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The 96th Academy Awards: contenders, pretenders and potential night-enders

Three A&E writers provide a look into the 10 Best Pictures of 2023

<p>This year’s lineup is no exception, with not one but two international features receiving nominations, as well as comedies, dramas, romances, tragedies and — of course — two summer-defining cultural sensations.</p>

This year’s lineup is no exception, with not one but two international features receiving nominations, as well as comedies, dramas, romances, tragedies and — of course — two summer-defining cultural sensations.

The end of awards season fast approaches with the 96th Academy Awards set to air March 10. Last year was a bountiful one, with cinematic fruits reaped from a wide variety of well-accomplished and well-respected filmmakers, and the upcoming show is set to spotlight many of these sensations, particularly with its Best Picture nominees. 

In gearing up for this year’s ceremony, one must also acknowledge 2023’s show, which was notable both in its lack of on-stage slaps and in its stunning sweep executed by “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which took home four of the five major categories.

Many critics predict that this year will see a similar grand slam from Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” one of the biggest successes of the year that led the 2024 Oscars nominations with 13 nods, including a possible hat trick of Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. But 2023 saw a number of cinematic achievements in both film, direction and performance, making for an exciting pool of nominees, if not victors. 

The race for Best Picture specifically presents a fascinating and contentious case study. It was only in 2022 when the number of nominees was formally increased from five to 10, a development which led and continues to lead to a more expanded and diversified pool of films. This year’s lineup is no exception, with not one but two international features receiving nominations, as well as comedies, dramas, romances, tragedies and — of course — two summer-defining cultural sensations.

“American Fiction” 

“American Fiction” is the directorial debut from writer Cord Jefferson — and what a debut it is. The story follows writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played brilliantly by Best Actor nominee Jeffrey Wright, an academic fed up with the cultural and commercial success achieved by Black entertainment that panders to caricatures of the Black experience. To prove his point, he pens a pseudonymous parody of this genre, a joke that promptly backfires on him as his potboiler becomes a national phenomenon. “American Fiction” is witty and wry, beautifully balancing the double-edged sword of clever, cerebral comedy and heartfelt family drama.

“Anatomy of a Fall”

The winner of the 2024 Palme d’Or at Cannes, is exactly what it looks like — or is it? Written and directed by Justine Triet, the French legal drama follows Sandra, played by Sandra Hüller, as a writer striving to prove her innocence in the case of her husband’s death. The film features standout performances from both Hüller and Milo Machado-Graner, who gives a heartbreaking performance as the son and perhaps the sole witness to his father’s death. Triet’s well-crafted writing winds viewers through a brilliant and twisted narrative of the minutiae of matrimony and the layers of the French legal system, leaving audiences with more questions than answers.


Who hasn’t heard of it? Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, this national phenomenon defined both cinematic and cultural conversation this summer and indeed this entire year, grossing over a billion dollars at the global box office. The film is clever, though sometimes exhaustingly so, following Robbie’s Barbie and Gosling’s Ken as they discover the existence of the “real world” beyond Barbieland. Though not without faults in its plotting and consumerist promotions — most of which, ironically enough, occur in the segments set in the so-called “real world” — “Barbie” is worthy of its acclaim for its feminist intentions and its considerable cultural and commercial impact.

“The Holdovers”

“The Holdovers” tells the story of three lonely souls who become each other’s family. The bittersweet film, directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson, follows the unexpected friendship formed between a student stranded at his New England prep school for the holidays and a prideful, student-hating educator. Though the film sometimes borders on uneventful, it remains a pleasant and charming watch, with strong performances from Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and newcomer Dominic Sessa. The powerful dynamics between the characters and heartfelt dialogue are what make “The Holdovers” a great film and a worthy nominee.

“Killers of the Flower Moon”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a western, a whodunit, a weighty romance and a wake-up call to the bloody history of the Osage murders of the 1920s — all in one three and a half hour epic. Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro and Lily Gladstone, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an amazing amalgam, though Scorsese’s fluid formulation of genre also has a destabilizing effect on both plot and presentation. Ultimately, however, it has strong characters and sharply executed cinema that make this heartbreaking masterpiece what it is.  


“Maestro” is Bradley Cooper’s second directorial feature and follow-up to 2018’s “A Star Is Born.” In a self-conscious and shamelessly cinematic combination of black-and-white and color film, the film paints a portrait of the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, played by Cooper himself. In a not-quite cradle to grave biopic structure, “Maestro” takes on a lot, but is able to succeed on most fronts, in large part due to the strong central performances of both Cooper and Carey Mulligan who plays Berstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre. Though critically contentious, “Maestro” is certainly an accomplishment, and Cooper is in turn able to accomplish a great deal with fresh and fascinating filmmaking.  


With “Oppenheimer”, Christopher Nolan tells the story of the mind behind the Manhattan Project and the film’s eponymous protagonist’s role in crafting the atomic bomb that brought World War II to a close. Cillian Murphy delivers an astonishing and awe-striking performance as the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer, capturing the man’s brilliance and charisma while maintaining the vulnerability and moral frustrations central to his convoluted character. The ensemble cast is no less worthy of praise, featuring names such as Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh and Robert Downey Jr. With its three-hour runtime, “Oppenheimer” is not for everyone, but the film has nonetheless received much critical acclaim and is widely considered to be the frontrunner in this category. 

“Past Lives”

“Past Lives” — writer and director Celine Song’s debut feature film — tells the story of Nora, a Korean immigrant in New York, as she reconnects with her childhood crush twenty years after she had last seen him. Song’s Oscar-nominated screenplay gracefully tells a story about love and fate, while Greta Lee’s lead performance, in which her character is caught between her former life in Seoul and her current life in New York, is deeply moving. 

“Poor Things”

“Poor Things” follows the story of Bella Baxter, who has the body of an adult but the brain of a baby. Emma Stone amazes with her portrayal of a rapidly developing human, while the production and costume design dazzle. With a story deeply concerned with female liberation, director Yorgos Lanthimos and Stone both impress with their wacky but effective prowess, aided by a strong supporting cast including Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe.

“The Zone of Interest”

“The Zone of Interest”  is a bold, ambitious film about the family of the commandant of Auschwitz who lives next to the concentration camp. Director Jonathan Glazer employs unconventional filmmaking techniques — constant sounds of violence in the background, night-vision images and a black screen at the beginning of the film that forces the viewer to sit with themselves — to make his film horrifying and uneasy. Mica Levi’s score is sparsely utilized but utterly haunting. The film is mundane — but that is where the horror lies.

Perhaps this year’s awards presentation will see a similar sweep to last year, or perhaps the winners will be as varied as the genres and topics that the contenders span. Either way, the 2024 Best Picture nominees comprise a diverse and delightful selection of films and filmmakers, all of which are certainly worthwhile watches. 


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