After last year’s terrible crop of nominees I am relieved that there are several good films nominated for Best Picture this year. Also a couple of real stinkers, but once they expanded the field to ten that was inevitable.
Beyond ranking and commenting on all the nominees, it’s become a tradition that I also go out of my way to highlight at least one non-nominee as worth watching. I considered Three Thousand Years of Longing, a great little romance, but I suspect I was heavily influenced by the fact that it was the first thing I’d seen in a theater since before the pandemic. Also on the list was Weird, the Al Yankovic biopic, mainly because the moment (surprisingly far into the film) when I finally realized what I was watching left such a grin on my face. Instead my non-best-picture pick for 2022 is Moonfall. It’s a bad film, but to me it is now the quintessential “good bad” film. Every character is a cliché. Every plot point is stupid. And when you think they’ve already packed in so many stupid plot points that you’re just going to have to ride those choices out, they throw more stupid plot points at you. There is so much stupid in this film I’m not sure there’s anything left for other films. It is big and dumb but it’s made in earnest. And my understanding is that it lost a huge amount of money. All of which makes it great fun if you’re tired from slogging through Women Talking…
On to a few quick comments on each of the actual nominees, from worst to best:
In 2019 I ranked Bohemian Rhapsody as the worst of the 2018 Best Picture Nominees, and the Dick Cheney biopic Vice as the second-worst. I consider Elvis worse than either one of them. I worry that it’s now impossible to make a decent biography—legacies carry such value that you can’t say anything interesting about anyone.
Voiceovers are always a major warning sign of a bad film. I have never encountered worse-written voiceovers than these. And of course this narration is bad for precisely the reason people warn against narration: the whole film is telling instead of showing, and the actual scenes of Elvis (which are competently shot and performed) seem present only to illustrate the text. Add to that Tom Hanks’ truly weird performance—somehow the worst thing in a consistently-terrible film—and the POV the audience is forced to endure is agony.
On “substance”, all my critiques of Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice apply here. We never really learn anything about Elvis as a character, let alone his true relationship with music, money, women, or fame. (Or, in reprehensible elision of the protagonist’s agency, drugs.) Our narrator tries to wrap up the whole tale neatly by claiming that what killed Elvis was his love for the audience…but we never actually see any of that passion or intoxication.
I said that despite its flaws I still enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody because Queen’s music kept me entertained. I’m not as big a fan of Elvis’s music, so I found this whole film a bore.
9. The Fabelmans
I hate Hollywood making movies about Hollywood, and there’s nothing more tedious than a filmaker given free rein to indulge the story of their emerging genius. I just didn’t care.
8. Women Talking
The script illustrated every unnatural way to write dialog I can think of. You can see on the screen how the actors have color-coded every line with the emotion they’ll pack into it and practiced each one in front of the mirror for hours to make sure they’re acting the hell out of every word.
Until I saw at the end that Frances McDormand was a producer I entertained the amusing thought that she showed up for one scene, realized how terrible the shooting script was, and then forced them to write her out after five minutes of screen time. And fantasized that she’d get a Supporting Actress nod for that choice.
7. Avatar: The Way of Water
It’s hard to rank this against the other mediocre nominees; it’s a completely different beast. I consider it an absolutely terrible film suitable only for stupid people, but an impressive technical achievement. I can think of only two interesting points of conversation about the Avatar series:
The Oscars have separate categories for live action and animation, but that distinction is looking more and more dated. Big stretches of MCU movies are effectively animated, but the intent is to make you think it’s live action. When real humans are cut and pasted from their green-screen shots into Avatar you easily forget that they’re not cartoons. What’s the difference? Would anyone care if Avatar 3 didn’t have a single scrap of live footage?
Is there a plot? Or is it all just rationalization? This is a long film structured much more like an episodic TV series than anything else, and even within those episodes the vast bulk of the runtime is consumed by shots that are meant to be nothing but beautiful. I recall once reading that porn features typically had “scripts” only a few pages long: a few blocks of dialog punctuated by the stage direction [sex]. Avatar similarly hand-waves a clumsy justification for some new setting or action set-piece, and then explores the setup in pornographic detail.
This film pulls off a rare trick: it manages to avoid any nuance or ambiguity while also failing to deliver a clear message about any of its core themes of sexual misconduct or cancel culture or art or fame/wealth/prestige/accomplishment or anything else. Gender- and race-swapped retreads of old stories are big business these days, and the backlash to those efforts are pretty consistently embarrassing and unfair…but it does seem reasonable to ask whether anyone could pretend this would have been anything better than a ho-hum film if the entirely mainstream screenplay hadn’t gotten one quick “but make it queer” rewrite before filming.
5. Triangle of Sadness
This film was definitely more fun than I was expecting based on the title. That said, I didn’t think it actually succeeded in interrogating or commenting on the themes of inequality, wealth, or power that it ostensibly addresses; it strikes me as Americans trying their own take on Parasite and doing it badly. In fact, I’d say that Glass Onion, also released in 2022, provides a far more insightful and resonant American perspective on the same themes.
4. Banshees of Inisherin
I have a personal bias here: I find the particular body horror at the center of this film deeply unsettling and it made it hard for me to focus on anything else. As a personal story I thought it was interesting, but the heavy-handed metaphor for the Irish civil war undermined that humanity.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet comprises a collection of really good war-movie scenes, but I didn’t feel like they came together to offer either a compelling narrative or any characters that we got to know well enough to truly care about. Perhaps the opaque main character was intentional—these were kids who didn’t understand, and were encouraged not to interrogate, their own motivations—but that only provides more reason to provide some other through-line to follow through two and half hours of fairly miserable watching. I’ll grant that it’s a good film, but there are plenty of other war films I’d be more inclined to rewatch than this one.
2. Top Gun: Maverick
I was surprised this was nominated, and I’m totally shocked I ended up ranking it this high. This isn’t high art, and you’re not going to find deep moral truths in here. I recall the one-line synopsis/review of the original that appeared in a local paper’s TV listings: “Trivializes war by turning it into a music video.” Fair.
The plot requires lots of suspension of disbelief, and we’re not talking just a few details like an ancient jet being all set for someone to hop into and steal: the film is set in an entirely different world order, where some minor unnamed faction has better military hardware than the US, where missiles and drones don’t exist, and where preemptive military strikes have no diplomatic consequences. This is, admittedly, a fun world order. I mean, if you like flying fighter jets and blowing stuff up it is.
The point is that on its own terms, this is a near-perfect film, and it gets so much right that almost all “big” modern films get wrong. It has a simple, easy-to-follow plot that moves along at a good clip. It has a small set of superhumanly charismatic characters. And that pervasive efficiency is never more evident than in the action scenes: instead of a half-dozen independent characters and plot threads cut together into a relentless barrage of visual chaos and clever shots with no relation to the larger story, here we get a full hour of explanation setting up our action set-piece, great visual storytelling so that we can follow exactly what’s going on, and satisfying payoffs that fit the characters’ strengths.
Yes it’s a big dumb film, but it’s a good big dumb film that other big dumb films could learn a lot from.
1. Everything Everywhere All At Once
There’s no simple explanation for what a Best Picture should be, but ideally it should be a film you’d be excited to rewatch, it should have some substance that you end up thinking about long after the film is over, and it should be unique—it should offer you something you’ve never seen before. Everything definitely has all of the above.
There are plenty of valid criticisms of the film. It doesn’t really make sense. The weirdness-for-weirdness-sake schtick wears itself out quickly. And you can definitely interpret some aspects as punching down. It’s not a perfect film. But I don’t think it would be possible to cram so much into something like this and expect it to be perfect.
They had me when they went to the rock world. And when they went back to it.
It was fun; it was meaningful; it was original. I enjoyed it.