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And the winner is…

And the winner is…

For all their flaws, the Oscars remain a riveting spectacle. Can any movie stop The Power of the Dog this weekend?

“You don’t make pictures for Oscars,” said Martin Scorsese – and that is certainly true of the great auteur himself, who, in one of the most distinguished careers in the history of cinema, has only picked up a single golden statuette (Best Director, The Departed, 2007).

It is undeniable, too, that television audiences are losing interest in the awards ceremony itself: only 9.85 million Americans tuned in to last year’s show, a 59 per cent fall since 2020. This collapse must in part be attributable to the pandemic: the dull presenterless format and general lack of glitz forced upon the ceremony by Covid. But the trend cannot be entirely explained away by epidemiology.

Rolling out the red carpet before the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theater

Still: all 60 commercial slots for this year’s broadcast have been sold. And studios continue to sink tens of millions of dollars into their campaigns for Oscar glory: Netflix may be Hollywood’s great digital disruptor, but its craving for the highest traditional accolade available in tinseltown is strictly old-school. The streaming giant has had a team of strategists working round the clock to ensure that Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (see Creative Sensemaker, 25 November) – nominated for 12 awards this year – sweeps the board. 

As fashionable as it is to declare the Oscars a zombie of the analogue age, the yearning for this particular cultural laurel is undimmed. Whatever cineastes claim to the contrary, the prestige of the awards is still palpable: let’s not pretend that the words “Oscar-winning” or “Oscar-nominated” have been drained of all power. And, as Brian Cox points out in his terrific memoirs, reflecting on his own portrayal of Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor) and the subsequent transference of the role to Anthony Hopkins: “One thing that did bother me was the money, because of course Tony went on to win the best actor Oscar for it and when you win an Oscar your salary goes whoosh.”

Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme with their Oscars for Silence of the Lambs, 1992

On Sunday, Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes will present the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles (broadcast live in the UK from 1am on Monday on Sky Cinema, Sky Showcase, and Now). This follows a week of dinners, receptions and parties of varying importance – events, which as Zadie Smith wrote in a memorable essay, often resemble “a golden wedding anniversary party at which no one can identify the happy couple…The atmosphere is civilized to the point of suffocation.”

Suffocation which, of course, is usually matched by controversy before or during the ceremony. The awards have not yet fully recovered from the #OscarsSoWhite furore of 2015, when all 20 of the nominees for acting categories were white – in common with 93 per cent of academy members, 76 per cent of whom were men. Since then, the number of female and ethnic minority members has doubled; but the academy knows it is still on probation after a dismal period in its history.

Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in The French Dispatch, 2021

This year’s Oscars have already generated their fair share of contention. The failure to award a single nomination to Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch – one of the finest films of recent years (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 October) – simply made the academy look silly. 

Campion, for her part, nearly blew it for The Power of the Dog as she accepted her gong for Best Director at the Critics Choice Awards on March 13, saying to the Williams sisters (who were in the audience to support King Richard): “Venus and Serena, you’re such marvels. However, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to.” 

Venus Williams, Jane Campion, Netflix’s Scott Stuber, and Serena Williams attend Netflix’s Critics Choice Awards After Party, 2022

The New Zealand-born film-maker apologised profusely for this crass misstep – sincerely, no doubt, but conscious, too, one supposes, that there were still nine days for academy members to make up their minds (voting for the Oscars ended officially at 5pm Pacific time on Tuesday). 

And one more storm in a champagne glass: Jessica Chastain, star of The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Disney+), has threatened to boycott the red carpet this year in protest at the decision to cut the so-called “artisan” and “below-the-line” awards – makeup, production design and so on – from the live broadcast. (For a wonderfully gossipy and well-informed account of the Oscars through the decades, try the recently published Best Pick: A Journey Through Film History and the Academy Awards by John Dorney, Jessica Regan and Tom Salinsky.)

Jessica Chastain on the red carpet, 2015

What matters most, however, is that this has been a tremendous year for film – both in the quality of movies released and the more fundamental fact of movie houses’ survival. That the future of film is a hybrid of home streaming and cinema-going is beyond doubt. But the worst portents of the pandemic years – that the age of the cinema as an entertainment venue was over – have, for now at least, been proven wrong.

You can peruse all the nominations here. Who and what will (or should) win on Sunday?

Tonight’s ThinkIn

Do join us tonight at 6.30pm London time for a special ThinkIn on the Oscars. We’ll be looking ahead to Sunday’s ceremony, debating which films and performances have been overlooked in the past and asking: if none of us can agree on what should win, has the whole Academy Award circus become irrelevant?

Best Actor

My own pick would be Denzel Washington, who delivers a formidable performance in The Tragedy of Macbeth (see Creative Sensemaker, 16 December). Benedict Cumberbatch is also superb as the tetchily macho, sexually ambiguous rancher, Phil Burbank, in The Power of the Dog. But – having already notched up wins at the BAFTAs, Critics Choice, Golden Globes and SAG Awards – Will Smith seems to have this one sewn up for his portrayal of Richard Williams, father of the tennis superstars, in King Richard (potential karmic trivia: twenty years ago, Smith, a prime candidate for his epic performance in Ali, lost out to Washington in Training Day).

Best Actress

Perhaps the most open race of the night. Nicole Kidman made the early running with her win at the Golden Globes for her performance as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos. Olivia Colman would be a worthy victor for The Lost Daughter (see Creative Sensemaker, 16 December), having already won in this category in 2019 for The Favourite. But the smart money is split between Penelope Cruz for her terrific performance as Janis in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers (see Creative Sensemaker, 27 January) and Jessica Chastain, whose portrayal of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stupendous achievement in an otherwise ordinary film. After two previous Oscar nominations for The Help in 2012 and Zero Dark Thirty in 2013, three should be the charm for Chastain.

Best Supporting Actor

Another strong category: I would opt for Jesse Plemons, who plays Phil’s diffident brother George Burbank in The Power of the Dog with stolid intensity, and has evolved into a frontline performer since his breakthrough role as Todd in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. But the race seems to be between his co-star in Campion’s film, Kodi Smith-McPhee, who is indeed sensational as the apparently weak teenager, Peter Gordon; and Troy Kotsur as Frank Rossi, the patriarch of a deaf family in a New England fishing village, in Siân Heder’s CODA. Kotsur looks set to lift the statuette.

Best Supporting Actress

Kirsten Dunst has never been better than as Rose Gordon in The Power of the Dog – desperate, drunken, fearful for her son – and deserves to win. But Ariana DeBose’s undoubtedly excellent performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (see Creative Sensemaker, 9 December) has already been honoured at the Golden Globes, Baftas and SAG Awards. With a pleasing symmetry, Rita Moreno won an Oscar for the same role in the 1961 movie version of the great musical. It would be a huge upset if DeBose did not follow in her footsteps.

Best Director

The kinetic, technicolour majesty of West Side Story is such that the award should really go to Spielberg – who has been nominated in this category eight times and has won twice for Schindler’s List (in 1994) and Saving Private Ryan (in 1999). But it is more likely to end up in the hands of Kenneth Branagh for Belfast (see Creative Sensemaker, 20 January) who would be a worthy winner; or, of course, Campion’s.

Best International Feature Film

This category is full of potential winners: notably Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s extraordinary account of a gay refugee from Afghanistan, mixing animation with archive footage; and Paolo Sorrentino’s coming of age movie set in 1980s Naples, The Hand of God (see Creative Sensemaker, 9 December). But the Oscar belongs to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, a richly literary tale, based on a Haruki Murakami short story (from his collection Men Without Women), recounting the experience of actor and theatre director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as he prepares for a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima and struggles with the death of his wife. 

Best Documentary Feature

Flee would also be a worthy winner in this category, as would Attica, a tremendous account of the 1971 prison uprising directed by Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson. But the Oscar should go to the astonishing Summer of Soul, a joyous documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which restores this celebration of African-American creativity to its rightful place in history (see Creative Sensemaker, 15 July).

Best Picture

One of the reasons that the biggest award of the night sometimes ends up in surprising hands is that the voting system for this particular honour is different. In 23 of the 24 categories, all 9,921 members of the academy vote for nominees selected by its various branches and committees: whichever nominee gets most votes, wins (a first-past-the-post system, essentially).

In contrast, the award for Best Picture is decided by preferential voting, where members rank their choices in order of preference: in each round, the lowest-scoring movie is knocked out and the second choices of those who voted for it are reassigned, until a film crosses the 50 per cent mark. 

The logic is that the most coveted Oscar should command a broad consensus of approval: since ten movies are nominated –Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up (absurdly), Drive My Car, Dune (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 October), King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog and West Side Story – a movie could win with only 10.1 per cent of members’ support if the regular system were used.

In movies, as in politics, transferable votes make for consensus – but also for dissatisfying compromises that please nobody (did anyone really expect the extremely ordinary Green Book to win Best Picture in 2019?). My own hope – that Paul Thomas Anderson’s magical journey through 1970s Americana, Licorice Pizza, should win on Sunday (see Creative Sensemaker, 6 January) – looks unlikely to be realised. Once more, PTA will be robbed.

All the signs, then, are that The Power of the Dog will prevail. But the Campion camp is nervously watching CODA, a likeable but comparatively bland tale about Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a Child of Deaf Adults who finds fulfilment in singing and music. Never underestimate the power of the innocuous “issue” film in a hotly contested field: CODA has been building momentum at a remarkable rate in recent weeks.

The Dog will probably still leave with the top Oscar in its jaws. But – out of the blue – this year’s ceremony is now set for a nail-biting finale.

Here are this week’s recommendations:


Moon Knight (30 March, Disney+)

It is perhaps the most unexpected source of inspiration in the history of superhero screen adaptations: Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Steve Grant in this new Marvel streaming series, part of the MCU’s “Phase Four”, was none other than Karl Pilkington, unlikely star of The Ricky Gervais Podcast and then Sky’s An Idiot Abroad. In this hard-edged saga of dissociative identity disorder, Egyptology and mythic hokum, Isaac decided to base the personality of Grant – a Bruce Wayne-style tycoon in the comics – upon an ordinary, more hapless Englishman, and lit upon Pilkington: “Not so much for the accent but for his sense of humour where he can’t tell he’s being funny.” The fragmented psyche of Isaac’s character also presents itself in the form of the Jewish-American mercenary, Marc Spector, and acts as a portal for the Egyptian moon god, Khonshu – all of which, as he has remarked gleefully, adds up to “something really fucking nutty”. Directed stylishly by the award-winning indie film-maker Mohamed Diab, Moon Knight is much the most audacious of Marvel’s small-screen projects to be launched on Disney+ (the fifth, following WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki and Hawkeye); and also its most intriguing to date.

Paris, 13th District (selected cinemas, Curzon Home) 

Imagine the spirit of Robert Altman transplanted to the age of Tinder and sex cams, and you will have a sense of what Jacques Audiard sets out to capture in this beautiful ensemble piece. Loosely based on Adrian Tomine’s graphic short stories, Killing and Dying, Paris, 13th District is mostly set in the Olympiades, a faceless high-rise neighbourhood in Paris’s 13th arrondissement – rendered in sharp monochrome by Paul Guilhaume. Lucie Zhang is superb as Émilie, who falls for her new flatmate Camille (Makita Samba), a school teacher about to embark on a doctoral thesis. Calling time on their fledgling relationship, he moves out and goes to work in a real estate business. Here, he meets – and becomes involved with – Nora (Noémie Merlant), who has quit her studies after being mistaken on campus for “Amber Sweet” (Jehnny Beth), an online sex worker. The plotlines are adroitly entangled, but never to the point of artifice, and the film’s most touching story – the Skype friendship that develops between Nora and Amber – unfolds in an authentically hesitant fashion. The film has plenty to say about masks, make-believe and sham online profiles (the blonde wig Nora wears at a student party causes her to be mistaken for Amber; Émilie offers a prospective new flatmate a discount on rent if she will pretend to be her once a week and visit her grandmother, afflicted by dementia, in a residential home). But its energy and dramatic appeal flow from the empathy that Audiard has for his characters and their quest for love. 

Bridgerton, Season 2 (25 March, Netflix)

Before Squid Game (see Creative Sensemaker, 11 November), Bridgerton – adapted from Julia Quinn’s series of historical romance novels – was Netflix’s most successful show, attracting an audience of 82 million households in its first 28 days online. Set in the Regency era and charting the intertwined fortunes of the Bridgerton and Featherington families, the first season launched Rege-Jean Page – Simon Basset, the dashing Duke of Hastings – on the path to superstardom: he is already slated to play Simon Templar in Paramount’s reboot of The Saint and is often mentioned as a contender to succeed Daniel Craig as James Bond.

Inspired by the claims advanced by some researchers that Queen Charlotte had African ancestry, the Shonda Rhimes show is set in an alternate history in which English high society – the ton – is richly multi-ethnic and diverse. And if, as Susan Sontag famously argued, camp is defined by love “of artifice and exaggeration”, then the first season of Bridgerton really was the proverbial row of tents. The second tranche of episodes shifts the focus to Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and his quest for a suitable match; and though the identity of the gossip writer, Lady Whistledown, is now known to viewers (no spoilers), there is still plenty of mischief to be made.


The Greatest Raid – St Nazaire 1942: The Heroic Story of Operation Chariot – Giles Whittell (Viking) 

Well-known to Tortoise members as our World Affairs Editor and the force behind the daily Sensemaker newsletter, Giles Whittell is also a book writer of distinction (check out Snow: The Biography and Bridge of Spies). In The Greatest Raid, he tells the tale of the attack, ordered by Churchill and Mountbatten, on the French port of St Nazaire on 28 March 1942. Military pretexts aside, the real purpose of Operation Chariot was to persuade the world that Britain was not finished and remained a formidable force in the war. The human detail of the story is gripping, and is superbly intertwined with accounts of decision-making at the highest level (including an unforgettable account of Churchill meeting Stalin in Moscow). Needless to say, it is also beautifully written and – unlike some historical accounts of war – a true page-turner, the work of a master storyteller.

Horizons: A Global History of Science – James Poskett (Penguin)

My favourite definition of science, usually ascribed to Neil deGrasse Tyson, is the stuff that’s true, whether or not you believe in it. Too often, this definition is equated with something called “Western science” – a category which, as Warwick University professor James Poskett shows in this terrific book, is completely meaningless. As he writes, “the best way to understand the history of modern science is to think in terms of key moments in global history.” With a broad narrative sweep that starts with the Emperor Moctezuma II and concludes with the contemporary global struggle for supremacy in AI, genetics and space travel, Horizons shows that the story of science has always been a planetary one: a non-linear process of cross-fertilisation, competition, cooperation and conflict. Copernicus, for instance, relied on Arabic and Persian sources. Einstein was indebted to the Bengali physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose. What makes the book so engrossing is that Poskett’s grasp of historical contexts is as firm as his scientific knowledge – and he has much to say about the challenges of the 2020s and beyond as “[s]tates around the world see their participation in the globalized world of science as a means to assert national and regional authority.”

..and thank you to Tortoise’s Operations Executive, Kat Whitfield, for her recommendation of Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine by Olia Hercules (Bloomsbury)

“Olia Hercules’ third book after the success of Mamushka and Kaukasis is an evocative cookbook centred around the Ukrainian litnya kuhnia — the summer kitchen. These are outbuildings that are focal to family life, where food preparation and cooking take place in the heat of summer to avoid turning the whole house into an oven. Preservation is a core theme, from autumnal fermentation of the summer’s glut of produce that has had months to ripen in the renowned chronozem — black soil — to the restoration of litnya kuhnia by younger Ukrainians intent on conserving their legacy. Hercules traces the permeable borders of Ukraynia, meaning ‘borderland’, through its culinary culture: from a love letter to her mother’s varenyky dumplings to the historical origins of borscht — a bowl of which, she notes, ‘represents family and sustenance, and connects us to home, wherever we find ourselves’. 

Don’t be put off by the seemingly complex nature of some of the dishes, nor caught out by the relative simplicity of others. A badly-sterilised jar of quick-fermented cucumbers is not something you’d want to tuck into unassumingly for a late night snack, but once you master the art (Hercules provides a mostly fool-proof guide) they’re delicious: there’s a fine line between kvasyty, meaning ‘to make sour’, and to make too sour. The cabbage leaf rolls are really impressive once you get the hang of the technique, as is the chicken broth with bran kvas and noodles — more challenging but no less therapeutic than watching Hercules deftly knead them on her Instagram page. If you’re not a confident self-proclaimed Home Chef, this book is worth a coffee table peruse, solely for the beautiful photography by Hercules’ partner, Joe Woodhouse, and Elena Heatherwick — a collection of images emanating warmth from each page, illustrating the pickling jar process, tender portraits of village life and the unadulterated simplicity of the pastoral. Try one of the recipes and use the hashtag #CookforUkraine. As Hercules writes, Ukraine’s cherished recipes and rich history are ‘something to be embraced, revelled in and explored’ – and perhaps most poignantly, preserved.”


Melt My Eyez, See Your Future – Denzel Curry (25 March)

“I knew I had to have bigger songs, something that people could enjoy.I wanted people to sing my songs this time. Yeah, they can mosh all day, but that’s venue stuff. I want stadiums.” So said the 27-year-old rapper recently, in anticipation of this new and compelling album: the ambition to evolve creatively and reach a wider audience fizzes in every one of its 14 tracks. Recruiting a stellar line-up of collaborators including Robert Glasper, Jpegmafia,Thundercat, T-Pain and Kenny Beats, Curry has embraced a more eclectic style (check out the third single from the album, ‘Troubles’, for a sense of his broadening sonic range) but remained true to his embrace of hard-edged subjects. In particular, he is impressively honest about his own mental health battles and the suicidal thoughts that afflicted him between 2016 and 2019. ‘John Wayne’ (featuring Buzzy Lee) reaffirms Curry’s long standing commitment to racial justice and the campaign against police brutality (his brother Treon died in 2014 after being tasered, and the rapper himself was a classmate of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American shot and killed by George Zimmerman a decade ago). Curry’s forthcoming UK gigs in Glasgow, Dublin, Manchester and London promise to be a hot ticket.

Dissonance: Rachmaninoff – Asmik Grigorian, Lukas Geniušas (25 March)

Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian is already one of the rising stars of the opera world, acclaimed for her title-role performance in Claus Guth’s Royal Opera House production last year of Janáček’s Jenůfa. In her debut recital recording, accompanied by her compatriot pianist Lukas Geniušas, Grigorian presents 19 songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff as though they were operatic scenes, full of emotion and dramatic tension. Her voice is technically superb, but it is the hint of thespian unpredictability that gives her performance its edge and captivating force – and Geniušas is no docile sidekick, ensuring that the piano provides its own powerful counterpoint. A stunning album.

Torpedo – Feeder

Trite as it may be to connect music to weather, there is no denying that Feeder’s 11th album, an anthemic, upbeat celebration of classic Brit-grunge, already feels like a contender to be the soundtrack of the spring. In fact, Torpedo was recorded in the depths of the pandemic, with vocalist and guitarist, Grant Nicholas, working from his north London studio, while his longtime musical partner Taka Hirose added in the bass sound in Yorkshire. This is scarcely an experimental album – Feeder have been around since 1994 and it would be idle to deny that they work to a tried-and-tested formula – but it is also proof that there is plenty of juice yet to be squeezed from the lemon of the indie rock genre that they have made their own for almost three decades. More striking, indeed, is the enthusiasm Nicholas and Hirose still bring to the task, rejecting in deed and word the dead branding of “legacy act”, and delivering, in tracks like ‘The Healing’ (‘The world that we know may be bleeding, but we still have time’), an infectious spirit of hard-won but resilient optimism.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy Cross City Films Limited/Netflix, Warner Bros, A24, Universal Pictures, Pathe Films/Apple TV, Bitters End, 20th Century Studios, Getty Images