Apparently this is my seventh year commenting on each of the year’s Best Picture nominees. Here are my posts for the nominees from 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.

Each year I pick a non-nominee I particularly liked. That’s a little more challenging this year because I haven’t seen that many films. The big story of 2023 is that the superhero genre has totally lost steam with only mediocre-to-bad offerings recently. I’ve even found the latest entries in the big action franchises—Fast X, Mission Impossible, and Exp4ndables—boring and soulless. So my recommendation for 2023 is the John Wick series (the fourth and final chapter of which was released last year) as a whole. I won’t argue the fourth film was the best, or even particularly innovative in its own right, but the series as a whole is a breath of fresh air in a genre that had grown stale. It’s ultraviolence, but goofy balletic ultraviolence that is hard to take seriously. The movies are just fun.

Anyway, this year we had only one truly bad nominee, five that I’d call so-so, one sorta good one, and three that I actually recommend. Some brief comments on each, ranked from worst to best:

10. Killers of the Flower Moon

This is the only nominee of the year that I think is genuinely bad. The combination of period drama, raising awareness of exploitation of native peoples, a decorated filmmaker, celebrated actors, a glacial pace, and a brutal runtime do not necessarily a great film make.

The fact is the plotting just isn’t very good. It’s effectively a crime film, but the actual plan is never clear to the audience, and the various forces out to “catch” the criminals are so vague and feckless that there’s never any sense of urgency. In a good crime drama the audience can see when our gang’s flaws lead to slips that will cause their downfall, but here we just see dumb people doing dumb things with apparent impunity until they’re kinda sorta caught with no significant evidence.

While DiCaprio does an admirable job of wearing his deterioration over the course of the movie on his face, the script doesn’t give his character much of an arc. He’s a cipher, and moments in which he claims devotion or regret don’t add up to any coherent narrative of corruption or redemption.

9. The Holdovers

I feel like I’ve seen this movie a dozen times before: broken older man and schoolboy facing a turning point in life get thrust together; hijinks ensue and they both learn a little something about life, and a little something about themselves.

I could go on about little niggles—neither the characters’ backstories nor the ending really made much sense—but it was fine. There’s simply not much to say about, or learn from, one more entry in a formulaic genre.

8. The Zone of Interest

I’ll give this film credit for achieving its goal: it’s an effective portrayal of the banality of evil. But it’s no more than that. It’s slow; it’s boring; it feels like assigned coursework. We never get inside any characters’ heads, which I suppose is the point, but there’s just nothing satisfying here.

7. Maestro

Maestro contains pieces of an interesting film examining bisexuality and polyamory and long-term open relationships. There’s a compelling performance over a handful of scenes tracking a fight with cancer.

There’s almost nothing in here about Leonard Bernstein. Nothing really about talent and how it manifests. Nothing about how that talent is entangled with luck. Nothing about how talent and luck interact with the snowballing effects of fame. Nothing that parses an older man’s magnetism into charisma vs wealth vs celebrity vs passion. And obviously nothing specific to Bernstein’s varied musical tastes.

The parts of this film that are good would have been presented at least as well through any fictional male character, and the parts specific to Bernstein, which boil down to a collection of contradictory monologs, are shallow caricatures.

What a waste.

6. Anatomy of a Fall

I found this film the hardest to rank, because I “figured out” the ending (or, rather, the lack of any satisfying ending) from the start. The well-worn incident-investigation-trial structure does a lot of the work pulling the audience through the film, but I still found myself painfully bored as every intentionally-ambiguous back-and-forth seemed like mere filler on the road to nowhere. I don’t know whether this film was actually as pretentious and self-consciously provocative as it felt to me or whether I was merely in a grumpy mood, but I’m not inclined to re-watch it to find out.

5. Past Lives

I didn’t like this film, and it took a few days of stewing on it to articulate why. The “message” and refutation of romantic tropes are appealing…but I don’t think it actually offers much more depth than a (thoughtful) romcom. Minus the com. (One criticism of every film to this point in my ranking is they are all devoid of any sense of humor at all.)

Past Lives has the feel of a student film: a talky script, great comfort with silence, obvious attempts to make use of the full vocabulary of the camera for “mundane” scenes, and a handful of lovingly-shot inserts for cinematography buffs. It’s amazingly good at all these things for a student film. But never for a moment did I forget that I was watching a film. They were always characters on the screen speaking prepared words dripping with meaning for the sake of a meticulously-choreographed camera. They never felt like people we were watching live their lives.

4. American Fiction

This is the first film on the list that I actually enjoyed. It had a sense of humor, it steadily built momentum without ever feeling rushed, and the (second?) ending did get me to laugh out loud despite myself.

I haven’t looked up the source material or its background, but I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask whether this story isn’t serving the precise role the film ostensibly criticizes: it’s all just a little too convenient and appealing a take on race for me to fully embrace. Which the film itself acknowledges with a final declaration that it was made to be enjoyed. I’m off the hook.

So from this admission that it’s impossible to tie off an intractable social issue in a cute little bow, let’s move on to:

3. Barbie

Just about anyone could churn out a few thousand words on Barbie alone, and far too many have.

There’s an old story that when the studio execs saw an early cut of one of my favorite films, Brazil, they said “We’ll market it as the movie of the year!” This was not a compliment. They thought audiences would hate it unless it were turned into a spectacle.

Barbie is not a bad movie. (Neither was Brazil, but that’s a different story.) It is, or was, however, a much better event than it is a film. People dressed up! Mothers and daughters all in pink filling theaters around the world! You’d have to go back to the Star Wars prequels to find such an enthusiastic and engaged audience. Whatever you think of the content of the film, going to see it on the big screen was fun in a way movies seldom are any more.

But that isn’t just a matter of marketing and hype (and an underserved audience). It’s a goofy and fun movie full of hypnotic production design and slapstick and rewarding details. It’s good for many of the same reasons as the Christmas staple Elf: the plot hangs together just well enough to confidently skip over any of the pesky technicalities that would bog it down, and it fully commits to its own zaniness.

Of course, that’s not quite what everyone was looking for in Barbie, and it’s impossible to talk about Barbie without mentioning The Discourse surrounding it. I haven’t engaged terribly deeply with any of it, but I’ll pick at two strands.

First, many feminists were disappointed. Barbie doesn’t lay out any truly coherent model of feminism, nor propose any concrete path forward. Actual feminist theory is confined to a handful of monologs and one-liners that amount to less a critique of society and more a checklist of female-coded affirmations. I think it’s fair to say that Barbie isn’t actually a feminist movie; it’s a movie that uses the social phenomenon of feminism as a setting. The film itself is a lighthearted romp and makes a choice not to bog that down by challenging its audience. Or, at least, not to do so overtly.

Second, the more toxic corners of the manosphere decided it was a misandrist tract. The obvious explanation for this sentiment is that these men can’t handle a movie that isn’t aimed at them. Barbie is targeted squarely at women, trades on women’s shared experiences, and really couldn’t given a damn if a single man bought a ticket. Movies with such an intentional gender skew are not rare—many romcom and pure action films take the same approach—but I suspect the dudebrahs who went to see Barbie for the sake of hating on it don’t sit through many romcoms. I really enjoyed Barbie despite knowing it wasn’t made for me.

Because Barbie is aimed so directly at women, there were lots of complaints that it dismissed (or ridiculed) men’s perspectives…but that’s just flat-out wrong. Most saliently, Ken is a failure in the film’s reality: there is no subtlety at all to the point that merely being a man isn’t enough, and that the vast majority of men are shut out of “the patriarchy” just as surely as women; it is only in the radically-egalitarian Barbieland/Kendom where there is no discrimination on any axis other than gender.

The climax of the film is a monolog laying out an extensive list of the contradictory demands on women, with the implication that it is only women who face impossible expectations. But the most affecting plot thread (for me) throughout was Ken’s desperate attempts to navigate his own minefield, and just two scenes after this “impossible to be a woman” monolog we see Ken feigning dumb indifference to Barbie’s affections before excusing himself to celebrate her interest by shouting “Sublime!” The impossibility of a man satisfying all aspects of the female gaze is right there on the screen; it just doesn’t get a monolog.

The aspect of Barbie that I found most thought-provoking was a little esoteric: what is it with Ken and horses? Horse obsessions are very much a girl thing, not a guy thing. And the explanation gives insight into the rest of the film: Ken is being played with by a horse girl. That is, the film’s depictions of masculinity and the patriarchy are a young girl’s (naïve) interpretation of a man’s perspective. This extends from viewing violence as posing and communal dancing instead of real aggression to a focus on the peacocking performances men put on purely to impress women, as though this is representative of men’s behavior when women aren’t present. (The lack of internecine hierarchy is perhaps the defining feature of both Barbieland and Kendom.)

There was one Best Picture nominee that actually deconstructed gender roles, chose a coherent model of feminism, and challenged its audience to disagree. And if the manosphere wants a truly savage, unsympathetic, and irredeemable straw-man of masculinity to get angry about, there is one available. It was not an “event” like Barbie, but it was a better film:

2. Poor Things

I can’t recall a year in which we had two films that were such mirror images of each other. Barbie may not have been targeted at men, but beyond that it bent over backwards to be inclusive: everyone can enjoy Barbie. Poor Things not so much. Both Barbie and Poor Things are cartoonish, but while Barbie is a mix of Hanna-Barbera and Looney Tunes, Poor Things is Ren and Stimpy and Rick and Morty. And while Barbie largely ignores sex and focuses on the social phenomenon of feminism, Poor Things is obsessed with sex but ignores feminism as a political movement.

I’m not going to claim this film’s “message” was terribly deep or novel. Even the weird gothic/steampunk aesthetic, the funny camera lenses, and the character conceits weren’t anything that hasn’t been done a dozen times before. (This made me want to go back and watch The City of Lost Children, among others.) But it all came together well: beautiful images, a brisk pace, and most of all performances far beyond what I’d expect for such a quirky script.

It also includes my single favorite line in years: “I must go punch that baby.”

There’s not much point dwelling on this film; if you don’t like it it’s not for you, and that’s fine. I had a great time.

1. Oppenheimer

I’m biased on this film in a couple of ways. First, I read the book. It’s hard to know how some of the blink-and-you-miss-it references in the film land for those who haven’t waded through the (somewhat tedious) text. But more than that, I’m just a sucker for this particular history: one of the two most storied high-stakes engineering programs in history, and unlike the space program this is the one where the scientists were the public heroes. This was the moment in American history when experts were shown the most deference; when brilliant scientific minds were assumed to also offer shrewd political and social insight.

There are interestingly angles in the book that the film omits entirely. Oppenheimer’s elite upbringing, which gave him a leg up on German, which made him the first American to study the new physics and bring it to the US, which made him the natural choice to lead the Manhattan Project, could be told as a story of how privilege compounds. There is no doubt Oppenheimer was a very smart man, but he did not make the groundbreaking theoretical contributions to the field that so many of his contemporaries managed.

That said, I thought the film substantially improved on the book, including/particularly the bits that were completely made up (like the framing scenes with Einstein).

The fundamentally interesting thing about Oppenheimer is something that almost all popular media has trouble conveying. Our stories demand characters who slot neatly into morality tales. But Oppenheimer was neither apolitical nor devoted to any particular ideology. He wasn’t a soulless monster who placed science and progress above all else, nor a luddite, nor a powerless observer of the system. He was a mix of curiosity and ambition and duty and ambivalence and regret, but more importantly he didn’t make parsing these conflicts the center of his existence the way “artistic temperaments” (and screenwriters) do.

I do have gripes about the film. The attempts to inject sex seemed desperate and salacious, and this angle played Oppenheimers’ marriage as far more conventional than it was—Maestro is not the nominee with the most inherently interesting couple at its core. The lack of detail about the bombs themselves undercut the tension of the engineering story; I’m not sure anyone unfamiliar with the history would even have picked up on there being two designs, and only enough nuclear fuel for one test of the riskier one. And more broadly, the Strauss-Oppenheimer conflict is simply the least interesting narrative thread, and every moment we spent exploring that felt like time I would have rather spent on Kitty, or the Las Alamos work and community, or Oppenheimer’s post-Manhattan-Project advocacy.

Regardless, Oppenheimer is the nominee I enjoyed most this year. As an even greater compliment, it’s a three-hour film that felt much shorter, and never bored me even upon rewatching it.