LOS ANGELES (AFP): From a bumper 2021 in which sprawling blockbusters finally hit reopened movie theaters, and streaming platforms released more prestige flicks than ever, 10 films remain in contention for the Academy Award for best picture.
Oscars voters had to choose from a diverse shortlist that includes a homoerotic Western, a Japanese meditation on grief and a sprawling sci-fi epic featuring giant sandworms.
Here is a look at the movies vying for the top prize at Sunday’s Oscars:
– ‘Belfast’ –
Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical “Belfast” — the shortest, most personal film on the list — has long been viewed as a serious Oscars contender.
It depicts the outbreak of violence in his native Northern Ireland in the late 1960s from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy.
Buddy struggles to comprehend the dark events brewing on his street, but is sure he does not want to flee the only home he has ever known.
“Belfast” has won a respectable number of precursor awards, but may have lost some of its early momentum.
– ‘CODA’ –
Another intimate family drama, “CODA” centers on high school teen Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf household in a small US fishing community.
The movie, which cast deaf actors in lead roles and features copious dialogue in sign language, has been celebrated as a landmark in disability representation.
But it also packs serious emotional heft, as the family struggles to support Ruby’s ambition to leave for music school when it relies so heavily on her help to communicate with the outside world.
“CODA” exploded into serious contention with a key win for best cast at the Screen Actors Guild last month, and could have the best chance of unseating “The Power of the Dog.”
– ‘Don’t Look Up’ –
Satirical comedy “Don’t Look Up” has the starriest cast of any nominated film this year.
Oscar winners Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Cate Blanchett are just a few of the A-listers facing extinction from a massive comet hurtling toward Earth — an allegory for the climate crisis.
“Don’t Look Up” is one of Netflix’s most-watched movies ever, but its sledgehammer politics have split audiences and critics.
– ‘Drive My Car’ –
Clocking in at a minute under three hours, Japanese drama “Drive My Car” is the longest nominated film — a subtle and slow meditation on grief and loss, adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story.
“Drive My Car” was adored by cinephiles, winning dozens of critics’ prizes, and the success of South Korea’s “Parasite” two years ago proved subtitles are not the obstacle they once were to Oscars glory.
Seemingly a shoo-in for best international film, “Drive My Car” would still be a shock winner for best picture.
– ‘Dune’ –
Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic “Dune” earned $400 million at the global box office — the other nine nominated movies took $220 million combined.
Adapting the first part of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel about feuding noble houses on a planet plagued by giant sandworms, the movie has also been popular with critics, and a sequel is already confirmed.
But its awards success has mainly been limited to technical categories such as visual effects, sound and cinematography — meaning it could lose best picture but still end Oscars night with the most wins overall.
– ‘King Richard’ –
Combining the remarkable real-life story of Venus and Serena Williams with the A-list stardust of Will Smith, “King Richard” is an uplifting crowd-pleaser with strong reviews to match.
Smith delivers a subtle performance as the ambitious father of two future tennis greats, keeping the focus on the Williams’ unorthodox family dynamics and eschewing many of the cliches of sports movies and biopics.
The best actor Oscar appears to be Smith’s to lose, but a best picture win would be an upset.
– ‘Licorice Pizza’ –
Paul Thomas Anderson — the writer-director behind “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights” — is a darling of Hollywood with a cult following.
His latest offbeat offering returns to his native Los Angeles, where a directionless twentysomething woman and a cocky high school boy strike up an unlikely relationship.
Playing out across a series of retro 1970s vignettes, “Licorice Pizza” is a dreamy, idiosyncratic and nostalgic drama, but even fans would likely admit it is not the finest film in the “PTA” canon.
– ‘Nightmare Alley’ –
Macabre carnival fable “Nightmare Alley” — another entry from an established auteur filmmaker — is undeniably stylish and immersive.
But Guillermo del Toro’s pitch-black noir about a traveling “mind reader” who defrauds rich clients with sham seances is unlikely to match the best picture Oscar of his previous film, “The Shape of Water.”
– ‘The Power of the Dog’ –
Since its glitzy world premiere at the Venice film festival in September, Jane Campion’s moody Western “The Power of the Dog” has been the film to beat.
Adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel about toxic masculinity in 1920s Montana, it earned the most Oscar nominations with 12, and racked up the most pre-Oscar award wins from Hollywood guilds and critics’ groups.
Combining Campion’s distinctive vision, a stellar cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch, an eerie psychological plot and gorgeous images shot in New Zealand, the film ticks many traditional best picture boxes.
But its slow pace and ambiguous meaning have left some voters cold — and with best picture decided by a preferential ballot which favors universally enjoyed movies, a dark horse could still unseat “The Power of the Dog.”
– ‘West Side Story’ –
Steven Spielberg’s decision to remake the most-awarded musical film of all time sparked debate the moment it was announced. And while its release was met with glowing reviews, “West Side Story” still has critics who wonder why it was even made.
Spielberg retained the 1950s New York setting of the original tale of ill-fated lovers connected to rival gangs, but tackled representation issues head-on, including authentic Afro-Latino casting and lengthy Spanish dialogue with no subtitles.
Ariana DeBose’s performance as Anita is expected to win her an Oscar after numerous precursor awards, and Spielberg is so revered in Hollywood that further gongs cannot be ruled out, but the movie’s odds for best picture remain long.
Hollywood grapples with Ukraine ahead of Oscars
With the Oscars set for Sunday, Hollywood is weighing how or whether to address Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine, trying to thread the needle between showing support for Kyiv and being seen as too preachy.
As Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate crisis warning and Joaquin Phoenix’s outrage over artificially inseminated cows have recently shown, A-listers are rarely shy about making political statements at the Academy Awards — despite accusations of hypocrisy.
But after Oscars host Amy Schumer raised the idea of inviting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak at the ceremony via video, some have wondered if less might be more, in terms of acknowledging the crisis.
“It’s all about the manner in which it’s addressed,” said Scott Feinberg, awards columnist for The Hollywood Reporter.
“If it looks like it’s just pandering or lecturing, that’s not going to go over well.
“But if it’s heartfelt and meaningful, then I think it will have a different result.”
One example of Hollywood stars using their platform effectively is a GoFundMe site launched by Mila Kunis — who was born in Ukraine — and her husband Ashton Kutcher.
It has raised over $35 million toward relief supplies and free short-term housing for Ukrainian refugees in neighboring countries, and drew praise from Zelensky himself.
Kutcher and “Mila Kunis were among the first to respond to our grief,” wrote Zelensky, a former actor himself.
“Grateful for their support. Impressed by their determination. They inspire the world. #StandWithUkraine,” he added.
Sean Penn, who was in the Ukrainian capital to shoot a documentary when the Russian invasion began, has signed an agreement for his foundation to provide education and shelter for refugees in Poland.
“Ukraine is the tip of the spear for the democratic embrace of dreams. If we allow it to fight alone, our soul as America is lost,” he said in a statement to AFP.
“Terminator” star Arnold Schwarzenegger appealed to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to end the “senseless” war in Ukraine, in a video message that went viral.
And many less well-known filmmakers have been chronicling Ukraine’s conflict since 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and backed separatist rebels in the Donbas region.
For instance, documentary “A House Made of Splinters” and drama “Klondike” both premiered at January’s Sundance festival, examining the impact of the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine on ordinary families and children.
– ‘Tone deaf’ –
On Hollywood’s awards season circuit, references to the Ukraine crisis have been a constant theme since the invasion began, from expressions of solidarity with the nation’s people to expletive-laden tirades against Vladimir Putin.
“We stand with the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war, both Ukrainians and other ethnicities and nationalities who are being denied safe harbor,” Oscar nominee Kristen Stewart said at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Host Megan Mullally adopted a saltier tone.
“I think we speak for everyone here when we say we are hoping for a quick and peaceful resolution — specifically, fuck off and go home, Putin,” she said.
Schumer, who is unlikely to get away with similar language on network TV, recently said she had pitched the idea of inviting Zelensky to “satellite in, or make a tape or something, just because there are so many eyes on the Oscars.”
While the Academy has not commented, the idea appears to have been nixed, and Schumer conceded that “there is definitely pressure in one way to be like, ‘This is a vacation, let people forget — we just want to have this night.'”
For Feinberg, “it seems like they realize that that’s tone deaf.”
“I mean, he’s dealing with life and death matters here. And yes, he’s a former actor, but it just seems that could have really blown up in their faces,” he told AFP.
Organizers are “thinking hard at the show about how to address it without making their show highly political or divisive,” he added.
While the Oscar producers may not end up addressing the issue at all, the night’s winners are likely to do so anyway.
“If I were a betting man, I’d say almost every speech will mention Ukraine and the atrocities that are going on there,” said Variety film awards editor Clayton Davis.