For as much flak as the Academy usually gets for being elitist and snobbish, the voting jury actually has a pretty consistent track record when it comes to finding room in their slates for one or two mainstream mega-blockbusters that cater for all tastes. Taking up the mantle from “Top Gun: Maverick” as this year’s go-to populist pick is Greta Gerwig’s candy-coated take on Mattel’s doll, which took the internet by storm as an instantly meme-able pop-culture craze before blowing away every box office forecast as the biggest movie-event in recent memory.
With a few counted exceptions, it’s been incredibly unusual for zany comedies to achieve any level of recognition at the Oscars — much less in taking the top prize. Not that “Barbie” faces much better odds: It’s hard to imagine a significant number of voters rallying behind what some consider little more than a shallow marketing ploy, and overall is a polarizing contender that continues to spark heated debate and social media chatter for its pointed commentary on feminism and consumer culture. Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie were surprisingly absent from the nominations, though we’re grateful that at least one of the most flat-out enjoyable turns of 2023 (Ryan Gosling as Ken) did make the cut.
4. The Zone of Interest
London-born director Jonathan Glazer hung around in the best picture conversation all winter following his splashy return to the festival circuit with a title that turned out to be one of the toasts of the Cannes Film Festival: A bone-chilling novel adaptation that unsparingly depicts the day-to-day life of the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp, Rudolf Höss.
In forcing the viewer to sit through and watch as the bourgeois family of the Nazi general go about their lives seemingly unbothered by the horrors taking place only a barbed wire away from their own backyard — all without explicitly showing any of the human carnage on-screen — the Oscar-nominated iconoclast has taken a radical approach to the Holocaust that deftly sidesteps the common pitfalls of the standard Hollywood weepie.
By virtue of its grisly subject, “The Zone of Interest” might not be everyone’s cup of tea, which means that winning the Oscar for Best International Feature Film category is probably the most it can hope for. Still, we’re delighted to see the mastermind behind “Under the Skin” further establish himself as a brand-name auteur and get some Academy love by sneaking into both the directing and adapted screenplay slates.
3. Past Lives
Despite being iced out by the Academy of a Best Director race she probably deserves to win outright, former playwright Celine Song announced herself on the world stage with a gentle but quietly devastating tale of romantic longing about two former childhood sweethearts (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, also snubbed) who drift apart and reconnect in adulthood 20 years after one of them emigrates from South Korea to North America.
The fact that the latest indie sensation by A24 still finds itself in contention more than a full year after premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival speaks to the movie’s lasting impact among general audiences. Talky, character-driven dramas of this ilk can be very much hit-or-miss with the Academy membership, and the passionate cinephile following behind Song’s remarkably assured debut will probably not carry that much momentum into the preferential ballot. But of all the Oscar hopefuls competing for the big prize this year, this one made us swoon at the big screen like no other. Don’t miss it.
2. Killers of the Flower Moon
Barring a late surge by Emma Stone, all signs point to Lily Gladstone coming out on top in what’s been a historically crowded best actress field. It’s hard to imagine any awards voter who wouldn’t have been knocked out flat by her quietly devastating performance opposite Leonardo DiCaprio as an oil-rich Osage woman being slowly betrayed by her murderous husband. As a symbol of endurance and silent dignity in the face of unfathomable evil, Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhart not only gives voice to the suffering of countless real-life Native American victims but also provides the heart and soul of “Killers of the Flower Moon”.
At the spry young age of 81, Martin Scorsese continues to cement his own legacy as one of cinema’s all-time greats with a near-unprecedented 10th career directing nod that couldn’t possibly be more deserved. His latest bid for Best Picture, a cracked-mirror vision of white America that spares the viewer no gruesome detail in recounting the systematic genocide of the Osage tribe in 1920s Oklahoma, may actually have a shot at the crown. However, its lengthy runtime and somber subject matter will surely hurt its chances of going the distance in the preferential ballot when put alongside more palatable and populist contenders.
1. Poor Things
As the public discourse around on-screen sex raged on throughout 2023 (indicating that both young audiences and Hollywood execs are growing more prudish than ever), who else but Greek bad-boy provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos to return to the mainstream and stir up the flames of discourse with a radical, empowering, and censor-rattling tale of a young woman’s sexual awakening in puritanical Victorian-era London?
In years past, the Venice Film Festival has usually served as the Oscar race’s opening gun, and 2023 was no exception. This offbeat adaptation based on a novel by Alasdair Gray finds one Belle Baxter (Emma Stone) embarking on a journey of self-discovery after being re-animated and brought to life Frankenstein-style by an eccentric surgeon (Willem Dafoe). Revolting, horny, macabre, and laugh-out funny almost in equal measure — Lanthimos’ latest doozy rode the momentum off its big Golden Lion triumph back in August en route to a formidable haul of Oscar nods, including recognition for Stone and Mark Ruffalo. Though not exactly catnip for Academy voters – don’t hold your breath for a Best Picture upset over “Oppenheimer” – we expect people to be talking about this movie decades down the road.