Big screen buzz
We look at 10 films already generating Oscar talk
It wasn’t exactly an upset when “Everything Everywhere All At Once” won Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards, but it was weird. At once broadly populist and defiantly esoteric, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s sci-fi-multiverse melodrama either represented a singular criss-crossing of cultural streams or else the shape of things to come. If the Oscar magnets of the 20th century were by and large big, lumbering prestige pictures, the 21st century has favoured genrehopping agility.
With these trends in mind, and allowing for the fact that predictions — not unlike the Oscars themselves — are for suckers, here’s an early look at some of this year’s Best Picture contenders, ranked in ascending order of likelihood as opposed to quality:
Air Turning multibillionaire shoe magnates into heroes takes some doing, and the pressing question about Ben Affleck’s Nike origin myth is whether at least some of its pro-corporate rhetoric is tonguein-cheek. If so, give the director credit for practicing subversion in plain sight; if not, it’s like watching a defanged, nonvenomous version of “The Social Network.” Still, it’s hard to deny the entertainment value of watching Affleck and his old pal Matt Damon cuddling up to underdog sports-movie conventions, and there are enough expert performances in the supporting cast to make “Air” feel as light and revivifying as its title.
The Iron Claw Where the Academy loves boxing movies (think “On the Waterfront,” “Rocky” and “Million Dollar Baby”), there has never been a Best Picture winner about professional wrestling — an oversight insofar as it’s arguably America’s premier popular art form. There’s surely a prestige-picture aura to Sean Durkin’s new, fact-based drama “The Iron Claw,” which tells the tragic story of the two-fisted Texas clan known as the Von Erichs, whose members dominated the squared circle in the early 1980s before falling prey to their demons (or, as some speculated, a mythic family curse). Expect blood, sweat and tears, and probably at least a couple of nominations for the hard-bodied cast members (including Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White).
Anatomy of a Fall In 2019, Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became only the second movie in history to win both the Palme D’or at Cannes and Best Picture. Could the expertly calibrated French thriller “Anatomy of a Fall” be the third? Although structured as a courtroom drama — with the brilliant German actress Sandra Hüller playing a writer accused of murdering her husband — Justine Triet’s film is actually a meditation on marriage: what’s being interrogated here are the power dynamics in relationships are forged and wielded both in public and behind closed doors. Between its twisty plot and trickier metaphysics, it’s the sort of movie that’s made to be seen and debated with friends, right down to the carefully ambiguous final shot. Poor Things A steampunk-flavoured variation on “Frankenstein,” “Poor Things” is probably the most eccentric awards-season contender since director Yorgos Lanthimos’ earlier — and equally anachronistic — 18th-century period piece “The Favorite.” There, Emma Stone played one of two women vying for the affections of Olivia Colman’s regally dilapidated Queen Anne. Here, she’s front and centre as distaff version of Mary Shelley’s monster, except that instead of a golem stitched together out of discarded corpses, her character is a drowning victim implanted with the brain of her (unborn) baby. Part shocker, part satire, and propelled through its contradictions by Stone’s fearless slapstick acting, “Poor Things” won the Golden Lion at Venice — a piece of hardware that would look good on the shelf next to a couple of Oscars. The Zone of Interest Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Amis’s best novel is a stylistic tourde-force set on the outskirts of Auschwitz. Its protagonists are a Nazi couple whose lives unfold in counterpoint to the mass death being manufactured on the other side of their garden wall. What could have been a queasy exercise in exploitation unfolds instead as a case study in artistic restraint. By compartmentalizing his storytelling between showing us repetitive domestic tasks and hiding unfathomable (yet all too easily imagined) horrors, Glazer weaponizes negative space itself. Not an easy watch, but a crucial one.
The Holdovers Paul Giammatti elevates this melancholy tale of intergenerational male bonding, which knows its audience and gives them what they want. It’s the year’s grainiest-looking movie, scored to ’70s easy-listening hits and blanketed in swirls of Christmas-time snow. If “The Holdovers” feels uncannily like a movie you’ve seen before, that’s the point — its ’70s vibes evoke nostalgia not only for an analog era of American life but for when directors were allowed to explore the nooks and crannies of human nature rather than renovating highrise intellectual properties. Call it derivative, call it manipulative, call a moratorium on Cat Stevens needle drops — nothing will get in the way of jerking the audience’s tears.
Maestro If there was a special Oscar for Best Yearning, Bradley Cooper would win in a walk. The not-sosubtle subtext of “Maestro” is that the director-star wishes he could inhabit the mercurial talent of somebody like Leonard Bernstein, and the movie plays out as a combination of masquerade and stolen valour. Every scene is a set piece; every monologue is an acceptance speech; every tracking shot should be labelled “for your consideration.” The upshot of all that striving is a movie that leverages monotony against exhilaration — a combination that more old-fashioned AMPAS voters may well find irresistible.
American Fiction There’s a great contemporary subject in Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” which deals with the way that artists are tempted — and ultimately willing — to package themselves as commodities in a crowded marketplace. Fed up with what he perceives as a surfeit of cynical, race-hustling memoirs by African-American writers exploiting street-level stereotypes, a tenuously tenured professor (Jeffrey Wright) decides to pen one of his own, channelling his contempt into a manuscript so over-the-top that it comes out the other end as a critically acclaimed bestseller. Imagine a mix of “Bamboozled” and “The Producers” — with a bit of “Adaptation” for existential ballast — and you’re almost there. Its TIFF Peoples’ Choice award, meanwhile, puts it in the gold-plated company of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Green Book.” Killers of the Flower Moon The opposite of a crowd-pleaser, and better for it, Martin Scorsese’s truecrime epic has been a lightning rod for all kinds of discourse about history and representation — a big load for even a three-hour plus epic to bear. It’s a shame, though, that because Scorsese already has one Oscar (for “The Departed”) he’s less likely to cop a second for his brilliant, thoughtful direction. The film’s best shot at a trophy resides with Lily Gladstone, whose solid, solemn performance as an Osage woman being poisoned to death by her white husband provides the film with its beating, broken heart.
Barbie The story goes that Tom Cruise and James Cameron collectively liberated the theatrical movie-going experience last year with “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” — a campaign fought by land, sea and air. But Greta Gerwig doesn’t look like a damsel in distress, and “Barbie” — a film whose satirical targets include alpha-male saviour types — grossed a billion dollars and change, minus any CGI whales or heavy artillery (unless you count hiring Slash to play a guitar solo). Whether or not it’s possible for a movie to double as brand extension and ideological critique is hard to say, but at its best, “Barbie” exults in such contradictions. Gerwig’s ambition is real, and so is her babes-in-toyland vision, with its myriad sight gags choreographed against an ersatz but tactile plastic backdrop. Oppenheimer In a year dominated by biopics, Christopher Nolan’s carefully layered character study stood out for its adroit avoidance of conventions and moral ambiguity. As a portrait of a so-called greatman-of-history, it bristles with sinister subtext, with star Cillian Murphy plausibly rotting from the inside-out like Dorian Gray. For conjuring up so much craft — and controlling a story that could have easily lapsed into hero worship, Nolan will leapfrog his hero Stanley Kubrick’s lifetime career haul of zero in the Best Director category. And there’s also a good chance Robert Downey Jr. will be rewarded for his smarmy, status-climbing bad guy — a performance that makes some of wish Tony Stark had bit it sooner so that the guy playing him could have flashed his craft more often.
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