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Film Reviews

Academy Awards 2024

Published March 9, 2024
Yes, it's time for those shiny things again.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself wildly out of step when it comes to picking winners at the annual Academy Awards. Naturally I’m convinced it’s the world, not me, that keeps getting it wrong. My mistake has been to try and nominate the best film, when it would have been smarter to go with the most likely – but even this raises problems. The two previous winners of the Best Film award – COMA and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, gathered huge momentum towards the end of the voting. This year it seems that nothing can halt Oppenheimer’s stampede to victory.

Oppenheimer calculates the possibility of a clean sweep

The ten films short-listed for 2024 are: Oppenheimer, Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon, Poor Things, The Holdovers, Maestro, Zone of Interest, Past Lives, Anatomy of a Fall, and American Fiction. Australian audiences are at a disadvantage with the last on the list, as it’s only viewable on Amazon Prime. It’s also the only movie I’ve yet to review in these pages, but I’m hoping to correct the omission soon. It’s a good list, with nothing that feels like it doesn’t belong.

Of the films that missed out, the unluckiest must be Todd Haynes’s May December, Aki Karismäki’s Fallen Leaves, and Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. I was relieved to see no mention of two much-praised, unbearable musicals, Wonka and The Color Purple. Neither was there room for Emerald Fennell’s dark, quirky Saltburn, nor for any of the superhero schlock that dominates the box office every year.

Oppenheimer’s theme could hardly be more momentous, namely the birth of the atomic age, which still holds us in its grip. But director, Christopher Nolan – who frequently bites off more than he can chew – has been uncommonly skilful in blending the big issues with the personal story of J. Robert Oppenheimer. A scientific genius with a set of beliefs that put him on a collision course with American Cold War politics, Oppenheimer found it increasingly difficult to celebrate an achievement that brought death to so many innocent peope.

If Oppenheimer pricked our consciences in one way, Martin Scorsese’s epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, painted a desperate portrait of a native American tribe, the Osage, who grew wealthy from oil revenue only to become a target for unscrupulous white opportunists. If one set out to make a movie that ticked all the right ‘social justice’ boxes, Scorsese could hardly be beaten, but so far Nolan’s elegy for the atom bomb has scooped all the awards.

Lily commiserates with Leo over missing out on a nomination

The head of steam Oppenheimer has gathered also puts Christopher Nolan in the box seat for Best Director, although one should not write off that old pro, Martin Scorsese, who manages to make a three-and-a-half-hour feature go by in a flash, where lesser directors can make 90 minutes feel like a mini-series. The three others on the short-list, Jonathan Glazer, Yorgos Lanthimos and Justine Triet would be credible but unlikely winners.

It’s indicative of the way the Academy votes nowadays that an intimate, low budget film such as Celine Song’s Past Lives makes the short list while there is no room for a big budget historical drama such as Napoleon. By any standards, the latter is a vastly more complicated proposition than Song’s semi-autobiographical tale of a Korean-American woman’s lost love. Napoleon may be flawed in many ways, but it seems that storytelling ambition and sheer technical mastery count for nothing.

Auschwitz. The perfect work-family life balance

I’m not going to hold a torch for Napoleon but it’s disappointing that the Academy continues to ignore a director as good as Ridley Scott. Its sense of history doesn’t seem to stretch back any further than the 20th century, unless we view Lanthimos’s fantastical Poor Things as a film about the Victorian era.

It’s pleasing there was room for an old-fashioned movie such as The Holdovers, but the Academy’s largesse didn’t extend to George Clooney’s even more old-fashioned, The Boys in the Boat. Frankly, if Clooney had been Oscar hunting, he would have abandoned historical fact and made the boat crew multi-ethnic, with perhaps one trans.

History was better served by Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which jettisoned much of Martin Amis’s novel to focus on the real commandant of Auschwitz and his family. This strange, chilliing film, with its deadpan take on the domestic life of a man who was perpetrating mass murder on a daily basis, presents a new approach to a highly familiar subject – namely, the Holocaust. Glazer takes that familiarity and makes it strange, a time-honoured approach to any artistic endeavour.

The Zone of Interest is expected to win the prize for Best International Feature, although it’s inexplicable that Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, which beat Glazer’s movie for the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and is in the running for Best Picture, didn’t make the shortlist for this category.

Brad Cooper. Will he be nosed out this year?

Another film that seems destined to miss out is Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein bio-pic, Maestro, which has failed to gather much support during this year’s awards season, although it’s an impressive piece of cinema. Cooper’s own performance in the lead role is stupendous, but he seems unlikely to push past Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, or even that fine character actor, Paul Giamatti, as the grumpy teacher in The Holdovers. It’s possible that the ludicrous controversy about Cooper wearing a prosthetic nose – which was interpreted as vaguely anti-Semitic – may have harmed his cause, but he would be my pick for Best Actor.

For Best Actress, everything points to Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s hard not to believe this favourite status has been generated by the fact that Gladstone is one of the few native American actors in the business. Although her performance can’t be faulted, it’s not of the same level of complexity as Emma Stone’s turn as Bella Baxter, in Poor Things, or Sandra Hüller’s role as a woman accused of murdering her husband in Anatomy of a Fall. Even Carey Mulligan, as Leonard Bernstein’s long-suffering wife, Felicia, deserves greater consideration. It seems wildy inconsistent that Gladstone is the front-runner for Best Actress, when Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t even score a Best Actor nomination for his much more difficult role in the same movie.

Jeffrey Wright has gathered plaudits for his performance in American Fiction, as a writer who knocks off a cliché-ridden ‘black’ novel as a hoax, and watches it become a best-seller. It’s the kind of feature that has been a long time coming, and we may see its prominence in this year’s Oscars as a sign that perhaps Hollywood is beginning to tire of its obsessive wokeness. The chief target of director Cord Jefferson’s satire are those white ‘literary’ types who feel the African-American’s pain while entertaining only the most superficial and patronising ideas about black lives.

Emma Stone: the suspense is unbearable

There are two platypuses on this year’s shortlist for Best Picture – Barbie and Poor Things. These are films that are hard to categorise, which utterly abandon realism in favour of extravagant fantasy. In Barbie, Greta Gerwig tries to reconcile a mass of contradictions about the popular blonde-haired doll and succeeds better than one might have expected. Is Barbie a pernicious device for imposing stereotypes upon impressionable young girls, or can she provide a positive, more progressive role model? Gerwig takes the latter path but leaves plenty of room for the former. The satire on male insecurities is over-the-top, but also sharply focussed. It may be a mark of the film’s weirdness that Margot Robbie didn’t receive a Best Actress nomination for a committed performance in the lead role.

Poor Things is a film that commands more serious attention. Yorgos Lanthimos has simplified Alasdair Gray’s tricksy novel and revved up the sexual content. It left Emma Stone with the demanding task of playing a grown woman who begins with the mind of an infant and accompanying lack of inhibition, but ends as an intellectual. It’s a ragged, entertaining romp of a movie that stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema. Where it will rank in this year’s Oscars is anyone’s guess.

And so, I’ll leave you with my fatalistic conclusions about winners and creditable alternatives in the four main categories:

Best Picture:  Oppenheimer (Killers of the Flower Moon)

Best Director: Christopher Nolan (Martin Scorsese)

Best Actor: Cillian Murphy (Bradley Cooper)

Best Actress: Lily Gladstone (Emma Stone)

 

96th Annual Academy Awards,

Announced on Sunday 10 March 2024

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 March, 2024