This article contains affiliate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, Digital Trends and Yahoo Inc. may earn a commission.
Early this morning (like, perversely early, as is tradition), Zazie Beetz and Jack Quaid presented a bleary-eyed America with the nominations for the 96th Annual Academy Awards. There were few big surprises among the 10 films selected to compete for Best Picture — it was an expected lineup that had solidified into gospel over the past few weeks. By nominations day, we usually have a pretty good idea of what movies we’re going to hear named.
Maybe that inevitability would be more disheartening if this weren’t a fairly solid crop of contenders. There are no true follies competing for Best Picture this year. And at the top, there are two near-masterpieces — including the best movie of the year, which happens to be the frontrunner, too. The lineup also covers a spectrum of budgets and definitions of success, with the year’s biggest sensations going toe-to-toe with smaller international fare (including an unprecedented three films entirely or mostly in a language other than English).
Of course, these 10 movies also constitute a spectrum of quality, too. And we’re here to run them down from worst to best, while also pointing readers to the ways they can see each to make their own personal ranking.
Impeccable craft in service of … what, exactly? That Bradley Cooper immersed himself in the life and work of Leonard Bernstein — laboring for years to get every detail right, behind and in front of the camera — is readily apparent. Maybe too apparent. A biopic as lavish vanity project, Maestro conducts its own internal For Your Consideration campaign, pleading for viewers to admire the showboating elegance of Cooper’s filmmaking and the equally fussy precision of his impression (aided by that most Academy-friendly accessory, a prosthetic nose). What the movie never offers is the suggestion of a perspective on its revered subject beyond a superficial interest in the contradictions of his love life as a queer philanderer still smitten with the woman he married. No critique of this handsome tribute to one man’s artistic ambitions (guess which man) could compete with the conclusions of Bernstein’s son, Alexander: “I do know that I learned a lot about Bradley Cooper.”
9. American Fiction
AMERICAN FICTION | Official Trailer
American Fiction is two movies awkwardly smashed together — one a warmly observed portrait of Black American life, the other a cynical lit-world satire. There is, to be fair, some rhyme and reason to the bifurcation of writer-director Cord Jefferson’s debut feature: The scenes focused on the family and love life of struggling author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) present a nuanced alternative to the stereotypical poverty porn he parodically parrots with his accidental bestseller. Unfortunately, the former material is so thoughtful — thanks in large part to the terrific performances of Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and more — that it can’t help but throw into sharper relief how broad the showbiz critique is. How outdated, too. In adapting Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, Jefferson selects a literary target way past its expiration date, to say nothing of how social media would make Monk’s lie so much harder to hide today. While the like-minded Bamboozled ruffled feathers in its day, American Fiction goes down smoother, never threatening to genuinely discomfort the audience that applauded it on the festival circuit.
The year’s biggest hit — a bona fide phenomenon that saved movies, if the headlines are to be believed — is among the most self-conscious blockbusters ever made. How do you sell a live-action Mattel playset without selling out? Greta Gerwig plainly poured that struggle into Barbie, a brightly irreverent studio comedy locked in constant, exhausting conversation with itself. The ecstatically colorful production design gives the whole enterprise a likable pop-art sheen, while some of the performances — particularly Margot Robbie’s as an idealized icon coming out the other end of an existential crisis and Ryan Gosling’s hilarious take on an MRA himbo — nearly elevate the movie above its neurotic gridlock of contradictions. But what mainly comes through is Gerwig’s hopeful, labored attempt to have it all: to poke lightly subversive fun at the doll factory while assuring its product keeps flying off the shelves.
7. The Holdovers
Those not allergic to Alexander Payne’s particular brand of tragicomedy — heavy on pity and pratfalls — can safely bump this one up a few spots. The Holdovers is undeniably his most agreeable concoction in years, throwing an ambling, Hal Ashby, 1970s-Hollywood filter over the story of a crotchety academic (Paul Giamatti, wonderful even when the film isn’t) who slowly thaws over a winter vacation stuck babysitting a Holden Caulfield type (Dominic Sessa). Only a total Scrooge would get hung up on the finer details of Payne’s shaggy riff on A Christmas Carol … like, say, whether Giamatti’s Paul Hunham really needed not one, not two, but three physical maladies, or why the movie introduces a whole gaggle of fellow orphans-for-the-season, only to write them out after a half hour. Originally conceived as a TV series, The Holdovers also stretches out an endearingly low-key premise to the length of your average Marvel movie. Some would call that crucial to its ramshackle charm. At the risk of sounding like “penis cancer in human form,” we’ll respectfully beg to differ.
6. Past Lives
There’s a glimmer of profundity to last year’s reigning critical darling, a Sundance sensation about childhood sweethearts reuniting across continents and decades — first as college kids in their early 20s, then as older and wiser thirtysomethings. It’s no great strike against Past Lives to say that it can’t convey the weight of time’s passage as deeply as one of its most obvious influences, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. But one might wish for a little more emotional messiness; everyone in the movie navigates a tricky situation with such improbable maturity that it seems like writer-director Celine Song has preprocessed all the complicated feelings of the material, ultimately offering something much less dramatic than what the intriguingly voyeuristic opening sequence promises. Still, if the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, that’s a pretty good problem for a debut to have. This one remains beautifully shot and cut, with a triangle of lovely performances by Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro.
5. The Zone of Interest
Here’s all the proof you could ever need that the Academy is helpless to resist a Holocaust story. After all, Jonathan Glazer’s nightmare domestic drama about the dream house and happy family of a Nazi commandant (Christian Friedel) is otherwise the antithesis of an “Oscar movie,” turning the horrors of Auschwitz into a structural absence, a great offscreen evil conveyed only through telltale intrusions: a sliver of smoke rising in the corner of the frame, a distant scream way back in the mix. The Zone of Interest just might be the most formally disciplined movie ever nominated for Best Picture. In fact, it’s arguably too disciplined; once you’ve absorbed its point about polite society’s proximity to the atrocities it condones, there’s little left to do but knuckle down for a grim game of Spot the Difference. Intelligently conceived, masterfully executed, Glazer’s installation piece from Hell is so monolithic in its Kubrickian severity that it walls itself off from a sense of discovery… at least until the final scene, a brilliant rupture that sends ripples of new meaning through the picture.
4. Anatomy of a Fall
Another year, another Cannes winner distributed by Neon wiggles its way into the Best Picture race. Unlike Parasite or Triangle of Sadness, Justin Triet’s engrossing legal drama isn’t a transmission from the frontlines of an international class war. Different resentments simmer beneath the surface of its story, in which a man mysteriously plummets to his death from the roof of his chalet in the French Alps, casting suspicion upon his novelist wife (Sandra Hüller, remarkable, unknowable) and opening a window into the tensions of their marriage. It’s not so surprising that Anatomy of a Fall broke into this category, as the language barrier is thin for such a gripping mix of domestic and courtroom theatrics (though the sanctioned hostility of the French legal system does hold a certain exotic appeal). What really happened on that roof is up for debate. So, too, is whether Triet’s reluctance to tell us is productively bold or a little unsatisfying.
3. Poor Things
Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos has been an unlikely Oscar contender since the deranged glory days of Dogtooth, but he’s never made anything as plainly in the Academy’s wheelhouse — which is to say, as borderline mainstream — as this baroque steampunk fairy tale about a Victorian experiment of mad science awakening to her desires, carnal and otherwise. If Poor Things isn’t the most sophisticated allegory (you won’t need a shovel to uncover the subtext), it’s a bawdy hoot, applying the director’s cracked visual imagination to screenwriter Tony McNamara’s volley of frequently hilarious pidgin bon mots. The real jolt of electricity comes from the actors — Willem Dafoe transmitting notes of salty pathos beneath incredible jigsaw prosthetics; Mark Ruffalo tapping into a magnificent dandy petulance; and Emma Stone slowly inching Bella Baxter across the psychological spectrum connecting childhood to adulthood, in the inspired comic performance of the year and her career.
2. Killers of the Flower Moon
At 81, Martin Scorsese shows no signs of creative fatigue. If anything, he’s entered a new renaissance of towering meditations on the rotten soul of America. His latest monumental movie restructures David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller into a particularly harrowing crime epic, with a tale of intimate betrayal serving as our entryway into the 1920s conspiracy to murder and defraud a wealthy Osage family. As in the last of his films to be nominated for Best Picture, The Irishman, Scorsese builds a leisurely account of compounding misdeed around a moral void (Leonardo DiCaprio’s dimly culpable Ernest, a truly bankrupt human specimen) while locating the picture’s outraged conscience in a staring, sometimes silent witness (Lily Gladstone’s Mollie, sick with illness and grief). Just don’t be surprised if Killers of the Flower Moon goes home empty-handed; movies this uncompromising rarely win Oscars, even when they come courtesy of a living legend at the top of his game in his twilight years.
You have to go back to Titanic or Saving Private Ryan to find a bigger no-brainer for the Best Picture Oscar — there’s no more sensible choice for the most prestigious award Hollywood hands itself. Like those premillennial blockbusters, Christopher Nolan’s time-scrambling origin story of The Bomb was a box office phenomenon that restored faith in the ability of adult-oriented spectacles to dominate the public imagination again. What is Best Picture for if not to acknowledge a true proton-collider of an event that mashed together popularity, acclaim, and cultural impact? It helps, of course, that Oppenheimer is not just the defining movie of 2023, but also its best: a dazzling historical thriller of moral and mathematical calculus that John Waters called “a big-budget, star-studded, intelligent action movie about talking.” There was nothing else like its IMAX-scaled vision of atomic genesis and apocalyptic regret. And it will endure, with or without the deserved victory lap around the Dolby Theatre.
For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.