The Best Picture nominations for this year are: “Belfast;” “CODA;” “Don’t Look Up;” “Drive My Car;” “Dune;” “King Richard;” “Licorice Pizza;” “Nightmare Alley;” “The Power of the Dog;” and “West Side Story.”
Of that number, I have seen all but “CODA” and “Drive My Car” (which is also nominated in the category of Best International Film).
The fact that I have not seen the latter two should not be taken as a sign of personal preference, but of the availability of the films to the general public. I live “off the beaten path” in what is considered rural Illinois.
When I am in my place in Chicago, I can usually find the lesser-known films at art houses, but I’ve been stuck in the Quad Cities with ill health and surgery. I will stream “CODA” and “Drive My Car,” [hopefully before the awards show on March 27th], but it is unlikely that either of those little-seen films really has a shot at Best Picture honors, so let’s take a closer look at the remaining eight nominees.
Here they are in the order in which I enjoyed them, with commentary:
“West Side Story” – a superb re-imagining of the original 1960s film, with fantastic performances from the two leads, Ansel Elgort (who was much better than the original Tony in every way) and from new “find” in the Natalie Wood part, Rachel Zegler. The fact that only Ariana DeBose was nominated as Best Supporting Actress, for her role as Anita (made famous by Rita Moreno’s win in the part) seems almost criminal. Scuttle-butt from the social media suggests that a concerted campaign to discredit Ansel Elgort in a “Me/Too” fashion may have dampened some of the film’s early buzz. All I know is that I went to our IMAX screen early in the week before it opened, to secure tickets for a couple in from out-of-town, so that we could go to it late on the Saturday afternoon it opened (weekend of December 10th). Imagine my shock when there were only 4 people in the entire theater for the late afternoon showing of this tremendous film on Opening Weekend. Then I read that Spielberg’s film was being “banned” in some countries because of its representation of the trans-gender world, and he was garnering praise for casting actors in their parts who were actually ethnic. Our friends humored me and agreed to watch the original film, back-to-back with this remake; we all agreed that the dancing and singing were superior in the remake. Also, the leads (Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler) should have been nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress. The film was one of the most enjoyable and best-updated films of the year, and I would happily see it carry off the honors for Best Picture.
“Nightmare Alley” – I’m always a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s films and loved “The Shape of Water.” While this film is not quite as appealing to me as that earlier Best Picture winner, it was a beautifully done and well-acted film, which has garnered nominations, as well, for Cinematography, Costume Design and Production Design. The film had the kind of cast that virtually guarantees a great end product, with Richard Jenkins, Bradley Cooper, Willem Dafoe, and Cate Blanchett. Most critics felt that it was 2 different movies, with the early circus-themed charlatan days of Bradley Cooper leading to the later con-man rise to power of Bradley Cooper’s character. It isn’t until the movie is half over that Cate Blanchett, for instance, enters. I felt like that was a specious objection, as we have the saga of Donald J. Trump in his early days as a real estate mogul leading to his later heady rise to power, which saw him consorting with a completely different cast of characters in later life than in his early days as a real estate baron. That’s the way life goes. As the film explores in a circular fashion, what goes up must often come down and it’s not “two different stories” but the tragic continuation of the original story.
“The Power of the Dog” – I thoroughly enjoyed this streaming service film, but, when it came to guessing which “movies” would make the cut for Best Picture, I dismissed this Netflix film that has garnered the most nominations (12) from my mind. Those were the “olden” days, when a film that was streamed was not considered the equal of those that also played in first-run theaters. Now, streaming is coming into its own and this may well be the first film made for a streaming service (Apple) that breaks through the barrier that previously existed in critics’ and audiences’ minds. All of the cast of this western were nominated for their portrayals, which means Benedict Cumberbatch. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee as the scheming son of Kirsten Dunst, and the married IRL couple Kirsten Dunst and Jessie Plemens. The film was also nominated for Best Director for Jane Campion (“The Piano”). That would seem to be a plus for her in a decade that has seen objections to the scarcity of female directors be mentioned time and time again. Other nominated areas for “The Power of the Dog” include Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design and Best Sound. “The Power of the Dog” stands alone in seeing all of its leads nominated in their respective categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.) I would have liked to have seen “The Tender Bar” and Ben Affleck and George Clooney (Best Actor and Best Director) break the streaming barrier, too.
“Belfast” – I attended the Premiere of “Belfast” in Chicago at the Chicago International Film Festival with nominated Best Director Kenneth Branagh appearing in person. I liked the film, especially for the lead performances from the young boy portraying Branagh as a child (Jude Hill as Buddy) and the actors portraying his mother and father (Jamie Dornan of “Fifty Shades of Gray” and Caitriona Balfe of the “Outlander” TV series). I am not surprised that old-timers Dame Judi Dench and Ciarian Hinds emerged with the nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, but their contribution was matched by the two young leads and it seems that public and/or critical sentiment is supportive of “The Power of the Dog” for recognizing the entire cast, but that thinking was cast aside for the really outstanding work that Jamie Dornan and Catriona Balfe also contributed. The film was split between black-and-white scenes and color scenes; I preferred the use of color. It was a good film, but it definitely comes down my list after the three above, to see immediately. It could have been shorter and had the earmarks of the sort of film that Old Hollywood always wanted to reward with Oscars.
“Licorice Pizza” – I enjoyed “Licorice Pizza,” primarily for the brief cameo appearance of Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters. It seems to be quite a snub that Bradley Cooper did not get a Best Actor nomination for “Nightmare Alley” in a year when he also turned in this extremely funny impersonation of Hollywood icon (and former Streisand squeeze) Jon Peters. Somebody up there DOESN’T like him? My husband did not stay awake throughout the entire run time of “Licorice Pizza,” but my daughter and I enjoyed it and I liked the introduction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s young lookalike son. Still, not as good a film as the others above this, and not as good a film as “Last Night in Soho,” which was totally ignored. Anya Taylor-Joy deserved a nomination for her role in that last film, especially after “The Queen’s Gambit” on television.
“King Richard” – I saw this film and it failed to register, for me, as Best Picture of this (or any) year. Will Smith did a good job, but if I have to sit through one more commercial of Serena Williams hitting tennis balls in a mall, I think I am going to scream. I found the supporting stint of Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”) as agent Rick Macci offputting. I also do not think that the role of Anjanue Ellis as “Brandy” Williams was worthy of a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She was good, yes, but she was not any better than Cate Blanchett in “Nightmare Alley” or Caitriona Balfe in “Belfast” or the leads in “Cruella” or Anya Taylor-Joy (“Last Night in Soho”). At least there won’t be the ”Oscars So White” outbursts this year that occurred the year that Will Smith didn’t get a nomination for “Concussion” in 2015. He has, however, received nominations, previously, for “Ali” (2002) and “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006), so maybe this is the year for Will Smith. (It’s definitely not the year for Bradley Cooper, which seems indefensible.)
“Dune” – I took myself to see this on the IMAX screen. It was gorgeously done, but I’d have to go back and read the books to connect more with the plot, which was extremely involved and complicated. I loved the cast, especially seeing Oscar Isaac in anything and enjoyed the ambitious special effects. A film definitely deserving of nomination (every scene looked like Big Bucks had been spent) but not my Best Picture of the Year. Sci-fi afficionados will feel differently, and rightfully so.
“Don’t Look Up” – This should have been right up my alley. A star-studded cast, all of whom I truly enjoy. Adam McKay. A great allegorical story about how we ignore the dangers heading towards us, like global warming. I did think Jennifer Lawrence was good in her part, although the verdict is still out on Meryl Streep (who was over-the-top) and Leonardo DeCaprio. Again, very surprised that it wasn’t better, given all the talent that went into it.
So, as we enter the final weeks of February and look forward to March 27th (the Oscar date), the order above represents my personal take on the nominated films. There are way too many performances that should have been nominated, but weren’t, and the two films I haven’t seen are likely to have little to no chance, given the fact that if I haven’t seen them—trying hard, as I am—probably nobody much has.
I feel that “Nightmare Alley” and “The Power of the Dog” are tied, in my mind, as to “which is best,” but it appears clear that the nod is being given to the latter, given the sheer number of nominations it garnered. If you want to see the nominated films in the order in which they are enjoyable, follow the list above, since I am always in search of entertainment as well as enlightenment.
The only thing that would make Jane Campion a better potential winner of the Best Director award in these P.C. times would be if she were a Black female director. As it is, she has checked one important box and, with “The Power of the Dog”, we may see the first “streaming” movie walk off with the top prize. I’d be okay with that, although, in my mind, there is still a distinction between an extravaganza like “Dune” or “West Side Story” and a well-told story like Campion’s previous award-winning film “The Piano.”