It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve watched every Best Picture winner ever (some more closely than others) and as of this writing I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee released since 1987 (some in better-quality formats than others). Nobody I know cares, but it’s been my thing for years.
Thanks to pandemic restlessness and our current streaming media bonanza, starting last year I expanded the boundaries of Oscar Quest to see how many nominees I could watch in any category whatsoever, period. This is equally unimpressive to everyone I know, but now it’s like a game for me, and a far livelier one than solitaire.
A grand total of 53 different works are up for Oscars this year. As of this writing I’ve watched 51. Of the two nagging omissions, Coming 2 America is exclusive to Amazon Prime (one of the two major streaming services we don’t have), and the documentary short When We Were Bullies is not scheduled for standalone release until the Wednesday after the Oscars telecast, and it’ll be on HBO Max (the other major streaming service we don’t have). A perfect record would’ve been nice, but I’ll cope. I can mentally file it as “a Delaware Problem” and my heart will go on.
As for the other 51, they break down into five categories:
1. NOMINEES I SAW IN THEATERS IN 2021 which therefore received their own dedicated MCC entries:
- Being the Ricardos
- Nightmare Alley
- No Time to Die
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
- Spider-Man: No Way Home
- West Side Story
2. NOMINEES I SAW AT HOME IN 2021 and already crammed into a single capsule-review rundown:
- Don’t Look Up
- The Mitchells vs. the Machines
- The Power of the Dog
3. NOMINEES I SAW IN THEATERS IN 2022 which also therefore received their own entries, mostly long after their opening weekend, months after everyone else had stopped caring about them:
- Drive My Car
- Licorice Pizza
- Parallel Mothers
- The Worst Person in the World
- Affairs of the Art
- Robin Robin
- The Windshield Wiper
- Ala Kachuu – Take and Run
- The Dress
- The Long Goodbye
- On My Mind
- Please Hold
4. NOMINEES I SAW AT HOME IN 2022 and already crammed into a single capsule-review rundown, which is just the four Documentary Short Films I included in the same entry as the other ten Oscar-nominated shorts listed at the end of category #3:
- Lead Me Home
- The Queen of Basketball
- Three Songs for Benazir
5. NOMINEES I SAW AT HOME IN 2022 and haven’t written about here on MCC…until now:
And now, previously unwritten thoughts on those other 18 films — alphabetically rather than by quality ranking because I’m not in that mood and I’ve complicated all this too much already:
Ascension (Paramount+ – Documentary Feature): A lengthy montage of examples of pursuing “the Chinese Dream”, which sounds much like one or more versions of the American Dream — i.e., the version where you can achieve anything you imagine through hard work. Without narration or interviews (which, frankly, I would’ve preferred), the cameras follow different versions of “work” — many of them elegantly composed and hypnotic to the eye — that might or might not be personally fulfilling or lead to “success”, starting with an awful lot of factory floors, including one with a specialization in one kind of adult toy, as well as morning street crowds hustling for single-day menial gigs. Farther up the economic ladder come training classes for police, butlers, and social media influencers. And so it goes as systems mass-produce future mass producers. The clipfest ends with an Instagram-esque model posing at spots around a golf course with her photographer in tow, who’ll earn his own keep from his muse and then some. As they pause to preen and click, behind them an old man scurries about, fixing divots in the green. Which of them is happiest, and which is the biggest tool?
Attica (Showtime – Documentary Feature): School never taught us about the Attica riot, which happened the year before I was born. For decades I’ve only known it as a Dog Day Afternoon reference often used as a cheap pop-culture punchline. No one ever gave me a reason to look it up. Not until 90 minutes into this extremely educational and beyond-R-rated 2-hour large-scale true-crime tragedy, when one of many grizzled ex-con interviewees suddenly bursts into tears as his story reaches the moment before the “carnage” to come, did I begin to realize that maybe, just maybe, this was an event that did not end well. I understate ludicrously as part of my as-yet-psychologically-inadequate attempt to process the unlimited, infuriating, inexcusably abject horrors perpetrated that day. And it didn’t stop with the murders. Vivid, uncensored, traumatizing footage of the bloodshed and the piles of inmate corpses aren’t even the finale. The nightmare just kept going, and there are such maddening catches along the way, from a clip of guards exchanging “White Power!” barks and fist-pumps, to actual recordings of the President of the United States of America encouraging the local authorities’ course of action that would lead to a body count. I wish my historical ignorance hadn’t required this much evidence and testimony to cure.
CODA (Apple TV+ — Picture, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay): Emilia Jones rocks in Netflix’s Locke and Key and I thought she was great here too as the only hearing member of an all-deaf family. In her quest to explore the possibilities in her singing voice, she struck different rhythms with each of the people in her life, and eventually found her own. Maybe warts-and-all family dramedies are cliché by now for some, but it was sweet without being cloying, funny without being relentlessly crass (just a few dollops of crassness! I blame the dad), and well-curated in its pop oldies lineup that didn’t sound like a worn-out K-Tel tape (looking at you, Cruella). It also taught me why Joni Mitchell — whose tunes I’ve never really sought out — is so gushingly revered by “adult alternative” fans older than me. I don’t see it winning (it was probably at the low end of the nomination ten-pack vote counts) but I dig it, and I find the burgeoning Twitter backlash against it aggravatingly shallow.
Cruella (Disney+ — Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling): I specifically planned never, ever, ever to watch any of Disney’s superfluous live-action merchandising extensions of their animated classics, but this one sashayed in through the Oscar Quest loophole. Setting aside the preposterous Secret Origin of Why Cruella Hates Dalmatians, the Secret Origin of Cruella DeVil’s Name That Needs No Explanation (nearly as bad as “Han Solo”), and the Secret Origin of Every Single Character in 101 Dalmatians With a Speaking Part, to my utter surprise the first half is every bit the outrageously campy fashion-world escapade that House of Gucci should’ve been, as Emmas Stone and Thompson try out-dazzling each other with their Devil Wears Prada riffs and their hyper-costumed one-upmanship, each making Marvel’s superhero suits look like orphan tatters. Eventually the women’s war devolves into a mediocre revenge caper whose party ends inevitably and unfashionably with a featherweight Dark Side turning-to. I’m even more disappointed that someone among the Clash and/or their heirs was desperate for cash and lent “Should I Stay or Should I Go” to the tired soundtrack, but that first half, as stirred up by director Craig Gillespie, got me tempted to check out his previous film I, Tonya sometime. Heck, maybe even his Fright Night remake.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Vudu rental — Actress, Makeup & Hairstyling): Opening with an uncomfortable closeup of the erstwhile Mrs. Bakker explaining why parts of her famously garish makeup are in fact permanent etchings — at first to please her husband in her own warped way — director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) keeps a deeply sympathetic eye on her plight even as he charts the meteoric rise and the greed-soaked downfall of The PTL Club and their zillion-dollar televangelist ministry machine. I’m old enough to remember when Jim and Tammy Faye were like live-action cartoon characters on TV and in embarrassing headlines, and this film nails everything — the uncanny hair and makeup, the note-perfect fundamentalist Christian vocab and speech patterns (which Hollywood is lousy at faking), their respective accents, their TV sermons preaching and screeching to their boob-tube gated community, and, in the less distant past, Jim’s prison years and Tammy Faye’s post-celebrity life and cash-in attempts and unflappable love for everyone around her in hopes that they might love her back, and if they didn’t, then at least God would love her for loving them. IF the biopic formula is a bit rusty, it’s a petty thing to notice off in the distance behind the startling transformations of Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, which dig well below skin-deep for a couple that rarely did so themselves. Value-added extra props to Vincent D’Onofrio as their grumpy boss Jerry Falwell, who can be counted on to kick them while they’re down.
Four Good Days (Vudu rental — Original Song): From square one Mila Kunis is all extra-dieted and nonstop high-strung jitters For Your Oscar Consideration as a lifelong junkie who needs help cleaning up, going straight, and maybe leaving behind every lie, theft, and betrayal she ever perpetrated for the sake of one more fix. I bought in for a while, but just couldn’t with Glenn Close as a spiritual successor to last year’s Hillbilly Elegy grandma (this is not a compliment), the perpetually harried mom whose understandable distrust of her deadbeat daughter spurs more than a few absurdly histrionic freak-outs. I get that she’s been burned a few times, but, I mean, WOW, her explosions are out there. I laughed when I guess I was supposed to cry, and God bless Stephen Root for taking on the challenge of being the calmest and most rational of the bunch. Nobody ever asks that of him.
Free Guy (Disney+ — Visual Effects): Deadpool notwithstanding, Ryan Reynolds movies aren’t must-view for me, so I skipped this in theaters. Now I’m disappointed in myself, as he may have found the perfect playmate in director Shawn Levy, veteran of such series as Stranger Things and Night at the Museum. Reynolds mines gosh-‘n’-golly naivete for charm and hilarity as a video game NPC that acquires sentience thanks to buried code stolen from two young programmers (Killing Eve‘s Jodie Comer and Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery) by an evil corporate boss (yet another Taika Waititi goofy narcissist). Though it’s packed with gaming in-jokes, Levy mostly avoids the Ready Player One trap of trotting out known IPs for Pavlovian geek applause (well, till they succumb to corporate synergy in the final boss battle) and instead creates a frenetically parodic open-sandbox realm with its own rules, logic, irritatingly repeated dialogue, and heartfelt core, from which Our Heroes and Players learn a thing or two about self-determination and creators’ rights. I also had no idea that Channing Tatum’s comeback tour started here until suddenly there he was in a cameo, matching Reynolds move-for-move. If you need to root for an expensive crowd-pleaser at the Oscars and you hated Dune for your own reasons, make it this one.
The Hand of God (Netflix — International Feature): The grand finale of the Childhood Memoir Trilogy that began with Belfast and Licorice Pizza. Teenage sexual awakening is not among my Top 100 Favorite Movie Premises, so some of Paolo Sorrentino’s coming-of-age saga drawn from his own life, set amid a family of Italian soccer fans rent asunder by tragedy, is out of my wheelhouse whenever he focuses on his teen avatar Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) contemplating losing his virginity per his dad’s recommendation to just get it over with. The rest of the film, on the other hand, is gorgeously staged in every setting despite any prevailing despair levels, realistically klutzy, and rife with short-story digressions such as a harrowing subplot about an abusive husband and, in a later act when Fabietto gets ideas about his future, holds an adversarial discussion with a curmudgeonly filmmaker who’s had it with ordinary folks like him who just don’t get Art like he does. Adult viewers who enjoy making their own comparison/contrast movie nights can pair this with Pixar’s Luca for a dedicated double feature celebrating the wondrous beauty of Italian coastlines.
House of Gucci (Redbox — Makeup & Hairstyling): When theaters released Lady Gaga’s latest project that also involved other people besides her but who cares about them because they are not The Gaga, every film critic I follow on Twitter who gave this a positive review was bombarded by waves of Gaga ultrafans thanking them profusely for supporting their goddess Queen Gaga, long may she reign even in the long gaps between new Gaga albums. Gaga was fine here in and of herself, along with able support from the always intriguing Not-Lady-Gaga who played Kylo Ren, the elderly Not-Lady-Gaga who was once handed an Oscar for yelling “HOO-HA!” a lot, and the differently elderly Not-Lady-Gaga whose Alfred Pennyworth was a heartless sourpuss. But somehow director Also-Not-Lady-Gaga (Alien, Blade Runner) assumes viewers love Gucci products so much that they won’t mind the languorous 2½-hour run time that coasts onto pedestrian biopic turf and squanders its potential for outrageous flamboyance as should befit the Empress Lady Gaga. She’s done even fewer favors by the intrusion of Jared Leto as Italian Gallagher, though I was curious to see the late-stage arrival of designer-turned-film-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) as played by Reeve Carney, history’s forgotten Peter Parker from the homicidal Broadway flop Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Alas, they are also not Lady Gaga and I’ve ruined my chances of ever being hyper-thanked for anything.
King Richard (Redbox — Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, Original Song): Hollywood typically portrays super-strict parents as nothing less than abusive tyrants, so it’s frustrating to see a film actually take the super-strict parent’s side. He’s selfish, uncommunicative, capricious, stubborn, prone to basing his judgment calls on awfully creaky sources…and yet for his girls’ sake it all *worked*. The film is too biased to reconcile whether the ends justified the means — executive Producers Venus and Serena Williams wanted a love letter to their dad, and they got exactly that. For me the youngsters playing the Williams sisters (like, ALL the sisters as a team) carried the weight placed on them and kept me interested just enough in the paradox of happy-sports-movie success despite their worst obstacles coming at them from inside the house.
The Lost Daughter (Netflix — Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay): In which the Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) play the same anguished woman decades apart. In her youth she sucked at parenting but was fantastic at college-thesis showmanship. The head-on collision between her aspirations and her weaknesses reverberate toward the present, when she’s a solitary professor on beach holiday in Greece (no doubt waving at Luca and Fabietto across the sea) and spying on a younger mother (Dakota Johnson) who’s differently struggling with handling her own daughter. Odd interactions ensue on the side with her cabana manager (Ed Harris), the young mother’s husband (Invisible Man Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and, most beleaguered of all, a stray doll that becomes a symbol of wasted chances. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, based on a novel that resonated with the inner turmoil of her own child-rearing experiences, incisively broaches the unspoken hardships of motherhood for women who don’t necessarily exemplify the sexist assumption that genetics magically bless them all with inerrant maternal instincts. It’s a rare moment of my heart breaking for a deadbeat mom.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Vudu rental — International Feature): If you loved Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, To Sir With Love, Dangerous Minds, School of Rock, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Summer School, Freedom Writers, Welcome Back Kotter, Head of the Class, or anytime Miss Beadle was kind to Laura Ingalls, you might love this salute to teachers from Bhutan, their very first Oscar nominee. Against the magnificent backdrop of the Himalayas a young man (Sherab Dorji) who’s all but blowing off his government-mandated teaching service — he dreams of moving to Australia and becoming, Lord help him, a coffeehouse singer — is ordered to report to Lunana, the remotest village far up in the mountains. Their poor, tiny population needs a teacher for their kids, including a precocious teacher’s pet named Pem Zam (that’s her at far left, and using her real name) who takes charge of his job orientation, who voices Lunana’s unanimous reverent belief that teachers “touch the future”, and who is the Year’s Best New Child Actor. (SUCK IT, Buddy Belfast.) His challenge to cobble together lesson plans and educational materials from the scraps at hand (mostly previous school years’ leftovers) walks a familiar trail of teacher/student bonding and of course includes a potential love interest with her own special talent, but viewers who get too complacent won’t be prepared for the final five minutes, which will kick over your comfy chair, stomp on your popcorn, and have you yelling at one character’s particularly heart-breaking, stupid, yet depressingly 21st-century choice.
Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney+ — Animated Feature): Everyone loved Encanto way more than Disney’s earlier 2021 feature, a derivative but lively epic of warring factions, lost dragons, and shiny MacGuffins that was released during the early days of the vaccine rollout and, coupled with a Disney+ “Premier Access” release, never got box office traction. On our new TV, I was sufficiently overwhelmed by its scintillating colors and its astonishingly all-star cast (Awkwafina! Kelly Marie Tran! Benedict Wong! Daniel Dae Kim! Sandra Oh! Gemma Chan! and more!) that I thought it topped Encanto, which I’ll concede had superior music (as, y’know, an actual musical, which Raya is not). I’m told this comparison is heresy, and it goes back to my previously expressed theory that maybe the projector at our Encanto theatrical screening was either turned to the wrong setting or badly needed new light bulbs, thus doing it and us a disservice. I probably need to rewatch Encanto sometime for a fairer competition. Or I could just revisit it for fun and not pit them against each other.
Spencer (Redbox streaming — Actress): Nothing against Kristen Stewart, who fairly nails her individual take on a flustered and bulimic Princess Diana, but every fictional portrayal of the Royal Family henceforth suffers in comparison to the awesomeness of The Crown. Pablo Lorrain’s ahistorical head trip refuses to compete with reality and imagines Her Late Highness at a weekend castle getaway with her regal in-laws (barely on screen) and a series of encounters with underrated actors from other films (Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Mission: Impossible villain Sean Harris) who of course are all more relatable and understanding than the bluebloods. Then everything makes way for haunting memories and Lynchian visions and alleged ghosts and mad stress-eating and Jonny Greenwood’s jaggedly non-royal score leavened with reams of avant-garde jazz like Lorrain wanted to hear the Royals themselves complain about their soundtrack. Stewart herself cuts an imposingly put-upon figure as she alternates between fighting for her sanity and letting herself fly off the rails, but this might’ve been more engaging if they’d renamed her Duchess Breanna and relocated her to a fictional country. Or just cheekily renamed this Untitled Beloved Princess Project.
Summer of Soul (Hulu – Documentary Feature): Once upon a time in 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival took a cue from Woodstock and, during one of the most tumultuous eras of American history, assembled one of the greatest concert lineups ever. Some acts provided melodic escape; some bluntly tackled the troubles of the times. Participants across all genres (well, maybe no classical) brought the jams and rocked the park for six weeks. It was unforgettable for everyone who was there and for those who caught excerpts on TV. Then they threw all the footage into boxes that sat in some producer’s basement for the next forty years. Fast-forward to today, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from the Roots curated this extended highlight reel and interviewed multiple principals, some of whom I didn’t even know were still alive (wow, hey, there’s Marilyn McCoo!). The greatest-hits celebration unearths performances from Stevie Wonder (love seeing him show off on a drum kit), Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, David Ruffin without nearly enough Temptations, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone bringing down the house, and more more more more more more. A little sadness and a lot of joy go hand in hand with community exuberance and righteous activism. Now that they’ve stopped neglecting its significance, it’s absolutely the year’s most invigorating documentary. (And yes, there’s a scene after the Summer of Soul end credits! Just a quick clip of Stevie Wonder onstage for a few more seconds of chitchat.)
tick, tick…BOOM! (Netflix — Actor, Editing): For his very first time in a feature film’s director’s chair, Lin-Manuel Miranda honors the life and memory of Jonathan Larson, the frustrated yet ultimately groundbreaking playwright behind Rent, which I watched online before watching this. The film ends long before Rent came to life, and acknowledges his untimely and unfair death at 35 in its prologue before shifting the spotlight to the time he spent workshopping what he imagined should be his magnum opus, the SF satire Superbia. At the baseline it’s the old trope of the Super Genius Artist Who Ignores Family, Friends, and Basic Life Support to Do Their Famous Thing. Miranda glides into that trap with a clever defensive move: while he’s tackling a fascinating subject anyway, why not also casually toss in one of the absolute greatest Andrew Garfield performances of his lifetime to date? Come for Larsen’s tragedy and his own songs (Miranda sets aside his own sheet music this time) as well as the Broadway-superfan Easter eggs (90% of which flew over my head — but not all of them!), stay for Garfield’s gloriously hyperkinetic embodiment of a supernaturally gifted songwriter, a phenomenal performer, and an all-around human supernova. It’s the year’s best live-action musical and the year’s best film that I didn’t see in theaters. I am livid with a lot of films that took away nomination spots from this.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (Apple TV+ — Actor, Cinematography, Production Design): The first new film from just the one Coen Brother joins West Side Story in bringing Shakespeare back to the Oscars, except this one retains the setting, era, and verbiage. Denzel Washington is a little shaky in spots but largely rises to the occasion as the titular Scot who keeps acceding to his wife Frances McDormand’s forceful suggestions as the two of them pull off a murderous rise to power in the face of challenges from Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Corey Hawkins (In the Heights) as Macduff, Harry Mellling (also in the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs) as Malcolm, Alex Hassell (far better here than in Cowboy Bebop) as a most curious synthesis, and Kathryn Hunter (formerly Harry Potter’s neighbor Arabella Figg) giving everyone nightmares as the dexterously creepy three-in-one witches. Unlike some other films that I’ve already nitpicked too much, Macbeth is resplendently all about its black-and-white design, overseen by Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Like Cyrano it’s basically a pandemic-made bottle episode shot mostly in a single castle, but it’s a German expressionist playground where emotions have room to triple in size within its cavernous spaces, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow never looked so PC-wallpaper-ready. (Value-added incentive: catch up-‘n’-coming actress Moses Ingram for a short spell as Lady Macduff before the rest of the world finds out about her as one of the Big Bads in Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries.)
Writing With Fire (Apple TV Nonplus rental — Documentary Feature): The last in alphabetical order was also among the last nominees to come up for streaming rental just this very week. I literally finished watching it an hour ago, exactly the kind of last-minute project cramming that was the hallmark of my short-lived college experience. In honor of this finale to the finale, it gets the longest recap.
Journalists in India are only slightly safer than they might be in Russia, but at least they’re upper-caste men with all the privileges of membership. In 2002 a team of Dalit women, down on the far end of society’s pecking order, were on board for the founding of the weekly newspaper Khabar Lahariya (“waves of news”) with a mission to listen to innocents, tell suppressed stories, and bring accountability to power abusers. Filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh tag alongside beginning in 2016 at a key point when the women in charge decide it’s time to pivot to digital, a daunting move when multiple employees have never owned or used a smartphone, can’t read its English-language controls, and/or don’t have electricity in their own homes to charge the new tools of their trade. As one might expect, nevertheless they persevere.
In between training sessions (phone controls, photography tips, how to find angles on a story) we watch Our Heroes investigating unreported rapists, mining corruption, municipal neglect, contentious elections, fake gurus, axe murder, and more. Obstacles abound, most of them male, from uncooperative law enforcement to newshound mansplainers to internet trolls to weapons-wielding onlookers. Meanwhile at home, there’s the tough balance between job and family. Just because they’re pursuing their passion and making a difference in their communities doesn’t mean they’re feeling rebellious enough to forgo all their customs. If you end the story there, it’s an uplifting victory lap for women in journalism, in one of the hardest places to practice it.
If you pursue matters beyond the happy ending, you’ll note Khabar Lahariya confronting a different kind of obstacle: this very documentary. On the eve of celebrating their 20th anniversary, their official statement is an eye-opening dissent against what they view as a one-sided glorification of the parts of their job that look great to Twitter users but downplay or outright overlook numerous vital aspects of what they do — the relationships they’ve formed, the political objectivity they’ve maintained, and, critical above all else, the need to keep their personal lives private for the safety of themselves and their families. They allowed the filmmakers to explore the angle they wanted and bring international attention from Western viewers like me…but their subjects have exercised their right to pivot and hold them accountable, and anyone else tempted to reductively characterize them as “Our Heroes”.
…and that’s the end of my Oscar Quest 2022. I listed where I watched each of them, but some have expanded to other services in recent weeks. A few have come to Hulu, Lunana is now free on Kanopy, and Writing With Fire will be airing on PBS next week. Enjoy what you’re willing to, and we’ll see you back here after the Sunday night ceremony in all its low-rated pomp and joy and unintentional hilarity!