By Garry Maddox
You’ve got one month to prepare for Hollywood’s night of nights.Credit:Marija Ercegovac
Forget hamstring stretches, star jumps and push-ups. It’s just over four weeks to the Academy Awards so it’s time for a different type of boot camp to prepare for the big day.
A program of film watching will have you ready for every key Oscars conversation – whether Austin Butler deserves to win best actor for Elvis more than Brendan Fraser for The Whale, for example.
But rather than a hard grind, it will be a stimulating way of catching up with the last year’s best films.
If you’re a film fan, you probably will have seen (or heard enough about) two of the biggest hits in Australian box office history, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water – both nominated for best picture – so we’ll focus on other major contenders and less well-known gems. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers ahead.
Everything Everywhere All At Once (Amazon Prime, Binge and Foxtel Now)
Whether you are yet to catch it or are coming back to watch it again, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s surreal sci-fi comedy is the perfect warm-up. With an Oscars-leading 11 nominations, it is the early favourite to win best picture, director and at least one acting award. An ingenious, exuberant, genre-smashing film with heart, Everything, Everywhere is about a stressed-out Chinese immigrant, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), who discovers she is the only version of herself in an infinite multiverse who can combat shapeshifting villain Jobu Tupaki. Yeoh is a genuine contender for best actress. Up for best supporting actress are both Stephanie Hsu, who plays both her daughter and Tupaki, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who is a fierce tax auditor. And it will be emotional if Ke Huy Quan, who plays husband Waymond, wins best supporting actor in his return from the wilderness.
The Elephant Whisperers (Netflix)
This wonderful 40-minute film, nominated for best short documentary, is set in an elephant rehabilitation camp in South India. Two members of the Kattunayakan tribe, Bomman and Bellie, care for an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu. They grow close to each other as well as Raghu as he gets stronger. “When I first met the baby, he was tugging at my clothes like a child and I felt his love,” Bellie says winningly. “I decided I would give this motherless baby a chance.” Director Kartiki Gonsalves tells a beautiful story about the bond between humans and animals.
Tar (in cinemas)
Cate Blanchett is riveting as Lydia Tar, an imperious conductor-composer who heads the Berlin Philharmonic in director Todd Field’s drama about power, hubris, lust, the cost of striving for excellence and the impact of #MeToo revelations on an artist. Tar is reckless in a talk to music students, more reckless with the young women she has seduced then abandoned, even more reckless when a young Russian cellist auditions for the orchestra. Field keeps viewers on edge with subtle insights into Tar’s character and moments of dark humour. Blanchett is favourite to win best actress and Tar is also up for best picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography and editing.
Listen to: Naatu Naatu by M.M. Keeravani and Chandrabose, from Indian epic RRR, is favourite to win best original song.
All Quiet On The Western Front (Netflix)
Before Christmas, director Edward Berger’s gripping adaptation of a 1928 novel about German soldiers on the World War I frontline was not even in the Oscars conversation. But a groundswell of industry support has led to nine Oscar nominations. While there are similarities to past Oscars contender 1917, this anti-war drama feels more real and moving, helped by stunning cinematography, visual effects and makeup. The story centres on idealistic teenager Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) who signs up for the German army and quickly finds himself in the horrors of trench warfare. An earlier adaptation of the novel won the top prize at the Oscars in 1930. This version is a virtual certainty to win best international film and is a deserving best picture nominee.
Fire Of Love (Disney +)
There is real quality among the nominees for best feature and short documentary this year, including this visually strikingly portrait of daring French vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. As director Sara Dosa poetically tells the story of their romance and passion for volcanoes, the images are mind-boggling. The Kraffft’s work terrifyingly close to eruptions and lava flows. Maurice even paddles an inflatable canoe on a lake of sulphuric acid. The stunning images come from the Krafft’s archive of volcano footage.
Women Talking (in cinemas from February 16)
After the acclaimed personal documentary Stories We Tell a decade ago, Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has stepped into the Oscars spotlight with an uncompromising drama that is nominated for best picture and adapted screenplay. It is based on a novel inspired by an horrific real life conspiracy of sexual abuse in a Mennonite community. Seven men had been drugging women with animal tranquiliser and sexually assaulting them in their sleep. In a hayloft, eight women have to decide how to respond. The impressive acting ensemble is headed by Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley.
Listen to: Lift Me Up by Tems, Rihanna, Ryan Coogler and Ludwig Goransson from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is also up for best original song.
Elvis (rent on Apple TV+ and elsewhere)
Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley has been second only to Australia as his biggest hit in this country. Its eight Oscar nominations including best picture is a fitting reward for a challenging film to shoot entirely in Queensland during the pandemic. Austin Butler has gone from virtual unknown to Hollywood star with his magnetic performance as Presley from nervous teenager to entertainment legend. With Catherine Martin up for best costumes, production design and, for best picture, as one of the producers alongside Luhrmann, Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss, she is every chance of adding to her four Oscars. It would be an historic win if Mandy Walker, who smashed a glass ceiling when she became the first woman to claim best cinematography at the AACTA Awards late last year, repeats the feat at the Oscars.
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse (Apple TV+)
The popular tip to win best animated short – although fingers are crossed for Australian director Lachlan Pendragon’s cutely titled An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake And I Think I Believe It – this charming 32-minute film is about four unlikely friends. A boy lost in a snowy forest meets the three animals of the title on the way to finding his way home. Based on an acclaimed illustrated book by British artist Charlie Mackesy and directed by him and Peter Baynton, it’s a beautifully told story about kindness, love, bravery, vulnerability, friendship and family. The voice cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Idris Elba and Tom Hollander. As it finished, I had a tear in my eye.
The Banshees of Inisherin (in cinemas)
An Irish tragicomedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Three Billboards) that has sparked a debate in the letters pages about whether it’s a brilliant allegory of that country’s troubled history or just an over-rated bore. Oscar voters have rated it highly with nine nominations including best picture, director and original screenplay. It joins Everything Everywhere in having four acting nominees – Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. The scenery on the fictional island of Inisherin in 1923 is magical, the story black as folk musician Colm (Gleeson) upsets drinking buddy Padraic (Farrell) by deciding he no longer wants to be friends.
Listen to: Hold My Hand by Lady Gaga and BloodPop from Top Gun: Maverick is also up for best original song.
The Fabelmans (in cinemas)
It’s taken until after the death of his parents for Steven Spielberg to tell his own origin story. This moving and revealing drama is about how filmmaking helped a lonely boy growing up in a complicated family. With an analytical electrical engineer father (Paul Dano) and a passionate musician mother (Michelle Williams), young Sammy Fabelman (played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle) starts to find his identity by shooting films. But he is tested as his parents’ relationship breaks down. It’s nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, director and Williams and Judd Hirsch for best actress and supporting actor respectively. While the duo known as the Daniels are favourites to win best director for Everything Everywhere, Oscar voters have long loved Spielberg.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Netflix)
While the title differentiates this film from the disappointing Pinocchio that Robert Zemeckis made for Disney last year, it also suggests that this version is very much the dark vision of the Mexican director of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley. Warm favourite to win best animated feature from Marcel The Shell With Shoes On and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, it’s a stop motion tale about a wooden boy that is set in Italy at the start of World War II. With more nightmarish and horror elements than the old animated Disney version from 1940, it’s not really a story for children any more. But the animation is impressive; so is the voice cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett.
The Whale (in cinemas)
Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan, Noah) has long been attracted to stories about extreme experiences. This drama is no exception, centring on a morbidly obese English professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser in his comeback to a starring role) who teaches students online with his camera shut down. His nurse and only friend Liz (Hong Chau) wants him to go to hospital because of the risk of congestive heart failure but he refuses. So The Whale, based on a play, largely takes place in Charlie’s home with visits by his estranged daughter, a pizza delivery guy and a missionary that underline his isolation. While the film has had mixed reviews, its three Oscar nominations include both Fraser and Chau for their acting.
Listen to: Also up for best original song is This Is A Life by Ryan Lott, David Byrne and Mitski from Everything, Everywhere.
Want some alternatives?
If you prefer to swap out some of these films, try the Cannes-winning best picture nominee Triangle Of Sadness (cinemas); Angela Bassett’s likely best supporting actress winning performance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Disney +) or the revelatory Russian documentary Navalny (SBS On Demand). Then there’s controversial best actress nominee Andrea Riseborough in the drama To Leslie and the opioid epidemic documentary All The Beauty And The Bloodshed (both in cinemas from March 9).
On Oscars day
Organise snacks, find a comfortable seat then watch the Oscars live on Seven and 7plus from 11am on Monday, March 13 AEDT, with a replay that night. And follow the Herald and Age’s live blog, of course.
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