Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Ranking The Best Pictures Nominees at the 96th Academy Awards

Shockingly, the line-up for Best Picture at the 96th Academy Awards wasn't too shabby, especially compared to other Best Picture line-ups in the past. Granted, these nominees inevitably can't compare to Best Picture line-ups like the 48th Academy Awards nominees (Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, AND Barry Lyndon?!?). However, looking over the history of this category, the 96th Academy Awards Best Picture contenders may be among the top five (or at least top ten) best collections of Best Picture nominees in terms of average quality across all the motion pictures. Not all of the films up for this award in 2024 are the greatest movies ever made, but in the past, there's usually been at least one outright awful movie that squeezed its way into the Best Picture category (Crash, The Reader, The Blind Side, The Broadway Melody). The 96th Academy Awards Best Picture contenders, thankfully, are devoid of an all-time bad motion picture.

On the contrary, it's a pleasant surprise to see a wide variety of movies (from wacky comedies to courtroom thrillers to avant-garde explorations of how genocide is carried out by everyday people) in terms of genre and filmmaking ambitions represented across the 96th Academy Awards Best Picture nominees. Two foreign-language titles made outside of America even cracked the category while three separate nominees were helmed by women, the first time in history either of those events ever happened. There were lots of quibbles to be had with the general 96th Academy Awards nominees, but this was pretty robust Best Picture line-up. Let's dive into those nominees now and rank them from worst to best, in the opinion of this humble critic. Onward to the nominees!

10. Maestro

One biopic has to always slip into the Best Picture nominees, it's practically a requirement. At least Maestro has more interesting visual flourishes than past biopic nominees like Hacksaw Ridge or Bohemian Rhapsody. Plus, Carey Mulligan is really great in the lead role. Still, director/writer/leading man Bradley Cooper weaves a bit too stuffy of an atmosphere for his Leonard Bernstein tale to inhabit. The humanity of the central characters never feels as vibrant or tangible as it should. Sparodically impressive in terms of filmmaking, Maestro still leaves one cold.

9. American Fiction

The marketing for American Fiction puts the feature's satirical material (concerning what kind of art from Black creators is considered "commercial" in America) front and center. However, the actual movie centers a good chunk of its screentime on exploring the familial woes of Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), including his strained relationship with brother Clifford "Cliff" Ellison (Sterling K. Brown). Writer/director Cord Jefferson juggles a lot of material here and inevitably not all of it is equally successful (some key personal developments for Monk feel too rushed especially). However, the emotional beats and gags that land here are downright superb while Brown is a riot in his supporting performance.

8. The Zone of Interest

Jonathan Glazer paints a portrait of how the unspeakable happens in The Zone of Interest, a feature focusing on a Nazi family living in a "perfect" home right outside of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Though audiences never see the interior of that camp, billows of smoke reach for the sky in the background of individual shots, and the sound of gunfire dominates the soundtrack. The horrors are just off-screen, but they're also chillingly in the frame through the way people are so nonchalant about the extermination of human beings. 

7. The Holdovers

Don't let its lower ranking on this list fool you: The Holdovers is the real deal as far as feel-good drama/comedies go. A bittersweet tale anchored by a trio of great performances, The Holdovers concerns three damaged human beings trying to find some solace in each other's company at Christmastime. Screenwriter David Hemingson shows real chops as a writer in executing the big emotional scenes and callbacks of The Holdovers without lapsing into insufferable treacle. Conceptually, The Holdovers sounds familiar, but in execution, it's something special.

6. Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer should've been the movie where writer/director Christopher Nolan finally bit off more than he could chew. Instead, it represented a new peak for Nolan as a filmmaker. The audacious filmmaking (including seamless shifts across time in the non-linear narrative) lends a relentlessly propulsive quality to a story of scientists and playing God. This isn't a stodgy recreation of history, it's something laced with urgency. A murderer's row of great actors, meanwhile, makes even the most throwaway characters in Oppenheimer totally captivating. Nolan's ambition for Oppenheimer sounded daunting, but he pulled this extraordinary film off with incredible skill

5. Anatomy of a Fall

You've seen many courtroom drama movies, but it's doubtful many of them were quite as compelling as Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall. A murdered husband and a suspected killer of his wife spurs the plot of this French feature, which does masterful work delivering exciting new developments in the case and especially in committing to an ambiguous atmosphere. One never knows where our protagonist's loyalties lie, especially with Sandra Huller bringing this woman to life through such a riveting performance. You'll be on the edge of your seat watching both Huller's character navigate this trial and Triet deliver a courtroom drama that changes the game for this genre.

4. Killers of the Flower Moon

It's staggering to watch a movie like Killers of the Flower Moon, which is so expansive in scope, so grand in ambition, but also so devastating in its depiction of cruelty. Within the runtime of this feature, an expansive narrative is told depicting how even "friendly" white people are complicit and actively engaging in the dehumanization of the marginalized. It's a brutal motion picture whose story of genocide against indigenous people just happening with nobody stepping in to stop it is, unfortunately, all too relevant to the modern world. Killers of the Flower Moon takes place in the early 20th century, but Scorsese's searing filmmaking makes this story an essential watch for 21st-century moviegoers.

3. Barbie

It's amazing that Barbie is here as a Best Picture nominee. Academy voters seemed to think The LEGO Movie being based on a toy was enough to disqualify it from the Best Animated Feature nominees years ago...yet Barbie made it into the Best Picture category?!? What a miracle, just like how Barbie as a movie is a tender wonderful miracle unto itself. For one thing, it's just a whole lot of fun to watch, with its dazzling production design and mastery of absurdist humor. Unsurprisingly (given her brilliant use of pathos in Lady Bird and Little Women), writer/director Greta Gerwig also makes Barbie something that touches on something so profoundly human that the only response is to cry. Laughs, tears, unforgettable outfits, Barbie has everything any movie should have!

2. Poor Things

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has refined his style of oddball cinema (told with aloof yet precise camerawork and dry line deliveries) to a tee over the last two decades, but rarely has it felt as fun or subversive as it does in Poor Things. That's likely because the film's protagonist, Bella Baxter, is the rare Lanthimos protaganists who isn't detestable. In the past, Lanthimos has made narratives around characters you love to hate or you're fascinated by because you see your own shortcomings in them. Baxter, meanwhile, is somebody we root for in her quest for independence and discovering the world. This distinctive type of protagonist in the canon of Lanthimos movies results in the filmmaker taking his craft to new exciting heights of creativity, all while also expanding his skills in terms of drawing out such extraordinary performances from actors and working with captivating sets. Poor Things carries all the great traits of classic Lanthimos movies, but it's also a mesmerizing accomplishment because, in many important ways, it's unlike anything else this man has ever made.

1. Past Lives

At the end of the excellent 2023 book Burn it Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, author Maureen Ryan references Samwise Gangee's "there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo" speech from The Two Towers as an example of "the magic trick" the best movies pull off. "Why does it move?" she ponders, "I could list the reasons, but they wouldn't fully explain it." Sometimes, Ryan posits, art produces emotions in viewers that can't be properly communicated in words. It just is magical, moving, and wonderful. That's how I feel about Past Lives. It's a masterwork from head-to-toe, in terms of its acting, cinematography, score, the finest touches of writer/director Celine Song's filmmaking...it's all just a miracle to witness. The absolute best movie of 2023, Past Lives is, inevitably, also the champ of the crop of nominees in the 96th Academy Awards Best Picture field.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Origin is an ambitious but not fully successful epic


Origin is not a straightforward adaptation of the 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which proposed the idea that caste systems are to blame for global forms of inequality. It's technically the story of Wilkerson herself (portrayed by Aunjane Ellis) as she embarked on writing that text. Reeling from endless horrific personal tragedies, Wilkerson begins a globe-trotting exercise that takes her everywhere from Germany to India to a BBQ hosted by her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) to explore how inequality festers. With this project, writer/director Ava DuVernay is looking at parallels between historical atrocities as well as making something deeply intimate...how do we keep going in the wake of turmoil? When we lose people close to us, how does that void get filled?

There's a lot of heavy material in Origin, with DuVernay's grasp sometimes exceeding her reach. Her script especially struggles to figure out when the on-screen images should do all the talking. Expository narration from Wilkerson often dominates visually striking glimpses of the past, a move done to potentially make this material more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the history of countries like India or Germany. However, many of these lines (like Wilkerson's remark that two students in 1930s Germany had "stumbled onto something momentous") aren't clarifying impenetrable details of the past.  They're just saying things that could easily be communicated through camera angles or music cues. Speaking of dialogue, there's also an odd habit in the writing of having figures like Wilkerson recite staggering horrific historical facts (like the number of deaths stemming from the slave trade), but in a "cheer-worthy" manner. The mere stating of the truth is meant to be akin to the big crowdpleaser moments from a Star Wars or Marvel movie. It's a rhythm evocative of John Oliver's "mic-drop" moments on Last Week Tonight, where he condemns some horrific atrocity and the crowd applauds approvingly. That dynamic doesn't really translate to film, particularly one as somber and grounded as Origin.

DuVernay's always had a knack for powerful images dating back to her indie works like Middle of Nowhere and that gift is clearly present throughout Origin. It's just a shame those images are often undercut by extraneous narration. DuVernay's script also would've benefited from just going all-in on being a three-hour epic (the feature already runs for 135 minutes) just to give the various personal problems in Wilkerson's life more room to breathe. The increasingly dire health struggles of Marion are especially underserved by how much material Origin is trying to juggle in just one movie. Niecy Nash-Betts is so compelling in her on-screen performance as Marion and she has fantastic believable chemistry with Aunjanue Ellis. Those feats just make it more disappointing that this character's medical problems just keep fading in and out of the runtime. A lengthier runtime could've given this and other personal aspects of Wilkerson's life a better chance to develop.

Origin does struggle as a screenwriting exercise, but it's far from a lost cause as a movie. For starters, DuVernay and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd make this independent production look incredibly crisp by shooting the proceedings on 16mm film. There's a deeply lived-in quality to the images of Origin thanks to this choice and that classical filming detail especially helps the period-era sequences feel extra authentic. DuVernay also executes her script with some truly inspired visual flourishes, such as a scene of a distraught Wilkerson trying to get herself "presentable" that's captured without dialogue, from Wilkerson's hip, and at a tilted upward angle. Every detail of the camera's presence in this scene is rich with fascinating details, including the decision to use a low-angle shot (typically used to indicate formidable characters awash with power) on a deeply vulnerable person who can barely contain her tears. Origin's script may often stumble, but its visuals are unquestionably sublime.

Unfortunately, those sharp filmmaking sensibilities are also often in the service of images that, unfortunately, aren't as distinctive as they could be. Origin is ultimately still enamored with depictions of Black teens getting shot, Indians in lower-economic classes trudging through human defecation, and Nazi men in love with Jewish women. These events and tragedies have obviously happened throughout the history of human history, which explains why they're also very common sights in period pieces or features contemplating global depictions of prejudice. For its epic scope, Origin's greatest shortcomings are that it struggles to expand the visual language of the suffering of the marginalized on-screen while its human drama isn't given enough room to breathe. 

Still, even with these defects, there's lots to appreciate and get enamored with in Origin, including a string of compelling performances. Aunjane Ellis, for her part, is great at capturing the vulnerability and academic confidence of Wilkerson, both sides of the coin are vividly-realized in her assured hand. Supporting performers Niercy Nash-Betts and Jon Bernthal impress in their screentime, while Audra McDonald gets an unforgettable sequence depicting a woman being openly vulnerable about classism she experienced as a child. In the wake of this testimony, Wilkerson clutches this woman's hand and quietly thanks her for her vulnerability. It's a moment of tender emotional connection so nicely realized on-screen, both in terms of the performances and filmmaking, that it encapsulates why Origin is impossible to dismiss fully. Any movie that can deliver a scene this good is doing something right, even if it's a drastic step down in quality from previous DuVernay directorial efforts like Selma and When They See Us.