By Nina Heyn – Your Culture Scout
This year, there are hardly any choices of theatrical films to qualify for Best Picture nominations. Current leading contenders in this year’s Oscar race are All Quiet on the Western Front, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever as well as Top Gun: Maverick. The last one, already predicted to win, hardly needs any introduction, having grossed almost $1.5B in theaters worldwide since its May 2022 release. If this movie does win, it will be for its successful return to the world of test pilots and Tom Cruise as an uncontested star of that world first created in 1986. However, the two other titles among the front-runners for Best Picture nominations are also trips down the memory lane of previous and likewise very original movies. While the three films stand a good chance for nomination if not winning outright, I was more impressed by the humanism of other movies that may have popular recognition but whose prospects for Oscar gold are currently unclear. Let’s first take a quick look at the two strong contenders other than Top Gun: Maverick.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has in its favor the success of the first Black Panther film, with its highly imaginative and extremely popular mash-up of action genres; there is also the nostalgia factor in view of the untimely passing of Chadwick Boseman, who rose to well-deserved stardom as result of the first movie. Despite these advantages, this time around the Black Panther world feels like good entertainment but with the novelty charm having worn off somewhat. The sequel is one more fantasy action tale, but it offers less of a barrier-breaking, revolutionary storytelling experience and is less artistically innovative than the first film. It does, however, have high chances for numerous nominations, and its box office rewards are already evident (so far, over $800M in global box office).
All Quiet on the Western Front is based on the famous novel that Erich Maria Remarque published in 1928 as a reaction to the horrors of WWI. It was adapted to film and TV in 1930, and again in 1979. This is a German production, told from the point of view of naïve German teenagers who, buoyed by the general enthusiasm, volunteer straight from high school and soon discover the horrors of a pointless trench war. As a piece of cinematic art, the film’s portrayal of war is very far away from the mastery of Dunkirk—there is none of Christopher Nolan’s virtuosity of camera movements or his originality in storytelling—nor does it rise to the level of powerful anti-war dramas such as Saving Private Ryan or Paths of Glory. This version of All Quiet on the Western front is simply another illustration of the horrors of war, fought on the ground by young “cannon fodder” recruits while their older commanders safely strategize in faraway command posts. Although it was a timely reminder of the brutality of war in a year marked by a new and savage war in Europe, as a movie, this adaptation left me somewhat cold.
Tár will most likely bring one more acting nomination (or possibly a win) to Cate Blanchett—a deservedly frequent nominee for Awards—but it is a movie that is probably intellectually too complex for Best Picture chances. Blanchett plays a famous music conductor named Lydia Tár (yes, there may be few female classical music conductors, but they do exist) who is at the pinnacle of her prestigious career. After winning numerous awards and having led the best orchestras in the world, she is now a principal conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic. She lives in an open relationship with another woman (they are raising a child together), which does not particularly affect her career, but she does have a dark secret that will eventually destroy her and her professional life. The slow unraveling of Lydia is like the peeling of an onion of social masks and curtains of intellectual refinement, as well as financial and professional power. It is a story of the social and sexual might that famous people wield—except that here the protagonist is a woman. The old cliché of men as predators is stood on its head, telling the story of a predator without making it obvious and offering a tale of hubris that ends with a ruthless reckoning. This is a movie that demands that the viewer set aside preconceived ideas about, for instance, women’s sexuality or the “nobility of art,” illustrating the naked drive for power and sex that are independent of gender, social position, and industry.
It has been a while since the giant of cinema history—Steven Spielberg—has delivered a movie that feels genuine and truly “Spielbergian.” The Fabelmans, basically a biographical tale of his growing up and eventually becoming a filmmaker, has a lot of the director’s trademark magic of small-town America as created in E.T., Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We all know that if someone is born with a specific talent—for example, to build things, play music, or manipulate numbers—then this talent shows up early and consistently for years. This is the case of the young Fabelman who, after discovering the magic of cinema at six years old watching a train crash in The Greatest Show on Earth, knows that he will always relate to the world through filmmaking. His ability to capture cinematic moments and arrange them to tell a story will end up bringing him both elation and a lot of anguish, but this is his medium and his destiny. These days, it is not easy to tell in an interesting way a coming-of-age story (there have been thousands of them on screen), or a tale set in mid-century middle America (every second TV show is about that), or the story of a difficult relationship between a mismatched couple (every third TV show is about that, too). Yet Spielberg pulls all three off; we are not bored, we understand the arcs and psychology of the characters, and we are rewarded with a final scene that in five minutes sums up the difference between art and the lack of it. Perhaps because this is such a biographical story, we finally get back the master of cinema delivering what he does best—a story that can only be told on screen and only on screen because no novel could express it equally well. And for that, The Fabelmans deserves any film awards it may go on to garner.
And finally, last but not least, Avatar: The Way of Water. The first time around at the Oscars, 13 years ago, James Cameron lost the Best Picture crown to The Hurt Locker, a movie directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow—an irony of fate in itself. The real irony was that while The Hurt Locker’s cumulative global box office reached about $50 million, Avatar went on to make almost $3 billion and became one of the most beloved and popular cinematic offerings of all time. The film broke all the barriers of cinematic imagination—the floating mountains, the fauna and flora at Pandora, and the tale of the Blue People were all new and visionary, rendered through techniques that included mo-cap (motion-capture) and stereoscopic filming (as opposed to later conversion to 3D). The audience had to wait a dozen years for the second installment, with a third now scheduled for 2024. The global theatrical results so far are in the region of $1B—impressive, but less than they could have been if the movie had conquered China (its release there was below expectations due to Covid issues and other factors) or if it had been released in Russia (it wasn’t).
Avatar: The Way of Water deserves its commercial success for this new tale of Pandoran islanders who try to protect a fugitive family amid sea creatures inspired by Jurassic-era fossils. The movie also deserves a second chance at the Academy Awards. Movies that are commercially successful (as Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and this one are) traditionally have less traction with Academy voters who favor outliers, but perhaps this time around Cameron’s peers will recognize him for the cinematic imagination that has not deserted him in this sequel. Moreover, unlike a lot of other Academy Award entries, this is a movie that provides all the humanist messages so often missing from action films. A cry for protection of animals and the natural environment is told in a heart-wrenching sequence of a whale-hunting, while the military hunt for Sully and his family illustrates the relentless drive to exploit weaker nations and commercial opportunities while revealing the despair of refugees that is the heart of the story. Cameron entertains with visual wonders of an off-world, but he also has things to say about greed, cruelty, and the ecological short-sightedness that can lead to permanent loss for future generations. While these messages are simplified and often overshadowed by the glowing visuals, they are still there and deserve to be recognized in the sea of this year’s otherwise mediocre films where neither visual artistry nor intellectual reach are present.