You could be forgiven for thinking some of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees were shot in black and white. It was not.
But several of the entries, even the excellent ones, seem drained.
There’s the dreary grayscale of both the rousing “Women Talking” and the despairing “All Quiet on the Western Front”—palettes we might call bloodless, except that, in these violent and sometimes gruesome films, the black blood pours liberally from grayish cuts in corpse flesh.
And the clouds don’t hang heavy over the war-is-hell film set in the corpse-choked German trenches (“All Quiet”) or the film about the cheerful Mennonite women trapped in a community of prolific rapists who use animal tranquilizers to their victims (“Women Talking”).
Low, dreary light floods even the lightest fare. In “Triangle of Sadness,” a cool satire on influencers and projectile seasickness, no bulb seems to burn brighter than 40 watts. (Real-world tragedy also affected “Triangle” last year, when its star, Charlbi Dean, died suddenly at age 32, just months after the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.)
Even Steven Spielberg’s autobiography The Fabelmans, while no one has a clue of a downer, spends large stretches in dark theaters.
Visually muted, many of these films are also prickly in ways that don’t say date and popcorn. They say couch, Netflix and rainy, contemplative afternoons. They are dark – and, like moody teenagers, they are also difficult.
As a story about disappointment — and terrible self-harm — in a male friendship, “The Banshees of Inisherin” is also largely devoid of color. Located on a fictional Irish island, it’s not green in color, but much of it is the color of a pint of stout.
“Tár,” about the death of a morally uptight conductor played by Cate Blanchett, is filled with sleek navy and gray. The maestro’s cerebral pursuits, complicated inner life, and dangerous international connections won’t be relatable to anyone unless you’re Sylvia Plath or maybe Virginia Woolf.
These “little” smart films are the nominations that gave this year’s Oscars a reputation for showcasing a slew of films no one saw. Indeed, “Tár” and “Women Talking” have generated more reviews than full theaters.
But then there are the big four – the flashy blockbusters that didn’t need critical interrogation. Their hazy colors contrast with the darkness of the other candidates, like comets against smog.
“Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” were almost sensational hits with moviegoers. And though they’re heavy on the shades of circus, sun and bright skies, the movie business has treated them not as Hollywood stock but as saviors. Spielberg even credited “Top Gun: Maverick” with saving “the entire theater industry” after the pandemic.
Indeed, the Tom Cruise film grossed $1.5 billion worldwide last summer. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” James Cameron’s extravaganza released in December, has grossed more than $2 billion.
Meanwhile, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” brought in more than $100 million worldwide, and Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” doubled that.
These films imagine audiences who want to be transported, who refuse films that seem like work. All four have helped assuage, for now, the fear that movie theaters have been completely defeated by streaming services.
In a roundabout way, all the Best Picture nominees seem to offer an outline for a new Hollywood taxonomy. The categories aren’t hard and fast, but what were once considered commercial films – blockbusters for global audiences – are now best described as theatre. films, made to rivet the audience in a single room as they laugh, cry and Raisinet together. Their palettes should be vivid and their plots metaphorical.
The most challenging movies, instead, are now streaming movies, made to be watched in the lonely hours, with breaks to grab snacks and think about tough scenes, offering more complexity and less flavor. The bed and laptop are now the home of art, with pillows in hand to cry on.
I suspect that the theatrical films will also be lighter on German than the streaming art pictures.
It’s a real weird list of 2023 — how much German is spoken. “All Quiet on the Western Front”, of course, is entirely in German. In “Tár”, the American conductor lives mainly in Berlin and speaks German fluently and often. And in “Triangle of Sorrow,” Therese, a stroke survivor and key character, can only repeat one phrase: “in den Wolken,” meaning “in the clouds.”
Some “Triangle” viewers have suggested that Therese’s line says something about the rich and their detachment from reality. But maybe clouds are just clouds.
In this case, maybe Therese is talking about overcast skies, art films and their cast of sullen soldiers, missing conductors, miserable Mennonites and tearful influences.
Virginia Heffernan is a regular contributor to Wired, author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, and podcast host. @page88 virginiaheffernan.substack.com