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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 73

Updated: Mar 10

Part 73: 2024


MOVIES:

  • Oppenheimer (winner)

  • Barbie

  • Past Lives

  • American Fiction

  • The Zone of Interest

  • The Holdovers

  • Poor Things (hidden gem)

  • Anatomy of a Fall

  • Maestro

  • Killers of the Flower Moon



Oppenheimer

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey, Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, Dylan Arnold, Tom Conti, James D'Arcy, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, Tony Goldwyn, Jefferson Hall, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, Scott Grimes, Kurt Koehler, John Gowans, Macon Blair, Gregory Jbara, Harry Groener, Tim DeKay, Matthias Schweighofer, Alex Wolff, Josh Zuckerman, Rory Keane, Michael Angarano, Emma Dumont, Guy Burnet, Louise Lombard, Tom Jenkins, Olli Haaskivi, David Rysdahl, Josh Peck, Jack Quaid, Gustaf Skarsgard, James Urbaniak, Trond Fausa, Devon Bostick, Danny Deferrari, Christopher Denham, Jessica Erin Martin, Ronald Auguste, Mate Haumann, Olivia Thirlby, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Harrison Gilbertson, James Remar, Will Roberts, Pat Skipper, Gary Oldman, Hap Lawrence

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Cillian Murphy), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey, Jr.), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score), Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Emily Blunt), Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)


Like all our favorite sci-fi stories, Oppenheimer is a tale about a man captivated by the boundless possibilities of science. While he doesn’t go digging up dead bodies to assemble his own living creature, he does have a creation of sorts – one that has a limitless capacity for destruction. However, unlike all our favorite sci-fi stories, Oppenheimer is far from fiction.



J. Robert Oppenheimer was perhaps the most important scientific mind of his time, whose greatest contribution to civilization was a weapon that could ultimately destroy it. In Christopher Nolan’s biopic, we shift between the two main strands of Oppenheimer’s life: the scientific work that defined his career and the leftist sympathies that proved to be his undoing.


“Fission” is shot in color and follows Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) through his early years as a graduate student and college professor. At Berkeley, he becomes a union organizer and donates to the anti-Fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War. He hangs out with Communist Party members, including his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), and eventually begins an ill-fated relationship with one Communist medical student named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Though Oppenheimer is not a member of the Communist Party, he’s still under the watchful eye of the FBI.



“Fusion” is shot in black and white and follows the 1959 Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission who – as we learn throughout the film – played a critical role in stripping away Oppenheimer’s security clearance five years earlier, angering many in the physics community. Strauss is Salieri to Oppenheimer’s Mozart, regularly and pathetically reminding others that he ALSO studied physics and that he’s the better person, unlike Oppenheimer who is a Communist sympathizer and cheats on his wife.


In 1942, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who is heading the Army’s effort to develop a nuclear bomb, taps Oppenheimer to oversee the program. Political suspicion clouds Oppenheimer’s name, but Groves vouches for him. Now Oppenheimer’s scientific and political lives collide. While he has great success with “The Manhattan Project” and test runs go extremely well, the scrutiny he’s facing due to his political relations makes him an easy target…and government officials are worried about putting that much power in the hands of a known Communist sympathizer.



The crux of Oppenheimer is, of course, the struggle between the man of principle and the man whose work is directly responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives. Oppenheimer, who is not only leftist but also Jewish, devotes himself to the creation of an atomic bomb because he knows the Nazis are far ahead in developing one, too. However, when Germany surrenders in 1945, he faces a moral dilemma – he must now create a weapon of unparalleled destruction while having no say in how it will be used.



In true Christopher Nolan fashion, Oppenheimer isn’t so much a lineal storyline as it is a jigsaw puzzle that’s been dumped on the floor. As viewers, it’s up to us to put it all together. That’s hard enough with most Nolan films, but add to that a truly bomb-bastic score that’s so loud in parts that it’s near impossible to hear the dialogue. I mean, there were times in the theater that I felt the floor shake. I guess in a movie about “The Father of the Atomic Bomb”, that might seem appropriate…though I just found it annoying.


Ultimately, naivete is Oppenheimer’s fatal flaw. Following the successful Trinity Test to make sure the bomb actually works, President Harry Truman drops the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And so begins Oppenheimer’s emotional fallout. “I feel that I have blood on my hands,” he says.


Oppenheimer is based on a book called “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind. In return, the gods changed Prometheus to a rock, and an eagle came every day to eat his liver. A good metaphor for Oppenheimer’s story.

 

Barbie

Director: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Margot Robbie, Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, Hari Nef, Sharon Rooney, Ana Cruz Kayne, Ritu Arya, Dua Lipa, Nicola Coughlan, Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, Scott Evans, John Cena, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Rhea Perlman, Helen Mirren, Will Ferrell, Michael Cera, Connor Swindells, Jamie Demetriou, Emerald Fennell, Asim Chaudhry, Ray Fearon, Erica Ford, Hannah Khalique-Brown, Mette Narrative, Marisa Abela, Lucy Boynton, Rob Brydon, Tom Stourton, Ann Roth, Annie Mumolo, Lauren Holt, Ryan Piers Williams

Oscar Wins: Best Music (Original Song) ("What Was I Made For?")

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Supporting Actress (America Ferrera), Best Costume Design, Best Music (Original Song) ("I'm Just Ken"), Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

 

It seems no toy has divided people more than the Barbie doll. She’s harassed by some for giving women an unhealthy, unrealistic view of their size and proportions. Yet she’s praised by others for being a true feminist icon, able to dominate any job in any industry, all in heels, of course.



The summer blockbuster, Barbie, also has audiences divided. True, it does many of the things you’d expect a movie like this to do: it both mocks and praises Barbie and her franchise; it shoots down the patriarchy with a glittery pink shotgun; it has witty writing, clever one-liners, truly amazing costumes, and a set design that is so nostalgic, you can almost smell the plastic. But Barbie never lets us forget how clever it’s being. Many of the good things about this film (of which there are plenty) end up being overshadowed by all the things this movie is trying so hard to be. Much like its namesake, it tries to put too much on its tiny, little shoulders – and there’s only so much weight a little 11.5-inch icon can carry.

 

Barbieland is nothing if not idyllic. Covered in candy-colored hues, this is a community where the grass is greener, the sky is brighter, and all the Dream Houses are wide open, allowing all the Barbies to greet each other with a “Hello, Barbie!” every morning.



Everyone in Barbieland is named Barbie (or Ken), and everyone has a meaningful job. There are astronaut Barbies, garbage-collector Barbies, Supreme Court Barbies, journalist Barbies, even a President Barbie. All the Barbies love and support each other, thriving because there are no men there to derail their self-esteem.

 

But Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) is the center of all the action. Like a Disney princess, we watch her wake each morning, throw off her sparkly pink covers, and fluff her already perfectly curled hair. She chooses an outfit, fake-eats waffles, and greets everyone with eyes that sparkle and a smile that looks painted on her perfect face. Yet, there’s a warmth about her. She’s the girl in school you hated the most – the one who’s hot and smart AND NICE.

 

Barbie’s boyfriend Ken (a perfect Ryan Gosling) is also one of many Kens. With his shaggy blonde hair and spray-tan chest, Ken’s entire personality is “Beach”. His existence is dependent on Barbie, though they generally don’t want them around. As the narrator (Helen Mirren) tells us, Barbie always has a great day…Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.



One day, Barbie awakens and realizes that nothing is right. Her hair is a mess, her waffle is burnt, she can’t stop thinking about death and, worst of all, she comes face to face with what can only be described as the Thanos of the Barbie universe: cellulite.

 

She decides to seek advice from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who tells her that the confusion is connected to something going on in the Real World and she must head out and fix it. Packed in her pink convertible, Barbie makes the journey to reality, reluctantly allowing Ken to come with her. There, he’s wowed to learn that men make all the money and basically rule the land. While Barbie becomes more involved in the complexity of human problems, including a riff between a Barbie-loving mom (America Ferrera) and her daughter (Ariana Greenblatt), Ken educates himself on the wonders of the patriarchy, bringing his newfound ideas back to empower the Kens, who threaten to take over the former utopia known as Barbieland.

 

And it’s here, dear readers, where the problems begin. After coming on strong with a wave of clever writing and zippy one-liners, the movie drags in the middle as it shifts to more serious themes. While I can certainly admire the big swings the film takes for and against our society, if offers so many that the movie has to stop in its tracks to explain itself to us, then continue to explain those points over and over again. In fact, the first half of the film did a better job conveying those ideas about toxic masculinity and entitlement in satire than the second half did in reality.



The perfect example – and I know I’m gonna get heat for this – is the soliloquy given by America Ferrera. In her speech towards the end of the film, she talks about being a modern woman and the contradictory standards to which society holds for us. The woman inside me loved it, feeling seen and heard for being average pretty much all my life, but this moment in the movie killed the momentum for me. Despite its many insights, I couldn’t help but feel it was preachy, maybe too on-the-(perfectly sculpted) nose.

 

Still, there’s no denying that Barbie is a joy to watch. Even if I wasn’t crazy about it, I had a great time watching it. If anything, it’s worth watching for Ryan Gosling, who understood his assignment as Ken better than any actor ever in the history of cinema.

 

And even though Barbie has viewers divided, it still offers inspiration for thoughtful conversations afterward, particularly for those raising young kids in today’s messed up world. It’s a modern-day moral, a lesson wrapped in pretty pink pumps, like sneaking spinach into your kid’s brownies (or blondies?). And hey, maybe that’s kenough.

 

Past Lives

Director: Celine Song

Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min Yim, John Magaro, Ji Hye Yoon, Choi Won-young, Min Young Ahn, Jojo T. Gibbs, Emily Cass McDonnell, Rederico Rodriguez, Conrad Schott, Kristen Sieh

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Picture, Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

 

When does a friendship become something more? When we laugh just a little too loud, stand just a little too close, stare just a little too long? In Past Lives, each subtle brush with affection is a spark that could – and sometimes does – lead to something more. It’s a story of childhood crushes, roads not taken, lives not led, and the heartbreak of regret. It’s the kind of nuanced story that is beautiful in its relatability, a story about two people who, try as they might to keep moving forward, are inexorably tethered to their past…and who can’t help but ask the question often pondered by lovers lost: what if?



As Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and Nora (Greta Lee) play together in a park in South Korea, everything feels hopeful. The air around them buzzes with chemistry, though neither of them quite knows what that means yet. Even though Nora knows nothing of love, heartbreak, or longing, her 10-year-old mind knows, somewhere deep down, that one day she will marry Hae Sung.



But when Nora’s family makes the decision to move to America, her friendship with Hae Sung is torn apart (these are the days before social media, people!). The friends literally take different paths into their future, with Nora heading upstairs, and Hae Sung slowly trudging forward.

 

It’s 12 years later and Nora is now settled in her new life as an up-and-coming New York playwright. When nostalgia gets the best of her, she finds herself creeping Hae Sung’s Facebook profile. Soon the two friends reunite (over Skype, but still!), and easily pick up right where they left off. In a heartwarming montage, we watch their rekindled friendship play out over a series of virtual conversations, both fun and serious. Their initial ‘work and the weather’ talks eventually give way to reality, and the very real possibility of meeting up again in person. But with Nora in New York and Hae Sung now in China, finding time to talk, let alone get together, seems impossible.

 

This drives a further wedge between the two friends. As their lives drift apart yet again, another 12 years pass before they find their way back to each other, with Hae Sung arriving in New York for work.



By this time, Nora is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), a novelist she met at a writing retreat. Though he’s visibly jealous of Nora’s deep connection to Hae Sung, he never tells her not to see her friend – jokingly calling himself the one “standing in the way of destiny”.

 

The few days Nora and Hae Sung have together are neither shocking nor salacious. There are no sex scenes, no moments of infidelity. Instead, Past Lives explores what it means for two people who have grown up together, but in widely opposing directions, to carry a love for each other that goes beyond romantic. A connection that becomes so ingrained, that the other person becomes a part of you, binding you both together, possibly for eternity.



In one pivotal moment in the film, Nora talks about the Korean concept of “in-yun”, the karmic bringing together of people who were connected in past lives. This film is a beautiful ode to this complicated Buddhist idea, showing how the past lives of Nora and Hae Sung exist in their childhood, preserved in memories of statues and car rides and heads resting on shoulders. It’s a heartbreaking mix of nostalgia, love and remorse, looking fondly at those “what if” moments not with regret, but enjoying them, like sandcastles washed away by time. We can still delight in the memories of our past lives while acknowledging the loss of our childhood, the things left behind, the roads not taken, and the relationships that were never meant to be.

 

American Fiction

Director: Cord Jefferson

Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Okieriete Onaodowan, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Miriam Shor, Michael Cyril Creighton, J.C. MacKenzie, Patrick Fischler, Ryan Richard Doyle

Oscar Wins: Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Jeffrey Wright), Best Supporting Actor (Sterling K. Brown), Best Music (Original Score), Best Picture

 

The summer of 2020 reignited an interest in Black stories written by Black authors. It was a year when the public deemed it “especially important” to read these works, particularly those discussing Black plight. And it wasn’t just the book market…

 

Movies like Get Out further explored the complicated intersection of the Black experience and White Liberal intention, people who fancy themselves the greatest cheerleaders of civil rights and justice…people who would have voted for Obama a third time if they could.



In context, American Fiction is similar. It’s a scathing satire, both hilarious and painful in its truth; however, it’s also emotional, moving and reliable on a very basic human level. It has a big beating heart, setting this film far and above others like it.

 

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) has hit his breaking point. The students in his Southern Lit class are oversensitive snowflakes. His family life is a mess. And his latest mythology-based book isn’t quite the best seller he was hoping it would be. It’s not because he’s a bad writer, it’s just that his books have been relegated to the bottom shelf of the “African American Studies” section of chain bookstores, simply because he’s a Black author.

 


His agent, Arthur (John Ortiz) explains that the public isn’t looking for highbrow mythological literature. The literary world wants “real Black stories”, consisting of gang violence, poverty, murder, single motherhood, poor grammar and prison time. The current best seller, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, written by a young middle-class Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), is everything the public wants and everything Monk hates.

 

Fed up with all of it, Monk chooses chaos. Ask and you shall receive, right? Clad in his tweed overcoat, Monk pens a story called My Pafology – filled to the brim with deadbeat dads, rappers, drugs, gun violence, murder, and police brutality. He even writes it other the pen name “Stagg R. Leigh”, a fugitive on the run from the FBI. Thrown together as more of a cathartic release and a middle finger to the publishing world, Monk intends his book to be a joke. The manuscript, however, is an overnight sensation. Publishing houses fight over the rights as an overzealous movie producer begins work on a film adaptation. This book isn’t just a hit. It’s the literary event of the year.



Amidst Monk’s struggle to cope with the acclaim of his faux novel, his family becomes a drama all its own. Death, sibling rifts, and his mother’s declining health only deepen Monk’s crisis of conscience. A slow-brewing relationship with neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander) offers some respite, but even that can go only so far when Monk has to continually hide his alter ego.



The great thing about American Fiction, at least up to this point, is you have no idea how this is going to end. How long can Monk keep up this façade? What happens when he eventually has to promote the book and show his face? Just when you think the film is going to take the easy way out, it drops a series of endings on you that try to weave together the satirical and dramatic but can’t help but trip over its own feet in the process. When we eventually land upright, a little worse for the wear, we finally realize what this movie has been all along…

 

Though it’s a bit wonky, American Fiction holds an important declaration in its bones. It’s a testament to art, in all its forms and colors, and a sharply pointed finger at the many institutions that keep it, and its creators, restrained.

 

The Zone of Interest

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Starring: Christian Friedel, Sandra Huller, Ralph Herforth, Daniel Holzberg, Sascha Maaz, Freya Kreutzkam, Imogen Kogge, Johann Karthaus, Lilli Falk, Nele Ahrensmeier, Luis Noah Witte, Kalman Wilson, Anastazja Drobniak, Cecylia Pekala, Julia Polaczek, Wolfgang Lampl, Max Beck, Medusa Knopf, Andrey Isaev, Zuzanna Kobiela, Stephanie Poznanski, Martyna Poznanski, Ralf Zillmann, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Christopher Manavi

Oscar Wins: Best International Feature Film, Best Sound

Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

 

In the grand scheme of things, most of the movies we watch just go in and out of our brains…trickling away, like handfuls of sand, as we continue to go about our daily lives. But there are others that become ingrained in our psyche, that swim around in the depths of our memory and become topics of deep, meaningful conversations about life and the human condition.

 

For me, films like Parasite (2020), The Father (2021), and Birdman (2015) easily fall into that category. While these are by no means my favorite films of all time, they’ve all had a very profound impact on how I watch and appreciate cinema. The Father, for example, is a film so emotionally gut-wrenching that I’m pretty positive I’ll never watch it again – yet it’s still implanted in me as an example of creative and original storytelling. And while The Zone of Interest isn’t quite on the same level, I’d still add it to this bucket of movies that will stubbornly cling to the folds of my brain for years to come.

 


The Zone of Interest begins on a lovely afternoon somewhere in the Polish countryside. A husband and a wife are enjoying a picnic on the banks of a river with their brood of children. They eat lunch, splash around in the water, bask in the sunshine, pick berries. It all looks so beautiful, so inviting. It could be your family. My family. There’s something universal and endearing about it.

 

We follow them home to a stunning villa with an enormous garden. A dog happily prances through the yard. Sunshine seems to hit every window. The whole scene feels light and breezy…

 

But something seems off. Were those just gunshots? It takes a moment of watching before we see the odd details intrude into the frame – for just beyond that rose bush is a tall cement fence, edged with barbed wire, and smokestacks visible in the distance.

 

On the other side of the garden wall is Auschwitz.



The Zone of Interest is a movie about blind eyes and deaf ears, about the horrors kept just out of sight and mostly out of mind. It follows a few weeks in the life of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller), as they raise their five children in an idyllic home mere feet from a death camp.

 

It’s also a film with two levels – everything we see and everything we hear. What we see is mostly a bland domestic documentary about some German family. But what we hear on the other side of that wall are the atrocities of the Holocaust. Gunshots sound in the distance as we watch children play in the pool. Screams echo through the air as Hedwig bends down so her baby can smell the flowers in her garden. The separation between these two things is the point of the film…specifically the way the Hoss family can easily dissociate from the evil that’s literally in their backyard. Out of sight, out of mind, right? They never acknowledge it. They never draw attention to it. To them, the sounds of gunfire might as well be twittering birds.

 


It should be said that this is not an instance where the Hoss family has no idea what’s going on next door…in fact, they’re VERY aware of it. They profit off the death camp in countless ways. Rudolph’s son stays up late at night to play with his collection of gold teeth. Hedwig is given a fur coat holding the lipstick of the previous owner. The Hoss daughters rummage through the intimates of those sent off to the gas chambers. Hedwig warns the Jewish girl who works in her house that she could “have my husband spread your ashes” across the fields if she steps out of line.

 

When Hedwig’s mother comes to visit, she’s at first taken with how stunning her daughter’s garden is, lush and thriving. However, when she witnesses the atrocities going on next door, she flees without saying goodbye. Hedwig, on the other hand, loves it there. She deems herself “The Queen of Auschwitz” (barf) and FIGHTS to stay in that house after Rudolf is transferred.



It’s easy to think we could never be so callous, that we would never do what the Hoss family has done…but the fact of the matter is we all, to come degree, are exactly like the Hoss family. When you walk down the street and spot a homeless person, do you stop and offer them food, money, shelter? If someone of a different race or gender approaches you and asks for a ride to a gas station, will you let them in your car? The reality is, all of us do less than we should. Most of us accept that a certain amount of tragedy is part of life – we just don’t like to acknowledge that aspect in ourselves. It’s much easier to focus on the other side of the wall.

 

There reaches a point in The Zone of Interest when the screams become ambient, like a horrific, yet subtle soundtrack. The lack of a musical score only adds to the discomfort. We never see into the camps – our view is always abstracted as if to test ourselves, to see if we are, perhaps, the sort of people who could also ignore that which we don’t see.

 


As much as The Zone of Interest is about a specific moment in time, it also takes into account how history records tragedy. Towards the end of the film, we cut to present-day Auschwitz. It’s being cleaned, swept, mopped, and vacuumed, prepped for visitors to witness the artifacts left behind. Up until this point, we’ve seen how ‘sanitation’ can be used to erase – washing blood off boots, washing private parts after having an affair – but in these present-day moments, we see how sanitation is being used to preserve. The scrubbing is not designed to erase what happened here, but to protect it. It’s a jarring moment at first (and one I didn’t like originally), but I’ve grown to really appreciate this scene and what it stands for.

 

If you’re avoiding The Zone of Interest because it’s ‘just another Holocaust movie’, I urge you to reconsider. There’s no interest in staging or recreating what we’ve already seen countless times before. This is a difficult film to watch and an even harder one to forget, as it should be. By the end, what we’re left with is a void, a sense of the nothingness that the banality of evil has left behind.

 

The Holdovers

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hempner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Andrew Garman, Naheem Garcia, Stephen Thorne, Gillian Vigman, Tate Donovan, Darby Lily Lee-Stack, Dan Aid

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Paul Giamatti), Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Snow is falling, families are gathering, gifts are being wrapped, trees are being trimmed…for those lucky enough to have loved ones to celebrate the holidays with, the Christmas season is just a big ol’ hug of holiday cheer…but for others, the holiday season is anything but jolly.

 

Anyone who has ever spent the holidays alone or who doesn’t have a reliable family to go home to can attest that there is no more torturous time than the Christmas season. In The Holdovers, three such lonely people spend Christmas together in a ‘found family’ movie that’s certainly heartwarming, but far from groundbreaking.

 


Every festive film needs a Grinch at its heart, and Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) fits the bill. Though he’s significantly less imposing than Ebenezer Scrooge, Hunham is still disliked by his students and colleagues. As a classics teacher at the prestigious Barton Academy in the early 1970s, Hunham puffs himself up with relentless quotes and factoids about ancient history, all to hide the fact that he’s a lonely, mean, hypocritical, stinky humbug. When he isn’t handing out failing grades, he’s yelling at students for the slightest infractions. He’s one of those guys who uses the little power he has belligerently, leaving him few friends.

 

Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a student at Barton, appears to be a natural foil for Hunham. He’s smart, popular, handsome, and rich, basically everything Hanhum isn’t. The film finally begins to take shape when fate finds these two alone together at Barton over Christmas break, along with the school cafeteria manager, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

 


Though all from different walks of life, Hunham, Mary and Tully are all grieving the loss of something, whether it’s a loved one or a life that didn’t quite come to be, and they will all influence each other in a heartwarming and genuine way. For Hunham and Tully specifically, this Christmas season they spend together is especially meaningful, as these two opposites realize they may not be so different after all.

 

In all honesty, The Holdovers really is no different than movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Matilda, Dangerous Minds, and School Ties. It’s just as heartwarming, just as quotable. There’s just as much tweed here as we’ve seen in any boarding school movie, and even the kids fall into their own cliches (there’s a popular one, a funny one, a mean one, a weak one, etc.).

 

I guess what makes The Holdovers different is that it puts a much bigger focus on character development. In Dead Poet’s Society, we knew near nothing of Mr. Keating’s homelife…but we’re very aware of how Hunham lives. When we’re in his room, the camera lingers on a bottle of hemorrhoid cream, dirty clothes on the floor, uneaten food lying about. This is clearly a man who wallows in his loneliness. When Christmas finally arrives, he gives everyone a copy of his favorite book because he’s just foolish enough to think normal people want philosophy textbooks as Christmas presents. And while he can whip out an insult at the drop of a hat (calling his students everything from “rancid little philistines” to “hormonal vulgarians”), words fail him when he’s confronted with kindness. A neighbor brings him a plate of Christmas cookies and he practically slams the door in her face. It was a very Mr. Bean moment!



It's no accident that Giamatti and Hunham share the same first name, as the character was written with Giamatti in mind. Handing him a role like this is like telling Leonardo DiCaprio to be a playboy. Giamatti easily embodies the wall-eyed, weird-smelling misanthrope, making his early scenes – like when he forces his students to jog through the snow (“Without sufficient exercise, the body devours itself!”) while standing still sucking on his pipe – quite funny. And, as his hard exterior begins to melt, it reveals the sad, desperate human underneath. He’s a curmudgeon you can’t help but love.

 

All good Christmas movies understand that the season is inherently sad. Feelings of nostalgia, family and the comfort of home can’t help but remind us of their opposite states: bitterness, loneliness and a sense of displacement. This is not a Christmas movie with lights and turkey dinners and garland on every door frame…this is a movie about three people who have all experienced loss and pain, and who now must rely on each other to get on the other side of New Year’s. It’s relatable in that it captures the sadness of sitting at home, watching reality TV on Christmas Eve and the warmth that comes from challenging yourself to connect with other lonely people who are going through the same thing.

 

Poor Things

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Kathryn Hunter, Jerrod Carmichael, Hanna Schygulla, Margaret Qualley, Vicki Pepperdine, Suzy Bemba, Keeley Forsyth, John Locke, Kate Handford, Owen Good, Damien Bonnard, Tom Stourton, Wayne Brett, Carminho, Jerskin Fendrix

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score), Best Picture, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

 

 A little Alice in Wonderland, a little The Wizard of Oz, and a whole lot of Frankenstein, Poor Things is the story of a young woman who embarks on an odyssey of self-exploration. Though the nuts and bolts of this framework may sound familiar, I’d wager a bet that you haven’t seen anything like this before.

 


We begin in Victorian London, in a time both in the past and somehow in the future. Bella (Emma Stone) lives in a large, winding house with Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a mad scientist who also serves as her father figure. Though Bella looks like a young woman, she behaves much like a toddler. With little to no vocabulary, she expresses herself through physical actions – hugging, punching, banging on piano keys. The only other occupants of the house are creatures you could only describe as ‘poor things’. These pets, including a dog with a duck body and a chicken with the head of a pig, clue us into the types of experiments Dr. Baxter likes to perform.

 

But, despite his looks, Baxter is far from a monster himself. He offers a gentle presence beneath his scarred face and feels compelled to protect Bella at all costs. He carefully selects one of his students, a mild-mannered boy named Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to help observe and record Bella’s growing development. As she works with Max to learn more about language and the norms of polite society, a fondness grows between the two of them.



Inevitably, Bella also discovers sex, first exploring her own body with childlike curiosity, then discovering the pleasure of using other objects (including apples and cucumbers) to make herself “happy” as she says. That’s great and all, but in the society in which she lives, her blossoming sexuality really does signal the creation of a monster.

 

For as nice and respectful as Max is, he’s no match for Duncan Wedderburn (a wonderful Mark Ruffalo), Baxter’s oily, smooth-talking lawyer who uses his nimble fingers to tickle Bella’s fancy (and other parts). He’s obsessed with Bella’s childlike curiosity and budding sexual desires and whisks her away on a lavish world tour.

 

Wedderburn introduces Bella to all sorts of carnal pleasures in all sorts of positions and places. When they have sex for the first time, the film – which up until now had mostly been filmed in black and white – explodes into wild, rapturous color, a clue to Bella’s journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. Along the way, she also learns about the pleasures of good food, dancing, reading, debating, and building friendships, as well as the cruelties that abound in the world, including poverty, death, and destruction.



Due to Bella’s naivete about the world, Wedderburn believes he can control her, but the joke’s on him. As Bella learns how to educate herself, she becomes even more threatening to his fragile male ego. The more her independence grows, the more desperately Wedderburn wants her, and Bella is soon repulsed by his neediness. It doesn’t take long for Bella to learn how she can make her own money and further secure her autonomy not just from Wedderburn, but from all men.

 

In this film that can only be described as a sexual journey, it should come as no surprise that there are a lot of sex scenes…a LOT. The bodies of Stone and Ruffalo, among many others, are on full display here – but the movie is after something more than just titillation. Much, if not all, of the time, it’s more focused on the absurdity rather than the ecstasy of sex. It’s weird and gross and funny, and Poor Things offers some of the most relatable and real conversations about sex that I’ve ever heard in cinema.

 

And if you’d rather not ogle Emma Stone’s boobies or Mark Ruffalo’s beefy dad bod, there’s plenty of stimulation in the stunning cinematography. Psychedelic skies and gloriously mis-matched costume pieces leave you with a giddy cinematic high – like eating too many custard tarts laced with hallucinogens. In this futuristic Victorian world, people movers soar over candy-colored buildings and steampunk hot air balloons float into deep purple skies. Often shot with fish-eye lenses, we can tell how strange this world must look to Bella’s eyes.



Some admirers of Poor Things have called it a feminist work, in which Bella’s erotic awakening becomes the key to her liberation. Others have compared it to Barbie, in which a woman’s childlike naivete becomes a weapon against the patriarchy.

 

But Bella is no Barbie – or should I say Barbie is no Bella – because Bella won’t be controlled, and she’s much too smart a character to be reduced to a symbol or an icon. She’s selfish, ignorant and sometimes cruel, but also extremely intelligent, witty, and kind. Though both women discover, in their own ways, that they don’t need men to feel fulfilled, Bella’s journey is so much more rewarding. While Barbie’s self-discovery stops just short of a gynecological exam, Bella’s journey goes way beyond the discovery of her lady bits (or “hairy business”), beyond masturbation, sex, and even companionship. For it’s not the parts that make a woman. Even Bella, who from all outward appearances is female, does not menstruate. Bella’s sense of femininity is not reduced to what (or who, for that matter) is between her legs, but by cultivating those experiences and lessons that fuel her sense of self-worth. No matter what the situation, Bella’s heart is always in the right place, even if her brains are not.

 

Anatomy of a Fall

Director: Justine Triet

Starring: Sandra Huller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaieb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger, Sophie Fillieres

Oscar Wins: Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Sandra Huller), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture


The first question asked in Anatomy of a Fall is a simple one: “What do you want to know?”

 

Author, wife and mother, Sandra (Sandra Huller) is trying to carry on an interview with one of her graduate students, which already feels awkward in its own right. The fact that her husband Sam (Samuel Theis) is blasting rock music from the upstairs of their multi-level French chalet doesn’t help, either. We don’t know if he’s trying to sabotage the interview or trying to trigger an avalanche.

 


Sandra is visibly annoyed, though she tries to carry on as best she can. The whole scene is uncomfortable, from the loud music that makes the dialogue hard to hear to the obvious distain Sandra has for this man we have yet to meet. The fact that we haven’t met him is meaningful. So much of Anatomy of a Fall is overheard, seen but misunderstood, misremembered, or taken out of context. When we finally do see him, he’s dead – sprawled out in the snow in a puddle of his own blood. The manner of his death suggests a fall, but was he pushed or shoved? Did he jump to his own death? Was there a bloody struggle beforehand?

 

For the next 2.5 hours, Anatomy of a Fall details and dissects the investigation and trial surrounding Sam’s death. Every decision made and not made throughout their marriage is scrutinized by people who have never met Sandra, Sam or their son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). Sam’s therapist claims he wasn’t suicidal, but – of course – he only saw what Sam wanted him to see. The student interviewing Sandra the day her husband died is asked questions about the state of a woman she barely knows.

 


When we actually get to the death investigation, the fatal fall is diagrammed from every possible angle. Every splatter of blood is analyzed obsessively. But ultimately, the court is less interested in explaining who dun it than it is in conducting an autopsy of Sandra and Sam’s marriage.

 

The only flashback we get of the couple happens at this point – a dispute in which long-held resentments rise to a furious boil. In a heated argument, Sandra and Sam fight about everything from their dwindling sex life to having to settle in France (something Sandra did not want to do but did for her husband’s sake). It’s an argument that highlights how couples communicate – or fail to – and what that failure can lead to in the end. It’s also important that neither Sandra nor Sam speak their native tongue (German for her, French for him), so they settle on English. Their son – the only witness to the crime – suffers from blindness brought on by an accident. No one in this family fully understands each other. No one fully sees each other.

 


I will not ruin the ending for you, but expect to have a lot of conversations about this movie once it’s over. Like any great film, it forces us to confront complicated questions about relationships, from those closest to us to those we have with members of society. It begs the question – how well do we really know the people we trust the most? In other words, it’s a film about storytelling – the stories we tell others about ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves about others.

 

Maestro

Director: Bradley Cooper

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Vincenzo Amato, Greg Hildreth, Michael Urie, Brian Klugman, Nick Blaemire, Mallory Portnoy, Sarah Silverman, Yasen Peyankov, Zachary Booth, Miriam Shor, Maya Hawke, Scott Ellis, Gideon Glick, Josh Hamilton, June Gable, Sam Nivola, Alexa Swinton, Kate Eastman

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Writing (Original Screenplay)


The blaring brass and flowing strings of the West Side Story overture are instantly recognizable. As trumpets, trombones and tubas blare out the jagged melody of “Tonight”, you almost can’t help but snap your fingers in preparation of what’s to come. It’s a soundtrack that’s just as iconic, if not more so, than the story it supports…and it’s a royal shame that we don’t even touch on it in this biopic about the composer of that inspirational score.


Directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, Maestro tells the story of Leonard Bernstein, a generation-defining artist that was known both for his compositions and his wild directing style. However, the storyline can’t quite keep up with Bernstein’s crazy pace, no matter how spastically he flails his arms about. The whole thing rushes from start to finish, lacking crescendos, key changes, and those much-needed shifts in dynamic that make a story like this engaging.



The curtain rises, or opens, in the bedroom of Lenny Bernstein’s (Cooper) loft apartment. It’s November 14, 1943, the fateful day when Bernstein, the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is called to go onstage when the main conductor falls ill. It will be his conducting debut. Overjoyed, he jumps out of bed, throws open the curtains and sprints out of his apartment towards Carnegie Hall. In the rush, we get just a glimpse of the naked man lying in his bed. The film then cuts to the aftermath of the concert – with Lenny onstage, overcome with joy. It would appear a star has been born.


What’s missing from this scene is basically everything. Almost any filmmaker would have given us just a glimpse of that concert – the electricity of taking that baton, the music pulsing through his veins, the visual transformation of a new rock star of the classical world…but Cooper (the director) doesn’t play it so obvious. It’s part of the film’s playful (sometimes annoying) tone that we almost never see Bernstein in his element, up on that podium, slicing the air with his baton. Instead it’s a movie that, much like its subject, goes where it wants to, giving us small glimpses of Bernstein’s life, almost like we’re eavesdropping.



Time passes (2 years in real life, 2 seconds in the movie) and we’re smack dab in the middle of a swanky party – and not just any party – the kind of party where people sing songs around a piano and blow cigarette smoke in each other’s faces. It’s here where Lenny meets Felicia (Carey Mulligan), a sweet and spunky actress who falls for the man pretty much instantly. She becomes his biggest fan, arguing that he should be composing more. “Why would you ever give this up?” she asks as three sailors dance in front of them in a dream fantasy set to Bernstein’s tunes from On the Town. “It’s not serious music,” he says.


And maybe that’s why we never see him composing music for the show, or even thinking about it, for that matter. Time passes and his compositions for On the Town, West Side Story, and the entire score he wrote for On the Waterfront are just mentioned in passing. Instead we watch Bernstein smoke, then smoke, then smoke some more. He and Felicia eventually get married (despite her having some knowledge of his bisexuality) and raise three children together. Though she achieves some fame as a dramatic actress, her career gets pushed aside to essentially run the Bernstein household.



While his relationship with Felicia is nothing if not complicated, it rarely digs beyond the surface. How does Felicia truly feel about sharing her husband with a series of men, most of whom could be her sons? When she catches him kissing a young boy in the hallway during a party, she icily scolds him: “Fix your hair. You’re getting sloppy.” It’s the closest we come to the raw, real emotion that would have given Maestro more heft.


When we finally do see Lenny conduct, leading an orchestra inside a cathedral in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, we see the beast in his true form. Bernstein has become the music and the music has become him. Bradley Cooper supposedly spent six years learning how to conduct to perfect this particular scene. The music possesses him as sweat cascades down his face. This is the apex of his joy. It’s easily the best scene in the entire film and the only time, I think, we really see Bernstein in his element.



But the crux of Maestro is that we never truly understand him deeply as a musician or a man. Bradley Cooper did not make a movie about Leonard Bernstein, American musical genius. He made a movie about Leonard Bernstein, bisexual/husband/cigarette smoker. Lenny certainly was all of those things, but without the music, he’s no different than Carey Grant or James Dean (for a film that got this balance right, at least in my opinion, check out the Cole Porter biopic, Delovely, starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd).


“A work of art does not answer questions. It provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers,” Bernstein famously said. Fittingly, we never quite learn what makes Lenny tick. Cooper’s Bernstein shows a mix of magnetism, passion and childlike egotism, but remains strangely elusive. The real man took chances with his work – it’s what made him an icon. Maestro would have been stronger if it did the same.

 

Killers of the Flower Moon

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, Jason Isbell, William Belleau, Louis Cancelmi, Scott Shepherd, Brent Langdon, Everett Waller, Talee Redcorn, Yancey Red Corn, Tatanka Means, Tommy Schultz, Sturgill Simpson, Ty Mitchell, Gary Basaraba, Charlie Musselwhite, Pat Healy, Steve Witting, Steve Routman, Gene Jones, Michael Abbott, Jr., Jack White, Larry Sellers, Barry Corbin, Randy Houser, Pete Yhorn, Katherine Willis, Norma Jean, Elden Henson, Steve Eastin, Larry Fessenden, Martin Scorsese, Vince Giordano

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Actress (Lily Gladstone), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score), Best Music (Original Song) ("Wahzhazhe [A Song for My People]"), Best Picture, Best Production Design


After being pushed off their property to the presumed wasteland of Oklahoma around the turn of the last century, the Osage Nation was stunned to find itself the recipient of the earthly gift of oil, a discovery that made them the wealthiest group of people in the country per capita.


Naturally those who had claimed a country they never owned wanted a piece of that action! Greedy white men, including a cattle baron named William King Hale (Robert De Niro), became self-declared ‘pillars of the community’, helping these “incompetent” Osage better control their assets. Through a series of political games, King became an ally to both the Osage and his fellow white men, crowning himself something like a father figure to the Osage people while lining his pockets with their money. As a true Scorsese villain, King doesn’t stab you in the back…he looks you in the eyes as his knife plunges into your gut.


A few miles down the road, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) steps off the train in Fairfax, Oklahoma. He likes whiskey, women and money, and not necessarily in that order. With no job or talent to speak of, he’s hoping his uncle, one William King Hale, can help him out.



As a young World War I vet, Ernest is both blandly ordinary and forgettable. He’s an Everyman, a Forgotten Man, a Man from Nowhere. He might be family, but King immediately sees someone he can use to his advantage. He convinces Ernest to marry a wealthy Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone), then help in doing away with her relatives and, ultimately, with her, in order to inherit their oil money.


The problem, of course, is that Ernest isn’t just going through the motions – he develops real feelings for Mollie. And, all the worse for her, she loves him, too. But he’s still coaxed and coerced by his uncle into a series of schemes to eliminate Mollie’s sisters and anyone else standing in the way of profit.



Soon after their marriage, various members of the Osage nation start dying, some under suspicious circumstances. Though she’s battling her own health issues, Mollie is shaken by the unexplained deaths of so many members of her community…not to mention the utter indifference of local law enforcement. She travels to Washington DC to seek federal involvement, which ultimately leads to the arrival of Tom White (Jesse Plemons), an FBI agent sent to investigate the murders happening in Oklahoma.


The book version of this story focuses mainly on agent White, and in an early version of the script, Leonardo DiCaprio was slotted to play him. However, director Martin Scorsese made the decision to flip the perspective to Ernest Burkhart, a choice that divided many, particularly in the Osage community. There were others, including Leonardo DiCaprio, that thought the film would have been better told from Mollie’s perspective, but I think there was a reason behind Scorsese’s choice here.



In many of Scorsese’s films, including Taxi Driver and The Wolf of Wall Street, he approaches the story of terrible crime through the eyes of those perpetrating them. By telling the story of the Osage murders through the eyes of Burkhart, a white man who married into an Osage family and actively helped destroy it from the inside, Killers of the Flower Moon offers a dismantling of the white savoir complex, a foil to movies like Dances with Wolves. Instead of focusing on the “heroic” deeds of the FBI, Scorsese puts a very real white monster at its center, then damns him for his actions. Like this year’s other contender, The Zone of Interest, this movie is about the banality of evil – and is necessary, for white Americans specifically, to see and digest it, because this evil is part of our heritage – and staring it in the face is an absolute necessity.


That being said, I still wanted more of an Osage story here. The parts of this movie I really enjoyed were told through Osage eyes – an owl flying through a window to visit a woman as she nears death, spirit guides waiting for their loved ones. These quiet moments held overwhelming power and easily dwarf everything else this film has to offer.



Scorsese is also the master of fast-talking shifty types trying to get away with something – but in Killers of the Flower Moon, everything seems to slow down, especially when the camera lands on Lily Gladstone. As Mollie, Gladstone is the quiet, powerful center of everything, letting her eyes say the words she cannot, sitting comfortably in silence. It’s a truly beautiful performance, and one that easily complements Scorsese’s two muses, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, in their first Scorsese collaboration. But despite De Niro’s angry cat face and Leo’s set of truly horrible teeth, it’s Gladstone’s face that stays etched in our memory.


“Can you find the wolves in this picture?”


Ernest Burkhardt reads this line out loud as he works his way through a children’s book just moments into Killers of the Flower Moon. Unlike the book it’s based on, the wolves in this film aren’t hidden at all. They’re pillars of the community, as it were. This is a movie about evil operating in plain sight. And when we put all the pieces together, it’s so easy to spot the wolves. The question is, what do we do when we find them?

 

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