Mike at the Movies: Best-Picture Rundown, Part I


The proliferation of awards shows this time of year (the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, People’s Choice, BAFTA, et al.) has dulled the luster of the Academy Awards somewhat, relegating as rather passé the spectacle of glamorous movie stars dressed to the nines, clutching gold statues and reading off lists of names that few people in the viewing audience have ever heard of. And, when the only excitement a show can generate these days is one actor sucker-slapping another because of a lame joke, your award show is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Still, millions of us will tune in March 12 to watch at least some of the Academy Awards programming before slipping into la-la land, and many of us will conscientiously try to catch up with the nominated movies and major performances between now and then in order to either cheer or heckle the winners. With that in mind, I’ll give you a rundown of what I know about the Best Picture nominees competing for Oscars this season, broken into two parts, five at a time.

• All Quiet on the Western Front (rated R for grisly battle scenes) is a German adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic World War I novel. Nominated for nine awards, mostly in technical categories, the film is poised to become the most successful German import since the Volkswagen.

It tells the story of a naïve young German boy who lies about his age in order to get into the action at the front, only to discover that war is literally hell. The violence of battle is depicted as graphically as possible, which makes the film’s 143 minutes a long, bloody slog to sit through, but never less than compelling. You can watch it on Netflix, but it’s also available on DVD.

• Avatar: The Way of Water (PG-13) is techno-genius James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel to the top-grossing movie of all time, 2009’s Avatar

This return trip to Pandora is essentially a continuation of the first movie’s characters and conflicts, with most of the principals – Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine, Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri and Stephen Lang’s Col. Miles Quaritch – back in one form or another, but the locale is new. Instead of the forest, the setting is the ocean, and the visual splendors that Cameron presents are truly impressive, especially in 3-D. 

Nominated for four Oscars (but, curiously, not one for director), the film is currently showing exclusively in theaters, where it has already grossed in excess of $2 billion. When it does finally stream, expect to find it on Disney+.

• The Banshees of Inisherin (R) reunites writer-director Martin McDonagh with the stars of his 2008 surprise hit In Bruges: Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. They play two lifelong friends on a tiny island off the Irish coast who have a bit of a falling out that sends reverberations throughout the close-knit community. 

The period is the 1920s, and Ireland is ripped by revolution, the sounds of which can sometimes be heard across the water. Meanwhile, the feud between Colm (Gleeson), an aspiring composer; and Pádraic (Farrell), a sort of dim-witted bloke without much imagination, becomes progressively darker and more bizarre. 

Nominated for nine Oscars – including nods for McDonagh for original screenplay and direction, Farrell for Best Actor, Gleeson for Best Supporting Actor, Kerry Condon (as Pádraic’s frustrated sister) for Best Supporting Actress, and Barry Keoghan (playing, essentially, the village idiot) for Best Supporting Actor – Banshees is one of the chalk favorites in this category. You can stream it on HBO Max or watch it on DVD.

• Elvis (PG-13) is director Baz Luhrmann’s idiosyncratic film biopic of the life and death of the King, Elvis Presley, played in a Best Actor–nominated performance by relative newcomer Austin Butler. If you’ve seen any of Lurhmann’s previous films – spicing up Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet) or the life and loves of French artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Moulin Rouge!) – you know he doesn’t do normal.

Elvis is a wild ride through Presley’s legend, narrated by his “creator” and manager, Col. Tom Parker, played by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hanks, speaking with an indeterminate accent that borders on parody. The film touches on all the highlights of the King’s career, with Butler doing an impressive job handling the histrionics and singing.

I’m not sure I learned anything about Presley that I didn’t already know, but it sure was fun to sit through. Nominated for eight Oscars (without one for Luhrmann, although his wife, Catherine Martin, snagged two – for Costume and Production Design), Elvis is streaming on HBO Max and also available on DVD.

• Everything Everywhere All at Once (R) is undoubtedly the surprise of this awards season. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards (and fresh off impressive wins at the Globes), this film written and directed by “the Daniels” – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are up for awards in both categories – has a plot that defies summary. 

Suffice to say, it follows the life path of a mother/wife/businessperson (Michelle Yeoh, a first-time nominee who’s up for Best Actress) who is key to saving the world from a particularly nasty everything bagel while juggling all the traditional roles expected of an Asian woman.

If that sounds like a joke, think The Matrix played as slapstick, and you’ll get an idea of the quicksilver craziness of this film, which also earned first-time nominations for Jamie Lee Curtis and Stephanie Hsu as Best Supporting Actress and Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) as Best Supporting Actor. You can catch this head-spinner on Showtime, but it, too, is available on DVD. 

Next time around, we’ll consider The Fabelmans, Tár, Top Gun: Maverick, Triangle of Sadness and Women Talking. Until then, happy viewing!

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.