The Layman’s Guide to the Best Picture Nominees (Part 1/2)

Hollywood’s biggest night is only a few days away, and with that, it’s time for all of us to place our bets and pick our favorites. But with 10 nominees for best picture, and the weird release schedules that COVID and streaming have created, it’s easy to have missed some of them. Never fear! I’m here to give you a little background on each movie and a look at its award chances, with a bit of my personal commentary, so you can win your Oscar ballot. 

King Richard

King Richard is probably the most “commercial” film on this list, in that it’s a feel-good sports movie with broad appeal with a big star. But being “commercial” is not a bad thing– in fact, I think it’s actually a positive thing when it comes to the Oscars because so few of the movies nominated have broad appeal and have actually been seen by a wide audience. King Richard stars Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father behind one of the greatest female tennis players of all time and two of the best athletes in the world- Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is a role seemingly tailor-made for Will Smith. It makes perfect use of his charisma, his dramatic and comedic chops, and provides some interesting meta-commentary on his own personal family life and the kind of dad he’s been to his celebrity kids. But while I think he is deserving of best actor, the whole ensemble is excellent, from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who play Venus and Serena respectively to Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays their mother Brandi, is nominated in the best supporting actress category. While Ellis has a very slim chance of winning, she was a standout and I’m so glad her work was recognized with a nomination.

The movie is a classic sports movie, but its focus on black athletes and a strong black family unit (and centering dad/daughter relationships), the focus on having integrity over winning, along with an eye towards the business savvy athletes must have, make it special. However, its chances of winning best picture look slim, although Will Smith looks like the best actor frontrunner (although it’s a competitive category!). While it may end up walking away with nothing, like the movie itself says, it’s not necessarily about winning, but how you play the game, and King Richard puts it all on the line. 

Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, starring Alana Haim (who I wish had been nominated for best actress) and Cooper Hoffman, is nominated for best director and original screenplay along with best picture. With Jane Campion looking like the frontrunner for director, Licorice Pizza’s best shot is probably screenplay. PTA is a famed auteur who has made a film with a lot to like, especially to Academy voters. Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic look at Los Angeles and Hollywood past, with a quirky love story (the ten-year age gap between the leads has led to some controversy, but not enough, I think, to dampen the film), and great performances. It is the quintessential “hang out” movie, with three hours of episodic storytelling, evoking the feeling of an anthology of shorts rather than a plot-driven movie (Bradley Cooper’s “episode,” where he plays real-life Jon Peters, a boyfriend of Barbara Streisand, is the best part of the film). It might remind voters of the similarly Hollywood-themed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s last film (although Licorice Pizza does not contain any gory shoot-outs). 

I enjoyed Licorice Pizza while I watched it, and I think it’s a must-see for fans of PTA and Hollywood history. I think a breezily-paced, episodic structure to a film is not necessarily a bad thing, but there were certainly times when I wished the movie had an editor who would curb PTA’s more self-indulgent moments. Overall, I think Licorice Pizza is certainly deserving of the nomination but won’t win. It doesn’t break any kind of filmmaking barriers, it doesn’t have any timely or important messages, and its award campaign has seemed a little weak. However, PTA has been nominated for an Oscar eight times before and never won, so perhaps that will make the Academy more favorable in giving him a win. 

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is a remake of a 1947 film, based on the 1946 novel. The film, directed and co-written by Guerillmo Del Toro, stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a mysterious down-on-his-luck man who begins working as a mentalist at a carny, and quickly spirals down into his own deceit. It co-stars Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara. 

To be honest, I started watching Nightmare Alley on HBO Max, got through thirty minutes, then turned it off. Then it got nominated for Best Picture, so I begrudgingly went back and finished it after two more tries. At first, I didn’t find myself gripped by the achingly slow-paced noir. I didn’t know where the film was going or if it had any substance under all the style (and to be fair, it’s a gorgeous production). But, unfamiliar with the source material, I was completely caught off guard in the last act, and specifically, the very last scene. The last moments of the film are so perfectly executed, with such a wonderful marriage of Cooper’s performance and Del Toro’s directing, that I got literal chills. It’s the kind of gut punch of an ending that makes you reconsider the whole film. 

But, even with that scene, in retrospect the film is still weak as a whole, looking the part of a psychological thriller without delivering one. Critics and audience reception were all over the place, making its nomination a real surprise. Besides best picture, it is also nominated for cinematography, production design, and costuming, which seems to be evidence it won’t win anything (best picture winners usually also have nominations in other major categories like actor/actress, writing, and directing). I think if the movie had to have been nominated for anything, I would have nominated Bradley Cooper. But as it is, I’m not personally rooting for it to win anything. Del Toro won best picture and best director for 2017’s Shape of Water, so there’s no rush for the academy to reward him again anytime soon. 

CODA

CODA, on Apple TV+, is a coming-of-age story about Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high schooler who is caught between her desire to go off to college to pursue singing, and her family’s need for her to work for their fishing business. Why is that a problem? The rest of Ruby’s family is deaf, and need her to translate for their business, and can’t appreciate her singing. 

My roommate, who considers herself to be a “voice for the people” when it comes to movies (i.e, not a critical snob), said of CODA: “It’s the perfect balance of being chill and having something to say.” And I agree! CODA is progressive in that it is depicting a community not usually seen on screen, which is a great thing, and it’s also a broadly appealing, heartfelt family drama that is subversive and smart about its tropes to tell a new story (with excellent writing and performances to boot). While its status as a streaming movie made it an unlikely contender, in the past few weeks CODA seems to have become a dark horse that might just pull off a win for best picture, and I’ll certainly be rooting for it. 

Besides best picture, it’s also up for best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur and best adapted screenplay. While I don’t think it has a shot at either of these (Dune should win for best adapted screenplay, although The Lost Daughter will probably win), Kotsur is certainly deserving of the recognition. 

West Side Story

This Steven Spielberg-directed remake of the 1961 musical (an Oscar heavy-hitter itself), is up for seven nominations, including best picture, best director, and best supporting actress for Ariana DeBose as Anita (the role which won Rita Moreno her Oscar). The remake has been praised for the way it infuses modern sensibilities (including the casting of actual Puerto-Rican actors as the Sharks) with the emotionality and old-school feel of the original.

I was skeptical of this project when it was announced and was prepared to dislike it, having grown up with a great fondness for the 1961 film. However, having seen it, I now agree that it is an example of a great remake. I think Spielberg chooses the right things to change and lean into (like more attention paid to the class dynamics; not subtitling the Spanish) while retaining elements of the original. While not as colorful or theatrical as the 1961 version, I think the musical numbers retain their energy and are well-done. It’s a remake that hopefully will appeal to modern audiences while encouraging them to also check out the original. 

Despite all the ways I enjoyed the film, it didn’t personally grab me or register as one of the best films of the year, and I actually expect it’s not most Academy members’ best film either. But because of the ranked-choice voting system the Oscars use, the movies that win are usually everyone’s second or third choice. And that’s where West Side Story could win a lot of awards, if everyone thinks, “hmmm, I want Jane Campion or Paul Thomas Anderson to win for director this year, but I’ll put Steven Spielberg next because, well, he’s Steven Spielberg!”

West Side Story was a commercial flop, but it’s definitely one of the most audience-friendly films being nominated. While I don’t think it’s the best film of the year, I would like the best picture award to start going to movies people have actually heard of and seen, so I’m not opposed to a win. Out of its nominations though, I am rooting for the film to win for Ariana DeBose, and she’s currently the favorite. 

Coming soon: Part 2 of the nominees!

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