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A Librarian Looks at Oscars 2024: International Diversification Finally Bears Fruit
by
Posted On February 13, 2024
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Listen to the YouTube companion conversation to this Spotlight article between the author, Jess Hilburn, and Information Today and NewsBreaks editor Brandi Scardilli about all things Oscar and library access. You can find the transcript of the conversation on page 2 of this article.

It’s that time of year again, when the stars are out and thirst for the shiny gold man is about to be quenched for a new crop of movie hopefuls: It’s Oscar season!

While 2023 highlighted the blockbusters, and 2022 made strides toward better inclusivity, 2024 is an exciting mix of both. Two of the 10 Best Picture nominees were in the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year, two are internationally produced, three are predominantly in languages other than English, and three feature Black, Korean, or Native American protagonists. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ work toward more diversification seems to be finally bearing fruit, with voters bestowing nominations on a wide variety of deserving films.

Among the variety of nominees are some wonderful standouts in smaller categories as well, one of which is of particular interest for those in the library field. Interest piqued? Let’s get into it.


The 2024 Nominees

I’m thrilled to announce that I saw eight of the 10 Best Picture Oscar contenders before the nominations were read on the morning of Jan. 23. Thank you, thank you, but you can reserve your applause for a later time.

The weekend after the announcement, I was able to add American Fiction to that total, and this past weekend, The Zone of Interest finally arrived at my local theater. I can confidently say I would recommend four, would highly recommend four, and have a very one-sided beef with two.


The Recommends

Barbie movie posterYou know when you watch a movie and afterward think, “Hmm. That was good. I didn’t love it, but I certainly liked it, and I might even watch it again. Not life-changing. A worthwhile use of 2–3 hours [because movies nowadays, much to my constant chagrin, are rarely less than 2 hours long and far too often are more than 3 hours long].” That’s how I felt about the following four solid films. Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon, Oppenheimer, and Past Lives cover a diversity of tones, palettes, topics, and themes.

Though audiences tend to be divided over whether it earns that unexpected ending, Barbie is just a plain ole great time, chock-full of dancing, jokes, bright colors, and upsettingly flat feet. If you actively dislike Barbie, you need some introspection time. Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell will probably win their second Oscar for their heart-wrenching ballad about finding life’s purpose, but I’m sad Dua Lipa won’t be dancing the night away instead. They’d better at least give us a live rendition of Ryan Gosling’s Kenergy up on stage. If not, what was this nomination made for?

Killers of the Flower Moon posterKillers of the Flower Moon is based on its namesake book by David Grann. The book is excellent, and the movie is pretty darn great. If you’re not into Martin Scorsese’s style (read: unflinching violence and long runtimes), this was never going to work for you anyway. Lily Gladstone gives a tremendous performance and very well might be the first Native American Oscar winner. Robert De Niro does Robert De Niro face, and Rodrigo Prieto shoots the heck out of the gorgeous Western vistas and allows the vibrancy of Osage culture to shine. Oh, and did I mention Prieto also shot Barbie? Get you a cinematographer who can do both.

Oppenheimer movie posterOppenheimer is movie heaven for middle-aged men. History, explosions, and breasts—all for the price of one! Now, don’t get me wrong. This movie is in my recommend category, so obviously I enjoyed it too. The cast is overwhelmingly star-studded, and there are some top-tier performances, none of which is by Emily Blunt, and one of which will win Robert Downey Jr. his Leonardo DiCaprio/Jamie Lee Curtis career Oscar. Director and writer Christopher Nolan brings one of the most difficult moments in American history to life as seen through the experiences of the inventor of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Nolan will win for his directing feat, and the technical achievements of this movie are truly awe-inspiring. However, you know those writers whose women characters seem really genuine and authentic and true to life? Nolan sure doesn’t.

Past Lives movie poster

Past Lives, however, is a woman-written, woman-directed, woman-led film about the roads not taken. Where last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once showed viewers the alternate realities of their unchosen paths, Past Lives relies on internal longing and extended gazes to convey the preciousness of what might have been. Because only one woman can be a great director each year, Celine Song, the director and writer, was only honored for her original screenplay. And though I didn’t love this film as much as I wanted to, I have a deep appreciation for an American-made movie being mostly in a non-English language (here, it is Korean). With factionalism, racism, nationalism, and the rest of the ugly -isms on the rise in this country over the last decade-plus, it’s really nice to see a movie showcase a personal variation on the American experience.


The Highly Recommends

American Fiction posterNow, if you thought those were good, prepare yourself to have your mind blown by these four stellar entries. American Fiction, Anatomy of a Fall, The Zone of Interest, and The Holdovers have taken up little residencies in my brain, and I’m all the better for it.

American Fiction gave me three things I love: satire, books, and Sterling K. Brown. Jeffrey Wright does a wonderful job balancing the tones of his character’s faltering home life and confusingly successful professional publishing life. If Wright is the story’s glue, Brown is its glitter. Anyone who watched even a minute of Sterling K. Brown’s Emmy-winning turn as Randall in This Is Us knows his smooth charisma and magnetic facial expressions. Brown is the living embodiment of “there are no small parts.” He never wastes a moment and is consummately expressive. Whether embodying a classic sibling interaction or slightly shifting his face from anger to resentment to grief to love, Brown simply never lets you go.

Anatomy of a Fall movie posterAnatomy of a Fall had me riveted from beginning to end, and I still think about it months after seeing it in the theater. Justine Triet’s masterpiece won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has positioned her, along with co-writer and partner Arthur Harari, as a strong contender for Best Original Screenplay in addition to her directing nomination. In a film featuring shades of truth, a crumbling marriage, the intricacies of language, and the trappings of heteronormative society all wrapped up in a courtroom drama, Sandra Hüller gives my favorite performance of the Best Actress lot. The movie presents many questions and firmly answers few, enticing the audience to engage with the complicated discourse of being a fallible person. Did she commit murder? Does it matter?

The Zone of Interest posterThe Zone of Interest is a visually stunning, emotionally laden film that is able to express the horror of the Holocaust without ever relying on upsetting visuals. Idyllic family life is played out in front of smoke, ash, muffled screams, and meters of barbed wire. I’ll likely think about this film for the rest of my life. It’s both artistically stunning and deeply uncomfortable. The sound design is inspired: inserting silence to maximize impact and allowing director Jonathan Glazer’s ideas and messages to soak into the audience. This movie changed the way I think about the past and the present. Seeing the crematoriums of Auschwitz burn and belch ash into a perfectly clear summer’s day made me reckon with the fact time doesn’t stop for human evils. How have we always managed to go on? It won’t win, but this one is the Best Picture.

The Holdovers poster

Of the 149 movies I watched in 2023, my final highly recommend title was my number one favorite. The Holdovers is a ’70s-cinema-lover’s dream. It’s a crime Eigil Bryld didn’t get a nomination for the way he filmed and color-graded the New England prep school setting. Before even reading interviews about his inspirations, I could feel the spirit of Hal Ashby brushed across every frame. Paul Giamatti brings such warmth to a challenging character; Dominic Sessa’s first role will undoubtedly be among his finest; and Da’Vine Joy Randolph rips your heart out.

I think two acting Oscars could be won by this movie (by Giamatti and Randolph), and both are eminently deserved.


The Beef

By process of elimination, you already know which two movies made me narrow my eyes in skepticism at their inclusion on the list of best pictures of the year: Maestro and Poor Things.

Maestro posterMaestro is the more egregious of the two. The other night, Bradley Cooper gave me a jump scare when he appeared in my first-time watch of Sex and the City (Season 2, Episode 4, if you’re curious). Had I been old enough to watch it on-air in 1999, I definitely would not have guessed that this shaggy-haired, cigarette-mouthed actor would become the thirstiest Oscar hound the world has seen in a hot minute 25 years later. There is simply nothing I can say about this movie that is redeemable. I love Carey Mulligan, but she isn’t even in the room with her nomination for Best Actress this year. Cooper’s uncomfortable performance is somehow not as bad as his confusing directorial choices, which keep the audience consistently away from the thoughts, feelings, and actions of his character. Lydia Tár would be appalled.

Poor Things posterMy beef with Poor Things is more complicated. Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction has never been my taste, and when I saw this movie announced, I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the thought of having to live through another Oscar campaign for a movie that so-called cinephiles adore and I will certainly hate. Despite my misgivings, I trudged to the theater. I exited the theater blinded by both the bright light of a wintry day and by the image of Mark Ruffalo’s and various other actors’ naked forms newly emblazoned on my eyeballs. The way three men (novel author, screenwriter, and director) have positioned this story as a feminist triumph—when it fails to unpack the context and consequences of why adult men would be sexually interested in a child residing in an adult woman’s body and why sex work is positioned as almost wholly empowering and never dangerous for women—is truly perplexing. Don’t let Emma Stone fool you. This movie is not a rom-com where the protagonist falls in love with life, as she suggested; it’s a variation on the manic pixie dream girl desperately trying to convince its audience of its substance. But at least the costumes and production design are gorgeous, right?


We Want People to Watch Movies

A wonderful feature many of this year’s nominees share is being widely available for the public to see. Eight Best Picture nominees are either already out on DVD (Barbie, The Holdovers, Oppenheimer, and Past Lives), available with a streaming service subscription (the previous four titles, plus Killers of the Flower Moon and Maestro), or currently available for rent on VOD at different price tiers (American Fiction and Anatomy of a Fall).

At the library, those movies on DVD are beginning to ramp up in interest. Barbie is the clear front-runner in the war of highest checkouts at my library, but Oppenheimer is now beginning its charge. About a week ago, a patron I don’t know personally approached me after returning his items to say how much he loved Oppenheimer and to let me know it had been nominated for Oscars. It was a fun moment that gave me a glimpse into the argument pundits have on podcasts constantly: Do awards matter? And while I don’t think that the winners of the awards matter much beyond the personal joy of the human who gets to take the statue home and the film’s most devoted fans, I do think award nominations matter, because they get the name of the film humming in the backgrounds of people’s brains. When that hum becomes loud enough, some people who otherwise may have ignored the movie seek it out. And it’s pretty cool for the public library to play a part in that communal cultural conversation.The ABCs of Book Banning poster

Interestingly enough, libraries are in conversation at the Oscars in another way this year: through The ABCs of Book Banning, nominated for Best Documentary Short Film. Available on Paramount+, the short features children talking about the way book challenges, restrictions, and bans in their schools impact their learning and freedom to read. Though it’s not the most well-crafted or uniquely conceived documentary, its subject matter will undoubtedly strike librarians and library staff in the heart. I’ve endured book challenges at my library, and while they were defeated, the emotional toll they take is profound. Bringing light to this issue on a national stage is commendable.


Closing Recommendations

The Last Repair Shop movie posterThere are many watches outside of the main movie leaderboard that are worth your time. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is an expertly made animated film that continues to breathe fresh life into a franchise that could feel overdone.

The Last Repair Shop is a documentary short I’ve been sharing with all of my friends who play, love, or teach music. If music moves you, be ready for the waterworks.

Although The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar will win for Best Live Action Short Film, Knight of Fortune is a weird, dark, funny story that meditates on grief without being consumed by it.

Ninety-Five Senses is a heavy story about humanity on death row. It’s quite the topic for an animated short, and the unflinching filmmakers handle it with tenderness.

The Creator movie poster

The Creator is a strong contender in Best Visual Effects because of its restraint in green and blue screen use on a smaller budget than many modern sci-fi films. The world in The Creator feels fully realized, and its presentation of the ethics of artificial intelligence, especially in warfare, is prescient and visually enveloping.

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. movie posterFinally, there are a few films from 2023 that didn’t get shout-outs on Oscar morning and deserve accolades all the same. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is the screen adaptation of the beyond-famous coming-of-age book of the same name by Judy Blume. The acting, setting, and message of this movie are beautifully rendered in 107 minutes well-spent.

Like Past Lives, Theater Camp also premiered at Sundance 2023, and I will probably watch this movie at least once a year for the rest of forever. If you were a theater kid, it’s a must watch.

If you like The Bear, Shiva Baby, or Bodies Bodies Bodies, you’ll love Bottoms. It brings together Gen Z comedy queens Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott for a gay fight club you won’t forget.

You Hurt My Feelings embraces the awkward cringe of uncomfortable truth when author Beth (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) overhears her husband saying he doesn’t actually like her book. Is a white lie really so bad when our self-confidence is at stake?


The Finale

I’m excited to root for my favorites and inhale the dresses and drama at the 96th Academy Awards on March 10. Jimmy Kimmel’s “jokes” will make me sigh, someone will tackily read a speech from their iPhone notes app (paper still works, guys), and Ryan Gosling will serve peak Kenergy, avoiding the spotlight in favor of the snubbed Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie.

The real question we’re left with is, in a year of such excellent diversity of stories, faces, and languages on screen, are the Academy’s initiatives finally allowing the exception to become the rule? I remain hopeful they are—and that studios remain committed to making movies available to libraries for all who wish to dip into the world of pure imagination.

Movie posters are from imdb.com.


Jess Hilburn’s Guide to Every Feature Film, Documentary, Animated, International, and Short Nominated in Any Category at the 96th Oscars

(as of Feb. 13, 2024; possibly subject to change before March 10, 2024)

FF = feature film | SF = short film | D = documentary | DS = documentary short | I = international film | AF = animated film | AS = animated short

 Movie TitleWhere It’s AvailableHas Jess Seen It?
American Fiction (FF)Theaters now; will stream on Prime VideoYes
Anatomy of a Fall (FF)VODYes
Barbie (FF)MaxYes
The Color Purple (FF)VOD; will stream on MaxWill see
The Creator (FF)HuluYes
El Conde (FF)NetflixWill see
Flamin’ Hot (FF)Hulu and Disney+No plans to see it
Godzilla Minus One (FF)Theaters nowNo plans to see it
Golda (FF)Paramount+ With ShowtimeNo plans to see it
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (FF)Disney+Yes
The Holdovers (FF)PeacockYes
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (FF)Disney+Yes
Killers of the Flower Moon (FF)Apple TV+Yes
Maestro (FF)NetflixYes
May December (FF)NetflixYes
Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (FF)Paramount+Yes
Napoleon (FF)VOD; will stream on Apple TV+No plans to see it
Nyad (FF)NetflixYes
Oppenheimer (FF)Peacock (on Feb. 16)Yes
Past Lives (FF)Paramount+ With ShowtimeYes
Poor Things (FF)Theaters now; will stream on HuluYes
Rustin (FF)NetflixWill see
The Zone of Interest (FF, I)Theaters now; will stream on MaxYes
Io Capitano (I)UnavailableNo plans to see it
Perfect Days (I)Unavailable; will stream on Apple TV+Will see when available
Society of the Snow (I)NetflixWill see
The Teachers’ Lounge (I)UnavailableWill see when available
The Boy and the Heron (AF)Theaters now; will stream on MaxWill see
Elemental (AF)Disney+Yes
Nimona (AF)NetflixYes
Robot Dreams (AF)UnavailableNo plans to see it
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (AF)NetflixYes
20 Days in Mariupol (D)PBSWill see
American Symphony (D)NetflixWill see
Bobi Wine: The People’s President (D)Disney+Will see
The Eternal Memory (D)Paramount+Will see
Four Daughters (D)VODWill see
To Kill a Tiger (D)Unavailable in U.S.No plans to see it
The ABCs of Book Banning (DS)Paramount+Yes
The Barber of Little Rock (DS)YouTube via The New YorkerYes
Island in Between (DS)YouTube via The New York TimesYes
The Last Repair Shop (DS)YouTube via the Los Angeles TimesYes
Nai Nai and Wài Pó (DS)Disney+ and HuluWill see
The After (SF)NetflixYes
Invincible (SF)UnavailableWill see when available
Knight of Fortune (SF)YouTube via The New YorkerYes
Red, White and Blue (SF)UnavailableWill see when available
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (SF)NetflixYes
Letter to a Pig (AS)UnavailableWill see when available
Ninety-Five Senses (AS)Documentary+Yes
Our Uniform (AS)UnavailableWill see when available
Pachyderme (AS)UnavailableWill see when available
War Is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko (AS)UnavailableWill see when available

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Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of the Crawford County Federated Library System. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, true crime, and audiobooks, and she is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity and information access. Hilburn’s writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library JournalThe Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).



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