Once again, the Academy has nominated 10 films for the best picture Oscar, with the telecast set to air this Sunday. In 2009, the number of nominees was expanded from five to 10. In 2011, they changed it so that anywhere between five and 10 films could be nominated depending on vote totals, and then in 2021 they went back to a set number of 10 and here we are.
Sheesh, what is this, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or my wife trying to choose a restaurant! Women do be shoppin’, but all that historical stuff aside, the rub is that we’ve once again got a nice even number of 10 films nominated for best picture this year, and there’s nothing the internet Gods love more than nice even numbers of 10. It is to them I shall sacrifice my first born listicle! May the #content crops be bountiful — you’re welcome.
That’s right, I am once again ranking the year’s best picture nominees in order of goodness to badness. And let me tell you, it’s not going to be easy for me. This year is a tough year to rank. Below my obvious top two, this year’s awards season was largely characterized by movies that were… pretty good. There was probably no Parasite and definitely no Three Billboards this year, and most here were a mixed bag of things I loved and hated. Even my bottom film had a couple scenes in it I loved.
But hey, that’s enough with the hemming and hawing. Who am I, Ernest Hemingway? Ernest Hawingway? Let’s kick this old man in the C and assign some numbers to art! Art! Art! Art! (*my editors carry me off on their shoulders*)
That’s right, I didn’t like Tár. Go ahead and take me off your Christmas list.
Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t really get Tár. I wanted to! It seemed kind of funny on paper! “Tár On Tár,” that’s a funny title for a fictional memoir!
The movie begins with Tár herself (Cate Blanchett) dishing on her life and work as a composer onstage at a New Yorker symposium, hosted by a real New Yorker guy. This is followed by a business luncheon (emphasis on the eon) with a character played by Mark Strong, who is equally worshipful. Together, the two scenes take up 40-50 minutes of screen time. I was hopped up on cold medicine and disassociated a few times during this stretch, like I was trying to claw my way out of my own skin.
Then there was a scene in which Tár guest lectures at Juilliard, during which she hectors a pansexual student who says they don’t listen to Bach because he’s a white cis European. They go back and forth for a while until he snaps and walks out of class. Now that was a solid, juicy scene, full of tension, with identifiable stakes, and graspable subtleties to both of their demeanors. I actually loved this scene and I thought we were finally getting somewhere.
And then the rest of the movie was mostly all innuendo and veiled references like I was watching a movie about people who had actually seen the movie I was supposed to see. I was left to try to piece together what it actually was from clues in their conversations. I actually studied for an MFA in New York City so if there were some annoying art people in-jokes you’d think I might’ve gotten them, but nope, “Tár On Tár” was the best that it got.
Then there was a climactic final scene that was clearly meant to communicate… something. Her downfall? That much I got, but the rest of it — where the event was supposed to be taking place, what it actually was, were unclear. I dunno, man. I can appreciate subtlety and plot points left up for interpretation, but I also need details to interpret. Tár felt like I was trying to watch a movie playing on my neighbor’s TV using binoculars.
East Coast critics all seem to love it, I assume because they’re punishment piggies at heart. Bore them to tears, tell them jokes that don’t make anyone laugh, and they’ll fill in the blanks about why you’re a genius.
[Where to stream it: Peacock]
9. Women Talking
I read Sarah Polley’s memoir earlier this year and loved it (highly recommend), but hadn’t caught Women Talking (which Polley writes and directs, adapting from the Miriam Toews novel) until last night.
Set amongst an Amish-esque religious sect in an unnamed country where the women have been systematically drugged and raped in their sleep by the male members of their clan (apparently based on a real incident that happened in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia) Women Talking is the story of the female members of the sect gathering together in a barn to vote and debate on what to do next: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
The cast, including Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, and Frances McDormand, are all brilliant and Polley has an ear for dialogue. The characters in Women Talking, despite existing almost outside time and space, feel like real people, much more so than, say, The Banshees Of Inisherin.
And yet Women Talking has a very similar quality of feeling a little like it’s belaboring a theme more than it’s telling a story. At some point fairly early on in Women Talking, it becomes clear that the movie is going to end with the women having decided to do one of the three things but before they do it. Knowing that I wasn’t going to see the next chapter, I felt like I lost that thrill of “what happens next” that tends to propel a story forward.
Sure, art thrives on limitation and all of that, and Women Talking isn’t even close to the first movie to consist mostly of people standing around talking, but… maybe trick us a little? I don’t think I would’ve seen The Whale if it had been called “Fat Guy Dying In His House.” I appreciate the difficulty of what Polley and her actors pulled off here, but appreciation isn’t quite the same thing as love. (It was my mom’s favorite, for what that’s worth).
[Where to stream it: Amazon or Apple]
8. Avatar: The Way Of The Water
Honestly, who the hell even knows where to put Avatar 2 on this list? I was so excited for the Avatar sequel that I wrote an entire essay about how excited I was about the Avatar sequel. The gist of it was that I was thrilled that James Cameron, a lunatic genius I will devour any profile of, was at long last selling us a movie. Not a franchise or a brand, but a movie.
The industry at large has moved away from selling movies (they sell franchises, brands, merchandise, and expanded universes whose underlying IP they own, to try to turn you into a daily user of their family of products) but, so the thinking went, James Cameron was possibly the one man in the industry with enough clout, enough fuck you money, and enough balls to make whatever the hell he wanted, suits and five-year plans be damned. And what he seemed to want to make was a big crazy blockbuster. To “knock our balls up our assholes” as McG once described it (haha, remember McG?).
And then I went and spoiled it all by actually seeing the thing. James Cameron did make a big crazy blockbuster that at times delivers on its promise — all the whale scenes, Carmela Soprano drinking coffee in a mech suit. High-frame rate is still weird and distracting and detracts from the visual majesty Cameron is trying to create, but that’s forgivable.
In the end Avatar 2 did exactly what I was excited for it not to do. It sold out the emotional climax and replaced it with a tease that it would come in future sequels (an emotional Ponzi Scheme, I believe I called it when Ant-Man 3 did it).
Are we going to have to wait 13 years for those sequels too? After all the whale magic, we end the film on an overlong chase sequence that sort of drags and was arguably the weakest part of the movie. Bummer. I’ll probably still see the next one though, oink oink oink.
[Where to stream it: It’s still in theaters.]
“Is Elvis any good?” is one of the toughest questions I’ve ever been asked as a film critic. Naturally, it’s a bit of a conundrum where to put it on this list. Mostly I appreciate it as Baz Luhrmann’s magnificently bugfuck fever dream. I felt like I had to take a shower afterwards and found sequins in the drain. Which is… maybe the right way to do an Elvis biopic? When the velvet Elvis painting becomes real, shoot the velvet.
In the era of estate-sanctioned, jukebox musical biopics, Baz Luhrmann gave us an Elvis movie where every song is so filtered, pastiched, and cannibalized that it’s like being in the audience for a contemporary Bob Dylan show trying to figure out what song he’s actually singing.
Tom Hanks was nominated for a Razzie for his performance as Colonel Tom Parker, perhaps because of the “strange” accent, but how is an evil Dutch carnie who reinvents himself as a Southern dandy supposed to sound? I would’ve watched an entire movie about Tom Hanks as an evil Dutch carnie/dandy, by the way, and I get the feeling that’s actually the movie Baz Luhrmann wanted to make but had to call it “Elvis” to satisfy the suits.
[Where to stream it: HBO Max]
6. The Fabelmans
The Fabelmans is one of Spielberg’s best movies in years and one of the only ones where he actually allows himself to be a little weird. In the Judd Hirsch scene, Spielberg acknowledges the conflict between art and family, and manages to stage it in a way that comes off more personal, more succinct, and more enjoyable than Martin McDonagh’s entire fable built around essentially the same conflict (The Banshees Of Inisherin). Judd Hirsch got nominated for an Oscar for basically one, five-minute scene and I can’t really argue with it, he shredded that.
The other standout scene in The Fabelmans sees young Steven (er, Sammy Fabelman) basically being devoured by a young shiksa with a Jesus fetish who becomes fascinated by Sammy when she finds out he’s Jewish. Spielberg evoking the genuine bafflement he feels at encountering this deranged culture of suburban WASPs is some of the best filmmaking he’s ever done. Sammy actually turning this situation to his advantage feels almost more like Philip Roth or the Coen brothers than Spielberg.
I really hope it’s this scene that’s a harbinger of Spielberg to come and not the fact that he called his fictionalized family “The Fabelmans.” Oy.
It’s also hard to imagine two better actors worse cast than Paul Dano and Michelle Williams as Sammy Fabelman’s parents. Paul Dano is too young (he looks like a kid wearing his dad’s suit), they’re both too WASPy, and these two perennial awards contenders consistently have scenes stolen out from under them by Seth Rogen (who is fantastic in this).
Gabrielle LaBelle is solid as the teenage Sammy, but he’s saddled with distracting blue contact lenses for the entire movie because Spielberg cast a blue-eyed kid as the young Sammy and thinks he needs their eyes to match. What awful decision-making. And then the David Lynch cameo is brilliant. The whole thing is sort of a mixed bag like this.
[Where to stream it: Amazon]
5. Triangle Of Sadness
Triangle Of Sadness is another tough movie to rank, because it’s a bit like a shit sandwich with a brilliant movie on either end as the bread. It opens with arguably the most thrilling “who’s going to pick up the check” scene ever filmed. Then the movie moves to a luxury cruise, further exploring the whole “predatory relationship between power and beauty” thing, which comes to a hilarious head in the final act with a performance-of-the-year candidate from Dolly DeLeon. “I love you, you give me fish,” is surely one of the best lines of the year.
It’s just a shame the movie grinds to a halt in the middle section, with Woody Harrelson and a drunken Russian boat captain doing memes at each other. It’s one of the few times I haven’t laughed at gratuitous vomiting. It all feels so forced and hack, especially compared to the rest of the movie which is the opposite. “A Russian capitalist and an American communist!” the Russian bellows at one point, gesturing to himself and his meming partner, Harrelson’s character.
Ah yes, I love it when characters just say the subtext of a scene out loud. It felt like someone applied Joss Whedon writing rules to European arthouse cinema, which is a combination I definitely didn’t need. It takes a lot for me not to appreciate a Woody Harrelson appearance.
[Where to stream it: Amazon]
4. The Banshees Of Inisherin
The Banshees Of Inisherin is very much a Martin McDonagh movie in that it feels like the work of a clever grad student who’s trying to get an A. “Ooh, I’m Martin McDonagh, look how clever I am!” he’s always shouting, and most of the time you kind of have to begrudgingly agree.
The film is about a conflict between Padraic, played by Colin Farrell, and Colm, played by Brendan Gleeson. Colm doesn’t want to spend time with Padraic anymore because he thinks Padraic is dull and it’s a distraction from Colm’s art. Basically, it’s a conflict between a character who thinks life is about the human relationships you form while you’re alive (Padraic) and a character who thinks life is about the art you leave behind (Colm).
It’s… clever, as I’ve said, but what was it I said above about belaboring a theme instead of telling a story? (Critics love that shit). I tend to like movies with a story I can lose myself in and characters that are real people, whereas McDonagh movies can feel like he’s tacked a big theme to the wall and periodically nudges us to remember to admire it.
On a macro level, The Banshees Of Inisherin feels more like a montage of New Yorker cartoons at times than a fully-fledged story about characters who have free will. And yet there’s also the gorgeous setting, a scene-stealing donkey, and charming accents and actors who make even the most stilted dialogue sound fun and fresh. What can I say, the man can stage an incredible New Yorker cartoon.
And that’s to say nothing of Barry Keoghan, the National Rascal Of Ireland, who single-handedly injects McDonagh’s otherwise meticulously planned universe with just the element of absurdity it needs. Barry Keoghan is so good he made me remember a character’s name from Eternals. Give the man an Oscar.
[Where to stream it: HBO Max]
3. Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick is not just a hard movie to rank, but a fraught one. Half of the loudest people online think it’s the greatest movie ever and if you disagree you’re a communist, and the other half think it’s too stupid to be in awards contention. Allow me to thread the needle a little here: Top Gun: Maverick is great and also incredibly stupid. I’m not giving it the number three spot because I thought it was great art or thought-provoking, I’m giving it three because I had a great time watching it.
I say this as a person who has spent most of his adult life writing about movies: movies can be both very stupid and very good; that is part of the magic of movies. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that movie that is openly stupid and inescapably watchable demonstrates “movie magic” better than almost any other.
Part of the reason Top Gun: Maverick is good is crushingly obvious: fast jets are cool, and so is watching Tom Cruise openly court death. On a less obvious, Galaxy Brain kind of level, Top Gun: Maverick seems to embody the id of the zeitgeist, if probably unintentionally.
This entire film, in the works for more than a decade, was, you imagine, conceived around the notion of Tom Cruise passing the torch to a younger pilot so that this “franchise” could continue. And yet it’s an entire movie about Maverick not passing the torch. He wants to, but he just can’t. He’s just too brash a pilot! He still looks too good without a shirt on! None of these dumb zoomers and millennials could possibly hold his torch!
That he spends the entire movie refusing to acknowledge aging and refusing to cede power in any meaningful way is accidentally the perfect metaphor for our current gerontocracy, and in some ways it’s a delightful little middle finger to the movie franchise machine. Tom Cruise will not be shunted aside, he’s simply too deranged.
Also, “dogfight football” was easily one of the stupidest, most hilarious things I saw in a movie theater this year.
[Where to stream it: Paramount+]
2. All Quiet On The Western Front
It seems like most of the other recent WWI movies — 1917, They Shall Not Grow Old, War Horse — have been, at some level, about technical gimmicks. The big gimmick of All Quiet On The Western Front is that it’s just a beautifully-made movie. It’s a lot more classical than it is cutting-edge. Partly because of that, it’s immersive in a way that those other movies sometimes weren’t. You don’t spend any of it thinking about the construction.
It’s also, perhaps because it’s being told from the perspective of the Germans, less a story of survival than a story of absurd, senseless tragedy. Which seems like the more salient requiem for the Great War. There are scenes in All Quiet On The Western Front that will stick with me, despite being entirely visual. It’s hard to ask more than that from a movie.
One in particular: when the main character is out on patrol when the Allies first show up with flamethrowers. It’s a nice sunny day and it’s just sort of a strange image at first, the fact that he’s in imminent danger of dying one of the most gruesome and painful deaths imaginable hasn’t really sunk in at first. Like those first few seconds after you wake up when you have to come to grips with where you are and why, only in this case with the smell of burning flesh. “The banality of horror” I suppose you could call it.
[Where to stream it: Netflix]
1. Everything Everywhere All At Once
Everything Everywhere All At Once has been one of the more polarizing movies this year, and to some extent, I get where the haters are coming from. It’s an A24 movie, with a fantastic premise, directed by the guys (known collectively as “Daniels“) who began their career with a film about a farting corpse. As such it does come very close to being a Film Twitter In-Joke (I would argue this applies much more to Tár and Cocaine Bear, but I digress).
On the surface, Everything Everywhere is also a lot of like an Austin film nerd’s version of Let’s Remember Some Guys. In style, it’s manic to the point of being exhausting at times. It rides that line between kitschy-cool and kitschy-obnoxious.
Just when it was about to alienate with fast cuts or one too many absurdist multiverse gags, Everything Everywhere turned a corner into heartfelt and rewarded your patience. Virtually every other movie about “the multiverse” used the concept basically as a way to squeeze in more characters or justify leaps in movie logic. But how do you introduce the multiverse without questioning existence itself and What It All Means? Everything Everywhere attempts to treat this problem honestly, and yes, a little cutesily,
Another way to say it is that maybe it was a bit of a film nerd in-joke, but it was one that worked perfectly on me personally. If I could choose just one anecdote to explain why, it’s the way “Absolutely (Story Of A Girl)” worked its way into the movie. Basically, the Daniels accidentally wrote the lyrics of a 2000 one-hit-wonder song into their script, then ultimately embraced it. Then they reached out to the writer of the song, the lead singer of Nine Days, for permission to use it in the film.
As it turned out, John Hampson, who is allegedly a high school English teacher now, is also a huge cinephile and was thrilled to help. So not only did he give permission, he wrote and re-recorded three remixed versions of the songs for use as musical cues in Everything Everywhere‘s alternate universes.
While I appreciate a story that “asks the big questions,” what I love is a film that can take a passing thought or some random snippet of mental detritus and turn it into a symphony. Everything Everywhere is a $20 million movie that feels like a $100 million movie.
[Where to stream it: Showtime]
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.