Best picture candidates from best to worst

Here’s my opinions of the ten Oscar Best Picture nominees, from really fantastic to “Did they spend money to make this thing?”

You might notice that I’m giving most of these movies very good grades. That’s how it should be. These are, in theory, the best films made last year.

Click the name of a movie to find out how you can see it.

A Don’t Look Up

A large comet will smash into Earth in six months, destroying all life on the planet…unless we can change the comet’s course. But no one seems to take this seriously in Adam McKay’s very dark comedy. The two scientists who discovered the comet (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) can’t make people take this problem seriously. The President is no help; she’s a skinnier but female Donald Trump (Meryl Streep). The cast also includes Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, and Timothée Chalamet. Stay through the credits and you’ll get a treat. Read about the science behind the movie.

A West Side Story
I’ve seen the 1961 version maybe seven times, but I never cried at the end. This time, I cried. Just about everything, even the dancing, is improved. As the star-crossed lovers, Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort run rings around Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Thanks to Tony Kushner’s screenplay, the characters are filled in and believable. The Puerto Rican characters don’t look like white people dipped in mud. Leonard Bernstein’s score is still fantastic. And, of course, there’s Rita Moreno – still magnetic.


You rarely find so much in such a conventional story. Teenaged Ruby (Emilia Jones – very good) is the only non-deaf person in her family. That makes her the translator between her parents and the rest of the fishing town in which they live. She even must translate to a doctor about her parents’ sex life (a very funny scene). That’s not a good job for a teenage girl interested in music and boys. Meanwhile, economic problems threaten to destroy the family’s small business. But Ruby wants to become a singer – she has the voice – and her family can’t even understand what music means. In one brilliant scene, Ruby’s family attends her first concert (and their first concert), without hearing anything.

A- The Power of the Dog

It didn’t take me long to figure out how this movie would end, but I was wrong. I like that. In 1925 Montana, a non-functional family is running a ranch. One brother is more businessman than cowboy (Jesse Plemons). His wife is an alcoholic (Kirsten Dunst). But the other brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the real problem – a piece of major macho, to the point of rarely bathing. No one likes him, and there’s a reason for it. Another worthy film from Jane Campion.

A- Drive My Car
Drive My Car
If you don’t want to watch a three-hour, subtitled, Japanese film without swordfights, get over it and make an exception. A well-respected theater director seems to have a perfect life. Then, very quickly, he discovers his wife has been cheating, and soon after that, she dies of a brain hemorrhage. That’s just the 40-minute prologue. Two years later, he directs a multi-lingual version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – and one of the actors was one of his dead wife’s lovers. Slowly, the director finds forgiveness and new friends – especially with the woman hired to drive him.

By the way, if Drive My Car wins, and I doubt it will, we will have three East Asian directors winning Best Picture in a row.

A- Belfast

A mixture of sweet nostalgia and frightening violence. Most movies about the Irish Troubles take the Catholic side. This time, writer/director Kenneth Branagh tells his story through a Protestant family, and it’s pretty much the same as the Catholics. Set in 1969, the family tries to survive and avoid the extreme violence on both sides. Based on Branagh’s own childhood, Belfast shows us what it was like for a boy, not quite entering adolescence, in a place where playing in the streets can suddenly turn into hiding under the table. With great songs by Van Morrison. Shot mostly in black and white.

B+ Licorice Pizza

If it weren’t for Alana Haim, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film would just be another coming-of-age period piece – this time set in the early 1970s. But with her exciting eyes, her unusual, yet beautiful and very Jewish face, and her acting talent, she makes the film worth watching. Cooper Hoffman plays the teenager who’s much too young for her. He’s also too young to be the entrepreneur he thinks he is.

B+ King Richard

This is one of these inspirational movies, based on real life, about working hard to get ahead. This time, it’s about the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams (Will Smith). He and his wife struggle in the dangerous world of Compton to make a better life for their children. What makes the film better than other such movies is that Dad makes some very bad mistakes and can be very abrasive with the wrong people.

B Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro pumps atmosphere and beautiful images into this tale of the rise and fall of a carnie. The unsympathetic protagonist (Bradley Cooper) reads minds – or convinces people that he can. This is the second film based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, but the new version is 40 minutes longer than the old one, which seems to be more about images than having a stronger emotional charge. The all-star cast includes Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, and David Strathairn.

C- Dune

If you enjoy big visual effects, loud explosions, and a lot of fighting by sword, bomb, and giant worm, you might enjoy this version of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel. I admit I enjoyed the FX and action, but Dune offered little else. Every single character had the same two traits: courage and fortitude. No one is cowardly, or roguish, or funny. The movie is set on a desert planet where people fight for two rare commodities, water and something called spice – which seems to be both a hallucinogen and an interstellar rocket fuel. And beware: This movie is only Part 1! Read my longer report.

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