If Oscar nominations bore a movie’s title, this year’s rundown would borrow one from Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, “Fear and Desire.” The movie-industry news of the past year has been the collapse of the box-office for almost everything but blockbusters, and the Academy’s response has been to put its mouth where its money is, by way of Best Picture nominations for the megahits “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis,” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” plus one for the power that be, Netflix, whose “All Quiet on the Western Front” had an almost undetectable theatrical release.
The desire is found in the eleven nominations, more than any other film, for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which represents the conjoined aspirations to weirdness and diversity; though its emotional realm isn’t weird at all (its facile sentimentality is its secret weapon), its surfaces are more idiosyncratic than almost anything else that Hollywood put out last year. The casting is its directors’ greatest achievement. Bringing together Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, great actors whose talents have been underutilized because of the dearth of substantial roles for Asian performers, along with Jamie Lee Curtis (who has endured the ageism that most actresses confront) and the near-newcomer (to movies) Stephanie Hsu, deserves an Oscar in itself. (There’s no award for the technical category of casting, though.)
On the other hand, Hollywood releases of 2022 offered one great movie that checks both of these boxes, commercial success and imaginative extravagance—namely, “Nope”—and it did not get nominated for anything. Jordan Peele is the Rodney Dangerfield of Hollywood—he gets no respect at all, at least, none since he won Best Original Screenplay for “Get Out.” His, and his movies’, neglect is appalling and disturbing. It’s similarly appalling that, although two superb Black actors were nominated this year—Angela Bassett and Brian Tyree Henry—not a single movie by a Black filmmaker, in a year that offered many superb ones, received a nomination for Best Picture, for directing, for screenwriting, or, for that matter, for Best International Feature.
Instead, the Academy has thrown its weight behind the stodge of “All Quiet on the Western Front”: for those who lament that they don’t make ’em the way they used to, the German director Edward Berger has proved them wrong. So does the bushel of nominations for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” with its folkloric histrionics and its dark frivolity. (The nostalgia that its success represents, above all, is for the Coen brothers’ early films—it catches something of their tone without their style, wit, or cinematic self-awareness.) The other international film to get a Best Picture nomination, “Triangle of Sadness,” is mainly in English, and its emotional world is painfully simplistic.
On the other hand, the good news is that “Women Talking” received a pair of nominations, for Best Picture and for its screenplay, and that the daring and subtle “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” a remarkable blend of stop-motion and live action, turns up as a nominee in the Animated Feature category. (Also, I’m happy to note that The New Yorker Studio produced five of the fifteen short-film nominees—the documentaries “Haulout” and “Stranger at the Gate,” the live-action film “Night Ride,” and the animated films “Ice Merchants” and “The Flying Sailor.”)
I’m against the individual branches making nominations in their categories; cinematographers, editors, actors have the knowledge and the understanding of their fields, but this practice results in a sort of guild protectionism that perpetuates norms instead of rewarding experiences. Awards should be bestowed on aesthetic, artistic grounds—on the effects produced—and should, instead, be nominated by the entire membership.
That circling of the wagons in a time of trouble, when the industry’s financial uncertainties weigh heavily on its artistic audacities and its longtime commercial mainstays alike, suggests yet another theme for the year’s Oscar nominees: “Back to the Future.” With an open field of worried wandering and no map to guide the industry’s deciders, the branches and the Academy at large have taken a conservative, backward-looking approach. Inasmuch as the Oscars are, eminently, aspirational—an image of what the industry prizes about itself and where it wants to be heading over all—what the list of nominees promises for slates of production in years ahead is fearsome.
“Both Sides of the Blade”
“The Eternal Daughter”
“Hit the Road”
I recently rewatched several of these films, and it reminded me of why the release of Oscar-type movies skews to year-end: recent viewings are energizing, sometimes even distorting, and Academy members are doubtless likely to favor movies from late in the year. I saw “Benediction” when it was released (scantly), in May, and, again, a month or so later, with even more enthusiasm—knowledge of the story and familiarity with the dramatic framework made its felicitous details leap out all the more. Its vividness sticks in the memory and makes it seem permanently recent.
2022 was an unusual year for movies. Sticking with the best, it was a great year, but there was not a lot of depth on the bench. As in 2021, American independent filmmaking is in a holding pattern, awaiting its next big thing, and it’s increasingly hard for many of the best international films to get distribution. I acknowledge the utopianism of casting my ten favorites of the year in the roles of Oscar nominees. In the real Oscars, few Best Picture nominees are international films and non-English-language films, and even fewer are ultra-low-budget independent films (such as “The Cathedral”). I’m keeping my list in this fantasyland in order to highlight the gap between what’s usually on the Academy’s radar and what’s going on in the world of movies at large. Realistically, I’d be thrilled to see some other prominent Hollywood and Off Hollywood movies, including “Till” and “Master,” get nominated. (I’m unfortunately sure that “Don’t Worry Darling,” one of the year’s best star-centric Hollywood films, will be rejected by the Academy, as it was by critics.)
Terence Davies (“Benediction”)
Alice Diop (“Saint Omer”)
James Gray (“Armageddon Time”)
Jafar Panahi (“No Bears”)
Jordan Peele (“Nope”)
It would be odd for Best Picture and Best Director to be greatly divergent, anywhere and at any time. Going back to 2012, all but three nominated directors (Bennett Miller, for “Foxcatcher,” Pawel Pawlikowski for “Cold War,” and Thomas Vinterberg, for “Another Round”) have had their films nominated for Best Picture, too. Even in the nineteen-forties and fifties, when the studios dominated and the word “auteur” was unheard of in American criticism, the Best Picture and Best Director winners matched in fourteen out of twenty years; in the nineteen-nineties, they diverged only once. The overlap points to the very meaning of directing: the comprehensive influence on the work of everyone making a major contribution to the film at hand, from casting and the style of acting to the tone of lighting and the costumes and décor—and, of course, the script, whether or not the director is credited. (The authority of the director in commercial American movies became more apparent in the post-studio era, when there was no longer a house style based on top-down production dictates, nor a cast and crew on long-term and steady studio contracts.) This thoroughgoing influence was apparent last year, with Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” and so it is with Terence Davies, who, in making “Benediction,” has done something impressive that has even been mistaken for a fault: he has made a movie that looks almost normal.
The movie is a sort-of bio-pic about the poet Siegfried Sassoon, one that spans half a century and filigrees its intimate drama on a grand map of political and artistic history. Davies’s style is no less audacious than it was when his films were more tableau-like and choreographic. But now, from the height of his own seventy-seven years, he sees the import of Sassoon’s story and the implications of Sassoon’s times with a furious clarity that comes through in a form that’s as pellucid as it is exquisite. Charlie Chaplin famously said that comedy is life in long shot and tragedy is life in closeup, and I’ve long thought that directors’ sense of distance is as important as that of timing. But, in the case of “Benediction,” Davies’s delicately calibrated distances aren’t just the physical ones—of the characters from the camera—but of himself from the action, as he fuses the tragedy of Sassoon’s life with a veneer of comedy, one that eventually shatters to mighty effect. Davies has the boldness to integrate his dramatic sequences with alluring, even visually intoxicating special effects, which open its meticulous historical reconstructions to astonishing subjective depths.
Davies is one of the greatest directors of the past forty years. The Oscars, and my version of them, aren’t life-achievement awards; “Benediction” stands on its own merits. But if Davies were nominated and won, as he deserves to, he’d be the oldest director ever to take home the statuette. (So would Steven Spielberg, who, unlike Davies, was in fact nominated, for “The Fabelmans.”)
Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon / Courtesy Orion PicturesBest Actress
Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”)
Guslagie Malanda (“Saint Omer”)
Keke Palmer (“Nope”)
Margot Robbie (“Amsterdam”)
Tilda Swinton (“The Eternal Daughter”)
This category is spectacularly difficult this year. I wish that it, like Best Picture, had ten slots; I’d also want to nominate Juliette Binoche, for “Both Sides of the Blade”; Gong Li, for “Saturday Fiction”; Pantea Panahiha, for “Hit the Road”; Lee Hye-yeong, for “In Front of Your Face”; and Florence Pugh, for “Don’t Worry Darling.” Aside from that, what makes this award extra difficult is the truth-fudging of studios and distributors in order to promote, for Best Supporting Actress, several actresses who dominate their movies and therefore deserve Best Actress consideration. (There’s no official rule to distinguish supporting roles from leading ones; the call is made by voting members of the Academy’s Actors Branch, and that’s why publicity matters.) Keke Palmer was named Best Supporting Actress for her performance in “Nope” by no less than the New York Film Critics Circle (of which I’m a member), even though the prominence of her role matches that of the film’s lead actor, Daniel Kaluuya. Margot Robbie is as much of a leading performer in “Amsterdam” as she is in “Babylon.” (For once, ads tell the truth.) In “Saint Omer,” the category confusion is built into the action—Guslagie Malanda doesn’t play the nominal protagonist (a writer attending a trial) but, rather, the subject of the protagonist’s observations (the defendant, who has much more dialogue and gets much more attention).
Prior to the nominations, there was chatter about Robbie getting nominated for her lead role in “Babylon,” which I consider a far weaker performance—and for which I don’t blame her at all. It’s rare for actors to give performances better than the film they’re in. Actors, whatever power they may have as stars, are still, in effect, employees, working under the command of directors. In the theatre, the actor gives; in the movies, the actor is taken from, and their inherent dependence, their status (regardless of fame and high pay) as workers of the cinema who put their bodies on the line, is at the root of the inherent respect owed to the profession, regardless of individual artistry. The price of that dependence is clearly displayed in the contrast between Robbie’s great performance in “Amsterdam” and her merely skillful one in “Babylon.” (As it turns out, she was nominated for neither.)
In “Amsterdam,” Robbie creates a wide, virtually musical spectrum of surprises, giving dialogue spin and small gestures zest, which the director, David O. Russell, may not even have anticipated, but for which he nonetheless set the stage and the tone. In “Babylon,” Robbie appears to act in a comfort zone of unimpeachable talent but far less surprise: she nails the moments admirably, but they stay where they’re nailed, in their place in the film, and they don’t go beyond—and that’s a defining feature of Damien Chazelle’s literal, intention-bound direction. That’s even more the case with Cate Blanchett’s performance in “Tár,” for which she was nominated: I never had a sense, not for a moment, that the film’s writer and director, Todd Field, was in the same room as her during the shoot—he conveys, in his direction of Blanchett, no sense of physicality or actorly presence. Field gives the impression of seeing his screenplay so clearly that it blocks his view of the actors. Between the scenes, the character of Lydia Tár doesn’t exist at all, so there’s little that Blanchett can do; she has no dramatic room to work in, and is left to fulfill the terms of the screenplay as if it were a contract.
Danielle Deadwyler, though, is reverberant as Mamie Till-Mobley, lending the character taut self-awareness to go with a relentless sense of purpose, a stillness and a firmness that makes the character both grand and straightforward, that concentrates the character’s pain and fury into a visible power, which seems to fill the frame—the spacious but precisely angled still frames that the director, Chinonye Chukwu, crafts for her. But Tilda Swinton’s dual role, as mother and daughter, in “The Eternal Daughter,” conjures remarkable pathos with a sharp-edged precision, a glass-etched diction, that’s all the more remarkable, inasmuch as her dialogue isn’t memorized but improvised. As Swinton says, the movie’s director, Joanna Hogg, “makes writers of all of us”; the solution to my quandary is below, under Best Original Screenplay.
Jafar Panahi (“No Bears”)
Christian Bale (“Amsterdam”)
Daniel Kaluuya (“Nope”)
Jack Lowden (“Benediction”)
Jeremy Pope (“The Inspection”)
If this year’s contenders for Best Actress cast a spotlight on the relationships, whether glorious or abject, between performers and directors, those for Best Actor call into question the very nature of performance and what makes it good. My pick for the year’s best lead performance by an actor is that of Jafar Panahi, in “No Bears,” which he also wrote and directed. Panahi, who is Iranian, isn’t a trained actor; outside of a tiny role in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees,” from 1994, all of Panahi’s performances have come in movies that he has directed since 2011, after he was arrested on political charges, sentenced to house arrest, and banned from making films. His response has been to make movies clandestinely, starting with “This Is Not a Film,” in which he appears, as himself, in his own apartment. He has been at the center of his own films since then, and in “No Bears” his role is the most elaborate that he has yet assigned himself. He plays a character with his own name and in his own situation: a director from Tehran who rents a house in an Iranian village near the Turkish border, in order to make a clandestine film in a nearby Turkish city, via the Internet. In the process, he gets drawn into the village’s social, personal, religious, and political conflicts.
I’ve always considered directors to be, intrinsically, actors, albeit ones who reserve their performances for their cast and crew. “No Bears” is a scripted movie, and Panahi relies on a cast composed both of professional actors and nonprofessionals recruited from the places where he filmed. Playing a version of himself (and he’s in almost every scene), he fills the film’s spaces with a web of creative power and moral freedom that gets slowly, inexorably, and dreadfully tangled, ensnaring and endangering his colleagues, his temporary neighbors, and himself. His controlled, unflappable, patient, and thoughtful bearing evokes a cagey man, all too used to ruses and work-arounds, and a wary one, alert to danger. The key trope of Panahi’s performance is his concentrated, stoic gaze, which, over the course of the action, shifts from a kind of visually haptic energy to a horrified and resigned detachment. In short, it’s a performance unlike any I’ve seen recently, and, in its daring confrontation with his own situation and that of his country at large, it’s acting beyond acting—in a category altogether different from the year’s other performances, as great as they are. Panahi’s meta-performance isn’t likely to be acknowledged by Hollywood, not least because of its challenge to the cultivated artistry that the field’s luminaries display. I’d argue that an outsider’s performance, such as Panahi’s, is, rather, an infusion of energy into the field of professionals, a vision of new possibilities within the industry itself. The personal engagement that he displays is an intrinsic part of what makes even technically crafted performances great. (Incidentally, another of the year’s best performances is by Rayan Sarlak, a child actor who stars in “Hit the Road,” directed by Panahi’s son, Panah. But I think child actors should have a category to themselves.)
Of the more classically crafted performances, the one I’d put in second place, were there such an option, is Christian Bale’s in “Amsterdam.” Like Robbie’s, it ricochets and zings with surprising gestures, inflections, and mannerisms. And it has yet another dimension, which is dimensionality itself: Bale fills the movie, prevents it from feeling merely staged or merely acted, and creates a kind of one-man stage setting that underpins and energizes the performances of the rest of the cast.
Best Supporting Actor
Peter Capaldi (“Benediction”)
Jeremy Strong (“Armageddon Time”)
John David Washington (“Amsterdam”)
Bokeem Woodbine (“The Inspection”)
Steven Yeun (“Nope”)
Here’s another strange category, because I’m not quite sure who should be in it. The lead actor of “Armageddon Time” is Banks Repeta, playing its primary-schooler protagonist, but the voices that dominate it are those of Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway, who are nonetheless onscreen far less. The plethora of behavioral details with which Strong incarnates the frantic struggles of the precariously middle class is amazing. But, in “Benediction,” Capaldi’s terrifying, and self-flaying, wrath is awesome, in the role of an old man whose life has been marked by horror, grief, loss, and frustration, which emerge in quiet verbal thrusts of jagged malice and in explosions of fury.
Best Supporting Actress
Gabrielle Union (“The Inspection”)
Vanessa Burghardt (“Cha Cha Real Smooth”)
Nur Fibak (“Ahed’s Knee”)
Anne Hathaway (“Armageddon Time”)
Kim Min-hee (“The Novelist’s Film”)
This is another tough one. In Nadav Lapid’s “Ahed’s Knee,” a drama of resistance and complicity in Israel’s increasingly militaristic politics and nationalistic culture, Nur Fibak nearly rends the screen with her high-relief way of speaking and her ardent expressions. But Gabrielle Union embodies a palpable torment, an almost unbearable set of emotional conflicts, in “The Inspection,” Elegance Bratton’s passionate first fiction feature, as a devoutly religious woman who struggles with her rejection of her son because he’s gay.
Photograph courtesy Universal PicturesBest Original Screenplay
“Nope” (Jordan Peele)
“Amsterdam” (David O. Russell)
“Armageddon Time” (James Gray)
“Benediction” (Terence Davies)
“The Eternal Daughter” (Joanna Hogg)
And here, again, is another impossible category, with so many more films I’d like to honor, including “Don’t Worry Darling,” “Master,” “No Bears,” “Till,” and “Saint Omer” (even if the latter is something of a category error, inasmuch as it’s based on trial transcripts). The dialogue in all of these films is invigorating, trenchant, surprising. With “Armageddon Time,” James Gray combines autobiography with a variety of intellectual-historical archeology in order to locate, in his own past, the roots of American political pathology in his own childhood in Queens, creating a thematic montage that draws a direct line from Ronald Reagan (and the 1980 Presidential campaign) to the Trump family (a presence in the drama). Joanna Hogg, the director of “The Eternal Daughter,” is also credited with its screenplay, though the dialogue is improvised by the actors, and Tilda Swinton, in the dual lead roles of mother and daughter, creates most of it, and endows it with concision, literary flair, and expressive power. Conceptually, though, “Nope” is by far the most original film of the year; that Jordan Peele even imagined the elements of the movie, let alone unified them in a vision of cinema and the world, is an astonishment.
Best Adapted Screenplay
“Women Talking” (Sarah Polley)
“Both Sides of the Blade” (Christine Angot and Claire Denis)
“A Couple” (Nathalie Boutefeu and Frederick Wiseman)
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (Dean Fleischer Camp, Jenny Slate, and Nick Paley)
“Saturday Fiction” (Ma Yingli)
Sarah Polley’s transformation of the mostly indirect discourse of Miriam Toews’s eponymous novel into rigorous and passionate dialectic is a noteworthy literary achievement, and a dramatic one.
Best Documentary Feature
“Dear Mr. Brody”
“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”
Last year’s batch of documentaries was ample, varied, and daring; this year, only a handful struck me as similarly distinctive. One year isn’t much of a sample, as distribution of documentaries (as of independent and international films) continues to be sluggish. But I have a sense that, owing to the popularity of documentary filmmaking in the realm of streaming, the field is becoming increasingly pressed into narrow norms and the support for more innovative forms of nonfiction is decreasing. Nonetheless, among the best of this year’s documentaries is Chase Joynt’s daringly reflexive “Framing Agnes,” which includes reënactments—conspicuously staged, not meant to pass as realistic—of archival interviews with trans people, alongside interviews with the performers, who are themselves trans. It’s a bold idea, and its realization leads to fascinating and moving considerations of trans and queer history and present-day experience.
“Don’t Worry Darling” (Matthew Libatique)
“The Cathedral” (Barton Cortright)
“Hit the Road” (Amin Jafari)
“No Bears” (Amin Jafari)
“Nope” (Hoyte Van Hoytema)
Amin Jafari’s cinematography for “No Bears” poses as strong a theoretical challenge to industry norms in its category as does Jafar Panahi’s performance in the film. Jafari lights scenes with nothing but the illumination from a cell phone or a car’s interior lights; the very limits of recording are tested. Jafari is also the cinematographer on “Hit the Road,” directed by Panahi’s son, Panah; there, Jafari’s prime achievement is compositional, with images of grandeur, wit, and dramatic nuance realized on the fly (many shot in the confines of a moving car). Ricky D’Ambrose’s “The Cathedral,” an ultra-low-budget artistic bildungsroman, takes light, and its protagonist’s awareness of it, as its very subjects, and the cinematography, by Barton Cortright, captures this with refined, hypersensitive discernment. In “Don’t Worry Darling,” Matthew Libatique creates, amid Olivia Wilde’s rarefied and extravagant visions of design, a hallucinatory yet cogent, alluring yet horrifying dystopian past, along with geometric abstractions that present a kind of film criticism by way of film itself. This movie didn’t get its due, and its cinematography is integral to its achievement.
Best International Feature
“Both Sides of the Blade”
“Hit the Road”
“In Front of Your Face”
I’m sticking with picks from my year-end list, with the caveat that, because “Saturday Fiction” had its festival première in 2019, I’m swapping it out for one of this year’s three new releases by Hong Sangsoo: “In Front of Your Face,” an intensely moving drama of life, death, and cinema—the story of a long-former actress, played by Lee Hye-young, who had herself been out of movies for more than a decade before returning in Hong’s film. This category, already ample, would have offered a bewildering cornucopia of choices had distribution of international films kept up: some of the best recent films are still awaiting U.S. releases, including “Simply Black,” “Petite Solange,” “Father’s Day,” and “Pebbles” (India’s Oscar nominee last year). ♦