Saturday, October 1, 2022

What should win Best Picture at the 94th Academy Awards?

March 25, 2022
Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

From doomsday comedies and tennis dramas to coming-of-age stories and melodramatic westerns, the nominees for Best Picture at the 94th Academy Awards are as varied as they come.

So, we watched them all, so you don't have to.

Part-time movie critics and State News-ers Griffin Wiles and Wajeeha Kamal made it their mission to view all 10 films before the award ceremony this Sunday, March 27. While we may feel differently about some of the selections, one thing is for sure: This is the hardest race to call in recent memory.

Light spoilers ahead. Read at your own discretion.

“The Power of the Dog” 

Griffin: From its opening moments, Jane Campion’s western arrested me. I’m not one to fawn over a western movie, but “The Power of the Dog” transcends the typical cowboy narrative and offers powerful commentary on family, sexuality and revenge. I think the script and direction here are fantastic, the pacing is not burdensome and the characters are so expertly cast, it’ll be hard to upset this film as a frontrunner. 

If any film is going to sweep the Oscar acting categories, it’s this one. I found the two most stellar performances in Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee (both nominees for best supporting actress and actor), who played a mother-and-son duo.

“The Power of the Dog” is strongest in its quiet, muted moments, and the ending shot serves as a prime exemplifier of this. It's eerie and sinister, and it's the type of ending that really changes the way you looked at the entire two hours preceding it. Fantastic stuff.

Wajeeha: This slow burn was a burn, indeed. As I watched, the film progressively improved — meaning, it did what it came to do. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Dunst and McPhee were incredible. Each actor shined, each played their part and all were memorable.

McPhee’s Peter was calculating and devious – anything to protect his mom, Rose (Dunst), from the tormenting Phil (Cumberbatch). Peter did so by disarming Phil, in which sexuality becomes a powerful motif and progresses the plot further. 

Peter was without empathy – this is thoroughly established throughout the film. This does not mean he cannot love or care for his mother. But, to protect her, he conceived a plan. 

Phil is not a good person, but I didn’t hate him. This film, and its actors, do well in conveying the intricacies of human good – solitude, torment, jealousy – along with the moral gray.

Shout-out to the film’s score. It sets the scene for a tonally consistent and well-paced experience. 

“Drive my Car”

Wajeeha: Films do not have to be “aesthetically revolutionary” to be culturally significant. “Drive my Car” is an ode to that. 

With such complex and nuanced storytelling, it would not make much sense for this film to be groundbreaking cinematically. I came for the story, and woah … did it deliver. 

I loved this film. It navigates themes of grief and solitude thoughtfully and intentionally. It’s groundbreaking in that way. 

Hidetoshi Nishijima (Yūsuke) and Tôko Miura (Misak) are brilliant. Their relationship was developed with a carefulness I have yet to see in other films. 

Griffin: Some of my favorite films of 2021 were international pictures (hello, “The Worst Person in the World” snub), and this was one of them. Ryȗsuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour epic paints a phenomenal portrait of grief and picking up the pieces of your life after devastation. 

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The chemistry between the two lead actors, Nishijima and Miura, is certainly the strongest between any duo that comes to mind. Their character’s ambivalence toward one another is so strong at the beginning, but watching that bond morph into something more – but not necessarily into what I expected – really blew me away. 

While “Drive My Car” doesn’t depict anything outwardly groundbreaking in its story, it allows its viewer to completely suspend their disbelief and simply be there with the characters. I completely forgot I was watching a movie, in all of the best ways possible. 

“Belfast”

Wajeeha: I am a history fanatic (I’m a history minor, it makes sense) – so, this movie was right up my alley. 

It was initially very boring. Jude Hill’s performance made it worthwhile. He is fantastic, extremely talented. Watching Hill’s character, Buddy, grow up was heart-wrenching – in which, he is OK with leaving Belfast because his home is not his home anymore. 

The safety and security tied to the conception of “home” dissipates for Buddy and his family. They are displaced. And, the family leaving Granny to her lonesome was despairing. 

I wish Catherine, Buddy’s Catholic love interest, and the Catholic plight were explored more in-depth, but this is a semi-autobiographical retelling of events for director Kenneth Branagh – I wouldn’t expect otherwise. 

With that said, I don’t know much about the 1969 riots or The Troubles in Ireland. This film did a good job of explaining a historical event through a coming-of-age narrative. 

Griffin: I remember seeing the trailers for “Belfast” and actively thinking, “I hope I never have to see that!” 

When it was nominated for Best Picture, I did end up seeing it, and I actually ended up loving it. What I know about the Protestant-Catholic divide in Ireland is largely from Netflix’s “Derry Girls,” so it was much appreciated to learn more about it from a dramatic lens, rather than a comedic one. 

Strong notes all around here. Really good direction from Branagh, great sequencing and it’s very nice to look at. Each cast member gave a strong performance, particularly Dame Judi Dench. While Dench’s Granny had the smallest major role, she stole every scene in which she appeared. 

This is definitely one to watch if you haven’t. 

“CODA”

Wajeeha: This film won “Best Picture” at the Producers Guild of America Awards, earning it frontrunner status for this year’s “Best Picture” winner at the Oscars. Of course, there was an insurmountable backlash as a result, which, in my opinion, is unfounded and misguided. This film is a tear-jerker. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age story we typically don’t see in mainstream media. 

I cannot speak to its representation of deaf individuals or CODA, or children of deaf adults. However, I do believe it is revolutionary. It contributes to the genre in an effective, new way – changing what is a typical coming-of-age film. 

There are valid critiques of deaf peoples’ portrayal – but, this film is a stepping stone for more like it that can and will be better. 

It shouldn’t be written off as a “Hallmark” movie, it’s the opposite. And it’s a coming-of-age story, don’t expect it to not be cringe … children are very cringy! So are our families!

In addition, Troy Kotsur deserves all the hype for this portrayal of Brady. That’s enough reason to watch it! 

“Don’t Look Up”

Griffin: Roast me if you must, but I like “Don’t Look Up.” 

Do I think it’s worthy and deserving of taking home the biggest award of Oscar night? No. But, if I were to rank all of the nominations from my favorite to least favorite, “Don’t Look Up” would be shamefully high on that list, so I have to talk about it. 

Adam McKay’s doomsday comedy has the best ensemble cast I think I’ve ever seen. You’ve got Leo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet and even Ariana Grande here, and each actor gives their dysfunctional character so much life and persona, it’s incredible. 

There’s a certain camp factor here that’s really appealing to me. There is a lot of ridiculous stuff that goes down, from Mark Rylance’s painfully funny voice to Lawrence’s painfully bad haircut and Streep’s President Orlean’s tramp stamp. Everything just works together for me here. 

Yes, there are obvious ties to climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and political division, but “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t take itself too seriously, to its benefit. I think it’s just a fun, breezy watch. It’s a sharp satire and a stellar comedy. 

Also, wouldn’t it just be the coolest if the Best Picture winner was set at Michigan State? 

Wajeeha: I’m glad this movie won’t win “Best Picture.” 

I’m not saying it’s bad. DiCaprio and Lawrence’s performances were good. And, the plot raises awareness for humankind’s impending doom. It’s realism in a satirical format – which, sure, is enjoyable and funny. 

But, this film is exactly that – humanity’s doom. It’s true, but it also sucks to watch. Perhaps, it’s a bit nihilistic? Maybe nihilistic and educational?

I’m not negating a climate change warning, it’s important, but “Don't Look Up” made me feel empty. 

“Dune”

Wajeeha: OK, so I’m not going to pretend like I’m not biased. I am a huge sci-fi lover. And it’s one of my favorite genres of novels. I like the “Dune” book. This film is a good adaptation of it. 

Denis Villeneuve deserved a Best Director nod for this film. Chalamet was great, Zendaya was great (for the little screen time she was given) – basically, the cast was great. 

However, the film uses explicit Islamic imagery and cultural elements of Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, people, without casting those actors in prominent roles. It’s erasure. 

“Dune” critiques white savior narratives, through the lens of Chalamet’s Paul – who is a villain and develops as such throughout the series novels. In the sequel, I hope to see many more MENA actors. An adaptation doesn’t mean much if it’s not true to its source material.

In addition, the film’s cinematography and score delivered much to the plot and aided its audience to understand the landscape of a new world. But, world-building is always an issue when it comes to the sci-fi genre.

Could “Dune” have done it better? Yes. But, the film was mostly understandable to those who haven’t read the novels. I haven’t read it in a while, and it was easier to grasp than I anticipated. 

Griffin: OK. Every year, there’s one Best Picture nomination that I just don’t get. Last year, it was “The Father.” This time around, it’s “Dune.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s really nice to look at. I can’t contest the film’s nominations for cinematography or make-up, but I do have qualms with it being the best picture of last year. I fervently hold that the best picture of the year would not put me to sleep in Studio C like “Dune” did when I first watched it. 

“Dune” is slow moving, weirdly paced and showcases no exceptional performances from anyone on its loaded cast roster. I’ll take David Lynch’s version over this. 

Licorice Pizza

Griffin: I love films that can transport you to a very particular place and time, and in the case of “Licorice Pizza,” I was transported to 1970s California, which adds to my appreciation for the film.

A lot happens in this movie that I was not expecting. A high school student opens a waterbed store and arcade, Alana Haim volunteers for Benny Safdie’s mayoral campaign and, most shockingly, the two main characters and love interests have a 10-year age gap between them. I acknowledge this is problematic, and it does take away from the otherwise great movie from Paul Thomas Anderson, for me. 

But, what “Licorice Pizza” has going for it is Haim. In her film debut, the Haim sister gave one of the most seemingly effortless, five-star quality performances of the year. I will never forgive The Academy for snubbing her from an acting award. I can look past Lady Gaga for “House of Gucci,” but I have to draw the line somewhere. 

However, this film probably had the most underwhelming end to a film I have seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I remember sitting in the theater, a look of dumbfounded irritation on my face for probably five minutes after the film concluded. Eye roll. 

Wajeeha: This movie made me so uncomfortable. I hate this film. It shouldn’t have been nominated. 

The two “love” interests are 25 and 15. This film was marketed as a love story between two teenagers. It’s not. The age gap isn’t revealed in the trailers. You find out when you watch the film. It’s misleading and deceiving. 

“Licorice Pizza” has no awareness of itself. It serves no purpose. There are no useful critiques on its inappropriate, gross relationship; in fact, it has a happy ending. 

Yes, I agree, films do not have to be representative of the simple good vs. evil binary. But, “Licorice Pizza” does not provide a groundbreaking critique on relationships between adults and kids. 

It does not portray an “uncomfortable” relationship “we all should question.” Instead, it is romanticization — Anderson goes out of his way to ensure this 25-year-old is depicted as childish. Her maturity is shown to be on par with a 15-year-old.

Anderson, himself, said the age gap shouldn’t matter.  

Well, guess what, Anderson? It does. 

In addition, this film’s portrayal of racism against Asian Americans was unnecessary. 

“Licorice Pizza”  does nothing to comment against casual, Anti-Asian racism, nor does it move the plot further. 

I beg the question, what was the point?

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