After last year’s Academy Awards I hesitate to make any firm predictions, as it still seems to me that giving CODA the prize for Best Picture was a palpable miscarriage of justice. When a film is viewable only on the Amazon TV platform it’s hardly cinema at all. When it’s a feel-good remake of a recent French film, it’s even less noteworthy.
If we discount the inevitable lobbying and politicking that pushes some films forward and sinks others, the main reason for CODA’s success was its sympathetic portrayal of people with a disability, in this case, deafness. In 2021 the award went to Nomadland, a semi-documentary portrayal of poor Americans living in mobile homes. Is there a good cause or political issue that will decide this year’s Best Picture?
Of the ten nominees there are two that fit the bill. In Sarah Polley’s Women Talking a group of women in a closed, religious community decide what they are going to do about a crisis that shattters their faith in men and God. With All Quiet on the Western Front, the brutal conflict in Ukraine lends a special relevance to the first-ever German adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic story of the First World War. Women Talking is the superior film, but limited by its relatively static, dialogue-based approach. Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front is more genuinely cinematic, with confronting action scenes, but it completely misses the psychological intensity of the novel.
Nevertheless, All Quiet’s extraordinary success at this year’s British Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs), where it triumphed in seven categories, including Best Picture and Best Director, has made it the bolter in this year’s Oscars.
As with CODA, the film is only viewable on a platform, namely Netflix. Perhaps the oddest aspect of the movie is that while the British loved it, the Germans have been almost uniformly hostile. Whatever patriotic pride they might have felt at the film’s success has been subsumed by their distaste for Berger’s reframing of the story. I’m inclined to agree with the Germans. Although All Quiet’ has some clever moments, the characterisation falls flat, and a new focus on geopolitical issues means we lose the introspection that makes the book so memorable.
This doesn’t mean All Quiet’ can’t win the Best Picture award, but it would be an undeserving winner. The other eight films up for the prize are Avatar: The Way of Water, The Banshees of Inisherin, Elvis, The Fabelmans, Tár, Top Gun: Maverick, Triangle of Sadness, and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.
If I had the power to choose the winner, I’d give it to Tár, Todd Field’s portrait of a female conductor corrupted by her own fame and power. Neither would I be disappointed if The Fabelmans took out the prize. This is Steven Spielberg’s most personal film, and one of his very best. Aside from Cate Blanchett’s acclaimed performance in the title role of Tár, both these films have received lukewarm treatment during the awards season – which is a poor reflection on industry tastes and priorities. The British virtually ignored The Fabelmans, but the French have gone wild for the film, recognising that it is not simply the autobiography of a successful director, but a celebration of the power and wonder of the cinema.
I didn’t think anything would displace The Fabelmans in my affections this year, but Tár proved to be just as impressive in a completely different register.
Although they are contrasting styles of film, both Tár and The Fabelmans tell complex, layered stories about art and personal ambition, making full use of all the resources of the cinema. None of the other short-listed movies have such a sense of completeness. James Cameron’s Avatar sequel is a special effects extravaganza, with a lacklustre plot and script. There’s a similar shallowness to Top Gun, although it’s a far more entertaining proposition – a shameless piece of bubblegum that shot down all my critical instincts.
Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness is a deadpan Euro-satire on the sheer awfulness of the mega-rich, that audiences seem to love or hate. Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is a black, comic allegory about the Irish, that allows Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson considerable scope to display their talents. Both films are worthy inclusions, but perhaps too narrow in their scope.
This leaves only Elvis and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, neither of which would be on my shortlist. Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy bio pic of Elvis Presley is less of a horror show than his previous two features, but – as usual – hardly more than a cartoon in which every character is a caricature and the story a collage of disjointed episodes. It’s alarming that Austin Butler, the young actor who plays Elvis, has been scooping the pool for Best Actor during the awards season, as it’s not a role that calls for any great depth or subtlety.
Everything, Everywhere’ by Daniels Kwan and Scheinert, has been the surprise of the season, being nominated for no fewer than 11 Academy Awards. This is outlandish for a film that blends several genres into a messy, hybrid action-comedy, and ultimately collapses into a sentimental heap. The cult-like adoration the film has inspired is partly due to our modish fascination with the metaverse, and partly, I suspect, due to a growing tendency to mistake trash for treasure.
If one were looking for pure entertainment, Top Gun is a better bet than either Elvis or Everything, Everywhere. Not only is it a more thrilling ride, it’s blissfully free of artistic, social or philosophical pretentions. In fact, it’s a nostalgic reminder of those Hollywood movies in which the United States was the heroic defender of world freedom. Nowadays it’s more common for Hollywood to portray America as a land of violent bigots and fanatics.
As for the movies that didn’t make the short-list, the two most glaring omissions are the British films, Living and Empire of Light – both high quality productions with superb acting and poignant stories. Another significant absence was Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, a twisted romance and psychological thriller that lingers in the mind.
As for some of the other high-profile omissions, I couldn’t make a case for The Woman King or Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, no matter how much the media laments the lack of Afro-American nominees. Both are woefully superficial in every department. Another Afro-American headliner, Till, is a superior film, but falls away at the very end, pouring on the treacle when a cold, dry finish was required.
When it comes to the award for Best Director, from Martin McDonagh, the Daniels, Steven Spielberg, Todd Field and Ruben Östlund, once again I’d see it as a straighforward contest between Field and Spielberg. The former has made only three features in 21 years, but they have all been top quality, whereas Spielberg’s output has been continuous and uneven. Any choice other than Field or Spielberg would be a travesty – which is not to say it won’t happen. If ever the Academy wanted to acknowledge the senior director’s long-term achievement, this is a great opportunity, although Spielberg is at a severe disadvantage nowadays in being an elderly, straight, white male.
In the Best Actor category the nominees are Austin Butler (Elvis), Colin Farrell (Banshees’), Brendan Fraser (The Whale), Paul Mescal (Aftersun) and Bill Nighy (Living). At this stage, Austin Butler has enough form to be the favourite, but I couldn’t put his performance in the same ballpark with that of Brendan Fraser or Bill Nighy. For Fraser, a role, in which he spends the entire film sitting in a gloomy apartment like a great, obese blob of unhappiness, is a powerful comeback for an actor who made his name in action movies. As for Bill Nighy, I’ve never seen him act in such convincing fashion. His usual droll mannerisms have been vanquished in this portrayal of a hollow man who finds substance at the end of his life.
I can’t put Colin Farrell’s role on the same plane, as it is essentially a comic turn, albeit brilliantly realised. As for Paul Mescal, he puts in a tradesman-like performance in the most overrated movie of the year.
The Best Actress award should be a shoe-in for Cate Blanchett, who gives it everything in Tár and has won umpteen awards already. Of the other nominees, I’ve yet to see Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie, while Ana de Arnas’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, is an acknowledgment of a great effort in a dark and dismal film. One can’t imagine either of them challenging Blanchett. The two actresses who might be considered unlucky not to score a nomination are Olivia Colman in Empire of Light, and Danielle Deadwyler in Till. It’s better to keep quiet about Viola Davis’s role in The Woman King.
Before I’d seen Tár, I thought Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans was a clear favourite, but now my ideas have shifted. There is, by all accounts, a vigorous campaign on behalf of Malaysian-Chinese actress, Michelle Yeoh, for her performance in Everything, Everywhere’. Although Yeoh is the best part of this film, there’s simply no comparison between this role and the ones played by Blanchett and Williams.
And so, with no great conviction, these are my choices for this year’s four main awards:
Best Film: Tár
Best Director: Steven Spielberg (for The Fabelmans)
Best Actor: Bill Nighy (for Living)
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (for Tár)
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 March, 2023