On Jan. 23, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 96th Academy Awards, recognizing 2024’s best cinematic achievements. In this article, I rank the ten nominees for Best Picture, and assess each film’s chances of victory.
The weakest of this year’s nominees is Bradley Cooper’s half-baked biopic about the famous American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. “Maestro” is the definition of Oscar bait: a morose, self-serious half-portrait of a Hollywood icon that brazenly insists upon its own importance. While there is some admirable cinematography, and Carey Mulligan elevates the film with a genuinely inspired performance as Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre, Cooper’s titular turn as the iconic Maestro falls flat. It is more of an impression than a performance, best evidenced by the climatic conducting scene, which Cooper apparently spent six years practicing. A show of replication designed to make Academy members swoon, the scene is the cinematic equivalent of Cooper getting on his hands and knees and begging for an Oscar, and in reality grinds the film to a halt. The film’s chances at taking home the big prize are slim to none, and Cooper’s chance at taking home the Best Actor award even seems like a long shot, as Paul Giamatti and Cillian Murphy have emerged as clear frontrunners.
9. “The Holdovers”
Despite being anchored by a wonderful trifecta of performances and taking place in a beautiful, snowy New England landscape that is all too reminiscent of Amherst in January, “The Holdovers” is a backward-looking film. It’s for those who say “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” a retelling of a tale that’s been told a million times before. It successfully tells an entertaining and heartfelt story, but from its first few moments the audience knows exactly how the rest of the movie will play out, and it never offers any surprises from there. That’s not inherently a fault, but I prefer films that look to the future. The Academy, however, may not share this opinion. It’s the kind of feel-good, nostalgic harkening back to the age of old the Academy adores (see “The Artist”). Throughout this awards season, “The Holdovers” has quietly become a top contender for Best Picture. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is (deservedly) all but assured to take home the Best Supporting Actress Award, and if the film could also pull off a Best Original Screenplay victory and a Best Actor win for Paul Giamatti, Best Picture would be only a small step away.
8. “American Fiction”
Amherst alum Jeffrey Wright ʼ87 carries “American Fiction” with a tour de force performance, and there is some sharp writing throughout. But as a whole, the film’s satire falls flat. Following a Black writer who puts together an outrageous novel full of stereotypes under pressure from publishers that want a “Black book,” “American Fiction” is a watered down version of Spike Lee’s seminal classic “Bamboozled,” made for the white liberals it makes fun of. It is based on a book written 23 years ago but doesn’t bother to update its commentary despite being set in the present day, and only lightly mocks while refraining from delivering anything truly scathing. This, of course, means it is in perfect shape to win praise from the Academy. A Best Adapted Screenplay win is certainly not out of bounds for this film, though the competition may be too steep for it to have much of a chance at Best Picture.
A fun summer blockbuster and confectionery delight, “Barbie” is hard not to like. The cast is wonderful and the film’s fast pace and clever humor make it a very consistently enjoyable watch. It’s rather shallow and corporate, but its entry level feminist philosophy still remains unfortunately relevant. The largest controversy to come out of this year’s Oscars so far has been the lack of nominations for Greta Gerwig in the Best Director and Margot Robbie in the Best Actress awards (though it’s important to note that both were nominated for the film in different categories). The outrage over these snubs was so widespread it prompted Hillary Clinton to release a statement about it, and it is precisely this outrage that may be enough to catapult Barbie into winning Best Picture. If the historic Best Picture win of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” last year proved anything, it’s that a dedicated, passionate fanbase can take you a long way. For that reason, “Barbie” is certainly a film to watch out for.
Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer is impeccably crafted, carefully balancing a massive ensemble cast to create a thrilling, three hour epic. On a technical scale, it’s undoubtedly one of the year’s greatest cinematic achievements. Nolan’s weakness, however, has always been character work, and “Oppenheimer” is no exception. Even looking past the weakly written female characters that aren’t given nearly enough to do, Nolan fails to get far beyond the titular physicist’s sad eyes, and doesn’t provide much in the way of a compelling examination of his psyche. For the Oscars, though, this level of critical acclaim, prestige material, and populist appeal spells surefire success. “Oppenheimer” is the clear frontrunner, and has already been sweeping all the precursors. If you want a safe bet for Best Picture, it’s the obvious candidate.
5. “Poor Things”
“Poor Things” is a stylistic masterpiece, merging lavish backdrops with eerie fish-eye lenses and ravishing costume design. Yorgos Lanthimos’s direction is on point, and Emma Stone gives an incredible lead performance as Bella Baxter, a Frankenstein’s monster-like reanimated woman finding her place in the world. Stone’s performance is supplemented by outstanding supporting work from Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe. But the film is a bit hollow and becomes repetitive by the end of its 140 minute runtime, lacking the surprise and ingenuity of Lanthimos’s earlier works. Despite starting this awards season as a frontrunner, its status has begun to wane. However, its large number of nominations and Golden Globe wins still has it in a strong position for success come Oscar night. A Best Picture win remains a very real possibility.
4. “Anatomy of a Fall”
Justine Triet’s Palme D’Or winning French courtroom drama is a masterclass in tension and ambiguity. It provides a brilliant character study anchored by Sandra Hüller who, playing a woman accused of killing her husband, gives what is easily one of the best performances of the year. “Anatomy of a Fall” also contains the best performance by a dog … maybe ever? This is certainly not a small feat. Although the film exceeded expectations by scoring a Best Director nomination for Triet, its chances at taking home the big prize unfortunately remain slim to none, due to its arthouse proclivities and lack of mainstream popularity.
3. “Past Lives”
In another, better life, “Past Lives” would be a clear frontrunner for Best Picture. Celine Song’s masterful and poetic directorial debut is a brilliant rumination on what could have been, the paths not taken. It’s the most emotional film of this year’s Best Picture batch, a subtle but extremely powerful entrance of a new voice into contemporary cinema. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo stun as Nora and Hae Sung, two separated childhood friends given the chance to reconnect decades later. Unfortunately, given that its only other nomination is for the Best Original Screenplay award, its chances are slim. Granted, it’s not totally unprecedented for an indie film with few nominations and little name recognition to have a sudden last minute surge into the big prize (looking at 2021’s “CODA”), but the competition was much lighter that year as a result of Covid, so a repeat seems unlikely.
2. “The Zone of Interest”
How do you present a new take on a Holocaust film in 2023? “The Zone of Interest” is how. Jonathan Glazer has crafted a seminal film, a new staple in any discussion of Holocaust movies. The film never once shows the Holocaust, instead focusing purely on the trivial lives of the Nazis who live right next door to Auschwitz. It is the ultimate film about the banality of evil, an absolutely chilling experience that is impossible to look away from. The pure horror of watching the trivial, everyday concerns of humanity’s most evil individuals is an often overwhelming experience. It is undoubtedly the year’s most ingenious, terrifying, and thought provoking film. Unfortunately, this kind of experimentation is not particularly conducive to Academy Award success, and while it was lucky to secure a nomination, its chances at the win are close to zero.
1. “Killers of the Flower Moon”
After 56 years of churning out classic after classic, Scorsese has finally made his masterpiece. In exploring the mass murder of the Osage people, this film presents a genius examination of the greed, evil, and complicity of white America. While my review offers my extended thoughts, my ultimate takeaway is that this is one of the absolute best films of the year and would be an extremely deserving winner. Unfortunately, its chances are low. Although it received many nominations, it seems headed for the same fate as Scorsese’s last picture, “The Irishman,” which received ten nominations and zero wins. While I’m still holding out hope for a last minute surge, Scorsese’s genius seems to be taken for granted by awards bodies nowadays. While it is essential to reward new voices, Scorscese’s 2006 film “The Departed” is still his only work to take home the big prize, and it would be great to give him one last victory before it’s too late.