The Oscar Quest ’23 Grand Finale: All the Other Nominees I Could Catch

Tobey Maguire as a rich, Mob-connected ghoul in "Babylon"

Peter Parker #2 declares, “THIS IS CINEMA!”

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

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 seen every Best Picture winner from Wings to CODA, and every Best Picture nominee from 1987 to the present, many of which were worth the hunt. You take the good, you take the bad, and so on.

In addition, this will be my third annual Oscars Quest Expanded Challenge, which was inspired by that darn pandemic — to see not just all the Best Picture nominees, but as many nominees as possible in all the other categories as well…

That was January 24th. Fast-forward to today, and I’ve watched all I can watch, for better or worse. A grand total of 53 different works are up for Oscars this year. As of this writing I’ve watched 50. Of the four irritating omissions:

  • Ireland’s The Quiet Girl is coming to Indianapolis theaters March 10th, at the eleventh hour before the ceremony when we have an extremely busy week planned. [UPDATED 3/12/2023, 1:40 p.m.: I did fit it in and wrote about it in the nick of time.]
  • The documentary All That Breathes is exclusive to HBO, which we don’t normally have. (Our cable company had another “Watchathon” weekend recently; this film’s HBO debut was the following Tuesday. Grrrrrrrr.)
  • The international feature Argentina, 1985 is exclusive to Amazon Prime, which we’ve never had.
  • The documentary short How Do You Measure a Year? has no streaming plan announced yet.

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 50, they break down into five categories:

1. NOMINEES I SAW IN THEATERS IN 2022 which therefore received their own dedicated MCC entries:

2. NOMINEES I SAW AT HOME IN 2022, which were encapsulated and ranked in a single entry mixed in with numerous non-nominees:bl

  • Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
  • Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
  • RRR
  • Top Gun: Maverick
  • Turning Red

3. NOMINEES I SAW IN THEATERS IN 2023 after the nominations were announced and got their own entries, per MCC rules:

…including the ten Short Film nominees we caught as part of the annual theatrical run:

  • The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
  • The Flying Sailor
  • Ice Merchants
  • My Year of Dicks
  • An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It
  • An Irish Goodbye
  • Ivalu
  • Night Ride
  • The Pupils
  • The Red Suitcase

4. NOMINEES I SAW AT HOME IN 2023 and already reviewed in previous entries…

…which includes the four documentary shorts whose capsules I lumped in with the ten theatrically viewed shorts while I was at it:

  • The Elephant Whisperers
  • Haulout
  • The Martha Mitchell Effect
  • Stranger at the Gate

5. NOMINEES I SAW AT HOME IN 2023 and haven’t reviewed yet:

And now, previously unwritten thoughts on those other 17 films — alphabetically rather than by quality ranking because I’ve rcomplicated all this too much already. A few were hidden gems I’m glad I was talked into trying, but several validated my original decisions to skip them till I “had to” watch them. More so than the last two years, I was madder at myself than at anyone else for this self-dare that often felt more punishing than rewarding. Anyway, onward:

Babylon (Paramount+): Damien Chazelle’s three-hour hyperactive drug-fueled aren’t-we-so-naughty? psycho-jamboree bellows in the faces of rose-colored glasses-wearers that Hollywood has never, ever in its entire existence been an upright, sober virtue pulpit. The first half-hour’s boundary-bouncing excess is like an obnoxious gatekeeper warding off sensitive and sensible viewers, but if you skip all that and press “Play” near the 31-minute mark when Brad Pitt hires Diego Calva to be his errand guy (who cares why), it’s maybe 40% more watchable. If a friend of yours can rig a supercut version, ask them to center Margot Robbie, repurposing her Harley Quinn accent to play yet another smirking steamroller, except this one won’t be saved from self-destruction by comics-merch licensees. But the Mad, Mad, Mad World cast can’t save it all from an ending that has way more chutzpah than it has any right to, on multiple levels (cue the Scorsese “This is cinema!” meme). The actual scenes of old-timey filmmaking are fun, especially after talkies upend their hermetically debauched world; but you have to wade through a lot of sludge to get to it, only to be reminded (intentionally so!) that Singin’ in the Rain handled that last part more gracefully and sans the recklesly overbudgeted juvenile abandon.

Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Netflix): Like many a filmmaker or artist, Alejandro González Iñárritu spent his pandemic months conceiving his next piece as a deeply personal work (see also: Licorice Pizza, Belfast, The Hand of God, etc.) that might resonate more deeply for himself than for audiences that live outside his head. Not until an hour in did its seemingly rules-free gonzo whimsies click for me and I bought into its central conceit, that our aging journalist protagonist (Daniel Giménez Cacho, from del Toro’s Cronos) looks back on his life’s most stressful and/or heartbreaking moments through warped lenses that divest them from reality and rewrite them into dreams, wishes, extended what-ifs, meta-films-within-a-film, and flat-out denial. Admittedly Iñárritu’s worst idea might’ve been tossing us into the psyche’s deep end by opening the film with a miscarriage reimagined as a morbid SNL sketch, but later scenes break away from the Truly Tasteless Jokes vibe and reroute toward something remotely meaningful. For me, breaking the 159-minute self-epic up into three parts, watched hours apart, helped mitigate its excess effluvia buildup. I’d love to hear a panel of Mexican historians (with or without Film Studies minors) contrast their impressions and annotate the ground covered here at length, if they can stand to sit through it.

Blonde (Netflix): Months ago I promised to coworkers if this sadistic biopic-shaped onslaught upon a bad-parts-only paper-doll version of Marilyn Monroe were nominated for anything, I’d watch it entirely on my phone, and only for the sake of sticking to my stupid annual Oscar Quest. I kept that promise and trash-compacted its defiant ugliness to playing-card size rather than let it be writ undeservedly large on our TV. Divvying it up into a four-part miniseries viewed over the course of three weeks helped slightly, but I wouldn’t say that made it all worthwhile. Feel her powerlessness! Shake your head at her naivete! Cringe at everyone who treats her like a prop, including her own mom! Furrow your brow at otherwise good actors falling morosely in love with her only to oppress her! Feel entire glaciers float by during the meaningless silences! Rage against the physical abuse, miscarriage, abortions, rapes, and daddy issues that form her Rogues Gallery in so many disconnected nightmare fragments! Then click Netflix’s “Not for Me” thumbs-down and go find something funny to salvage your day!

Causeway (Apple TV+): Imagine an alt-timeline in which Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry is the main character here — a New Orleans auto mechanic who’s willing to help strangers in need, partly out of altruism and partly to distract himself from the ghosts of his past. One day a stubborn white lady in denial about her postwar PTSD crosses his path. He helps her out of the goodness of his heart. They strike up an imbalanced friendship, in which she offers little except awkwardly smiling camaraderie and access to trespass in rich strangers’ pools. Then she doubles down on her selfishness and jams figurative bamboo under his fingernails by pressuring him to dredge up the worst mistakes of his life, and not in any sensitive or therapeutic way. At the end she has the unmitigated nerve to approach Our Hero with more beer and ask, without even apologizing first, if they can still hang out anyway. In that timeline’s version, the ending would be a lot less ambiguous than this version’s ending is. Paper Boi would never suffer that nonsense, but it’s Katniss Everdeen, so we’re asked to pretend there’s a chance for forgiveness.

Dace Montgomery as director Steve Binder in Elvis, instructing his stage manager by desk microphone to "send in the whorehouse dancers."

The Elvis ’68 Comeback Special: Behind the Music.

Elvis (Redbox): Tom Hanks stars in the unseemly true story of a waddling Rankin-Bass evil walking potato who is in every way the dire opposite of Colin Farrell’s amazing Penguin. For its first half Moulin Rouge maestro Baz Luhrmann is on an audacious roll as the faux-southern-fried Colonel Tom Parker hitches his get-rich-quick snake-oil wagon to Austin Butler’s sincerely believable Elvis Presley, and it’s nearly enough to make me regret my general indifference to the entire Elvis catalog except that one techno-tastic remix from a while back. Energy levels flag in the home stretch as Elvis’ life runs out of milestone events worthy of Luhrmann’s showmanship, so he kinda stops trying except for the deliriously wild episode concerning the 1968 Comeback Special, anchored by Stranger Things‘ Dacre Montgomery as its director Steve Binder, a proto-Luhrmann ahead of his time who would go on to direct The Star Wars Holiday Special. You can feel Luhrmann relishing Binder’s every scene, because game recognize game. Colonel Fat Forrest Gump can go shuffle off to Alabamee with his unreliably narrated cornpone.

Empire of Light (streaming rental): Imagine an alt-timeline in which Michael Ward (who had a small yet important part in The Old Guard) is the main character here — a young Black graduate in 1980-1981 Britain, neither a great time nor place to be nonwhite and surrounded by skinheads on the dole in punk’s prime, who’s struggling to get into uni and in the meantime gets a job at the local movie theater, which in turn funds his after-hours immersion in the fabulously danceable and racially harmonious world of two-tone bands (the father of our American ska). One day a stubborn white lady in denial about her bipolar issues crosses his path, becoming his trainer and coworker. They strike up an imbalanced relationship, in which she offers little except awkwardly smiling camaraderie and access to the theater’s abandoned upper floors where pigeons now roost. Then she throws caution to the wind in a roundabout form of self-harm, makes a comeback perhaps still a bit on edge, and watches helplessly as he suffers the most painful incident of his life. At the end he gets the heck outta Dodge, and she’s treated to a free screening of Being There. In that timeline’s version, who do you think Peter Sellers reminds Olivia Colman of: Our Hero or herself? And would she still be smiling at The Magic of Movies, which extended its saving grace to her but not so much to Our Hero?

EO (Criterion Channel): Life’s hard for a Polish circus donkey who doesn’t talk or make cute human facial expressions, has no idea he’s allegedly suffering animal rights abuses, misses the kindly circus lady who chooses her boyfriend over him, and jerks us around Europe in a series of disconnected incidents. Sometimes EO is Our Hero; sometimes he’s just an Alfred Hitchcock cameo in someone else’s short story. Sometimes he poses with cool natural panoramas; sometimes he’s a defenseless victim of wanton human cruelty. One thing remains constant: he’s just a donkey. The film is so stingy with sentimentality that it won’t even let him perform any awesome circus-donkey tricks to save the day. If you love fuzzy animals in general and donkeys in particular, instantly on sight without any prompting, EO will be your new best friend for as long as the Fates grant him mercy. For some of us, he’s Li’l Sebastian and we’re Ben Wyatt hoping no one overhears us muttering, “I don’t get it.”

Fire of Love (Disney+): Anne and I decided years ago if God let choose our deaths, we’d go out together as an elderly couple in an airplane cockpit, trying valiantly to save it from causing mass destruction but, y’know, failing because we’re not pilots, no matter how many times I’ve watched Airplane! But at least we’d fail together and neither would have to live on without the other. I thought about that a lot throughout this documentary about married volcanologists who worked together, shot thousands of hours of spectacularly intimidating lava footage together, stood way too closely to live volcanoes together, and ultimately perished together in a 1991 eruption from Japan’s Mount Unzen, which everyone had drastically underestimated. This tribute, solemnly narrated by Miranda July in a tone implying she dreads getting to the end, is culled from their own voluminous work/home movies as well as their frequent appearances on old talk shows, which treated them like rock stars in their very specific world, only to arguably die like them. They knew the job was dangerous when they took it, but they took it together.

A young teen boy sitting outside, smoking a cigarette while an offscreen adult tells him, "Remember, your future belongs only to you."

On the bright side, at least he isn’t a raging alcoholic yet.

A House Made of Splinters (streaming rental): Heart-tugging documentary about a Ukrainian children’s home — not an orphanage, but a temporary group home that lets kids stay while their parents sort their personal problems — additions, abuse, mental health, war consequences, what have you (though we don’t witness a single frame of wartime, unlike several Syrian docs nominated in past years). The parents are given nine months to straighten up and come pick up their kids; if no improvement (or in the saddest cases, no response at all), their kid goes into the foster system or one of the actual orphanages. The filmmakers air no direct interviews or overtly coach them to perform for the cameras (they may regret some of their now-immortalized hi-jinks as adults); instead they just follow typical days and watch them be themselves — all the little pleasures, rare happy endings, and disappointed heartaches entailed. The most wrenching part is that, by and large, the kids know why they’re there, know their parents have failed them, and are pretty sure they’re better off without them, no matter how dearly they miss them…or more accurately, miss who they used to be.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (streaming rental): I’ve never seen the original shorts this expands upon, but one of the first things they do us write out the non-shelled original cast, leaving only the tiny stop-motion beach souvenirs. Jenny Slate (SNL, Zootopia) is the voice of Marcel, one of several sentient shells who’ve been living for years in the same human house, which has now been turned into an Airbnb. The latest guest (Dean Fleischer Camp, who also directed) is an amateur documentarian who decides his wee polished roommate would make a cool subject. Marcel even has a mystery to solve: nearly his entire family has gone missing! (Except her elderly Nana Connie, voiced by Isabella Rossellini, light-years away from Blue Velvet.) Marcel soon becomes an internet sensation but fame doesn’t inspire her starstruck followers to search for clues. (Marcel laments their unhelpfulness: “That’s an audience, not a community!“) And so it goes, everyday living-shell life with its little epiphanies full of gentle sweetness and amusing bits (more so whenever Slate improvs) leading to a resolution that would trigger severe facepalm if it weren’t so doggone logical and warmly fuzzy. A much-needed antidote to some of the other “grown-up” Oscar-bait drivel.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (Peacock): Within us race two trains of thought: “high society needs its comeuppances” and “sometimes it’s okay to want nice thing”. Leaning more toward one than the other, Lesley Manville (The Crown, Phantom Thread) is a put-upon British war widow who doesn’t judge others in her cleaning-lady day-job, just living kindly when a confluence of lucky blessings dumps a slight fortune in her lap, no strings attached. The first and only dream on her list: take a trip to Paris and buy a genuine Christian Dior dress. Her modest attire and polite humility draw predictable condescension from haughty haute-couture gatekeepers, but slowly her earnestness and fat stack of cash win over hearts and minds. Her misadventures invite guests like Isabelle Huppert, Alba Batista a.k.a. Warrior Nun, Lucas Bravo from Emily in Paris, the Merovingian from The Matrix series, and an army of seamstresses she eventually ends up leading toward unionizing and she hopes, saving this world-famous artisanal small business from bankruptcy. Mrs. Harris saunters along a rather long and winding road indeed, one that leads Dior to an identical epiphany seen in last year’s House of Gucci — to wit: “What if…we also sold to poors?” In Gucci that was a second-act source of homicidal conflict; here it’s a quaint tea-time denouement that earns its old-fashioned feel-good charms.

Navalny (HBO, courtesy of our cable company’s most recent free “Watchathon” weekend): If you thought Marcel the Shell had an internet fandom, wait’ll you meet Alexei Navalny, the young-ish Russian opposition leader who was a big, big deal on social media for years while The Powers That Be sprang traps on him like Wile E. Coyote — including a headline-news assassination attempt via poisoning — until one finally worked and he’s been in prison on bogus charges ever since. Daniel Roher’s documentary follows the journey from smiles to tears, and is absolutely worth seeking out for its astounding tragicomic centerpiece: after Navalny allies use cell-tower records and other resources to narrow down the government-issue suspects in his poisoning, he and two associates begin cold-calling them one by one to see if he can get them to talk while they record. After the first couple guys realize who it is and hang up on him, he switches gears and tries prank-calling one instead. The resulting chat, captured for posterity here and in his channels, is the sort of staggering, delightfully horrifying “gotcha” that every true-crime filmmaker would sell their soul to get. Like, sell it even harder, I mean. Like, second-mortgaging their soul if they could.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (Redbox rental): Shrek 3 was so superfluous that I never bothered with the fourth one or with Antonio Banderas’ first Zorro-Cat spinoff. Oscar Quest self-obligated me to wade into the series’ sixth episode nearly cold and, wow, going Mike Myers-less makes such a tremendous difference. The killer kitty returns for a fantastic fantasy involving a wish-granting MacGuffin, a spookity forest whose dangers metamorphose depending on who’s foraying into it, and multiple antagonists vying for the same prize: Funniest Character in the Movie. And everyone wins! John Mullaney! Florence Pugh! Olivia Colman! British tough-guy Ray Winstone! Samson Kayo from Our Flag Means Death! My personal favorite, Harvey Guillen from What We Do in the Shadows, as a tiny, underwitted, bighearted mutt who feigns cathood to survive but dreams of becoming a therapy dog! For diehard Shrekverse fans, the always-welcome Salma Hayek Pinault returns as a rival of Banderas, whose feline avatar in turn is struggling with the aging process and desperate not to let it show (I can relate). The animation was beyond top-notch, even the gratuitous shifts from standard DreamWorks sheen into Spider-Verse Mode for the biggest action sequences. Also, side note to self: after his performance here as a vulpine Death Himself wielding a nasty pair of scythes, add Wagner Moura to the ever-lengthening list of Actors I Need to Watch Closely When I Finally Get Around to Narcos.

Jared Harris as an old-timey ship's captain, benignly judging a li'l Black girl stowaway.

All these years we’ve wasted time on pirate movies when they could’ve been making sea-monster-hunter movies instead.

The Sea Beast (Netflix): Someday there’ll be a sad animation era when nine out of every ten kiddie flicks will shift into Spider-Verse Mode because they feel they have to, and they’ll suck at it and ruin Spider-Verse Mode for everyone. For now let’s treasure films like The Sea Beast that feels no such bandwagon compulsion and pushes the boundaries of the norm into the super-norm from frame one. Quality control shouldn’t be a surprise given the resume of director Chris Williams (Bolt, Big Hero 6, Moana), but somehow I keep underestimating Netflix’s animation acquisitions and in fact hadn’t even heard of this till a week before its Oscar-nom announcement. It’s a glorious epic in which olde-tyme monster hunters sail the high seas where Here There Be Monsters till they slay them and statues are made in tribute. Even before pressing Play you know inevitably the main monster will be just misunderstood, but many, many more surprises lie in store, including but not limited to its vocal MVPs — Karl Urban as Our Hero, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Broadchurch, Secrets and Lies), Downton Abbey‘s Jim Carter, his former castmate Dan Stevens, and — I cannot extol his virtues enough — Jared Harris having the time of his life as a salty, grumpy captain who’s spent his lifetime becoming the greatest waterborne hands-on kaiju-fighter of all time.

Tell It Like a Woman (streaming rental): This charity-driven anthology of seven tales in which Women Overcome Things was so off the world’s radar that its nomination for Best Original Song (“Applause”, written by career Top-40 hit-maker and 14-time nominee Diane Warren) apparently came to its distributor’s surprise, who then hurriedly released it online so it would exist outside of the cast and crew’s complimentary DVD copies. The first two tales are its strongest — one co-written by Twilight‘s Catherine Hardwicke and directed by Taraji P. Henson, in which Jennifer Hudson plays a troubled inmate who might have a shot at rehab and redemption if she can ignore inner hectoring from her full-size devil-side self; the other, directed by Hardwicke, has Marcia Gay Harden playing a real-life doctor and helper of L.A.’s homeless, doing her best to administer care to a grungy Cara Delevingne who has a lot of layers to unravel, literally and otherwise. Those two could’ve competed in the Best Live-Action Shorts category; their five companion pieces range from instantly forgettable to darkly warm-‘n’-fuzzy (the musical finale, “Sharing a Ride”). Fun trivia: as of tonight no one’s even added this project to either Hardwicke’s or Henson’s Wikipedia entries yet.

To Leslie (streaming rental): One of the year’s most controversial nominees lets Andrea Riseborough, unfairly overlooked in countless other films before now (Oblivion! Birdman! the Mandy in Mandy!), go through the familiar motions of playing a bedraggled addict who might qualify for redemption if she can give up her lower-class Babylon-level self-destruction and reclaim her life and her dignity in that order. Hillbilly Elegy was just two years ago and wasn’t a trailblazer of the old-school weepy Just Say No melodrama genre, and To Leslie learned little from the knocks it took. The actor-clique who waged a Weinsteinian media-flooding campaign to get her nominated (and where were they when this needed to sell theater tickets last year?) don’t impress me as much as the other actors who actually showed up for her in the movie itself. Stephen Root doesn’t get time to do much (he already just played an addict’s unhelpful acquaintance last year in Four Good Days), but if this film had made more than $27,000 at the U.S. box office, the talk of the town would be Allison Janney as a former family friend who’s seen every side of Leslie for decades, catalogued all her worst sins, revels in making her suffer…and comes to realize she can’t go on like that. Her riveting, steely monologue at the end is one of The Year’s Best. Too bad Team Riseborough didn’t show up for her.

Triangle of Sadness (streaming rental): Wanna see vapid rich folks act vapidly for repetitive stretches, then watch them suffer? That’s an enormous cottage industry in entertainment nowadays, kind of like that time in the ’80s when 99 out of every 100 movie villains was Middle Eastern for a while. Sometimes, sure, my poor childhood sets me up as an easy mark for “LOL rich people suck”, but I’ve developed a standard or two as I’ve aged. The film’s central conceit — that if you’re on a yacht and you aren’t an employee, you’re scum on principle (I’ve never been on one, so yippee, I’m in the clear) — assumes that’s all the prompt we need to cheer and hoot like an Arsenio Hall Show audience once the cruise goes topsy-turvy and the deaths and vomit start piling up. Had its first chapter been cut entirely, and the second chapter hadn’t been so witless or wasn’t more self-indulgent than its targets, then the third and final chapter might’ve earned some props. The Menu did all this better on every level.

…and that’s the end of my Oscar Quest 2023. 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!

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