The nominations for the 96th Academy Awards were announced on January 23, with Christopher Nolan’s WWII biopic “Oppenheimer” heading into the final stretch of the Oscar race as the assumed Best Picture frontrunner with very little sign of it slowing down over the next six weeks or so. The star-studded historical epic leads this year’s nomination count with a whopping 13, followed closely by Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” with 11, and Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” with 10. The slate of films competing for the big prize is nicely rounded out by a healthy mix of box-office juggernauts (“Barbie”), indie darlings (“Past Lives”), festival standouts (“American Fiction”), and international fare (“Anatomy of a Fall”, “The Zone of Interest”).
As is always the case with Hollywood’s annual pageant of self-congratulation, there were a bunch of unexpected omissions along the way that will inevitably spark insufferable discourse and social media outrage in the buildup to the March 10 ceremony. But if, like most people, you simply haven’t had time to catch up with this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees yet, here’s your chance to take a closer look at the ten movies from 2023 that hope to walk away with another statue in a few months’ time.
It’s safe to say that not a single soul on God’s green Earth wants to win an Oscar as badly as Bradley Cooper. Due credit to the former “Hangover” and “Aloha” star, also known for nuanced character roles like Rocket Raccoon, who went home empty-handed in 2018 for “A Star is Born” and has been working overtime lately to puff up his sophomore directing feature about the life and times of world-renowned Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Not even poor word of mouth and brewing controversy surrounding the use of prosthetic noses has stopped Netflix’ unremarkable vanity biopic from winning the hearts of Oscar voters and improbably squeezing into the Best Picture conversation. Truth be told, “Maestro” probably doesn’t stand a shot at actually winning the top prize, but the fact that both Cooper and onscreen wife Carey Mulligan secured acting slots over a slew of critical favorites has been the most perplexing awards season surge since everyone started lobbying for Andrea Riseborough on Twitter out of the blue. Please, just give him an Oscar already.
9. American Fiction
Since making waves and emerging as the people’s choice award winner at TIFF, writer-director Cord Jefferson’s biting comedy has been slowly picking up steam and gaining momentum among pundits as a major threat with enough juice to have a legitimate shot of going all the way. It’s a welcomed surprise to see veteran character actor Jeffrey Wright finally get his dues and crop up in the Best Actor category for his winning lead performance as a downtrodden Black novelist and English professor looking for his big break who decides to write a novel that caters to white people’s taste under a pseudonym.
With an acidic and politically urgent premise that takes no prisoners and laces its satirical jabs on everyone and everything from the American literary publishing scene to Hollywood’s entertainment industry complex, “American Fiction” bluntly illustrates how Black culture has been co-opted and fundamentally distorted by corporate America. However, that this year’s dark-horse contender pushes all kinds of hot buttons ultimately leads us to believe Oscar voters will steer toward less controversial options.
8. Anatomy of a Fall
After carving out a place in cinema history books by becoming only the third woman to receive top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, French director on the rise Justine Triet hopes to add another significant milestone to her sparkling résumé, with her splashy international breakthrough having a puncher’s chance of joining “Marty” and “Parasite” as the only Palme d’Or laureates ever to win the Best Picture Academy Award.
Despite being snubbed by France as the country’s official entry for Best International Feature Film in favor of Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things”, this slippery courtroom drama about a German novelist living in the French Alps accused of killing her husband was able to muscle its way into the forefront of the awards race, with the movie being shortlisted in no less than five major categories, including best film, director, actress, editing, and original screenplay.
The careful threading of the murder plot and the unexpected ways in which Triet repeatedly challenges conventional notions of truth, marriage, and the criminal justice system are enough reasons to justify the Best Picture nod. But for any reader out there who might still be on the fence, just know that Sandra Hüller’s superlative, Oscar-worthy performance as a woman caught in the crosshairs of a national media scandal and forced to prove her innocence is worth the price of admission alone.
7. The Holdovers
After stealing the show at the Globes, veteran Hollywood stalwart Paul Giamatti picked up a much-deserved acting nom for his disarmingly empathetic lead performance in his second collaboration with “Sideways” director Alexander Payne. The bittersweet story of a prickly New England boarding schoolteacher striking up an unlikely bond with one of his students and a grieving cook (Da’vine Joy Randolph, who’s largely expected to take home the Best Supporting Actress honors) over the holiday break is just the kind of feel-good balm for people who hate sappy Oscar bait.
Will his most broadly accessible crowd-pleaser to date be enough to push two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne to the top? It’s obvious why the 1970s-set dramedy’s uplifting message about friendship and redemption would hit a nerve with general moviegoers, but whether its stellar audience reception is enough to lure Academy voters in the end remains anyone’s guess. Golden statuette or not, “The Holdovers” has already secured its place in the Christmas movie-canon as a compulsively rewatchable holiday season flick we’ll revisit every cold winter like our lives depend on it.
Despite landing only toward the bottom of this particular list, it’s still the safest bet to predict that Christopher Nolan will blow by the competition on his path to Oscar glory when the ceremonial red carpet rolls out next March 10 for this glossy biopic about the American physicist who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb during WWII.
A good old-fashioned Hollywood epic packed to the brim with A-listers, the runaway frontrunner for all awards season boasts top-caliber performances across the board — with Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, and Robert Downey Jr. all snagging acting nods. But it’s Nolan’s undeniable showmanship and Ludwig Göransson’s propulsive score that ensures the film never runs out of steam throughout its 181-minute runtime. As a critically acclaimed box-office juggernaut from an established auteur set for a long overdue Oscar, “Oppenheimer” ticks all the boxes for a Best Picture shoo-in the industry’s old guard usually goes wild for.