This past weekend, a few friends and I completed our quest to see the Best Picture nominees, leading up to the Oscar ceremony on March 12. Here are a few of my thoughts on the honored 10:

All Quiet on the Western Front: The film to end all wars. This is the last movie about World War I trench warfare that I plan to watch. After this, there will be no reason to watch another. This German production is the ultimate depiction of the utter futility of that war, and all warfare. The film’s score is almost worth the grueling ordeal of watching it.

Avatar: The Way of Water, like the first Avatar, is a visual/special effects ride, which is thrilling, though it descends into yet another apocalyptic, drawn-out battle between good and evil. Hollywood is in a deep rut on good/evil combat orgies, which is why I have sworn off superhero slugfests.

The Banshees of Inisherin also descends, this time into a grudge allegory, friend vs. friend, with Ireland’s civil war (unseen) as the backdrop. The film is a testament to cutting off your nose to spite your face, but with a twist. Think fingers. Fortunately, there is something resembling reconciliation and a hint of redemption at the end. It’s worth watching because the Irish deployment of the English language is second to none. As lilting as brogue is, however, make sure you watch it with subtitles.

Elvis: The sad story of a great talent, misguided by a con artist who ultimately did more harm than good. Tom Hanks plays his first villain in the role of Col. Parker, the phenom’s mis-manager. A cautionary tale to be sure as we watch Elvis’ tragic descent, but I still came away with a better understanding, and appreciation, for his place in the cultural pantheon.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is disorienting at first. But it’s really just two things happening in one harried woman’s life — all at once. Michelle Yeoh, who could win Best Actress, plays an ordinary-extraordinary woman trying to keep her small business going and her family together, then switches and plays an extraordinary-ordinary superhero trying to prevent the entire universe from being swallowed by a black hole. It’s confusing, but so is life, metaphorically speaking. When she stops trying to save the universe, her life problems finally begin to resolve. My second favorite film on the list.

The Fabelmans: Another fine Steven Spielberg film for Academy members to ignore. Not quite as good as Lincoln (which was ignored in 2013 in favor of Argo. Does anyone even remember Argo?), Fabelmans semi-autobiographically traces Spielberg’s development as a filmmaker, but it’s really a moving love letter to his parents. I saw it twice and liked it even better the second time. If Michelle Yeoh doesn’t get Best Actress, Michelle Williams should for her role as Spielberg’s mom.

But the Oscar will probably go to Cate Blanchett, yet again. Tar is about a female orchestral conductor at the top of her game and career, who suffers a great fall because her character flaws and choices undermine her. It’s a classic tragic-hero trajectory, which seems to be the favorite scenario of “serious” filmmakers these days, i.e. descent (see Elvis above). Yet another amazing acting turn by Hollywood’s new Meryl Streep. A fellow film buff, a conductor herself, has a better take on this film: “Depicting the complexities of a woman in this field is done so very well, which distinguishes this work.” She’s right.

Top Gun: Maverick has no business being as good as it is. I didn’t think much of the first Top Gun 40 years ago, so this version was doubly surprising. Tom Cruise’s hotshot character actually evolves — it’s no longer all about him. It’s about team, a refreshing and much-needed message that would not have been appreciated in the hyper-individualistic 1980s, but is most welcome now. It may not be Best Picture material, but if they had a category for wildly exceeding expectations, this would be the winner.

Triangle of Sadness: A mess of a movie, but a brilliant satire about economic inequality, about an hour too long, maybe because the filmmaker couldn’t figure out how to begin and end it. But if you’re looking for a film where the wealthy elite get what’s coming to them, this is your movie, featuring one of the most prolonged gross-out gourmet dining sequences in cinematic history. The film is, alas, not hopeful about humanity’s prospects. Think Lord of the Flies for the 1%.

Women Talking is my favorite on this list. It, too, deals with a harsh reality, but consists largely of a group of women discussing what to do about it. The choices are 1) do nothing, 2) stay and fight back, or 3) leave, en masse. In the process of thoroughly hashing all this out, we see women of all ages at their finest and not-so-finest, but always honest. This is a celebration of feminine power and passion as they come to consensus on how to stand up to violent patriarchy. And the song, “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees, never sounded so good.

These are quality films, but too often they’re about descent when what we really need is uplift. Still, they serve an important function, exploring who we think we are, who we really are, and who we wish we were.

May the best dream win. 

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