For the record:
12:48 p.m. Jan. 24, 2024: An earlier version of this article said “Poor Things” received 10 Oscar nominations. It received 11.
In ranking this year’s best picture nominees from worst to best, I am essentially doing (in reverse order) what every Academy Awards voter does when filling out their preferential ballot. The differences, of course, are my unimpeachable taste and my extreme verbosity, neither of which I make any apology for. Here goes:
10. ‘The Holdovers’
As more than a few indignant readers have reminded me in recent months, I’m very much in the bah-humbug critical minority on Alexander Payne’s comedy about three disgruntled boarding-school souls forging an unlikely holiday bond. That said, I’m hardly blind to its virtues: the fine performances of Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph; the aspirational Hal Ashby vibes; the wintry New England melancholia. Like it or not, “The Holdovers” has as recognizable an artistic stamp as any best picture nominee this year. Even when Payne isn’t working from his own material (David Hemingson is a strong contender for the original screenplay Oscar), his affectionately jaundiced, sweet-and-sour worldview comes through.
But I don’t buy the sweetness or the sourness, and I’m not entirely sure Payne does either. For a film that’s been hailed as a too-rare story about real, recognizably flawed human beings (what can I say in response besides, “Please watch more movies”?), his conception of these characters feels mechanical to the point of insincere. Giamatti’s tetchy teacher and Sessa’s ornery student spend scene after repetitive scene proclaiming why and how much they dislike each other, presumably so we’ll be all the more floored by the touching common ground they inevitably and laboriously discover. Randolph’s grieving cook, Mary, is given comparably short shrift, dragged in so that her tears can be harvested at carefully timed intervals and then conveniently shunted back out of the frame. It’s a credit to Randolph (whose domination of the supporting actress race thus far seems likely to carry through to Oscar night) that I wanted to follow Mary into a different movie entirely, preferably written and directed by someone with more of a clue about who she is.
9. ‘American Fiction’
Cord Jefferson’s diverting, defanged adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure” was hailed as a major player from the moment it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, long considered a significant Oscar bellwether. The irony is that, as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) himself points out, awards are so often patronizingly bestowed on meretricious, pseudo-authentic works, especially when they're being handed out by white adjudicators seeking to laud artists of color. What does it say, then, that “American Fiction’s” supposedly blistering takedown of literary minstrelsy and arts-world myopia has been such a contender, picking up plaudits (and now five Oscar nominations) from a predominantly white entertainment industry?
It says, I think, that the movie's critique isn’t as trenchant as it thinks, and that even its sharpest ideas are often ill-served by its often flat-footed script and bland direction. The actors are terrific enough to complicate the equation: Wright secured a long-overdue Oscar nomination for his superbly restrained work as Monk, rivaling even Giamatti in his ability to locate new shades of professorial grumpiness. And then there are the poignant performances from Erika Alexander as Monk’s love interest and Tracee Ellis Ross, Leslie Uggams and Sterling K. Brown (a supporting actor nominee) as his family members, whose various crises shift the story into an entirely different tonal register. Indeed, “American Fiction’s” fervent admirers have suggested that its satire is merely the Trojan horse that encases a warm family-drama heart, but even that juxtaposition suggests just how little the individual elements really jell.
It speaks to the strength of this year’s best picture race that the gap between Nos. 9 and 8 is such a chasm. And while Greta Gerwig’s wholesale invention of a Mattel Cinematic Universe strikes me as ultimately her third-best solo directing effort (after “Lady Bird” and “Little Women”), the degree to which “Barbie” retains her playful, effervescent comic signature is mightily impressive, especially in the context of a zeitgeist-captivating blockbuster that put the “doll” in “1 billion dollars.” In the eyes of the movie’s naysayers, there’s an insurmountable contradiction at play here: For all the imaginative density of Gerwig’s pretty-in-pink world building, how much artistic worth — or feminist subversion — can there really be in what amounts to a feature-length toy commercial?
Just enough, I’d say, and I would add that I don’t think “Barbie’s” worth is ultimately predicated on its subversiveness. It’s been fascinating to see America Ferrera’s emotionally climactic monologue become something of a nationwide litmus test for feminist literacy, as well as the movie’s most talked-about scene (which surely explains Ferrera’s surprising, if aggressively campaigned-for, supporting actress nomination). But the beauty of this movie isn’t in its sometimes leaden speechifying, and it certainly isn’t in that dreadful Will Ferrell subplot. No, the beauty is there in Margot Robbie’s beamingly earnest (if ultimately un-nominated) lead turn as Barbie, without which Ryan Gosling’s deliriously funny Ken wouldn’t register as such a poignant, self-skewering joke. It’s also there in the giddy comic velocity that has become Gerwig’s authorial signature, something the academy duly acknowledged with an adapted screenplay nomination, though not the directing nod many had expected.
7. ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
I wouldn’t knock anyone for proclaiming a new Martin Scorsese movie a masterpiece; as someone who did just that with “Silence” (and who thought “The Irishman” came awfully close), I’d have loved nothing more than to join the many who’ve ushered “Killers of the Flower Moon” into his late-career pantheon. The political and artistic significance of Scorsese tackling David Grann’s labyrinthine nonfiction bestseller can hardly be overstated: In dramatizing the horrific killings of oil-rich Osage tribespeople by murderously greedy white men, our reigning master of the American crime epic directs his gaze and ours toward America’s foundational crimes. No criticism of “Killers of the Flower Moon” can be leveled, I think, without at least acknowledging the gravity of that achievement — or without admiring the greatness of Lily Gladstone, now the first Native American performer to receive a lead actress Oscar nomination.
But by the same token, no honest appraisal of Scorsese’s movie can overlook its lapses, specifically its strained but admirable efforts to center the Osage characters in their own story and shine a light on their rituals, traditions, experiences and emotions. To that end, it isn’t entirely surprising that “Killers” was shut out of the ultra-competitive adapted screenplay race (which became even more crowded once “Barbie” joined the party), though the omission does speak to some of Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth’s narrative compromises: In shifting their focus away from the book’s thrilling FBI origin story and bringing the crooked machinations of the Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro characters to the fore, they’ve rendered a compelling if lopsided drama of human evil — a movie whose vision of Osage life feels less like a definitive statement than a promising first step.
Even when the trailer ignited a social-media firestorm back in August, I didn’t suspect that Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein drama (which he directed, starred in, co-wrote and produced) would become the year’s most polarizing prestige movie. Cooper’s discourse-poking decision to wear a prosthetic nose may have been the least of his worries: His detractors have dismissed his entire performance as hammy and overly mannered; others have faulted him for focusing too much on Bernstein’s marriage to Felicia Montealegre (a luminous, devastating Carey Mulligan), short-changing his music and his homosexuality in the process. Still others seem to have prematurely dismissed “Maestro” based purely on Cooper’s desperate hunger for a golden statuette (he’s now a 12-time nominee), as if letting on that you want to win an Academy Award were something shameful, disqualifying or uncommon.
I wouldn’t give Cooper an acting Oscar this year myself, insofar as his rendition of Lenny doesn’t match the emotional depths of his earlier nominated work in “American Sniper” and “A Star Is Born.” But I’m in full appreciation of his formal acumen and directorial brio here, the way he and cinematographer Matthew Libatique ("Black Swan") reshape the drama of the Bernstein-Montealegre marriage into an emotionally charged, exquisitely choreographed ballet. I’m also mystified by those who’ve dismissed “Maestro” as just another standard biopic, when in fact it’s more or less the opposite: Here’s the rare Hollywood drama that rightly sacrifices scattershot comprehensiveness for piercing intimacy, that understands the impossibility of doing one life (let alone two lives) justice. It also knows that few things are richer cinematic fodder than a genuinely complicated marriage, a lesson borne out by “Killers of the Flower Moon” as well as the next best picture nominee down the list.
5. ‘Anatomy of a Fall’
The Cannes Film Festival’s top prizewinners have generated more Oscar traction in recent years, as demonstrated by last year’s “Triangle of Sadness” and 2019’s big winner, “Parasite.” (Before those two, you’d have to go back to “The Tree of Life” and “Amour.”) But even after Justine Triet’s wrenchingly played, grippingly fragmented courtroom thriller snagged the Palme d’Or last May, few observers (except perhaps the film’s canny U.S. distributor, Neon) were likely expecting it to become a full-blown art-house juggernaut. Hell, France didn’t even submit “Anatomy of a Fall” for best international feature, a decision that looks increasingly like the greatest unforced error in recent awards-season memory, especially since the official French submission, the roundly admired “The Taste of Things,” ultimately failed to secure a single nomination.
“Anatomy of a Fall,” meanwhile, scored five, including for picture, original screenplay and film editing. Triet landed a nomination from the famously international-minded directors branch, which certainly complicates the facile accusations of sexism that some hardcore "Barbie" fans have flung at the academy in response to Gerwig's perceived snub. Most excitingly of all, the typically Amerocentric actors branch handed a lead actress nomination to Sandra Hüller (who also probably picked up a few supporting actress votes for her work in “The Zone of Interest”).
Hüller gives a fiercely intelligent, emotionally mercurial performance here as another Sandra, a novelist being tried for her husband’s murder — and also, as it turns out, for the more banal crime of refusing to play the supportive, self-sacrificing wife. “Anatomy” has been shrewdly advertised as a did-she-or-didn’t-she whodunit, but that’s scarcely the only mystery it leaves you pondering. What’s captivating about the fictional Sandra, and about this marvelously slippery thriller as a whole, is how thoroughly they refuse to be pinned down.
4. ‘Poor Things’
The Venice International Film Festival’s top prizewinners have had an even better Oscar track record than their Cannes-terparts of late: “Poor Things” joins the elite company of Golden Lion laureates to earn best picture nominations (“Joker,” “Roma”) and even win best picture outright (“The Shape of Water,” “Nomadland”). And the academy’s high regard for the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is nothing new; his 2018 triumph, "The Favourite," received 10 nominations, and "Poor Things" bested that with 11. Even so, some may have had their doubts that a sexually explicit, surgery-heavy, Frankenstein-homaging wackadoodle of a movie, centered on an unprecedented postmortem mother-daughter cranial transplant, would be so roundly embraced.
How wonderful that they were wrong. Academy members clearly thrilled to the maximalist energy and rich film craft of “Poor Things,” recognizing its fantastically ornamental production design, its endlessly imaginative costumes and Tony McNamara’s inventive adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel. Unsurprisingly, voters were also enamored of the fearless, go-for-broke performances by Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo. (Willem Dafoe, who received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for supporting actor, likely missed an Oscar nomination by inches.) But what propelled the movie to such a position of strength, I suspect, is not just its creativity but its joyousness, a quality that hasn’t been especially evident in Lanthimos’ past work. As more than one observer has pointed out, “Poor Things’” riff on the Pygmalion myth makes it this year’s stealth "Barbie," and it’s no less ebullient.
3. ‘Past Lives’
It was roughly a year ago that Celine Song’s decades-spanning, continent-skipping debut feature, about two Korean-born friends rekindling their childhood bond as adults, had its rapturous early reception at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. But the sold-out theatrical crowds that greeted “Past Lives” over the summer should have made it clear that the movie was always destined to be more than just an art-house gem or critics’ darling. (Although it certainly was that: Song’s film has won a raft of precursor prizes, including best picture from the National Society of Film Critics, of which I’m a member.)
And so as wonderful as it is to see a drama of such emotional subtlety and understated lyricism score Oscar nominations for best picture and original screenplay, let’s dare to dream of what might and should have been. It’s a shame that no acting nominations were ultimately forthcoming for Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro, who individually delivered three of the year’s subtlest performances and together delivered that rarest of things: a romantic triangle without a villain. It’s also dispiriting that Song, though floated as a long-shot directing nominee for months, wasn’t ultimately recognized for pulling off the kind of soft-touch masterstroke that few other filmmakers could manage: Plop down three characters in a bar — and turn their conversation into perhaps the most achingly romantic and philosophically expansive sequence of the year.
Christopher Nolan deserved an Oscar long before he set out to make his monumentally unsettling historical epic about the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. My heart is with “Memento,” which earned him an adapted screenplay nomination; with “The Dark Knight,” ridiculously overlooked in the picture and director races; and with the chronically underappreciated “Interstellar,” a magnum opus that will only gain in stature, I suspect, as this young century unspools. Indeed, “Oppenheimer” only gains in resonance when interpreted as a kind of reverse companion piece to “Interstellar”: Here are two sprawling beat-the-clock thrillers about one man’s desperate search for a scientific answer, though in the case of the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (played with haunting gravity by Cillian Murphy), what he discovers is not the key to salvation but rather a weapon of mass destruction.
For a filmmaker known for his elaborate games with chronology (notably in 2017’s “Dunkirk,” which earned him his first directing Oscar nomination), the timing of “Oppenheimer” feels curiously right. It’s the nerviest gamble and least probable triumph of Nolan’s career, and the cinematic lessons it affords us — about the glories of big-screen and giant-screen cinema, about the rewards an artist can achieve by banking on the audience’s intelligence — have never been more worth absorbing, industrywide. That Nolan is going to win the directing Oscar seems, by this point, the happiest of foregone conclusions. I suspect “Oppenheimer” will prevail in the best picture race, too, and would have been all too glad to cede it the No. 1 spot on this list, had the academy not had the wisdom to nominate…
1. ‘The Zone of Interest’
The best of this year’s best picture nominees — and I offer that up with zero equivocation — is also the one most surprising by its inclusion. Or is it? There’s a cynical argument to be made that, even 30 years after “Schindler’s List,” the academy still can’t resist a Holocaust movie. But one of the most striking things about Jonathan Glazer’s (latest) masterwork is the degree to which it shuns, challenges and even reinvents that designation. If this chillingly methodical portrait of an Auschwitz-adjacent Nazi household counts as a Holocaust movie, it’s a Holocaust movie by subtraction, in which the mass murders being committed just over the garden wall are concealed from our eyes (though not from our ears, attuned as they are to every mechanized rumble of Johnnie Burn and Tarn Willers’ Oscar-nominated soundscape and every hellish strain of Mica Levi's score).
It’s possible that, in the weeks to come, you might hear “The Zone of Interest” described as both the toughest of this year’s best picture nominees, which is true, and a hard movie to watch, which is false. Really, what gives the movie its creepily insinuating power is how easy it is to watch, how mesmerized we are by Glazer’s quietly damning surveillance of this family. Brilliantly stripping down Martin Amis' 2014 novel to its cold, crystalline essence (his adapted screenplay nomination is well earned), Glazer works in faultless concert with the cinematographer Łukasz Żal, the editor Paul Watts and the actors Christian Friedel and Hüller, whose performances as a Nazi power couple show a bone-deep understanding of just how unexceptional human evil is.
In the aforementioned absence of “Anatomy of a Fall” from the international feature race, “The Zone of Interest” will almost certainly win that category with ease. A best picture win would be even more deserved, not least for reminding us that the lessons of fascism, to say nothing of the rewards of great cinema, hardly belong to any one country alone.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.