With the 94th Academy Awards on the horizon, and a race for the top prize that’s had a healthy dose of competition readministered just before the finish line, we set about ranking every Best Picture nominee from worst to best.
10 – Don’t Look Up
We can be glad that someone at least took a swing at making a 21st century Dr. Strangelove, to surmise that our refusal to address climate-change and perpetual divisiveness overstepped the bounds of concern into absurdity a long time ago. The momentum of Don’t Look Up’s premise and need to laugh and scream into the insurmountable stupidity of it all is often enough to keep the film trucking along, but this is an aggressively mediocre take on its subject.
Adam McKay’s movie is not particularly funny overall, rarely emotionally moving (DiCaprio’s final line-delivery gives us a glimpse of the pathos we might’ve benefited from in a better film), and almost never insightful. The all-star cast crackles though, there are a handful of good laughs, and probing the existential anxiety over what’s set to greet us at our door not too long from now, however half-heartedly, can prove effective. The machinations of Don’t Look Up are not bad, per se, but the sum of it all is an overlong SNL sketch.
9 – Belfast
This sweet, sentimental family portrait by Kenneth Branagh aims to semi-autobiographically encapsulate a time in the director’s early life marked by innocence, playing in Belfast among his neighbours at age 8, developing crushes and getting into mischief, when The Troubles arrive to violently snatch that childhood away. Capturing his beloved family (an extraordinarily affable group of actors, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe and Ciarán Hinds among them) and old stomping grounds with wide-eyed, black and white reverence, Branagh doesn’t quite bring home everything his film had the potential to communicate. We spend some time repeating similar beats without much progress, and though we’re inhabiting the story through Buddy’s eyes, that doesn’t excuse the film’s occasionally overly mawkish treatment. All the same, Belfast is ultimately saved by its sincerity.
8 – King Richard
King Richard may not be breaking any new ground, but it is a fast, satisfying and uplifting sports movie, and for readers who tend to find Best Picture Nominees pretentious, that is welcome shelter from the storm. The titular King Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena, is embodied by a career-best Will Smith, who gives the larger-than-life character with an inscrutable single-mindedness room to be identified with as a man in possession of deep wounds and a need to shape his daughters into champions the world will have no choice but to respect.
While this is largely an affectionate take on Williams, the film has at least some weight behind it in charting the psychology of the family, their humble beginnings, and the racial prejudice that greeted them both in the form of complete stonewalling early on and slimy, condescending sycophancy once their undeniable talent became exploitable. Carried by its performances, King Richard is an unadventurous take on the genre, but a thoroughly entertaining one that’s liable to win you over.
7 – CODA
This year’s little indie that could is pitch-perfect feel-good dramedy CODA, telling the coming-of-age story of Rubi, the only hearing member of her family, to crowd-pleasing effect. Certain beats, plot points and even characters can feel a little rote, but for all its formula, CODA offers a great sense of authenticity, clear passion for the material, and some powerfully human moments. Above all else, CODA is a vehicle for fantastic performances by deaf actors bringing to life a vividly 3-dimensional family.
6 – The Power of the Dog
What was, until as recently as a week ago, the clear frontrunner for Best Picture, turned out to be a slow-burn western with more to say about masculinity, fragility, and (less surprisingly) power, than some have come to expect from the well-worn genre. Director Jane Campion, commanding a rare control over the medium, populates her desolate and miserable landscapes with an incredible slate of performances, building dread and revealing the tumult beneath the surface with a captivating precision.
5 – Nightmare Alley
Guillermo Del Toro meets the moment with a fatalistic and exquisitely made neo-noir centering on one of the director’s least sympathetic man-cum-monsters ever; conman and carnie Stanton Carlisle, who runs feverishly from the frying pan of his past into the fire of a big score. This is an excellent pulp story of American ambition, and the painful roots that drive men to lie to others for a living and to themselves to carry on. Del Toro’s sumptuous filmmaking elevates one of his colder scripts, while a slippery Bradley Cooper matches the film around him in ever mounting tension and tragedy, barreling towards an inevitable, and dazzling, finish.
4 – Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s snapshot of early ‘70s San Fernando Valley takes you for a pleasant ride, one that is nostalgic and critical, lively but unhurried, as if capturing the recklessness of youth through a tranquil retelling, bolstered by remarkable first turns from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim.
Hoffman is Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old with the charisma and inflated sense of self to soliloquize his way into the company of Alana Kane (Haim), who is ten years his senior. She’s rapidly discovering the consequences of her immaturity, including “Hanging out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time”. She may find it weird, but like Licorice Pizza itself, it makes for great company.
3 – Drive My Car
Drive My Car is the sort of film movie-people call a “meditation” (in this instance on grief), often as praise, sometimes as warning. Some audience members may be impatient, since Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s delicate script takes its time, playing out unassumingly and with a focus on metatextuality keeping its characters’ inner lives at arm’s length, but the film’s profound sense of empathy and loss set in before long, making the 3-hour journey more than rewarding.
2 – Dune
These days the Academy tends to neglect populist fare, often not without reason, but the superb work on Dune has been enough to leap beyond its genre-appeal and make an impression on both audiences and crotchety Academy voters. Denis Villeneuve helms his tremendous sense of vision to craft an adaptation of science fiction’s best-selling and most influential novel that finally delivers what matters most to viewers: that it be awesome to behold, gripping to follow, mythic in its storytelling and enormous in scope. Beyond making the worlds of Caladan, Giedi Prime and especially Arrakis realistic, Villeneuve accomplishes something much more difficult; he makes them tangible, absorbing you completely, only to leave you wanting more. This is the standard by which today’s blockbuster filmmaking should be judged.
1 – West Side Story
How is it possible to be so deeply involved in a story everyone seems convinced they’ve seen enough times? Because Steven Spielberg, along with every monumentally talented cast and crew member recruited for the film, has made this new West Side Story beyond electrifying, somehow finding new heights as a director to deliver the visual splendor everyone has made note of, but also to meet the potential of the original play’s source; its romance and tragedy, its ferocity and understanding.
In the evocatively symmetrical opening and closing shots, and in every breathless scene between, West Side Story remains vividly expressive, vacillating seamlessly between tones to deliver so much of what you look for in a transportive movie-going experience. This is a terrific story, but, as Spielberg’s contemporary, Martin Scorsese, has remarked, you don’t think of the story when remembering a great film; you think of moments. West Side Story fills your body with emotion and music, floating you from one outstanding moment to the next.