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The 2023 Oscar Nominations, and What Should Have Made the List

These selections highlight the gap between what’s on the Academy’s radar and what’s going on in the world of movies at large.

If Oscar nominations bore a movie’s title, this year’s rundown would borrow one from Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, “Fear and Desire.” The movie-industry news of the past year has been the collapse of the box-office for almost everything but blockbusters, and the Academy’s response has been to put its mouth where its money is, by way of Best Picture nominations for the megahits “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis,” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” plus one for the power that be, Netflix, whose “All Quiet on the Western Front” had an almost undetectable theatrical release.

The desire is found in the eleven nominations, more than any other film, for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which represents the conjoined aspirations to weirdness and diversity; though its emotional realm isn’t weird at all (its facile sentimentality is its secret weapon), its surfaces are more idiosyncratic than almost anything else that Hollywood put out last year. The casting is its directors’ greatest achievement. Bringing together Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, great actors whose talents have been underutilized because of the dearth of substantial roles for Asian performers, along with Jamie Lee Curtis (who has endured the ageism that most actresses confront) and the near-newcomer (to movies) Stephanie Hsu, deserves an Oscar in itself. (There’s no award for the technical category of casting, though.)

On the other hand, Hollywood releases of 2022 offered one great movie that checks both of these boxes, commercial success and imaginative extravagance—namely, “Nope”—and it did not get nominated for anything. Jordan Peele is the Rodney Dangerfield of Hollywood—he gets no respect at all, at least, none since he won Best Original Screenplay for “Get Out.” His, and his movies’, neglect is appalling and disturbing. It’s similarly appalling that, although two superb Black actors were nominated this year—Angela Bassett and Brian Tyree Henry—not a single movie by a Black filmmaker, in a year that offered many superb ones, received a nomination for Best Picture, for directing, for screenwriting, or, for that matter, for Best International Feature.

Instead, the Academy has thrown its weight behind the stodge of “All Quiet on the Western Front”: for those who lament that they don’t make ’em the way they used to, the German director Edward Berger has proved them wrong. So does the bushel of nominations for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” with its folkloric histrionics and its dark frivolity. (The nostalgia that its success represents, above all, is for the Coen brothers’ early films—it catches something of their tone without their style, wit, or cinematic self-awareness.) The other international film to get a Best Picture nomination, “Triangle of Sadness,” is mainly in English, and its emotional world is painfully simplistic.

On the other hand, the good news is that “Women Talking” received a pair of nominations, for Best Picture and for its screenplay, and that the daring and subtle “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” a remarkable blend of stop-motion and live action, turns up as a nominee in the Animated Feature category. (Also, I’m happy to note that The New Yorker Studio produced five of the fifteen short-film nominees—the documentaries “Haulout” and “Stranger at the Gate,” the live-action film “Night Ride,” and the animated films “Ice Merchants” and “The Flying Sailor.”)

I’m against the individual branches making nominations in their categories; cinematographers, editors, actors have the knowledge and the understanding of their fields, but this practice results in a sort of guild protectionism that perpetuates norms instead of rewarding experiences. Awards should be bestowed on aesthetic, artistic grounds—on the effects produced—and should, instead, be nominated by the entire membership.

That circling of the wagons in a time of trouble, when the industry’s financial uncertainties weigh heavily on its artistic audacities and its longtime commercial mainstays alike, suggests yet another theme for the year’s Oscar nominees: “Back to the Future.” With an open field of worried wandering and no map to guide the industry’s deciders, the branches and the Academy at large have taken a conservative, backward-looking approach. Inasmuch as the Oscars are, eminently, aspirational—an image of what the industry prizes about itself and where it wants to be heading over all—what the list of nominees promises for slates of production in years ahead is fearsome.

Best Picture

“Benediction”

“Amsterdam”

“Armageddon Time”

“Both Sides of the Blade”

“The Cathedral”

“The Eternal Daughter”

“Hit the Road”

“No Bears”

“Nope”

“Saint Omer”

I recently rewatched several of these films, and it reminded me of why the release of Oscar-type movies skews to year-end: recent viewings are energizing, sometimes even distorting, and Academy members are doubtless likely to favor movies from late in the year. I saw “Benediction” when it was released (scantly), in May, and, again, a month or so later, with even more enthusiasm—knowledge of the story and familiarity with the dramatic framework made its felicitous details leap out all the more. Its vividness sticks in the memory and makes it seem permanently recent.

2022 was an unusual year for movies. Sticking with the best, it was a great year, but there was not a lot of depth on the bench. As in 2021, American independent filmmaking is in a holding pattern, awaiting its next big thing, and it’s increasingly hard for many of the best international films to get distribution. I acknowledge the utopianism of casting my ten favorites of the year in the roles of Oscar nominees. In the real Oscars, few Best Picture nominees are international films and non-English-language films, and even fewer are ultra-low-budget independent films (such as “The Cathedral”). I’m keeping my list in this fantasyland in order to highlight the gap between what’s usually on the Academy’s radar and what’s going on in the world of movies at large. Realistically, I’d be thrilled to see some other prominent Hollywood and Off Hollywood movies, including “Till” and “Master,” get nominated. (I’m unfortunately sure that “Don’t Worry Darling,” one of the year’s best star-centric Hollywood films, will be rejected by the Academy, as it was by critics.)

Best Director

Terence Davies (“Benediction”)

Alice Diop (“Saint Omer”)

James Gray (“Armageddon Time”)

Jafar Panahi (“No Bears”)

Jordan Peele (“Nope”)

It would be odd for Best Picture and Best Director to be greatly divergent, anywhere and at any time. Going back to 2012, all but three nominated directors (Bennett Miller, for “Foxcatcher,” Pawel Pawlikowski for “Cold War,” and Thomas Vinterberg, for “Another Round”) have had their films nominated for Best Picture, too. Even in the nineteen-forties and fifties, when the studios dominated and the word “auteur” was unheard of in American criticism, the Best Picture and Best Director winners matched in fourteen out of twenty years; in the nineteen-nineties, they diverged only once. The overlap points to the very meaning of directing: the comprehensive influence on the work of everyone making a major contribution to the film at hand, from casting and the style of acting to the tone of lighting and the costumes and décor—and, of course, the script, whether or not the director is credited. (The authority of the director in commercial American movies became more apparent in the post-studio era, when there was no longer a house style based on top-down production dictates, nor a cast and crew on long-term and steady studio contracts.) This thoroughgoing influence was apparent last year, with Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” and so it is with Terence Davies, who, in making “Benediction,” has done something impressive that has even been mistaken for a fault: he has made a movie that looks almost normal.

The movie is a sort-of bio-pic about the poet Siegfried Sassoon, one that spans half a century and filigrees its intimate drama on a grand map of political and artistic history. Davies’s style is no less audacious than it was when his films were more tableau-like and choreographic. But now, from the height of his own seventy-seven years, he sees the import of Sassoon’s story and the implications of Sassoon’s times with a furious clarity that comes through in a form that’s as pellucid as it is exquisite. Charlie Chaplin famously said that comedy is life in long shot and tragedy is life in closeup, and I’ve long thought that directors’ sense of distance is as important as that of timing. But, in the case of “Benediction,” Davies’s delicately calibrated distances aren’t just the physical ones—of the characters from the camera—but of himself from the action, as he fuses the tragedy of Sassoon’s life with a veneer of comedy, one that eventually shatters to mighty effect. Davies has the boldness to integrate his dramatic sequences with alluring, even visually intoxicating special effects, which open its meticulous historical reconstructions to astonishing subjective depths.

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