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And the Oscars (Should) Go To...

by Aliki Bitsakakis

The Oscars are upon us and for the first time in a number of years, I’m pretty excited. Here are my picks for the 96th Academy Award winners.

Actors from best picture nomnees
2024 Best Picture Nominees
Best Picture
Oppenheimer
What more can we say about Oppenheimer? Christopher Nolan’s career has been leading to this moment, where he will finally be recognized for his contribution to modern cinema. Oppenheimer has everything going for it: commanding acting performances, an emotional and dramatic score, striking visual pieces, a story that is relevant and important. It was a fresh take on a historical biopic, as Nolan told the story in an arrangement that emphasized the lasting impact of nuclear war. Moments such as the bomb testing and Oppenheimer visualizing the destruction he has unleashed on human beings, will stick with us for a long time. Oppenheimer will, and deserves to, win Best Picture because it was a cinematic achievement that was expertly crafted on every front. You can feel the passion and technical skill that went into this project and that is why it won the battle of the summer, as well as the year.

Best Director
Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer
No one has a filmography like Christopher Nolan. His mind works at twice the speed of a normal man’s, yet he crafts his films in such a way that we are all right there with him. We may be sprinting to keep up, but he never speaks down to his audience nor believes them too stupid to understand his stories. Nolan has been deserving of an Academy Award for a long time. In his Golden Globes acceptance speech, he said, “As a director… I can only accept this on behalf of people.” Christopher Nolan is a leader. And Oppenheimer was no easy project to lead. Three and a half hours, two timelines, the script was written in first person, who does that!! Christopher Nolan is a visionary, and he is the director that will be remembered fifty, a hundred years from now. 

Best Lead Actor
Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
After Peaky Blinders, I truly thought I wouldn’t be able to see Cillian Murphy in any other role ever again. Thomas Shelby seemed to have been made for him, and his iconic costumes, one-liners, and haircut have been seared into my mind. And then Murphy became J. Robert Oppenheimer and I realized that Thomas Shelby was just another notch in his list of achievements, but nowhere near the peak of what he could achieve. Cillian Murphy is one of those actors who doesn’t necessarily look different in each role, but gets completely lost in the character, so the audience forgets who they’re looking at. Everything from his stance, to his pattern of speech, to the haunted look in his eyes, was perfect. I completely believed him, I empathized with him, and Cillian Murphy as an actor deserves every accolade. 

Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer
Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer
Best Lead Actress
Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
I debated this one for a long time. I genuinely think it’s a 50/50 split between Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone for lead actress, and it’s very difficult to decide because their performances were polar opposites. Emma Stone in Poor Things was over the top as Bella Baxter. She was playing a woman who was going through life from birth, and captured every stage of life as she discovered joy and freedom. Her performance was quirky, commanding through big actions, goofy dancing, and witty lines. Lily Gladstone played Mollie Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon, an Osage woman whose family was being murdered one by one, for the theft of their land and money. Whereas Stone jumped through the scene, Gladstone remained poised. Her performance was in her stiffness. In her eyes. She stole the show from Robert de Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, and even Martin Scorsese. Truly, both women deserve the Oscar. And I felt that Gladstone was more of a supporting actress rather than lead, based on her screentime. Were she in the supporting category, she would win. Now against Emma Stone, it could go either way. I just have the gut feeling that Gladstone will take it. Maybe because Scorsese’s film was more on brand for the Academy. Maybe because we still place dramatic performances above comedic performances. It’s a gut feeling, but I won’t be sure until a name is called.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer
I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a clear winner. Robert Downey Jr. has won every single award he has been up for this awards season, and he seems to have a million hilarious speeches written, ready to go. It’s undeniable. I’ve heard from many people that they didn’t even realize that was Robert Downey Jr. until well into the movie. He immersed himself in this world, and seemed to carry the entire world on his shoulders. He deserves it and he will get it.

My honourable mention here is Sterling K. Brown. That man is amazing in everything he does, have we all seen his episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine? In American Fiction, Brown delivered a compelling performance for such little screentime. There was a lot suppressed in his cynical character, and I felt he stole whatever scene he was in. This is his first Oscar nomination, but he will get more, and he’ll get a trophy one day too. Robert Downey Jr. is just too far ahead.

Best Supporting Actress
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers
Overall, supporting actress is a weak category this year. However, Da’Vine Joy Randolph would be the underdog, and a deserving winner, in a strong year as well. The fear there would be that she would be overshadowed by someone more polished, someone famous. So, I’m happy this category has given her room to shine. The Holdovers was a surprise of a movie. It felt like it had been filmed in the 80s, and has immediately become a Christmas classic. Randolph plays a woman mourning the loss of her son. The scene where she finally reaches her limit, and cries in the kitchen, won her this Oscar. As I’ve mentioned, those subtle performances are really hard to do. It’s easy to yell and scream and shock your audience. But suppression, silence, delivering two-word lines with such a punch, that’s tough. And Randolph got everyone with that suppressed sob. I’ve mentioned this before as well, and I’ll keep saying it: filmmaking is about empathy. And no one can tell me they didn’t feel what she felt.

Sandra Hüller in Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall
Sandra Hüller in Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall
Best Original Screenplay
Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall
This screenplay was a masterclass on writing. A worthy Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, this film explores the intricacies of gender dynamics when a woman is on trial for being suspected of killing her husband. The court scenes hooked you, as you flipped how you felt about the situation with every argument. And the home scenes got you emotionally, as you experienced the terror from the point of view of the child caught in the middle. Nothing in this movie was explicitly said; the audience was left to conduct their own investigation, and check themselves on whose side they were supporting. The strongest moment of the story came halfway through, when the reenacted recording revealed the fight the couple had before the husband died. I realized during this scene that in a very subtle way, traditional roles were reversed, and as the breadwinner of the family, Sandra was being held by different standards and being perceived by the court much more harshly than a man would in this situation. (And then I caught myself thinking, “Am I just sympathizing with her because I’m a woman? Would I feel the same way if my role were reversed as well?) I think the true brilliance of the script came through the fact that this was never pointed out, it was shown to us and in order to see the grander societal comment, the audience really had to participate. An original story, a complex and challenging script, a strong competitor all awards season, Anatomy of a Fall has my pick. 

Best Adapted Screenplay
Cord Jefferson, American Fiction
For me, Adapted Screenplay is between American Fiction and Poor Things. I think the Academy will give it to American Fiction in the end because it really felt like a novel come to life. There’s a lot to say about the practice of adaptation, but on a small scale, I think the perfect adaptation honors the original text, while creating a fresh and unique piece of storytelling. Cord Jefferson did just that. There were a lot of talking scenes in this movie, that you could imagine would flow better on the page, and would run the possibility of running dry on screen. But Jefferson made each conversation quick and witty. The characters openly discussed the themes of the movie, without ever feeling too heavy-handed. When telling a story about a black writer who feeds into racial stereotypes as a joke/experiment, only to be propelled into fame and success, it would have been easy to write it in a cheesy or insincere way. However, Jeffrey Wright’s character felt very real, there was a clear style and tone to the script, and the cynical social commentary was balanced with grounding family and relationship dynamics. American Fiction and Poor Things are brilliantly-written movies, and should inspire you to pick up the original texts as well.

Snubs
I feel in the years to come, we’re going to be returning to Past Lives as the film that deserved a little more love. Celine Song deserved a directing nomination. This may have been Song’s directorial debut, but her storytelling was extremely confident. The story was simple, but she trusted the audience to stay with her and took her time to create some beautiful moments. Emotionally, Song got me more than some of the other nominees. Song may have been overlooked because of the Academy’s past prejudice of women, and women of colour, or maybe because it was Song’s first film they couldn’t justify placing her above someone like Scorsese. I don’t think this is a total disaster because it was Song’s first film, and with an eye like hers, this isn’t the last we will see from her. Another snub is Greta Lee for Past Lives, but the competition for lead actress is pretty strong. I think she had it over Carey Mulligan, but I can see how the Oscar voters favored the wife in the biopic over the original story about the Korean woman struggling with her identity. 

Greta Lee in Celine Song's Past Lives
Greta Lee in Celine Song's Past Lives
Surprises
My surprise of the season is that Bradley Cooper is allowed to direct movies. Don’t get me wrong, I like him as an actor. But not all actors can direct. Especially when doing both simultaneously. Maestro was a boring mess. It was about nothing. Okay, it was about Leonard Bernstein. But was it about his sexuality, his marriage, his musical career? Was it about all of those things? I felt that it was about none of those things. No plotline was developed enough to engage me, and the organization of scenes and events seemed random and amateur. Cooper failed to create interesting pieces that convey the emotion and information he is intending to convey. It took me two sittings to get through this simple movie. If Bradley Cooper is serious about directing, he should focus on that. Don’t act in it as well. That isn’t a shot against Bradley, it’s just a really hard thing to do, especially for a first-time/second-time director. To gain any skill, you need to focus on that skill. Just because you’re a celebrity, that doesn’t mean you inherently know how to put a movie together.

Achievements
Not one, not two, but three best picture nominees are directed by women! Greta Gerwig and Barbie, Celine Song and Past Lives, and Justine Triet and Anatomy of a Fall. We also have actors of color nominated in every category: Colman Domingo and Jeffrey Wright for lead actor, Sterling K. Brown for supporting actor, Lily Gladstone for lead actress, Danielle Brooks, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and America Ferrara for supporting actress. Colman Domingo and Jodie Foster are making history as marking the first time that two openly gay actors are nominated for playing LGBTQ characters. Celine Song is the first Asian woman nominated for best original screenplay. And if Lily Gladstone wins, she’ll be the first Native American person to do so.

Within the acting categories are 10 first time nominees: America Ferrara, Cillian Murphy, Colman Domingo, Danielle Brooks, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Emily Blunt, Jeffrey Wright, Lily Gladstone, Sandra Hüller, and Sterling K. Brown. If my predictions are correct, all acting awards will go to people who have never won an Oscar, three of which have never been nominated before. Also, a special mention goes to Sandra Hüller who stars in two best picture nominated films, and in both gave us miraculously different and impressive performances. And, 3 best picture nominees are in languages, or partially in languages, other than English.

When looking at diversity within the Oscars, and any major award, things will not change overnight. I think we can all look at the diversity this year, and see how damn deserving all these films and filmmakers are. That is progress. Facilitating environments for the development of skill. Offering equal opportunity to all, and seeing what we do with it. Supporting those who are excelling in their fields, no matter their background. There are good things to come from this year in film.

If Oppenheimer cleans up the way we expect it to, here are the people who will be taking home Oscars for the first time: Christopher Nolan for Best Director, Cillian Murphy for Lead Actor, Robert Downey Jr. for Supporting Actor, Hoyte van Hoytema for Cinematography, and Jennifer Lame for Editing. If Ludwig Goransson wins for Score, it will be his second Oscar. It is a year of those deserving finally winning their prizes. This is a tumultuous industry, and many people go their entire careers with no recognition for incredible work. Hopefully, we’re starting to get a bit better at celebrating those worth celebrating.

The family's backyard in Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest
The family's backyard in Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest
Other Predictions
Costume and production design to Poor Things. The designers on this team created a new world for Bella to play through, and it was mind-blowing. Everything from the snowy streets to the swirling sky were really there for Bella to dance through, no CGI required. And that theater-like production really put the actors and the viewers in this world to play with Bella. 

Sound and International Feature need to go to The Zone of Interest. There are many amazing films this year, so no one is talking too much about The Zone of Interest. But this film was another masterclass on filmmaking. Glazer created a haunting environment that showed us the human side of pure evil. It was an emotional experience that changed every pair of eyes on it. Sound was used in this film as an emotional tool. The more you perked your ear, the more horror you heard from the other side of the fence. 

This is an unpopular opinion but I think Original Song should go to Barbie…for “I’m Just Ken.” I understand that “What Was I Made For?” came during the emotional crisis of the film. But by that point, I was so tired of rolling my eyes that it just didn’t hit me. “I’m Just Ken,” on the other hand, is on par with “Am I a Man or a Muppet?” from The Muppets, which won best original song in 2012. We undervalue how difficult it is to write comedy, and how difficult it is to write a comedic song. “I’m Just Ken,” got stuck in everyone’s head, SNL parodied it with Pete Davidson, they released a Christmas version, and it was vital to the character development of Ken (who may have accidentally been the protagonist of this film). 

And there you have it! This is a year of firsts, of diversity, of compelling dramas and inventive comedies. Technical mastery meets meaningful creativity in a year that will hopefully inspire future filmmakers and movie-goers to search for something with heart. Let me know how wrong you think I’ll be, or wait until after the show to rub it in my face!


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