The Show Goes On: Nik Sheehan reviews the 2023 Best Picture Oscar Nominees
Let’s all admit that the annual Academy Awards remains the most fascinating television show on Earth. The crassness, the glitz, the tedium — the event never fails to define our times. And live TV is riveting; you’d never think the best picture flub over Moonlight could be topped until the mind-melting slap last year. For this reason, and the fact I love movies, I haven’t missed the spectacle for five decades.
Let’s also acknowledge that original cinema no longer has such a hold on the popular imagination, which is caught up in the global infantilism of the billion-dollar superhero franchises. But eternally progressive Hollywood is always looking to improve things, so the Oscar slate is broader this year.
Thanks to the streaming services, it was possible to see all ten best picture nominees. This article is going to assume familiarity with the films, and it contains spoilers. Most of the diverse list were of interest for at least a good chunk of their oft-bloated running times.
The cringy Fabelmans is two-and-a-half hours; the idiotic Avatar 2 is a butt-numbing three-hours-and-12 minutes; the masterpiece Tár over two-and-a-half hours. These running times work fine at home, but it’s still good to get out of the house, especially for the advertised blockbusters.
But it’s hard to say if movie theatres really work anymore. They reek of the nostalgia they sell, stuck in the 1990s, but for the welcome innovation of being able to book your seat. The pandemic was brutal for them, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain, but let’s agree the standard for going to the movies is higher now, and while the smell of popcorn is timeless, other people are still hell.
As has been widely reported, Top Gun: Maverick saved the movie theatres. It is a pitch perfect two-hour action film with the innovation of actually filming in real jet fighters in flight, offering a pleasing verisimilitude. It’s cleverly self-aware and silly with a grin that can only belong to Tom Cruise, who knows how to make it all look easy. We have recently learned there may have been Russian money behind the film’s financing. It is being suggested that’s why the “enemy” in this movie is a faceless abstract, which really just makes it all the more of a popcorn movie, where we can all have stupid fun, far, far from the war zone.
James Cameron’s command of narrative filmmaking is as gargantuan as his movies. It is marketing genius to put out a film explicitly designed to be watched in cinemas, so I was keen to see the sci-fi epic Avatar: The Way of Water with all the 3D bells and whistles, but unhappy to discover the Cineplex website had tricked us into the lesser 3D, apparently one step removed from the truly deluxe cinema experience. A good film quickly leaves its technical achievements behind as you get pulled into the narrative, as Cameron is so adept at doing for his earlier 3-hour-plus films, so I was along for the ride. And it looked amazing, easily the best use of 3D I’ve seen since the last Avatar. Cameron is a master of the technique and it was lovely for every second of what seemed like six hours. This is a boring film, even idiotic, with little narrative drive amid interminable trips to the magic lagoon for another blue-dolphin-flying-creature race — though such longueurs do seem calculated to accommodate both bathroom breaks and edibles. After all, the film is a huge hit.
Here is the same weird fusion of macho militarism and enviro sci-fi as in the first movie, where arrows can pierce warplanes. Its ethos is strictly Eisenhower 50s, inspired I suppose by the lead character’s U.S. Marine Corps background. Social anxiety is eased, races are irrelevant here, everyone is smurf-like blue and big-eyed adorable. Cameron is the king of the blockbuster and I’ll probably give Avatar 3 a try, this time with the tingly-hi-speed-woofer-bass-bling-blang, if Cineplex doesn’t trick me again.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once is the most exhilaratingly filmic of all these nominees. Certainly not to all tastes, this sci-fi comedy spin on a quasi-religious multiverse revels in its own excess, and is often exhausting. The directors delight in their cleverness and you are reminded repeatedly of their favourite bits — raccoons on the head and hot dog fingers come to mind, along with yes, the holy bagel. But you can’t help admiring how the editing keeps the narrative flow together and how different universes are somehow visually delineated. It is astonishing how a simple, touching, mother-daughter story emerges from all the insanity. The humanizing Chinese cultural aspect is refreshing, too, in these times of increasing xenophobia, as is the (positive) gay storyline, butt plug jokes aside (these are kids, after all). The cast is first rate, the three leads capably carry the entire overlong two-and-a-half hours, with Michelle Yeoh doing much of the heavy lifting, but the real stars are the directors.
Baz Luhrmann’s shiny Elvis biopic has similar dizzying three second attention span editing, typical of his other works, though he did once slow down enough to make a half decent Great Gatsby. Choosing to tell the story through Colonel Tom Parker — by all accounts a seedy charlatan — is a strange choice, here played in a horrendously off-putting performance by Tom Hanks. Austin Butler as the King is very good, though he plainly lacks the mysterious star quality of the man the film celebrates. Fair mimicry all around.
Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is a smart title for this accomplished, original art film, which literally opens with a declaration it is a work of the female imagination, presumably to proclaim the project as sacrosanct. Horrendous sexual assault has never been handled so delicately, and this is its most laudable trait.
Superbly directed and shot, the ensemble cast is near perfect, featuring the etched-in-stone visage of Francis McDormand and the forever charming Sheila McCarthy, though I couldn’t get past seeing Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, where she was so memorable. But then, many of the supposedly uneducated characters here are bestowed with an eloquence worthy of said Queen. While the reveals in the script are smartly paced, I still can’t figure out how the men could take off with the horses and buggies while leaving behind enough horses and buggies for all the women. And why does Ben Whishaw’s sensitive male character not just leave with his newfound love? Okay, there’s a deeply reverent subtext at work here, we have been warned. Earnest and often precious, like most of Polley’s work, the dour tone is nevertheless utterly and exactly Canadian.
Edward Berger’s German remake of All Quiet on the Western Front is a beautifully-made relentless, steel-grey cavalcade of wide-eyed young men being shot, blown to pieces, stabbed and gassed. Yes, war is still hell. The original novel by Erich Maria Remarque and 1930 Hollywood film masterpiece by Lewis Milestone have seared the story of a naïve young soldier and his doomed friends into history. The original twist of the Remarque novel was to suggest that in war there are no winners or losers. This new version queasily distorts the original work – the universal effect of war on young men – by grafting on a story of how these young fellas were stabbed in the back by the Berlin authorities, who agree to ignominious surrender. This, in fact, is the casus belli of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. So instead of a remake of a pacifist masterwork, we are set up to understand just how pissed Germany was going to be by all the perfidy. Hello Götterdämmerung. The fact it’s racking up endless accolades likely speaks to the current horrors in Ukraine as much as historical amnesia, but then with movies, zeitgeist is everything. Still, the best parts of the film are from the book.
The Fabelmans is a self-referential, overlong home movie blown up to magnificent Spielbergian proportions. This man loves his mom, and Michelle Williams is notably good as the neurotic matriarch. The rest of the cast is nondescript, with the exception of cameos by Judd Hersch as a wayward uncle and David Lynch as a hilarious John Ford that briefly jolt the movie into life. The homey story — family lore among the privileged upper middle class — wears thin, because it’s just not that dramatic. All families are unhappy in their own way. Teenage Steve’s filmmaking is a product of wealth and while it’s meant be the glue that holds everything together, he comes off as just another self-obsessed teenager. I don’t blame Spielberg for recreating his father as a sainted saint of saints here, because, spoiler alert, it turns out teenage Steve is more Christian than those who taunt him for his Jewishness — he not only turns the other cheek, he makes his tormenters into stars. Power of cinema, and all. He’s had his revenge, cold. This is, admittedly, theologically fascinating. I truly hope he considers doing a remake of Moby Dick.
I watched two similar “eat the rich” satire/comedies this year. There was the painfully obvious The Menu and the best picture nominated Triangle of Sadness by Sweden’s Ruben Östlund, which, while the better of the two, is yet another cartoony hit-you-over-the-head-metaphor for wealth inequality. Comedy is subjective, I fully accept many will find it knee-slapping funny watching rich people projectile vomit. Woody Harrelson is cleverly deployed as the drunken captain of the luxury yacht. The final section is a wry twist on 1957’s The Admirable Crichton, a British tale of class reversal, here suitably more raunchy. Eat the rich films are their own special genre, but none have managed to rise above a cartoon or a t-shirt. Memorably, David Mamet’s 1997 thriller The Edge flipped the genre on its head, where the billionaire ends up on top, which is so much more belieavable.
The Banshees of Inisherin delights with its small cast and clever script that sets up a mystery of the Irish civil war that grows increasingly too obvious as a metaphor. Guns in the distance. Men fighting. I wish McDonagh had opted for more realism, he pushes you too hard toward his metaphor with the increasing absurdity of Brendan Gleeson’s fingerless hands. The film has a lyric beauty of its own, especially as it becomes dreamlike toward the end, offering up the small tragedies true to this woeful tale, and Colin Farrell’s doe-like sad eyes. As the artist Brion Gysin observed, “man is a bad animal.”
Todd Field’s Tár is the one outstanding masterwork of all these films, a hugely original, historic accomplishment of great art melding with social commentary, care of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Each scene is a revelation, impeccably composed and art directed. Everyone will have favourite moments. One such fusion between actor, script and director comes in the look on Cate Blanchett’s face after a colleague gives her a handwritten comment on her new book, only to suggest she might like to use it as a published blurb. After all the obvious metaphors of the other films, here is a portrait of an artist of rigour sinking and flinching into the quicksand of the zeitgeist. Her bravery is as astonishing and inspiring as her hubris. Blanchett’s performance is transformative, you truly feel you have met Lydia Tár, she’s real, and you can go right ahead and judge. At stake is art itself.
Tár satisfies with an ending worthy of the finest movie twists. It is ironic and free and deeply human. More words fail. Bravo.
Will it win best picture, as it obviously should? It doesn’t matter much, because above all, the show must go on.