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Oscars 2022: The Best Picture contenders ranked - and what to watch for at 94th Academy Awards



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Our film critic Mark Walsh delivers his verdict on the movies vying for the big prize.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank and Jesse Plemons as George Burbank in The Power of the Dog. Picture: Netflix/Kirsty Griffin
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank and Jesse Plemons as George Burbank in The Power of the Dog. Picture: Netflix/Kirsty Griffin

The biggest night of the film calendar is almost upon us again, but the Academy Awards have caused controversy this year before they’re even handed out.

The TV broadcast has dropped some of the more technical awards to focus on the main categories, prompting an outcry from a number of famous film makers, including Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.

Testing the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, it will be interesting to see if these changes actually attract a wider audience. But either way, the Oscars represent a celebration of the best film-making over the last 12 months.

Here’s my ranking of the Best Picture runners and riders, from least to best, as well as my thoughts on what will actually win the big prize and the other things to look out for.

You can watch the Oscars live on Sky Cinema Oscars from 1am on Monday, March 28, or via NOW TV.

My least favourite:

Don’t Look Up

(available on Netflix)

Having cut his directing teeth on comedic nonsense such as the Anchorman films and Step Brothers, Adam McKay has turned to increasingly political stories in recent years. But where The Big Short was a pin-sharp dissection of the financial crisis laced with meta comedy, Don’t Look Up is a sledgehammer-subtle analogy for the climate crisis with more scenery chewing than your average pantomime. It’s also not been helped by the creative team’s insistence on social media that they’ve made a Really Important Film; it would have been nice if they could have made one that didn’t feel like an assemblage of unseen Saturday Night Live sketches.

CODA

(available on Apple TV)

It’s now looking a strong favourite to follow in the footsteps of Ben-Hur and The Departed as a Best Picture-winning remake, in this case of 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, after winning top prizes for the producers and actors guild’s awards. It’s to be applauded that deaf actors were actually cast in the three leading roles (alongside Emilia Jones, daughter of Aled), all of whom give powerful performances which bring charm and passion to the heart-warming story of a family struggling to make their fishing business work. It’s a shame, then, that the script has the air of three different TV movies welded together, a peak of narrative predictability that feels afraid of taking any real risks.

King Richard

(rent or buy online)

For all-round crowd-pleasing entertainment, the tale of the rise to stardom of Venus and Serena Williams is the equal of any film on this year’s list and, in Will Smith’s charismatic, shambling version of their father Richard, a performance destined to grace end of year awards lists from the first scene. There always feels like there’s a more interesting, nuanced version of the film loitering on the periphery, such as when Richard is nearly involved a drive-by shooting or when his wife (Anjunae Ellis) calls him out on all of his failures, but Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film prefers to keep most of its drama for on the tennis court.

Licorice Pizza

(rent or buy online)

Given the run of genius-level filmmaking that Paul Thomas Anderson has put together – his previous four films were There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread – Licorice Pizza feels a shade disappointing by comparison. It’s a sprawling, not quite coming-of-age tale detailing the growing affection between teenage entrepreneur Gary (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper) and photographer’s assistant Alana (Alana Haim of the band Haim). The two leads have a cute yet awkward chemistry but the succession of cameos, from Bradley Cooper to Tom Waits, never quite gels into the equal of Anderson’s early work such as the superior Boogie Nights. The debate over some queasy racism in a couple of scenes has probably overshadowed the film’s big awards chances.

Nightmare Alley

(available on Disney+)

One thing you can’t accuse Guillermo Del Toro of is a lack of ambition with this adaptation of the novel by William Linsday Gresham – full of star performances and all of the director’s trademarks, including occasional flashes of body horror, are brought into a more grounded neo-noir. It’s set around a travelling carnival, and still shares significant DNA with the director’s more fantastical works from Pan’s Labyrinth to The Shape Of Water. The cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Willem Dafoe, are uniformly excellent and the script, from Del Toro and his wife Kim Morgan, picks away at the scabs of the characters’ souls as it spirals towards an inevitable, satisfying conclusion.

West Side Story

(available on Disney+)

Clearly a passion project for its director, Stephen Spielberg invigorates the legendary musical that combines the words of Stephen Sondheim, the music of Leonard Bernstein, the concept by William Shakespeare and a screenplay by regular screenwriter Tony Kushner that fixes some of the datedness of Robert Wise’s 1961 original. Despite this, it feels intimately of its period, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography capturing both the warmth of the central love story, now developed more convincingly, and the sweeping drama of epic musical set pieces. On this evidence, it’s a real shame that it’s taken Spielberg this long to make a musical, as long as you don’t count Indiana Jones opening scenes…

Dune

(rent or buy online)

Huge is the key word for the first half of this adaptation by Denis Villeneuve of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel. Despite being somewhat of a behemoth, Villeneuve succeeds in condensing its galaxy-spanning narrative into a manageable and compelling space opera in a way that David Lynch’s 1984 attempt never managed. Among the huge cast, Rebecca Ferguson and Jason Momoa leave the greatest impression, but it’s the sheer sense of scale that Villeneuve conjures up that feels unmatched, even in this era of bloated CGI epics. Thankfully, audiences responded in large enough numbers to ensure that we’ll get to see the second half of the story in a couple of years.

Belfast

(rent online)

One of the most unexpected treats of the year has been Kenneth Branagh’s ebullient tale inspired by his own childhood in Northern Ireland’s capital. Belfast perfectly captures the sense of The Troubles as they would have been observed by a young boy more interested in comic books and westerns, with a winning performance by Jude Hill as the observer of family life on the divided streets of his home. While live-in grandparents Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds have received more awards attention, it’s actually the parents (Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) who anchor the family drama. It’s a life-affirming joy that pays homage to other cinema of childhood while carving out its own joyous niche in the genre.

Drive My Car

(rent or buy online)

Japanese cinema has long been some of the best in the world at intimate character drama, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi is making a reputation for himself as another of its finest exponents. He’s up for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay as well for his expansion of a Haruki Murakami short story into a layered, intricate character drama that explores grief, regret and the complexity of relationships. It’s anchored by Hidetoshi Nishijima, superb as the man trying to deal with the cast of his new play and the complex relationship he had with his late wife, all the while forming a gradual bond with his driver (Toko Miura).

My favourite:

The Power of the Dog

(available on Netflix)

If it was down to me, then Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel would just shade Drive My Car to the big prize on Sunday. It’s not just the quartet of stunning performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee (all acting nominees), it’s Jane Campion’s taut direction, twisting the drama almost to breaking point before the gratifying denouement, backed up by Jonny Greenwood’s wonderfully spiky score. She uses the New Zealand landscapes, which double for 1920’s Montana, to create a sense of isolation that becomes all the more powerful when each pairing of characters comes into conflict. Campion could deservedly become only the third woman to win Best Director, after Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao.

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