Best Pictures of 2022, Extra Credit, film, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 2

Is “historical drama about men with hubris” a genre? That seems to be the theme with these next two.

The Power Of The Dog

I usually don’t get into Direction here – I don’t understand the role well enough to always notice their impact as such. So it’s telling that my gut reaction right now is that Jane Campion needs to win for Best Direction for this tale. And not just because she made me like a Western – but because every performance is so subtle.

This isn’t so much a “Western” as it is a psychological drama. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons are rancher brothers in 1920’s Montana, with the older brutish Phil (Cumberbatch) opting for the rougher work and the meek George (Plemons) as the paper-pusher and the pleasant public face. During a cattle drive they stay at an inn run by widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Phil locks onto the bookish Peter, teasing him for being a “sissy”, but George is taken by Rose, starting a whirlwind courtship which ends with George marrying Rose and bringing her back to the ranch. Phil resents the change in routine and starts tormenting Rose – but Peter isn’t quite the wimp Phil thinks he is.

I really, really like it when films don’t telegraph everything about a character – I like to discover things on the way, with little hints dropped here and there. It’s really hard to pull off – if you make a hint too subtle people will miss it (the “Ending of [movie] Explained” craze on Youtube speaks to how many films get things wrong here), but if you make a hint too big people will feel pandered to. Campion gets the balance exactly right here. We learn a good deal about Phil during a long wordless scene where all he does is take a long and lingering bath in a stream. That scene is also subtly erotic as well (eros is another tricky thing to be subtle about).

Everyone talks about Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance – for good reason – but Kodi Smit-McPhee is who caught my eye. Phil dismisses Peter as effeminate, and it’d be easy for him to play Peter that way – but Peter is only effeminate by Phil’s yardstick, and Smit-McPhee gives him a more honest bookishness. Even more intriguing – at some point Peter finds a way to fight back against Phil, and only after the film did I start realizing ways Peter had been quietly playing a long game, subtly manipulating things so that Phil was set up for a fall. I asked Roommate Russ about when he’d figured out what Peter had been doing – we each figured things out at a different time, and even now I’m remembering earlier moments in the film that also suggested Peter knew what he was doing well before I did.

The Power Of The Dog is winning many critics’ “Oscar Predictions” forecasts, and I totally buy that.

Nightmare Alley

Well, subtle this isn’t. But subtlety in a film noir that starts off amongst carnival carnies would be all wrong anyway.

Bradley Cooper is “Stan Carlisle”, a man we meet at the moment he has literally run off to join the circus – taking a job as a carnie with a small side show in 1939. He falls in with “Madame Zeena” (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) who have a clairvoyant act. Pete teaches Stan the tricks of their trade (very detailed observation of the audience combined with a little bit of coded patter), and soon Stan is heading off to bigger and better things, bringing his sweetheart Molly (Rooney Mara) along. Within two years they have a successful psychic/clairvoyant night club act in Buffalo. Then one night, a woman in the audience interrupts them – Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist and skeptic. Stan manages to dodge her challenges on the fly and save the act, but is intrigued enough by Dr. Ritter to stop by her office the next day and come clean.

Ritter is also intrigued, and makes a proposition; she’s in the habit of recording all of her analysis sessions with the wealthy folk of Buffalo, the very same people taking in Stan’s act. He could start offering much more lucrative private “seances” for her clients, armed with the private detail she’s gathered during her sessions. Because this is a film noir, of course, there are double-crossings, things go wrong, and people meet their downfalls in particularly dark and dramatic ways.

I started by saying this film wasn’t subtle – but it actually is subtle for its director. Guilliermo del Toro has toned down the weird-and-fantastical angle he used in The Shape of Water or Pan’s Labyrinth, but only a bit – the side show is weird enough, and he lets that carry the weird, delving into the seedy underworld of strong men and little people and acrobats and bearded ladies all living out of tents and caravans, and reveals the horrific truth behind the spectacle. “Madame Zeena” isn’t actually clairvoyant, she’s just a long-suffering wife to a former magician now incapacitated by alcoholism. “Fee Fee the Bird Girl” isn’t a half-bird hybrid, she’s a woman with a disfigurement who couldn’t get any other work. The geek isn’t a feral missing link – he’s a drug addict who is rewarded each night with opiates if he “puts on a good show” and bites the heads off chickens.

Bradley Cooper’s performance ultimately caught my attention – but it took a little time to win me over. He doesn’t speak for a good ten minutes, and this bothered me somehow but I couldn’t tell you why. Things pick up the first time he steps in to help out Zeena and Pete, however. And at the end, when Stan is in a desperate spot and accepts a job, Cooper’s reaction to the offer is a moment that’s going to haunt me for a good while. Sadly I can’t say any more than that without spoiling things.

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