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Just how filthy are the 10 Best Picture nominees???

Our writers get their hands dirty and review each one of the 10 Best Picture Oscar nominations, unearthing the thought-provoking and subversive facets of each one of them!

Just how dirty are the Oscars? The Academy Awards have attempted to paint themselves as more diverse and inclusive in the past few years, and this year’s best Picture selection does partly reflect that. There is one Asian film (Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car) and two films made by women (Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog and Sian Heder’s CODA). But how thought-provoking, subversive and downright filthy are these films in reality? Are they just more of the same, or do they challenge some old orthodoxies? Read what our writers have to say about each one of the 10 nominees and decide it for yourself!

The films are listed alphabetically. Just click on the film title in order to accede to each individual review:

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1. Belfast (Kenneth Branagh):

by Victor Fraga

In this largely autobiographical and historical tale, Kenneth Branagh illustrates a short segment of the Troubles that afflicted Northern Ireland for nearly four decades from the perspective of nine-year-old Buddy (Judy Hill), the director’s very own proxy (Branagh was indeed the same age as Buddy when the story takes place), and his protestant family. The action begins on August 15th, 1969, as Protestants attack Catholics living outside their unofficially designated areas. Molotov cocktails, and shattered glass fly everywhere, with arson soon ensuing. Buddy hides under the kitchen table, while his terrified mother (Caitriona Balfe) scrambles to find his brother.

This almost entirely black-and-white drama is highly theatrical, most of the action staged either inside or near Buddy’s house. The establishing shots showing a large, highly industrialised city come at the first sequence, before we deep dive into the small world of Buddy’s family. The simple and relatively straightforward story is mostly predictable, with audiences well aware that Kenneth Branagh grew up in England. The movie continuously attempts to climax, every time Protestants and Catholics collide. It does not side with either religion, instead focusing on the emotions of the child and his family. The conflicts however feel too staged and contrived, failing to move viewers. The performances are lukewarm and the script is lacklustre. Branagh fails to turn a personal story into a universal one. Not even Dame Judi Dench and a rendition of power ballad Everlasting Love lift this mostly tedious movie. The majority of viewers were left feeling cold and bored. I watched it in a fully-packed Estonian cinema and audiences barely reacted to the story.

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2. CODA (Sian Heder):

by John McDonald

CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults. The film revolves around a girl called Ruby (Emilia Jones), an able hearing teenager who lives with her deaf parents and deaf older brother. She must juggle working on her dads fishing boat – acting as an interpreter for him as well – and her dream of becoming a singer, which is quite ironic as her family have no idea how good she really is.

The writing is powerful and emotional, projecting itself through the heavy exchanges. It sends a meaningful message about the perception of deaf people. It also dances around the idea of selfishness and ignorance, just because Ruby’s parents can’t physically hear her talent, does it make them these things? The sound editing is impactful and ingenious, much like Sound of Metal. When the silence fades in and out of Ruby’s performance, it creates a great sadness for her family. That’s because they cannot enjoy her gift like everyone else can. An unbelievable sequence for our viewing pleasure.

There is something magical about films highlighting deafness as a gift instead of a hindrance, specifically targeting ignorance and a lack of knowledge about the subject. Of course, deaf people do miss so much, but they also see the world from a totally unique perspective. This is both beautiful and eye opening.

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3. Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay):

by Dan Meier

That lack of self-awareness pervades every aspect of the movie, constantly distracted by the very topics it deems trivial; celebrity culture, social media and the private lives of scientists. When the liberal characters enlist a pop star (played by Ariana Grande) to help raise awareness for humanity’s doom, the irony is entirely lost on the filmmakers who have done exactly that. In essence, McKay is the Ariana Grande character, warbling on and on about how we are all going to die in front of a massive Hollywood party.

Don’t Look Up proves good advice over two hours and 20 minutes of stock footage, A-listers improvising themselves into corners and plot holes the size of craters. This nonsensical narrative does not stem from some prescient absurdism à la Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976), nor does it have the political savvy of a film like In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009). McKay’s shallow attempts at satire sail past their targets like comets made of toilet paper, his level of commentary and insight comparable to scrolling through memes circa 2018.

That such a poorly received feature should be nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay confirms there are certain non-qualitative factors (namely Meryl Streep and liberal grandstanding) that guarantee Oscar buzz, the hum of flies drawn to the stench of free Netflix accounts. The only comfort to take from all this is that if a 5km meteor does come hurtling towards Earth, then Adam McKay’s ego should absorb most of the blast.

Don’t Look Up is also pictured at the top of this article.

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4. Drive my Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi):

by James Luxford

Historically, films not in the English language have struggled to compete for the big awards at The Oscars. After all, the Academy Awards are the ultimate symbol of Hollywood’s fascination with itself, meaning anything outside of its bubble is ushered into the Best International Feature Film category. Times are slowly changing, however, and the success of Parasite a couple of years ago means a wider breadth of filmmaking has a shot at the hallowed Best Film award. A welcome addition to this year’s contenders is Drive My Car, a Japanese drama that more than merits the distinction.

Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s follow up to the fascinating Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) is the story of Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a celebrated theatre actor mourning the death of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). Two years on from the loss, he is approached to direct a production of Uncle Vanya. He is given accommodation around an hour’s drive from the rehearsal space, in order that he practice lines from a tape recorded by Oto before her death. The company requires that he have a driver, reserved young woman Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura).

Where many prestige dramas require scenery chewing, Hamaguchi’s film has a gentleness that feels devastating. The messiness of life, and the absence of resolution in grief, are core themes within a multi-layered story that doesn’t stray too long on any one of its plotlines. While the friendship between Yūsuke and Misake is the backbone of the narrative, Yūsuke’s tempestuous collaboration with Okada’s disgraced star Kōji Takatsuki is just as compelling. A climactic scene between the two in the back of the titular Saab 900, where Kōji talks about looking completely into a person’s heart, is quietly mind-blowing. Meaning hides within meaning, with so much more said that what is on the page.

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5. Dune (Denis Villeneuve):

by John Bleasdale

Timothee Chalamet plays Paul as a sexy Hamlet, floppy hair, dark clothes, and the angst that comes with having a father and mother like Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac. How can he possibly live up to them? Then there’s Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, who trains him to fight and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), an older brother of sorts and tough guy who Paul hero worships. Everyone is training Paul for power: his mother teaches him the Voice, a form of manipulation that can cause people to do anything while his father has him sit in on councils. Add to this that the Bene Gesserit sisterhood have been spreading rumors that he might be The One, and you can understand why the young guy looks like he has the weight of several worlds on his shoulders. Of course, things starts to go wrong as Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron unleashes his nephew ‘the Beast’ Raban on the Atreides and there are further betrayals in store which will risk the destruction of Paul’s family and House.

Villeneuve takes all of this seriously. There is no camp, no space opera. Or if it is, it demands the kind of suspension of irony necessary for opera to work. There are two jokes in the whole picture and no zingers, the likes of which pepper Marvel films to such an extent that the winking begins to look like Herbert Lom towards the end of the Inspector Clousseau series. And if you are willing to take it seriously then there is so much in this film. The universe created is one where medieval social structures and belief systems are matched by technology that retains a hint of necromancy.

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6. King Richard (Reinaldo Marcus Green):

by James Luxford

King Richard tells the story of Richard Williams (Smith), a father of five living in LA’s Compton neighbourhood. Determined to keep his offspring off the streets, he sets out a plan for his daughters Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) to become tennis stars. Coaching them himself using little more than books and tapes, he forces his way into the insular world of tennis to get them to notice two of the brightest talents in the sport’s history.

Every aspect of the film is designed to inspire, from the rousing score to the many speeches delivered, reminding us of the importance of the Williams Sisters not just to sport, but to African-American culture. This may trigger a cynical instinct in some viewers, but hindsight is on the filmmakers’ side. Williams did set out this path for his daughters, he did train them on the courts of Compton with the sound of gunshots in the background. However, this is more than a sob story. It’s about the perseverance and single-mindedness it takes to be a champion, and the foresight to create something that no one has ever seen before. The presence of snobbery and classism in the sport makes a compelling argument: Williams’ vision for his daughters may border on obsessional, but it is far better than the abusive country club parents who berate Venus’ opponents. The belief, and the vindication of it, makes for a feel-good couple of hours.

Of course, this is a Hollywood biopic, and if there is a flaw it’s in the refusal to question much about its subject. Williams is always right, and even when he’s not it’s for a good reason. His scene-stealing nature is treated as just another quirk, while the film’s focus on Richard means his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) and the sisters themselves become supporting players in their own story. It’s no more than any other biopic would do, but it’s clear this is a version of events meant to cement a legacy, rather than dissect it.

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7. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson):

by Ian Schultz

Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated new movie is a simple boy-meets-girl tale, in the San Fernando Valley during the year of 1973. Anderson is a native and current resident of the Valley and has often set his films there including Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim) are the odd-couple leads. Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Anderson’s most frequent collaborators; Haim is from the pop band Haim, for whom Anderson has done several music videos. Gary is loosely based on Gary Goetzman, a child actor in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, who later became a long-time collaborator of Jonathan Demme, and is now Tom Hanks’s production partner. Goetzman himself told Anderson some of the outrageous stories, on which the movie is inspired. The story revolves around following the couple’s adventures across the Valley, the strange people they meet, and their relationship, which may or may not become romantic.

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8. Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro):

by Ian Schultz

Guillermo del Toro’s first movie since 2017’s Oscar winning The Shape of Water is an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s eponymous 1946 novel. It’s fairly faithful to the book, much more than the first version, a noir movie entitled Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947). Both movies deserve credit of their own, and an attentive viewing.

Structurally, Nightmare Alley is essentially two films stuck together: the world of the carnival, and Stanton’s noirish descent into hell. It could be a challenge to the bridge the two stories, but there is a convenient crossroads point where you could put in an intermission. The film runs for two hours and 20 minutes, but it’s never dull for a second—the story just flies by. Del Toro’s camera is never static; it’s always moving, often in very subtle ways.

The ensemble that Del Toro put together is as perfectly compiled. There is not a bad or even mediocre performance Blanchett is the film’s scene-stealer with the most delicious femme fatale delivery since probably the ’50s, especially her last line: “I’LL LIVE!” The role of Dr. Lilith Ritter is one of the film’s biggest improvements over the original: Blanchett portrays her as even more of an icy bitch than Helen Walker did.

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9. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion):

by John Bleasdale

If anyone had any doubt about the difficulties women directors face when trying to get films made, Jane Campion’s career should be a compelling case to answer. The woman has won an Oscar, won the Palme d’Or and directed consistently brilliant work as diverse as period dramas and serial killer movies. But nevertheless, despite this pedigree, getting her projects to the big screen has proven enormously difficult. So a lot is riding on The Power of the Dog, her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, which showed in competition at the 78th Venice Film Festival. What we get is a solemn compelling Western which is full of grandeur pitched against cruelty and small minded pettiness.

At its heart, it is a tale of two brothers. When Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) raises his glass in toast to himself and George (Jesse Pelmons), and characterises them as Romulus and Remus, you can’t help but wonder if he knows how the story ends. Later it will become clear he does. Because though Phil has invented himself as a dirty saddle tramp rancher and cowboy who has never used the house bath and whose only pleasure lies in twanging the banjo and recalling his mentor Buck, he’s actually a graduate of Yale with a well to do family at his back. So, yes he fully understands that he might as well have hailed his brother as another Abel.

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10. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg):

by James Luxford

The story is a Romeo and Juliet with hair grease and big skirts. We go to 1957 Manhattan, a place where economic ambition lives side-by-side with harsh reality. In the ever-changing West Side, two male gangs fight for their turf – the Caucasian gang The Jets, and Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. In the midst of this bad feeling, reformed Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls for Maria (Rachel Zegler), the young sister of Shark leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). The pair are smitten and determined to be together, but the escalating feud between their respective communities makes that union fraught with danger.

West Side Story is a bright, energetic ode to the musicals of the 50s, proving Spielberg can still muster the kind of wonder that made his name. However, the hallowed status of his inspiration means those efforts may be sacrificed at the altar of comparison.


By DMovies' team - 24-02-2022

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