(Mar. 10, 2023) — Last year, I lamented how there has been a serious decline in the quality of the Oscar Best Picture nominees over the years. I thought last year’s bunch was the most disappointing of all. “CODA” was fantastic, but I only had three of the other nine in my Top 10 for the year.
Taken as a whole, this year’s nominees are much better than last year. Even the bottom of the list is far superior to years’ past. Nothing is even remotely as awful as “West Side Story,” “Birdman” or “The Revenant.”
Yet, unlike previous years, it was extremely difficult to decide which movie I believed deserved Best Picture. Last year, I had no idea “CODA” would win, but I still chose it as easily my top nominee. But I truly have zero clue as to what might take home the top prize on Sunday.
Keep in mind that my list is in order of my favorites. It has no bearing on what I think will actually win.
Best Picture nominees
- “Avatar: The Way of Water.” We still go to the theater to be wowed. With fewer and fewer people actually going to theaters to see movies, there has to be a viable reason to do so. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is that reason. Nothing short of remarkable in just about every way, it is less a movie and more of a rare film experience. James Cameron is the top film experience director of his time.
- “The Fabelmans.” If any director deserves to make a film about his childhood, Steven Spielberg is it. Growing up with a family that kept uprooting him, his one constant was a film camera. Although those around him decreed it “just a hobby,” he set out to prove them wrong. Spielberg grew up in the late 1950s, a time when “divorce” and “depression” were just words in the dictionary. The suffering of both by his mother (Michelle Williams grows into the role) shapes both Spielberg’s early short films and his growth as a young man. I was bored for the first 30 minutes, until Judd Hirsch showed up. He turns the film in a new direction, yet his eight minutes of screen time is not worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
- “Women Talking.” Sarah Polley takes a painful subject and makes 104 minutes of its discussion a pleasure to watch. The ensemble cast is terrific; Polley’s thorough research on the abuse the women in a Bolivian Mennonite society suffered gave the actresses plenty to work with. It is not a feel-good movie. Sometimes we’re supposed to be mad after watching a film. If that was Polley’s aim, she succeeded.
- “Top Gun: Maverick.” Everyone calls this sequel the film that saved the movies. I think it is too early to tell. Perhaps 10 years from now, if the theater-going experience has truly returned, we can look back at “Top Gun: Maverick” as the harbinger. What I can call this movie is an excellent, belated sequel. No one ever asked for another “Top Gun,” but now we should be glad we got one.
- “Banshees of Inisherin.” Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson give sublime performances as former best friends in early 20th century Ireland. Director Martin McDonagh mixes comedy and tragedy in equal measures. Not quite as good as his first film with Farrell and Gleeson, “In Bruges,” “Banshees of Inisherin” is great in its own right.
- “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In the third film adaptation of the book, all the harrowing effects of war are again on display. Felix Kammerer carries the film as Paul, the fresh-faced young buck ready for war. The looks on his face throughout the film say everything we know he must be feeling as he watches friends die all around him. World War I was a century ago; we need reminders like “All Quiet on the Western Front” every few decades so we do not forget.
- “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” There are only two reasons to ever notice the editing in a movie: when it is very bad or very good. Thankfully, we get to see the latter in this film. Characters bounce between different versions of themselves – called Verse Jumping – to use the skills from each version. Editor Paul Rogers weaves scenes together masterfully. Never confusing and impeccably acted, it is like nothing you have ever seen. I rarely ask for a film to be shorter, but it needed about 20 less minutes.
- “Triangle of Sadness.” Three movies in one, this film is all over the map. The first act is a romance drama about two models arguing over money; the second is a comedy when the models go on the cruise from hell; and the third act is a horror adventure when the models are shipwrecked on a spooky island. Woody Harrelson is great as the bumbling, drunken ship captain. “Triangle of Sadness” is a pretty good send up of the rich and what they throw their money at.
- “Elvis.” Oh, Baz Luhrmann, you are excess defined. I am so very tired of musical biopics. Luhrmann’s take on Elvis Presley did not help. The film is way too long and disjointed. Austin Butler is tremendous as Elvis, but he’s not enough to elevate this film any higher.
- “TÁR.” This movie is … fine? I mean, Cate Blanchett is always good, so that is nothing new. Why this movie is at the top of year-end lists is beyond me. Blanchett plays an over-the-top conductor who has not gotten the memo on how to be even the least bit politically correct. Then she wonders why she has ended up in hot water by the end. If I want to watch a movie about a manic music teacher, I’ll watch “Whiplash” again.
Here’s my personal Top 10 list:
- “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
- “The Fabelmans.”
- “To Leslie.”
- “Women Talking.”
- “Top Gun: Maverick.”
- “Banshees of Inisherin.”
- “Speak No Evil.”
Note, if I counted the 3D release of “Jaws (1975),” I would put it in the No. 2 spot.
With such a polarizing group of films, I’d love to hear what everyone thinks about the crop this year. Let me know in the comments.
Jeff Mellinger is a screen writer and film buff. He holds a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in film production. He lives in Concord.