26 on the Oscars: The Academy Award goes to…

While 26 won’t be attending the Oscars this year (perhaps our invite was lost in the post?) Max Parfitt shares his take on the nominees for Best Picture.

On 12 March Hollywood will gather in LA for the 95th Academy Awards, serving up champagne, false-modesty, and occasional punches as they celebrate another year in film and queue up for five seconds of selfie time with Tom Cruise. We’ve taken the opportunity to run through the best of 2023 – looking at the ten films nominated for Best Picture and ranking them from bottom to top. As more films stretch out towards the two-and-a-half-hour mark, it is tempting for reviews to balloon alongside them. But in the spirit of 26 we’re keeping things short – exactly two-hundred words per film, for every film, and a rundown of predictions at the end.

So, starting at the bottom…

10. Avatar: The Way of Water 

If forced to choose between dialogue and spectacle, I suspect most writers would choose dialogue every time; if forced to choose between creating and exploring other worlds and truly trying to understand our own, I suspect most would choose to dive deeper into our own. James Cameron’s sequel aspires towards something very human, towards themes of family and the environment, but the primary feeling is nevertheless that of separation. Emotional subtlety is continually sacrificed in favour of 48-frames-per-second flair, and that holds it to the bottom of the list.

That said, its nomination is more than simply an acknowledgment of its two-billion-dollar box office. While the opening sequence is held back by a string of voice-over exposition written for a nineties high school montage and the plot is a bare-minimum chain of clichés and convenience, with the second act the visuals are allowed to take centre stage. And they are phenomenal – grounded by Sigourney Weaver’s incredible performance as fourteen-year-old Kiri. In a cinematic landscape of Marvel films that take the spectacular and manage to transform it into the everyday, Cameron manages to preserve a sense of sheer amazement and prestige, and that more than earns Avatar its moment of recognition.

9. Triangle of Sadness

There has been a trend this year towards critiquing a specific brand of yacht-faring, island-owning rich. While Glass Onion, The Menu, and White Lotus all take a small group of morally questionable elites to an island and revel in their downfall, Triangle of Sadness provides a little more subtlety across its three-act structure. Each section presents wealth, money, and its relation to power in a different way: all of society represented and all of society flawed. No-one in this triangle is innocent, and no-one is a victor.

Writer-director Ruben Östlund seems at his best in the small moments and awkward set-pieces: a night ruined by tension over the bill; an “Everyone’s Equal” fashion show with a strictly ordered seating plan. The second act builds towards a wonderfully painful captain’s dinner on a cruise ship where wealth, luxury, and etiquette descend into seasick toilet-dashes and projectile vomiting. In every case society’s superficiality and hypocrisy is set at odds with nature (with love, the sea, or the island) and the messaging is powerful but there is a self-satisfied smugness in Östlund’s mockery that sits a little off – something in the repeated desire to make us squirm that is difficult to keep down. 

8. All Quiet on the Western Front

Edward Berger’s adaptation of Remarque’s classic novel is the first German-language film in history to get a best picture nod from the Academy and Netflix’s big player of the year, with nine nominations across the board. It has been lauded in the UK and US as a timely and unsparing, ground-breaking experience (a “stunning indictment of wasted lives”) and panned across Germany for losing the novel’s psychological subtlety, both in its depiction of good and evil and of the protagonist. Felix Kammereras’ Paul Bäumer is reduced to a sidekick in a story where the main character is war itself – unemotional and unyielding.

Adaptations should not have to be faithful, a new medium can invite a new vision, but for all the astonishing cinematography and effects there is a depth here that is lost (and missed in a Europe once again at war). War is the focus, but Berger fails to create anything more insightful than a three-hour essay in “war-is-bad” futility, with no personal investment, development, or hope to carry the viewer through. Perhaps this is a perfect encapsulation of an entrenched front-line populated by unnamed soldiers and soon-to-be statistics, but it feels more like a final push to Oscar-baiting success.

7. Top Gun: Maverick

It seems almost criminal to place Top Gun over All Quiet. While Berger’s film dwells on the pain and desperation of war, director Joseph Kosinski injects “Maverick” with all the same headstrong nostalgia-laden bravado that made the first Top Gun soar. It has all the subtlety of an ox in high vis, but if we judge a film simply by how worth it your £15 cinema ticket feels, then Tom Cruise’s action showpiece is worth every penny.

The dialogue is awful and the plot is barely cohesive and essentially irrelevant, but while these traits pulled Avatar into last spot, Top Gun sheds the self-seriousness that makes Cameron’s film so painful at times – every terrible line could be said with a self-aware wink to camera that takes away the sting. And, again, the scale and visuals are incredible. For all Avatar’s trickery, Top Gun is about doing something amazing for real, capturing it on camera, and putting it in a cinema with a throwback 80s soundtrack and a sweaty, sun-soaked beach scene. If Avatar is the cutting edge of cinema, looking into a technology-fuelled future, then Top Gun is an ode to the old-style – proof there are still thrill-seekers in Hollywood. 

6. Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once was a sensation, and Michelle Yeoh has rightly been heralded for an astonishing turn – leaping between multiversal action sequences, banal domesticity, and slightly homophobic mothering. “The Daniels” (as the directors like to be known) show Marvel how to spin a laundrette and a tax office into more creative worlds than any of their 300-million-dollar budgets have yet achieved, while building to a flawless final act that keeps the action tied down to a heart-warming emotional core. There is a flair and inventiveness that never, in its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, ceases to feel refreshing.

But… that doesn’t mean that cutting half an hour of action in the middle section wouldn’t have helped the flow, or that the exposition couldn’t have been much more concise and effective. It seems to me that either the audience already understood these concepts and so found the exposition too slow and drip-fed, or else they gave up trying to follow along within seconds of the chaos starting and so couldn’t understand why things were still being explained. When it shines it feels truly boundary-breaking and new, but those few moments of sagginess just keep it in the bottom half of the list.

5. Elvis

Baz Luhrmann is a divisive director. His over-the-top maximalism and use of modern music gives a specific feel that is perhaps best encapsulated by the hedonistic introduction of Gatsby in the character’s eponymous 2013 film – the audience drawn through the summer nights of 1922 to the sound of will.i.am and Fergie with extra jazz trumpets, organ, and a Gershwin-scored finale. Elvis maintains this trademark of excess: every shot could be wearing flares and gold frills.

While this aesthetic gluttony could be criticised and while Luhrmann’s divisive side is still very visible (especially in Tom Hanks’s Colonel Parker, portrayed with heavy accent and still heavier prosthetic), for me the film’s sense of show seems perfectly aligned with its subject. It complements Elvis’s glamour without eclipsing Austin Butler’s more subtle, sensitive, and knowing portrayal of the “King” (Blonde take note). Those who attended Wordstock were privileged enough to see the legendary Polly Bennett talking about working with Butler to create and inhabit Elvis’s physicality, and the performance anchors the more fantastic displays, providing a sense of something deeper – locked away behind hips and hairspray. If Luhrmann’s career is a showman’s shallow façade, then here we finally meet the showman to match it. 

4. The Fabelmans

Spielberg’s “most personal film to date” is also a masterclass in simple quality. Every thread is neatly tied up and cast off, wrapped around the beautifully realised relationship between Michelle Williams’s Mitzi and Gabriel LaBelle’s Sammy (the director’s mother and younger self respectively). Paul Dano portrays Spielberg’s father with the same tender affection he brought to War and Peace, presenting a man so soft, kind, and trampled over that you are as constantly frustrated with his inaction as you are in love with his gentleness. You can never quite decide if he needs a slap or a hug. Throw in a delightfully cheeky scene-stealing monkey and while the film never stretches too far towards the stars, what it does it does well. And that seems very much the point.

It is a love-letter to film – to simple film that you go and sit and watch and enjoy in a cinema – and you feel every ounce of that love that saw the director avidly filming his train set over half a century ago. It would be higher on this list, but for me a Best Picture winner needs to push boundaries, and that just isn’t what Spielberg is trying to do.

3. Women Talking

Films often open with a little chunk of exposition – a voiceover and montage that quickly bring you up to speed. Traditionally this is very much an “eat your greens” moment to be forgotten immediately in favour of the action, but here, having gone in with no expectations, it left me more excited than I have ever been for the upcoming film just through its simplicity. These women live in a religious community in rural America and have been abused – repeatedly knocked out, raped, and subsequently gas-lit by the men we never meet. Now, they have one day to sit, talk, and decide what to do about it.

Women Talking can be seen as a product of contemporary culture, of the “She Said” movements emerging across the industry since Weinstein’s exposure, but I think such comparisons diminish it. What unfolds is an exquisite ensemble exploration not so much of womanhood or patriarchy, but of the nature of forgiveness. And it is wonderful. The cast are exceptional – led by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley. The setting is fascinating – a slice of traditional American gothic inserted into 2010. And every word feels perfectly chosen, every viewpoint developed. And it is bewitching.

2. Tár

Tár has had a mixed reception. It arrived to critical acclaim, flopped on release, angered some across the musical and lesbian communities, and delighted just as many. Everyone seems to agree that Blanchett’s performance is a phenomenal career-high, but that doesn’t mean they like the film. The criticism splits into three: people who had lost it by the end but are sure that it was clever; people who had lost it by the end but are sure that it wasn’t nearly as clever as it thought it was; and people who didn’t make it through the (outstanding) 15-minute opening interview to begin with.

Musically I have complaints: the insulting simplicity of the art-vs-artist debate in the workshop scene; her conducting that swipes at the air as though stabbing at a ghost; the use of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, swept aside in favour of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (excellent) score and Elgar’s more emotive Cello Concerto. But Blanchett’s character is stunningly realised (as is the set design and cinematography), the issues of her power are fascinatingly developed, and the lines of reality are captivatingly blurred as our lead unravels. Tár stretches, challenges, and begs discussion, and that’s everything I need from the second-best spot.

1. The Banshees of Inisherin

Never has so much been said by silence, and never has that silence got so many laughs. I have some Irish friends who, despite the 1920s setting and the increasingly surreal stakes as the tension builds, have been sending people to watch the film because it is such a perfect encapsulation of island life – because there is something in its peripheral perspective that rings so true. Writer-director Martin McDonagh taps into the same sentiment as Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, drawing on the great strands of history – here notions of civil war, masculinity, friendship, and the meaning of life (to be nice, or to be remembered?) – and turning the camera just slightly away. As smoke rises unremarkably from the mainland, we are not shown revolution but the “doggy life” – “the horses innocent behind.”

The script is sparse, tight, and as mutedly funny as it is poignant; the visuals (by Three Billboards and The Eternals cinematographer Ben Davis) are magnificent; and the acting is superb – Colin Farrell rightly stormed the early awards season and the ensemble (Barry Keoghan, Kerry Condon) perfectly elevate the chemistry-laden central duo. It engages, teases, challenges, and holds, and it is everything a Best Picture should be.

26 Predicts

Will Win: Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

This unlocked something new, bringing together indie arthouse connoisseurs and Marvel-loving super-fans alike. That said, while the momentum behind it is strong, it is perhaps coming more from outside observers than from the Academy itself. Equally, Michelle Yeoh’s campaign for Best Actress could hurt its chances – members paying their dues in that category and looking elsewhere for Best Picture – as could the weighted voting system. Choices are ranked from one to ten, and though many people’s favourite, there could be enough voters who didn’t get the film at all to hold it back. The win is possible, but not tied up.

Of the other contenders, Banshees and Fabelmans seem most likely (though All Quiet may be boosted by its Bafta wins). Banshees has won many hearts, especially with moments such as Colin Farrell’s viral Golden Globes speech, and smaller, more intimate films have fared well in recent years: Green Book in 2019, Coda last year. Spielberg, meanwhile, hasn’t won Best Picture since Schindler’s List in 1994, and with 8 uncrowned nominations since and a tragic lack of acknowledgement for West Side Story last year, it seems feasible that the Academy could choose this personal, cinema-loving ode to reward his patience.

Should Win: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On 

OK, so it didn’t even make the nomination but the relationship between animations and the best picture nomination is… short. The first contender was Beauty and the Beast in 1991, and since then only Up and Toy Story 3 have made it on to that shortlist. There are a series of pictures – not least from Studio Ghibli, Wes Anderson, or Guillermo Del Toro – that would have been more than worthy of a nod, and the same can be said of family films generally: Tim Minchin’s wonderful Matilda snubbed entirely this year, Paddington 2 suffering the same fate back in 2018.

Marcel is just charming. And simple. And funny. And poignant. And whimsical. And inspirational. All in equal measure. And somewhere in there is a depiction of love, and family, and of relationships, and of hope, that is (after seven years and a divorce in the making) truly beautiful. At the 8th Academy Awards back in 1935, Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream won Best Cinematography despite not having been nominated because so many members wrote it in on their slips anyway – is it too much to hope for a repeat 88 years later?

The campaign starts here…

– Max Parfitt

Feature image by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash

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