The Academy Awards matter. Without them, we’d have all Spiderman all the time. Hollywood’s dreams of critic-proof, merchandise-buying audiences promoting opening day with repetitive viewings and internet glee would come true. And the multinational corporations churning out movies by number would have the game entirely to themselves.
Enter the Oscars. Though this is not why they began, they provide an important service to those of us who love movies, film history and the fun of great cinema. It’s a living dream of everyone in the business to win one. There is a level of quality and peer acceptance like nothing else, a reason to rise to the top.
The 94th Academy Awards is a year of a few great films and some fine performances. Technology mixed with imagination, plus fine production design, editing, direction and writing, are the makings of a good film. Usually, there is an embarrassment of cinematic riches come Oscar time, but not this year. Still, a few movies stood out above the rest. Here are my picks.
I watched the remake of West Side Story with much trepidation. The original is that rarity: a perfect movie musical. Would Steven Spielberg have the audacity to pull off a successful new version? He did, with style and creativity that never got in the way of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s remarkable music and lyrics. He opened up the setting to the streets, opted for a gritty rather than gorgeous (aside from the leads) cast, and delivered a pacing that kept me from looking at my watch — achievements that begged for the big screen and tied with one other for my film of the year.
Being the Ricardos put writer/director Aaron Sorkin at the top of his craft. As compelling as the story of “I Love Lucy” is, he chose to bring in the story of Lucy’s shameful McCarthy Blacklist, examine her technical ability with comedy and address Desi’s womanizing. It was matched with a mood and production details of the time. I was fortunate to take a seminar from Lucille Ball toward the end of her life. The woman in the film was the technician, a serious person that I met then. The courage of the two leads, Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, to take on the characters of these two icons is an accomplishment in itself: They may not have looked like Desi and Lucy, but they caught their essence. I am holding onto my copy of Sorkin’s script the studio sent; it’s an inspiration.
For a nonfiction fan like me, the best scripts, books, plays, TV and movies come from truth. Billy Wilder once told me that even high comedy is at its best when it’s played for truth. This holds true in every frame of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, which reflects his childhood growing up in Northern Ireland. Far more than a tale of the battle between the Catholics and Protestants, in this film we experience the breakdown of family and friends through the eyes of a charismatic young boy. It makes us want to take the journey with this boy and his family, all colorful characters on their own. As a longtime fan of Branagh, I had high expectations, and they were beautifully met.
Performances I’m rooting for this year include Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Baker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Kristen Stewart in the deeply flawed Spencer, Will Smith in King David, Anthony Ramos in In the Heights and Jennifer Hudson in Respect. Inspired supporting role performances include Cate Blanchett in Don’t Look Up, Ruth Negga in Passing, Ciaran Hinds in Belfast, Kirsten Dunst in Power of the Dog, Forest Whitaker in Respect, Ariana DuBose in West Side Story and Charlotte Rampling — weird as always — in Benedetta.
It was a year for writers and production designers. My picks for Adapted Screenplay are Tony Kushner for West Side Story and Joel Coen for The Tragedy of Macbeth (with a little help from “The Bard.”), and for Original Screenplays, Sorkin and Branagh. Sometimes, production design was better than the film itself, like for Power of the Dog, Nightmare Alley, The French Dispatch and Spencer. Germaine Franco for Encanto and Hans Zimmer for No Time to Die contributed unforgettable scores, and my vote goes to House of Gucci for Costume Design and In the Heights or Being the Ricardos for Cinematography. Also, Quest Love gave us an important and entertaining documentary: Summer of Love.
I’m invested in these films, but will likely be disappointed on Oscar night since there are many reasons people in the Academy vote for their favorites. I’m grateful to have films to root for, however, and grateful for the Oscars!
For more on Better:
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- South America, Evolutionary History, and the World of a Little-Known, Intriguingly Intelligent Bird of Prey: Johnathan Meiburg’s “A Most Remarkable Creature”
Jan Wahl is a double Emmy winner for documentary production and a member of the Directors Guild of America. She lectures, teaches, emcees community events and writes, as well as broadcasts weekly on KGO Radio and the International Armed Forces Radio Network.