This has been a rough Oscars race, though it’s not the fault of the movies. You wouldn’t guess from the Academy’s apologetic panic that the Best Picture slate this year is varied and interesting, running the gamut from a sci-fi blockbuster to a meditative drama about grief and from a refreshed musical classic to a nostalgic coming-of-age comedy. But rather than coalesce around a favorite, this year’s discussions have felt more like they’re been in search of a villain that’s failed to materialize or at least of some fitting receptacle for all those disgruntled feelings as cinema heads toward its unknown future. This chaotic award season has been defined more by fears of irrelevance than by the movies themselves — as well as by the declining ratings that have resulted in multiple categories being banished from the live telecast and by the introduction of a Twitter-driven “Fan Favorite” poll that’s immediately become a standom battleground.
Is it any wonder the usual narratives have failed to come together? While there’s plenty to recommend about The Power of the Dog, the Jane Campion western feels as if it has maintained its place atop prediction lists less because of its winning qualities and more because it just has the least chance of losing. Its late-breaking rival, CODA — a Sundance breakout of cozy predictability — has risen through the ranks seemingly because it’s a sleeper contender that Academy members haven’t had the chance to get tired of talking about yet. Meanwhile, Belfast, Don’t Look Up, King Richard, Nightmare Alley, and the rest have already had a chance to be found wanting either because of their respective controversies and shortcomings or because of the ways in which they might be perceived as failing the viewing public or film fans. And in these uncertain times, hell, who are we to disagree with what the people want? As award season comes to a close, Vulture is surrendering to darkness with an array of arguments making the case for why any one of this year’s ten nominees can be the Oscars villain. If you’re still not sure what to root for this year, at least you can come up with something to root against.
No one had any problems with CODA until it started winning. When it was lingering around the bottom half of the Best Picture rankings, everyone was happy to let Sian Heder’s film into the Oscars club. A little Sundance movie about a hearing girl in a Deaf family, how cute! Good for Apple TV+. Now that it appears to be actual threat to win Best Picture, though, the knives have come out. (And not in a fun, Daniel Craig way.) Its big win at the Producers Guild of America Awards last weekend was Film Twitter’s Fort Sumter moment. Suddenly, if you were rooting for CODA, it meant you were a philistine who doesn’t appreciate great art; if you were rooting against it, you were a heartless snob. (Except it’s worth noting that Deaf critics have side-eyed the film, too.) — Nate Jones
Drive My Car
Imagine you’re an Academy executive. You’re doing everything you can to make this telecast a treat for the average moviegoer, even moving a full third of your categories off the live broadcast. Sure, everyone’s making fun of the idea of the Oscars Fan Favorite, and half your membership is up in arms, but those complaints will fade away when you produce the most mainstream, accessible Oscars in years. Wait, what’s that? The biggest trophy of the night has gone to a three-hour Japanese film about a guy listening to his dead wife read Uncle Vanya? Jesus fucking Christ. It was all for nothing. — N.J.
Don’t Look Up
I’ve made my case. — Alison Willmore
If there were a category for most annoying discourse, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest would have it on lock. Licorice Pizza has been the locus of not one but two terrible online fights: First, there was the matter of the racist restaurant owner played by John Michael Higgins, whose scenes made a punch line out of the grotesque “Asian” accent he used when talking to his successive Japanese wives. The character spawned debates about whether it mattered that the joke was supposed to be on him. (It didn’t.) Second, there was the issue of the age difference between the two main characters, a drifting 25-year-old (Alana Haim) and a confident 15-year-old (Cooper Hoffman) who end up in a romantic embrace. That discussion, which sent some viewers spiraling over the age gap while leading defenders to declare that kissing high-school students was no big deal, was annoying enough. But because of the strange, staggered way the film was released, those conversations kept hellishly returning as new people saw the film. I never want to talk about Licorice Pizza again. — A.W.
Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has been working nearly as hard as Hercule Poirot’s mustache to sway voters on the awards circuit, and certainly the film has its charms. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan are lovely together, and the many Van Morrison songs are integral to Belfast’s wistful, whimsical atmosphere. But as Nate Jones noted, “These days, you’re not a real auteur unless you too have lovingly crafted a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film,” and that observation speaks to the familiarity — and sameness, even safeness — of a film like Belfast. It can’t help but be compared with Alfonso Cuarón’s similarly personal, similarly black-and-white Roma, and it comes up a little short in terms of cohesiveness and compellingness. (Roma losing out to Green Book at the 91st Academy Awards remains an injustice, by the way.) A Best Picture win for Belfast would be, again, fine. But maybe the top winner should inspire more than a resigned shrug?— Roxana Hadadi
First things first — Dune is really Dune: Part One. A second Dune movie is coming, and if filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s wildest ambitions can be believed, possibly even a third. All of this is to say that Dune: Part One feels at best like a portion of an idea, and it would be odd to reward an introduction to a potential trilogy instead of its culmination. While there is a fair amount of technical mastery in Dune (Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Joe Walker’s editing) and one stupendous performance (Jason Momoa’s tonally perfect Duncan Idaho), that doesn’t add up to one fully formed film. Recall how The Return of the King’s 11 Academy Award wins, including for Best Picture, were really a sort of culmination for all the effort The Lord of the Rings trilogy required; Villeneuve needs to show us more than “just the beginning,” as Zendaya’s Chani says, to collect the same award. Oh, and there’s that whole “Dune totally erases all acknowledgment of the novel’s Middle Eastern and Islamic influences” thing. That’s pretty exhausting, too.— R.H.
Will Smith’s performance in King Richard as the man who helped raise and train the greatest tennis players of all time is considered a lock for Best Actor. But as our critic Bilge Ebiri wrote in his (otherwise positive!) review of the movie, he’s not done any favors by the film’s script: “It’s a touching turn, but not a particularly surprising one, thanks to a pro forma script that telegraphs all its big moments and rarely tries for the unexpected, keeping all its key emotional beats to the level of incident and dialogue — which feels like a bit of a waste when you have as dynamic and versatile a presence as Smith.”
West Side Story
Hollywood’s most acclaimed living director blowing $100 million to remake a lionized 1962 Best Picture Oscar winner in no particular need of remaking is villainous enough behavior by itself. Add to that Boricuan resistance to “cosmetic changes to right the previous version’s sins,” the sexual-assault allegations that resurfaced and have angrily swirled around co-star Ansel Elgort since the film’s December rollout, and Steven Spielberg’s cringeworthy comments about hiring dialect coaches to “help Puerto Ricans who have lived in New York too long remember where they came from,” and you start wondering why West Side Story 2.0 has been sucking up awards-season oxygen at all. — Chris Lee
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s film is the heavyweight contender, the one to beat. With a leading 12 nominations in marquee categories, you could even call it the overdog. (A fact Campion herself may be loath to acknowledge.) But despite its biblical grandiosity and aura of self-seriousness — not to mention a “For Your Consideration” ad blitz featuring fawning blurbs from Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, Ang Lee, and Sofia Coppola — I haven’t been able to shake an early hot take I overheard at TIFF, where Dog premiered: “Good movie; nothing happens.” In a post-Yellowstone Hollywood that emboldened Sam Elliott, for one, to dig at Dog’s “allusions of homosexuality” and ask, “Where’s the western in this western?” the movie has come to stand for something other than an indictment of toxic masculinity. Instead, it’s the latest proof of the Academy’s chronic humorlessness. — C.L.
Listen, sometimes the Academy is going to follow its muse no matter what anyone else thinks. If it wants to hand three acting nominations to a mediocre showbiz biopic like Being the Ricardos, it’s going to do it, and there’s nothing you or I can say to stop it. Same goes for this handsomely mounted period piece, a feat of Production Design that neither critics nor the broader public really showed much interest in. Perhaps, as Karina Longworth speculated, all the major contenders could knock each other out, allowing Nightmare Alley’s strong craft support to lead it to an unexpected Best Pic victory. Sound crazy? It probably is, but Guillermo del Toro has done it before. — N.J.
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