This year’s best picture race boasts a revisionist western, a science fiction epic, a song-and-dance musical, a grim neo-noir, a shaggy ’70s comedy, an inspirational sports drama, an apocalyptic satire and three major prize winners from the Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film festivals. Academy voters obviously didn’t plan it that way, but it strikes me as an awfully healthy something-for-everyone representation of the year in cinema. And, in a time when moviegoing options for non-Marvel-obsessed adults have never seemed more endangered, that’s hardly nothing.
Best picture is the only Oscar category in which the winner is determined by a preferential ballot, requiring voters to rank all the nominees — this year, there are 10 — in order from favorite to least favorite. The Times’ film/TV awards expert, Glenn Whipp, has taken several helpful, heroic stabs at explaining the higher math involved, which basically boils down to the fact that a broadly well-liked movie may ultimately have a better shot at winning than a passionately loved one.
In any event, while I don’t vote in the Oscars, here is how I would rank my hypothetical best picture ballot, in order of least passion to most.
10. ‘Don’t Look Up’
In a recent Vulture piece (“Don’t Get Mad at Me When ‘Don’t Look Up’ Wins Best Picture”), the critic Alison Willmore laid out a despairing case for why Adam McKay’s doomsday satire might have the last laugh on March 27. It’s been widely seen and argued about. It’s the rare nominee with a sizable cultural footprint, which might be enough to overcome hardcore academy resistance to its distributor, Netflix (which, between this and “The Power of the Dog,” has two chances to win its first best picture Oscar this year). It deploys stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence to both skewer and harness the power of Hollywood celebrity, all in service of a climate-change subtext that fits snugly (if smugly) into the academy’s demand for a topically relevant winner.
The reasons why “Don’t Look Up” shouldn’t win best picture are equally legion. It’s never especially funny, not because it’s a dystopian downer whose laughs are supposed to stick in your throat, but because it clumsily assails and misses a series of obvious targets. (Disqualifying grounds alone: the worst comic performance ever given by Meryl Streep, one of our most inspired comic actors.) Although more bearable than “Vice,” it exemplifies McKay’s ongoing tendency to conflate self-importance with importance, and with none of the honest hilarity — or the unpretentious insight into 21st century American life — of his great earlier comedies like “Step Brothers” or “Talladega Nights.”
I’ll try not to hold the movie responsible for McKay’s own bad-faith campaign, which has basically argued that to find fault with “Don’t Look Up” is tantamount to climate-change denialism. But I’m not above channeling some of that energy. Hey, voters, in just under seven weeks, the ultimate catastrophe could happen: “Don’t Look Up” could win best picture. Are you doing everything you can to make sure it doesn’t?
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Kenneth Branagh’s wistful memory piece about his ’60s Northern Irish boyhood was immediately hailed as a front-runner when it won the people’s choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, an accolade that’s often seen as a harbinger of Oscar glory. And clearly, judging by its seven Oscar nominations, there are people who feel passionate about “Belfast,” even if, to these stubbornly dry eyes, it gives off so little discernible passion; it’s some of the most impersonal personal filmmaking I’ve ever seen. (It becomes especially glaring when you put it next to something as intensely felt as, say, Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical “The Hand of God,” an international feature nominee.)
The movie’s bookending images of present-day Belfast suggest a tourism board video; the story proper, shot in oddly textureless black-and-white, isn’t much more atmospheric. As a portrait of family resilience, it’s restrained to the point of anemic: not shamelessly ingratiating enough to be the sentimental crowd-pleaser it might suggest on paper, but also not patient or detailed enough to approximate the rigorous poeticism of something like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” to which it’s been wishfully compared. What “Belfast” does have: a lot of Van Morrison songs and many touching pearls of wisdom endearingly delivered by Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, the latter two of whom were duly nominated. Couldn’t we just leave its recognition at that? Would a truly great self-portrait leave you wishing someone else had directed it?
I had to wince a little when Siân Heder’s lovely drama about a working-class Massachusetts family swept four prizes at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Not because I didn’t like the movie (I did), but because it felt like an ungenerous response to the other standouts of that year’s U.S. dramatic competition. (Exhibit A: Rebecca Hall’s superb “Passing,” woefully shut out of the Oscar nominations as well.) Now “CODA” is up for best picture (and adapted screenplay and supporting actor for Troy Kotsur), and while another Sundance-style sweep isn’t in the cards, its staying power with voters feels like a scrappy underdog narrative worthy of the story it’s telling.
That story, adapted from the French film “La Famille Bélier,” is unabashedly formulaic — and often deeply moving in spite of it. Or maybe because of it? While its portrait of three Deaf adults (Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant and Kotsur) and their interactions with their lone hearing family member (Emilia Jones) has drawn criticism as well as praise, “CODA” bears out a representational truism about movies that’s worth repeating: namely that even cliches, in the hands of characters who’ve too seldom been entrusted with them, have a way of ceasing to be cliches. As filmmaking, “CODA” is more serviceable than inspired, and some scenes lean too heavily on coarse slapstick for my taste. But I’m not made of stone: When Jones and Kotsur have their cathartic reckoning, finally communicating on a level that’s eluded them until now, it renders me as tearily defenseless as voters clearly were.
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7. ‘King Richard’
While it, too, qualifies as a scrappy underdog narrative, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s sharply angled tennis drama, starring Will Smith as the power behind the Williams dynasty’s throne, has been treated as a winner since its well-received premiere at Telluride last fall. Clearly it wasn’t just hype: Beyond its acting nominations for Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, the movie was cited for original song, Zach Baylin’s original script and, crucially, Pamela Martin’s editing. Some will chalk up that latter recognition to those terrifically propulsive tennis matches, though credit Martin also for the subtler work of shaping the movie’s fine performances, including from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena, respectively.
The resistance to “King Richard” has generally been expressed by those who’d have preferred to see a movie centering the Williams sisters (who are among the movie’s executive producers). It’s not a criticism I share; as someone with little use for most cradle-to-grave biopics, there’s something refreshing about this one’s unusual dramatic topspin. For all that, the result can feel slick and airbrushed in the usual academy-friendly ways; Smith gives a memorably warts-and-all performance, but only in one key scene, between him and Ellis, does the movie allude to the more troubling, complicated portrait of marriage and family it might have been.
6. ‘Nightmare Alley’
It’s been a good year for remakes and readaptations (see also No. 5 and No. 3), and also for Bradley Cooper movies (see No. 4), even if Cooper himself wasn’t nominated for either of his two terrific performances. In “Nightmare Alley,” Guillermo del Toro’s bleak and beautiful neo-noir adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s previously filmed 1946 novel, Cooper plays an ambitious 1930s carny whose Faustian bargain (with a drop-dead deceitful Cate Blanchett) earns him big-city fame and begets a maelstrom of horrific violence. And del Toro, a master of exquisite carnage (no other filmmaker smashes faces into pulp more lovingly), here pushes an already dark vision to still darker extremes.
Like “West Side Story,” “Nightmare Alley” is a maximalist exercise in Hollywood neo-classicism; unlike “West Side Story,” it’s the opposite of a crowd-pleaser. All hail academy voters, then, for being sufficiently pleased to give the movie its due with four nominations, including a best picture nomination that was anything but assured. Until the murderous momentum of its brutal third act, del Toro’s lyricism undeniably has its longueurs; still, I find his stylistic indulgences here far more purposeful than they were in “The Shape of Water,” the unwieldy 2017 horror-fantasy that won best picture and director. The cold, unflinching anti-humanism of “Nightmare Alley” may be a much harder sell, but that’s partly because it feels like the truer expression of his instincts as an artist.
A complete guide to where you can watch and/or stream all the movies nominated for this year’s Oscars, from ‘Drive My Car’ to ‘Power of the Dog.’
More than any of this year’s best picture nominees, “Dune” succeeded in distinguishing itself as the year’s theatrical must-see, even with ongoing COVID anxiety and a concurrent HBO Max streaming release. And following last year’s lower-budgeted, streaming-dominant best picture field, its 10 Oscar nominations feel like a big-studio throwback, placing it firmly in the technically virtuosic mold of recent academy favorites like “Inception,” “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” (Needless to say, it fared better than David Lynch’s much-maligned 1984 adaptation, which received a lone Oscar nomination for sound.)
That Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” dominated in the technical categories but failed to register with the actors’ branch is hardly a surprise. But it inadvertently sums up my own mild reservations about Villeneuve’s achievement, which shortchanges Frank Herbert’s more psychologically layered drama in favor of so much state-of-the-art world building. It’s notable that Villeneuve missed out on his second directing nomination (the first was for 2016’s quieter science fiction drama, “Arrival”), and I can see the illogic of that omission, even as someone who finds “Dune’s” dust-choked spectacle more enervating than exhilarating as it goes along.
It is, of course, still going along. “Dune: Part Two” has been announced, and while it’s ridiculous to theorize about a sequel that’s still years away, I suspect academy voters may already be filing Villeneuve’s work-in-progress away in their minds, to be revisited — and perhaps properly recognized — at a later date, much as they did with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But even as more “Dune” admirer than fan thus far, it feels entirely right for an epic colossus this astoundingly well made to find itself in contention. (Also, it’s a much richer climate-change allegory than “Don’t Look Up.”)
4. ‘Licorice Pizza’
It says something about the versatility of Paul Thomas Anderson — who just earned his third Oscar nomination for directing and his fifth for screenwriting — that he nearly always feels at home in new surroundings. Or, in the case of “Licorice Pizza,” old surroundings that he hasn’t visited in a while. This joyously shambling ’70s comedy obviously has a few things in common with “Boogie Nights” or “Punch-Drunk Love,” his previous odes to the San Fernando Valley he calls home. And as a comedy about the difficulties of finding work-love balance, it often plays like a sunnier L.A. version of “Phantom Thread.” That 2017 triumph overperformed on Oscar nominations morning; “Licorice Pizza,” by contrast, likely disappointed some of its partisans by failing to score nominations for Cooper in the supporting actor race or for its luminous breakout star, Alana Haim, in a fiendishly competitive lead actress field.
You could chalk it up to comedy getting no respect, and in the case of Cooper’s hilarious turn as notorious ’70s Hollywood sex pest Jon Peters, you’d be right. But the performance Haim gives in “Licorice Pizza” isn’t exclusively comedic; she provides piercing insight into the heart, mind and soul of a restless young woman, caught between professional ambitions and romantic dreams that can be complementary as well as contradictory. Anderson surrounds her with all manner of business: delirious sight gags, priceless cameos, regrettably ill-judged comic asides involving Japanese actors, much subtler evocations of a bygone era, the year’s single most exciting scene of vehicular mayhem.
It’s an awful lot of multitasking for a movie that’s been misleadingly described as Anderson’s most “laid-back” film, and whose abundant pleasures offer nostalgia and disillusionment in roughly equal measure. Still, Anderson rarely lets you see him sweat — in contrast with Haim and her lovable co-star, Cooper Hoffman, forever running toward and away from each other under the hot California sun.
3. ‘West Side Story’
It’s sacrilege, I know, but I prefer it to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 original on almost every level. It has to contend with all the not-inconsiderable flaws of the show’s original text, of course, from its racial and cultural stereotypes to a love story that rarely rises above insipid. A lot of those flaws are redressed by Tony Kushner’s astute script (sadly absent from the adapted screenplay race) and by performances of astounding musical and emotional vigor from Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez. For all that, “West Side Story” is too joyous to be called a mere corrective. It’s the gentlest, most respectful of remakes (maybe even respectful to a fault), and it finds in Rita Moreno — an Oscar winner for the same role, Anita, that earned DeBose a supporting actress nomination — a kind of reconciliation between the past’s missteps and the present’s imperfect but vital steps forward.
All of which is to say, you know, that Steven Spielberg can direct a movie. Much has been made of the fact that this is his first full-blown musical, a precedent that matters little given the inherently musical flow of his filmmaking. In scene after scene, “West Side Story” comes at you with kaleidoscopic vibrancy and sheer rhythmic force; it’s the purest big-studio affirmation of Hollywood as a dream factory in years, only now the dream merges with a pungent new realism. Spielberg’s directing nomination, which some observers were beginning to doubt, could scarcely be more deserved, not least because it sets the stage for an all-timer of an Oscar rematch.
2. ‘The Power of the Dog’
All hail Jane Campion, who is wholly and happily expected to win best director for her brooding psychological anti-western, and who is now the only woman ever to receive two directing Oscar nominations. She received the first for 1993’s “The Piano,” and you have to wonder if she might have won — and helped overturn the industry’s long-standing bias against female filmmakers that much sooner — if “Schindler’s List” hadn’t come along the same year. Now, 28 years later, Campion and Spielberg will go head-to-head once more, though it’s a pleasingly lopsided match: This time, Spielberg, like Branagh, Anderson and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”), is happy just to be nominated.
There’s some irony, of course, in the fact that Campion, one of modern cinema’s most fearless and nuanced explorers of female identity, is earning her overdue recognition for a movie so unblinkingly focused on masculinity and its discontents. But if the object of her gaze has shifted, the fearsome intensity (and delicacy) of that gaze has not, and what it discovers is too slippery and enigmatic to be reduced to easy gender-based lines. “The Power of the Dog” is a labyrinth built from shifting surfaces, a mirror forever reflecting and sometimes distorting its characters’ inner darkness. And the fact that it’s so hard to pin down, which might have hindered a lesser film in the academy’s eyes, strikes me as crucial to its multitasking success.
Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel is a western but really a psychodrama, a love story concealed as a hate story, a critics’ darling and an audience picture, an actors’ showcase and a technical showpiece. And its extraordinary strength across the board was confirmed Tuesday with a pack-leading 12 nominations, including a staggering four acting placements (for Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), plus citations for adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing, production design, sound and original score.
It would be — and, I suspect, will be — a stupendously worthy best picture winner. That said …
1. ‘Drive My Car’
I’ve already written at length about why Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s emotionally shattering Haruki Murakami adaptation deserved a best picture nomination — something that’s never a guarantee for a movie from overseas, let alone a three-hour Japanese gabfest built around a multilingual production of Chekhov. Now that “Drive My Car” has actually overcome those steep odds and secured the nomination, plus nominations for directing, adapted screenplay and international feature, I find myself — unlike this extremely eloquent movie — at a curious loss for words.
Except maybe this: A movie as special as “Drive My Car” is rare enough; for it to get within spitting distance of best picture is rarer still. That its inclusion still registers as a surprise in some media circles — that we’re shocked to find that Oscar voters are more international and less subtitle-averse than we give them credit for — isn’t on the academy; it’s on us. What, other than ingrained xenophobia, is to stop a conscientious academy member — or a devoted movie lover — from seeking out and potentially connecting with a movie that’s all about the beauty of human connection?
Let it be shouted from the rooftops in any and every language: “Drive My Car” is a masterpiece and the best of this year’s best picture nominees. (Also, it’s a much better movie with a three-word imperative title that starts with “D” than “Don’t Look Up.”)