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The Best Picture Nominees, 2024

A look at the ten nominees for this year’s Best Picture Oscar.

· 17 min read
The Best Picture Nominees, 2024

The Oscars have never been about art. As Louis B. Mayer once remarked, recalling the creation of his brainchild, “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” Awards had the further benefit of projecting an aura of respectability on a field then associated with vaudeville and debauchery. The awards’ host, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, was created for the same reason—and to handle labour disputes without unions (postmodernists are hardly the first to use language to redefine reality). Besides, an awards event hosted by an organization with a highbrow name created plenty of free publicity.

Nevertheless, the Academy Awards became a global opportunity to celebrate movies—to argue about the shows we loved, hated, and missed, and to fight over Oscar nominations and snubs. In a fragmented world, a communal conversation like this is no small thing. Audiences have been in a tailspin for decades; streaming has expanded our viewing options, reducing the viewership for nominated titles and our emotional investment in the outcome. The proliferation of award shows also means that the Oscars are no longer the biggest mass-fashion event of the year. And as attention spans have declined, the Oscars’ spectacle and speeches seem to last forever. (If only a nominee slapped the host every year.) And yet, Oscar parties still abound, and even if we don’t watch the show, we check the news for nominees and winners we’ve neither seen nor heard of.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on this year’s Best Picture nominees for those who’d like to refresh or catch up, ranked according to my own preference from worst to best. There are no plot spoilers, although I include the premise of each film and reference a few specific scenes outside their narrative context.

10) Maestro

Maestro is a biopic about Leonard Bernstein’s marriage to Felicity Montealegre, which was ultimately destroyed by his alcoholism and a series of gay affairs. Bradley Cooper does an impeccable impersonation of Bernstein, thanks in part to a controversial prosthetic nose (see also: Helen Mirren’s controversial prosthetic as Golda Meir). Bernstein fans will enjoy a score filled with works from the maestro’s musicals and operas, and theatre and music buffs will have fun spotting the cameos of Comden and Green, Jerome Robbins, and Aaron Copland. And the cinematography, especially the sections in black and white, is gorgeous.

But, my god, it goes on. We’re dragged through endless parties and domestic scenes filled with effete dialogue that was presumably intended as sophisticated banter. We hear Bernstein’s music and see him at the podium, but we learn little about how music captured his life or the throes of composition. Instead, this giant of 20th-century American music is reduced to his tawdry personal life. This is inevitable. Bernstein’s genius lay in his art not in his life. There’s nothing dramatic about watching someone write notes on paper, and if you want to see Bernstein conduct, you can find the real thing on YouTube. So what were the screenwriters to do? Have Bernstein speechify about the ineffable? Good lord, we’re asleep already.

Bernstein’s life was rich in accomplishment and incident, but every one of the issues he might have faced is dramatically neutered. His affairs with men were an open secret, so the tension of the closet is moot. He became an overnight sensation when he was called up as a last-minute fill-in at the New York Philharmonic, so he never suffered the shame and anguish of anglicizing his name to succeed. While Bernstein was a strong voice for social justice, his views (in favour of integration, opposed to the Vietnam war) were mainstream on the 1960s American Left. The worst he faced was embarrassment when Tom Wolfe published his iconic 1970 essay, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lennie’s,” which mocked Bernstein as a pretentious dilettante hosting a fundraiser for armed Black Panthers at his palatial 13-room apartment on the Upper East Side. The affairs with students that might have finished him today were commonplace 40 years ago.

As a result, Maestro is an empty—if consummately wrapped—gift box. It deserves its nominations in other fields but not for Best Picture.

9) Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon is another of Martin Scorsese’s artfully epic gangster flicks. This one deals with the 1921–25 murders of members of the Osage Nation, killed by white ranchers in pursuit of the oil rights on their reserve. The discovery of oil had made the Osage the wealthiest people in the world per capita, and Scorsese deserves praise for his richly detailed and disorienting portrait of a society in which the indigenous lived in mansions with white servants and chauffeurs. (The sense of authentic period reminded me of Robert Altman’s 1971 classic, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.)

While crimes against the Osage Nation were widespread and systemic thanks to almost a century of state and federal policy, Scorsese focuses on the true story of rancher William King Hale (Robert De Niro), who pushes his slow-witted and impressionable nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) to marry Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman who stands to inherit her family’s significant oil fortune. De Niro is great as De Niro; DiCaprio is great as DiCaprio with oral prosthetics (it’s been a big year for prosthetics); and Lily Gladstone has star presence in the thankless role of Immaculate Cipher.

But Mollie and her family’s passivity drains the film of depth, drama, and plausibility. Hale’s duplicity is transparent, and it is hard to believe that a woman as shrewd as Mollie—portrayed here as a wise and benevolent saint—would marry a buffoon she’s rightly pegged as a gold-digger. The film is also self-indulgent. Complex characters and narrative sustained Scorsese’s equally long The Irishman, but sets, costumes, and cinematography cannot sustain Killers of the Flower Moon’s unconvincing characters and predictable plot for three-and-a-half hours.

Killers of the Flower Moon is an ambitious attempt to tell an important story by one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, but it’s far from Scorsese’s best work.

8) Barbie

Barbie, the $1.44 billion pink-popcorn juggernaut, is the highest grossing film in Warner Brothers’ history, the highest grossing film directed by a woman anywhere ever, and the year’s runaway box office hit. All of which is not bad for a film that resembles an extended Saturday Night Live sketch.

There’s a lot to love about Barbie, not least its eye-popping candy-colored production design (the art department was apparently partly responsible for an international shortage of fluorescent pink paint). The scale of the Barbie Dream Houses is meticulously rendered and attention has been paid to the practicalities of Barbie Land’s daily life. This pride in craft is not only fun, but it also helps to build a coherent universe. The Barbies of Barbie Land are independent professionals with no need for their adoring Kens, whose only job is “beach.” When our main Barbie (a vivacious Margot Robbie) develops intimations of mortality—bad breath, cellulite, and flat feet—she realizes that she must help the troubled child who plays with her in the real world. So, off she goes in her Barbie Mobile with her stowaway Ken (a charming Ryan Gosling). Hijinks ensue.

The first 40-odd minutes exploring Barbie Land and its characters provide a lot of laughs, but the novelty wears off halfway through, and what’s left is an amiable mess. Barbie and Ken’s encounter with the real world provides some brilliant satire, but the comic similarity between the scenes at Mattel and those in Barbie Land destroys the contrast of the juxtaposition, which is supposed to be the humor’s mainspring. There is also some heavy-handed speechifying towards the end, but it’s still fun to watch Robbie and Gosling commit to the absurd, and the movie’s songs and vibrant production numbers are great.

The film’s sexual politics produced the usual culture-war silliness from journalistic partisans. The Left praised the film as a bold feminist statement while the Right attacked it as “a woke … piece of shit.” In fact, Barbie’s vanilla politics and debates about gender norms seem hopelessly dated. “Self care” may have been a radical concept when Audre Lorde first wrote about it in the 1970s, but it is now a slogan for the billion-dollar industrial wellness complex.

If the debate about Barbie’s politics is overwrought, the triumph of Gerwig’s vision has been understated. It’s easy, in retrospect, to take Barbie’s success for granted or to ascribe it to marketing. But the project had stumped filmmakers since 2009. Scripts written for Amy Schumer (2016) and Anne Hathaway (2017) failed to launch, and even with Margot Robbie on board, Barbie’s future was still in doubt in 2019. It took Greta Gerwig’s imagination and drive to see it through.

Still, the uproar over the Academy’s failure to nominate Gerwig as Best Director is misplaced. This year’s field is, after all, unusually strong—A.V. Rockwell (A Thousand and One), Emerald Fennell (Saltburn), and Todd Haynes (May December) were not nominated either, and their work far surpasses Gerwig’s in directorial achievement if not box office. Besides which, Gerwig has hardly been ignored by the Academy—she’s nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay this year (her third writing nomination) and she was nominated as Best Director in 2018 for her remarkable Lady Bird (a far better film).

More egregious is the omission of Margot Robbie in the Best Actress category. For all its invention, Barbie is remarkably thin, and its success rests on the timing, verve, and charisma of Robbie and Gosling (who did get a nomination). Neither Carey Mulligan in Maestro nor Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon were as indispensable.

7) The Holdovers

The Holdovers is well-made cinematic comfort food about a curmudgeonly private-school teacher, his troubled student, and a grieving cafeteria manager, all of whom find themselves stuck in the school’s residence over the Christmas break. You know the rest. Paul Giamatti is reliable as the curmudgeon with a heart of gold, Dominic Sessa makes an accomplished debut as the student (although he looks 20 instead of 16, which undermines the character’s vulnerability), and Da’Vine Joy Randolph lends her stock role heart and humour.

The Holdovers is reasonably enjoyable with neither major flaws nor much to talk about. That’s good enough for a decent evening, but not for Best Picture.

6) Past Lives

Past Lives is so slight and introspective that it feels like an adaptation of a short story. The premise is simple: Would you trade your current life for the one you might have had if your family hadn’t moved? First-time writer-director Celine Song’s romantic film à clef draws its inspiration from her own family’s emigration from Korea to Canada when she was 12, a move that separated her from her first major crush. Twelve years later, she reconnected with him over Skype, but broke off the renewed relationship to pursue her career goals. Twelve years after that, they reunited in person. Their bond remained strong, but by now she was married.

Song’s theatre roots are apparent. The scenes are stationary: Skype calls between Song’s stand-in Nora and her friend Hae Sung, and Nora’s conversations with her husband Arthur at their dining room table and in bed. When the three meet, they stand in Nora and Arthur’s kitchen and sit in a restaurant and bar. Aside from a few scenes of Nora and Hae Sung playing as children, the closest we get to action is a walk in Central Park. 

Soon’s spare dialogue takes its cue from the hyper-realistic aesthetics in vogue among contemporary American playwrights like Annie Baker. Scenes happen in real-time, filled with banal conversational filler and silence. This technique helps Soon establish the ordinary moments that characterize our deepest relationships and makes plausible Nora and Hae Sung’s childhood bond and online reconnection. On the other hand, it creates extended sections that are excruciatingly dull. 

Commitment and patience are rewarded, however, when Nora and Hae Sung meet and our romantic triangle is confronted with emotional landmines and choices with lifelong consequences. Here, the stillness and hesitations provide weight to universal questions: Am I where I ought to be, or have I settled into my present life by accident? Can my life compete with other imagined futures, and will thinking about those counterfactuals inevitably leave me feeling unsatisfied? Or do we all live multiple lives, each of which is contained in a past compartment?

Greta Lee is an enigmatic Nora, Teo Yoo is a plaintive Hae Sung, and John Magoro is magnificent as Nora’s husband Arthur, a decent man struggling to hide his jealousy, fear, and helplessness. Celine Soon is a writer-director to watch and a natural talent. Past Lives was not only her first feature but the first time she had set foot on a film set. Her movie will grow in your imagination, drive you to distraction, or possibly both. It is true to a rigorous vision and handles its complex emotional themes with admirable sensitivity.

5) Poor Things

Based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, Poor Things is Frankenstein reimagined as a feminist arthouse comedy. Pregnant suicide Victoria Blessington (Emma Stone) is resurrected as Bella Baxter when mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) replaces her brain with that of her unborn baby. A child in an adult’s body, Bella chafes at her maker’s protective custody and runs off to see the world with sleazy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). What follows is a bright, sex-positive, and picaresque adventure in which Bella explores her sexually voracious appetites while dominating and confounding the men who seek to control her.

Under the direction of Yorgos Lanthimos, production designers James Price and Shona Heath work miracles, bringing life to a fairytale world as wild and imaginative as the best of Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. Dreamscapes present a challenge. They require heightened dialogue and performance to match the fantastic environment, but overreach will destroy the story’s humanity and any reason for us to care. It’s a highwire act. Fortunately, this is a company of accomplished acrobats.

Stone delivers a bravura performance as Bella, delineating her character’s rapidly growing verbal and motor skills with precision and wit. Her fortitude and intelligence mitigate the darkness in the plot (men sexually grooming a woman with the mind of a child) and her exuberant physicality brings Bella to life. Dafoe is perfectly cast—his persona already flirts with the grotesque—while cast-against-type Mark Ruffalo is game as the story’s manipulative rogue. And Kathryn Hunter—last seen as the three witches in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth—provides a marvellous supporting turn as the keeper of the Parisian brothel at which Bella works for a while.

The film’s episodic structure is somewhat uneven—a narrative clothesline for loosely connected incidents of varying interest. It’s never boring, but sometimes the set pieces are more amusing in conception than execution. Despite occasional longueurs, Poor Things is an ambitious feast for anyone looking for audacity, originality, and a bold aesthetic.

4) The Zone of Interest

How did the families of Nazi commandants manage to live ostensibly normal lives next to the horrors of the concentration camps? Jonathan Glazer’s fourth feature The Zone of Interest, loosely based on a 2014 novel by Martin Amis, explores how the Holocaust machinery functioned at a human level. It is a haunting portrait of evil at its most banal that will live in your mind’s eye long after you’ve left the theatre. Shot on location in and around a house next to the wall of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, The Zone of Interest draws heavily upon Glazer’s research into Amis’s primary sources and his interviews with the surviving locals. The result is a radical attempt to understand human beings we prefer to see as separate from our species.

There are no scenes inside the camp itself. Instead, we observe the day-to-day lives of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss, his wife Hedwig, and their children—each a study in monstrous indifference. Höss goes to work and reads bedtime stories to his kids; Hedwig tends her garden and socializes with neighbouring wives; the children have picnics and play in the pool and a nearby river. Reminders of the adjacent horror surface periodically. Hedwig and her servants divvy up the clothes and makeup taken from the Jewish women who have just arrived at the camp; one of her sons fingers a tooth from his small, boxed collection; a large brick chimney silently expels black smoke into the empty blue sky; a daughter sleepwalks.

The picture is a peculiar mix of naturalism and artifice. Glazer and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal shot the film with high-tech lenses in 6K resolution using only natural sunlight or moonlight and practical sources like oil lamps and candles. The film’s technique, however, has been carefully designed to provide a sense of clinical detachment. Ten digital cameras in fixed positions were hidden in the house along with twenty microphones, the locations of which were kept from his actors. The audience becomes a fly-on-the-wall: absorbed, numbed, and strangely complicit. The sense of disquiet is reinforced by Johnnie Burn’s unique soundscape. There is no music, and there are no emotional cues. Rather, Burn employs a low-level industrial hum punctuated by the occasional distant gunshot or scream. This sonic background is omnipresent, like the street noise outside a downtown apartment.

The most striking departure from naturalism is the use of a thermal camera to shoot a handful of night scenes, in which a 12-year-old local Polish girl named Aleksandra hides apples for the starving prisoners to find the next day. Aleksandra Bystron-Kolodziejczyk was a real-life member of the Polish resistance who lived in the house where the film was shot, and the old bicycle she rode then is the one her character rides in the film. She died a few weeks after Glazer interviewed her, aged 90. “That small act of resistance,” Glazer says, “the simple, almost holy act of leaving food, is crucial because it is the one point of light. [Without it,] I really thought I couldn’t make the film. … It felt impossible to just show the utter darkness, so I was looking for the light somewhere and I found it in her.”

3) Anatomy of a Fall

Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Anatomy of a Fall is a smart, character-driven, twisty legal drama filled with powerful performances and spectacular scenery. Samuel falls to his death from the attic of his chalet. Was it an accident? A suicide? Or was he pushed by his wife Sandra? The couple’s young visually impaired son was away walking with his guide dog when his father fell.

Anatomy of a Fall is about the difference between what we experience and what we remember; what we believe and what we know; what we see and what we hear; and the sometimes complicated relationship between the fact and fiction. The film also offers a fascinating look at the French criminal justice system, in which judges are active participants who interrogate witnesses, a defendant’s silence can be accepted as a sign of guilt, and evidence can include hearsay and speculation.

Sandra Hüller transforms from her brusque Hedwig Höss in The Zone of Interest to the vulnerable (or possibly duplicitous?) murder suspect. It is the kind of unselfconscious, quicksilver performance rarely seen outside of the best teen actors, untrained and seemingly unaware of the camera (for example, 15-year-old Claire Danes in My So-Called Life or Tye Sheridan in The Tree of Life, Mud, and Joe). Samuel Theis is outstanding as her husband, and the film’s highlight is their extended domestic quarrel. The screenplay effortlessly captures the cadences of real-life: the symphony of parries and thrusts, the attempts at reconciliation and explosive rages that turn on a dime. Hüller and Theis, perfectly in tune with each other, elevate this superb text to one of the best spousal struggles in memory.

In the end, the question of Sandra’s guilt or innocence is left unresolved. Although the court does render a verdict, we are left to ponder the uncertainties of the case once the couple’s young son Daniel (a wonderfully torn Milo Machado Graner) explains his decision to testify under cross-examination. In an age of epistemic breakdown, his words are wise beyond his years.

2) American Fiction

American Fiction is at once a sharp satire of performative professional wokeism and an absorbing drama about a black family. Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is an upper-middle-class novelist dealing with the death of a sibling, a mother with Alzheimer’s, and a gay brother with issues. His white publishers are only interested in “authentic” black novels that align with the racist tropes of the intersectional Left—that blacks are a monolithic oppressed underclass driven to crime by white supremacy. Monk knocks out a parody of this kind of fiction under an assumed name, and to his mortification, it becomes a hit.

American Fiction is a testament to the importance of a great screenplay. The focus on Monk’s family drama raises the story’s emotional stakes and provides us with a truly authentic story that Monk’s white publishers would reject (unlike the fake one they embrace and promote). The script is adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure (fights over identity politics and appropriation are nothing new), and for the most part, writer-director Cord Jefferson’s changes are unobtrusive. He updates first names no longer in fashion, switches the story’s location, and trims judiciously. But on the whole, it’s refreshing to find a screenwriter who obviously respects his source material.

Bestseller Reparations
In ‘American Fiction,’ director Cord Jefferson brings a devil-may-care effrontery to bear on the culture of self-censorship, progressive pieties, and artistic hypocrisy.

Jeffrey Wright is superb in the leading role. Monk’s anger and frustration are palpable, and the scenes in which he impersonates the fictional author of his parody, gangster Stagg R. Leigh, are very funny. Among a strong ensemble cast, I was particularly impressed by Sterling K. Brown as Monk’s gay brother Clifford and J.C. Mackenzie as a virtue-peacocking literary-award organizer.

1) Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer is a work of staggering intellectual and technical complexity. In his autobiographical epic about the man who oversaw the creation of the atomic bomb, writer-director Christopher Nolan puts time in a blender as he explores the Left’s flirtation with communism during the Great Depression and the Right’s postwar witch-hunts of former communists.

Nolan has always enjoyed playing with time for dramatic and thematic effect (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk), but his narrative experimentation has never been more complex than it is here. Under the title Fission, we see Oppenheimer’s subjective experiences in colour. Under the title Fusion, we see those of his antagonist, Lewis Strauss, in black and white. Fission is about Oppenheimer’s oversight of the Manhattan Project, the removal of his security clearance, and the restoration of his reputation. Fusion is about Strauss’s personal humiliation by Oppenheimer, his revenge, and subsequent downfall. Both narrative threads make generous use of flashbacks.

In a traditional linear narrative, one thing leads to another. In this non-linear story, the near-, mid-, and long-term consequences of Oppenheimer’s actions are present at their inception. This spotlights the importance of events that might otherwise have seemed mundane and adds dramatic weight by making Oppenheimer’s triumph and tragedy inevitable, like the outcome of a mathematical equation. (Pentex Productions has produced a terrific 19-minute video that illustrates what Oppenheimer would have looked like had it been cut in chronological order.)

Nolan and composer Ludwig Göransson use the film’s score to bind the fragmentary narrative into a coherent whole, the sensory effect of which is exhilarating. And in a year of great performances, Cillian Murphy’s Robert Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss stand out. Murphy’s limpid gaze captures the enigma of its subject, and Downey’s ferocious intellect electrifies Strauss’s personal vendetta. This is Downey’s best work since Zodiac and his smartest since Tropic Thunder.

One of the finest biopics ever made, and a wonderful film in its own right, it will be a crime if Oppenheimer fails to win this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture.

How Accurate is Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’?
A nuclear engineer reviews the blockbuster film.
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