Did You See This?

A Weekend with the Oscars

Lily Gladstone in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Sunday night’s presentation of the ninety-sixth Academy Awards arrives at a time when, as Mark Harris explains in the New York Times, all is not well in Hollywood. Even when Barbenheimer was packing them in last summer, the long-awaited revival of moviegoing was happening against the backdrop of picketing writers and actors. Scores have been settled for the time being, but worries over the long-term impact of streaming and the threat of AI are still simmering.

“The year 2023 was a time of downsizing, diminishment, shelving, sidelining, retrenching, retreating, and bet-hedging,” writes Harris. “And 2024 is the year of consequences. The plain fact is that, thanks to the strikes, there simply aren’t enough movies and new shows in the pipeline to give the business the boom year it badly needs.” Harris does hold out one “green shoot of improbable hope.” The urgent need for projects “that can get off the ground fast and be cast, shot, and edited reasonably quickly” may lead to “the kinds of films that don’t require a $250 million budget and a year of complicated postproduction work.”

While we savor the prospect of a world of retired franchises and superheroes, we have a more immediate cause for celebration. As Sean Burns puts it for WBUR, “in an uncharacteristic display of okay taste, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected their least embarrassing slate of nominations in a good long while.” This week, we’re doubling the usual number of bullet points in order to devote one to each of the ten nominees for Best Picture.

  • Jeffrey Wright is on the cover of the new Cineaste, but while a few other Oscar-related pieces are online, Mary F. Corey’s review of Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction is not. “Though it’s topped with an inconclusive series of postmodern codas, this is a family comedy with Hallmark touches,” writes A. S. Hamrah for n+1 in his annual—and essential—round of brief but provocative reviews of the contenders. At the Atlantic, though, Hannah Giorgis finds that “American Fiction is riotously funny,” and Tyler Austin Harper argues that it “isn’t just a satire. It’s a lament about the impossibility of making—or at least getting paid handsomely or becoming famous for—apolitical Black art.”

  • You definitely have the seven minutes it takes to hear the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis revel in the “amazing range” of Sandra Hüller’s portrayal of a writer accused of killing her husband in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson writes that “violent types of verbal jousting—interrogation in a courtroom, a couple’s heated argument—dominate the movie. Anatomy of a Fall, which Triet cowrote with Arthur Harari (who is also her romantic partner), keenly builds suspense from this volubility: torrents of words incapable of unequivocally establishing what is true and what is false, what is known and what will forever be unknowable.”

  • “Once we accept the fact that Barbie is about a fucking doll, we must then come to terms with how it is a movie about a fucking doll,” wrote Nathan Lee for Film Comment last summer. “It does not seem unwarranted, in a movie that references Proust, Marx, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), to cite a remark by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze: ‘cinema is always as perfect as it can be, taking into account the images and signs which it invents and which it has at its disposal at a given moment.’ That our moment is dominated by world-devouring corporate IP is at once the subject, object, and symptom that [Greta] Gerwig confronts in her madcap extravaganza of commodity auteurism.” In August, n+1 hosted an online symposium, Who Was Barbie?

  • Alexander Payne is “the maestro of the emasculation comedy, in which men try to live with dignity and meet with grave embarrassment instead,” writes Annie Berke for the New Republic. “Equal parts funny and touching, The Holdovers is a study of how men of privilege and status are formed, and how codes of masculine behavior make for bad feelings and better comedy.” Here, “Payne’s instinct to mock and burlesque—an impulse I’ve found darkly satisfying these past twenty-five years—is tempered with uncharacteristic kindness. (The story came from Payne but was turned into a screenplay by David Hemingson.) It’s not Payne’s funniest film, but it does address the question that many of his films ask: If men shouldn’t be like this, what should they be like? And the answer is, well, sort of like this.”

  • “From the very first frame” of Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese “drives home the idea of cinema as not just an animating force but a soul-giving one,” writes Niles Schwartz in an outstanding essay for the Point on the “theological dimensions” of the film, which “have commanded much less attention than its politics . . . As for representation, the multiplicity of perspectives—including those of the guiltiest—is consistent with a work that wants to be honest with the viewer. Scorsese refuses to other the Osage or their victimizers . . . After the director himself admits the limitations of his art, we are given one more ritual to break through our knowingness. Even at his most jaded—about American history, Hollywood, human nature—eighty-one-year-old Scorsese has not lost his faith in filmmaking as a vehicle for spiritual contemplation if not redemption.”

  • The six-minute sequence in Maestro in which Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony is “one of the most striking music scenes recently put on film,” writes New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. “A Hollywood treatment of Bernstein’s life feels inevitable, even belated. The man exuded movie-star glamour from the moment he burst into view, in the mid-1940s. He once made a screen test for a projected film in which he would star as Tchaikovsky.” Maestro is “persuasive as biography in large measure because Bernstein doesn’t actually have to carry the story. The pivotal character is [Felicia] Montealegre, whom Carey Mulligan portrays as an outwardly poised, inwardly smoldering woman who resists being engulfed in her husband’s shadow . . . By and large, Maestro benefits from what it leaves out . . . What’s most significant is the fundamental respect that the film shows for music and musicians—which is not the same as awe for Bernstein himself.”

  • Christopher Nolan’s “cinema exists—and often excels—at the intersection between mastery and masochism,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer, and for Vulture’s Alison Willmore, Oppenheimer is “ultimately a film about moral slippage and how someone who feels so certain of his own clear-eyed ideals finds himself standing in front of a screaming crowd celebrating the deaths of thousands of people in Japan.” Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky points out that Oppenheimer is “designed as both an anti-blockbuster (the climactic explosions Hollywood loves come somewhere in the middle, leaving the rest as psychological fallout), and an anti-‘great-man’ biopic; in pushing against the vernaculars of both genres (while also indulging in them) it becomes a peculiar experience—impressive, jostling, the work of a brilliant technician that a little too elegantly evokes in form and feeling the remote, hand-wringing genius at its center.” Oppenheimer is “one of the rare Hollywood films that feels fueled by remorse.”

  • For the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee, there are “many, many reasons to crumble while watching Celine Song’s skin-tingling debut Past Lives and why it’s the best of this year’s Oscar crop—the look, the sound, the performances—but what affects most is its unusual honesty. Spanning decades and covering continents, the playwright-turned-filmmaker’s story of an almost love never makes us question or doubt, partly because the tale is loosely autobiographical but mostly because every decision Song makes is one of almost radical maturity.” Past Lives is “not going to win, sadly (it received just one other nomination), but for so many of us, the deep feelings being summoned will last far longer than the duration of an awards season.”

  • With Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things up next, we have to return briefly to A. S. Hamrah, who calls the film “a bizarro Barbie” and something “like an animated Karel Zeman movie come to life.” It’s “a film with a true Sadean quality, made for libertines, not Puritans, who will find many opportunities in it to be offended. It’s about time something so wicked was made at such a high level.” Poor Things is “also a romp,” writes Christine Smallwood for the New York Review of Books. “Emma Stone’s performance is dazzling, but all the actors—chief among them Mark Ruffalo, who plays a ridiculous Lothario who, in Bella, finds more than he can handle—appear to be having the time of their lives.”

  • In the new Film Quarterly, Amy Herzog notes that some reviews of The Zone of Interest have suggested that Jonathan Glazer’s “formalism is at odds with, or even an affront to, the emotional weight of the subject matter. I would counter that Glazer’s experiments with form and structure are deeply engaged with the politics of representing the Holocaust on film.” David Hering, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, argues that the film “makes bourgeois subjectivity, which elides both survivors and perpetrators, the necessary frame from which ‘we’ view the film itself. What a horrible prospect, this indivisible position. And it’s this horror that suffuses so much of the film, the idea that the bourgeois cultivation of the scene, and the unspeakable ob-scene, are somehow inextricable, one the obverse of the other, with the viewer the bloody thread that connects them.”

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