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Oscar Picks for People Who Don’t Care About the Oscars 2024

My scalding take on the Academy Awards: The best movies should win the most awards.

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You're certainly welcome to care about the Academy Awards. Many people do! They enjoy rooting for their faves and guessing which films Hollywood insiders will award and getting mad when the wrong person wins. They like the dresses and the pomp and maybe even the bad jokes and the pomposity.

But when it comes to people whose opinions on movies I value, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are low on my list. When someone exclaims, "That movie deserves an Oscar!" my first thought is, "What a mean thing to say!" My personal Oscars are year-end critics' lists, TYVM.

But I'm not stupid. I know awards season is the one time each year when even the most casual of moviegoers (maybe even you!) want to read about movies, and I'm not throwing away my shot. So in anticipation of the ceremony I won't watch this Sunday, I've ranked all 10 Best Picture nominees in order of my preference, with links to my reviews and short explanations of why I did or didn't like them.

And for bonus fun (and not at all because I'm a compulsive nut job who can't stop once he starts), I also picked my favorites for many of the other categories. (I skipped Animated, Documentary, and Live Action Shorts because I haven't seen enough of the nominees.) I know it's common to do a "who will win" pick along with a "who should win," but to do that I'd have to spend far too much time divining the intentions of voters whose brains I don't particularly wish to penetrate. What kind of sicko do you take me for?

Best Picture Nominees

1. Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese has always shoved the futility of a thug’s life in our faces, but in his later years he’s taken a longer, historicized view of the banality of crime. Participating in the attempted genocide of the Osage Nation under the delusion that he’s helping his family, Leonardo DiCaprio’s dim Ernest Burkhart is kin to Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, a man who squanders his life as a goon in the service of powerful, violent men. But this film belongs to Lily Gladstone as Burkhart’s Osage wife Mollie. With her impassive gaze, a smile that reveals nothing while edging toward a smirk, and eyes that eyes can tease without mocking, rage with sadness, or go dead-blank with shock, she takes center stage here to represent all the people (and particularly women) that Scorsese pictures have happened to over the years

2. Anatomy of a Fall

Justine Trier’s courtroom drama is a kind of austere pulp, its subject matter juicy but its mood somewhat rigorous. After her husband plummets to his death from an upstairs window, an icy novelist is quickly transformed from grieving widow to prime suspect and struggles to recast herself as an acceptable defendant. And the more evidence that we’re given, the less certain we are of everything. Far from an invitation to speculate, however, that ambiguity seems to be the point: actual truth and legal truth are not identical. A showcase for Sandra Hüller, who plays the accused as a woman not just defending herself but defending her fundamental belief in the complexity of human motive, a belief she’s loath to surrender even for the sake of proving her innocence.

3. Poor Things

Connoisseurs of Euro-naughty pessimism dismiss Yorgos Lanthimos as pop Haneke, but I think his grotesqueries rankle them because he forces his characters to confront actual moral choices in their absurdist ways instead of skipping ahead to despair like the serious fellows often do. Still, he's is such a cheekily off-putting director it never occurred to me what his idea of crowd-pleaser might look like. But with Poor Things, he doesn’t just want to be admired; he wants to be loved. And in its own creepy, garish, oversexed, male-gazey way, Lanthimos’s arch fairy tale does have heart. An Eve who can’t wait to get the fuck outta Eden, Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter becomes Frankenstein’s monster as do-me feminist Candide in the world at large, indomitable because she has no shame. Her sex-positivity is indubitably a man’s ideal of what it means to be a free woman, but Stone inhabits her character so completely that you might even say she liberates Bella from her creator.

4. Oppenheimer

A longtime Christopher Nolan agnostic and a short-time hater, it pains me to acknowledge how enjoyable this overstuffed, formally overcomplicated three-hour movie about a commerce secretary nominee’s U.S. Senate confirmation hearing turned out to be. A story of how figures who consider themselves world historical agents play the game and get played, with the final word on the matter delivered by none other than Einstein himself, Oppenheimer is vivid pop history told through anecdote, image, and aphorism, and its politics aren't entirely reprehensible or stupid. There are times, even, when it's as smart as Barbie.

5. Barbie

The best Hollywood director of her generation has plunged into the muck of IP and emerged with her craft, sensibility, and vision unscathed. And I’m not gonna knock a blockbuster Barbie movie with insight into gender roles, even if that insight is that they’re perpetually frustrating, especially when it’s this funny. As Sonic might put it (or, Amy Rose, more likely), there is no objective analysis of gender outside of commodity fetishism under capitalism. (Kinda wordy, I know. That’s why they don’t let me make memes.) Still, the intertwining of sentimentality and brand-awareness here affected my stomach the same way as hearing an NPR acknowledgement that Dow Chemical is sponsoring an upcoming segment on climate change does. Yes, 60 years post-Warhol it's kinda silly to complain when someone conflates art and commodity on this scale. But it's also kinda silly to pretend it's unprecedented.

6. The Holdovers

Alexander Payne makes movies about unlikeable, obsolete men, and then leaves us to wonder whether they’re obsolete because they’re unlikable or unlikable because they’re obsolete. The latest addition to Payne’s roster of curmudgeons is Paul Giamatti's Paul Hunham, a staple in many high schools and probably every single prep school: the sexless (if not virginal), odd-smelling disciplinarian. Hunham is condemned to spending Christmas break with bright-yet-underachieving Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who brandishes a truly formidable Adam’s apple; their relationship evolves from purely adversarial to a wary kind of trust and respect, with school cook Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) intervening between them. Especially as its third-act revelations roll in, the humanization of the characters can feel a bit mechanical if you’re not in the mood. But though I usually feel like I’m being worked over in Payne’s movies, and often I push back, here the cast mostly coaxed me along for the ride.

7. Past Lives

A Korean man, a Korean woman, and a white man are sitting at a bar, and, offscreen, two voices guess at the relationship between the three. Are the Koreans a couple? If so, who’s the white guy they’re barely acknowledging? Maybe they’re just coworkers? It’s all ordinary night-out chit chat, nothing too heavy, until the woman turns to face us, and the ambivalence of her expression suggests a deeper mystery than the one under discussion. Past Lives begins with this intriguing moment, which inadvertently gets at the central flaw in Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song’s celebrated debut film. The relationship between these three people does seem complex and uncertain if you stand back far enough, but the closer you approach them the simpler their story is. Which is the opposite of how you want a movie to work, no?

8. American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright never misses (his brief turn as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a highlight of last year's by-the-numbers Bayard Rustin biopic, Rustin), and he's reliably hilarious as an intellectual Black novelist who dumbs down to write a book in "realistic" hood style. Once My Pafology becomes a bestseller and a hit with the literati, Wright's Thelonious "Monk" Ellison has to get in character as its thug author to promote the book. Meanwhile, Monk has to live his real life: dating a neighbor, mourning his sister's death, dealing with his mother's dementia, and clashing with his newly out brother. Phew! The suggestion is that we, like the fans of Monk's Black stereotypes, will only watch a movie about an upper-middle-class Black family if we're hooked by a more sensational story. But for that clever bait-and-switch to work, you need to tell a much more interesting story about an upper-middle-class Black family.

9. The Zone of Interest

Jonathan Glazer embeds us in the quotidian routine of a Nazi family that lives on a gorgeous estate that just so happens to share a wall with a death camp. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) have five children, including two younger kids who squabble and a perpetually wailing baby—they’re the exact sort of family Goebbels would want an Aryan Norman Rockwell to paint. Yet what do we accomplish by spending two hours in the company of these drab Nazis? I knew what I was supposed to think about Herr and Frau Höss—Glazer’s forcedly aestheticized didacticism saw to that. But what was I supposed to feel, aside from horror at the systematic extermination of Jews, which, I hope, anyone going into this film already experiences? And no matter how much you may benefit from the passive acceptance of the crimes of our own nation-state, you’d have to be pretty damn self-important to feel vicariously complicit: Your day job may not exactly make the world a better place for all humanity, but I bet you’re not engineering more efficient ways to incinerate Jews and then personally overseeing the process. There was a great movie about how petty self-interest fuels genocide released last year and it was called Killers of the Flower Moon.

10. Maestro

There’s a vacuum at the center of Bradley Cooper's Leonard Bernstein biopic, and it's Bradley Cooper—he dances the line between expert impression and fully realized character. As Bernstein's wife Felicia, Carey Mulligan is given an opportunity to enact noble suffering during a prolonged death from cancer that feels cinematically morbid. But the film’s biggest flaw is how it slights Bernstein’s bisexuality. Because Maestro focuses on the Bernsteins’ marriage, Lenny’s affairs with men become mere indiscretions, flings, dalliances with pretty boys. Is that truly all they were? And if so, what did they mean to Lenny?

My big takeaway here? Maybe I shouldn't complain so much. Four of the Best Picture nominees made my personal list of the best 40 movies of 2023, though only one cracked my top 10. I liked two of the other nominees fine, and only really hated one. (The most "Oscar-ish" movie of the bunch, unsurprisingly.) Two more of my top 10s were nominated in other categories (Animated Film and Documentary Film) and a nominee for International Film would have made my top 10 if I'd seen it in time. Maybe the Oscars are... good?

No. Not really. And now, on to...

The rest of the nominees

Best Actor: It sucks how awards for acting celebrate star turns (if not outright hamming it up): Cillian Murphy is an essential lynchpin in the ensemble piece that is Oppenheimer, and that's great acting, but is it Great Acting? Paul Giamatti has fun in The Holdovers, Jeffrey Wright salvages American Fiction, and Colman Domingo tries to salvage the boilerplate Rustin. So basically, I dunno, ABC—Anyone But Cooper.

Best Actress: I didn't see Nyad, and it's Anybody But Carey (Mulligan) as the long-suffering, slow-dying wife of a bisexual in Maestro. Which leaves us with three films that simply wouldn't work without their lead women. I don't quite know how to compare Emma Stone's mastery of physical and verbal comedy in Poor Things with Sandra Hüller's performance of moral ambiguity in Anatomy of a Fall. But for all the reasons I listed in my Killers of the Flower Moon review, Lily Gladstone actually makes it seem handing out an acting award might not always be a bad idea.

Best Supporting Actor: Sterling K. Brown is fine in American Fiction I guess. It's nice to have Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo back in real movies, though I prefer the latter's comic foil in Poor Things to the former's bureaucratic villain in Oppenheimer. It would be perverse to reward Barbie's pop feminism by giving the Oscar to Ryan Gosling for his deadpan scene-stealing, though if you care that much about awards shows you deserve to get your feelings hurt. But if I can't hand the trophy to May December's Charles Melton then I'm afraid it's Robert De Niro in Killers of a Flower Moon. "A master work[ing] minor variations on a theme," I said of his performance in my review, and I wasn't wrong. Neither was critic Sam Adams when he noted that if you do great work long enough you'll eventually be underrated.

Best Supporting Actress: Again I didn't see Nyad (sorry Jodie Foster) and I missed The Color Purple as well (sorry Danielle Brooks). America Ferrera gets a nice little best-supporting-actressy speech in Barbie but when I saw her referred to as "Sasha's Mom" in the closed captions I realized that's how I'd been thinking of her too. In The Holdovers, Da'vine Joy Randolph brings real humanity to a role that still feels a bit pat to me. So... am I saying Emily Blunt should win for playing The Wife in Oppenheimer? A woman managing to give a memorable performance in a Nolan movie definitely deserves some kind of recognition.

Best Director: You can't have a badly directed Best Picture, so consider this category an direct echo of that one. Scorsese-Triet-Lanthimos-Nolan-Glazer.

Best Documentary Feature Film: Of the three I saw, 20 Days in Mariupol is a gripping and essential piece of reportorial work and The Eternal Memory a moving look at the effect of Alzheimer's on a marriage. But Four Daughters is just remarkable, a formally adventurous documentary about a Tunisian woman who loses two of her daughters, with insights into how women form their identities in the shifting political, religious, and social conditions of northern Africa.

Best Animated Feature Film: OK, so I didn't see Elemental, Nimona, or Robot Dreams. It's possible (though I'll say unlikely) that one is better than The Boy and the Heron. But Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, is a genuine visual achievement with the kind of heart that most superhero flicks trip over their capes trying to simulate.

International Feature Film: Looking forward to catching Io Capitano when it opens at The Main this week. Society of the Snow I missed. I've said my say on The Zone of Interest. The Teacher's Lounge is a nasty bit of nihilistic fun. And then there's Wim Wenders's Perfect Days which is quite simply a gorgeous story of how, as you'll learn if you click here and CTRL F the title, "a life lived alone is not necessarily lonely and certainly isn’t meaningless, though like any life it comes with its own regrets." A better way to learn that is to go see the movie.

Best Original Screenplay: May December was the best film of 2023 and Samy Burch wrote the screenplay. See how easy this could be?

Best Adapted Screenplay: By most accounts Cord Jefferson's American Fiction script yanked the fangs out of Percival Everett's Erasure, and whatever you appreciated about The Zone of Interest it wasn't Jonathan Glazer's screenplay. On to the Big Two: Christopher Nolan sure crammed a lot of history into his script, and nobody writes one-liners like Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. But as an admirer of Tony McNamara's writing for the The Great, FX's comic Catherine the Great bio-series, I enjoyed seeing him develop similar themes of an oversexed woman coming into an awareness of her own power with Poor Things.

Best Cinematographer: I didn't see El Conde and, once again, Maestr-NO. Robbie Ryan's love of fisheye lenses was essential to the too-muchness of Poor Things; Hoyte van Hoytema is as like-minded a DP as Christopher Nolan could ask. But as I wrote in my review, Killers of the Flower Moon is essentially the story of three faces, and the work that Rodrigo Prieto does with DiCaprio, De Niro, and Gladstone is incredible.

Best Film Editor: Anatomy of a Fall, Poor Things, and The Holdovers are all good movies, and so, yes, they are well-edited. But editing rhythms are crucial to the success of Killers of the Flower Moon and Oppenheimer, and it's a nice irony that these two man-spread epics about male hubris exist in the form that they do because of two women. I'll say longtime Scorsese accomplice Thelma Schoonmaker over Nolan's quick-clipping editor Jennifer Lame because I prefer the perpetual unfurling of Killers to the longform montage of Oppenheimer.

Best Production Design: If Napoleon is a standard-issue period piece, Oppenheimer and Flower Moon each generate a look essential to the stories they tell. But once more I will choose the ornate (say Barbie say Barbie say Barbie say Barbie) and go with the ugly beauty James Price, Shona Heath, and Zsuzsa Mihalek concocted for Poor Things. (Barbie looked great too.)

Best Costume Design: And again, three historical dramas (Napoleon, Oppenheimer, and Killers of the Flower Moon) up against two fantastical films (Barbie and Poor Things). The recreation of Osage clothing (and De Niro's goggles!) in Killers are certainly of note, but I'm a tasteless fool who loves spectacle and with apologies to Bella Baxter's dresses in Poor Things let's acknowledge why Barbie was famous before Barbie and say Jacqueline Durran.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling: "And the winner is... the styling team of Maestro, by a nose." Give it to Nadia Stacey, Mark Coulier and Josh Weston and Poor Things for weirdness's sake. (Barbie, for once, is not in competition.) If Golda wins we riot.

Best Visual Effects: Like you, I did not see The Creator. Napoleon was more effective as spectacle than as drama, but it feels weird to award a movie for imagining so many different kinds of horse deaths. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was typical MCU compu-whimsy that I will never forgive for forcing me to witness a CGI cyber-otter utter the words, “My beloved raccoon, the story was yours all along” in the voice of Linda Cardellini. Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One was a blast. But what the hell, let's celebrate Godzilla Minus One's Takashi Yamazaki, Kiyoko Shibuya, Masaki Takahashi, and Tatsuji Nojima for making the Big Guy scary again.

Best Sound: I've disparaged The Zone of Interest maybe more than it deserves, but Tarn Willers and Johnnie Burn crafted a sound design—gunshots, shouts, screams, barking dogs, all heard from varying distances—that's grimly effective. As the critic Aaron Bady has suggested, this is a movie that might have worked better as an art installation.

Best Music (Original Score): I've never remembered a lick of Ludwig Göransson's compositions (nommed for Oppenheimer) and sometimes I wish I could forget a few licks of John Williams's (who gets the nod for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which sure is stretching the meaning of "original"). File American Fiction under unrecollected background music and give Robbie Robertson's intricate symphony of blues, period-correct pop, soundtrack orchestrations, and Native music for Killers of the Flower Moon the win over Jerskin Fendrix's warped hurdy-gurdy Poor Things accompaniment. (And rage on the un-nominated Mica Levi's behalf—their work for The Zone of Interest is unlike anything else you're hearing in movies.)

Best Music (Original Song): "Nothing's Gonna Stop" (just a lil in-joke there, folks) Diane Warren from Diane Warren-ing and I just paused Jon Batiste's "It Never Went Away" a minute in. (Sorry, Dan Wilson.) I'd feel like a jerk for disregarding the Osage Tribal Singers' performance of "Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)" but I'd feel like a fraud for saying I know enough about Native music to evaluate it on its own. "I'm Just Ken" was a genuine showstopper and I definitely never knew the frontman of Miike Snow had jokes, but Kenough already. Which leaves us with "What Was I Made For?," which may be B-material by Billie Eilish's standards but still outclasses most movie ballads in a walk.

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