One of the earliest attempts by my high-school friends and I at “branching out” from Hollywood blockbusters (Star Wars [1977-]! Jurassic Park [1993-]! The Dark Knight !) and our childhood favorite genre movies (e.g. Aliens [1979-]! Predator [1987-]!) were the annual Oscar nominations, or Academy Awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Every February or so when yearly nominees were announced, our local 8 (later 10)-screen cineplex would also do its best to “diversify” and showed a handful of the Best Picture or Best Actor or Best Director nominees, proportioning a few screenings each week from whatever crappy January action flick or dumbass Adam Sandler-comedy was around to more dramatic fair. That’s how I saw films like No Country for Old Men (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), among others. These critical darlings were none were too exotic — most were either Hollywood, independent American, or British studio pictures based on screenplays that often had more bark than their respective directors had bite — but were nice springboards to the international cinema (e.g. Indian, Indonesian, French, Japanese, Korean), cult genre films (e.g. John Carpenter and Neil Marshall‘s filmographies), American Film Institute classics, and Peak TV favorites (e.g. HBO’s premiere series) I would explore in my later teens and 20s.
The more types of cinema I discovered, however, the more tired I grew of longwinded, self-serious dramas about historical figures (e.g. The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game [both 2014], Hidden Figures , Mank ), human rights abuses (e.g. Schindler’s List , 12 Years a Slave , Selma , Spotlight , Promising Young Woman ), underrepresented communities (e.g. Carol , Moonlight , Roma , Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri , Minari ), musicals (e.g. Moulin Rouge! , Chicago , Les Misérables ), old French people (e.g. Hiroshima Mon Amour , Amour ), or Meryl Streep (see here). Some of the aforementioned were still commendable or even powerful cinema, but most I found tiresome unless I was in the perfect mood to watch them. Unlike many of the better Hollywood blockbusters I watched growing up and the more niche, international genre films I explored in college, I found most Oscar-bait — or awards-bait in general (e.g. The Lunchbox ) — more frustrating than invigorating as a cinephile. They just weren’t the types of movies that made me excited about movies, that made me “a film guy.”
To that end, I found most Oscar nominees overrated to say the least, as cliched as that sounds. Most movies mobbed by critics at the Academy Awards or the British Film & Television Awards or the Golden Globes are more auteur-driven and cinematic than your average Michael Bay explosion-fest (e.g. Transformers [2007-2017]) or Fast and Furious (2001-) feature, sure, but that’s a low bar. Over the 2010s, I noted a steady decline in my following of the Academy Awards, including yearly nominees, their various controversies, and the ceremony itself; I don’t think I watched a single nominee for a major Oscar category in 2020 besides Mank, which may be a sign of the ceremony’s fading cultural relevance. The producers don’t even bother with hosts anymore!
Out of curiosity, I decided to shake that trend one last time(?) in the first quarter of 2022, now that the COVID-19 pandemic may have subsided (February 2022, as of this writing), most folks in my country are vaccinated, and most theatres have reopened. I selected the five Best Picture nominees that were also nominated for the Best Director award to save time, because even a pet-project like this won’t inspire me to watch more than five of these movies a season:
1.) The Power of the Dog: Perhaps the most convenient to watch out of these five movies, this year’s Netflix critical favorite is the latest significant attempt by filmmakers to make audiences care about the now irrelevant Western genre, though its avoidance of anything violent means at least critics gave it a chance. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a great performance as a tough, brash, impolite, and closeted homosexual rancher, while writer-director Jane Campion makes ample use of cinematographer Ari Wegner’s massive New Zealand landscape wide-shots that look nothing like Montana. None of that justifies the meandering plot or inexplicable twist ending, the sort of overrated literary narrative your high-school English teacher would rave about for weeks on end. –> On the Fence
2.) Belfast: Kenneth Branagh gives his best rendition of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), though he saves us the discomfort of yet another 2.5 hour+ movie. At a modest 97 minutes, Belfast is the best paced movie of the bunch despite having as disorganized a narrative structure as any of them; the film is essentially a dramatization of Branagh’s childhood in the titular Northern Irish city amidst The Troubles, and its sociopolitical backdrop is as tense and fascinating as the principle cast and familial slice-of-life drama are forgettable. I understand artists are told to “stick to what they know,” but Belfast is too conservative in its narrative focus to stretch beyond another coming-of-age drama, regardless of its color-grading FX. —> On the Fence
3.) Drive My Car (DMC): I assume this is meant as the 2021 version of Amour and/or Parasite (2019), whereby an international non-English-language movie is elevated beyond the confines of the Best Foreign Language Film category so that Academy members can remind their peers how cultured they are. Like Amour and unlike Parasite, however, DMC is little more than another slow, poorly paced drama made outside the Anglophone world. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest is by far the most arduous of these featured movies to sit through, almost as long as most awards ceremonies itself at 179 minutes in length. A supposedly emotional contemplation of grief, loss, and other tear-jerker phenomena, I found the lead actors’ performances too wooden, impersonal, and stoic by design to either like or relate to by the halfway mark. —> Not Recommended
4.) Licorice Pizza (LP): My first Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) feature since 2012’s The Master, LP finds PTA revisiting the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s yet again because, like Branagh and Belfast, his childhood was special, God damn it. A great dinner scene and a fun, downhill roller-coaster ride in a moving van during the 1973 oil crisis almost counterbalance LP’s nonexistent story structure (sensing a pattern yet?), as do likable performances from leads Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. —> On the Fence
5.) West Side Story (WSS): As both 2021’s highest profile unnecessary remake of a classic title (see West Side Story ) and the latest big-budget Hollywood musical flop (I haven’t liked a major American musical film since Gene Kelly’s Hello, Dolly! ), WSS had to overcome big hurdles to impress me. The songs remain as catchy as always and director Steven Spielberg remains as good an actor’s coach as any, but most of the whimsical choreography feels stifled by limited, awkward blocking, weird set-design, and longtime Spielberg-director of photography Janusz Kamiński’s gritty, horror movie-esque lighting. WSS seems to have learned all the worst lessons from La La Land (2016) save for the indecent running time (over two and a half hours), which is the one thing WSS copied almost verbatim from the original that it shouldn’t have. —> Not Recommended
In summary: These awards committees feel like highly inaccurate barometers for which films will stand the test of time. Internet searches for the past decade’s high-profile Oscar nominees in preparation for this essay reminded me how forgettable so many of them were. So many films in such a short time dropped out of not only my memory, but seemingly the entire filmmaking zeitgeist despite their critical acclaim at the time of their release. I mean, do you remember The Artist (2011)? All the derisive awards-bait trends I described above appear alive and well through 2021, despite how much the greater filmmaking landscape has changed with the dominance of FX-driven tentpole blockbusters in theatres and the diversification of film distribution on streaming platforms. Unlike the aggressive corporate expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-2019) or the many weird genre projects on Netflix, so much about the Oscars past and present, including the nominees themselves, feels safe, timid, and just, well… more of the same.