The Oscars in an Age of Distraction

Oscars statues line the red carpet ahead of the 95th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, on March 10, 2023. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The writer and music historian Ted Gioia published a viral essay a few weeks ago entitled, “The State of the Culture, 2024.” It’s worth reading the piece in full, but here’s the gist: We haven’t just traded art for entertainment—we’ve now even sidestepped entertainment for mere distraction. Past generations sought journalism; now, we seek clickbait. Past generations sought albums; now, we seek TikTok tunes.

Past generations sought film. Now, we seek reels.

I’m sympathetic to Gioia’s assessment. But if he’s right that we’re increasingly interested in quick dopamine hits over cultivating an artistic sensibility, then it seems worthwhile to both a) point out when our culture bucks these trends and b) foster traditions and institutions that do so.

The year 2023 in film offers some signs of hope on the first score. Two of the highest-grossing movies—Barbie and Oppenheimer—were also considered among the most creative and thoughtful films of the year. That’s especially notable in Oppenheimer’s case, which at a three-hour runtime doesn’t exactly scream “quick dopamine hit.”

And on the second point … well, there’s a case for caring about the Oscars.

Ratings for the telecast have fallen over the past decades, from a high of 55 million viewers when Titanic swept the awards in 1998 to a low of about 10 million viewers in 2021. Last year, 18 million people watched the Oscars.

There are a few likely reasons for this drop. The dawn of the streaming age has certainly played a role, as have the divergence between arthouse darlings and blockbuster hits and the Oscars’ leftward turn away from the American mainstream. Each of these potential culprits is worth considering, but for now, on the eve of the 96th Academy Awards, here’s my proposal to Oscar-skeptics: Have fun with them.

Sure, the Oscars ceremony will inevitably have its share of ideological preachiness. Still, it’s also one of the main institutional vehicles our culture has to talk about what the year in film got right, and to reflect on the ideas or sentiments some of the best movies were able to capture.

So, in the spirit of enjoying the Oscars telecast rather than bemoaning it, here’s a list of predictions about who I think will win each category, accompanied by my wishes about who should win. I threw in some Oscars trivia for good measure, as well as some highlights of movies we’ve written about in The Dispatch’s weekend culture section over the past year. 

What do you think? Will/should Oppenheimer sweep the night? Are the conservative youths right or wrong about Killers of the Flower Moon? And could the Oscars help us choose art over distraction? Let us know in the comments.

And for reference, here’s a full list of this year’s nominees.

The Big Five (Well, Six)

Cillian Murphy in 'Oppenheimer.' (Photo: Courtesy of Universal Studios)
Cillian Murphy in 'Oppenheimer.' (Photo: Courtesy of Universal Studios)

Best Actor

Academy voters are suckers for biopics. In this category, six of the last 10 winners played a real-life character.

Theoretically, that should give Bradley Cooper’s turn as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro and Coleman Domingo as the titular civil rights pioneer in Rustin an edge. But they’ve got no chance of winning, and frankly, both actors have had better performances. (And I say that as a big Cooper fan. I might be the only person on the planet who wouldn’t have been all that sad had his Silver Linings Playbook performance won out over the GOAT Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn as Lincoln in 2013. Sorry, not sorry.)

The three standout nominees are also the most likely to bring home Oscar gold. Jeffrey Wright delivered an understated yet hilarious performance in American Fiction. Paul Giamatti’s role in The Holdovers showed off some of his best work in recent years. He’s never won an Oscar, so if there’s an upset here, it’d be for Giamatti.

But the clear and deserving frontrunner is Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer. Not only does he get the biopic bump, he’s also got momentum following victories in basically every major industry award, including at the Screen Actors Guild (i.e., the actors’ union). When I wrote about Oppenheimer back in August, I was especially struck by the disquieting ambivalence captured in Murphy’s tortured facial expression. That look carried this film, and he deserves to win.

Should win: Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer

Will win: Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer

Swann Arlaud and Sandra Hüller in 'Anatomy of a Fall.' (Photo: Courtesy of Les Films Pelléas)
Swann Arlaud and Sandra Hüller in 'Anatomy of a Fall.' (Photo: Courtesy of Les Films Pelléas)

Best Actress

Let’s talk betting odds and beef.

First, betting odds. Basing predictions on who won industry awards in a given category is often a smart play, and that’s certainly the case for Best Actress. Of the past 10 SAG winners in this category, eight have gone on to win the Oscar. At last month’s SAG awards, Lily Gladstone won for Killers of the Flower Moon. Ergo, I’m predicting her to win.

And now the beef. Dispatch members who tuned in to The Dispatch Book Club know that Jonah and Sarah loathed Martin Scorsese’s latest about the Osage murders. I couldn’t agree … less.

Flower Moon isn’t Scorsese’s best (hint: that’s Goodfellas or Raging Bull), but it’s also far from a bad movie. It doesn’t so much try to guilt us into recognizing that America’s treatment of Native Americans was bad—we already know that. Rather, the film (from its sweeping visuals to its 206-minute runtime) tries to mirror the scale of that mistreatment. Fellow millennial Sean Keeley got into some of this in his Dispatch review of the movie.

Flower Moon wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this without Gladstone’s performance. She makes Mollie Burkhart sympathetic without glorifying her, likable without lionizing her.

That said, there was a better performance this year. Sen. Katie Britt’s SOTU response unforgettably balanced outrage and joviality …

Okay, but actually. The German actress Sandra Hüller had a breakout year, starring in two best picture nominees. She was excellent in Jonathan Glazer’s banality of evil Holocaust movie, The Zone of Interest, but her best performance of 2023 was in Anatomy of Fall. Hüller delivers arguably the most clinical performance of the year in a movie about the tensions of marriage masquerading as a courtroom whodunit. 

But this is a race between Gladstone and the consistently impressive Emma Stone, who starred in Poor Things. Stone could very well win, but she already has an Oscar and Gladstone has momentum following her SAG victory. Expect Gladstone to take the only win for Flower Moon.

Should win: Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall

Will win: Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon

Best Original Screenplay

Industry awards generally help guide predictions, but we can’t count on them for these next two categories as the Writers Guild of America won’t hand theirs out until after the Oscars. Plus, one of the Oscar nominees (Anatomy of a Fall) was deemed ineligible for the WGA awards because the script wasn’t written under the WGA collective bargaining agreement. (Scott Lincicome, if you’re reading this, I have a Capitolism topic for you …)

So where does that leave us?

Well, for original screenplay (one not based on another work), it’s an open field. But I like Anatomy of a Fall’s chances. 

The film won at the BAFTAs (the British Oscars) and the Golden Globes (the drunken Oscars). It’s an impressive work whose dialogue blends high-strung tension with heartfelt tenderness.

That said, I wouldn’t be upset if The Holdovers won. Good screenwriting is often confused with verbose screenwriting, with more weight being given to zaps and zings over, well, capturing how people actually talk or conveying something we struggle to verbalize. The Holdovers blends both of these qualities, crafting an uplifting story without being contrived

Should win: Anatomy of a Fall or The Holdovers

Will win: Anatomy of a Fall 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Here’s another frequent Oscar trend: Awarding a well-liked nominee who hasn’t yet won. The classic example? Al Pacino was passed over seven times—including for The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon—before finally winning an Oscar in 1993 for … Scent of a Woman?

This is my way of saying that I like Greta Gerwig’s chances. She’s been nominated in the past for two excellent screenplays: Lady Bird and Little Women. But she hasn’t won yet, and her best director snub for Barbie caused a big uproar. Plus, I doubt the Oscars will overlook the female mastermind behind the most high-profile movie about feminism of the past year. 

Unfortunately … Barbie wasn’t Gerwig’s best work. I largely agree with Leah Libresco Sargeant’s Dispatch essay from July, which was critical of the film’s myopic feminism and how the movie settled for a kind of underwhelming “just be yourself” resolution. That was fine enough for an otherwise entertaining blockbuster, but it did leave me a bit disappointed coming from a writer/director with Gerwig’s track record.

And for what it’s worth, if Gerwig wins it’ll be over what I think is a far more interesting feminist film: Poor Things. It’s a raunchy and outrageous movie that’s way too preoccupied with sex, but it’s also creative and actually puts forth a coherent feminist vision—even if you disagree with it.

Should win: Poor Things

Will win: Barbie

Cillian Murphy and Christopher Nolan on the set of 'Oppenheimer.' (Photo: Courtesy of Universal Studios)
Cillian Murphy and Christopher Nolan on the set of 'Oppenheimer.' (Photo: Courtesy of Universal Studios)

Best Director

I remember feeling so moved when Christopher Nolan won his second Oscar for Dunkirk, seven years after his first win for Inception. He had once again managed to carry out an artistic vision for a wide audience, and those wins rightly recognized his craft and cultural footprint.

Jk, that didn’t happen! For reasons known only to time-inverting overlords, Nolan has never (NEVER!) won an Oscar. But with Oppenheimer, Nolan pulled off an artistically impressive blockbuster in a way only he can (though Denis Villeneuve of Dune-lore is getting there). This is his year.

Should win: Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer

Will win: Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in 'Past Lives.' (Photo: Courtesy of A24)
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in 'Past Lives.' (Photo: Courtesy of A24)

Best Picture

When it comes to the Oscars, the night could play out in one of three ways.

There’s the blowout scenario, where one movie sweeps the awards, as The Return of the King (11 wins) and Slumdog Millionaire (eight wins) did in 2004 and 2009, respectively.

There’s the split-love scenario, where one film gets the major awards while another standout or two snag wins in technical categories. Think of 2020, when Parasite won four categories (including Best Picture) and 1917 won three.

And then there’s the WTF scenario: all over the place and featuring major surprises. The last year this happened was 2019, when Bohemian Rhapsody (Mama?!) won the most Oscars (four), Green Book won Best Picture, and Olivia Coleman beat out the still Oscar-less Glenn Close for Best Actress.

As you’ll see from the rest of the list, I think Oppenheimer will have a great night and, in case you can’t tell, I think it deserves its accolades. But it’s not the best of this year’s nominees.

For me, that’s Past Lives

I’ve already sung this film’s praises in both my review—which focused on its refreshing look at immigration—and our Dispatch end-of-year culture wrap-up. So I’ll just add this: I think part of what hurt the film this awards season is that none of its parts are greater than the whole. 

But that’s also a testament to how good it is. Repeat viewings bear out just how well its components—the performances, script, cinematography, score, etc.—come together. More than any other movie last year, Past Lives encourages the sort of reflection that compels us to forgo distraction and love good art.

Should win: Past Lives

Will win: Oppenheimer

The Auteur Categories

Alexander Payne, Paul Giamatti, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set of 'The Holdovers.' (Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features)
Alexander Payne, Paul Giamatti, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set of 'The Holdovers.' (Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features)

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers

Will win: Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer

Will win: Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer

Best Cinematography

Should win: Oppenheimer

Will win: Oppenheimer

Best Film Editing

Should win: Anatomy of a Fall

Will win: Oppenheimer

Best International Film

Should win: Perfect Days

Will win: The Zone of Interest

The Deep Cuts

Ryan Gosling in 'Barbie.' (Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
Ryan Gosling in 'Barbie.' (Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

And here’s who I think will win the remaining categories.

Sound: Oppenheimer

Makeup and Hairstyling: Maestro

Costume Design: Poor Things

Production Design: Poor Things

Visual Effects: Godzilla Minus One

Documentary: 20 Days in Mariupol

Animated Movie: The Boy and the Heron

Documentary Short: The ABCs of Book Banning

Live-Action Short: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar 

Animated Short: War is Over! Inspired by the Music of John and Yoko

Score: Oppenheimer

Song: “I’m Just Ken,” Barbie

Comments (20)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.