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Monday, March 18, 2024

Ranking the Best Pictures 2023


As part of my quest for quantum immortality, I'm watching every movie ever made, which naturally includes every Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) AMPAS Oscar nominee. As has become tradition for me, I managed to screen all ten Best Picture nominees just before the award ceremony. While I correctly predicted Oppenheimer would win, it wasn't my favourite of the ten nominees. Here's how I feel about them, ranked in ascending order of preference: 

10) Killers of the Flower Moon. No one denies that Martin Scorsese is brilliant. Furthermore, Killers of the Flower Moon tells an important story about the ongoing struggle between Indigenous peoples and European colonists. The cinematography is stunning, and while the film is lengthy, it's well paced. However, I was underwhelmed by the lead performances, and Scorsese's direction and the screenplay feel uninspired given the importance of the real-life savagery they chose to adapt for the screen. 

9) Maestro. Bradley Cooper lacks not for ambition, and I admire his skills as both actor and storyteller, which do a credible job here of bringing composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein to life. (Kudos also to the makeup artists, who in this production have created the best aging makeup I've ever seen.) Carey Mulligan, though, is the highlight here; her performance as Felicia Montealegre makes her character more compelling than Cooper as Bernstein. And as a whole, Maestro feels like yet another in a series of well-made Hollywood biographies constructed deliberately to appeal to the somewhat insular tastes of AMPAS voters.

8) Anatomy of a Fall. I didn't perceive anything particularly innovative or challenging about this picture, but it does succeed as a hybrid courtroom drama and murder mystery wrapped up in the disintegration of a small family; there's additional interest in its setting and the film's refusal to provide a definitive answer to the central question of the film. 

7) Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan once again uses his out-of-sequence narrative technique to good effect here, and the scope and scale of his films rarely fails to impress. Still, despite excellent performances and a well-crafted screenplay, the film's failure to address the politics and the controversy of the atomic bomb to greater depth robs the narrative of its potential; there's nothing particularly bold here. 

From this point forward, my enjoyment of 2023's Oscar nominees is unqualified, and ranking them is merely a matter of how I feel at this particular moment in time. Had any of the top six in my list won Best Picture, I would have been content.

6) The Holdovers. Paul Giamatti is utterly phenomenal as a teacher at a private high school grappling with loneliness and the frustration of realizing his ambitions for his life will be forever frustrated. He's matched by Da'Vine Joy Randolph as the school's chef and chief mother figure; she's grieving the recent death of her son, lost in Viet Nam just before the picture opens. In a sense it's a triple coming-of-age film: Giamatti and Randolph shepherd their characters through times of painful transition just as harrowing as those of their student, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Director Alexander Payne balances pathos and comedy expertly here, creating a Christmas story like no other--one in which Christmas itself is sidelined by the events surrounding it. 

5) Past Lives. Director Celine Song's star-crossed romance wrapped me up in a blanket of cozy melancholy. I was completely invested in the story of Nora and Hae Sung, two children who may have been lovers had one not moved away to New York (via Toronto!). It's a warm, gentle, beautiful, but ultimately heartbreaking glimpse of two people trying to reconnect across oceans of space and time--and, in the end, enjoying that reconnection only briefly. It's a film of powerful empathy and sincerity. 

4) Barbie. Years ago, I wrote skeptically about the notion of adapting toys and games, including Barbie, to film. I'm happy to have been wrong in my pessimism, because Barbie's satire and worldbuilding are pointed, compelling, and funny. Greta Gerwig's filmography continues to impress, and I hope she continues to share her vision across genres. 

3) American Fiction. I'm obviously not qualified to opine on questions of Black identity or experience, but for what it's worth, I believed in the story told here by writer-director Cord Jeffersion, and an amazing ensemble led by the always remarkable Jeffrey Wright, never better than he is here. American Fiction balances two story arcs with great invention and dexterity, and there's nary a false note to be had. 

2) Poor Things. I'm a huge fan of director Yorgos Lanthimos and actor Emma Stone, and they're a winning combination in this macabre feminist parable. Willem Dafoe is equal parts hilarious and creepy as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein; Stone deserved her Best Actress win for bringing her Daughter of Frankenstein-esque character to life, who starts off as something of a pathetic, broken doll, but overcomes her environment and her enemies to build a life worth living. 

1) The Zone of Interest. It's just another ordinary day in the life of a Nazi prison camp commandant, going about his terrible business. But we never see the atrocities of the Holocaust clearly in this picture; instead, our vision is limited to the carefully-maintained home and ground of the commandant and his family, the camp walls looming high in the background. From time to time there are shill screams and inverted colour sequences to remind us of the horrors going on behind those walls. But I think what I appreciated most about this film was the ambiguity of its hallucinatory ending, one that can be read in very different ways; to my mind, there is an optimistic and a pessimistic view of humanity on display here, and perhaps they can both somehow exist side-by-side, like a wave function before it's collapsed. 

All in all, I thought AMPAS did a pretty good job of picking their best films of the year. It's not often I feel this way about the Academy's choices, and while I'm sure they could have picked better films to reward, they could also have picked far worse--but they didn't. 

1 comment:

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Succinct and yet full of insight - thank you Earl!