"As the beginning days of March roll in, right around the corner is the 94th Academy Awards. This year’s strange lineup brings the annual question to the table, who are these years Oscar’s winners and losers?" -- piper stuip, 8th grade
Despite this, and many other events being notorious for their disappointing and un-diverse picks, this time of year still brings excitement with it. So despite its flaws, we’ll take a deep dive into each of the nominees for this year's Best Picture awards.
Belfast is a film told along the streets of young Buddy’s town. A semi-biographical piece based around director Keneth Branagh’s own experiences growing up in Belfast. The film documents the lives of a working class family, struggling to raise two growing children in a violence-ridden 1960’s northern Ireland, while simultaneously grappling to make ends meet financially. The story is told through the lens of nine-year-old Buddy. With him, we experience first love, first loss, the fearful thrill of first rebellion, and the confusion of a sheltered child.
Within its one hour and thirty-eight minutes of run time, Belfast manages to hit my biggest film pet peeve right on the bullseye. The cinematography, although filled with beautiful shots, is just too much. Not every single shot has to be so, so over the top! It’s okay to have OKAY shots! It could be seen as intentional, an attempt to display a dangerous environment through the eyes of an unknowing, ignorant child, but it just comes off as unnatural. It’s okay to show us a shot, that just… shows us what’s happening? I could physically feel how serious Haris Zambarloukos, the cinematographer, was taking this movie. Let loose a little man! I’m all for good shots, but there's a way to make a cinematic movie without making your audience sick.
And, going back to what I said about the cinematography possibly being intentional as a way to see through Buddy’s lens, this idea is flawed in the fact that the movie’s progression is just, nonexistent. This mystery clouding Buddy’s world is never dropped, any time we think he might actually learn something, it's cut to the next scene. There is absolutely no evolution, it's entirely told through Buddy eavesdropping on his parents’ conversations, nothing else. There are even times when Buddy just goes and asks his parents about what is happening, and it just cuts. Moments like these practically sum up the whole movie, and again, maybe the frustration is intentional. Maybe this is the emotion the director WANTED to bring out of us, who am I to tell him what to do with his art? But what I wouldn’t give for just one discussion between Buddy and his parents, just one moment of clarity for this unknowing boy. But, alas, this never happens.
Every big moment in Belfast always ends underwhelmingly and nobody learns anything from their experiences. Towards the end of the film, the subplot of the long-time tension between Buddy's dad and the town gang leader meet their long awaited final battle in the town square. They stare each other down, it’s intense, we’re on the edges of our seats, his oldest son hands him a brick, he throws it anddddddd…. It’s over, the battle is done. That’s it. That's all we get. Nothing really resolved, they leave Belfast and never speak of any of this again. And it's things like this throughout the movie that make us feel so distant from the characters and their situation.
Belfast is just pure Oscar bait, it's all that it is—and it’s all that I expected.
Power of the dog
The Power of the Dog, a western drama directed by Jane Campion, based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, is the tale of a cruel rancher. Phil Burbank, a man broken by yearning and his own toxicity, driven by a still-burning romance from his past, finds pleasure in torturing his brother’s new wife, Rose, when he brings her to live on the ranch. This is until he sees the possibility of more with Rose's son, Peter.
From all the Oscar picks this year, The Power of the Dog is definitely one of my favorites. Where Belfast lacks in beautiful, yet functional cinematography, The Power of the Dog THRIVES. The shots are intentional and contribute to the ambiance and foreshadowing of the film, while also serving to show us the surface-level of the scene.
This movie uses animals as a powerful tool for symbolism. It's a movie that makes you think and sets for a long conversation afterwards.
The animals make for all these little details too, that become so, so interesting when given thought. There's one scene, around the last twenty minutes of the movie, Peter and Phil are out in the wild, and they come across a small rabbit. While Phil tries to just collapse a mount of wood on top of it to kill it, Peter takes a more gentle approach. He lifts up the animal to his chest, he holds it in his arms until it’s shaking stops, and then promptly snaps the creature's neck. This is a lot like Phil and Peter's own ending, too. Peter creates this false sense of security for Phil. He makes him see the possibility of love, kinship, but when he lets his guard down, Peter poisons his cigarette.
“Campion really used lighting, setting, and landscape to capture the loneliness and isolation of the West,” says Amelia Whitcomb, screenwriter, as well as a teacher of the Oakland School for the Arts Literary Arts Department, “To take us deep into the psyches of the characters. I'm a big fan of Jane Campion, and she did not disappoint.”
Although Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance was not best actor worthy, considering he didn’t really have to do anything to look good here, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons are both who I’m rooting for in their respective categories. Dunst portrays such a tragic and borderline ridiculous role, and it works so, so well. And Plemons fits this manipulative, cunning character exceedingly. From the way he carries himself, to the mystery he keeps beneath.
“Power of the Dog and Jane Campion in general inspires me to tell stories in silent moments, and intentional imagery,” says UCLA Film student, as well as a voter for the Independent Spirit Awards, Charlie Stuip. “She is also a master at directing actors. She pulls all that desperation and tragedy out of their Hollywood faces.”
If not for best picture, I hope The Power of the Dog takes home as many other awards as it can.
CODA (child of deaf adults) follows seventeen-year-old Ruby. In the morning, she helps out on her family's fishing boat, and in the rest of her time, she is a translator and defender of her entirely deaf family. As the only hearing of her family, Ruby transitions into adulthood without ever really being a child, always being the one to represent for her family. But when she joins her high-school choir club, she begins to break from these restraints. In CODA, Ruby explores her long-time passion for music, navigates the waters of young love, and finally learns to move on her own.
CODA, directed by Sian Header, is easily one of the fluffiest Oscar watches I’ve seen this year. As cliche and predictable as it is, it’s so, so, so charming and it pulls at the whole family’s heartstrings. It’s an angle on hearing disabilities that I haven’t seen before (very different from last year's Sound of Metal, which I definitely recommend). It's a great balance of sweet, funny, and sad.
The characters and their issues are handled very gently, but it’s realistic enough that you can really empathize with them. Ruby’s brother's story especially stood out to me. Leo, despite being older than Ruby, has always been treated as younger or lesser because of his disadvantage. Many people with disabilities are constantly being infantilized by those around them. While Ruby is just trying to help her family, it frustrates Leo to no end. He comes off as ungrateful, but really, he’s just sick of being dehumanized by his peers, treated like a child when he’s a capable, adult man, and it's only amplified when he is constantly relying on his younger sister for everything.
Do I think CODA is the right fit for best picture? No. I often found myself asking “Oscars??? Really???” I think there were moments where it was edging the line of acceptable cliches. The romance in the film, although sweet, is a little too obvious at times, (I had to hold in a groan when Miles and Ruby “coincidentally” got assigned a school project together) but as a heartfelt story for the whole family to enjoy, CODA succeeds.
Licorice Pizza is a ‘nothing-really-happens' romance set in San Fernando Valley, 1973 from director Paul Thomas Anderson. It explores the budding romance between fifteen-year-old aspiring entrepreneur, Gary Valentine, and a (much older), twenty-five-year-old Alana Kane.
“Oh god. Licorice Pizza was so random and emotionally unmotivated it felt like I was dreaming a movie about the 70s, but not in a good way,” says Stuip. “The central romance didn’t go far enough in my opinion. If you’re gonna have a questionable age gap, lean into it. Show us the pathological parts of this [almost] thirty-year-old woman.”
The age gap wasn’t something that would have kept me from watching this movie, because I know it can be done right and I’ve seen it done so. The 1971 Harold and Maude is one of my all time favorite movies. It was so pure while weird and sweet, which really worked. Licorice Pizza could have worked! They had the chance to make these fun, charming characters, with stories and drives and reason behind them. Licorice Pizza had potential!
“But no. Instead they just run a lot to really expensive music licensing,” says Stuip. “And the final kiss? Boring. I hated this movie but I think it would be hilarious if it won. Can’t explain why.”
There were so many moments about this movie that made me wonder if they had just been making it up as they went. Like, Gary gets ARRESTED and they’re SO dramatic about it and he gets to the station and some guy is like “that’s not the right guy” and he just leaves and it’s SO weird! What is the point? There's so many things that happen that they never talk about again, it’s like Anderson would get this idea for a new plotline and start the very beginning of it and then get tired of it and write it off in seconds with no explanation.
That’s sort of how it felt for Alana and Gary’s romance too. It’s like they were talking about how illegal it was for them to be together for the first half of the movie and then it started to turn into something glossed over, cliche, boring and so CORNY.
Alana is unbearably embarrassing and Gary is upsettingly boring. The best part of this movie was Bradley Cooper's cameo. Weird and uncharming added with horrendous racism, Licorice Pizza is a fail.
Don’t Look Up
Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, follows the low-level astronomers, professor Dr. Randall Mindy and grad-student Kate Dibiasky, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. Through their research, they come to the shocking discovery that their world is set to end when a comet orbiting the solar system is expected to hit and destroy the earth within a matter of months. The two fight to warn those around them, but are given a struggle when the people of a doomed earth don’t seem to particularly care.
Despite my usual critique of films like this… I actually liked this one?
Don’t Look Up definitely has its flaws. “I think it's pretty good satire, and seeing it as a metaphor for climate change ALMOST works,” says Whitcomb, “it's not a perfect metaphor. In reality, we are responsible for climate change—it's our actions and our willful ignorance about it that is making it worse.”
“And in the end, when it comes to the film, acknowledging the comet isn't going to change its outcome—not after a brief window in time,” she continues, “so while I do think that the reactions in the film were pretty realistic—I think we humans often choose denial and inaction when faced with dire circumstances—I don't know that it really works as a cautionary tale for us regarding climate change.”
So yes, Don’t Look Up’s intentions did not exactly fit the ending result of the film, but overall I liked it. And was surprised to see how many people didn’t. There’s all these comments about the “atrocious editing” and just Adam McKay’s film making in general, however I thought the “sloppy” editing fit the context of the movie. It's ABOUT the panic and frustration that would most definitely come in this situation, and I thought that the editing style portrayed that, and added to the tone of Don’t Look Up.
“I love to hate and hate to love Adam McCay. Everyone else in my generation thought Don’t Look Up was hokey but it affected me,” comments Stuip. “I thought the performances were great and the wigs were terrible. It was a bit hamfisted but it struck some chord of truth in how our capitalist society erupts into utter chaos in a disaster.”
I was also surprised to actually really like DiCaprio’s performance. I’m not usually a fan of most of his works, but he fits so well as Dr. Randall Mindy, I think he’s usually taking up these roles that don’t suit him, but Mindy and his character in the 2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are probably my favorites of his.
I loved Jennifer Lawrence too, Don’t Look Up was a pleasant surprise.
King Richard, a biopic by Reinaldo Marcus Green starring Will Smith, tells the stardom story of Serena and Venus Williams, with their father, Richard Williams, at the center of it. Richard will do anything to fulfill the life he had planned out for them, even if that means pushing his young girls to their farthest limit. It takes place from their games in Juniors, too Serena’s first big game (as well as first big loss), with the sisters struggling with their overbearing father and various trainers in-between.
The thing with King Richard, is that it seems to exist solely for the story it’s trying to tell rather than to be a GOOD movie.
When it comes to biopics, this is often the case. They give us the necessary information of this person's life, alright performances, a fun soundtrack, and not much else. And for that, why don’t we just watch the documentary? I think they’d be interesting enough if not every single one of them was exactly the same. Even if it’s not exactly the same story (although a lot of the time, that is part of it), it’s the directing, cinematography, and general style of the movie.
No matter the story, there is always a lightness to these biopics I’ve seen, too. And I think that is something that really restricts from telling the story in it’s full nature. They never really delve into the flaws of Richard Williams’ parenting. Of course it’s brought up, it doesn’t go unnoticed, but I think this movie had a lot more potential to go into how it’s such a common thing for young stars to have this pressuring parental figure behind them, rather than treat their dad as the true hero of this tale for bringing up these two stars.
King Richard was heartfelt and fun, but I don’t think it’s in Best Picture's favor.
Dune is an adaption of David Lynch’s 1984 adaption of the 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. Dune follows the young man, Paul Atreidies and his journey. Melange (or, often referred to as “the spice”), a drug highly valued to the beings of this world, increases awareness, viability, lifespan of the user, and overall heightened consciousness. However, when this asset is in danger, Paul must travel to secure this essential need of their world, to protect the people and his family.
“I enjoyed Dune, and am excited for Part Two,” says Whitcomb. “I LOVE David Lynch, but his Dune just did not do it for me—it felt very disjointed (and not in a surreal, Lynchian way), and rushed.”
Whitcomb continues, “A bit problematic in the messaging (as if we were supposed to cheer for colonialism and authoritarianism?). The new Dune, however, felt much more cohesive and balanced the world-building with plot/character development - which doesn't always happen in sci-fi, especially epic sci-fi like Dune.”
Although I see the 2021 adaptations progression from 1984, I’d still say Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was quite possibly one of the most boring movies I have seen in the past two years.
It was slow and brought absolutely no emotion out of me whatsoever. I think I probably should have suspected this though as soon as I saw the iconic “celebrity tower” movie poster.
“It felt like no one acting in Dune knew what movie they were in. They were all making such incongruous choices,” says Stuip. “Timothee Chalamet played it like it was the 21st century. His mother was so hysterical the whole time. Jason Mamoa acted like he was in a tacky marvel movie.“
“The costumes were great though,” Stuip concluded. “But otherwise, so so so boring and strange. If I knew it was going to be 3 hours of exposition I wouldn’t have gone.”
My biggest problem with Dune is the same as most movies that rely more on their all star cast and realistic CGI rather than the complexity of their storylines and characters, there's nothing that grabs me. Action filled scenes and well animated monsters don’t make up for a boring plotline. Alike to Licorice Pizza, in the way that a cool idea and good cinematics don’t work in making it a good watch.
My current worst fear is that Dune will succeed and take home Best Picture, until then I can only hope for the better.
Nightmare Alley, follows an ambitious carnie, Stanton Carlisle, who gains a new gift when he meets Zeena Crumbein and her mentalist husband when staying with a traveling carnival. With this newly acquired knowledge, Stanton uses this trick in the big city. Bringing his spouse, Molly, he makes a successful career out of luring and scamming the rich and wealthy, with the help of physiatrist, Lilith Ritter.
Nightmare Alley, a film by Guillermo del Toro, has the energy of an animated Disney movie turned live action, but rated R and everybody is just in love with Bradley Cooper the whole time. They could have slipped Danny Devito into this movie and I would have not given it a second thought.
“Cooper has too much expensive fillers/spray tan/teeth whitening to play a believable carnie,” Stuip says. Cooper was made for the rich guy roles he usually plays! But for a man who is poor and struggling, his face is just too overwhelmingly Hollywood.
This movie is so, so long and it’s a noir, but there's not enough of it. I felt absolutely no suspense for the entire duration of the movie, the style wasn't dramatic enough to reach what they were going for, and Bradley Cooper’s performance was disappointing. There just wasn’t enough of it. Every aspect felt held back and I was left disappointed. I think Nightmare Alley could have had so much more if they had gone the extra limit.
“I felt like this film was part of a strange trend to these Oscars—remakes that weren't necessarily remaking anything, but reproducing,” says Whitcomb, “Although Nightmare Alley does look different from the original (most notably, it's in color), it feels like such a to-the-letter noir reproduction that I left it wondering ‘why not just watch the original?’ I feel similarly about West Side Story--although I haven't seen it, based on the trailers alone it looks almost like a carbon copy of the original film.”
From this list, Nightmare Alley is the most disappointing. I think I had a lot of hope for it at the beginning but I just grew more and more tired of it.
Although I thought the ending of the movie was smart enough, I still found it disappointing. It felt very abrupt rather than Cooper slowly becoming worse and worse, it was very quick, I felt that they could have used a little more of their two hours and twenty minutes on this idea that could have been played out a lot better.
Whitcomb also discusses the characters with, “I was left largely unsatisfied by the female characters in the film. They were such one-dimensional noir archetypes (the innocent, the femme fatale...) that there motivations were completely undeveloped and left me wondering what the point was in any of it.” she adds “I think de Toro lost himself a bit too much in the genre, and in trying to honor the original.”
I think maybe if I watched it again, Nightmare Alley could click for me, but I doubt I’ll be revisiting it anytime soon.
West Side Story
Directed by Steven Spielberg, and based on the original music from roughly 60 years ago, it’s 1957 in New York City and Maria and Tony are in love at first sight. From the moment they lock eyes at their school dance, they are unavoidably infatuated. However it becomes much less simple when their forbidden relationship causes further feud between the “Sharks” and the “Jets,” two rival gangs, both of whom desire dominance over their shared streets.
Before I stepped into the theater, I told myself I would separate Ansel Elgort’s actions from his performance, but believe it or not, he's not just a bad person, he’s a bad actor too! When trying to play “charming” and “mysterious,” he just comes off as creepy and uncomfortable. I would definitely not trust him to run away with, especially after just two days of mediocre romance!
I was genuinely surprised when I saw how many people actually liked this movie, both the leads were overall so disappointing, their acting was bland and their chemistry didn’t hit. I DID however like Anita, the sister, and the gang's performances. Unlike Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zelger, they brought the slight over-the-topness and vibrance that you want when you’re making or adapting a broadway musical. Even if the story itself is a serious approach to a real situation, I feel like you can make your acting just a little bit silly. Especially if you're doing something like West Side Story, where the main plot is a romance that is happening in the incredibly short time span of two days, and the fact that it’s choreographed and written the way it is, this “suave” sort of acting they’re trying to do just doesn’t mix well.
“Pretty much an exact remake except with a lot of expensive spectacle and casting real Puerto Rican actors,” Stuip writes. “I was not moved personally. It felt unnecessary. Also the two leads have no chemistry. How am I supposed to buy into the plot, which is hinged on love at first sight if I don’t believe they want each other? The Jets were great. It could win because it’s a crowd pleaser but it really really shouldn’t.”
Also, that trans character they just dropped in there? Who literally has no personality other than the fact that they’re trans? And that everybody hates them because of it? And that’s? Their entire? Character? I’m tired. When can we move PAST this. Of course, it’s the 50’s and I know how hard it was to have been trans in that time, and the discrimination they would face, but trans people are more then their struggles, they have personalities other then their issues or being sort of nicer then the other Jets (are they even a Jet? I honestly couldn’t tell) why can’t they incorporate that? Alas.
Along with Licorice Pizza and Dune, West Side Story makes it into my bottom three of the year.
Drive My Car
Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is based on the short story Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami, and follows Yūsuke Kafuku. Two years after the death of his playwright wife, he is left only with her work. When agreeing to help out on a production of one of her screenplays, he is recommended a chauffeur, and meets the twenty-year-old Misaki. As the movie progresses, so does their bond.
To be honest, I found myself a little unsatisfied with Drive My Car within the first hour of it. The plot felt holed and I think I had been expecting a lot more from it, but as it went on, I found myself liking it more and more, and as new things were revealed, it made me enjoy things I had been skeptical about before and see them more clearly.
The characters and their relationships with each other are so meaningful, they were so interesting to get to observe. Yūsuke and Misaki and their ability to relate and then to heal with the help of each other hit deep to watch. The contrast of the two, Misaki’s bluntness when it comes to opening up mixed with Yūsuke’s tendency to hide his true words under easier ones is so fascinating.
After all that, I’ll end it on a good note. Drive My Car is gentle and intimate, it captures the art of grieving and the regret that comes with it so well. The cinematography is beautiful and subtle. There's something about this type of storytelling and filmmaking that I love so much, the softness of it is truly admirable.
But, despite how much I loved Drive My Car, and I wouldn’t be upset if it won, when it comes down to it, I have to stand with The Power of the Dog.
Drive My Car was so special to me, but despite many of the plot holes being filled, so many things were still left unsolved at the end. The Power of the Dog was tight, and Jane Campion knew exactly what she was doing while she was making it, whereas Drive My Car was a lot looser. This doesn’t mean looser movies are inherently not as good, but when there are bigger aspects of it that just don’t make sense, it becomes flawed.
“Power of the Dog is my choice to win. It’s the only film that felt like a true passion project. The cinematography was so intentional.” says Stuip, “Jane Campion is a master of framing and telling her stories visually as opposed to shoving storytelling into the dialogue.”
“Power of the Dog was really inspirational for me—both in the film itself and the fact that it was written and directed by a woman, Queen Campion,” Whitcomb remarks. “Career-wise, she's an inspiration: first woman ever with two Oscar nominations, after all. But the film itself was so complex and subtle. I just loved it.”
The Power of the Dog stuck with me, I still think about it months now after my first viewing. The twist was so unexpected but it made so much sense at the same time. This movie is pretty as it is haunting and grabbing as it is toe-curling. It put me into this post movie shot that I haven’t experienced often before. The relationship between the cinematography and the landscape is breathtaking, I could rewatch this again and again, and see so much more of it in the process each time.
The Power of the Dog is one-hundred percent deserving of this year's best-picture award, and I will be rooting for it this March 27th.