For the second year in a row, I found myself wildly out of sync with 2022’s announced list of Oscar nominees. Even though I watched over a hundred feature films released in 2021, only three of them were nominated in any category – even the lowly technicals. It used to be that I’d seen at least a dozen without trying. And of the three films I had seen, only one registered as anything especially praiseworthy. I like the idea of Cruella as a superhero movie for gay children, but as Disney’s attempt at “a punk film” it’s embarrassing. Dune was pretty, lavish, and competently made, but it was also my least favorite kind of literary adaptation: the kind that’s pinned down by obligation to its source material, never managing to take off as its own unique thing. Surprisingly, Power of the Dog is the one Oscar nominated title I had already seen that I was impressed by, even though I don’t usually care much for Westerns. It was one of Swampflix’s Top 10 Films of 2021, after all. Looking at the 38 feature films nominated for statues this year, I felt totally out of sync with what titles the film industry has deemed Important. Or maybe it was just another sign of the pandemic scrambling everything up to the point where there is no clear zeitgeist right now. Hard to tell.
Knowing that I’ll end up watching the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony live on TV with or without having seen any of the films nominated, I again used the Oscars an excuse to catch up with some of last year’s high-profile releases that had slipped by me. And so, here’s a ranked list of movies I recently watched because they were nominated for Oscars – each with an accompanying blurb. I only watched movies that I had a genuine interest in seeing; I would have found no pleasure watching Belfast or Don’t Look Up just to shit on them, so I didn’t bother. It was partly an excuse to check out a few titles I meant to catch up with anyway, and partly an excuse to gawk at all the sparkling evening gowns at this week’s televised ceremony. Enjoy.
Nominated for Best Actress (Penélope Cruz) and Best Original Score
I guess you could complain that this isn’t anything new from Almodóvar, but since he’s specifically returning to the exquisite melodrama flavors of Volver & All About My Mother, it’d be like complaining about eating strawberry ice cream for a third time in two decades. It’s still delicious and a rare treat! I especially love this as an acting showcase for Cruz and as a political parable that manages to feel elusive of a 1:1 metaphor but still furious over a very specific issue. A huge step up from the muted navel-gazing of Pain & Glory in my book.
Drive My Car
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi), Best International Feature, and Best Adapted Screenplay
I’m always unclear on how critical consensus rallies so quickly around a single, seemingly arbitrary title, but it’s nice when the beneficiary turns out to be this damn good. A patient, complex drama for adults, routinely landing direct stabs to the heart without ever making a big show of it. I generally consider myself a low-brow audience, so it feels significant that the big moment that made me cry was someone performing Chekhov in sign-language.
The Worst Person in the World
Nominated for Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay
I’m an easy sucker for a story about a woman who is an absolute mess, but even so this feels like one of the best entries in the “Girl, same” canon since Fleabag. Visually playful & morally tricky enough to avoid feeling pedestrian or overlong, even though it’s sometimes stuck halfway between a Sundancey romcom & a solid season of television.
Summer of Soul
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature
I was prepared to dismiss this for allowing contextual talking-head interviews to overpower the music festival it’s documenting, but the editing is so persistently sharp and exciting that it justifies the interruption. I’d still love a full-footage box set release, but the truth is I’d probably treat it like background noise for laundry days, and this overview is something much more pointed & emotional.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design
The most a movie has felt like an unofficial entry in the Tim Burton Batman canon since the 2003 Willard remake, which I mean as a compliment. It’s easy to miss the extravagant carnival setting of the first hour once you leave it for the big city, but the pure noir pastiche that follows is grim & gorgeous enough to overcome that loss. A lot of people seem to have retracted their love for del Toro in recent years, but I’m still buying tickets for the dark ride every time it passes through town. This one isn’t his best; it’s still pretty great.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), and Best Original Screenplay
I’m surprisingly super conflicted about this movie depending on whose coming-of-age story it is. As a story about the adorability of teen-boy confidence I’m intensely icked out by it. As a story about a twenty-something’s self-destructive resistance to growing up, I find it oddly moving & dark. And since PTA is careful to balance everything evenly between those two POVs, I didn’t walk away with any easy answers or summations about that tonal conflict, which might’ve been the point. All I can really say with any certainty is that these images look nice but the 1970s look sad & gross.
The Lost Daughter
Nominated for Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley), and Best Adapted Screenplay
Part of me wants to say that trimming this down a half-hour would help sharpen the tension, but you’d probably lose some of the eeriness of its beach vacation purgatory setting in the process. Either way, it works better as a thorny drama about Difficult Women than as a psychological thriller, which is totally fine (except that only one of dual genres builds to something). Great performances all around; it’s just missing a climax.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature
Probably uncool to say, but I couldn’t get over how ugly & lazy the actual animation looked in this. As an oral-history document, its content is obviously much more important than its form, and the narration is vital, heartbreaking stuff no matter how it’s illustrated. Still, I was way more personally, emotionally engaged in the moments of archival footage than I was looking at its Flash animation style (the expressive A-ha music video flourishes were effective, though).
House of Gucci
Nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling
I regret to report that Jared Leto is the best part of this movie. It’s too silly to be so well behaved otherwise, so the overly committed excess of his Italian caricature is the only performance that feels appropriate for the occasion. Fun fashion & ridiculous accents all around, but there’s only one goofball in the cast who truly understands the assignment (or at least perfectly misunderstands it).
Nominated for Best Actress (Kristen Stewart)
I hate to say it, because I’m generally a fan, but Stewart’s performance is the only reason this did not work for me. The retro couture, ghostly imagery, and suffocating tension are all consistently effective, but she’s the anchor of every dramatic beat and it all just rings as phony. It feels like a Kate McKinnon parody instead of the genuine thing, which didn’t bother me so much when Natalie Portman channeled Jinkx Monsoon in Jackie but here feels like it’s running away from the laidback cool of Stewart at her best and the gamble just didn’t pay off.