Arts Review

Best Pictures: A 2023 Recap


In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences raised the number of nominees for its Best Picture award from five to ten. Ten nominees had vied for the Oscar in the years between 1934 and 1944 (twelve in 1935 and 1936) during Hollywood’s golden age when the industry spun out films at the rate that television series are produced today. But five nominees seemed a sensible number for six and a half decades. When that number jumped up again, the pool of films had not significantly expanded. Rather, the Academy was attempting to make more room for a wider variety of movies, particularly those with broader box office appeal. After several years of nominated films that had not been big moneymakers—and a consequent decline in ratings for the award ceremony broadcast—the expansion to ten nominees was seen as an opportunity to bring in more popular films. In each of the first two expanded years, for example, a Pixar film was nominated, which would have been unlikely had there been only five nominees.
 
Some feared that the expansion to ten nominees would “dumb down” the Oscars—an absurd concern given the Academy’s history of nominating middlebrow mediocrities. What has actually happened is that many worthy smaller films have scored nominations that might not have come their way when the list was limited to five. Add to this the expansion of the Academy’s voting membership, which has become both more diverse and more international, and the result is nominations this year for movies like Past Lives, The Zone of Interest, and American Fiction, none of which would have been guaranteed a slot in the past. Thanks to the pandemic and the changing film distribution landscape, the Academy’s ratings dilemma has only gotten worse. But even if fewer people watch the awards broadcast, the group’s mission to shine a light on artistic achievement is still fulfilled and has real impact. I know many people who don’t watch the ceremony but are still aware of the nominated films and put them on their watch list.

 

Killers of the Flower Moon

 

I’ve written about three of this last year’s Best Picture nominees previously in these pages: Oppenheimer, Barbie, and Past Lives. And due to a conflict of interest, I won’t write about Maestro (other than to say: “All hail, Carey Mulligan!”). The other six nominees are all worthy (with one exception in my opinion). None of them are blockbusters at the Barbenheimer level, and many of them certainly fall into the category of films that would have had a hard time scoring a nomination before the category expanded. The biggest, in terms of scale and profile, is Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, adapted from the nonfiction book by David Grann, which examines the rash of murders which afflicted the Osage community, newly wealthy from discoveries of oil on their land in the early 1920s. Grann’s book centers on the FBI investigation, one of the first undertaken by the bureau, which eventually uncovered a vicious plot among local white residents to rob the Native Americans of their legally entitled headrights. Scorsese’s initial approach followed Grann’s, and he had cast his current preferred leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, as FBI agent Tom White. But the director was wisely encouraged to move the Osage people to the center of the film, and, as a result, the FBI does not show up until two hours into the three-and-a-half-hour film. Following significant script revisions, DiCaprio switched to the role of Ernest Burkhart, a slow-witted World War I veteran who, encouraged by his uncle, William Hale, marries an Osage woman whose family is being slowly killed off. As Hale, the mastermind behind the vast, murderous conspiracy, Scorsese cast the key muse from the first half of his career, Robert De Niro.

 

 

The result is another masterpiece from this greatest living American director. Central to the film’s success is the casting of Lily Gladstone as Mollie, Ernest’s wife. Gladstone’s heart-rending performance as a woman watching her family and her community die around her provides the necessary emotional anchor to what is a bleak story. The complicated shades of love, distrust, need, and fear that color her relationship with DiCaprio’s Ernest are at the heart of the film, giving it an ambivalence that elevates it above social docudrama. As Mollie’s mother and sisters—Tantoo Cardinal, Jillian Dion, JaNae Collins, and especially Cara Jade Myers as the outspoken Anna—bring further emotional intensity that makes clear the human cost of this terrible and too-little-known episode in American history. Many members of the Osage community were consulted on the film and play roles large and small, bringing a powerful, almost raw authenticity that would have eluded professional actors. The period details of Oklahoma life are created with astounding, immersive detail, and the excellent score by Robbie Robertson and editing by the great Thelma Schoonmaker (whose twenty-second feature film with Scorsese this is) combine to build a constant sense of dread. The film is exhilarating and gripping despite its considerable length, culminating in an astonishing meta flourish in its last few minutes which shows that Scorsese, even at the age of 81, remains a radical formalist.

 

Anatomy of a Fall

 

Killers of the Flower Moon, for all its dramatic complexity, is clear on who its victims, heroes, and villains are. Its fellow Best Picture nominee, the French film Anatomy of a Fall, is a courtroom thriller which resolutely refuses to clarify who did what to whom and why. A successful German writer, Sandra (the great Sandra Hüller), lives in the French Alps with her less-successful French writer husband Samuel and their blind son Daniel. When Samuel is found dead after a fall from the balcony of their house, Sandra is charged with murder. The subsequent trial sifts through a variety of conflicting testimony. An expert on the physics of splattering blood directly contradicts another such expert. Passages from Sandra’s and Samuel’s books, which may or may not be autobiographical, are read. A cellphone recording of an argument between the couple which ends in a violent tussle is played, but what it conveys is unclear (the film stages the conversation in flashback but then brilliantly cuts back to the present moment just before the physical altercation, leaving the nature of the struggle unclear). Testimony is given in French, German, and English (the lingua franca for both Sandra and Samuel as a couple and for the court), and the resulting translations further shift any sense of fixed truth. And of course Daniel, the only real witness to his parents’ dynamic and to the events leading up to his father’s death, can only report what he thinks he heard.

 

 

The director Justine Triet, who wrote the original screenplay with her husband Arthur Harari, is fascinated with the uncertainty of any conception of actuality we think we may have. No one knows what any marriage is really like, once the couple is left to themselves. Lawyers and judges are well used to the fact that witnesses are notoriously unreliable, swayed by their own prejudices. For that matter, anything we observe, or hear, or intuit, is filtered through our desires for what we want to be true, not to mention our mood or attention span at a given moment. At some level, Triet and Harari posit, each of us must construct our own version of reality. We must, in effect, decide what we want to be true, which is what Daniel, played by the superb 14-year-old Milo Machado-Graner, does. At a certain point in the trial, it becomes clear that, in the absence of any clear-cut evidence pointing to Sandra’s guilt or innocence, he has the power, as the only real witness, to decide the outcome. And so he makes his decision based on what he wants to be true—something we all do perhaps more than we realize.

 

Anatomy of a Fall

 

The film, which won the top award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, belongs to Hüller, previously best known for the brilliant 2016 film Toni Erdmann. She fearlessly plays a woman who refuses to cultivate likability as a courtroom tactic. She gives nothing away about the character’s guilt or innocence yet still seems a fully inhabited person, not a mysterious blank slate. It’s a stunningly natural, human performance, the exact opposite of the wildly virtuosic, elaborate, constructed performance given by Emma Stone in the Best Picture nominee Poor Things. In this ultra-gothic Victorian fable, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Stone plays Bella Baxter, a Frankenstein-ian creation of the deformed mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who implants the brain of a living infant into the body of a deceased, full-grown woman. At first, Bella moves with the spastic irregularity of a child learning to walk, speaks in grunts and wails, and acts impulsively and selfishly, unaware of her strength or her lack of centrality in the universe. As her brain ages, she becomes in turn curious, restless, empathetic, and sexually voracious. She eventually leaves home and tours Europe with the libertine lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, a bit at sea), absorbing the joys and miseries of the world around her.

 

Poor Things

 

Lanthimos has never met a perspective he can’t warp, a closeup he can’t distort, an angle he can’t cant. The director of such eccentric films as The Lobster and The Favourite (which also starred Stone and which won Olivia Colman her Oscar), he has in the past managed to temper his mannered approach, tying it to recognizable psychology if not to naturalistic narrative. Here, he behaves like an unleashed child (perhaps reflecting his unleashed childlike heroine), and the result is exhausting. Poor Things is spectacularly designed and offers a fascinating premise, providing much to chew on. But it is also aggressively bizarre and extremely impressed with itself. Similarly, Stone’s performance is a tour de force, faultless in its careful working out of every stage of Bella’s development, and physically and vocally masterful. It also feels so self-conscious that I lost interest in Bella’s journey as an emerging human. And the frequent and explicit depictions of nudity and sex feel neither liberating nor complicated but rather seem ridiculous when they aren’t exploitative.

 

 

Whereas Lanthimos, abetted by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, takes a maximalist approach, the British director Jonathan Glazer barely moves his camera in Best Picture nominee The Zone of Interest, a German-language film set during World War II at Auschwitz. Or rather, right outside its gate, at the lovely home of Rudolf Höss, the extermination camp’s commandant. The film is mostly a plot-free look at the daily activities of his family, who live in the shadow of unimaginable horror but seem unaffected by it. His wife Hedwig (once again, Sandra Hüller, brilliant as an entitled hausfrau), children, and servants cook, clean, tend the garden, study, play, eat, and sleep. They—and we in the audience—never see what is happening behind the omnipresent cinder block walls, but we do hear. The chilling sound design (by Tarn Willers and Johnnie Burn) proffers hints of shouts, cries, screams, shots, all the more alarming for their elusiveness. There is also a constant stench of smoke and, at night, light from flames flickering over the walls. The Höss household has apparently become inured to the horrific sounds and smells, but newcomers are alarmed. Hedwig’s viciously anti-Semitic mother comes for a visit but decamps in the middle of the night, unable to bear the atmosphere.

 

The Zone of Interest

 

Glazer is in Hannah Arendt banality-of-evil territory with this film. His quietly observational approach never angrily condemns, nor does it try to explain. He’s content to let us witness the conventionality of this bourgeois family, wrapped up in their quotidian worries, while existing only feet away from existential atrocities. In some ways, Glazer ducks the aesthetic debates around the visual depiction of the Holocaust and its use in narrative art. His camera feels almost like a surveillance device, planted at various fixed points in order to capture the daily household activities, with characters moving in and out of the frame. He virtually never uses subjective shots, and he scrupulously avoids teasing what he is not showing us visually. Similarly, the film avoids any hint of melodrama, let alone heightened plot action (the Martin Amis novel, on which the film is based, has more of a traditional plot). The only conventional conflict comes late in the film when Höss is assigned to a new post and Hedwig is unhappy at having to leave their nice home. Zone of Interest takes a very specific, controlled, dry approach to its subject, in stark contrast to the sprawling narrative and extravagant emotionalism of a film like Schindler’s List.

 

 

Satire is another approach to social, historical, and political issues. Not of the Holocaust, of course, although Ernst Lubitsch and Mel Brooks have both had fun at the expense of Nazis. Satire is at the core of Best Picture nominee American Fiction, a delicious takedown of modern publishing from director Cord Jefferson, who also adapted the novel by Percival Everett. Jeffrey Wright (never better) plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an academic who writes esoteric, poorly selling books that inevitably find themselves incorrectly placed in the “African American Literature” section at bookstores, merely because the author is Black. Grumpy toward his fragile Gen Z students, unhappily single, and frustrated by his mess of a brother (Sterling K. Brown) and his aging mother whose mind is failing (the legendary Leslie Uggams), Monk observes to his agent that the only books by Black authors that seem to sell are lurid depictions of ghetto violence and misery. He writes such a novel as a parody under an assumed name, and it becomes a runaway bestseller and critical success, to his utter despair. As the money rolls in and the farcical deceptions multiply, Monk begins a relationship with a friendly neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander).

 

 

American Fiction wades right into the fraught Cultural Identity Wars and emerges triumphant, making its arguments clearly and irrefutably, yet never denigrating any of the players (well, okay, maybe the white book editor and publicity chief come in for some pointed ribbing). A scene where Monk gently confronts a fellow Black writer (Issa Rae), who has made her career writing the kind of book he disdains, does not go where one might expect, complicating any sense that the film will divide along simple elite vs populist lines. What’s more, the satire ends up not living at the film’s center but rather on its periphery, a hilarious distraction from Monk’s real challenges, which are about connection and vulnerability. His family has not fully accepted that his deceased father was a profligate philanderer. His brother Cliff, who has just left his wife and come out of the closet, is angry and resentful of Monk’s stability. And Monk’s mother’s failing mind causes her to blurt out inconvenient truths and inappropriate slurs. “This family will break your heart,” Cliff warns Coraline. And a broken heart underlies Wright’s deeply felt performance. Midway through the film, his dour demeanor briefly breaks when Coraline indicates that she’d like to go out on a date, and Wright lets a shy, delighted smile ignite his visage for a brief second, before his resting sour face resets. It’s one of the great acting moments of the year.

 

American Fiction

 

Grumpy, dour teachers are ever popular, and none are grumpier than Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in the lovely The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne, and our final Best Picture nominee. Payne gave Giamatti what had been, until now, the best role of his career as a caustic, antisocial wine snob in Sideways. And Giamatti’s other great roles include a supremely cranky John Adams in the miniseries of that name, and the angry, maladjusted comic book artist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. Some feel that Giamatti is typecast in such roles and that he “just plays himself.” This is not just factually incorrect—interviews with Giamatti reveal a gentle, soft-spoken intellectual—but a misunderstanding of what makes for great screen acting. Even if Giamatti had been channeling some essential part of himself to play Paul Hunham (and what great actor does not do so), that would not account for the well-honed craft that lets him convey such qualities with vividness and authenticity to the camera lens. The expression of deeply ambivalent emotions—frustration and resignation, hope and cynicism, exasperation and sympathy—through facial flickers, body language, vocal nuances: Giamatti is masterful at all of this. It’s what makes him a constantly involving actor and not just a reliable character player. As Paul, a loathed Latin teacher at an all-boys New England prep school in the 1970s, who has almost given up on the possibility of true human connection, he constantly finds little surprises in his character arc.

 

 

Hunham has been tasked with chaperoning those unlucky students who are forced to spend Christmas break at the school, a job he dreads. Dominic Sessa is Angus Tully, a bright but troubled student who is the last boy standing after his absent mother is unavailable to approve an impromptu ski trip that the other holdovers take. Joining Paul and Angus in their unseasonal misery is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook, whose son has just died in Vietnam. The three form an unlikely bond, proving the adage about misery and company, but also slowly uncovering the vulnerability and surreptitious kindness that each hides beneath their hard façades. Paul, Mary and Angus grow to realize that they actually like each other, a new sensation for these hard-core misanthropes. They embark on a road trip to Boston, which uncovers further surprises about each of their families and lives and which ultimately leads to a series of critical reckonings.

 

 

Payne, working from an original screenplay by David Hemingson, has some meta-filmic fun with the period setting, shooting in true 1970s style, from the frequent use of zoom lenses to the prominent film grain (faked as the movie was shot digitally). Even the titles at the beginning of the film, designed by Nathan Carlson, are echt ’70s. More importantly, Payne foregrounds gorgeously delicate shades of emotion from his three protagonists. Sessa is a real find, a young actor who doesn’t pander and who lets the audience come to him. His righteous anger is perfectly on target for a smart, cynical teen, as is his ingenuous fear when events spin out of his control. Giamatti has several scenes with the enchanting Carrie Preston as a sympathetic administrator, which beautifully map the exquisite agony of mixed signals. And Randolph is simply astonishing. She begins as an enigma, a closed, sardonic woman who has neither time nor energy to sympathize with anyone. As she reveals more about herself and her family, that façade thaws, although the bristling, wary intelligence remains. At a holiday party halfway through the film, she loses her composure and lets loose the grief for her son that she’s been hoarding. As with Wright’s brief flash of delight in American Fiction, it’s one of the great acting moments of the year.

 

The Holdovers

 

Randolph’s thrilling display of sorrow is one of many indelible displays of dramatic talent that graced 2023, an excellent year for movies and one that more than justified ten Best Picture nominations. It’s hard to think of a recent year with more memorable performances. In addition to Giamatti, Randolph, Sessa, Wright, Stone, Hüller, Gladstone, DiCaprio, De Niro, and Mulligan, there were the wonderful Margot Robbie (Barbie), Greta Lee (Past Lives), Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer), about whom I previously wrote. I also find myself thinking frequently about Franz Rogowski, so charismatic in Passages, Penélope Cruz and Adam Driver, both electrifying in Ferrari, and especially Julianne Moore and Charles Melton, both stunning in Todd Haynes’s magnificent May December, which should have received Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, and for both actors. Instead, it had to content itself with a sole screenplay nomination. But such is reality in a highly competitive year, a phenomenon for which moviegoers should be exceedingly grateful. And thanks to the Academy’s expanded roster, many of the films that contain these great performances have received attention they might have been previously denied.