The 95th Academy Awards: Who Should Win (Part II)
On March 12, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold the 95th Academy Awards and reveal their selections for the best in film from the past year. In this article, I rank the contenders in four key categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Screenplay.
To find out who I think should win in the four acting categories, click here to check out Part One of this article.
Click here to find out who I think will win in all 23 categories.
Although I unabashedly adore the glitzy ceremony, behind-the-scenes drama, near-century of statistics and milestones, and fun of predicting the eventual winners, I care about the Oscars each year primarily because I love movies. I love watching movies, reflecting on movies, and debating the merits of movies. I believe that the art of filmmaking has shaped my life — and our culture — in profound ways.
Each year I make sure to see each film nominated in the “top eight” categories (Best Picture, Best Director, the four acting categories, and the two screenplay categories), along with as many of the others as I can squeeze in. Below, I rank the nominees in the categories of Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.
Click here to read my reactions to this year’s Oscar nominations.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
5.) Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell, All Quiet on the Western Front (1st nominations). The main (perhaps only) substantial criticism I have heard about Edward Berger’s remake of All Quiet on the Western Front is that it was simply unnecessary given that Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 antiwar novel has already been adapted into a great film once before. (The 1930 version became the third ever film to win the Best Picture Oscar.) Some have argued that if you are going to remake a great film, their needs to be a specific artistic reason to do so and the remake must build on the original in meaningful ways. I would argue that this remake does build on the original in terms of visuals and all-around artistry (more on that later), but admittedly it adds little in terms of plot, theme, or character. For that reason alone I rank it last despite in this category despite my admiration for the overall film.
4.) Kazuo Ishiguro, Living (1st nomination). Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Japanese film Ikiru received an English language makeover by Japanese-British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who retains the same plot and themes but transfer the action to London. Remaking a Kurosawa classic is a risky endeavor, but this proves to be a deeply affecting and beautifully rendered adaptation. It sensitively explores existentialist themes about what it means to truly be alive while delivering an indictment of ineffective bureaucracy. The only reason that I did not rank it higher is that a key narrative choice in the film’s final act undermined the power of the film’s ending for me.
3.) Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie, Top Gun: Maverick (Kruger — 1st nomination; Singer — 1 prior nomination for Original Screenplay for American Hustle, McQuarrie — also nominated for Picture this year and has 1 prior nomination and win for Original Screenplay for The Usual Suspects). While watching Top Gun: Maverick, I was repeatedly struck with the same thought: “It’s like the entire creative team said, ‘What if we just remade Top Gun but used cutting edge technology and tried to fix its narrative problems?’” The original Top Gun, itself based on a magazine article about the TOPGUN program, is an eminently cheesy and tonally inconsistent film that has not aged particularly well. But this blockbuster sequel fixes virtually everything that was wrong with the original. The plot setup is compelling and makes sense, the character dynamics are deeply emotionally engaging, the humor and romance work exquisitely, and the attempts to pay homage to the original film and its legacy never feel like cheap fan-service. Some were surprised by the film’s nomination in this category, but I argue that the film’s far better-than-expected script is as big a key to the film’s success as the technical wizardry on screen and Tom Cruise’s enduring charm.
2.) Rian Johnson, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (1 prior nomination for Original Screenplay for the original Knives Out). I don’t like the fact that sequels are automatically considered to be adapted screenplays just because they utilize existing characters or plots as a jumping off point. My main reasoning is that it results in quintessentially original and innovative screenplays like this one unfairly competing with traditional adaptations. Rian Johnson scored his second nomination in the category for bringing back Detective Benoit Blanc for another twisty mystery that has bigger laughs, richer sociopolitical satire, and more over-the-top shenanigans than the initial entry. The film has a bold and inspired setup, moves along at a brisk pace, features intriguing and distinct characters, and builds to an audacious, game-changing twist in the second act turns the entire plot on its head. The twist elevates the film to another plane of ambition and audacity that Johnson pulls off with aplomb.
1.) Sarah Polley, Women Talking (1 prior nomination — Adapted Screenplay for Away From Her). After a long absence, Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley returned to the big screen in a big way with this compelling and harrowing adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel Women Talking. The story chronicles two days in the lives of the women of an unnamed, isolated Mennonite colony who have been subjected to horrifying sexual assault and subsequent gaslighting by the men of their community for years. They now know the truth and have a very narrow window of time to decide whether they should do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. What unfolds is a wrenching exploration of character dynamics and themes related to religion, gender, motherhood, and the very nature of evil. Toews’s novel does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation for a variety of narrative and stylistic reasons, but Polley makes this exquisite adaptation seem effortless.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
5.) Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness (See below in Best Director). Ever since it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, I was excited to see Ruben Östlund’s English language film debut. (He previously garnered enormous critical acclaim for his Swedish-language films Force Majeure and The Square.) Unfortunately, I was profoundly disappointed by what I found to be an excessively long, largely uninteresting film that seems to think it was much cleverer and edgier than it really is. For me, the biggest problem is the listless screenplay. The premise of clueless, casually cruel elites getting the tables turned on them by the savvier, scrappier members of the working class is one that has done countless times before. In fact, last fall alone The Menu and Glass Onion did it with far more originality, humor, and insight. I found only one of the film’s characters to be even remotely interesting and felt that it all built to a predictable and thuddingly dull conclusion.
4.) Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, The Fabelmans (Spielberg — See below in Best Director; Kushner now has 4 nominations — Picture and Original Screenplay this year; 2 prior nominations in Adapted Screenplay for Munich and Lincoln). I am generally a bit tired of male filmmakers making unnecessarily long personal films chronicling their childhood and rise to artistic consciousness. Nevertheless, I went into this one optimistically in large part because I was intrigued is that it was written by a filmmaker I adore (Spielberg) in collaboration with brilliant Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner. I found much to appreciate about the film overall, but was surprised that the most significant flaws I noticed were actually with the screenplay that I expected to be the highlight. I found that the story was a bit unfocused narratively and thematically, critical emotional moments failed to ring true (or at least didn’t hit nearly as hard as they clearly were intending to), and the plot never seemed to justify the long runtime.
3.) Todd Field, Tár (See below in Best Director). Todd Field returned to the big screen a full 16 years after his previous film with this immensely challenging passion project. It is an epic, nearly 160 minute character study depicting the downfall of Berlin Symphony conductor Lydia Tár, a brilliant artist whose talent is as unfathomable as her cruelty and narcissism. Most of the credit for making such a long, cynical, and overtly intellectual film work as entertainment has been given to Cate Blanchett’s ferocious performance in the title role. However, I would argue that Field deserves just as much credit. He not only created a captivating and iconic character with Tár but surrounds her with a fully fleshed out universe that is replete with thought-provoking themes. It is a testament to his impressive work that so many people (including Oscar voters!) still think that this work of fiction is actually the biopic of a real composer.
2.) Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin (See below in Best Director). I have had markedly different reactions to Martin McDonagh’s prior film work. Although I absolutely adored In Bruges, finding it to be hilarious, clever, macabre, and moving, I loathed many aspects of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which I felt to be frequently manipulative and tone-deaf. As a result, I didn’t quite know what to expect with The Banshees of Inisherin. To my surprise (and relief), it ended up being my second favorite film of 2022. The film takes place on a fictional Irish island in 1923 against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War, and tells a quirky, intimate, and singular tale of how the lives of four people are profoundly impacted by the abrupt end of a friendship. McDonagh’s screenplay is at once genuinely funny, truly devastating, and genuinely original. Although all of his attempts at allegory and metaphor don’t completely land, I think the screenplay is ultimately a masterwork.
1.) Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All At Once (See below in Best Director). When people think of what makes Everything Everywhere All At Once work, they tend to think of the sterling performances of the film’s ensemble and its audacious visual storytelling. Although those aspects are undoubtedly critical to its greatness, I think it is easy to lose sight of how extraordinary the screenplay is. It narrowly beats out Banshees for me by its sheer ambition alone. It manages to effectively do two very different and challenging things simultaneously. The first is to create a tale of intergenerational conflict in a contemporary immigrant family that feels fresh and authentic. The second is to execute the notion of a metaverse in a manner that is not exceedingly contrived but rather works to advance the plot, themes, and character arcs. The screenplay is absurd, audacious, complicated, and unique, but ultimately it is about profoundly human and relatable themes. The degree of difficulty of what the Daniels pulled off here is astonishing.
Click below to check out my rankings of the Oscar nominees in the screenplay, directing, and Best Picture categories at recent ceremonies.
5.) Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness (Received his first 2 nominations this year for Director and Original Screenplay). As I alluded to above, Triangle of Sadness was my biggest moviegoing disappointment of 2022. (Note: I found The Whale and Blonde to be significantly worse films than Sadness, but I went into those films with appropriately low expectations.) It is worth noting, however, that I found a bit more to appreciate with Östlund’s directing than his writing. There are some sequences in the film that are genuinely clever in their execution and it is a visually appealing film overall. But those elements cannot make up for the major problems with its pacing and tone. Even the most audacious scene — the bout of food poisoning that sidelines the wealthy guests on the yacht — is not staged interestingly or funny enough to be anything more than a cheap gross-out.
4.) Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans (Now has 22 nominations — Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay for The Fabelmans this year; Picture and Director for ET, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story; Picture only for The Color Purple, Letters from Iwo Jima, War Horse, Bridge of Spies, and The Post; Director only for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark; he has 3 Oscar wins — Picture and Director for Schindler’s List and Director for Saving Private Ryan). As was the case with Triangle of Sadness, I felt that Steven Spielberg’s directing work on The Fabelmans was significantly better than his writing. The film is clearly the work of a master director as each scene is confidently staged and the film is full of artistic flourishes that always serve (and never distract from) the themes and plot. There are a handful of particularly memorable scenes here that work largely due to Spielberg’s direction (e.g., the tornado scene, the headlight dance). If only the emotional authenticity of some key scenes was enhanced and the pacing was improved, this would rank higher on my list.
3.) Todd Field, Tár (Now has 6 nominations across 4 categories — Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay this year; Adapted Screenplay for Little Children; Picture and Adapted Screenplay for In the Bedroom). After scoring writing nods for his first two films, Field was finally cited for his impressive work as a director. He manages to craft the perfect visual palette and tone to complement the downfall of Lydia Tár and sustains it with remarkable consistency for the film’s sprawling run time.
2.) Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin (Now has 7 nominations across 4 categories — Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay this year; Live Action Short Film for Six Shooter, Original Screenplay for In Bruges; Picture and Original Screenplay for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; he has 1 Oscar for the Live Action Short Film Six Shooter). Not all writers are great directors and not all directors are great writers. In fact, it is actually rather rare for someone to be exceptionally skilled at both. McDonagh, however, makes a strong argument that he may in fact be great at both with the Banshees of Inisherin. Not only is he supremely skilled at directing actors (as evidenced by the fact that his last two films have scored a combined 7 acting nominations at the Oscars), but he also creates a fully realized universe with the fictional island of Inisherin, proves adept at staging key dramatic scenes, and delivers some truly spectacular visuals.
1.) Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All At Once (Received their first 3 nominations this year for Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay). To put it simply, Everything Everywhere All At Once is one of the most audacious and original films in terms of visuals, plot, and narrative structure ever to be a major Oscar player. It is a testament to the Daniels’s extraordinary skill that they were not only able to transform their vision into a coherent product, but also something deeply relatable and crowd-pleasing. There were a lot of truly impressive directorial efforts this year — including several who one could argue deserved inclusion in this lineup — but none impressed me more than the work the Daniels did.
10.) Triangle of Sadness (3 nominations). I won’t belabor my aforementioned disappointment with the film, which I expected to be hilarious, edgy, and inventive but found to be dull, ordinary, and overly long. Coming in at a wildly unnecessary 147 minutes, the film follows a cast of profoundly uninteresting and underdeveloped characters across three distinct but similarly unsuccessful acts. Numerous films have treaded similar themes with more skill. The love for this one utterly escapes me.
9.) Elvis (8 nominations). After making it big in America with the 1996 Shakespeare adaptation Romeo + Juliet and the 2001 big screen musical Moulin Rouge!, Australian writer-director Baz Luhrmann’s next two films (2008’s Australia and 2013’s The Great Gatsby) were received with less than enthusiasm. Luckily, this is a return to form of sorts with Elvis, as his aggressive, hyperactive, and visually opulent filmmaking style is actually a great fit for the subject matter. Elvis is embodied terrifically by Austin Butler who nails the voice and swagger much better than, say, Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning turn as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Unfortunately, the film is not without its flaws. Chief among them is the character of his manager, Col. Parker. Although his backstory and relationship with Elvis are undoubtedly fascinating, Luhrmann’s decision to tell the story largely through Parker’s lens is distracting and the normally reliable Tom Hanks’s cheesy performance in the role is frequently cringe-inducing. Nevertheless, the story of Elvis’s turbulent life is one that is hard to make anything less than supremely entertaining. Coming in at nearly 160 minutes, the movie never flags in energy, even if certain critical developments, themes, and characters feel underbaked. The film treads disappointingly into stock biopic territory as it progresses (something I expected Lurhmann to steer clear of) but it packs a punch both as thoughtful drama and entertainment.
8.) Avatar: The Way of Water (4 nominations). I was chief among the detractors who groaned as the news of the Avatar sequels endlessly dragged on for over a decade. Sure, the first film was fun. In 2009, 3-D technology was very exciting and the world that James Cameron created was a visually stunning one. The film smashed international box office records and received numerous Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), but at the end of the day, it wasn’t a great film. The dialogue was painfully trite, the characters were mostly one-note, and the plot was unoriginal and predictable. Nevertheless, James Cameron toiled away on a trio of sequels, with the first finally arriving 13 years later in 2022. The second film in the series is also not a “great” film per se, but to my surprise I found it to be a notably better one. Sure, it is far too long at 190 minutes (30 minutes longer than the original) and the plot and dialogue still have numerous issues. But it all just works a bit better this time around. The plot finds former human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Navi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) raising their children in relative peace until the arrival of their mortal enemy forces them to flee to stay with the Metkayina reef people. The first hour is solid exposition, the second hour features breathtaking visuals as we explore life on the sea in Pandora, and the third feels like an extended action sequence that feels like a combination of several of Cameron’s prior films like Titanic, Aliens, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It is wildly entertaining despite its extended run-time and features stronger acting than the first, but there are repetitive plot elements and trite themes. I have to give Cameron immense credit, though, for making me want to take a third trip to Pandora after I promised I wouldn’t even come back for a second.
7.) The Fabelmans (7 nominations). Steven Spielberg’s latest film was heavily hyped given that it was arguably the first time that the legendary director had delved into his own biography for one of his films. The film chronicles the titular family through the lens of young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord as a child, Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager), who is growing up in New Jersey as one of the four children of brilliant and kindly engineer Burt (Paul Dano) and warm and impulsive pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams). The film opens with him discovering his love for cinema at a 1952 screening of The Greatest Show on Earth and follows how he becomes increasingly passionate about and skilled in the artform while navigating the ultimate dissolution of his family. Spielberg’s direction is as assured and skilled as you would expect and he impressively manages to deliver several memorable visual sequences despite the relative low stakes and intimacy of the story. Despite my issues with the screenplay that I expounded upon earlier, there is a lot to appreciate about this film.
6.) All Quiet on the Western Front (9 nominations). The questions of whether we really needed another adaptation of the seminal 1929 novel and whether it adds anything substantive over the 1930 Best Picture winner remain fair to debate, but I found myself utterly captivated, moved, and frequently astounded by Swiss director Edward Berger’s German-language remake. He directs the film with remarkable skill, opting to film it essentially as an immersive and unflinching horror film. It is immensely aided by its on-location shooting and filming in the original German, both of which lend to its authenticity. Although this is not a particularly character-driven film, the cast is uniformly strong with Felix Kammerer impressively anchoring the film as the horrified audience stand-in and Albrecht Schuch being an award-worthy standout as his friend Kat. Ultimately, the film marks the union of terrific technical filmmaking with wonderful source material. The wrenchingly bleak nature of the film’s coda packs a sucker punch that is only heightened by Berger’s extraordinary directorial work.
5.) Tár (6 nominations). After hitting it big with his critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated indies In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), writer-director Todd Field spent the next 15 years toiling on unrealized projects. But he came back in a huge way with the critically revered Tar in 2022. Field reportedly conceived of the epic character study with two-time Oscar-winning film legend Cate Blanchett in mind and it’s hard to imagine anyone in the role of Lydia Tar, the brilliant narcissist who conducts the Berlin symphony. The film is not an easy watch and key plot points and themes remain frustratingly opaque, but it is a masterwork of not only acting and character work, but also of cinematic technique and mood.
4.) Women Talking (2 nominations). After a decade-long break from the big screen Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley came back in a big way with an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel Women Talking. The harrowing tale (inspired by true life events) follows a group of Mennonite women trying to figure out how to move forward following the revelation of extraordinary and protracted abuse at the hands of the men in their colony. The film tackles profound themes that are rarely explored on the big screen and is compellingly staged, tightly edited, and features a brilliant ensemble that includes particularly memorable performances from Judith Ivey, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, and Ben Whishaw.
3.) Top Gun: Maverick (6 nominations). I have written at length about how the long-gestating sequel to the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun defied all expectations and generated extraordinary critical acclaim and commercial success. The film mirrors the first one in so many critical ways that it should feel like a tired retread. So, how is it possible that a film that is in many ways so unoriginal so damn good? The answer is that everything it redoes from the original film is immensely thoughtful and executed with extraordinary skill. Tom Cruise’s Maverick is hardened and mature now, and his relationships with the cocky and angry young “Rooster” (Miles Teller), reluctant single mother Charlie (Jennifer Connelly), and former foe “Iceman” (Val Kilmer) are authentic and moving. The immense skill of director Joseph Kosinski and the Oscar-nominated writers cannot be overstated as they manage to create a film that is deeply respectful of the original but improve upon it in every conceivable way. It is truly astonishing to see a blockbuster film that works so well at every level. Watching Top Gun: Maverick feels like watching a team of top-notch artists capturing lightning in a bottle.
2.) The Banshees of Inisherin (9 nominations). Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece uses a fascinating and unlikely setup (two drinking buddies have a falling out) and turns into a tragicomedy that feels both wholly original and timeless. The quartet of central performances are simultaneously charming and spell-binding, with Farrell doing career-best work, Gleeson commanding the screen, and Condon and Keoghan proving to be bona fide revelations. The film not only has a singular and fresh fable-like plot but also has a unique, fully realized atmosphere that is utterly transporting.
1.) Everything Everywhere All At Once (11 nominations). It’s a seemingly once-in-a-decade occurrence in Hollywood. A bracingly original low-to-mid budget film with no A-list stars and no established writer/directors that is not based on existing IP is released to rapturous critical acclaim and huge box office. Director/screenwriter duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as “The Daniels”) brought this brilliant film into existence and became major Hollywood players in the process. The plot centers on a family of Chinese immigrants in conflict and the plot that unfolds defies any attempts at simple summary or even genre categorization as the characters proceed to “verse-jump” through the many parallel universes that exist as a result of different choices people make. This plot device allows for thrilling action, absurdist comedy, countless visual styles, and — most importantly — profound emotion. It is perhaps the only piece of entertainment I have ever encountered that successfully uses the multiverse as the backdrop for a truly moving story. The cast is exceptional, with Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and Jamie Lee Curtis delivering terrific performances of astonishing range. The film is so absurd, complex, and fast-paced that it is likely to require multiple viewings to fully appreciate. But, boy is it worth it. It is one of the most exciting and original films to come along in ages.
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