he Oscars are on thin ice. In recent years, the ceremony has only become more maligned as The Academy continues to take insufficient steps toward increasing diversity and repeatedly exalts films that lack originality. Also obligatory during the lead-up to the ceremony is controversy. Similar to previous years, this year’s ceremony arrives amid a controversy stemming from the academy’s decision to cut some of the smaller ticket categories from live broadcast in an effort to shorten the ceremony’s runtime. The decision highlights a recurring issue for the academy: recognition of art thwarted by the desire to drive up ratings and profit.
But even amid logistical contentions and a bleak lineup — here’s looking at you “Don’t Look Up” — there are a few glittering gems that should be on your radar if they weren’t already. From film beat reporters Emma Murphree and Joy Diamond, here are picks for what will win — but more importantly — what should win March 27.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” is a standout success with the remarkable ability to keep viewers smiling throughout — and smiling again each time they recall the film. The film is a beautiful emotional balancing act, exploring a wide range of feelings to dive right away into the multifaceted story beneath its simple, first impression rom-com facade. The character-driven plot is led by two complexly written young characters played by two immensely talented newcomers; “Licorice Pizza” never fails to be unflinchingly genuine. It’s coming-of-age done right — the timeless depictions of first love, jealousy and self-discovery make audiences feel as though each second were plucked from their own lives, but the story is as much a colorful escape from our world as it is relatable.
Even though it should, the odds are against “Licorice Pizza” winning best picture. Despite its strengths, the film lacks the serious tone that best picture winners often have. In an ironic twist, the film’s best qualities may end up working against it, and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” reflects nuance in a different way — one that has historically appealed more to the academy.
— Joy Diamond
Will win: “The Power of the Dog”
Should win: “Licorice Pizza”
“The Power of the Dog” is a directorial masterpiece. The psychological drama is an ultimate director’s test, heavily reliant on subtleties in sound, framing and minute acting details, and Jane Campion understood the assignment. Every aspect of production is meticulously utilized to set the tone of the film, and viewers will, whether they know it, feel the effects of each and every one. “The Power of the Dog” is haunting and tense, and many of the scenes heighten these qualities silently. Campion knows just how to manipulate the seen and unseen to tell a dark story; an artful story is told within the rectangular confines of the film, but mystery lurks in its borders as much as each expression it illuminates.
Viewers are confronted with the unknown throughout nearly every second of the film, and it isn’t until the very end of two comfort-absent hours that viewers can take a steady breath. Audiences can’t ignore Campion’s responsibility for this unsettling ride, and hopefully, neither will the academy.
– Joy Diamond
Will win: Jane Campion
Should win: Jane Campion
Best actor in a leading role
Who knew Andrew Garfield could sing? Unlike fellow nominees Benedict Cumberbatch and Will Smith, Garfield’s “Tick, Tick…Boom!” isn’t nominated for best picture, but the young actor’s performance is more than strong enough to stand on its own. Portraying Jonathan Larson, Garfield effortlessly captured the playwright’s ambition, desperation and obsessive frustration as he frantically fought to take his musical to Broadway. Garfield’s performance as a man who puts everything he has into a final push for his dreams is beautiful; a devastating tortured artist, Larson’s every vulnerability and ounce of rough determination is brought to life onscreen by Garfield.
Despite this, Garfield doesn’t seem best poised to win best leading actor; one can’t help but imagine that the levity and singing in the film might end up working against him. Cumberbatch also gave a multilayered performance in “The Power of the Dog,” and his performance feels more aligned to best leading actor winners in the past.
— Joy Diamond
Will win: Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”
Should win: Andrew Garfield, “Tick, Tick… Boom”
Best leading actress
Taken without context, there is something ineffable about Penélope Cruz’s performance as Janis in “Parallel Mothers.” Luckily, however, audiences are never left to flounder without context. In fact, context is what casts Cruz’s striking performance in such a quintessentially Almodovarian, crimson light. Congenital trauma imbued by the recoil of war and disappearances are all part and parcel of many of “Parallel Mothers” characters. Yet, they color the experiences of Janis more stridently as she traverses the dual and reciprocal challenges of single motherhood and excavating her disappeared grandfather’s grave. In her pursuit, Janis is fervent; emotion is heaped on until it accrues too much volume for its humble cinematic vessel and spills forth onto the screen in one of the strongest — if difficult to watch — emotional climaxes of any film in recent memory.
— Emma Murphree
Will win: Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
Should win: Penélope Cruz, “Parallel Mothers”
Best supporting actor
Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) remains the character hardest to pin down in “The Power of the Dog.” What drives his meticulousness or unbridled self-reliance is inscrutable for the first act of the film, where the glimpses of Peter are cryptic at best — as a makeshift waiter and table decorator for the fried chicken feast, or as budding surgeon (or perhaps killer) dissecting a rabbit. But Peter is ultimately a teenager, and Smit-McPhee never strays far from the duality of tender, bright-eyed kid in search of connection and hardened cynic still reeling from the shock of his father’s suicide. The performance is porous, offering perhaps the easiest entry point into the story for audiences, while nonetheless possessing immense depth that gradually comes into relief with every minute spent in Campion’s threadbare, unnerving mise en scene.
— Emma Murphree
Will win: Troy Kotsur, “Coda”
Should win: Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Power of the Dog”
Best supporting actress
The muted, striking “The Power of the Dog,” is definitively masculine — at least on the surface. Campion’s first film in more than a decade holds a masculinity that begins to break down, solvent within Campion’s world of precisely rendered but flimsy artifice. The lethargic unspooling of narrative that “The Power of the Dog” executes relies on Kirsten Dunst’s Rose more than any other character. Rose is often the sole female presence on the sprawling Montana ranch, after getting remarried to the affable George Burbank. As more pieces of the past fall together and her son strikes a connection with her brother-in-law, Rose descends into alcoholism and a near-manic state of depression.
Dunst, frequent muse of Sofia Coppola, is no stranger to female despondency and woe. Her most lauded performance prior to “The Power of the Dog” is Justine in “Melancholia,” as another superlative exemplar. But where Dunst is limited by her character’s girlhood in Coppola films or reduced to allegory by Lars von Trier, she is given space (many acres of it) by Campion. It’s truly incredible to watch her boundless performance as Rose — a woman beaten down, fractured by grief and lack of control — ultimately reduced to a shell.
— Emma Murphree
Will win: Kirsten Dunst, “The Power of the Dog”
Should win: Kirsten Dunst, “The Power of the Dog”
Best original screenplay
It’s almost a badge of honor that Anderson, despite his auteurship of several of the best films of the 21st century, remains Oscarless. “Licorice Pizza” owes a lot to its screenplay, which is at moments as sprawling as the San Fernando Valley, and at other times deliciously compact and intimate. From their first encounter, Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim) are warp and weft, fated to intertwine. The only one who doesn’t recognize this is Alana. “You’re never going to remember me,” she proclaims to Gary, in a flash of residual teenage naivete. In its best moments, “Licorice Pizza” abandons genre dichotomy: It capitulates to a kaleidoscopic narrative that interrogates authority, facades and ideology sequentially alongside the familiarity of a coming-of-age story and rom com. Yet, like Haim maneuvering a stick shift semi truck down a steep driveway, Anderson never loses control.
— Emma Murphree
Will win: Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza”
Should win: Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza”
Biblically tinged sterility and grandiose landscapes dominate in both “The Power of the Dog” and “Dune,” the latter the likely winner of the best cinematography acolyte. Both confer a sense of foreboding through desaturated tableaus that are a far cry from visual pleasure, delighting instead in its inverse — the ocular version of Paul Atreides sticking his hand in the pain box. But cinematography is only as strong as its adjoining script, and it’s in this regard that “Dune” falls short; its extreme wide shots spin out in space, unmoored from purpose beyond a superficial level.
“The Power of the Dog” conversely engages the camera in a tight balancing act between fine-tuned intimacy (see the candlelit dark wooded claustrophobia of the scene where Rose breaks down at the piano) and sweeping sunset-swathed shots of New Zealand mountains (proxies for the Rockies in Montana). Unfortunately, as per usual, homogenous showiness can be expected to supersede delicacy.
— Emma Murphree
Will win: “Dune”
Should win: “The Power of the Dog”
Best international feature
“The Worst Person in the World” demands empathetic retrospection from start to finish. Its protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve) is in her early 30s and stuck in a career rut, inexhaustibly feeling the weight of time absconding. Her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) feels this weight in a different way later in the film when he receives devastating, surprising news.
“I grew up in a time when culture was passed along through objects. They were interesting because we could live among them,” Aksel tells Julie during one of director Joachim Trier’s final, lambent and devastating sequences. “We could pick them up. Hold them in our hands.” When life has been lived and there’s little left to squeeze out, what singular, immaterial things still stick? In “The Worst Person in the World,” Trier whips ordinary memories into soft peaks; its utility and value they lend life is not merely decorative, but structural.
— Emma Murphree
Will win: “Drive my Car,” Japan
Should win: “The Worst Person in the World,” Norway
Best documentary (feature)
“Ascension” is suffocating — all part of its brilliance in documenting the pursuit of the Chinese dream, the path of which is rife with labor, manufacturing and almost dystopian means to achieve maximum productivity. Unlike many documentaries, “Ascension” doesn’t sit subjects down in front of a camera to talk about their lives or experiences. Instead, the film gives viewers a fly on the wall perspective, silently peering into factories, workshops and business classes. It creates a more untouched, authentic representation of its subjects. Scripted narration is replaced by real deliberations on the factory floor, which soon become replaced by the loud, monotonous drone of never-pausing machinery.
“Ascension” depicts these facts of Chinese life without ever making it appear inviting or open to criticism by outsider viewers; the film encourages discussion not by explicitly starting it, but by allowing audiences to fill in the blanks where it refrains from doing so itself. “Ascension” experiments with the documentary form and succeeds in portraying a fascinating phenomenon.
— Joy Diamond
Will win: “Ascension”
Should win: “Ascension”
Best animated feature
“Flee” is a Danish animated docudrama that follows a man, under the new alias of Amin Nawabi, who escapes to Denmark as an Afghan refugee. The devastating, important story builds a strong foundation for the film, and its animated form is particularly effective in telling this emotional narrative. The 2D animation in “Flee” isn’t beautiful or revolutionary; there is more visually appealing animation in other nominated films. The animation is simple and choppy, but these intentional qualities help to elevate the story. The unrefined animation in “Flee” is reminiscent of memories being recalled, making the events it depicts feel more like a representation of the past rather than a present-day recreation.
Unexpectedly, the animation style in “Flee” makes the film feel more accurate — a poignant reminder of the very real past of Nawabi, persistent memories still alive in his mind. Due to its necessary, touching story and its clever utilization of animation, “Flee” is the best contender to win Best Animated Feature this year.
— Joy Diamond
Will win: “Flee”
Should win: “Flee”