A look at this year's Best Picture nominees - Catholic Courier
A scene from the movie "West Side Story Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez star in a scene from the movie "West Side Story." (CNS photo by Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios)

A look at this year’s Best Picture nominees

NEW YORK (CNS) — This year’s Academy Award nominations were announced Feb. 8. Following, in alphabetical order, are capsule reviews of the 10 films contending for Best Picture. The Oscars ceremony will take place in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 27.

“Belfast” (Focus)

Writer-director Kenneth Branagh uses the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (Jude Hill) living in the city of the title to examine the effects of the sectarian strife that swept across Northern Ireland at the very end of the 1960s. As the lad’s father (Jamie Dornan), who journeys back and forth to England for work, resists pressure from the ruthless leader (Colin Morgan) of the local Protestant extremists to join in the violence, his mother (Caitríona Balfe) struggles to keep him and his older brother (Lewis McAskie) safe and morally grounded. Though emigration seems the best option for the family, it would mean separating themselves from the grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) with whom the youth shares a close emotional bond. A sensitive exploration of the plight of decent people surrounded by malignant bigotry, this moving drama is also a celebration of romantic love, ranging from the protagonist’s shy affection for a classmate (Olive Tennant) to two examples of enduring marriage. The film’s artistic merit and ethical surefootedness will probably outweigh its occasional verbal defects in the minds of parents judging its acceptability for older teens. Some stylized violence, a few instances each of profanity and milder swearing, fleeting rough and crude language, at least one crass expression. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“CODA” (Apple TV)

The challenges of being the only hearing member of a close-knit family are movingly explored in this drama, the title of which is an acronym for child of deaf adults. That phrase describes the situation of the film’s main character (Emilia Jones), the 17-year-old scion of a working-class fishing clan (rounded out by parents Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur and older brother Daniel Durant) in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her love of singing prompts her to join her school choir (led by Eugenio Derbez) and leaves her struggling to decide whether she should try to get into a prestigious music college or stay at home where she has always served as her relatives’ interpreter. She receives sympathetic support via her burgeoning romance with a fellow vocalist (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) on whom she has long had a crush. Unfortunately, the salty quality of some of the silent banter that gets tossed around in the protagonist’s loving household, together with other mature elements, makes this high-quality coming-of-age story inappropriate for kids, although the insight it provides into the culture it so authentically depicts may prompt the parents of at least some older teens to overlook these lapses. Brief physical violence, drug use, a sequence involving mostly off-screen marital lovemaking, frequent crude and crass language, occasional innuendo, some scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“Don’t Look Up” (Netflix)

Clever comedy in which an astronomy grad student (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet that her mentor (Leonardo DiCaprio) soon calculates is on a collision course with Earth. Teaming with a government official (Rob Morgan), they try to alert the president (Meryl Streep) and later the public at large that this is a potential extinction event. But the chief executive is too focused on politics and the media (personified by feel-good newscasters Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) too anxious to look on the bright side of doomsday for anyone to respond appropriately. Even those who may not appreciate writer-director Adam McKay’s parable about global warming or his put-down of Trumpian populism may enjoy his skewering of pop culture. As for religion, sincere faith is celebrated in the unlikely figure of a believing skateboarder (Timothée Chalamet) even as its counterfeit is satirized while family values, represented by the professor’s much put-upon wife (Melanie Lynskey) triumph in the end. For those grown viewers willing to withstand constantly coarse dialogue, Mark Rylance’s hilarious turn as an eccentric billionaire will be the icing on the cake. Brief full nudity in a nonsexual context, an adultery theme, drug use, about a dozen profanities, several milder oaths, pervasive rough and much crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“Drive My Car” (Janus)

Passages in the life of a theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) show his complicated marriage (to Reika Kirishima), his relationship with the young actor (Masaki Okada) he casts as the title character in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and his burgeoning friendship with the chauffeur (Toko Miura) whose services are a perk of his residency at the Hiroshima arts center where the production is being presented. The complexity of human motives and behavior, the power of the past to haunt the present and the bond between the living and the dead are among the themes of director and co-writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s multilayered, literary drama. But its frank portrayal of sexual encounters both legitimate and immoral, while properly contextualized, makes it suitable only for those grown-ups willing to grapple with such material. Graphic marital lovemaking and adulterous activity, sexual references, a couple of instances each of profanity and milder swearing. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association.

Dune” (Warner Bros.)

Gripping sci-fi epic, adapted by director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve from the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, centers on the heir (Timothée Chalamet) to a powerful dynasty of intergalactic warriors who may also be the messiah figure foretold in various prophecies. As his clan gets caught up in the battle for control of the titular world, a desert planet rich in a highly-prized spice, he seeks to emulate his sage and enlightened father (Oscar Isaac). But his priestess mother (Rebecca Ferguson) steers him toward a more mysterious destiny. Combining elements of a costume drama, an against-the-odds quest and a parable about imperialism, the film features a complex religious mythos requiring careful reflection on the part of viewers. Parents will probably find it acceptable for those older teens capable of sorting through such material. Nonscriptural beliefs, much stylized but sometimes intense violence, cohabitation, partial nudity, brief sexual references, a few mild oaths, at least one crude term. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“King Richard” (Warner Bros.)

A vivid performance from Will Smith as the father of future tennis greats Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) Williams energizes this intriguing fact-based sports drama. By turns determined and, as the nickname of the title suggests, domineering, with the help of his dedicated wife (Aunjanue Ellis), he overcomes long odds to fulfill his dream of making his daughters world-renowned champions. Yet the obstacles barring his way include not only the meagerness of his economic resources, the dangers of life in the gang-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood his family inhabits and the racism, both institutional and personal, he frequently encounters but the downsides of his own personality, negative traits that bring him into conflict with a duo of highly regarded coaches (Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal). Though overlong, director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film highlights the value of persistence, humility, self-discipline and good parenting. Some vulgar dialogue aside, moreover, there’s not much to prevent the sharing of those life lessons with older adolescents. Brief gun and physical violence, at least one instance each of profanity, milder swearing and rough language, a few crude and several crass expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“Licorice Pizza” (MGM)

Off-beat blend of comedy and drama, set in early 1970s California, follows the ups and downs in the relationship of a precocious 15-year-old child actor (Cooper Hoffman) and the 25-year-old young woman (Alana Haim) he would like to make his girlfriend. As he becomes first a waterbed salesman and then the owner of a pinball arcade, and the duo hover uncertainly on the border of friendship and romance, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson uses their encounters with a variety of eccentric characters — played, among others, by Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Harriet Sansom Harris — to paint a portrait of American culture at the time. But, while the central bond remains chaste, the initial charm of watching the principals click with each other eventually wears thin. Mature themes, including homosexuality, drug use, some sexual humor, several uses of profanity, a few milder oaths, pervasive rough and much crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight)

Bradley Cooper plays a Depression-era drifter who joins the crew of a low-rent traveling carnival (run by Willem Dafoe) and becomes fascinated with mentalism. After being instructed in the craft by a husband-and-wife team of clairvoyants (Toni Collette and David Strathairn), he departs the sideshow for a career on his own, accompanied by another member of the troupe (Rooney Mara) for whom he has fallen. By the eve of World War II, the now-married couple have hit the big time, performing in elegant nightclubs. But his steamy affair with a hard-edged psychoanalyst (Cate Blanchett) and his reckless attempt to dupe a wealthy, powerful industrialist (Richard Jenkins) imperil his good fortune. Given the less-than-likeable personality of its huckster protagonist, viewers may find it difficult to warm to director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s noir-inspired screen version of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, first edgily adapted the following year by helmer Edmund Goulding. Long on atmosphere and acting talent, but short on ethics, this journey through high places and low is not a suitable trip for most cinematic tourists. Skewed values, considerable harsh violence with gore, an adultery theme, a glimpse of frontal male nudity, about a dozen uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths, occasional rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“The Power of the Dog” (Netflix)

When a timid widow (Kirsten Dunst) and her awkward, effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) arrive on the ranch in 1925 Montana that her well-meaning but weak-willed new husband (Jesse Plemons) co-owns with his menacing brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) it puts further pressure on the siblings’ already strained relationship and leads to a campaign of subtle persecution against the fragile bride by her in-law. Writer-director Jane Campion’s smoldering psychological drama, adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, features compelling performances and laconic dialogue full of dark hints about both past and future. Mature topics and visual content make it strictly grown-up fare. Rear and a glimpse of full male nudity, homosexuality and alcoholism themes, a few uses of profanity, about a half-dozen milder oaths, a handful of crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.      

“West Side Story” (20th Century)

Splendid second film version of the classic 1957 Broadway musical, directed by Steven Spielberg. As it charts the romance of its modern-day Romeo and Juliet, Manhattan slum dwellers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), and their effort to cross the ethnic divide that separates them, a division embodied and intensified by the escalating feud between the white gang to which he belongs (led by Mike Faist) and the Hispanic one headed by her brother (David Alvarez), Tony Kushner’s script adheres more closely to the stage play than the 1961 movie. It also amplifies the Latino flavor of the kinetic proceedings by giving characters, including Maria’s best friend, Anita (Ariana DeBose), and Tony’s kindly patron, Valentina (Rita Moreno), dialogue in Spanish. By turns celebratory and heartbreaking, Spielberg’s masterful enhancement of the already brilliant work of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, playwright Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins, on whose concept the show was based, will captivate grown-ups. However, while Catholic elements are, if anything, more prominent than in the earlier picture, the new take also involves a living arrangement at odds with, and an implied encounter at least in tension with, church teaching. Possibly acceptable for older teens. Mostly stylized violence with minimal gore, an attempted gang rape, cohabitation, offscreen premarital sexual activity, about a dozen uses of profanity, at least one milder oath, some crude and crass talk. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.


Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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