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2023 Winner for Best Picture: Oppenheimer

In what was one of the more anticlimactic Oscar nights in recent memory, Oppenheimer surprised absolutely no one by taking home the Academy’s most prestigious award, along with six others to cap off what was a dominant awards season. The Christopher Nolan blockbuster also took home the awards for Best Director (Nolan), Best Actor (Cillian Murphy), and Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey, Jr.), making it the first film since Ben-Hur (1959) and only the fourth film over all (Going My Way from 1944 & The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946) to win all four of those awards.

Concluding one of the most tumultuous and torturous years of in the history of Hollywood, a year that was marred by two major strikes that threatened to derail the entire industry, Oppenheimer was one of the films that saved the summer season, Barbie being the other, and both of the Barbenheimer movies were rewarded by receiving multiple Oscar nominations, including both getting nominations for Best Picture. And while Barbie dominated the box office, pulling in nearly $1.5 billion compared to almost $960 million for Oppenheimer, the latter dominated awards season from the Golden Globes through the Oscars.

What was it about Oppenheimer that made it such a runaway winner in a year that (IMHO) should have been wide open? The last time a “science” movie like this won was A Beautiful Mind in 2001. But it didn’t have the traditional underdog thematic components of that film. It was also the first true blockbuster to win since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003, and it was the first Best Picture winner to surpass $100 million at the box office since 2012’s Argo. But as mentioned. Barbie outdid Oppenheimer at the box office by more than half a billion dollars.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea why Oppenheimer struck the chord that it did. It was an excellent film, but there were several films that were nominated that I liked better. It had high entertainment value, but I thought there were other films that were more entertaining. It had a very good screenplay, but there were several movies with screenplays that were at least as good. The production design was outstanding, as were the lighting, editing, and cinematography, but there was very little in Oppenheimer that was groundbreaking despite its Oscar wins for cinematography and editing. Again, I thought there were films this year that outdid Oppenheimer in all of those categories.

Ultimately, what likely got Oppenheimer the win, in my opinion, was the totality of the production. Early in the Academy’s history, the Best Picture category was called “Best Production.” If one was to look at the award in that context, Oppenheimer was clearly the best production. It was the film that took all of the elements of filmmaking, from direction to screenwriting, to editing, and all of the stages in between, and in its totality, was the strongest production.

This was an exceptionally made film that also had a compelling story and characters that the audience could engage with, whether they were rooting for them or against them. Nolan, who also penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay, did an outstanding job of weaving the complexity of who Oppenheimer, the man, was. Nolan also effectively showed all of the people who were trying to destroy him, and how he really was a modern-day Prometheus in ways both literal and figurative. He provided the human race with a new kind of fire, and both he and the human race will be punished for it forever.

All of the acting in this film was also superb. Murphy and Downey, Jr. won Oscars in their respective categories and Emily Blunt was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She didn’t win, but her performance was gritty and hard-edged as Oppenheimer’s alcoholic wife, Kitty, who was the only one who tried to make him stand up for himself when the entire weight of the United States government was trying to destroy him for being a communist. Kitty may have had the most depth of any character. She broke up his initial marriage by getting pregnant by him, then didn’t want to take care of the baby. She struggled with alcohol and was not a very good mother to their children. However, her loyalty to Oppenheimer was unflappable and she stood by him to the end.

I think the reason this film didn’t quite hit the mark for me as far as being the best movie of the year was the emotional component or at least the lack thereof. Christopher Nolan is a clinical filmmaker. I wouldn’t say his films are devoid of emotion. Certainly, there have been deeply emotional moments across many of his films. But that’s just it. They’re moments. Just as there are emotional moments in Oppenheimer, it is not an emotional film. I didn’t get the emotional punch from Oppenheimer that I did with some of the other films from 2023. While the characters were engaging, most of the relationships were not. While Oppenheimer was a technically proficient film, it was not an emotional one. I liked it, but I didn’t care about what happened as much as I did in the other nominees.

Did the Academy get it right?

This was a very interesting year. I actually liked all of the films nominated for Best Picture, and that is a rarity, especially since the Academy increased the number of nominees to ten. I honestly wouldn’t have been disappointed with any of this year’s nominees winning. That said, I would not have voted for Oppenheimer. My favorite film of the year was The Holdovers for the reasons I mentioned above about the emotional component. I was far more engaged in The Holdovers and I cared immensely about the characters and what they were going through and I found the film to be much more satisfying. I also liked Maestro, American Fiction, Barbie, Anatomy of a Fall, Poor Things, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Past Lives better than Oppenheimer. That’s no shade towards Oppenheimer. I liked it a lot. You could even say that I loved it. What it does say is that 2023 was a very competitive year and ten outstanding films were nominated for Best Picture. I feel like if any of these films were made in the last three years, they would have been the favorite over almost anything that was nominated in any of those years. So while Oppenheimer wasn’t the film I would have voted for, I would still say that the Academy did not get it wrong, even if I’m unwilling to say that they got it right.

Should you see it?

Yes you should. If you’re interested in quality filmmaking, excellent screenwriting, terrific acting, and compelling storytelling, then this is a film you should actually see. I don’t know how historically accurate it is, but it certainly humanizes one of history’s most complex and complicated personalities, and certainly one the most important people of the twentieth century, if not all time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that. This is a film fan’s film, and if you haven’t seen it already, it’s worth the three hours you’ll spend watching it.

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