Sift through the clues and contenders in this year’s Academy Award race for Best Picture

What do you do with a movie that begins with an elephant losing control of his bowels, defecating profusely right into the camera lens, and then heads straight to a party where we are immediately greeted with a long shot of a woman urinating on one of the revelers?

And that’s just the first five minutes of “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s unconvincing, unconvincing spectacle lasting three hours or more that revolved around the sleaze and immorality of Hollywood and, certainly, the transition from silent films to sound. Think “Singin’ in the Rain” but with heaps of cocaine. “Make them laugh”? forget that. Chazelle wants to beat you until you give up. And the more energy the movie has, the more miserable you will be watching it. Excess mess isn’t just this guy’s strong suit.

Each of the indulgences and disappointments of “Babylon” raises the question: What the hell happened to movies this fall? When the weather turns fast in Los Angeles (below 80 degrees) and the leaves change color (brown to a more dusty shade of brown), we know it’s the start of pumpkin latte season, the Santa Ana winds blowing through the canyons, and also…the annual influx of movies for grown-ups.

The premieres of this year’s Venice International Film Festival gave a signal that this season will not be a memorable one. Andrew Dominick’s “Blonde” was a biopic of Marilyn Monroe hating Marilyn Monroe. Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” was an archetypal adaptation of Don DeLillo’s death-obsessed satire. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” was as indulgent as its title, and after nearly three hours of runtime, it was almost unbearable.

To his credit, Iñárritu, I’m told, shaved about 20 minutes off Bardot, which improved the movie. (I’ll give it another look soon.) It’s too late, though, for David O. Russell (“Amsterdam”) or Sam Mendes (“Empire of Light,” next month) to make such a tacit admission of miscalculation and reboot movies. And while each of these films offers glimpses of ambition and talent, it goes without saying that none of them should be part of this year’s Best Picture Oscar.

The failure of these six films gives Film Academy voters the opportunity to look beyond the usual path of notorious prospects and reward blockbusters of great genre and great blockbusters from around the world, and perhaps “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the final contender that remains to be seen, and we’re left saying A silent prayer that James Cameron does not miss in the manner of his predecessors.

Here’s a snapshot of the best photo race as we head into the holidays.

front runner

Fablemans: Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical story of how he came to love, make movies, and use art to cope with the tensions that divide his family, won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival and won standing ovations at AFI Fest and Academy screenings. In the season of love letters to the cinema, it’s really the only crunchy note from the bunch we need.

Challengers

“everything everywhere at once”: Marital comedy, martial arts extravaganza, and wildly inventive critique against nihilism, this multiverse masterpiece has garnered plenty of hardcore devotees since its spring premiere. His detractors are mostly in the club of the old man who shouts at the cloud, and would make his fans even more obsessed with spreading the word and making sure voters don’t follow Bread into oblivion.

“Anchirin”: Martin McDonagh’s dark tale of a broken friendship emerged, with “Tár,” as the voter-watching indie drama. Brutal, bloody, and hilarious, “Banshees” comes to a conclusion that will break its audience and linger.

Top Gun: Maverick: How about opening this year’s Academy Awards with an interpretive dance number featuring shirtless volleyball players? You want ratings, right?

Critics’ favourites

“Store”: A fascinating mystery, a dazzling provocation, a movie that leaves you with more questions than answers. Not everyone is on board, but almost everyone has watched it, just to find out what all the fuss is about.

“The Woman Speaks”: In Telluride, I felt good about examining this thoughtful and poignant film of faith and forgiveness, and of women dealing with trauma and debating how to move past it–if that’s even possible. Again, another movie that challenges rather than comforts and it’s all the better for it.

Critics’ preferences that need even more of a boost, aka the ‘Driving My Car’ section

“After the Sun”: Charlotte Wells’ tender and sad film about the relationship between a young father and his pre-teen daughter has a picture perfect finale so devastating it will haunt you for days. I can see a Best Picture winner from either the Los Angeles or New York Film Critics’ Collections.

Decision to leave: Park Chan-wook’s evolving story of obsession features all the dazzling style you’d expect from this master, plus a slippery mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. (and maybe later).

Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro: It’s time for an animated movie to break the field again, and Del Toro’s dark take on this classic deserves a mention.

“RRR”: India may not have presented the Oscars for SS Rajamouli, but that hasn’t spoiled the dream that this blockbuster might still be coming out. Making the cut to her show song “Naatu Naatu” during the ceremony will elevate the hall – and boost interest in the Oscars abroad.

Blockbuster movies that might have voters thinking: “Sure, why not?”

“Glass Onion… Knives Bring Out the Mystery”: We should be very lucky if Daniel Craig stars in as many Knives Out movies as he did in the Bond movies.

“Elvis”: And bless my soul.

The Woman King: This majestic drama, created by Gina Prince-Bythewood and directed by Viola Davis, blends spectacle with social conscience to thrilling effect.

Good movies may resonate

Living: If you’re going to paraphrase “Ikiru,” it helps to have Bill Nighy as your lead.

“She said”: This tense journalistic procedural outlines The New York Times investigation into producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse in an efficient and direct manner, aided by the empathic work of leads Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan.

“Thirteen Lives”: Ron Howard’s cave rescue drama has been buzzing since its unofficial release in late summer. A few of the voters I spoke with called it their favorite movie of the year.

“until”: Danielle Deadwiller will be nominated for her poignant lead role as Emmett Till’s crusading mother and could carry the movie with her.

“Whale”: Brendan Fraser will be nominated for his animated lead role as an obese teacher trying to reconcile with his daughter and can carry the movie with him.

The sequel I’ve tried is better

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” “Black Panther” is the only Marvel movie to get a best picture nod – and well deserved. Its sequel is capable enough but also overloaded and saddled with what seems like IP-driven needs. Despite the box office hits, Marvel fatigue is real, and this movie faces an uphill climb to get a nomination.

Which movie could skip “The Smack”?

“Release”: Director Antoine Fuqua believes that “400 years of slavery is greater than one moment,” referring to “Emancipation” star Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars earlier this year. It’s a good line, even if it’s a little optimistic about Hollywood’s willingness to forgive and forget and not take a grievance to the grave.

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