As The Oscars Reach a Crossroads, Here’s Who Should Win (But Probably Won’t)

While the Academy battles to restore its awards relevance, our critic parses a slate of nominees both worthy and woebegone

In a handful of years, the Oscars will reach their centennial, and lately, observers have wondered if the awards will make it. Half a lifetime ago, before the 24/7 information age, the Academy Awards commanded worldwide television audiences who seized the rare opportunity of seeing live stars comingle and act sort of human in triumph and defeat. This was true even as anyone with any movie sense understood that—Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and the first two Godfathers aside—the year’s Best Picture was never the year’s best picture. I’ve long since exhausted readers of this column with my perennial observation that Kevin Costner has won more Best Director Oscars than Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch combined.

More recently, the Oscars have been in redemption mode even as it’s done nothing for their ratings. Whether Parasite, Birdman, Moonlight, Nomadland, or 12 Years a Slave were your personal choices or mine (and more often than not, they weren’t), they’re the sort of outside-the-box entries that never used to be nominated let alone rewarded; this burnished the academy with credibility it blithely tossed away last year with CODA—heartfelt, well-intentioned, and one of the worst winners ever. It’s not overstating things too much to suggest this year feels like a crossroads. Herewith, my personal picks….

Picture & Director. In Oscar races of the past, this would be a contest among critics’ favorite Tár, about the unraveling of a ceiling-cracking symphony maestra; The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical family drama embraced by traditionalists; and Top Gun: Maverick, the 35-years-late sequel that was an unexpected populist smash. The wild card in this year’s awards, however, is Everything Everywhere All at Once, written and directed by the so-called Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) and released two days before the last Academy Awards, when Chris Rock’s face was barely a gleam in Will Smith’s enraged mind. Last spring constitutes primordial times in academy hive memory, but Everything Everywhere has only gathered steam since. Frenzied, reckless, pretty much unstoppable, this story of a beleaguered, maritally estranged Asian-American laundromat owner turned superhero is a kitchen-sink movie where every two good ideas are undone by one that’s less good.

Yet I know of an 18-year-old who has coolly informed her dinosaur movie-critic dad that he’s entirely clueless on Everything Everywhere, and her older cineaste brother is of a similar mind. In short, Everything Everywhere is one of those films that signals a generational shift not unlike what The Graduate augured for my generation (if I were willing to admit being that old). The Graduate, I should add, has not aged well in the 50-plus years since, while the fuddy-duddy In the Heat of the Night that beat it for Best Picture has gotten better—so take the wisdom of the young for what it’s worth. Nonetheless, at a time when the academy is desperate to woo younger, hipper filmgoers, Everything Everywhere is the one to put your money on in your Oscar pool. Meanwhile, by the aforementioned Kevin Costner law of Oscar absurdity, the year’s real best picture, Korea’s vertiginous surreal-noir Decision to Leave by Korea’s best director, Park Chan-wook, did not score a single nomination for anything, including the international film category where it was thought to be a major contender.

Everything, Everywhere is the one to put your money on.

Actress & Supporting Actress. This year, the paradox of these two particular categories is that they’re at once the most competitive and predictable, with so many electrifying performances by women across the board that Decision to Leave’s international-superstar-in-waiting Tang Wei, the devastating Danielle Deadwyler in Till, and Tilda Swinton’s tour de force in The Eternal Daughter, weren’t even nominated, not to mention Viola Davis (The Woman King), Nina Hoss (Tár), and Dolly De Leon (Triangle of Sadness). In a tough call, my own choices are lead actress Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans, bringing to a troubled mother and housewife an inner life I suspect was in neither Spielberg’s direction nor Tony Kushner’s script; and Hong Chau, whose supporting performance provides the ballast for all the melodrama in The Whale (Chau also did commendable work this year in The Menu and Showing Up). While Cate Blanchett’s force of nature in Tár is a prohibitive front-runner, and the supporting award appears strictly between Kerry Condon’s center of gravity in The Banshees of Inisherin and Angela Bassett’s realm of badass in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, upsets by Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis can’t be discounted should that Everything Everywhere juggernaut materialize.

Actor & Supporting Actor.  The lead category finds Banshees’ Colin Farrell pitted against comeback of the year Brendan Fraser in The Whale, with Austin Butler a dark horse in the impossible title role of Elvis. If I admit to emotionally rooting for Fraser, the truth remains that the year’s most quietly powerful performance was even-darker-horse Bill Nighy’s dying bureaucrat in Living, a movie that isn’t as good as he is. The inexplicable omission from the supporting actor nominations of Paul Dano for The Fabelmans leaves Everything Everywhere’s Ke Huy Quan tussling with Banshees’ Brendan Gleeson, while my own vote goes to Banshees’ other supporting actor, Barry Keoghan, whose thick-as-a-brick village lout irritates you every moment he’s on-screen right up until he breaks your heart.

Screenplay. You shouldn’t have to be a writer to know this is where good moviemaking begins, even if moviemakers themselves can’t figure out that tens of millions of dollars funneled into Avatar’s CGI doesn’t make up for a crummy script. If this was a strong year for original screenplays, it was a particularly weak one for those adapted from other media, where any competition that includes the disastrous Glass Onion is pretty much a botch. Sarah Polley’s provocative Women Talking, based on the Miriam Toews novel, is the only credible option. Awarding Best Original Screenplay to Everything Everywhere surely would be taking enthusiasm for that movie too far; in a righteous world, Todd Field, successfully navigating all of Tár’s social, political, and psychological complexities, edges out The Banshees of Inisherin by Martin McDonagh, who has emerged over the decade and a half since In Bruges as one of cinema’s most reliably interesting writers.

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