The Oscars Contenders You Need to See

Shirley Li on what makes a good awards-show speech, the potential nominees to watch, and the movies that shouldn’t be overlooked

Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis in 'Everything Everywhere All at Once"
Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis in 'Everything Everywhere All at Once" (A24)

Oscar nominations will be announced next week. I called our culture writer Shirley Li for her tips on the movies and the buzz you should know about.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Top Guns

Isabel Fattal: Are there any big themes that have emerged from this awards season, or any lessons about the state of Hollywood today?

Shirley Li: If there’s one way to summarize this awards season, it would be that it’s been a year of comebacks. When you look at the leading contenders in the performance categories, we have a lot of actors who are returning to the awards conversation after a long career of not being involved in such conversations. The names that come to mind include Brendan Fraser, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan. All of those are actors who got shuffled out of Hollywood for one reason or another, but have been given these opportunities to return to acting or to finally sink their teeth into meaty roles, and are now deservedly getting their flowers.

I’d also say it’s been a year of comebacks when it comes to major sequels. Films like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water being a part of the awards conversation signifies that there’s room for sequels to succeed beyond the box office, and that superhero films aren’t the only ones bringing audiences back to theaters, which have been struggling since the pandemic. Top Gun and Avatar made strong cases for seeing movies on the biggest screens possible.

Isabel: What is the importance, if any, of movie awards now?

Shirley: If done right—and this is hard to do—awards-show speeches can be a great opportunity to tell a story that’s not just, “I love my agents; I love my managers.” I think about [Everything Everywhere All at Once actor] Ke Huy Quan’s speech at the Golden Globes, where he talks about that feeling of self-doubt, of wondering whether his work as a child actor is all he had to offer, not just in his career but in his life. If more winners think about the story they can tell, that’s a way to reach people beyond the room, to be accessible to the general public.

Isabel: What are the two or three movies you need to watch if you want to keep up with the awards chatter?

Shirley: The first is Everything Everywhere All at Once. I think that film has a lot of momentum when it comes to this awards season, but on a broader scale, it’s such a fascinating example of how wild this medium can be. It’s almost impossible to classify when it comes to a genre. It comes from a pair of directors who have a really unique creative vision; they’re the ones who made the farting-corpse movie with Daniel Radcliffe. When you watch it, you don’t think of it as an Oscar contender, but it’s proof that a genre movie can make it really far.

The second movie is the more traditional contender in the mix: The Fabelmans, the Steven Spielberg–directed film that is plumbing his own childhood. It’s in some ways about why he became a director, but at the same time, it’s about how he wrestled with his parents’ divorce.

The third movie I recommend watching, which is now available on HBO Max, is The Banshees of Inisherin. It’s the film that reunites the writer-director Martin McDonagh with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. It’s this more intimate number about friendship and toxic masculinity and being a part of a small community. When it comes to awards season, I think it’s somewhere in between the other two films I recommended. It’s made by a previous Oscar winner, while at the same time being unconventional in its own way.

Isabel: I have a question about another awards contender, Tár. It has become something of a meme to pretend that Lydia Tár, the main character, is a real person. Why do you think this is?

Shirley: I was just talking about this with a friend who was asking the same thing, because on the surface, Lydia Tár is a real person is not a funny joke. Even as a meme format, it doesn’t really make sense.

I think what set it off was Cate Blanchett’s performance. It’s so convincing. Lydia Tár is this EGOT-winning conductor. But as you watch the film, you kind of realize that “Lydia Tár” is a costume that this woman is wearing. And as the film goes on, it becomes both a horror and a comedy, and it goes into camp territory. It’s all grounded in this performance that is so sharp and that makes you almost believe that Lydia Tár is a real person. But to be honest, maybe the meme just comes from how funny “Lydia Tár” sounds.

Isabel: Have you had any arguments with fellow movie people about the awards contenders?

Shirley: One recent debate I had with a critic was over whether Babylon is any good and deserving of all this awards attention, or if it’s just so audaciously stupid that it tricks you into not being able to fully hate it.

Babylon didn’t do very well at the box office, so I doubt a lot of folks have seen it. It’s a film starring an A-list cast, including Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, that’s about Hollywood’s transition from making silent pictures to making talkies. This is like catnip for awards committees—a big, maximalist Hollywood movie from Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land, about Hollywood itself. But it’s also lewd and vulgar and three hours long. It spans decades. It is self-indulgent. It follows way too many characters. It opens with a scene in which an elephant poops onto the camera. Maybe that last bit’s all you need to know.

Isabel: Is there a movie or performance that you think is being overlooked?

Shirley: So many, but I’ll try to stick to just a few. The first one is Women Talking, the film directed and adapted by Sarah Polley from the 2018 novel of the same name. It’s a really tough sell, because the story is based on a series of real-life rapes that happened in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. It’s about one long conversation the women in this community have where they try to imagine what they can do next. But it’s more engaging than you might think. I worry that it’s coming so late in this awards season that people have just not been interested in seeing it or have not been able to see it.

Another contender that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about is Aftersun, from the writer and director Charlotte Wells, which is a film about a father-daughter relationship and how we struggle to understand our parents. I think the performances in that are outstanding, and Wells is an immensely talented filmmaker, but I’m afraid the categories are too crowded at this point for them to make it in.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. CIA Director Bill Burns reportedly briefed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week on the agency’s expectations for Russia’s military plans in the coming months.
  2. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced that it will cut about 12,000 jobs.
  3. Anti-abortion activists held the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. This is the first march since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Dispatches

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Evening Read

An eye on a series of Borgesian libraries
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

What Happens When AI Has Read Everything?

Ross Andersen

Artificial intelligence has in recent years proved itself to be a quick study, although it is being educated in a manner that would shame the most brutal headmaster. Locked into airtight Borgesian libraries for months with no bathroom breaks or sleep, AIs are told not to emerge until they’ve finished a self-paced speed course in human culture. On the syllabus: a decent fraction of all the surviving text that we have ever produced.

When AIs surface from these epic study sessions, they possess astonishing new abilities. People with the most linguistically supple minds—hyperpolyglots—can reliably flip back and forth between a dozen languages; AIs can now translate between more than 100 in real time. They can churn out pastiche in a range of literary styles and write passable rhyming poetry. DeepMind’s Ithaca AI can glance at Greek letters etched into marble and guess the text that was chiseled off by vandals thousands of years ago.

Read the full article.

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Culture Break

Two small children sit before a blank TV screen in a dark room.
BayView Entertainment

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And pick up our staff writer John Hendrickson’s new book, Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter.

Watch. On TV, HBO Max’s The Last of Us adds something unexpected to the zombie genre.

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Need something new? Try one of these 26 brilliant movies that critics were wrong about.

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P.S.

I’ll leave you with a few more suggestions from Shirley for under-the-radar movies you should watch, even though you might not be hearing their names next week:

  • The Woman King is a crowd-pleasing, great action film, and Viola Davis’s performance is a departure from what she’s done before.”
  • “There’s a South Korean film called Decision to Leave that I wrote about. It’s a fantastic erotic thriller that I’m afraid will only be recognized in international categories, even though the direction is so sumptuous. I could not take my eyes off the screen. Every frame has new clues to the story.”
  • “Lastly, there’s a tiny movie called Emily the Criminal that I think is mostly getting indie-awards attention. It stars Aubrey Plaza, and it’s such a sharp little movie about credit-card fraud, of all things, but that’s what makes it great and insightful about wealth and income inequality.”

— Isabel