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Rory’s 2023: Oscars

As I said in my main 2023 movies post, I had grander plans for my giant Oscar-nominee essay. (It stayed giant throughout.) But I found myself really slogging through the whole process. I cut a lot of my greater thoughts on Hollywood and the world in the interests of getting through.

While I’m not the person for a full deep dive, a recent Accented Cinema video included a good summary of everything I’m feeling right now:

People aren’t just angry at the films, or Hollywood…people are frustrated by corporate arrogance, with the industry’s inability to progress. Just as Japan once did, people in the US are facing economic hardships, feeling helpless amidst political incompetence culminating in events that shook the country. The malaise of society continues, but Hollywood is still making movies like it was 2008.

(The movies) are like an annoying puddle on the floor. It’s not the puddle that’s the problem. It’s the roof that’s leaking.

Let’s get into it.

How do the Oscars work?

The voter base for these awards is not diverse. I’m not even talking about marginalized identities, although that also follows; the Academy is made up of a slice of working industry professionals, with most only being able to vote in the category for which they work (so, actors in acting, directors in direction, and so on) as well as Best Picture. Hardly an objective measure of quality by any means, never mind the pitfalls of trying to be objective about a subjective medium.

I follow award season like other people would follow a sports postseason; the movie itself matters less than the producers or studios running award campaigns. Thomas Flight has a good video that covers some of why campaigns and awards end up the way they do in Hollywood. As Bong Joon Ho famously said, the Oscars aren’t “an international film festival. They’re very local.”

That’s not to undervalue the ways Hollywood deliberately uses film as soft power and propaganda overseas, of course. I just find it useful to keep in mind that a lot of people make money off the idea that Hollywood’s more universal than every other film industry around the world, and that the Oscars are the final word on everything. They’re not.

How much did I watch?

I almost made it to the halfway mark this year (using this Oscars Gauntlet as a guide). Probably my best yet! I had it in mind to push for 100% completion, but several nominees were impossible to find in time. (For instance, Animated Feature nominee Robot Dreams just got a limited US theatrical release in the last few days that’s nowhere near me.) Once I realized that, I figured prioritizing Best Picture and what I wanted to see made more sense than seeing everything.

Other nominees I wanted to catch and haven’t include Napoleon, Godzilla Minus One, and The Boy and the Heron. I think I can say confidently that The Boy and the Heron should have gotten broader category recognition even without seeing it, though; it was not only on a lot of critics’ year-end lists, but I saw it in number one on multiple occasions, and I know how good Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films are more broadly.


Good acting: Even when I wasn’t into a movie, I was really blown away by performances this year. The casts of Rustin, The Color Purple, and May December in particular were absolutely top-notch, when we’re looking at films that didn’t get Best Picture nods. Past Lives and The Holdovers had my favorite Best Picture casts, with Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Lily Gladstone (from Killers of the Flower Moon) being well-deserving of their frontrunner statuses in their respective categories.

Production design, costumes, and overall art direction: For all my complaints about both movies, Barbie and Poor Things had some of the most beautiful aesthetics I’ve seen in film in a long time. The Holdovers also did a great job with their vintage set dressing, and Killers of the Flower Moon did incredible storytelling through their costumes and small-town look.

Cinematography: The Zone of Interest took a really fascinating approach to their shots and technology usage, in a way that served their story well. I also think all the nominees for this category aren’t completely misplaced, which is always nice. I don’t even hate Maestro’s nomination here, although the overall construction of the film was sloppy in a way that wasted their lovely shots.

Music: What Was I Made For? was one of my top songs of 2023 that’s bleeding into 2024, and despite my general apathy toward I’m Just Ken, the “can you feel the kenergy?” part is a bop that I wish was separate from the rest of the song. The cover of P.I.M.P. in Anatomy of a Fall was my favorite part of that movie; it’s on my top tracks of 2024 list already. It was also nice to have one last ride with John Williams for an Indiana Jones movie, and as much crap as I give Maestro, one of the best parts of that movie was its music (probably because it was Leonard Bernstein pieces).

Writing: While I was more unimpressed with screenplay nominees than usual, Original Screenplay was generally most solid: Past Lives, The Holdovers, and May December were all very worthy nominees. American Fiction is my favorite on the Adapted side.

Shorts: I watched more shorts than usual this year! I honestly would have gone for completion if a lot of shorts hadn’t been yanked from easy accessibility post-nomination; I’m going to prioritize catching the shortlisted nominees next year for that reason (and to catch the ones that don’t make the cut). While I definitely watched a couple baffling selections, it’s a lot easier to be forgiving of flaws when you only spend twenty or thirty minutes watching. My two favorites were Island in Between and Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó in Documentary Short; I watched more Documentary Shorts than anything.


The focus on mass murderers: I calculated time spent watching Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, and The Zone of Interest, and it came out to over eight hours of watch time. I can make arguments for and against each movie’s approach and usage of their lens, and I wouldn’t even say I got nothing out of them, but it was also miserable and had major negative impacts on my mental health. I don’t think what I got out of the experience was worth it, to the point where I’m probably going to allow myself more wiggle room should Best Picture have a lot of these kinds of nominees in the future.

Self-serving biopics: This is pretty much the definition of Oscar bait. It’s bad every year (Bohemian Rhapsody, anyone?), and this year was no different. Even my favorite of the bunch, Rustin, was produced by the Obamas and closed with a mention of the Presidential Medal of Freedom given by President Obama (without mentioning his name or that he was involved with the film, of course). Nyad seemed to have no interest in the fact that Diana Nyad probably lied about a lot of what she did. And Maestro…well, I’ll get to that one.

Inclusion 101: There’s a big feeling of “we should be better about this by now” this year. I found myself defending Barbie despite my disappointment in it because Poor Things’s view on women made Barbie look downright deep. I spent less time thinking about how Oppenheimer should have cast a Jewish actor to play a Jewish lead, and more about how two other nominated movies gave gentile actors nose prosthetics to play Jewish characters. How can we make real progress if our lauded thought exercises insist on, at best, underdeveloped approaches, and stick to tired bigotry at worst?

Before I rank

I’ve second-guessed myself a lot on these rankings. If I had more time, I’d shuffle around the middle movies a lot. (I feel pretty solid on 1-2 and 9-10’s placements.) Where I landed is me trying to balance more objective quality with my more subjective reactions, but the end result left the mass murderers movies and some of the movies about women grouped in a way I’m not satisfied with. Do I think Anatomy of a Fall is worse than Oppenheimer? No. Do I think they’re comparable movies? Not really.

Short version: I know this is flawed, and I can’t think of a better way to rank right now that reflects my sincere reactions. At least this is more nuanced than just awarding one the best trophy.

Best Picture, ranked

10. Maestro

Winner for my least-favorite Best Picture nominee and my least-favorite overall film of the year. The shortest review I can give it is crude, but it’s also the best way I can think of to describe it: imagine me making a jerk-off motion with one hand.

Most movies have a large group on which to lay blame or give praise, so while I often center directors in film discussion, I rarely want to talk only one person when it comes to a movie. Unfortunately for Bradley Cooper, he directed, cowrote, has second billing in the cast, and coproduced, so his outsized influence means I feel pretty comfortable saying that this pretty much soured me on him forever.

The movie is less a narrative than it is than a cry for awards attention, at the expense of real people’s lives and identities. Bernstein’s attractions to men while being married to woman was treated with a sloppy disdain that has no place in our modern climate, where few people need an excuse to be bigoted toward the LGBTQIA+. Never mind that these were real people living in complicated times. Who cares, as long as Bradley Cooper gets to make the awards circuit?

9. Poor Things

As mentioned above, I love the way Poor Things looked. There was a playful retro sci-fi vibe, with art nouveau and a general silent-film air mixed in. Delightful.

That’s where my enjoyment ends. Like a lot of sci-fi, not only does the main character fit the born sexy yesterday trope, that’s basically all the movie is. I grew up watching Joss Whedon; I’ve seen this kind of misogyny a lot, and it’s boring. Yorgos Lanthimos has done more interesting work than this. I don’t remember loving The Favourite, but I certainly didn’t hate it on this level, and I’m still thinking about The Killing of a Sacred Deer after watching it a couple weeks ago, even if I’m not sure I liked it. (I never got through The Lobster, but I’m thinking of trying again.)

That Emma Stone is a possible upset for Best Actress deeply frustrates me because I think The Favourite and Easy A are her only solid performances. (Don’t get me started on La La Land.) I wouldn’t call her performance bad, exactly. But I think her taste in roles is poor, and Poor Things is a great example.

8. Barbie

At its core, Barbie is a popular toy commercial. I say this as someone who has enjoyed the craft of commercials a lot; I’m far from the only US person to have grown up watching the Super Bowl to see what kind of money corporations will throw at ad exes. I also say this because Barbie opened my eyes to the girlboss aspirations of Greta Gerwig. See this quote from the New Yorker:

Gerwig, meanwhile, was looking to move beyond the small-scale dramas she was known for. “Greta and I have been very consciously constructing a career,” Barber explained. “Her ambition is to be not the biggest woman director but a big studio director. And Barbie was a piece of I.P. that was resonant to her.”

After I saw Barbie, I immediately realized that there was an undercurrent of job and financial success as both power and life satisfaction brought forward in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. I rewatched Lady Bird over the last couple months and of course it was there too: a lower-middle-class teen social climbing and receiving the ire of her struggling mother.

That’s not to say that Gerwig doesn’t have the skill and craft to do interesting things in this territory, or that she hasn’t. But Barbie is a very cynical escalation of this theme, and while I find it very watchable—I saw it once in the theater and twice at home, making it the Best Picture nominee I’ve watched most—I always end up feeling low when I finish.

The crassness of the IP is not a dealbreaker for me. I love Life in the Dreamhouse, and I just watched Barbie’s take on Princess and the Pauper for the first time in the last year. But in those, a Barbie (or two!) got to be the star in a cast largely comprised of women. It’s sad when women don’t get be the standout even in their own commercials. It’s sadder that Barbie is the big Feminism Win! in a very bad year for women.

Femininity and womanhood, as expressed through Barbie, isn’t given the specificity and attention that Ken’s crisis of manhood receives. (The “what if women were oppressors?” storyline is a little better than I’ve seen it in a lot of places, but I’m no fan of that trope, either.) I get what they’re going for, as Barbie represents aging into a more complex view of the world, but it’s just not a good enough commercial to hide the fact that it wants me to buy a Kenough sweater when I get home.

7. Anatomy of a Fall

This one didn’t quite click for me. It was a movie structured around a trial, and I liked every scene that didn’t take place in the courtroom. It’s not that they were bad—although I was absolutely lacking context for the way French courts and French courtroom dramas play out—but I liked the actors playing off each other outside of court so much better. What they were going for was interesting conceptually: litigating the end of a relationship through a trial and showing the sexism inherent in a setting like this worked really well together. But I’m not sure if I was supposed to be so completely on the side of the main character. After the music use in the first scene, I was all in with her, and the length of the movie felt redundant after that.

What a year for Sandra Hüller, huh? Leading roles in two Best Picture nominees, and her portrayal of wife was dramatically different in each one. I get why she was nominated for Anatomy of a Fall; The Zone of Interest would be a hard one to pick up acting noms. I hope this year’s Oscars expands her opportunities for work in the US. I’d love to see her in more.

Best dog actor absolutely goes to the dog in this one.

6. Oppenheimer

It feels to me like Christopher Nolan’s ability to execute a story is getting better over time, and his ability to pick a story is getting worse. (His lack of ability to depict women is at a constant, although Emily Blunt did a good job with what little she was given.)

This is the lowest in the mass-murderer trio for me because of how friendly the movie is toward Oppenheimer as a figure. Two-thirds of the runtime has some interesting, if flawed, perspectives on a scientist who takes on a project without fully realizing what the implications of that project would be…and then there’s a big u-turn into “look how mean the politicians were to him”. I was never convinced that ruining his career was a bad thing, but I even cared less about that than the way the movie zoomed in on him for so long and then zoomed out when it was time to reckon with what he’d done (or enabled, as part of the US war machine). Don’t get me wrong; the bomb test and the scene after the bombs have been dropped on Japan are top-notch. But in a year with The Zone of Interest, the way Oppenheimer deflects is cowardly.

I think Hollywood’s in a place where they’re trying to figure out how to depict atrocity without directly exploiting the pain of those affected. That Oppenheimer is the general Best Picture frontrunner doesn’t give me a lot of hope that anyone will learn. But I do find it hopeful that it’s a crowd favorite, and that it made a lot of money alongside Barbie. This is the blockbuster version of complicated fare, but people want more complicated fare! (I think that’s true of Barbie as well.) That’s a good thing.

My initial Oppenheimer review is long enough that, if you haven’t read it, it might be worth a peek. You can see it on Letterboxd here.

5. Killers of the Flower Moon

I think I’ve only enjoyed one Martin Scorsese movie, and that was The Departed when it first came out. (I’ve never gotten through a second watch.) I watched Wolf of Wall Street and hated it, and I thought The Irishman was watchable except for how distracting the deaging techniques were. I don’t have a full career retrospective under my belt, but I have enough familiarity that I think Killers of the Flower Moon feels like growth. I respect that so much. I talk a lot about where we should be as a society, and if everyone was trying to learn and change into their 80s, we’d all be so much better off.

I read the book last year after the (wildly-good) teaser trailer dropped, and I’m glad I had that context. The book’s big flaw is a love affair with the proto-FBI agent. Initially, that was going to be the framework for the film adaptation, and Leonardo DiCaprio was going to be the agent. But the focus shifted toward Ernest Burkhart, husband of Mollie Burkhart and one of the men most responsible for the crimes that made it to trial, at the urging of his granddaughter. (Scorsese talked about it on Colbert, but I find Margie Burkhart’s perspective the most interesting, as a relative of both murderer and murdered.)

Killers of the Flower Moon has a lot of good choices. Lily Gladstone is my favorite; I looked up Certain Women after watching, which is the movie that inspired her casting, and was blown away. Mollie is a character who has to represent the pain of a tribe and group of people largely, and nothing about this movie would have worked for me without her, or without the broader Osage and indigenous involvement in the making of the film. All of my favorite scenes center Osage: the death of Mollie’s mother, the group meeting, Mollie and her sisters talking about men.

(I’ve seen people calling Lily Gladstone in Best Actress as category fraud based on screen time, and I could not disagree more. Considering how long this post is, I’ll spare you my full rant, but counting minutes to determine lead vs. supporting is a deeply-flawed metric.)

When I’m thinking about why you would make any of the mass-murderer trio of films, I feel like Killers of the Flower has the most applicable story to the average white person. Bare minimum, I think most Americans outside Oklahoma hadn’t heard about the Osage murders (although that could be my atrocious US history education talking). But also, Ernest was the closest to a regular guy in all three movies: exploited by the military, abused by richer relatives, has a brief period of peace when he marries well. None of it changes the fact that he was violent and murderous, and even if he hadn’t taken part, the whole town was still using racism and ableism to steal from the living and hide the dead.

Unfortunately, that’s where the movie also fails for me most. Even in the book, which I would also say was written for a white audience, the Osage were the priority in a way the film never quite pulled off. I agree with Osage language consultant Christopher Cote’s take; this was an Osage story made for people who aren’t Osage. There was so much time where DiCaprio and Robert De Niro vamped for the camera, or white male character actors talked about killing Osage, that could have easily been trimmed without sacrificing the integrity of the story.

I think Scorsese made good decisions to reorient the movie and involve the Osage with the process, but it’s fair to ask why the Osage don’t get full say over what’s told and how it’s told. Otherwise, it’s just more white people making money off of and gawking over their pain.

4. The Zone of Interest

Which leads me to a big reason that Zone of Interest gets to be the highest ranked of the mass-murderer trio: director Jonathan Glazer is Jewish, and he understood the gravity of making a Holocaust movie from the perspective of the Nazis. I can’t recommend this interview enough if you’ve seen the movie. I’ll quote the part that sticks out to me the most:

There was a single camera roll of film in the Auschwitz archive, likely taken by Höss himself, of parties and children.

“And this is a happy family in a back garden getting on with their lives,” he says of the shots. “There’s no evidence in this roll of film that the camp wall was in fact the garden wall. He didn’t shoot it. So that tells you a lot.”

Moments like these, by Glazer’s own admission, drove him close to abandoning “Zone” as detrimental to his mental health. “It’s just too much darkness, too much weight, too much responsibility,” he recalls. “And you begin to question your motives and it’s a sh— place to find yourself. And I remember my wife said to me, ‘But your job is to turn that camera around and shoot that wall that they didn’t shoot. That’s exactly what you’re doing there.’”

The Zone of Interest has no love affair with its fictionalized versions of murderers. When the film is at its best, it’s daylight horror, playing house as violence. It’s not a neat narrative, but a collection of stomach-roiling images that become even worse when you realize what greater atrocity they’re not showing. It’s a balance that’s hard to strike, conveying the full depth without exploiting the people within, but The Zone of Interest manages it better than the others in the mass-murderer trio.

My favorite part is the deliberate choice to bend time within the movie. The way cameras are stationed in the house gives it a very modern feel, with actors passing through and not focusing any particular way. Sequences in night vision with a Polish girl dropping apples where those in Auschwitz can find them both keeps the modern feel and inverts the bright colors of the Höss house. The ending literally jumps to present day and back again in a way that will stick with me for years.

But the movie takes a detour at the end away from Auschwitz, and the movie loses some of its effectiveness. We see bureaucratic meetings leading to death in the other movies, too; the line in Oppenheimer about not bombing Osaka because one of the officials honeymooned there was one of the most chilling moments in that film. There needs to be proximity for experiential horror to work, a continued investment in its images.

I didn’t want more; honestly, I could barely handle what I got. The Zone of Interest was 105 minutes versus Oppenheimer’s 181 and Killers of the Flower Moon’s 206, and since I watched it last (and am now writing about it last out of the three), I had little stamina for a very challenging film. Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon were very watchable, but I’m not sure they should have been.

3. American Fiction

That brings me to American Fiction, which is deliberately about telling the stories of the Black community in a way palatable to the masses outside. The settings of publishing and Hollywood make it a very inside-baseball movie on the surface, but considering the push to make everyone a brand in the modern world, it’s worth talking about commodifying yourself and others in your community, especially ones more economically disadvantaged. Is there truth to be found in these gross exaggerations? Are you doing more harm than good? Does it matter, when more money doesn’t equal enough money, or change the fact that you are marginalized?

I’ll be honest; I need to (and want to) give this movie another watch because I didn’t quite realize what was happening until the end, and it changed my entire perspective on the rest of the story. (In a good way! The cast wasn’t clicking for me initially, but now I know what they were doing.) But I can do that because it isn’t a movie mired in misery, despite some darker moments, and that’s one thing that increased behind-the-camera representation allows: an understanding of when and how tone can be lightened.

In a year with a lot of success with counter programming, I think American Fiction’s inclusion in Best Picture is very funny, in a way that supports the thesis of the movie. That’s all you can ask of a satire, I think! I also love that Jeffrey Wright got to lead a movie, and Sterling K. Brown got a Supporting Actor nod. I hope this is the first of many for them both.

2. The Holdovers

“History is not merely the past, Mr. Tully. It’s an explanation of the present.”

(I quoted this from the screenplay, so the movie’s version might be different. Didn’t get a chance to check.)

There’s nothing subtle about The Holdovers. It wants you to see what it’s like to be vulnerable and exploited when everyone around you is rich, to be alone when everyone else has family. But mostly, it wants you to see that there’s a way through, by being there for each other.

It would be easy for this subject matter and approach to get syrupy or seem too flat. But not here. We see characters’ pain and happiness, and the journey is treated seriously. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the favorite to win in her category, and it makes perfect sense; her character and performance are the heart of the movie. (One of her scenes also made me cry more than any other nominee did this year, which is saying something.) But the small ensemble’s all top-notch. I don’t think Paul Giamatti has a real chance at Best Actor, but it’s a shame because I honestly liked his performance more than Cillian Murphy’s this year.

While I get why people love this movie—I did, too!—I don’t get people saying they’re adding it to the Christmas-movie rotation. Watching this in January was almost too much of a downer for me, and that’s even considering how it ends on a hopeful note. Maybe people are just more resilient than I am.

1. Past Lives

Past Lives is generally straightforward and quiet, a triptych of periods in main-character Nora’s life as she moves away from Korea and toward her aspirations. She reconnects with her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung, practices her rusty Korean, and marries her New York boyfriend Arthur. The end of the movie reunites Nora with Hae Sung and introduces Arthur to a part of his wife that he’s never gotten to really see before.

I’ve seen people trying to dissect the men’s characterizations (or worse, calling them flat), which goes a completely different direction than my reading. Hae Sun and Arthur are Nora’s cultural experiences and life choices, both the path taken and the path left behind made beautiful through the lens of romance. (The movie itself plays with the stock-guy idea; Arthur is selling a book called Boner at one point.) Hae Sun is the pining for the past that you know would be a poor fit, but also captures a part of you that no one in your new circumstances can see. Arthur is the support and intimacy that wants to understand what you say in another language in your sleep.

Past Lives loves and respects women in a way no other Best Picture nominee could manage this year, both in its story and its choice of genre. It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but after looking at everything else, it really is. I’m grateful there was a pocket of quiet and peace, and a soft tearjerker, amidst a flawed and turbulent group of nominees.

Thanks for reading!

We did it, kids! 2023 is officially wrapped up. If you missed the previous posts, here they are:

Movies (part one): A brief look at my Letterboxd stats, and some other year-end movie recaps.
Movies (part two): A general top ten of movies overall, with some other highs and lows.
Music: Artist and song favorites taken from my Spotify Wrapped, Apple Music Replay, and general YouTube usage.
TV: Old rewatches, shows that finished in 2023 that I watched, continuing shows, and a Star Trek section.
Books: General stats, honorable mentions, and a top ten curated with help from my Storygraph.
Video games: Things I played on and off Steam, and some Steam stats.

Rory Hume is a rainbow gay, cat whisperer, and concert swag addict.

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