40. To Leslie (Best Actress)
One thing I will not do in this space is wade into the bizarre last-ditch campaign for Andrea Riseborough, or whether she deserves a nomination over Danielle Deadwyler or Viola Davis, or anyone else. Judging Riseborough’s performance in a vacuum, it’s undeniable, a vulnerable and volatile portrayal of a woman staring into the void of her empty life. The film as a whole doesn’t live up to Riseborough’s talents, striving for a kind of emotional verisimilitude but failing to find actual verisimilitude. There’s something undeserving about a group of Hollywood A-listers (including Oscar winner Allison Janney) portraying a group of small-town nobodies that rings a little too false; films like Nomadland or The Florida Project got it right by mostly casting unknowns or non-actors. Besides that, the film doesn’t deviate from the predetermined redemption story that’s been done to death before. At no point was I surprised by what the characters did or said. History will likely remember the Oscar campaign of To Leslie much longer than the film itself.
39. Empire of Light (Best Cinematography)
Empire of Light had Best Picture ambitions before it premiered at the fall film festival circuit, and those ambitions were not misguided. Its writer and director, Sam Mendes, arguably came in second place for 1917, and it professed itself to be about how movies can bring people together. Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward give fantastic performances – Colman, an Academy darling, could have easily played spoiler in the Best Actress race – and Mark Tildesley’s production design is exquisite. But in the end, only cinematographer Roger Deakins was recognized – a worthy nomination for characteristically strong work from the two-time winner. The real fault with Empire of Light lies in its script, too often juggling too many ideas and throwing in plot lines seemingly out of nowhere. I harbor no ill will towards Mendes or the film, but with such bright potential, it’s hard not to see it as a disappointment.
38. The Whale (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Makeup & Hairstyling)
I walked into The Whale hoping to be wowed by Brendan Fraser’s performance as a morbidly obese man, and by Darren Aronofsky’s sensible direction of the material. I walked out mostly underwhelmed. While Fraser’s performance is absolutely one of the best of the year, the story felt misguided in its intentions. But throughout the entire runtime I felt too aware that I was watching an adaptation of a stage play. Characters enter and exit mostly when it’s convenient for the plot and spout off writerly dialogue about the best and worst of humanity’s intentions. I’ve never agreed with those that despise the film for its borderline fat-phobic themes but I could never align myself with those that love the film and think of it as the best of the year.
37. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Best Cinematography)
I can’t fault Alejandro González Iñárritu for wanting to make his own version of Fellini’s 8 ½. For what it’s worth, buried within Bardo is a rather poignant story about a man who’s not only struggling to do what he does best but torn between his native land and his adoptive home. It also helps that it’s one of the most aesthetically beautiful films of the year, courtesy of Darius Khondji’s cinematography and Eugenio Caballero’s production design. Unfortunately, much like its full title, Bardo is too overstuffed with ideas to fully work as a cohesive thought. (Thankfully Inarritu at least had the good sense to cut out 20 minutes from the version shown at the fall film festivals.)
36. A House Made of Splinters (Best Documentary Feature)
I’m all for a documentary that finds its story in the moment, but there’s something missing from A House Made of Splinters that holds it back. The film follows a group of orphaned children, including some teenagers, in Eastern Ukraine and the emotional fallout from their parents essentially abandoning them. There are certainly plenty of compelling developments to be seen throughout the film, but there isn’t much new material that you haven’t already seen before in a film – nonfiction or otherwise – set in an orphanage. Throughout the film we meet a handful of children who become victims of their heartbreaking circumstances but mostly choose to rise above it. A House Made of Splinters could have easily felt like misery porn but there are pockets of hope to be found within. Still, I can’t help but wish that director Simon Lereng Wilmont would have injected a little more urgency into the film.
35. The Quiet Girl (Best International Feature)
It’s a story you’ve seen iterations of time and time again: an orphaned girl finds a new family that shows her what real love looks like. This is essentially the formula that The Quiet Girl follows, but it’s got enough subtlety to make it a worthwhile watch. It centers on Catherine Cinch as Cait, a young girl who’s neglected by her parents and siblings. When her mother is on the verge of giving birth, she’s shipped off to live with a middle-aged couple, Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) and Sean (Andrew Bennett). The film is full of naturalistic performances, and director and co-writer Colm Bairead moves the story along efficiently, but The Quiet Girl is ultimately too slight to be memorable.
34. My Year of Dicks (Best Animated Short)
The Oscar title most likely to make audiences snicker is actually a sneakily smart coming-of-age tale about self-acceptance and personal growth. Based on Pamela Ribon’s memoir, the film chronicles its protagonist’s various, often comical, attempts to lose her virginity. The film also utilizes a variety of animation styles to go along with its episodic structure. There’s a degree of verisimilitude evident here that goes a long way, especially in a genre that too often plays into stereotypes. Funny and poignant, My Year of Dicks is much more than its silly title would make you think.
33. Fire of Love (Best Documentary Feature)
Archival documentaries can provide for fascinating discoveries, and such is the case with Fire of Love. A film about a married pair of volcanologists, director Sara Dosa’s documentary is filled with gorgeous imagery and a timeless message. History books may not remember the names of Katia and Maurice Krafft, but their contributions to our understanding of volcanoes is immeasurable. But what makes Fire of Love so potent is in how Dosa puts together the footage to mark the Krafft’s relationship and all its developments. Regardless of the danger that Katia and Maurice faced because of the nature of their work, they took it all together and, regardless of their ultimate fate, I don’t think they’d have it any other way.
32. Navalny (Best Documentary Feature)
Take away the developments in Russia and Ukraine over the past year and Navalny would still be a worthwhile documentary nominee. The unbelievable true story of Vladimir Putin’s greatest political rival and the equally unbelievably true story of how he was poisoned is a riveting and enlightening portrait of political upheaval. That it also features one of the most jaw-dropping scenes of the year is only part of its charm, but Alexei Navalny proves to be a captivating screen presence, and not just because he’s fighting a morally corrupt system from the outside at the risk of his and his family’s safety.
31. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (Best Costume Design)
Maybe “nice-core” is considered a dirty word amongst movie lovers, but the niceness of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is its greatest strength. I was prepared for a slight, saccharine tale about fashion before watching the film, but I was not prepared for how well it executes its premise. Leslie Manville fully commits, giving one of the best performances of the year (yes, really!) as a woman who never gives up on her dream, and desires to help others in the process. The costume design is as lovely as you’d expect – it concerns the House of Dior in the 50s, after all – along with impressive crafts all around. Yes, the film is relatively standard in its plotting, but that doesn’t take away from the joy it is to witness.
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