All the 2023 best picture Oscar nominees ranked, from worst to best
This year’s best picture Oscar nominees include two literary adaptations, two blockbuster sequels, two movies with titles sporting some variation on the word “tar,” two movies featuring violent shipwrecks, two movies with much-abused donkeys and two celebrity biopics (though only if you count “Tár,” as I’m tempted to do). Do with that information what you will; in the meantime, and in keeping with the preferential ballot used for this most important of categories, I am going to rank all 10 best picture nominees, in order from worst to best. Here they are:
It’s not a bad roster of nominees that bottoms out with a movie as grand, ambitious and unruly as this one. As a pairing of maximalist filmmaker and larger-than-life subject, Baz Luhrmann’s raucous, rhinestone-studded mash note to the King of Rock ’n’ Roll is undoubtedly one of his stronger efforts, and one that manages, through sheer bombastic intensity, to blow right past the pitfalls of so many indifferently conceived cradle-to-the-grave artist biopics. Messy and reductive though it may be, you can’t accuse “Elvis” of indifference, or of a dearth of passion or conviction. Nor can you fault Austin Butler, giving one of the better Oscar-nominated biopic star turns in recent memory; however still attached he may be to Elvis’ accent off-screen, he never settles for easy mimicry.
Still, Butler’s performance would play even better if it had the benefit of Luhrmann’s full attention. And of all the miscalculations in this morass of unchained melodies and extravagantly, often enjoyably undisciplined filmmaking, none is more mystifying than the decision to tell Elvis’ story from the perspective of Col. Tom Parker. Played by Tom Hanks in one of his most grating performances, Parker emerges as a villain so oppressively distracting, you might wonder if he should’ve been squeezed into the title.
9. ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
You probably expected to find this one further down; honestly, I did too. But this is where Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s mercurial martial-arts action-comedy lands at this moment, in this universe, and in this critic’s estimation: It’s a splendid, career-encompassing showcase for Michelle Yeoh, a hell of a career jumpstart for Ke Huy Quan, a coup for Asian-mom representation (a subject near and dear to my Chinese American heart) and a welcome reminder that action movies featuring cosmic leaps between parallel universes need not be the domain of Marvel movies alone.
“Everything Everywhere’s” strengths are obvious, because nearly everything about it is obvious. So are its weaknesses, chief among them a conceptual approach so dizzyingly, determinedly frenetic that I find it difficult, even after several viewings, to gain an emotional foothold. I clearly don’t speak for everyone on that score, as evidenced by the swooning rapture (and sometimes bullying fury) of its most passionate fans, many of whom weep on cue at the movie’s signature line: “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” But even that moment strikes me as an instance of the meme-able over the meaningful, a bid for catharsis that — amid all the story’s ’verse-jumping, butt-plugging, googly-eyed antics — never feels fully earned. You can admire the verve with which the Daniels throw everything at the wall while still concluding that, Yeoh’s performance aside, not a whole lot of it sticks.
8. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’
How Edward Berger’s impressively mounted World War I drama quietly became Netflix’s strongest awards player, as higher-profile hopefuls like “Blonde” and “Bardo” fell by the critically savaged wayside, may be one of this season’s less foreseeable twists. There are a lot of reasons for “All’s” quiet ascendancy, including the undimmed significance of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal novel, which already yielded one best picture winner more than 90 years ago, and which has at long last yielded a proper German-language screen adaptation nearly a century after its publication. As we see the horrors of war play out in Ukraine and elsewhere around the world, there’s a built-in resonance to any story that scrutinizes the senseless, grinding machinery of armed conflict.
There is also, of course, the undeniable craft and intelligence of Berger’s movie, whose agonizing trench-warfare sequences are staged with a visceral understanding of what flames, shells and knives can do to human flesh. The pummeling virtuosity of Berger’s filmmaking, which at times nods toward the conflagrations of Elem Klimov's masterful "Come and See," does raise the eternal question of whether any combat movie can truly be called an antiwar movie, even if Berger’s own sentiments are never in doubt. Unfortunately, it’s the movie’s insistence on making those sentiments abundantly clear that ultimately holds it back: This “All Quiet on the Western Front” would be stronger still without its continual cutaways to the German negotiations behind the scenes — a contextually informative if thematically redundant subplot, notably absent from the book, that too often yanks us out of its soldiers’ physical and psychological hellscape.
7. ‘Top Gun: Maverick’
I’m aware of how ludicrous it is to jump from an antiwar movie to an aggressively pro-military one, but of such contradictions is any wide-ranging best picture lineup made. We’re also now entering the sequel portion of this list, which would have been even more robust had “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and/or “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” made the best picture cut, as some suspected they might. Cynical minds might conclude that the academy opted for “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” due to their staggering box office billions, and they may well be right. At a moment when theatrical moviegoing has seldom seemed more endangered, it’s easy to imagine voters gravitating toward the commercial juggernauts that kept the industry alive, even if the inevitable Hollywood consequences — more massively over-budgeted event movies and sequels, and precious little else — suggest the most Pyrrhic of victories.
But there’s also another dynamic at play. These are two of the longer-gestating sequels in recent memory, which speaks to the considerable care and thought that’s gone into their making, as well as their refusal to take the audience’s investment for granted. And in the case of “Top Gun: Maverick,” that refusal has resulted in a sequel that, while far less sweatily iconic than its 1986 predecessor, becomes, in the hands of director Joseph Kosinski, a markedly richer, emotionally rounder experience. It’s a pleasure to see Tom Cruise return to one of his signature roles, which many were hoping might land him his first acting nomination since 1999’s “Magnolia,” and to see him upstaged by Val Kilmer’s one-scene heartbreaker of a performance. But what gives “Top Gun: Maverick” its specific kick is the way it turns naval aviation into its own cinematic metaphor. In its hope for the new generation but its refusal to abandon the old, its belief that seemingly antiquated technologies can still be sources of pleasure, accomplishment and even salvation, is a deeply sincere expression of faith in the movies, their past and their future.
6. ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’
Had James Cameron somehow contrived a way to set his whole damn movie underwater, perhaps by forcing his actors to hold their breath for hours (rather than mere minutes) at a time, this frequently astonishing dive into the great blue yonder might have placed even higher. Like the Na’vi teenagers we see exploring their new oceanic home, I could have spent hours swimming around that sea floor, watching in slack-jawed bliss as endless varieties of alien fish swam past. In these moments, Cameron’s deranged dream of a sustained immersion in a world of natural-yet-wholly-artificial wonders is thrillingly, perhaps unsurpassably realized. No longer content to be king of the world, he has become the deity of his own universe, and if “Avatar: The Way of Water” is merely his latest act of monumental hubris, his delight in his powers of creation prove awfully infectious.
The rest of the movie isn’t always as enthralling, but it’s transporting all the same: Cameron will never be a great dialogue stylist, but one of the charges most often leveled at “Avatar: The Way of Water” — its lack of narrative complexity or drive — strikes me frankly as an explanation for why it works as well as it does. The world here is and always will be the story, and the struggles of a loving, close-knit family to master their new environment and survive a dangerous threat are all the complications it needs. Do we need the sequels that are coming, the return trips to Pandora that lie ahead? I’m not convinced — but then, when it comes to convincing the skeptical, Cameron does stand alone.
5. ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’
I’m dreadful at predictions, though if forced to call this race today, I’d say it’s a toss-up between hot-dog fingers (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) and severed fingers (“The Banshees of Inisherin”). It’s especially telling that both pictures received four acting nominations apiece — a rare accomplishment for any movie, let alone two in the same year. And while “Everything Everywhere” might have the zeitgeist-y edge (plus the largest nomination haul), I suspect that most voters will find Martin McDonagh’s delectably written and performed dark comedy the more palatable proposition. This tale of a disintegrating friendship in an insular Irish community is that rare intimately scaled actors’ showcase that achieves, in the vistas of Ben Davis’ gorgeous cinematography, a real measure of cinematic heft.
I’m not in love with every narrative decision McDonagh makes, especially in the closing passages; his reliance on violence (including one episode of completely fictional but still upsetting animal cruelty) smacks of glibness, of a comic fatalism that doesn’t ring entirely true. But that takes away nothing from the salty brilliance of the dialogue, the skill of the performances or the pleasure of watching Colin Farrell’s unstoppable force crash again and again into Brendan Gleeson’s immovable object. It’s generally conceded, rightly or wrongly, that McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” came within a whisper of winning best picture back in 2018. “The Banshees of Inisherin” may face even better odds, as befits a significantly better movie.
4. ‘Triangle of Sadness’
It’s also fitting for a movie called “Triangle of Sadness” to score three nominations (for picture, director and original screenplay), though it really should have gotten at least four: The absence of Dolly de Leon’s spectacular performance from the supporting actress race, while hardly surprising, was for me one of the lousiest — and yes, saddest — outcomes of the morning. Her omission feels all the more glaring given the clearly strong support for Ruben Östlund’s epic of late-capitalist excess and seething class warfare on the high seas, which premiered to a divided critical reception at the Cannes Film Festival but nonetheless ended up winning the Palme d’Or. That juxtaposition of love and loathing seems on par for the course these days for Östlund: Is he an artist or a bludgeoner? A brilliant takedown artist or a terminally smug, self-indulgent one?
Maybe there is smugness in “Triangle of Sadness,” though for me it’s neutralized by gleeful, curiously bracing delight in the absurdities of human behavior across the race, class and gender spectrum; the movie may reserve its sharpest scorn for the billionaire and influencer classes, but it has the sting of a collective indictment. As for indulgence: On second viewing of this 140-minute movie, the cleverness of its domino-effect construction and the modulation of its infamous gross-out sequences felt all the more apparent. Östlund is a wizard of choreography and staging, and his innate understanding of the dynamics of cause and effect is what gives “Triangle of Sadness” its satirical force. Or, as the critic Michael Sicinski so astutely articulated: “If you build a world in which everyone has an assigned place, it’s surprisingly easy to throw that world into utter chaos.”
3. ‘Women Talking’
Given the seemingly diminished enthusiasm for Sarah Polley’s fourth feature in the months after its well-received premieres at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, I’m relieved that voters came through for “Women Talking,” even if — for the first time since 2020 — they clearly don’t care much for women directing. Nor, apparently, could they settle on any consensus favorites from perhaps the year’s mightiest acting ensemble. My own picks would have been Sheila McCarthy and Rooney Mara, though the uniformity of thespian excellence that Polley achieves here makes it nearly impossible to choose among them, and also easy to overlook the greatness of her achievement.
Maybe that’s as it should be: In tackling Miriam Toews’ powerfully argued novel about sexual assault, accountability and survival in a Mennonite colony, “Women Talking” continually downplays and even obscures its own greatness. From its muted, unlovely color palette to its tightly controlled performances, everything it shows us is placed in rigorous service of brilliantly cascading questions and ideas: What are the cost and value of forgiveness? How do women achieve a freedom they’ve scarcely been allowed to even imagine? Polley doesn’t belabor these questions; she knows that asking them is enough, and her confidence in her own economy is startling. In a year of bloated, 2½-hour-plus running times, “Women Talking” is, at 104 minutes, the shortest of this year’s best picture nominees — and the only one I wish were actually longer. Doesn’t it deserve an Oscar for that alone?
2. ‘The Fabelmans’
In last year’s best picture rankings, I placed Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” at No. 3 and noted, not for the first time, that our most popular living filmmaker was in danger of becoming curiously underrated. A year later, he advances one slot higher with “The Fabelmans,” and the point about his late-career vitality — and his ongoing underappreciation — holds truer than ever. That could change in several weeks, of course: In a year with no single, dominant contender in the directing race, I suspect that Spielberg stands as good a shot as ever to win his third Oscar in that category, even if voters decide to look elsewhere for a best picture winner.
But what if they didn’t? What if they simply gave it to “The Fabelmans,” not just as a career accolade for Spielberg but as a recognition of what a singularly gorgeous, nimble, vibrant, generous, funny and aching story he’s telling here? That the story happens to be his own gives it, of course, a rich personal dimension, though as this movie reminds us, Spielberg has never been an impersonal filmmaker: He’s been piping his dreams, memories and desires onto the screen for decades. And while “The Fabelmans” offers a career road map of sorts, it’s far more than the glorified “Indiana Jones” Easter-egg hunt it might have looked like on paper. It’s also a much tougher-minded and less sentimental piece of work than some might have expected from Spielberg; never before has he so deeply interrogated the power of movies to conceal and fabricate, or his own troubling command of that power. As Judd Hirsch declares in one crucial scene: “Art will break your heart.” Michelle Williams and Paul Dano will too.
I’m not sure what it says that my two favorites among this year’s best picture nominees are both sprawling yet minutely detailed portraits of great artists — one at the beginning of his career, one speeding toward the possible end of hers, both mastering and testing the limits of their remarkable control. But what unites both movies, for all their disparities of tone and milieu, is the sense that each artist inhabits a fully realized world. And in “Tár,” Todd Field’s elegantly chilled portrait of a renowned conductor named Lydia Tár, the rarefied world of classical music springs to near-panoramic life in a series of set pieces constructed, written, directed and performed with a genuinely symphonic bravura. This may not be (you’ll forgive the overused expression) a love letter to cinema, but it is, in its sinuous long takes and ghostly longueurs, cinematic to its core: For all that it may owe to Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke, it also evinces a fearless command of the medium beyond anything Field has demonstrated until now.
A lot — and somehow, still not enough — has been written about the brilliance of Cate Blanchett’s lead performance. (Not nearly enough has been written about her co-stars Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant.) But even Blanchett derives some of her power from the sheer verve of Field’s world-building, his intricate understanding of how Tár’s personal and professional spheres operate. The spaces into which he leads us — a New Yorker Festival stage, a classroom at Juilliard, the Berlin Philharmonic's concert hall — could scarcely be more concrete in their details. But there is nothing rigid about the ideas swirling through those spaces: about cancel culture and #MeToo, about the Western canon and the artistically marginalized, about the corruptions of power and the irreducible nature of great art. “Tár” is irreducible, and it is great.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.