Which Movie Is This Year’s Oscar Villain?

From left: Don’t Look Up, Licorice Pizza, Being the Ricardos.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Netflix, MGM and Amazon Prime

It is a time of transition — for the movies, for the Oscars, and, most important, for Oscar villains. You remember Oscar villains, don’t you? In the before-times, they were the movies that made you grow at your television whenever they won an award, Ugh! What did they see in that? If you were watching in the ’80s and ’90s, the Oscar villain might have been a sumptuous period piece from Merchant-Ivory or Miramax, which beat the grittier, more authentic movie you were rooting for. Perhaps it was the middlebrow drama that prevented your favorite director from finally taking home their long-awaited trophy. Or maybe it was a movie that was just plain god-awful. But enough about Crash!

The Oscars have never been above politics. In the Trump years, when everything got more polarized, Hollywood progressivism went up against online progressivism and was frequently found wanting. Major contenders seemed to hide the lurking specter of Trumpism. There was La La Land, in which a white guy held strong opinions about jazz, which shined with nostalgia for an imagined ’50s. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri soft-pedaled police brutality. Green Book was an interracial buddy movie whose calculated determination not to offend white audiences itself became offensive. Joker had critics sincerely wondering if an Oscar nominee could inspire a mass shooting.

Whenever I talked to Academy staffers back then, I got the sense they didn’t exactly love the awards season’s perennial backlash cycle. The Oscars were supposed to be the great unifier! But after what has happened since — declining ratings, declining relevance, the sense that the movies they were designed to reward are about to go the way of the dinosaurs — I suspect they’d bite off their arms to see bloggers calling a Best Picture front -runner fascist propaganda. At least then they’d know people were paying attention.

There was no Oscar villain last year. With barely anyone watching, what was the point? However, like the first shoots growing in the spring, so too are the first hints of potential 2022 Oscar villas starting to appear. A subtweet here, a grimace GIF there. As a leading scholar in the field of Oscar villainy, it’s my duty to collect and catalog this evidence. Here’s my preliminary ranking of the top 15 Best Picture contenders, as determined by GoldDerby, ordered to most likely arouse social-media conniptions when they inevitably take home the gold.

A villain is nothing without its hero. These are the films that will get showered with praise in the (often unlikely) event they win.

Photo: Janus Films

A three-hour Japanese drama about a grief-stricken actor directing a production of Uncle Vanya might not be the obvious choice to spark a flame war between film critics and Oscar pundits, but welcome to the 2022 awards season. When Drive My Car earned top honors from critic circles, awards prognosticators dinged those groups for making such a purposefully esoteric pick. (Besides its daunting run time, the film has earned less than $1 million at the US box office and is not streaming.) Critics hit back, saying it wasn’t their job to influence the Oscar race; the pundits called critics disingenuous elitists. Because Drive My Car is such an obvious long shot, there is no better way to demonstrate that you are a serious cinephile than by stumping for Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film — it proves you’re the rare person who’s actually seen it.

Photo: Netflix

Though it’s backed by the Netflix machine, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is so un-eager to please that it still feels like an awards-season outsider. The Ferrante adaptation spits in the eye of anyone who thinks female protagonists should “be likable,” “have easily explainable motives,” or “not masturbate near small children.” Pwah!

Photo: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

The other cinephile’s choice in the race and the one that could actually win. Subject-matter-wise, Jane Campion’s skewering of toxic masculinity is irreproachable, and the metanarrative is gold, too. The Power of the Dog is not just the crowning achievement of a female filmmaker who may finally get her due but also her first film of any kind in over a decade. Can you imagine Spielberg or Scorsese having to wait that long?

Photo: Apple TV+

At Sundance, Apple paid $25 million for this little movie about a teenage girl and her horny Deaf family—a record acquisition. There was a time, maybe ten or 15 years ago, when such a gigantic sum of money would have induced a swell of Schadenfreude in the commentariat. As the marketplace for indie film has collapsed, the culture’s moved on from those ill-feelings. Get your money any way you can, filmmakers!

Photo: Courtesy Of Netflix

Anyone can adapt a Broadway smash; much nobler to adapt a one-man show about turning 30 and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous eye-rolls. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda had the bad luck to become the personification of everything dirtbag leftists and TikTok zoomers finding cringy about Obama-era pop culture, but Netflix has done a good job of hiding him and making Andrew Garfield the face of the campaign. And right at the exact moment Garfield found himself in the middle of a Spider-Man-driven blush of goodwill, too!

The line on these films, neither hero nor villain, hasn’t solidified yet. One perfectly crafted tweet could tip it.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Upon King Richard‘s release, people tried to do numbers by complaining that the story of the greatest tennis duo of all time was told from the perspective of a man. They were swiftly reminded that Venus and Serena Williams are executive producers on the movie. (The term ”white feminism” got a lot of play.) Note that the matter may be readjuciated if Will Smith starts saying more weird sex stuff.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Two years of industry disruption have thrown serious adult movies, the Oscars’s bread and butter, into existential peril. So this season has seen a lot of anxiety over the question of whether the Academy should reach for the metaphorical life preserver and focus more attention on IP-driven blockbusters, which seem to be the only movies anyone’s willing to see in theaters anymore. Dune is the acceptable face of this argument — a smart, stylishly made tentpole that would raise a few eyebrows if it won’t Best Picture. But I don’t get the sense the public is clamoring for it the way they were, say, for Mad Max: Fury Road a few years back.

Photo: A24

Had Joel Coen’s Shakespeare adaptation become a front-runner, I imagine there would have been some annoyance that its premise and pedigree were obvious Academy catnip: Haven’t these people won enough Oscars already? But that didn’t happen, so the film continues to lurk quietly on the edges of the Best Picture conversation.

Photo: 20th Century Studios

Guillermo del Toro’s previous film, The Shape of Water, won both Best Picture and Best Director over critical favorites like Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, and Lady Bird. That’s the kind of thing that sets a guy up for a fall, but while critics were not exactly warm to del Toro’s noir pastiche, any motivation to take him down a peg faded when Nightmare Alley underperformed at the holiday box-office. A black-and-white re-release aims to turn things around, but feels a bit like the cinematic equivalent of wearing a fedora.

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

There’s nothing inherently wrong with No Way Home, a perfectly enjoyable superhero movie that had the good fortune to come out at a time when the people who enjoy superhero movies were the only people going to theaters. However, its Best Picture candidacy was taken up by many of the same pundits who complained that the Oscars are “too woke up” — with the subsequent implication that if you don’t think a Spider-Man sequel is one of the ten best films of the year, you must be a pencil-necked intellectual who would have voted for Adlai Stevenson a third time if you could.

This is the JV squad of Oscar villainy. But if one of them starts taking home trophies, look out.

Photo: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Alternative Ulster? No thank you: Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white autobiographical drama is the mainstream, accessible, somewhat basic choice in the race. It is both accurate, and a slight roast, to say Belfast is a movie your grandparents will love. Some internet commentators have compared his centering of Northern Irish Protestants to making a Holocaust movie about the hardships of German civilians. None of these quibbles have coalesced into a sustained critique, though — maybe because the film’s audience remains small or maybe because the 90-minute charmer is simply too modest to hate.

Photo: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Credit to Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, they really did try it. They fleshed out the Puerto Rican characters, turned the Jets into au courant avatars of white residence, and made a minor character trans. It might as well have been a $100 million subtweet to the writers of And Just Like That: “See, it is possible to update old IP with 21st-century mores without a gigantic buttoning ‘Woke Moment!’ Too bad all that effort only increased the salience of the backlash, as West Side Story‘s release was greeted by think pieces calling its source material irredeemably racist and those creative changes “pandering.” Add in the sexual-assault claims against star Ansel Elgort, a sizable mental hurdle for the enlightened film fan, and you can understand why despite a diverse cast and glowing reviews the musical has had a hard time positioning itself as the progressive choice in the race .

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/MGM

Yes, it’s a lighthearted romance between a 15-year-old boy and a 20-something woman, but the age-gap hubbub always felt a little obligatory, and anyway it seems to have worn itself out. However, if Paul Thomas Anderson’s film proves to have juice, I suspect there’ll be more controversy to come, particularly around John Michael Higgins’s character, a restaurant owner who speaks to his Japanese wives in a racist accent straight out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the event that Anderson wins Best Original Screenplay, what are the chances that out-of-context clips of those scenes will start going around Twitter? Let’s say … 1,000 percent.

I promise you: Come Oscar night, you will be able to get primo engagement by tweeting a side-eye GIF every time one of the following films wins.

Photo: NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

Don’t Look Up is a rare sort of Oscar villain. The film’s politics are unimpeachably lefty; it’s just so obnoxious about them it became a hate-object anyway. (Besides, everyone knows you can’t fight climate change by making a star-studded Netflix comedy. True praxis is blogging.) Since reinventing himself as a smarty-pants satirist, Adam McKay tends to get on critics’ nerves, and co- writer David Sirota didn’t do the film any favors when he spent the holidays declaring that anyone who gave Don’t Look Up a negative review was complicit in the destruction of the planet. In the industry, though, McKay is a much less controversial figure. You have to admit Don’t Look Up taking home Best Picture would be a triumph of a certain type of Hollywood self-regard: “The world is gonna end because people are just too interested in us!”

Photo: Glen Wilson/Amazon Prime Video

Aaron Sorkin was already on thin ice, owing to its not being 1999 anymore. Then—spoiler alert—he built his movie’s climax around a heroic intervention by none other than … J. Edgar Hoover?! I’ll say this for Sorkin: He could not have created a more perfect illustration of the philosophical emptiness of MSNBC liberalism if he tried. This has not been a problem for Guild voters, who have lavished the Amazon project with nominations, and made Nicole Kidman the Best Actress front-runner. If the film sneaks into Best Picture, it will do the impossible—uniting in anger art-house fans, the anti-streaming contingent, and those who want the Oscars to reflect mainstream taste. Everyone getting up in arms about the Academy nominating a mediocre showbiz biopic? Perhaps things are back to normal after all.

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