HomeStreamingOscars 2023: Best Picture Nominees, Ranked from Worst to Best
Oscars 2023: Best Picture Nominees, Ranked from Worst to Best
March 8, 2023
From the spectacular to the bizarre (and everything, everywhere, in between), we attempt one last critical appraisal of the year’s biggest contenders.
The end of every awards season often comes with, more than anything, a sigh of relief. After months of campaigning, talking endlessly about the same films and performances and crafts, hearing the same stories over and over, it’s all too easy to feel eager to move on from them. What the ignores (or, at least forgets) is the very reason why these are the films that have been singled out for fêting during this season: because they’re the best of 2022’s offerings.
So, step back from the nominations, wins, and other forms of seasonal adulation, and consider the quality of the films that have reached the upper echelons of cinema in recent months. No matter how you feel about the 1o films nominated in this year’s Best Picture race, this assortment of titles boasts some serious range: we’ve got festival favorites, two (!!) sequels, indie offerings, studio pictures, biopics, comedies, dramas, romances, remakes, and adaptations, and those are just the easiest terms to classify them by.
Before these movies are forever transformed by the context of whatever happens on Sunday night, we’ve decided to look at each of them head-on for one last time; not as winners or also-rans, but as a microcosm of the films that enthralled audiences, fans, cinephiles, critics, prognosticators, and more over the last few months.
From the spectacular to the bizarre (and everything, everywhere, in between), here are all of the Best Picture nominees of 2023, ranked from worst to best.
To call the decision to make Tom Hanks’ con man Colonel Tom Parker the narrator of an Elvis Presley biopic polarizing is putting it mildly. It is the single biggest element of all this year’s Best Picture nominees that simply does not work, even overshadowing how the Baz Luhrmann film looks back at the King of Rock n’ Roll’s relationship to the Black community through distinctnyl rose-colored glasses.
The musical biopic, which happened to be the most successful original film of last year, making over $150 million at the box office, falls right in line with the rest of the Australian director’s epic oeuvre — for better and worse. If one is a Luhrmann fan, they are likely to point to the film’s impeccable craftwork and real sense of showmanship as high points. But, iff his filmmaking style does not work for you, little things like the anachronistic music cues may be a bother.
All that said, like he has done before with Leonardo DiCaprio in “Romeo + Juliet,” or Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge,” Luhrmann unlocked something within rising star Austin Butler that transformed him into one of Hollywood’s most exciting new leading men — accent and all. —MJ
9. “All Quiet on the Western Front”
As war movies go, “All Quiet on the Western Front” certainly doesn’t reinvent the rulebook, especially since it draws from a 95-year-old novel that has been adapted twice before. But director Edward Berger delivers the first German perspective on the material with an angry, devastating look at gullible soldiers and the nationalist propaganda that tricked them into dying in the trenches.
It’s bracing, intense filmmaking that does the genre proud, and as the only non-English language movie nominated for Best Picture, proof that this season has truly gone global for every level of international cinema.
Is it one of the great movies, or a version of those movies that you’ve seen before? More often than not, “All Quiet on the Western Front” falls into the latter camp, but it’s nevertheless attuned to the powers of the genre on every level. —EK
8. “Avatar: The Way of Water”
James Cameron’s “Avatar” was a technological achievement first and a sci-fi epic second; the second follows suit, but stands on the shoulders of the protracted world-building that preceded it. Diving straight into Pandora and the Na’vi family it spent over two hours establishing before.
“The Way of Water” is an immersive survival story in tandem with delivering breathtaking visual information in every second of its hefty running time. It’s the better “Avatar” because it gives us so much more of what makes this kind of billion-dollar experiment worthwhile — namely, the color blue. The aquatic world of “The Way of Water” steals the show from its busy ensemble more than once, as Cameron once again shows that he’s better at blockbuster scale than finding the credible human drama within.
Still, what scale: It’s the most expensive form of environmental activism since climate change became a thing. The saga of Jake Sully and Neytiri (along with whatever happens next with their remaining offspring) feels like it’s just getting started, and no other filmmaker has created such a vast, profitable mythology on their own terms in film history.
“The Way of Water” works just well enough to make it worth anticipating however many more entries Cameron feels like offering up. —EK
7. “Triangle of Sadness”
Ruben Östlund’s second Palme d’Or winner is perhaps the most clearly amusing of this year’s Best Picture nominees, a screamingly funny upbraiding of the upper upper class that delights in taking them down a peg (or more). The Swedish filmmaker has always relished in skewering the elite, from the icy charms of “Force Majeure” to the machinations of the art world in “The Square.” So while “Triangle of Sadness” screams “Ruben Östlund film!,” it also does it in the most obvious of manners, at least for the typically slyly entertaining auteur.
That’s not always a bad thing, though, as Östlund opens the picture with an absolutely brutal takedown of the not-so-glamorous world of modeling (piercing stuff that, quite frankly, should have pulled in more notice for the wonderfully calibrated Harris Dickinson) before catapulting us into the world of ultra-rich pleasure-cruisers.
So far, so hilarious, but once the film’s central superyacht hits a major squall, things take a big turn, and one that’s not always in line with Östlund’s strengths. There are few filmmakers who could turn a long-form sequence of seasickness hitting the masses (and we’re explaining it away in the most mundane of terms, it’s insanely gross stuff, and kudos for that) into a knotted exploration of class warfare, but Östlund almost nails it.
Almost. While the film’s final act gives breakout star Dolly de Leon plenty to play with, as her Abigail becomes ruler of the worst assortment of rich losers imaginable, it’s all a bit too obvious and plain-faced to stick. As funny and wild as it all is, this could all be meaner by half, than we’d really be cooking. —KE
6. “Top Gun: Maverick”
Even if Joseph Kosinski’s long, long-gestating “Top Gun” sequel hadn’t proven to be such a box office juggernaut that it inspired Steven Spielberg to tell producer and star Tom Cruise that he “saved Hollywood’s ass” during the annual Oscar nominee luncheon, the film would have proven to be a bright light in the cinema landscape.
No, no, wait a second, we can back this up! In a world gone made for franchises, sequels, remakes, even requels, the idea of a “Top Gun sequel” may sound a bit silly, but the film delivered on what has always been the grand promise of the blockbuster (a promise too often forgotten by its box office brethren): a big, bombastic, fully immersive experience that doesn’t skimp on the good stuff. Mostly, this thing just looks great, a reminder that audiences still know the difference between a green screen and taking a bunch of cast and crew into actual fighter jets.
If you’re going to see “Top Gun: Maverick,” you should get what you pay for: massive stunts, huge set pieces, a Lady Gaga song, a bunch of rising stars with kicky call signs, Tom Cruise on a motorcycle, Tom Cruise on a sailboat, Tom Cruise in a jet, Tom Cruise crying, Tom Cruise laughing, Tom Cruise running, and the kind of audience bonding that can only be found when hundreds of strangers are aligned behind a need to see our heroes beat the bad guy (whoever the hell he might be) and jet this bad boy right out of the sky, over the sea, and into oddly tear-jerking territory. That’s cinema, baby! —KE
5. “Women Talking”
There’s magic in Sarah Polley’s latest, the kind of picture that becomes harder to describe the more you try to put words to it. Fortunately, Polley doesn’t suffer from the same affliction, weaving an artful and emotional film that only grows more richer the more her characters — yes, most of them women — talk to each other. Soon, you’ll feel like you’re in the hayloft with them, talking about nothing less than the very future of this community, a major ask that still feels staggeringly intimate.
It’s no surprise that Polley, an actor herself (and one born from casting director stock, no less), is aces at picking a dreamy ensemble to tell this nightmarish tale. Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, these are just the top-line stars, because every single other cast member only adds to the rich texture of this wonderful film. (Name them! Judith Ivey, Kate Hallett, Sheila McCarthy, Emily Mitchell, Liv McNeil, Michelle McLeod, Shayla Brown, and August Winter.)
The subject matter is, of course, heavy, but the care with which Polley and her cast and crew bring it to the screen make it something else entirely: the kind of story you can’t wait to see play out, but one you never want to see end. It is in conversation with you, with me, with all of us, and will remain worth talking about long after this season ends. —KE
4. “The Fabelmans”
It is fascinating that, in a year where the blockbuster — a concept “Jaws” filmmaker Steven Spielberg himself is responsible for helping craft in the modern sense — took on so much importance, with other nominees like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” being credited as the saviors of the theatrical experience, that the legendary director went against the grain and delivered a family drama that’s his most personal film yet.
This film, which garnered Spielberg his first Best Original Screenplay nomination alongside longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, is far from the first autobiographical film from the viewpoint of an auteur to come out in recent years, but its daring vulnerability makes it the standard bearer for the subgenre.
Though they are at very different points in life, stars Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, and Judd Hirsch all give career benchmark performances, and Paul Dano and Seth Rogen play the central conflict in ways that are impressively unexpected. Sure, there are things to nitpick, like the somewhat episodic structure of a film so enamored with the magic of cinema, but that’s life, messy and worthy of examining in all its forms. —MJ
What makes Lydia Tár tick? That question sits at the center of writer-director Todd Field’s masterwork from its first frame until the last, as the director fuses the elements of a gothic thriller and social satire with documentary-like precision as he barrels down on some of the weightiest questions of our times: Sure, Tár’s conundrum is a trenchant look at the contradictions of cancel culture, the insular nature of privileged arts community, and the pressures placed on a powerful woman in the public eye. But it’s also a unique showcase of what Cate Blanchett can do like no other performer today, as she lives inside Field’s distinctive creation, and an entire world evolves around her.
It’s a cinematic symphony of actor-director cohesion in rare form, and the movies are all the better for it. You can pick apart the cerebral nature of the filmmaking all you want — and sure, some of its arguments about the knee-jerk sensitivity of younger generations have a bit of an “Old Man Screams at Cloud” vibe — but it’s the only Best Picture nominee this year that maintains a singular tone throughout, and leaves you thinking through the connotations of every scene. In that regard, yes, it’s a better movie about the power of movies than “The Fabelmans.” —EK
2. “The Banshees of Inisherin”
The characters who populate writer/director Martin McDonagh’s movies and plays tend to be gloomy, passive-aggressive people driven to violent extremes. “The Banshees of Inisherin” takes that template and transcends it. The story of drinking buddies Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) on an invented Irish isle in the midst of civil war takes a simple premise and imbues it with multitudes.
With two of the greatest Irish actors in its crosshairs, McDonagh merges a Malickian sense of wonder for the natural landscape with the chaos of human anxieties and existential malaise, tying it all together a string of feckin’ hilarious one-liners. Colm’s decision to start loping off his fingers to punish Pádraic for talking to him is the kind of wild violent twist that Tarantino used for shock effect decades ago, but McDonagh somehow makes it more palatable by rooting in genuine emotional stakes.
There are movies this Oscar season that juggle more moving parts and take more audacious swings, but none have the elegance and narrative specificity of McDonagh’s work. Among this year’s Best Picture nominees, it’s the only one that splits the difference between comedy and tragedy, the balancing act that McDonagh has perfected over the course of 30-odd years. There’s something about the fundamental smallness of its central conflict that also stands out in an era of overstatement. It’s a welcome reminder that movies don’t have to make grand gestures to be grand achievements. —EK
1. “Everything Everywhere All at Once”
Upon first viewing, the Michelle Yeoh-starring vehicle is nothing like what one would expect of a Best Picture frontrunner. In recent years, it has been hard enough to get the Academy to consider even the highest brow comedies, so a movie with more than one sex toy-related sight gag seems Oscar voter-repellant.
But at the end of the day, the sophomore effort from writer-director Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert has enough heart to melt even the hardest of voters. Underneath its literal multiverse of layers is a much-needed story about a family reconnecting, accepting each other (flaws and all), and maintaining hope that they are on the road to a better understanding of one another.
Although it feels loose in its kinetic telling, viewers can tell the filmmakers went over every painstaking detail, creating a work of art that was built for repeat viewings, always providing something new to notice. And as the story gets rolling, it becomes so clear how much consideration the Daniels had for their remarkable cast, allowing Yeoh to show off her martial arts chops and let experimental theater pro Stephanie Hsu to proudly fly her freak flag.
Yes, those rocks were technically props, but two hours in, no one can convince us that the pair of actresses did not actually play them. The love that went into making the Best Picture frontrunner is palpable, and its awards journey has provided many gifts to cinema, including the return of Ke Huy Quan.
The only way something this frenetic works this well is if it has the ability to make one feel everything, everywhere, all at once, and judging by the response it has gotten this past year, the film has achieved exactly that. —MJ