The 2023 Oscar nominations are finally out and that means the 2022-2023 awards season is heading into its resurged finale. After two years where The Academy’s intense additions to its ranks attempted to curb some of its less palatable tendencies towards the familiar, white and generically prestigious, this year’s nominees seem to reflect a regression—a return to the status quo.
As we head backwards one or more steps for every step taken forward, we’ve got some of the same issues we’ve always got with the Oscars. For every excellent nomination, every interesting piece of recognition, there’s the predictable nonsense that conned its way in. There’re the games played in the highly specialized categories of Original Song, and of the short films. There are the odd gambles made when deciding which acting award to seek. It’s certainly not a bad year, however. Some of the top-grossing movies (that of course found some awards) are actually pretty good, and some of the more niche choices made by the Academy will steer aspiring cinephiles and middlebrow consensus-takers alike into more adventurous waters.
Here are the good, bad and ugly takeaways from 2023’s Oscar nominations:
Women Are Talking
Sarah Polley started her directorial career with Away We Go, the story of a couple floundering in the face of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. It is a remarkably adept love story, one that understands how time can both bind a couple together and unravel them. The film earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and Women Talking will see her return to the ceremony for the same nomination, but this time the film will also be up for Best Picture. On the surface, Women Talking appears to be straight awards bait, featuring a star-studded cast and based on a hit book. But it is really a film charting the threads that spin out from meaningful conversations, invested in the ways we implicate and free one another from our inherited trauma, lending heft to the distinctly un-cinematic act of listening. It has been largely shut out from other awards bodies, so it is a pleasant surprise to see it acknowledged by the Oscars.
All the First-Time Acting Nominees
Of the 20 actors nominated this year, 16 of them have never been nominated before. The Academy is often (rightly) accused of navelgazing, coating the evening in a glitzy sheen by celebrating the already established. Now, it’s not like Michelle Yeoh or Ke Huy Quan or Brendan Fraser are industry newcomers whose careers have been waiting for a boost from this “very local” awards body, but a nomination for actors like these two can function as a nod of acknowledgement. It is equally exciting to see actors like Stephanie Hsu and Paul Mescal, who both deliver entrancingly self-possessed, startlingly honest performances that disguise their relative newness to the industry.
International Films Find Experimental, Exciting Quality
While many thought that Decision to Leave would ride a splashy, sexy wave to more nominations, or that RRR would be put forward at all for the nomination (it wasn’t), the crop of nominees from around the world are strong. EO’s brilliantly surreal story of a donkey’s wandering journey is a thoughtful, evocative feast. Argentina, 1985 is a gripping, winning historical reckoning. All Quiet on the Western Front, which showed up in plenty of other categories (perhaps because it had Netflix behind it), is a far more complicated and upsetting war movie than you might expect—taking a different tack than previous adaptations of the same story, while preserving much of the abject sadness at the heart of any good story of large-scale loss.
Necessary Criticism of Hollywood’s Ugly History
While Babylon earned nominations for its technical departments, the film was largely shut out of Best Picture. The three-hour epic is a grimy retelling of Hollywood’s journey from silent film to talkies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It is unflinchingly critical of the system which churns out stars only to offer them up as tabloid fodder once they have served their purpose, operating as a horror film in the final third as each character faces the gaping abyss of waning stardom. Similarly, Nope exemplified how Hollywood consistently capitalizes on spectacle, regardless of the bodily cost. Jordan Peele crafted a story around the people maimed in the process of cutting together easy narratives. By comparison, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, both great films that revel in the glamor of movie making, received considerable love. As usual, the Academy struggles to take account of its world’s own torrid history in any meaningful way.
Where Is The Woman King?
Gina Prince-Bythewood returns every few years to deliver a bombastic masterpiece. The Woman King was this year’s. Flawlessly executed action, shot to capture every brutal corner of hand-to-hand combat, this film is the kind of thrilling spectacle that lands on the Academy’s lap every decade or so, worthy of its attention and accolades. Yet unlike its counterparts that have come before (Titanic, The Lord of the Rings), The Woman King was entirely shut out from this year’s Oscar race. Is it because of its rightful criticism of colonialism? Its wholehearted embrace of matriarchy? The color of its warriors? Regardless of the reason, the Oscars’ disinterest in this crowd-pleaser will backfire in the long run.
RRR Deserved More than a Splashy Song Nod
Yes, the “Naatu Naatu” scene in the balls-out Tollywood actioner RRR is a showstopping delight. We wrote as much last year in our appreciation for the best movies of the year. But let’s also remind ourselves that RRR is one of the best movies of the year. With a sprawling runtime wrangled well by two stellar performances and a director operating at the height of his blockbuster powers, all the things that made the epic into a crossover hit can’t be distilled into a single good dance sequence.
The Conversation around Andrea Riseborough and to Leslie
The internet has been abuzz with flack for a copy-pasted campaign for one of the year’s best performances: Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie. While it’s a little embarrassing to see the same exact phrasing be repeated across the social media accounts of A-list actors, it’s not like Netflix isn’t shelling out tons of cash to send swag to sway voters. Studios pay for billboards, mailers, huge print ads, TV commercials—all designed to give the best-financed films a nice visibility boost in the run-up to the awards. To Leslie, a microbudget drama that our Aurora Amidon said had one of the best performances of the year back in October, is getting by on goodwill and high-profile pals. This isn’t a problem. Kicking a little movie, a deserving actress, and a stellar performance out of some kind of misunderstanding towards awards campaigning is a problem. Meme all you want, but maybe adjust your target towards the big, dumb, pricey films getting pushed into screenplay nominations (cough, Top Gun: Maverick, cough).
Whoops, Forgot about Women Directors Again