26 at the Oscars 2024: The Academy Award goes to…

Yet again, 26’s invite to the biggest event in Hollywood has been lost in the post—but with just a couple more weeks until the big day, we sent Max Parfitt to take a look through the 10 nominees for Best Picture.

2024 has been an incredibly strong year of films. Last year I found everything relatively easy to rank with only a little switching between the top four – here numbering any of them feels almost rude. But I did promise to put my reviews in an order and I’ve decided the constraint is good for me so here we go!

10 – Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon was never going to be the film for me. Scorsese’s retelling of the 1920s Osage Indian murders oozes with the director’s trademarks – detailed sets and costumes, charismatic but violent or flawed characters, long tracking shots and a still longer runtime. Most of these aspects work to some degree, and some excel – the setting and cinematography especially are stunning, and Robert de Niro savours his role as suave puppet-master. But for all its sleek shots and punchy editing the film still clocks in at three and three-quarter hours, and Scorsese has an annoying tendency to pick out every thread that interests me the least.

Where the focus could be on a rich moral ambiguity – on a murderer who we are never quite sure is user or used, misguided lover or manipulative oppressor – instead we end up with a protagonist too stupid to be anything more than a pawn in the plans of others. Where we should have a piercing investigation of the mass negligence of a white-led society, we instead have a simple good-vs-evil narrative (between two groups of white Americans) where the heroic FBI swoop in and save the day.

Somewhere within the runtime is an intoxicating turn from Lily Gladstone, watching with quiet desperation as her family line is wiped out and her husband transformed. She treads an uncertain line between weak and strong, knowing and deceived, lover and cheek-turning wife. But Scorsese never quite gives her centre stage – a move which is either a powerful representation of her devoicing by the men around her, or else an unthinking continuation of that marginalisation.

She shines – I just wish there was less standing in her way.

9 – Barbie

Photo by Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures – © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Barbie’s $1.5 billion box office, internet dominance, and flamingo-filled cinema queues have made it so much more than just a film. From its first viral moments, Greta Gerwig’s film has been wonderful for cinema, social discourse, and most importantly the sales figures and brand partnerships of Mattel – who have since announced a roster of toy-centred live action flicks including a comedy-horror film centred on the Magic 8 Ball. More than that it manages to be, on the whole, funny, sensitive, and poignant, at least in the depiction of its titular doll’s search for meaning.

Barbie’s 2001-inspired opening was one of my favourite film moments of the year, as was the whole final sequence, which pans over moments of life in the real world to the tune of Billie Eilish’s Golden Globe-winning “What was I made for?” – a gentle plea for purpose that left me weeping into my pink-dusted popcorn. But for every beautifully understated smile at an old lady or lingering shot of the eternally talented Margot Robbie, I do find the wider political messaging uncomfortable.

Barbie offers a strong narrative of empowerment to women and it encourages self-reflection in men, both of which are incredibly important. But in each case, the boundaries between genders are enforced, rather than challenged – empowerment within gender rather than freedom from it. The supporting cast is relatively diverse (Ncuti Gatwa is faultless), and yet by the end stereotype seems entrenched rather than demolished. The film has its place, but it isn’t for me.

8 – Oppenheimer

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It seems fitting for “Barbenheimer” to sit one after the other, and yet their linking is one of the strangest cultural phenomena of the last few years. Nolan’s retelling of the life of the father of the bomb is as dark-lit as its accidental roommate is bubblegum, as weighted as Barbie is fantastical.

Having missed the top prize with Dunkirk in 2017 – where the director offered three narratives of land, sea, and air, combined in the final act – Nolan has again split his timeline, with the separate titles of “Fission” (1926-54) and “Fusion” (1959) suggesting one part as a gradual unravelling, and the other (shot entirely in black-and-white) as its reunification.

The strands are superbly woven together, Fusion (with a pleasingly understated performance from Robert Downey Jr.) forming a commentary of sorts as it reconstructs Oppenheimer’s narrative after the fact. It not only restores the man and his work following the loss of his security status five years before, but structurally it also provides a through-line for the audience, holding the film to the mark and keeping a sense of focus even as “Fission” meanders around the scientist’s early life. 

Within the main narrative, Cillian Murphy’s central performance is incredible, embodying the scientist both at his most powerful and as a delicate man in an ill-fitting suit. Those eyes are steely and ambitious one minute, and hopelessly lost the next, his face all stoic cheek-bones in one scene, then unhealthily pallid and gaunt. The depth of focus can seem almost overbearing – in his shadow other characters are not given the development that their superb performances deserve (Emily Blunt’s Kitty in particular) and the impact of the bomb is never truly explored. But the film is self-aware of its blinkered gaze, and the man who claimed “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” hardly seems one to share the limelight.

Oppenheimer’s ego anchors everything, both in the theoretical world before the bomb (when he can convince himself he is at the centre of everything), and after it – the world thrown open and the creator left behind. His irrelevance is made clear as he sits in Truman’s office seeking absolution: “Do you think the Japanese care who made the bomb? No. They want to know who dropped it.”

Oppenheimer will only ever be a subclause in history. It is his creation that would go on to reshape it.

7 – Maestro

Photo by Jason McDonald/Netflix – © 2023 Netflix, Inc.

I’m not sure Maestro is better than Oppenheimer, but ultimately I did enjoy it more. The two have much in common – from their part black-and-white cinematography, to the self-centred men they centre around (each tearing apart those in their orbit) and their standalone mononymic titles (picking up the baton from Elvis and Tár last year). Still, there is a heart in Maestro that makes it a much more appealing watch.

Much of this heart comes from the lead performances. Bradley Cooper perfectly assimilates Bernstein’s voice and mannerisms, and yet the performance never becomes simply imitation – there is a tangible, magnetic, complex soul at his core. His conducting is also a vast improvement on that in Tár last year, capturing Bernstein’s zealous, theatrical style without ever crossing over into the ridiculous. The difference lies in an ability to submit to the music, to become truly a part of it and to feel it running through you – Bernstein has spoken of conducting “with every part of my body, with my shoulders, with my wrists, with my knees.”

Alongside Cooper, Carey Mulligan gives a subtle and intelligent portrayal of his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre. She is both loved and in love, and yet gradually suffers more from his homosexual dalliances, and is torn apart by the lies she must tell to defend them. As with Blunt’s character in Oppenheimer, Mulligan’s Felicia is very much a wife here – their relationship is the focus, rather than her own career and social activism – and yet she is never upstaged.

The music (with all Bernstein’s work as composer and conductor to choose from) only elevates the couple’s pairing, and the finale of Candide in particular comes to encapsulate the ageing couple: “We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, [but] we’ll do the best we know.”

6 – The Holdovers

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My expectations set me back with The Holdovers. I went in with no prior knowledge and was waiting for a Dead Poets (or maybe History Boys)-style teacher and ensemble piece that never came. Just as the group had been introduced (and all shown to be deeply unlikable), they were swept away, with only Paul Giammatti’s irascible teacher, Dominic Sessa’s deserted student, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s grief-stricken cook left behind over Christmas in the deserted school. (There is a particularly shattering moment as the school’s Christmas trees are taken away to be repurposed elsewhere for the main Christmas season. We are far from Hogwarts in the snow…)

What follows is a beautiful and understated development of those three characters – picking one another apart against a stunning (and always slightly eerie) New England backdrop. It isn’t a new premise, but it is done immaculately, and all three actors are magnetically watchable as they first break down one another’s defences, and then help each other, little by little, to grow past them.

“He was a great kid. I had him one semester. Very insightful.”

“He hated you. Said you were a real asshole.”

“Like I said… sharp kid, insightful.”

The carefully sculpted 70s-film aesthetic did little for me – it’s not a period of films I have a huge nostalgia for – but nor did it detract, and I think the set-up of an incongruous, emotionally stunted, culturally and generationally mal-suited family unit brought together at Christmas was particularly appropriate as I watched it with my extended family on Christmas Eve.


5 – Anatomy of a Fall

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There was a moment before I sat down to write when Anatomy of a Fall was at the top of this list, which shows, I think, just how tight this list is…

In the first of Franco-German actor Sandra Hüller’s showpieces this year, a man falls from the balcony of his Alpine family home with only his wife and their blind son present. The cracks in their marriage are then exposed through an inconclusive inquest and ultimate trial.

At 2-and-a-half hours Justine Triet’s film is lengthy (more the runtime expected of a David Fincher killing than an off-screen tumble!) and every moment is hypothesised with painstaking detail. The court-room scenes comfortably fill half the film and at no point in all this alpine pontificating is the film anything other than entirely gripping.

After moving the audience quickly on from the basic question of “whodunnit,” the interest here is three-fold. In the relationship between mother and son; in the twisted power dynamics of her marriage; and in the complexities of an audience finding sympathy with a woman who prioritises her career over her life, husband, and child, and who openly admits to bisexual affairs throughout her marriage. 

Though I did not pick up on the trickery in the moment, Triet has discussed placing the camera slightly below Hüller throughout, imposing an unsettlingly threatening, empowered presence even as she stands as defendant. This is not a typical procedural, and I loved every second of it.

4 – American Fiction

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American Fiction takes the patronising platitudes of a white society, desperate to seem supportive of those upon whose suffering it was built, and twists them into a brilliant satire. This is further wrapped around an exquisitely dry turn from Jeffrey Wright, a string of excellently observed racial beats, and a nuanced political dilemma made palatable for a wide audience without ever being dumbed down.

Wright’s “Monk” sees a reading of a seemingly ridiculous and insulting book (We’s Lives in Da Ghetto), is sure that he can do better, and the plot rolls from there. Virtually every scene is a gem – from Monk carrying his books on classical mythology out of a bookshop’s African-American Studies section, to the white members of a literary panel talking over their black peers as they discuss giving voice to the black community. A particular highlight is writer-director Cord Jefferson’s wonderfully rich visualisation of the writing process as Monk types out his ghetto clichés with his characters playing out the scene around him – pausing to interact, change their lines, and critique Monk’s dialogue.

A black writer, we are told, will always be black, whether writing about classical myth or a slum. Can a writer, if they are telling a story that they feel is important, be held responsible for the stereotypes that certain readers form from it, or for the money that the market chooses to give them in return? Can a seemingly reductive story nevertheless offer the black community a moment of connection?

Jefferson’s film is not quite perfect – there are moments of emotional drama that perhaps suggest a lack of confidence in the racially-driven narrative, and the ending, to me, felt like a sudden loss of inspiration rather than an ingenious dramatic shift – but neither fault could stop it winning the BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, and there are other years where it could easily have topped my list.

3 – Past Lives

© Courtesy of A24

This was the most nostalgia-inducing film of the year for me, which is weird because I suspect it is written more for those a decade older than me and for a distinctly cross-national community. When I heard the Skype ringtone that kept me connected with my friends in the days before Facebook I genuinely froze – it was a sound I hadn’t heard in a decade and barely remembered, but it was a large part of my childhood (along with my red-toned Lego Star Wars poster and the computer that took at least 5 minutes to start). The framing of the video calls landed perfectly, throwing me back first to furtive adolescent romance, then to Covid and the split-city relationships that have followed.

The film is a Lost in Translation-style not-quite-love story, in large part revolving around immigration (and emigration, a distinction of which the subtitles are strangely unaware), and yet in dwelling on these themes of displacement and home – of loves and dreams and might-have-beens – the story becomes universal. It is for all those seeking a new home and for all those left behind; all those trying to hold onto something of themselves, and something of their dreams as they grow up. We’ve all left, we’ve all looked back, and we all wonder where we are going. We are all surrounded by the possibilities of our past lives.

These threads of heart and home are treated simply and openly, with gently pitch-perfect performances from Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, and an empathetic writer-director debut for Celine Song, whose story (from South Korea to Canada to playwriting MFA at Columbia) this really is. The writing never feels anything other than entirely natural – happy to trust a silence and the chemistry of the performers – and the direction complements this confidence to pause without ever letting things feel self-indulgent.

The camera is happy to linger, and so are we.

2 – Poor Things

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Though it is fun watching Emma Stone’s Bella (a deliciously plosive name) be a foetus brain in a woman’s body, it is a little way into Poor Things, when she runs off to see the world, that the film begins to spark. Lanthimos’s adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel is a fascinating, humorous, and revealing study of society without the norms, expectations, and politenesses it has collectively self-imposed. What could feel like gratuitously explicit content instead has you questioning your own programming that you see it as such, and there is a general sense of freedom that is just liberating – especially when, towards the end of the film, it is slowly taken away.

Bella’s hedonistic odyssey is also perhaps the best-looking European tour ever put to film. Lanthimos begins in black and white in Glasgow with gut-bubbles and mad-cap creatures, before moving into a brightly coloured fantasy of pink clouds and remixed Victoriana (the phallus-windowed Parisian brothel and the collapsed fairytale castle representing Alexandria being particular highlights). The general aesthetic is one of steampunk meets Willy Wonka meets Barbie’s pastel flair, with moments of Art Deco woodwork, and all shot through varying intensities of fish-eye lens. The costumes meanwhile range from childish one moment to adult and sexualising the next; liberating in one scene, and then a silk-banded cage. By the end you are enchanted.

The only thing that keeps this from the top spot is Mark Ruffalo’s performance (generally acclaimed in the US and condemned over here). However deliberate and self-aware his grating portrayal of this grating character may be – ultimately you are still watching someone be grating.

1 – The Zone of Interest

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For all Poor Things’s fantasy, The Zone of Interest offers something almost uncomfortably grounded. We are in World War II and at Auschwitz, and yet this is not the standard narrative of heroes and tragic victims you might find in Spielberg-style Oscar bait. It is the echo of the story we usually see – a quiet study of complicity from the other side of the barbed-wire; a place of water-slides and dahlias rather than mud and gas chambers. Silent workers cut the grass and tend the hedges, while the swastika-wearing children of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss play in poisoned streams, fiddle with found teeth, or taunt one another by making hissing sounds through the door of a locked greenhouse.

Despite the reframing, the traditional tales of suffering and heroism are never far away, and director Jonathan Glazer weaves them into the story in ingeniously subtle ways. The film opens on a soundscape without visuals, and (with the audience attuned) the score and sound design become a constant reminder of the unseen camp – dogs barking, shots firing, engines throbbing. Hope, meanwhile, is threaded in through thermal-photography footage of a young girl as she scurries through the prisoners’ construction sites at night, hiding food. The camera captures her heat and energy, a slight hint of rebellion bleeding into the visual frame.

Glazer has referred to a sense of “grotesque irony,” but the term feels almost too tangible for the elements at play – nothing feels heavy-handed and the concept is never undermined by a need for explicit moralising. With strong, still performances from both Christian Friedel and (again) Sandra Hüller, it is an astonishing achievement that shouts louder than any other film on this list.

Will Win: Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer’s win seems as inevitable as the bomb being slowly hoisted up the tower at Los Alamos. The mass success, the cultural phenomenon, the names behind the scenes and in front of the camera – J Robert Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh – and with director and actors almost all at the top of their game.

It is a bravura performance by Murphy, a slam-dunk success for the as yet un-Oscared Nolan, and a return to form for Downey Jr. It could be beaten, but it would be a surprise.

If there was a surge in another film’s favour, it would most likely be for Zone of Interest – it missed out on the big prize at the BAFTAs, but in part because it was busy winning (entertainingly) both Best British Film and Best Film not in the English Language. The Americans might also veer towards American Fiction as a touchstone for the current racial dilemmas of Hollywood? But again, when set against Oppenheimer the road seems tough.

Should Win: Anything that I ranked above Oppenheimer and Maestro

I felt very strongly about this category last year – there was something depressing in the inevitability of Everything Everywhere All at Once sweeping the prize; I wanted to stir the pot. But this year I think that any of my top six would make wonderful winners so I’m adding a category…

© Courtesy of A24

Should have been a contender: Priscilla

Priscilla is the antidote to Oppenheimer and Maestro, and to Luhrmann’s Elvis last year. Where those films focussed on ‘great’ men and their egos, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla draws on those left in the shadows – it is a style of filmmaking complemented by Glazer’s in Zone of Interest: each would show a thrown stone by its ripples. I also get the impression that if either director had helmed Killers of the Flower Moon it wouldn’t be so low on my list!

We are never told what to think or shown where to look, we are simply assumed to be intelligent and thoughtful as an audience, and the narrative is laid out before us – we can make of it what we will. Priscilla also has my favourite ending of any film this year, making me leap up and beam at the screen the moment the credits rolled. It’s all just… perfect.

– Max Parfitt

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