The Oscars Forgot About the Movies

Arts reporter Neel Lahiri reflects on a disappointing Oscars ceremony and ranks the 2022 Best Picture nominees.

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Justin Metz

The essence of the show’s failure was an unmistakable sense of shame on the part of both the producers and the Academy about who the show is for and what it is meant to celebrate.

By Neel Lahiri

Customarily, the headlines that pop up on the news feeds the day after the Oscars each year say something about the night’s big winners, perhaps noting the actors who won top awards as well as, of course, the Best Picture winner. This year’s day-after headlines, on the other hand, told an entirely different story—a story of an unscripted confrontation, a nominee accosting a presenter on stage, a slap across the face, and a bleeped series of angry shouts.

Unless you have not opened any form of news or social media over the past few weeks, you surely know a bit about the altercation-that-shall-not-be-named. The Will Smith-Chris Rock fracas has launched a series of important conversations on the responsibility of comics when it comes to cracking jokes, the stigmatization of certain health conditions, and the colossal pressures associated with colossal fame. There is little that I can say that has not already been discussed in this exquisite dissection of the event by The New York Times’s Wesley Morris; if you read anything about it, read his piece.

Though “The Slap” will ultimately be the main legacy of this year’s Academy Awards, it should not cover up the fact that the show, when it did go to plan, was disastrous in just about every way. The musical performances mostly fell flat, aside perhaps from Beyoncé’s performance of her nominated song “Be Alive”—which was pre-recorded, a rather odd choice for a live show. The hosts, Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes, and Amy Schumer, aside from Schumer’s surprisingly delightful opening monologue, mostly bombed—though nothing they did was anywhere near as uncomfortably horrific as the introduction given to them by DJ Khaled. In perhaps the most laughable moment of all, the Academy’s pathetic attempt at generating interest through fan polls backfired dramatically, with both the “Oscars Cheer Moment” and the “Oscars Fan Favorite” competitions being co-opted by the legions of militant Zack Snyder fans.

The essence of the show’s failure was an unmistakable sense of shame on the part of both the producers and the Academy about who the show is for and what it is meant to celebrate. Both the films that were nominated for awards and the older films recognized in the broadcast were treated with borderline disdain, if not forthright disrespect. Sykes and Hall made a whole bit out of the fact that no one watched Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, a film that was one of the most undeservedly underseen last year. Sykes was also behind another awful insert, where she toured the Academy’s new museum in Los Angeles and made light of the entire history of cinema that the museum aims to champion.

The moment that sums up the utter disdain for cinema on this ostensible night of celebration of the art was the “tribute” to  The Godfather: a montage of clips pulled from the trilogy scored to a bizarre hip hop remix of Nino Rota’s classic theme. It is as if the producers decided that the scenes and music from one of the greatest films of all time could not exist on their own and had to be adapted for the palate of the modern viewer. In this moment, just as in the rest of the ceremony, the producers refused to embrace the fact that the Academy Awards is for those of us who care about film history and the state of the artistic medium. Instead, the show’s producers opted to alienate the viewers with even a modicum of interest and cater to a phantom audience that will never, ever care. While it is a worthy endeavor to try and engage a younger group that has not paid the awards much attention as of late, it is pure self-sabotage to do so at the expense of the dedicated followers of all things Oscars.

It is a particular shame that the Academy decided that this year’s show theme would essentially be the death of cinema, given that the slate of nominees is among the strongest of recent memory. Since the show did not feel that it had much of a role in upholding and advocating for the films it supposedly celebrated, I feel it is my duty to provide a rundown of this year’s nominees for Best Picture. The way that Best Picture has worked since 2009 is that each member of the Academy submits a preferential ballot ranking their favorite to least favorite of the nominees, with the winner being decided as in a ranked-choice voting system. So here is my preferential ballot, along with some thoughts on each nominee, in order to give you a better sense of the best of cinema in 2021 than this year’s Oscars could be bothered to.

10. Don’t Look Up

Subtlety? Never knew her! Adam McKay’s political satire tackles nothing less than the epochal catastrophe awaiting us at the endpoint of the climate crisis, constructing (rather laboriously) a metaphor in the form of a giant meteor headed straight towards the planet. The scientist (Leonardo DiCaprio) and graduate student (Jennifer Lawrence) who discover the meteor labor to convince the political and media establishments of the grave reality of the situation, and face diffidence and forthright hostility at every turn. The art of satire is a tricky one, for a balance must be achieved between making the audience laugh and making them understand the gravity of the circumstances being satirized. Don’t Look Up fails on both counts, with the absurdity taken beyond the point of believability and only rarely resembling something humorous. The only true stinker among this year’s Best Picture slate.

9. Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s deeply personal story about growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland pulls the Jojo Rabbit trick of filtering a difficult historical period through the lens of a child’s eye, following a young boy (Jude Hill) through this tumultuous time. It’s a tricky line to toe, and Belfast does it a touch less successfully than Jojo Rabbit, diminishing the gravity of the events depicted instead of amplifying the absurdity of it all. To extend the metaphor, the child’s eye does not magnify, but instead sanitizes the subject matter. The culprit is largely Kenneth Branagh’s messy screenplay, which constructs a series of moments that create a whole less than the sum of their parts, gesturing vaguely toward depth without supplying much of it. That being said, the performances are excellent across the board, with a special mention to Jamie Dornan and Catriona Balfe, who play the young protagonist’s parents and have a dance number near the end of the film which is among my favorite scenes from any film last year.

8. King Richard

Sports dramas in general have a fairly high floor and low ceiling, with most falling in a small region between “mediocre” and “pleasant.” King Richard falls squarely in this range, closer to the “pleasant” side of the spectrum than the “mediocre.” The biopic delves into the bloody-minded resolve with which Richard Williams (Will Smith) trained his daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), to become two of the greatest tennis players of all time. Smith’s central performance is undeniably mesmerizing, though often edges more towards imitation than performance. Indeed, I think the better performance comes from Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the Williams sisters’ mother with such power that you exit the film feeling above all a high degree of empathy for her character, who is forced to put up with her husband’s occasionally suffocating ego and confounding antics. Though somewhat lacking in insight into its protagonist, the film compensates in droves with its adroit execution of the tennis scenes, which are equal parts thrilling and tense.

7. CODA

A touching drama premised on the musical ambitions of a hearing child (Emilia Jones) in a deaf family, CODA (an acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults”) tugs at one’s heartstrings without going so far as to rip one’s heart out of one’s chest. It is as feel-good as feel-good films come, a spark of sweetness that may be saccharine to certain palates, but not to mine. The best-known actress is Marlee Matlin (an Oscar winner for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God), but the standout performance comes from Troy Kotsur, who shares a particularly poignant moment with his daughter that is the closest the film gets to an emotional breakthrough beyond its latent geniality. I confess to being a touch confused that this is the film the Academy decided to name Best Picture, for it rarely approaches the cinematic in either its visuals or its narrative construction. But it is nonetheless impossible for any but the most coldly cynical to come away from the film with anything but a pleasant feeling of warmth.

6. West Side Story

Word to the wise: never, ever underestimate Steven Spielberg. I count myself among his detractors, not wholeheartedly enjoying any of his films since 2015’s Bridge of Spies—until, that is, the release of this brilliant adaptation of the 1961 Best Picture winner (itself an adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, itself a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Remakes for a filmmaker are a particularly daunting task, especially when the source material has such a rich legacy of its own, which makes the accomplishment of Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner ever more astounding. The film updates (rather than rehashes) its 1961 counterpart, with the changes ranging from a greater focus on the racial components of the Sharks-Jets dynamic to a sharper examination of the gentrification that victimizes both the Irish and Puerto Rican immigrant classes who war over the course of the film. Beyond its narrative innovations, however, the true power of West Side Story is Spielberg’s directorial genius. Every camera movement, every color scheme, every manipulation of shadows and light is constructed with the firm hand of a master. A half-century into his filmmaking career, he’s still got it.

5. Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s noir is a sumptuously designed and magnificently shot masterwork that in my estimation outstrips in quality his previous film, the Best Picture-winning The Shape of Water. Bradley Cooper plays Stan Carlisle, a man with some unspecified, troubled past who finds his way into the world of carnivals, contributing a variety of acts that are premised on cajoling the fallible audience into suspending disbelief as acts of supposed magic are performed for them. Stan’s ambitions outstrip the limits of the carnival life, so he co-opts one of his mentors’ acts, ups the production value, and takes it to the city. Despite being an adaptation of a 1946 novel, the film speaks directly to our current political circumstances, demonstrating how much collective destruction can be wrought by a conman whose charisma is only outstripped by his cynical, seemingly endless ambition. Sound familiar?

4. Drive My Car

The word that best describes this exquisite film is meditative. Meditation is an act that requires patience and even a degree of boredom in order to achieve a massive payoff—and Drive My Car, the latest from Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi, checks those boxes with a flourish. Tracking a theater director’s attempts to grapple with grief through a multilingual staging of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the film is a study in the ability of powerful art to elicit internal revelations for the repressed and damaged. Running a minute less than three hours, it is somewhat of a tragedy that most people will catch this on a streaming service, as opposed to in a theater, where its power has a better chance of ensconcing you than on your sofa, where the temptation to check your devices may overwhelm. Resist the urge, turn off your phone, and bask in the slow but steady march towards emotional catharsis that Hamaguchi carefully crafts.

3. Dune

It is arguably a miracle that Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic exists at all, given that Frank Herbert’s source novel was almost designed to evade adaptation (David Lynch, whose 1984 adaptation was much maligned upon release, can attest to that). Herbert’s novel flits rapidly between the immensely interior and the immense, interspersing hallucinogenic visions of a dark future with grand narratives of realpolitik intrigue and colonial oppression. How Villeneuve managed to collapse all of that (well, at least the first half of the novel) into a film that is not merely coherent, but utterly compelling, is difficult to fathom. Every technical element is just so, from its smart editing to its sound design, from its detailed costuming to (perhaps above all) its visual effects, which constitute perhaps the most sophisticated synthesis of computer-generated and practical effects ever put to screen. Like Drive My Car, Dune demands to be seen on as big a screen as you can find, so that the true magnitude of Villeneuve’s visual achievement can be appreciated.

2. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s first feature since 2009 examines the web of complex relationships spiraling out from a late-in-life marriage between a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and a bachelor (Jesse Plemons), most notably the one between the widow’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and her new brother-in-law (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a career-best performance). A masterclass in control, this admixture of slow-burn thriller and classical Western coaxes the viewer into thinking that they are one step ahead of the film, when in fact the film is one step ahead of them the entire time. Campion’s supreme assuredness behind the camera means that she does not shy away from embracing stillness, lulling the viewer into a trance as she gradually builds the tension to almost unbearable levels. The fear with slow burns is that the tension never fully boils over. Not here: The final half-hour of this film is an explosion of revelations, a quite stunning feat of cinematic storytelling that leaves you first confused, then disbelieving, then amazed as the credits roll.

1. Licorice Pizza

Each of Paul Thomas Anderson’s (PTA) films, from There Will Be Blood to The Master, are more concerned with their characters than the narratives in which they exist. Licorice Pizza is the logical endpoint of this concept, a hang-out movie that is more a series of delightful moments than a cohesive, overarching story. And what a delight it is. Taking place in the 1970s San Fernando Valley of PTA’s youth, the film follows the budding friendship between aimless twentysomething Alana (Alana Haim) and overconfident teenager Gary (Cooper Hoffman) through various shenanigans, including the creation of waterbed and pinball businesses as well as the management of political campaigns. In addition to painting an incredibly rich portrait of a specific place and time, Licorice Pizza exposes the divisions between age and maturity and attempts to demystify that ever so mysterious process of growing up. It is audacious in its faith that viewers will invest deeply enough in the characters to forgive and even embrace the plot’s formlessness. It is nostalgia-infused without becoming a slave to nostalgia, investigating the era’s racism and sexism by demonstrating the self-evident absurdity of behavior that was taken as normal. Above all, it mixes thematic depth with sweet fun and becomes something simultaneously insightful and enchanting. It took me a solid few hours to wipe the smile off my face after watching it—and that, for me, is what the movies are all about.