Academy Award nominations were released earlier this month, revealing stiff competition across categories. Award film buffs always anxiously await the best picture nominees — and the this year’s 10 nominees are bound to satiate them. There is no common denominator between these films, which reach across multiple genres and countries. While the awards are not until Mar. 27, this article hopes to analyze the biggest best picture contenders in preparation for the big ceremony.
Of the 10 nominees, “Belfast” tops my list. The film examines the explosion of religious sectarianism in Northern Ireland and Britain over the summer of 1969. Looking through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy, director Kenneth Braunaugh seats the viewer within a fictionalized younger version of himself. From innocent school romance to the endearing bickering of Granny and Pop, Buddy’s viewpoint elevates the narrative beyond Northern Ireland riots to a heartwarming testament to the power of family and friendship. In terms of technique, fleeting bursts of color display Braunaugh’s creative vision and brilliant execution by his editing team. At the film’s close, I was imbued with hope — something of which, I think, we are all sorely in need.
Though “Belfast” has my vote for best picture, director Jane Champion’s “The Power of the Dog” is easily the award favorite, collecting a total of 12 nominations. An abridged version of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, the film centers on rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) who suppresses his sexuality by clinging to his definition of masculinity — defined by manual labor and communion with nature. Set in Montana and shot in New Zealand, cinematographer Ari Wegner emphasizes the variations of brown and gray within the picturesque mountain landscape. The somber color grading reflects the torment Phil inflicts on his brother George (Jesse Plemmons), sister-in-law Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and step-nephew Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Though the cast captivates the viewer, Champion’s characters are purposefully out of reach and, thereby, unpredictable in their actions, creating a suspense that sweeps through the film.
Competing with “The Power of the Dog” at 10 nominations, “Dune” revives Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science fiction novel. Never having read “Dune,” I found myself confused and searching for a nonexistent remote to rewind while watching the movie. However, the film’s mystique kept my attention and pushed me to search for Herbert’s hallowed social allegory, which I will not attempt to discuss here. As director Denis Villenueve contended, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and Chani Kynes (Zendaya) belong in a theater. The film’s technical prowess elevates it beyond science fiction, earning the film nominations in editing, cinematography, costume, hair and makeup, sound, score and visual effects. Even my untrained eye perceives the gravity of each scene that also packs in the adventure and action of the novel.
While “Dune” transports the audience to another planet and time, “King Richard” grounds the best picture category in an earthly, but equally awe-inspiring, phenomenon: the Williams sisters. Depicting the rise of Serena and Venus Williams, director Reinaldo Green highlights their father Richard (Will Smith) and his 75-page plan guaranteeing their stardom from birth. Given the stature and background of these athletes, the film could easily limit itself to a clichéd rags-to-riches plot. On the contrary, “King Richard” remains refreshingly nuanced because the narration of Richard and Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) tethers the film to parenthood and the fine lines Richard walks between father, manager and coach.
But as always, some great films from this year were snubbed. After snagging a best motion picture musical or comedy nomination and winning best actor in a motion picture musical or comedy at the Golden Globes, “tick, tick…BOOM!” garnered another best actor nomination for Andrew Garfield, but unfortunately, no recognition under best picture. “tick, tick…BOOM!” is utterly personal, drawing the viewer into the fantastic mind of the late playwright and composer Jonathan Larson (“Rent”) in a rewrite of his debut Broadway musical monolog. At the center of the film, Garfield’s portrayal of Larson delivers the grandeur of the stage through the intimacy of the screen, intermixing a baroque show of emotion with minute changes in facial expression. In the same way, the film seamlessly threads Larson’s story through dance numbers, ballads, emotional breakdowns and, quite literally, the subway.
In the place of “tick, tick…BOOM!” is my least favorite best picture nominee, “Don’t Look Up.” I admit, the cast easily produces superb performances — Meryl Streep unsurprisingly melts into an irredeemable President Orleanas and Jennifer Lawrence’s Kate Dibiasky made me want to scream about climate change. Yet, director Adam McKay misses the mark. Climate change is a serious issue that the comedy of the film undermines. While it could have attracted viewers who do not believe in climate change or its severity, I doubt that the film changed their minds. Further, McKay’s characters are unlikeable, which stunts the audience’s desire to empathize with them or root for their success. In the final minutes of the film, Dr. Randall Mindyas (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Dibiasky sit with his family for a last supper, awaiting the impact of the asteroid they had predicted and tried to warn the world about. If done right, the scene would spur copious empathy, but instead, it left me rather unaffected. To be clear, the film does as promised and packs a comical punch. Yet, the gravity of the climate change allegory diminishes in convoluted side plots and time jumps.
Other phenomenal films round out the best picture category, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” Teruhisa Yamamoto’s “Drive My Car” and Philippe Rousselet’s “CODA.” Overall, this year’s nominees are exceptional, immersing viewers in new realities and exhibiting the very best of Hollywood.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.