CULTURE

Now That the Oscar Nominations Are in, Here’s What Deserves to Win

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If the Oscars are meant to display the film industry’s ideal image of itself, the choice of “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Barbie” among the year’s best movies is evidence that the spirit of artistic audacity has survived the age of superheroic domination. Those two films are high on my list of favorites, too, and even many of the Best Picture nominees that I find less accomplished are nonetheless unorthodox, at least on the surface: there’s the sheer volume of historical intricacies in “Oppenheimer,” the blend of Victorian finery and steampunk grotesqueries in “Poor Things,” or even the coy macabre ironies of “The Zone of Interest.” Movies, even when their emotional world remains sentimental or programmatic, are getting stranger, and the Academy, with its recently expanded membership, is at least embracing the strangeness—at least, some of it.

The causes have to do with a long-term shift in the nature of movie viewing—largely, the dwindling of the suspension of disbelief. The vast amount of information about how movies are made, the proliferation of interviews about the process, and perhaps the sheer volume of moving images on view in daily life have made new generations of viewers fiction-skeptical. (The extreme popularity of superheroes and other fantasy coincides with, and amplifies, this skepticism about realist fiction.) Note how many of this year’s nominees are about the creation of fictions—such as “American Fiction,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Barbie,” “Past Lives,” and “Anatomy of a Fall.” (And among the year’s most ingenious films on this subject is Wes Anderson’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” nominated for Best Live Action Short Film.)

The effects are as strange as the films, however. If, twenty-five years ago, the world of movies was drowning in realism, now it gets little respect (outside the sentimental realm). The success of “The Holdovers,” realistic though it might seem, has as much to do with its tone as with its substance: not only is it set in 1970 but it’s calculated to feel like a movie that could have been made then. (For all its emotional directness, the entire movie may as well be in quotation marks.) Yet many of the best movies that get made rely on taut and rigorous realism to achieve symbolic purposes; they get largely left behind, this year (films such as “Passages,” “Showing Up,” and “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt”) as last (“Armageddon Time”). “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an exception—Martin Scorsese has always been an exemplary artist of self-transcending and symbolically rich realism, and his status as a master of the art, finally acknowledged by the Academy with his Oscar for “The Departed,” puts him in a category unto himself.

For all the spectacle, the Oscars remain resolutely earnest, as if serious subjects can somehow confirm the social value of the industry. History always helps; so do artistic heroes. The bio-pic is, for would-be serious people, the equivalent of the superhero film— personality-based history preprogrammed with its tales of virtue and tragedy. Yet I also detect something like a backlash, a kind of political exhaustion, in this year’s roster: to put it bluntly, the dominance of historical films involves the fighting of old battles already resolved, at least in principle. (I’d expected far more attention to be paid to “Origin,” both by critics and by the Academy, but the fact that it wasn’t may attest to the film’s troubling power: its truthful reckonings with history and with current injustices that have rattled both the industry and the nation may be too close for comfort.) Bio-pics also provide a reliable Oscar shot for actors. The incarnation of a historical figure is calculable in a way that the playing of fully fictional characters isn’t: there’s a preëxisting standard, a historical record that can be consulted, even archival footage that can be viewed, and the resulting performances offer a kind of virtuosity that also seems to reflect seriousness of purpose. (Emma Stone’s performance in “Poor Things” displays a similar virtuosity: the role’s language games make her achievement more obvious than if her character were speaking ordinary English.) It’s hard to see any reason other than the preference for earnest virtue for Margot Robbie’s lack of a nomination for starring in “Barbie.”

The same goes, of course, for Greta Gerwig not to have been nominated for directing it. Many critics, and apparently many in the industry, can’t see past its stylized surfaces to its substantial ideas. Though I’m delighted to see “Barbie” acknowledged in many categories (including for its screenplay and its supporting performances), it’s enraging that the two people principally responsible for its essence—in substance and in style—have been left out of the running. This is partly because, as usual, comedy gets no respect. (Much as I admire America Ferrera’s performance in “Barbie,” it brings to life an essentially non-comedic role.) And it pains me to note that the directors’ branch of the Academy, which (like all other branches) picks the nominees in its category, has no sense of style. They have something of a sense of stylization—Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” is a profusion of theatrical artifice, albeit with hardly an original image to be found in it—but there’s neither an acknowledgment of Anderson’s “Asteroid City” or Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” either.

I’m fascinated by the coalescence of critical opinion and the Oscar nominations. Perhaps because of social media, people working in the business, here and internationally—yes, the Academy is indeed international—seem increasingly susceptible to what the reviews say. That’s why France—or at least, the official commission that chooses the country’s entry for Best International Feature—must be kicking itself. I’d pretty much taken for granted that the choice would be “Anatomy of a Fall,” Justine Triet’s spiky tale of legal mystery and marital conflict, which was widely acclaimed and won the top prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival; instead, France selected “The Taste of Things,” a far more sentimental film. As a result, “Anatomy,” which could probably have been the presumptive winner of the International Feature category, has five nominations and, I’d bet, is unlikely to convert any of them to a win, while “The Taste of Things” didn’t even get nominated. Not that international films, as I mention below, had a particularly stellar year. All the same, it was nonetheless a great year for movies in general—at least, if one judges by the artistic achievement that the best of them represent—and the presence among the nominees of several of the year’s actual best movies on the Oscar roster is all too rare a treat.


BEST PICTURE

“Killers of the Flower Moon”

“Asteroid City”

“Barbie”

“Showing Up”

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt”

“Passages”

“Ferrari”

Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese.Photograph courtesy Apple TV+

On the basis of moment-to-moment inventiveness and insight, “Asteroid City” is hard to beat, in any year, by anyone. But “Killers of the Flower Moon” takes on a subject with much higher stakes and adds to it a much greater challenge of scope. The composer Morton Feldman said, of musical compositions, “Up to one hour you think about form, but, after an hour and a half, it’s scale,” and, if you change those numbers to two hours and two and a half hours, respectively, the same is true of movies. Never a minimalist, Scorsese, with “The Irishman” and now with “Killers,” has entered two unusual categories at once: the films are teeming, even overwhelming, in action and substance as well as in duration, yet they’re also stark and spare “late films,” displaying a longtime filmmaker’s brusque clarity. He gets straight to the essence of his complex and far-reaching stories; his apparently transparent realism reverberates with the secrets and mysteries at its heart. (Both films rely on the same classical trope, a deeply principled woman’s silence—they’re centered on the two great Cordelias of the recent cinema.) Yet the end of “Killers,” Scorsese relies on brilliant dramatic sleight of hand to convey regret for how little he has been able to do, and it casts the entire movie in the light of how much remains to be done, now and in generations to come. It’s a historical film that points to the future of the art.

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