Love them or hate them, the Academy Awards are something of a religion in my family. When I was a kid, while Sundays were technically one of my dad’s days, my sister and I were legally required to be at our mom’s place for Oscar night because it was listed as a holiday in my divorced parents’ custody agreement. My mom has always loved movies, and that woman does not kid around.
Now as an adult who is not legally required to celebrate the Oscars, I still watch them every year. The artist-screenwriter in me is fascinated by the subjective (and political) nature of what indeed makes up a “best picture” movie, and the feminist historian in me views each year’s nominations list as a sort of sociological dataset that signals where popular American culture is at, what kinds of stories are being valued, and which storytellers are still being excluded.
This year’s Academy Awards (the 95th!) are coming up on March 12th, and this is my very subjective take on the top films:
Everything Everywhere All at Once has already won four SAG Awards and two Golden Globe Awards, and it’s leading the Oscar nomination race with a whopping and well-deserved 11 nominations. Both Michelle Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu are fire in this chaotic but emotionally affecting film about the multiverse (but also, about everything else?). The line “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you” (heartachingly delivered by Ke Huy Quan) was my favorite movie moment of 2022.
Then, The Fabelmans. Gosh darnit, that Steven Spielberg really knows how to make a movie. I was not expecting to get a lot out of a sentimental film about a famous filmmaker’s own childhood in another love letter to Hollywood, but The Fabelmans is a perfect movie. It’s beautiful, warm, inspiring, and unexpectedly hilarious at times. I still crack up thinking about young Jewish Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) “praying” with his Jesus-loving high school girlfriend (Chloe East). I will say, I’m a bit tired of the crazy-mom trope, but when Michelle Williams plays the part so well it’s hard to complain. Also, The Fabelmans possibly has the cutest ending of all time?
If you can stomach the violence (I had to close my eyes a few times), the German film All Quiet on the Western Front is a deeply affecting and powerful cinematic experience. The movie is adapted from an anti-war novel by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, who fought in World War I and was condemned for being “unpatriotic” after writing the book. This book was first adapted into a movie that won Best Picture in 1930. The violence is far more brutal with modern filmmaking, but the anti-war point is clearer than ever. Felix Kammerer’s performance is unforgettable; it is mind-boggling to me both that it is his first movie and that he is not nominated for Best Actor.
My favorite film of the Best Picture nominations is the haunting and brilliant Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley. It’s adapted from Miriam Toews’s novel, which is inspired by true events that took place in an isolated Mennonite community. This film portrays something I rarely see in popular media, which is victim/survivors speaking for themselves and making their own tough decisions about what is best for them. This was a moving experience to say the least. And the acting is so good that I almost don’t want to watch the Oscars out of anger that Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, and Rooney Mara are egregiously missing from the best acting nominations. (Ben Whishaw, who plays the only man in the film, also had me in tears.)
And, of course, there are some other great films nominated this year. Triangle of Sadness didn’t fully hit me until I was approaching the end of it (this was my first Ruben Östlund viewing experience, and I’ve since learned that I didn’t understand the depth of hierarchy-flipping black satire I was getting myself into). Dolly de Leon became the first Filipino actor to be nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe Award for her role in this film, and I think her name is another egregious absence from the Oscars list. You’ll love The Banshees of Inisherin if stories that start adorable and gut-wrenching but become disturbing and depressing are your jam (absolutely gorgeous cinematography and Colin Farrell is impossible not to love).
And if you like short films (who doesn’t?), The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is the gorgeously animated spiritual balm we all need (fun fact: the music was composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, who is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister), and the Norwegian live action film Nattrikken (Night Ride) is a quirky gem of a story about two people from different marginalized groups escaping a harrowing situation.
I appreciate that Top Gun: Maverick is probably an emotional and fun nostalgia trip for original Top Gun lovers, but it’s just not my jam. Its inclusion on the Best Picture nomination list feels a bit off-putting considering the other films that didn’t make it on (see below!). That being said, I never mind a Rocky-style work-out montage and I’m always happy to spend screen time with Miles Teller (especially when he’s playing piano!).
Tár was a tough film for me to watch. Given that the topic of women in classical music is my personal jam, it was impossible for me to separate my own classical music experiences and women’s advocacy passion from my viewing experience. The film is, I believe, more supposed to be a character study of someone abusing power (regardless of its setting), but it felt a bit jarring to see this set in the world of classical music, where real-world women aren’t anywhere close to wielding that level of power. Mostly, it was too much boring classical music speak for my tastes (and I do say this as a lover and teacher of classical music!). However, none of these feelings change the fact that Cate Blanchett is a goddess, and Florian Hoffmeister is deservedly nominated for his brilliant cinematography.
Finally, my brain is holding space for two conflicting feelings: 1. Why the heck is Elvis on the Best Picture nominations list? It’s a fun movie for sure (and I even cried), but Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker bizarrely narrating the whole story is very “Whose idea was this?” energy. And then, 2. Oh my goodness, Austin Butler is phenomenal as Elvis (I mean, is he even acting or is he just actually Elvis?) and his performance deserved a better film to star in. So, for me this was a top-favorite thing stuck inside of a less-favorite thing.
Till is a hard movie for obvious reasons (if you’re not familiar with it, it’s based on the true story of Emmett Till’s mother in the lead-up and aftermath of his horrific murder). The film is beautifully directed by Chinonye Chukwu, and lead actress Danielle Deadwyler’s name is the most unacceptable absence from the Oscars list (okay, I realize I’ve now asked for a lot of people to be nominated for acting, but it’s not my fault we have an embarrassment of acting riches). Deadwyler’s portrayal of Mamie Till-Bradley’s testimony in the courtroom scene—a profoundly powerful, nearly-seven-minute-long uninterrupted shot—is one of the most impactful acting performances I’ve ever seen.
Finally, Jordan Peele’s Nope was a top 5 movie for me last year. It’s smart, hilarious, terrifying, philosophical, disturbing, cinematic—I mean, I could go on. It’s the modern-day Jaws that I didn’t know I needed. You’d think a monster-hunting movie about Hollywood that explores the meaning of spectacle and cinema would get the attention of an organization known for rewarding its own stories (I mean, a cinematography nomination at the very least?), but, alas, there’s a reason that the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is trending again.
What else do I need to see?
There are still some movies I haven’t seen yet. Avatar: The Way of Water is the only Best Picture nominated film that I still need to get to. I also haven’t seen The Woman King (which, from what I’m hearing, is another good film on the “Oscars Snub” list), Blonde (I keep putting this one off out of my deep adoration for Marilyn Monroe, but I hear good things about Ana de Armas), or To Leslie (which somewhat dramatically got Andrea Riseborough her first Oscar nomination).
(My mom says To Leslie is really good, so it must be so.)