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Reviewing the Best Pictures: What should and will win at the 2022 Academy Awards

The 2022 Academy Awards Best Picture category is stacked with 10 distinct films, all vying for the highest award.
The 2022 Academy Awards Best Picture category is stacked with 10 distinct films, all vying for the highest award.

Award season speculation kicked up in earnest with the announcement of the 2022 Academy Awards nominees at the start of February. Leading into the ceremony on Sunday, March 27, here is every film nominated for best picture reviewed (listed alphabetically), including their chances at taking home the Oscar.

“Belfast”

Inspired by Kenneth Branagh’s own experiences growing up in Northern Ireland, “Belfast” makes few outright mistakes while taking very few risks. 

The film’s world is sincere and charming enough to keep it from feeling like Oscar-bait, with relatable characters including a standout performance from Caitríona Balfe. Yet there's also a sterile quality to it that keeps real emotional resonance at arm's length.

Despite directly referencing the historical religious conflict in Northern Ireland, the film struggles to find anything to say about it. Instead, “Belfast” puts family drama at the forefront which, while not poorly handled, feels less immediate and gripping.

"Belfast" is a mostly competent and largely inoffensive film, and Branagh's industry credibility makes it a likely candidate to take the award — just don't go in expecting anything new or surprising.

“CODA”

One of the most charming and instantly likable films nominated, “CODA” takes a well-worn formula and changes it just enough to still feel exciting and engaging.

The film focuses on a teenage girl born into a deaf family, struggling as the only member who can hear and with wanting more outside of her family’s fishing business. Emilia Jones shines in the role, mixing passion and sarcasm to form an incredibly strong central character.

Director Sian Heder integrates typical coming-of-age tropes and cliches from similar films, but the film has just as many moments that elevate the material and keep it from feeling too familiar. Several scenes toward the end of the film hit surprisingly hard emotionally as well.

“CODA” is a total delight from beginning to end and an easy recommendation. Whether it can hold its own come ceremony time remains to be seen, but similar films have pulled upsets in the past, and this could be that wild card among this year’s batch of nominees.

“Don’t Look Up”

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Adam McKay’s latest socially-charged dramedy may be marginally more bearable than his previous effort “Vice,” but “Don’t Look Up” is equally as clunky and sticks out like a sore thumb among the other best picture nominees. 

Following a duo of scientists as they try to warn the world of an incoming extinction event, the film suffers from similar problems as McKay’s previous, more serious affairs: on-the-nose and occasionally condescending dialogue, ham-fisted analogies and baffling editing choices. It refuses to commit to a consistent tone or focus, and the resulting product feels like watching CNN with a laugh track. 

A few good jokes, individual scenes and performances keep “Don’t Look Up” from becoming a total bore, but a film vying for the highest honor in the industry shouldn’t barely scrape above passable.

“Drive My Car”

Quiet yet captivating, “Drive My Car” is easily the best film nominated and one of the best films of 2021.

The Japanese film follows a stage actor who, two years after a traumatic loss, returns to direct a play while bonding with a hired driver. While the set-up may seem basic, the film hides a great deal of subtlety within, introducing characters and conflicts that keep the film interesting across its three-hour runtime.

The film offers plenty to analyze, both in terms of the practical filmmaking and the nuances of the themes and ideas being explored. The film’s use of silence especially stands out; as the title implies, significant portions take place during car rides, and this allows for the actors to shine both in terms of what is and is not said.

While “Drive My Car” doesn’t seem to have the push behind it that it would need to win, few other nominees are as excellently arranged. It’s the kind of film the Oscars were made for, with just the nomination hopefully driving attention to this beautiful work.

“Dune”

Denis Villeneuve’s latest science fiction epic “Dune” is this year’s mandatory blockbuster nominee and continues the French-Canadian directors’ streak of excellent films.

An adaptation of the first half of the iconic novel, “Dune” drops an all-star cast into a meticulously designed world, getting great performances out of everyone, especially Jason Momoa, Oscar Issac, Rebecca Ferguson and lead Timothée Chalamet.

While the script and overall narrative is solid, the film really succeeds in its world-building. Vast deserts, massive cities and intricate spacecrafts create a believability to the environments that sell the occasionally muddled mix of politics and interpersonal drama.

The biggest criticism of “Dune” is that the story isn’t done, with a sequel concluding the novel’s narrative set for 2023. This, along with the Academy’s traditional ignorance of science fiction, will likely impact the film’s chances at the awards, but it’s still very much a journey worth going on.

“King Richard”

Every Oscars needs a biopic in the best picture category, and this year’s choice is “King Richard,” based on the life of the father of Venus and Serena Williams.

Part sports film and part family drama, “King Richard” doesn’t stray far from the typical trappings of the genres it inhabits, but manages to at least partly succeed at most of them. The film is not without faults though; it starts to drag in its last hour and seems a little confused with how it wants to communicate its message.

Will Smith’s lead performance is easily the most memorable aspect of the film. Smith has a natural pathos that he uses to craft a well-rounded character who is equally likable and emotionally complicated. It helps elevate the narrative and makes what happens more compelling than it may have been otherwise.

“King Richard” falls in the middle of the pack both in quality and likelihood of winning. While by no means bad, the film is primarily carried by its lead performance, which makes it much more competitive in the acting category than any other.

“Licorice Pizza”

Style, setting and subtlety dominate "Licorice Pizza," the latest period-piece dramedy from Paul Thomas Anderson. 

A coming-of-age romantic comedy with a twist, the film finds power in the little things; one-liners, brief conversations, glances from across the room. Alana Haim’s stellar lead performance and the momentum from Anderson's top-notch directing leave a strong first impression.

That said, there are some questionable and borderline uncomfortable choices, specifically the age gap between the two main characters, that keep the film from feeling fully-formed. While the quality of the surrounding material makes them easier to swallow, they still linger in the background for much of the runtime in a distracting way. 

“Licorice Pizza” isn’t perfect, but it's hard not to be swept up in the ride, and if the Oscars want to play to an audience favorite, the film could clean up nicely.

“Nightmare Alley”

A psychological drama with allusions to the supernatural, “Nightmare Alley” is Guillermo del Toro’s second best picture nominated film in a row, and in many ways surpasses 2017’s winner “The Shape of Water.”

Bradley Cooper leads an impressive ensemble as a drifter-turned-carnival worker with an excellent performance that is equally likable and distrustful. Cooper’s morally gray protagonist serves as a fantastic foil to Rooney Mara’s hopeful naivete and Cate Blanchett’s cold calculation, along with contributions from everyone from Willem Dafoe to Toni Collete.

The signature dreaminess of del Toro’s films is aided by a powerful sense of tension and uncertainty as the plot tightens and situations turn dire. The film avoids massive plot twists or revelations in favor of a natural progression that builds to an incredibly satisfying payoff.

Though “Nightmare Alley” is one of the best films nominated, it may be a little too weird for Academy voters to push it for best picture, even with del Toro’s pedigree. Still, it fully deserves its nomination and stands as another tremendous achievement for a director who should, at this point, have nothing left to prove.

“The Power of the Dog”

The first film in 12 years from director Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog'' is a slow-burning western drama with an emphasis on the slow: a contemplative yet messy film that never quite amounts to the sum of its parts.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a hardened cowboy who develops a combative relationship with his brother, played by Jesse Plemons, his brother’s new wife, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. While Cumberbatch largely sells his role, he is consistently outshone by Plemons and Dunst and struggles to convey some of the more complicated emotions the story calls for.

The film certainly makes some well-meaning points about masculinity and personal acceptance, and it really captivates in the moments where the gorgeous cinematography mixes with these themes. Unfortunately, it often takes too long to get there, languishing on largely uninteresting moments without a connective tissue to tie everything together.

“The Power of the Dog” is an interesting film, but one that feels unsure of itself. The Academy often loves this type of slow drama though, so it could do well among a crowd that appreciates its positives and Campion’s previous accomplishments.

“West Side Story”

As Steven Spielberg’s first musical, “West Side Story” serves as both a modern update and a reinterpretation of the classic Broadway show, and a relatively solid one at that.

Backed by a talented ensemble of performers and Spielberg’s years of experience, the film operates best in its spectacle. Massive dance numbers, camera shots moving through buildings and powerful emotional moments work to create a compelling sense of world-building and scale impressive for a story taking place across only a few city blocks.

Unfortunately, inconsistency also permeates through the film.

The lead performances lie on opposite ends of the spectrum. Rachel Zegler proves to be an incredible Maria, while Ansel Elgort often appears disconnected. Much of the film operates in this variance of quality, from the editing to key story beats.

Even so, it would be disingenuous to call “West Side Story” anything but a success. While it doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its source material, the film is solid enough in execution to warrant existing, and Spielberg’s legacy could inspire voters to award the first musical since “Chicago” with best picture.

@HollowCentral

hollowrr@miamioh.edu 

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