Harlan Jacobson Reports On The Oscars

March 8, 2024
By Harlan Jacobson

The 96th Academy Awards, the Oscars, will take place next Sunday, March 10 in Hollywood, and love them, hate them, or ignore them, there never seems to be a shortage of things to say about them.

Given how the previous bellwether award groups have gone, Oppenheimer with the most Oscar nominations, 13, will likely dominate the night. Christopher Nolan’s film is the conventionally ambitious film of the lot, with the biggest reach.

A character study on a mega budget scale, the film follows the path taken by J. Robert Oppenheimer and the conflicts felt all along the way in birthing the atom bomb: applied science vs research, career ambition for an arriviste Jew vs dread about the nature of the risks involved, then about the destruction involved, and death on a mass scale. In the background is the metronome: it’s a race against time and Werner von Braun in Germany, accompanied by multiple doubts, then elation over the win and the victory. In Los Alamos, it was easier to be patriotic until the bomb dropped.

That’s a lot of acting for any actor. Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer finally sinks into a post-war catatonic retreat, into something like the horror with which Joseph Conrad ended Heart of Darkness. In an hour-long coda, but very much on point about the treachery of our current Congressional politics, Oppenheimer is ruined by the Red Scare, created by the Republican Senate to take political power. Destroyed by the totality of it all, he can’t defend himself in committee investigations. Only his wife, Kitty, played by the barely heralded but superb Emily Blunt, rises to the occasion in a stinging moral rebuke to Washington. Blunt’s is the best performance of those nominated for supporting actress this year. She will likely lose to Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is both enormously ingratiating and riding a stereotype as the grumpy black mama cook and voice of normalcy in Alexander Payne’s prep school teacher-student mashup in The Holdovers.

It’s a lot of picture, Oppenheimer, it has a lot of reach and big canvas ambition – which many say director Nolan is guilty of rather than good at. I appreciate Nolan’s huge reach, including  Dunkirk, the Dark Knights, Inception, all a long way from his riveting micro-scale Memento with Guy Pearce racing to stay ahead of his memory loss in 2000 . And nothing else this year matches Oppenheimer. Not American Fiction, which I found at Toronto and loved the way it carved up the present moment over cultural and racial authenticity. Not Barbie, which dayenu made a billion dollars -- and that was enough. Not New York’s patron saint of film, Martin Scorsese and his Killers of the Flower Moon, in part because Marty enjoys Sacred Cow status. What does it say about critics’ groups that the NY Critics Circle voted it best film of the year, and the Boston film critics named the Boston-based story of The Holdovers as best Picture of the year?

I can make good cases for Maestro and Poor Things in any other year, but whatever the expanded membership of the Academy, which nearly doubled in the last few years, the Best Picture Oscar won’t be a geographical award.

In a year full of good films, Oppenheimer deserves to win Best Film and Director, actor for Cillian Murphy over the compelling Colman Domingo, the best part of Rustin, and supporting actor for Robert Downey Jr. over everyone else in that category.

I expect Oppenheimer will also win its share of the craft awards, for cinematography and sound, . It’s a tossup when it comes to Adapted Screenplay, when things could tilt to any of the four other heavyweight contenders: Poor Things, American Fiction, and Zone of Interest more so than Barbie. Best Original Screenplay is also a tossup between Anatomy of A Fall and The Holdovers, but I can’t tell you how much I dislike Todd Hayne’s tedious May December, which is pure soap opera. Downtown in the Discrimination Cinema entries, where women characters commanded center stage this year, I would give best Actress to Emma Stone for her brilliant physical and line-reading acrobatics in her Bride of Frankenstein turn in Poor Things, or Carey Mulligan for her Felicia Bernstein in Maestro, about mid-century marriage. Mulligan stole the film from Bradley Cooper as Lenny by being cool to the touch. The zeitgeist, and the Academy seem primed however for a first-time actress nominee, Lily Gladstone in possibly the only award Killers of the Flower Moon will take home. Watch now that I opened my big mouth, it sweeps everything

You have a couple of good options to catch some films in the best foreign category, renamed half a decade ago the International Category. Nominated and likely to win as Best International film, is Zone of Interest, by Jonathan Glazer (a favorite of mine since Sexy Beast in 2000 and Birth in 2004) and written by English novelist Martin Amis, who died the day the film premiered at Cannes last May. It’s in German, Polish and Yiddish. By my lights, Zone of Interest should have won Cannes but finished second to Anatomy of a Fall, which is predominantly in French and about a third in English, yet like Parasite and Minari before it, is nominated for Best Picture in the main category. Both films star Sandra Huller, who is nominated for Anatomy of a Fall. Confused? Yeah, me too.

You can resolve the confusion over what is and isn’t an international film by going to theatres now in NY to see Io Capitano, I Captain, by Matteo Garrone, who made a sensational anti-romantic mafia film set in Naples , Gomorrah 15 years ago. Io Capitano is the underdog in the international category, as it follows two Senegalese boys, Seydou and Moussa, on an adventure trek from their Mama’s home in Dakar, Senegal to Sicily in pursuit of the European Dream. It’s beyond harrowing, it’s based on stories that have filled the European press, it’s beautifully shot, It mixes adventure, advocacy and African spirituality (resembling South American magic realism), it has a scene or two that pay respect to Lawrence of Arabia and the 400 Blows, and it is meant to change the way Europe and now we here see those silent shadows on the street selling umbrellas. It is set up for a sequel on what happens to them once they find out what Europe is like when you’re not white. It’s a dark horse nominee that could surprise everyone.