Oscars crash course: Lightning reviews of all ten Best Picture nominees

March 9, 2023, 5:16 p.m.

The 95th Academy Awards will be held this Sunday, and the list of nominees is daunting. It would take you almost a full 24 hours to watch all ten films nominated for the biggest prize of the night: the Academy Award for Best Picture.

But never fear! I sacrificed untold hours of my life watching, taking notes and writing bite-sized reviews of all ten of the nominees (along with some hot takes you can spout at your watch party). So without further ado, here are the nominees, ranked according to the one question on everyone’s mind — which movie will win the big prize? (Note that rankings account for what I predict to be the Academy’s preferences and do not equate to my own assessments.)

1. Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO)

My rating: 9.5 out of 10 everything bagels

In the most likely Best Picture winner, a Chinese American immigrant (Michelle Yeoh) must connect with her alternate selves across bizarre dimensions to save the universe and bridge a gap with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu). Beloved by popular audiences and critics alike, the surprise box office hit earned top prizes at the Writers’, Directors’, Screen Actors’ and Producers’ Guilds. If it wins, it’ll be a big stride for Asian American film artists in a year where a record number of actors are nominated and will mark a rising tide of maximalist high cinema.

Although Yeoh shines, the real heroes of the cast are Ke Huy Quan — who delivers remarkable pathos and generosity — and Hsu, whose bonkers character variations are grounded and restrained while being utterly eccentric (see her audition tape for proof).

Quote: “You are not unlovable. There is always something to love. Even in a stupid, stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers, we get very good with our feet.”

Yearbook superlative: Best Ratatouille Fan-fiction

Five-word review: Captures every emotion in existence.

Is it better than this year’s real cinematic masterpiece, ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? Yes. “EEAAO” nails the same themes as “Puss in Boots” (aging, family, our one life to live) while perfectly incorporating even more (intergenerational trauma, parenting and grappling with nihilism).

2. The Banshees of Inisherin

My rating: 8.5 out of 10 fingers

If EEAAO has too much zaniness for older voters, the next most likely pick is this quieter — but still absurdist — movie. A man (Colin Farrell) on an Irish island gets tired of his dull friend (Brendan Gleeson) and goes to great lengths to ensure they remain separated. The film already has a set of BAFTAs and the top Golden Globe for a Musical or Comedy in the bag. With its dryly hilarious script and an irresistibly dark twist, it would be a less populist but still Twitter-favorite pick for Best Picture. A win could mark a shift toward greater Academy appreciation of dark humor, a genre that’s usually unrecognized.

My hot take: the first half is richer and deeper than the second, which abandons some of the film’s more subtle sadness for scream-laughter-worthy absurdist escalation. By the end, it works beautifully on a symbolic level, but not so much on the level of character.

Quote: “It takes two to tango!” “I don’t want to tango.”

Yearbook superlative: Most Invitations to the Pub

Five-word review: Laugh, then feel sad about it.

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? Tie. Both are fables with unexpected darkness, with varying levels of twisted horror.

3. All Quiet on the Western Front

My rating: 4 out of 10 geese stolen from a French farmhouse

A German teenager (Felix Kammerer) enlists in World War I and is quickly faced with the gory realities of war. The German film won Best Picture at the BAFTAs last month. War movies are consistent Oscars fodder, so it’s a dark horse for the big prize. If it wins, it’ll show that the Oscars have only just realized that war is hell, picking a movie that seems timely but is really just a more gory version of the war dramas we see year after year (2019’s “1917,” also set in WWI, has it beat in terms of suspense, pathos and character).

What this movie does most effectively is debunk the myth of the honor of war, portraying its true inhumanity — but at this point, who in Hollywood would say that World War I was a walk in the park? The film wallows in war more than it advocates for peace.

Quote: “The stench will remain on us forever.”

Yearbook superlative: Slowest and Most Excruciating Death Scene 

Five-word review: ‘Gory war’ isn’t a plot.

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? No. The war film’s emotional landscape is monotonous, while “Puss in Boots” has a whole palette of emotion that aids its impact.

4. The Fabelmans

My rating: 8.5 out of 10 pet monkeys

A boy (Gabriel LaBelle) discovers the magic of film-making in mid-century America as he grows up and navigates his family life in Steven Spielberg’s fictionalized version of his childhood. As film-legend Spielberg’s career-capping retrospective, it stands a fair chance on Sunday night. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and we know the Oscars love movies about movies. If it wins, it’ll be a return to old-fashioned movies after a run of more absurdist and modern-sensibility films in recent years.

Spielberg manages to steer the film out of self-reverence by grounding it in a heartfelt portrayal of his family and showing genuine curiosity about his own past (with help from an exceptional performance by Michelle Williams). That being said, if you want to enjoy the film, leave your cynical self at the door.

Quote: “Family, art. It will tear you in two.”

Yearbook superlative: Most Self-Referential

Five-word review: Küntslerroman captures heart of childhood

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? Yes. The conflicted and real human characters of “Fabelmans” ring truer than fantastical animals (no matter how complexly cats are rendered).

5. Tár

My rating: 7.5 out of 10 mysterious ticking metronomes

A world-renowned conductor (Cate Blanchett) wields her baton and her power in the Berlin Philharmonic, slowly losing the control she values in her career as she undertakes to perform Mahler’s ambitious Fifth Symphony. It’s the film critics’ darling: the character-driven prestige drama was only the fourth film in history to win Best Film from the world’s top critics’ associations. If it wins, it’ll show that the Academy puts its weight behind complex artistic dramas instead of big blockbusters, which is significant in the wave of small art films’ recent box office busts.

“Tár” is the kind of movie that acts like it’s smarter than the viewer, and I was left wondering if it earns it. It keeps things purposefully vague and fills dialogue with shallow jargon. However, as the movie goes on, it does earn its arrogance with its layered plot, intriguing symbols and impeccable performance by Blanchett. It’s captivatingly frustrating — despite its long runtime, it demands repeat viewings and never feels like it drags.

Quote: “It is always the question that involves the listener, it’s never the answer.”

Yearbook superlative: Most Specifically Unlikeable Character

Five-word review: Inscrutable, but makes you think.

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? It’s complicated. The film rebuts the idea that a film can be summarized or compared in a simple manner — it both intrigues and repulses the viewer, both illuminates and befuddles.

6. Top Gun: Maverick

My rating: 6 out of 10 beach football games

Decades after his own rebellious years as a Navy pilot, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) returns to teach a young squad how to pull off a new daring mission. It’s received a couple of accolades, but its real qualifications are the box office numbers that marked the return of the industry after COVID-19. If it wins, it’ll show that the Oscars are abandoning their arthouse trends of the last decade: Tom Cruise is your god now.

I didn’t love this movie  — the characters and emotional beats didn’t land for me — but it’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster that doesn’t have third act problems. The plot structure is simple but it works, more of a heist than a war movie: set a task, prepare for it and accomplish it. If “All Quiet on the Western Front” shows that war is hell, “Top Gun: Maverick” shows that war is heaven.

Quote: “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.” “Maybe so, sir, but not today.”

Yearbook superlative: Best Cover of “Great Balls of Fire”

Five-word review: Like planes? You’ll like this.

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? No. “Puss” has a more honest and poignant reckoning with aging than Maverick does.

7. Elvis

My rating: 7.5 out of 10 hip gyrations

The film tracks Elvis Presley’s rise to stardom, chart dominance and tragic final years, as told by his manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It took home a few BAFTAs, and period pieces and biopics are standard Oscars fare, so it has an outside chance on Sunday. If it wins, it’ll be because it nails the Venn-diagram intersection of all the other nominees: a financially successful, maximalist, all-American picture about the power of art. 

Tom Hanks’ left-field performance as Col. Parker has gotten a lot of flak, but it was not that bad. He plays a bizarre cartoon villain exactly as the story requires: Presley and Parker are two competing myths of America that are purposefully caricatured. Both characters need screen time and intriguing anti-realist strangeness in order to make the final act work.

Quote: “It was at that moment that Elvis the Man was sacrificed and Elvis the God was born. He had no idea what he had just done.”

Yearbook superlative: Most Unforgettable Accents

Five-word review: Sometimes dazzles, sometimes lip syncs

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? Tie. “Elvis” has pacing problems, but the tragic ending and long time-span have an effect that “Puss in Boots” doesn’t.

8. Triangle of Sadness

My rating: 6.5 out of 10 Marxist cruise captains

A luxury cruise goes grossly wrong, and assorted staff and billionaires are beached on a tropical island to recreate their social order. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, though not without some debate, and director Ruben Östlund has directed international critical favorites in the past, giving it some Oscars bona fides. If it wins, it’ll be yet another Hollywood favorite that pillories the rich: apparently the Academy liked “White Lotus,” but likes the version with European oligarchs vomiting even more.

My hot take? The audience’s laughter at the final role-reversal where the rich are humiliated and the poor take power ends up reinforcing, not satirizing, the order of the world. The humor implies that it’s silly to imagine a poor person with authority (not to mention the cynicism of the film always maintaining some kind of exploitative hierarchy).

Quote: “Money! Money! Money! Money! Money!”

Yearbook superlative: Best Poop Flowing Down a Staircase

Five-word review: Distracted by schadenfreude, it wanders. 

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? No. “Puss in Boots” executes its humor perfectly, while “Triangle of Sadness” gets repetitive in its own juvenile “eat the rich” punchlines.

9. Women Talking

My rating: 8 out of 10 pro-con lists

Women in an insular religious community decide whether to stay or leave their small colony after male leaders commit and hide a series of sexual assaults for years. The quiet-but-stirring feature has been nominated at most awards, but unfortunately hasn’t taken home any prizes. It’s a long-shot to win, but if it does, it’ll symbolize a pro-#MeToo Hollywood amid recent cultural backlashes to sexual assault conversations.

The film got little attention in its theatrical run, perhaps due to waning support for small ‘prestige’ drama films, but it’s a shame. This is exactly the kind of movie we lose when we value flashy dramas over quiet films: a meditation that requires attention and care, and a parable that is accessible to people of any political or religious background. It’s a fascinating view on conflicted conversations being had around the world about abuse and religious faith.

Quote: “If God is a loving god, he will forgive us himself. If he is a vengeful God, he has made us in his image.”

Yearbook superlative: Most Literal Title

Five-word review: Layered performances drive spirited conversation

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? Incomparable, but a children’s movie couldn’t ever reach the depths of nuance and full-throated debate that “Women Talking” does.

10. Avatar: The Way of Water

My rating: 6.5 out of 10 intelligent whales

Under attack, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) escapes with his family to a scenic archipelago and attempts to integrate into a community that lives in harmony with the ocean and its life forms. “Avatar 2” has been nominated for several awards, but unlike the original, it hasn’t garnered many awards this year. More than $2 billion at the box office will have to be enough for James Cameron. If it wins, it’ll be a shocking sign that the only reason the Academy didn’t give the original “Avatar” Best Picture was because there weren’t enough blue alien child actors.

I left “Avatar 2” the most relaxed I’ve ever been after a movie: the best scenes of the film are when nothing happens, and the viewer is immersed and relaxed in a high-budget alien nature documentary. That, combined with the calculated tension and release of blockbuster action, made for a pleasurably head-emptying experience.  

Quote: “I know you’re all asking yourselves the same question. Why so blue?”

Yearbook superlative: Most Bizarrely Offensive Alien Accents 

Five-word review: Bad writing, good everything else.

Is it better than ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’? No. ‘Avatar 2’ has more thrilling action, but “Puss in Boots” creates clear and interesting characters whereas “Avatar 2” muddles its character development.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

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