Stars of the 2024 Academy Awards Best Picture nominees. (Photo illustration by The Free Press)

It’s Oscar Night!

The Free Press reviews the ten films up for Best Picture.

By The Free Press

March 10, 2024

We don’t have high hopes for the Oscars ceremony tonight. 

It’s Jimmy Kimmel’s fourth time hosting the thing, there’s apparently going to be a Scarface reunion that no one asked for, it’s the tail end of awards season, and we’ve seen enough mermaid gowns for a lifetime. But when it comes to the actual movies competing against each other, it’s an impressive lineup. 

In the Best Picture category, there’s the Barbenheimer blockbuster duo, of course, but this year also made room for some experimental fare, like Poor Things and The Zone of Interest. Plus, intimate human portraits, found in Past Lives and Anatomy of a Fall. Sure, Maestro might not hold a candle to 2023’s Best Picture–nominated Tár, but at least we could stop pretending to have understood all the heady class-war symbolism in Triangle of Sadness. This year brought films we actually wanted to shell out twenty bucks to see on the big screen. 

Below, find The Free Press’s capsule reviews of all of the movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. If you’re a paid subscriber, chime in with your pick for the best film of 2023 in the comments. And for those of you who have yet to watch this year’s slate, be warned: there are major spoilers ahead. 

Erika Alexander stars as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in American Fiction. (Claire Folger)

American Fiction 

Nellie Bowles

I don’t usually like highbrow movies. If there aren’t guns and if it doesn’t star Michael B. Jordan or Alan Ritchson, what’s the point? But American Fiction is fabulous. 

It’s the story of a hyperintellectual black writer, played by Jeffrey Wright, whose books sell poorly since he doesn’t fit the white liberal view of what a black writer should be. His books are categorized in bookstores as “black writing,” even though the topics aren’t particularly “black” at all, and it drives him crazy. The woman who is writing those sort of cliché storylines is a huge success, and that also drives him crazy. There’s a great scene of her at a literary festival, describing her perfect liberal arts credentials and then speaking African American Vernacular English as she cracks open her book.

So one day, as satire, he writes the black novel everyone wants him to, about gangs and drugs and fatherless children. It’s a hit. And the movie watches him bumble along through this secret life as he deals with his semi-fraudulent success. There’s a sweet little love story in the middle and some nice sibling drama, but it’s a spare movie and watching it feels like watching a play, but in a good way.

The whole point is how ridiculous our identity politics obsession is, with its demand for authenticity but with one vision only of what authenticity is by category (i.e., the Native American professor must be wearing traditional earrings). But it still allows for things to be complicated. The taxi still does drive past our hero. 

If you want a send-up of wealthy white liberal intelligentsia—and who doesn’t?—then this is the one to watch.

A scene from The Zone of Interest. (A24)

The Zone of Interest

Peter Savodnik

The best part of The Zone of Interest is what you don’t see: the Jews, the harsh labor, the gas chambers. 

Instead, director Jonathan Glazer parachutes us into the bucolic world adjacent to the world of Auschwitz-Birkenau: the villa inhabited by commandant Rudolf Höss; his wife, Hedwig; and their five children. They’re an upper-middle-class German family doing ordinary things—eating dinner, going to school, going to bed, having a drink—while an extraordinary evil is perpetrated next door. 

We can’t see the horror. We are confined to the penumbra of it. Of course, that’s where the interesting things happen. Inside the inferno is pure darkness. Outside, far away, is innocence—or at least, plausible deniability. 

The commandant and his wife—dubbed “the Queen of Auschwitz”—maintain the steeliness we expect. Rudolf Höss, played brilliantly by Christian Friedel, oversees the world’s most efficient killing machine. Hedwig Höss, played by the charmless and very believable Sandra Hüller, pretends not to know what her husband does while letting on that she knows exactly what he does. 

But there are barely perceptible wrinkles: Höss’s mother-in-law, while visiting, glimpses a smokestack in the distance billowing flame and smoke; soon after, she leaves without a word. Höss, toward the end of the movie, appears to glimpse the future—in which being a Nazi is the worst thing anyone can be—and then retches. 

There are, as Glazer knows, as Martin Amis—who wrote the novel on which the film is based—knew many “zones of interest.” None are as cinematic as the paradise that Höss built. All are shot through with the same wonderings and nightmares. They are the places on the outside, but really, they are where the action takes place. 

Cillian Murphy (center) in Oppenheimer. (Universal Pictures)


Elliot Ackerman

Christopher Nolan is one of the finest filmmakers working today, and Oppenheimer is perhaps his greatest achievement to date. The film is structured like a double helix, in two integrated parts: fusion, the bringing together of atoms, shot in black and white; and fission, their tearing apart, shot in color. Scientifically, both processes create vast amounts of potential energy.

The fission sections of Oppenheimer tell the story of the atomic bomb’s creation by tracing the development of its creator: Julius Robert Oppenheimer, played forcefully by Cillian Murphy. We see his intellectual development as a theoretical physicist at Cambridge and then as a professor at Berkeley—and his eventual assignment to the top-secret atomic testing facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico, before he became the father of the atomic bomb.

Braided together with the color sections of the movie are the black-and-white fusion sections, which center around the Senate confirmation hearings of Lewis Strauss, an Oppenheimer rival who President Eisenhower had nominated for a cabinet post. 

The interplay between fission and fusion generates an enormous narrative energy that courses through the film. It never feels as though you’re toggling between two separate stories. Rather, the story vibrates together, forming a cohesive dance between creation and destruction.

When Oppenheimer’s mentor, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Niels Bohr, played by Kenneth Branagh, is shown the beginnings of the new bomb, he says, “This isn’t a weapon—it’s a new world.” In Oppenheimer, Nolan reminds us that new worlds almost always begin with a bang. 

From left: Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers. (Seacia Pavao/Seacia)

The Holdovers

Peter Savodnik

The Holdovers is a near-perfect movie, and if you don’t agree, that’s your problem. To start: Paul Giamatti, as the irascible prep-school teacher Paul Hunham, is brilliant. So too are Da’Vine Joy Randolph, playing the head of the school cafeteria, and Dominic Sessa as the difficult and emotionally vulnerable student Angus Tully, who Hunham is charged with keeping an eye on over winter break.

Then there’s the story, which is ostensibly about three very different people suffering through a lonely Christmas on a deserted campus in late 1970, but is really about mustering the fortitude to slay one’s foes—internal and external—and to live a meaningful life. To live up to the same ideals that Hunham, who teaches ancient history, constantly yammers about.

For Hunham, that means escaping the comfortable confines of the school that saved his life and charting an unknown future. For young Angus, it means staying in school and becoming the man he’s capable of becoming—the man who only Hunham, of all people, can make out. For both, it means embracing the ancient Greek notion of arete, a kind of courageous perseverance.

The Holdovers reminds us of what great American institutions once were: incubators of gradual liberalization steeped in history and heritage. Microcosms of the country they underpin, slowly nudging Americans to embrace a more ecumenical, a more American, version of themselves. The headmasters of the nation’s most selective private schools, to say nothing of the presidents of our most esteemed universities, would be advised to watch and learn.

A scene from Anatomy of a Fall. (MK2 Films)

Anatomy of a Fall 

Olivia Reingold

I can summarize the entirety of Anatomy of a Fall in a single sentence: when a man falls to his death in the French Alps, his family is torn over whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Except don’t mistake this critical darling for a whodunit. This film is not about getting to the bottom of the mystery. Rather, it’s about interrogating the human desire for answers, because isn’t that the ultimate mystery of all—ourselves? 

Give me a break. 

I am apparently the only viewer peeved by the bait-and-switch. No one else seems to care that we were promised a thriller and got graduate-level musing on the nature of truth; the film comes from Justine Triet, a French director who grew up in a Buddhist community. Tastemakers were delighted by it. 

The Hollywood Reporter fawned: “A gripping and gratifyingly rich drama.” The Guardian called Anatomy of a Fall “electric, restlessly dynamic, and compulsively watchable.” The film already took home the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. 

You are also likely to join the film’s growing fan base if you enjoy Kafka, the prisoner’s dilemma, and the age-old question about a tree falling in a forest. But count me out—I don’t need a Marvel movie, but my god, I need more than 151 minutes of pregnant pauses. 

A critic from The New York Times gushed, “you immediately want to turn to the person you’ve seen the movie with and say, ‘Oh my god, let’s talk about this. This is amazing. What did we just watch?’ ” I agree—what did we just watch? More like Anatomy of a Flop. 

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie. (Warner Bros. Pictures)


Suzy Weiss

I really wanted to hate Barbie. I certainly pre-hated it. I tried to avoid the marketing blitz around the movie, but since I have eyeballs, that wasn’t really an option. But then something strange happened when I finally got to the theater to see the thing after months of hype: I started to have fun.  

The visual humor is there from the jump. There are Barbie’s permanently arched feet, and the stiff plastic dollop of whipped cream on her waffle that she never actually eats. Every day is pink-ly pretend and fantastically awesome in Barbie Land. That is, until Stereotypical Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) feet go flat, and she starts having “irrepressible thoughts of death.” To find the answer to her existential crisis, Barbie and Ken (Ryan Gosling) go on an odyssey to the real world and get a quick education on the patriarchy.

But Barbie isn’t really about who will win the battle of the sexes. Like Greta Gerwig’s other films, Lady Bird and Little Women and Frances Ha, Barbie is all about growing up. 

For Barbie, that means feeling big feelings, like anxiety and embarrassment, for the first time. It means that her body is rebelling against her. For Ken, it means using machismo and bluster to cover up his deep insecurities about never being good enough for Barbie or having any real sense of self at all. 

Plus: the set is candy. The script is funny. There’s a big, choreographed dance number with all the Kens. There’s a commercial for a “Depression Barbie” who wears sweatpants all day and watches BBC’s Pride and Prejudice seven times. John Cena and Dua Lipa have cameos as mermaids. You can’t help but smile, and you get your money’s worth.

I even forgot I was in a two-hour brand activation about a kids’ toy—made for adults. 

From left: JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers, and Jillian Dion in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple+)

Killers of the Flower Moon

Coby Weiss

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese paints a compelling portrait of greed and personal betrayal in 1920s Oklahoma. The movie is three and a half hours, yet still feels sparing. 

The Western meets true-crime thriller follows William “King” Hale, played by Robert De Niro, as he orchestrates a conspiracy for his nephews, the Burkharts, to disinherit an Osage Nation family of their oil shares. As we watch the various wheelings and dealings around town of the Burkhart boys—under Hale’s direction—we also see Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Ernest Burkhart, torn between love and greed. 

Initially instructed to familiarize himself with Osage culture by King, Ernest falls for one of the many women that his uncle intends to cheat out of her birthright. So, the more members of his wife’s family he kills, the richer Ernest gets. When Jesse Plemons’ straitlaced Texas Ranger-turned-fed shows up to investigate the murders, we come to understand the brutality of life on the frontier, and the lack of recourse for the Osage. 

Scorsese’s adaptation of David Grann’s bestseller is packed with stars as well as his trademark witty dialogue and gangland tropes. But it is Lily Gladstone who shines the brightest as Ernest’s wife Mollie. No wonder she’s nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards—she’s the first Native American to be nominated in the category and is widely seen as the favorite to bag the statuette tonight. 

For more, read Nancy Rommelmann on “The Long, Strange, Beautiful Road to ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’ ” 

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives. (A24)

Past Lives

Margi Conklin

I took my husband to see Past Lives on our anniversary last year. I thought the story of a lifelong bond between two kids, who discover as adults that they are soulmates, would be a romantic way to spend the time. Instead, it was a good way to exorcise long pent-up emotions.

While on the surface this debut movie by Korean director Celine Song is a celebration of true love, it shows how it’s powerless against the forces of space and time. Twelve years after they first meet as children in Korea, Nora and Hae Sung, played by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, rekindle their connection online. Now they live on two different continents and their lives are on divergent paths. She’s in New York trying to make it as a writer; he is about to leave Korea for a Mandarin language exchange in China. Still, you root for them to be together—you can’t help it watching them flirt over their fleeting video calls. The giddy excitement they display for each other is contagious.

But over time, life keeps getting in the way. Family obligations, financial constraints, the thousands of miles of distance—it all stacks up between them. A fairy-tale ending seems unlikely, and at times the movie, like life, feels like it’s going nowhere. It meanders, and as the characters age, their stories begin to feel less magical and more mundane.

So when fate intervenes at last, bringing the characters together for a brief reunion in New York City, it is so sudden and perfect and poignant, it feels like a left hook across the face. In the final moments I found myself sobbing out of nowhere. True love hurts. Life, inevitably, hurts. And this movie makes you feel that, deep in your soul, like nothing else. 

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things. (Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Poor Things

Francesca Block

Few things are cringier than watching graphic sex scenes in a movie theater while sitting next to your grandma, but that’s where I found myself when I jovially invited my family to join me for a viewing of Poor Things

It features Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a socialite who has been implanted with an infant’s brain, as she discovers herself—and her sexual desires—in a fantastical version of Victorian-era London. Willem Dafoe plays the mad scientist-cum-surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter, who the characters refer to as “God,” and whose face looks like a patchwork of skin grafts sewn together like a rag doll. God enjoys melding together different animal and body parts, and Bella is his next, most unpredictable, project. 

Bella starts out as a child—portrayed in black and white—stomping around the mansion, throwing tantrums and giving in to her bodily impulses. But she quickly grows up, learning 15 new words a day and discovering that there is an outside world she wishes to explore. 

Despite God’s trepidations, Bella joins Duncan Wedderburn—Mark Ruffalo, who sports a fabulous mustache and an accent I couldn’t place—on an adventure full of saturated colors and constant sexcapades, which Bella calls “furious jumping.”

Bella encounters the world as it is: whimsical and warm, full of adventure and opportunity, but also pessimistic and cruel. It’s satisfying to watch her break free from the control of others—as long as you can suppress the strange voice in your head telling you this film appears to be glorifying pedophilia and convincing you that sexual promiscuity is the only path to true enlightenment. 

This movie wasn’t my cup of tea, but to my surprise, when the credits started to roll, my grandma turned to me, her eyes wide and bright, and declared it “genius,” even “Machiavellian.” The woman with blue hair sitting behind us in the theater agreed. Make of that what you will.

From left: Isabel Leonard, Rosa Feola, and Bradley Cooper in Maestro. (Jason McDonald/Netflix)


Ben Kawaller 

I was wary of Maestro. This is, after all, a film about Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the greatest musical of all time (West Side Story, if I even have to say this). I feared the Bradley Cooper biopic, in constantly reminding me of Bernstein’s most towering achievement, would fail that most basic of tests: Would I rather be watching. . . West Side Story?

Wisely, Cooper has limited the use of the WSS score to one well-placed sample that cheekily highlights the film’s central conflict, between Bernstein’s long-suffering wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan, breathtaking), and his ardent homosexuality. He practiced the latter, the film suggests, at a level far exceeding his compositional output. At one point, an existentially frustrated Bernstein confesses, between drags of his ever-present cigarette, “Actually, when you add it up, there’s not much that I’ve created.”

Cooper—transformed by a prosthetic schnoz—is transfixing as Bernstein, and his screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, is a swiftly moving, often devastating chronicle of a life (two lives, really) both audacious and unshakably confined by mid-century morality. It’s also an unsparing depiction of the ruthlessness of time: one image, late in the film, of a far-too-old Bernstein at a nightclub, still utterly in thrall to youth, drugs, and sex, ranks for me among cinema’s most crippling sequences. To be fair, I’m not sure if anyone else in the theater let out an audible sob.

Is Cooper’s film as good as West Side Story? Well. . . nothing is as good as West Side Story. But Maestro, which ingeniously incorporates some of Bernstein’s other most iconic compositions, is a brilliant work of art in its own right. It was full of contradictions that add to its depth. It gutted me.

And the soundtrack is, of course, transcendent.

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