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February 22, 2024

The Oscar Nominees: The Ones I Liked*

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I may have aged another year, but I remain in the same state of arrested development that holds dear a decade-long obsession with the Academy Awards. This year, at least, has been an uncharacteristically good year for the kind of prestige awards fodder that ends up nominated, and though (as always) I didn’t like everything, I found a lot of really enjoyable bits in almost all the best picture nominees, even the bad ones. I’ve already reviewed Killers of the Flower Moon, The Zone of Interest and Barbie/Oppenheimer for The Sun (not to mention the excellent reviews of the last two from other Staff Writers), but there are six more Best Picture nominees that are worth talking about. Although the distinction is arbitrary, I’ve split them into two articles, one covering the ones I liked (or reservedly recommend) and another the ones I liked less (or think might merit a skip). Without further ado, here are the ones I liked: 

American Fiction 

Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, adapted from the 2001 novel Erasure, attempts to simultaneously satire the current state of Black literature and backdoor a compelling family drama in the space of two hours. On both fronts, it succeeds, at least to an extent. The target of satire — that Black artists are too often pigeonholed into the creation of “Black” art — represents a valuable mainstreaming of an issue that’s been significant across disciplines and even beyond art for decades now. Even if a lot of the satire ends up amounting to gentle ribbings and broad characterizations of rich liberal white people, it still ends up being pretty funny throughout. As for the family drama, it’s a bit overstuffed (I don’t think I could count the various subplots on one hand), but most of the emotional beats still hit pretty effectively. The film is anchored by two powerhouse performances from Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown, both actors who still feel criminally unrecognized for years of substantial work. Unfortunately, American Fiction ends on a pretty sour note with a real cop-out ending, one that may have even been substantially improved by just sticking with its own tongue-in-cheek suggestion. For all its often well-developed political clarity, the film also never quite grapples with any of the class suggestions lurking right in its background. Yet American Fiction remains a worthwhile watch: Funny, touching and the perfect middle-of-the-road Oscars movie to watch with a parent or on an early date. 

Anatomy of a Fall

For all the fawning praise heaped on Poor Things and Barbie as colorful treatises on the state of feminism, the film that in my view best captured the surgical perversion of patriarchy was Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. Much has been debated about whether the film is even fundamentally a murder mystery (for my part, I really think it isn’t), but guilty or innocent it’s hard not to sense the film’s representation of a society obsessed with deconstructing and destroying unconventional women. Sandra Hüller delivers the first of her two absurdly accomplished performances from last year as a widow on trial for the murder of her husband, centering the film on an incredibly complicated character who, nevertheless, seems to be getting short shrift-ed. As the film unfolds its revelation of detail, it expertly shifts to a discourse on the nature of human relationships: How many partnerships, when presented to a courtroom in minute detail, will ultimately look healthy or loving? The film is far from perfect, and at times the courtroom genre trappings, and its obsession with adhering to certain dramatic conventions, undermine the far more interesting elements of the film. For those who perceive the film as more ambiguous, it may also be more dramatically satisfying, but from my vantage point it ends with a bit of an anti-climax, leaving the viewer with less to chew on than the sum of the film’s component parts. Still, Anatomy of a Fall remains a difficult, compelling and sometimes hilarious film about relationships, patriarchy and presumably a bunch else. 

Past Lives

Film Twitter’s latest cause célèbre, dividing the app’s two brands of pretentious cinephile, has been the continuing critical acclaim and awards buzz for Past Lives. An A24 rom-dram where characters speak their mind in grand cliched treatises, the film was prone to put off those averse both to sappy romance and didacticism and connect on a visceral level to A24 zealots and anyone else whose favorite genre could be best summarized as “a good cry.” Falling somewhere between the two generalizations, I found there to be a fair bit to recommend in Past Lives, which, though fairly slight and far from philosophically compelling, accurately depicts a certain attempt to rationalize the ways in which our stupid, pesky brains tend to make us feel. Following the experience of a Korean immigrant to the United States (by way of Canada), a lost romantic connection first made in grade school and then rekindled long-distance and markedly less-exciting husband, Past Lives tries to ground that classic Sweet Home Alabama-style rom-com plotline in the real world. What it actually captures is the fact that one can try to intellectualize romance and relationships as much as possible, but there’s no escape from the irrational and painful feelings that those relationships provoke. For all of the film’s saccharine, corny speeches that read like discarded dispatches from a lonely Notes app, the most powerful moment in Past Lives is its silent and deeply felt ending. It’s a perfectly passable movie, if one whose simultaneous charms and annoyances come from excessive sentimentality. 

 Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]