Scorsese, along with screenwriter Eric Roth, began adapting the story the following year.

The initial screenplay focussed on FBI agent Thomas White and his investigation of the murders. Leonard DiCaprio agreed to play White, and based on that script Paramount Pictures signed on to finance and distribute the movie. After reading the script, DiCaprio questioned Scorsese about the story’s heart. Both the director and Roth had to admit their discomfort with the screenplay, which they conceded resembled a police procedural.

The solution came to Scorsese after several dinners and meetings with members of the Osage, several of whom mentioned the marriage of American war veteran Ernest Burkhart and Osage member Mollie Kyle. The director became convinced that the story had to be retooled and retold from their perspective. DiCaprio asked to be recast as Burkhart, and Scorsese agreed. Suddenly Paramount had problems, claiming that the new story became a moody and less commercial character study – “smaller scale, same budget.” Paramount, while agreeing to still distribute Killers of the Flower Moon, pulled funding.

At this point I have to ask, if Martin Freaking Scorsese can’t prove himself to a studio, who can? What more does this guy have to achieve to get Paramount to trust his instincts? Thankfully Apple TV+ (who became the first, and still only streaming service to win Best Picture with CODA two years ago) ponied up the dough, and production was able to go forward.

And thank heaven for that. Reframing the story from Ernest and Mollie’s perspective was a masterstroke. While Killers of the Flower Moon has often been referred to as Scorsese’s first foray into Western territory, it carries the hallmarks of the filmmaker’s best gangster epics. However, there is a different emotion at play in Scorsese’s latest movie. While Goodfellas and Casino feel like they’re gleefully revelling in the mafia-related carnage that Scorsese is able to get away with depicting because of his own Italian-American heritage, there is a sense of responsibility and respect shown with this latest movie, no doubt originating from a strong collaboration with the Osage tribe. Robbie Robertson, who passed away two months before Killers of the Flower Moon hit theatres, drew upon his own Indigenous heritage for the movie’s musical score, lending the proceedings a mournful and melancholy tone. Lily Gladstone, from the Blackfeet Reserve in Montana, was cast as Mollie, and Canada’s own Tantoo Cardinal, a true Cree and Métis acting legend, was cast as her mother Lizzie Q. Gladstone claims, correctly, that “the work is better when you let the world inform your work.”

The result is Scorsese’s most vital film in a long while. Many have balked at the 206-minute run time. I watched the movie in the theatre, and yes, I had to urgently use the washroom when the credits rolled. Let me say that after watching Scorsese’s previous movie, The Irishman, which was three minutes longer than Killers, I could easily point to things that could have been trimmed. I can’t do that here. Every moment is earned and serves a purpose.

The only thing that is holding Killers of the Flower Moon from topping this list is the character of Mollie Kyle. Lily Gladstone gives a great performance in this movie, and she could very well take home an Oscar, but my problem is the way the character is written. As Ernest pulls off more and more crimes against her people, and she grows more and more aware, she bizarrely remains committed to him. Eventually he goes one step too far even for her, but until that moment Mollie was straining my suspension of disbelief.

Nevertheless, I think Killers of the Flower Moon will go down as one of Scorsese’s most vital works. It’s an example of a great American artist recognizing the sins of his country, reaching out to the community that suffered those sins, and working with them to bring those sins to light. It’s work like that ensures that I’ll be in the cinema for Scorsese’s next movie.

2. The Zone of Interest

Johnathan Glazer is another filmmaker of whom I’ve long been a fan. I discovered him through music videos, which proved to be a perfect medium for him. They don’t need a narrative, only a concept to compliment the song. His videos for Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” and “Karma Police” are among the greatest in music video history, and I also recommend Blur’s “The Universal” and “Rabbit in Your Headlights” by UNKLE featuring Thom Yorke.

He made his much-celebrated leap to feature filmmaking in 2000 with Sexy Beast. As enjoyable as I find that film, I can’t admit to thinking about it very often. It’s just a very strong heist movie with a stand-out performance from Sir Ben Kingsley. I think 2013’s Under the Skin is much more reflective of Glazer’s aesthetic – more focussed on concept than narrative, unafraid to perplex, but its imagery will be burnt into the audience’s cerebral cortex for a long time. Unlike that sci-fi/horror oddity, The Zone of Interest deals with much more earthbound and historical matters, which makes it even more horrifying.

Glazer’s latest film focuses on the family of Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel), and their luxurious and spacious estate set up outside this long and high cement wall. As the children frolic in the garden and play with the family dog, distant sounds are heard from the other side of the wall. Sounds like roaring ovens and gunshots. The sounds are constant. As is painfully obvious, what is on the other side of the wall is Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp which saw the murder of over 1.1 million people during the World War II.

Everyone in the Höss family treats the noises from the other side of the wall as simply a fact of life – an intrusion they simply have to block out so they can enjoy their lives. Glazer, as is his inclination, doesn’t weigh down the proceedings with narrative, electing instead to simply train the camera on the family enjoying its comforts and excesses. Rudolf’s wife Hedwig (played by Sandra Hüller, who obviously had a career year) is in love with the home and their standard of living. When the Nazis transfer Rudolf to a new post far away in Oranienburg, Hedwig refuses to follow him there, begging for Rudolf to let the family remain in their big home that they love so much. It’s truly astonishing how much horror the Hösses were able to tune out in order to enjoy the luxury to which they feel entitled.

Glazer never shows us the carnage we hear. Even the one shot set within the death camp is a close-up of Rudolf’s face, with the sounds of screaming and gun shots loudly booming around him. Sound designer Johnnie Burn compiled a 600-page document consisting of relevant events at Auschwitz, testimonies from witnesses, and a large map of the camp so the distances and echoes of sounds could be properly determined. The effect is truly chilling, and it’s not a surprise that Burns, along with Tarn Williers, find themselves nominated for Best Sound against Maestro, Oppenheimer, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One and The Creator. I’m rooting for Burns and Williers, because I’ve never seen a sound team achieve what they did.

However, as I’ve come to expect from Glazer, and more than any other feature he’s directed so far, there are images in The Zone of Interest I’m sure will never leave my brain. I will never forget the sight of Rudolf standing with a fishing pole in a stream, as the water changes to a lighter, ashy colour. I won’t forget Rudolf comforting one of his frightened children in the home’s upstairs hallway as we see, through the window, flames blasting out of the death camp’s crematorium. Then there’s the thermal camera footage that punctuates the proceedings, showing a young girl leaving food for the prisoners at night. This character is inspired by a 90-year-old woman Glazer met named Alexandria, who was a member of the Polish resistance 78 years earlier. Alexandria died not long after meeting Glazer, and the bicycle ridden and dress worn by Julia Polaczek in the movie actually belonged to the elderly woman.

While it’s never going to amuse a mass audience the way a new Fast and Furious movie does, The Zone of Interest is an important reminder of the statements film, as a medium and an art form, is capable of delivering. Sure, I think it loses some of its intensity towards the end when Rudolf is in Oranienburg instead of the Höss family’s monstrous home, but The Zone of Interest remains an indictment of the evil a pampered an apathetic populace allows to persist, and just a cursory glance of today’s geopolitical landscape shows that to be a lesson never forgotten.

And Dimetre would give the Oscar to… American Fiction

This list is full of films that were made out various states of mind. Some originated out of grief. Others out of hope. All approaches are valid. No one emotion is superior to others when it comes to creating art. What I do love in particular, though, is when I can feel the state of mind of the filmmaker, and that’s what I enjoyed most out of American Fiction.

Roughly a decade ago Cord Jefferson was writing articles for Gawker, and was beginning to feel burnt out. As the resident Black writer, he was asked over and over again to weigh in on every news story about murdered black men, a thankless task that only addressed a small fraction of what Jefferson had to offer the world. Even though he moved on to writing for TV shows like The Good Place, Watchmen and Station Eleven, he never forgot how much his time at Gawker stung. When he read Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, he felt like the author had planted a bug in his house; that’s how closely Jefferson related to the character of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison.

Monk (played in an Oscar-nominated performance by Jeffrey Wright), is a headstrong writer and college instructor of high – perhaps intimidating – intellect. He has to leave California and come home to Boston to tend to his mother who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His sister Lisa and his brother Cliff make it clear they haven’t seen Monk in the longest time, and that speaks to our protagonist’s biggest character flaw: He has trouble connecting with people. That’s one reason why, as strong and respected a writer as he is, Monk hasn’t had a bestseller. Angered at the “black literature” that actually is reaching a mass audience, he angrily, under a pseudonym, dashes off what, to him, is an over-the-top parody of the urban angst-ridden struggles of black life in the ghetto. When it inadvertently becomes the toast of the literary world, no one can understand how Monk is able to afford to move his mother into the best long-term care home in Boston.

I didn’t walk into American Fiction expecting any humour, but the scenes involving the literary industry’s enormous excitement over the book Monk hate-wrote are hilarious. In particular is a scene where Monk is one of two black judges on a five-member panel deciding whether the book is worthy of a prestigious award. When he and the other black judge go over all of the work’s weaknesses, their three white counterparts refute their arguments, singing the book’s praises, finishing off with, “It’s important to listen to black voices.” It’s an amazing moment.

One can easily see American Fiction as an indictment of white audiences, and how they fail to accept authentic and realistically complex portrayals of African Americans, but it’s more than that. Jefferson doesn’t let Monk, with his elitist attitude, off the hook. When he discovers a woman he’s been seeing has the book in her collection, he questions her in a highly condescending way. “These things reduce us,” Monk tells her, “and they do it over and over again because too many white people, and people apparently like you devour this slop like pigs at a dumpster to stay current at fucking cocktail parties or whatever.” Not surprisingly, she doesn’t take that well, icily delivering the knockout punch of “One day, maybe you’ll learn that not being able to relate to people isn’t a badge of honour.”

I’ll admit it. I relate to Monk’s character. I’m not black, so I don’t know much about the specific struggle in this movie, but I do feel a resentment towards successful artists who get rich off of “dumb” work. Perhaps I’d be further along in my career if I loosened up and lowered my standards. After all, the “lowest common denominator” contains the most amount of people, and who am I to judge all those people? All I’m accomplishing by doing that is isolating myself from them, which isn’t good for me, my art, or the people around me either.

But, at the same time, I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Neither could Monk. And American Fiction is very honest about the fate that awaits such a character. He doesn’t get everything he wants. While some bridges are repaired, other walls have gone up. It’s a movie about a black character, but Monk is more than his skin colour. Anyone guilty of having unyielding standards can relate to this story.

It wasn’t an easy choice this year as to which of these movies would get the Oscar if it were up to me. I ended up going with American Fiction partly because it elicited the widest array of emotions from me. I laughed hard at the literary scenes, but also shed a tear when it looked like the Ellison family was falling apart. I also could feel how this movie came out of a palpable frustration deep inside writer/director Cord Jefferson, which gave it such a personal feeling. And I think that’s when art is at its strongest.