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The 2022 Oscars ceremony is coming up on March 27, and 10 new movies are up for the Best Picture title: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and any of them might end up winning big. In the leadup to the Oscars, we’re making a case for why each of them might deserve to take the big prize.
WHAT’S THE MOVIE?
Belfast, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
In 1969 Belfast, adorable Buddy (Jude Hill) navigates the life of a fairly typical 9-year-old boy: He has a crush on a classmate, he steals some candy, he receives worldly wisdom from his adorable grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), and he eavesdrops on his parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe) as they fight, adorably, about money. But escalating sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics is tearing the community apart, and threatening to cast a long shadow over the family’s future. The story is based on Branagh’s own childhood experiences.
WHAT’S THE CRED?
Belfast is pure Oscars catnip; no wonder it’s considered one of the frontrunners. It’s a personal, sentimental memory piece from a beloved showman, an actor-director in the tradition of the titans of the London stage. (Over the past 30 years, Branagh has personally earned eight Oscar nominations in an incredible seven different categories.) It’s a coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of socio-political upheaval, blending undemanding drama with humanist, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along hand-wringing. It’s a filmmaker’s origin story, featuring multiple scenes of a child’s face beaming rapturously up at a cinema screen. It has Judi Dench (who also has eight Oscar nominations, and one win). It’s in black and white. It has a very cute kid. Academy voters lap all this stuff up.
WHY SHOULD IT WIN?
Don’t mistake any of this for cynicism: Belfast is a very sincere, heartfelt film that strives to honor a time and place that clearly mean a lot to Branagh. It has great clarity on the painful dilemma at its heart: Should the family abandon the home they love and the community that defines them, or stay and risk getting eaten alive by the Troubles? It’s also an entertaining movie, and beautifully performed. The sunny-side-up Hill is a little over-eager as young Buddy, but Dench, Hinds, Dornan, and Balfe all put in charming and committed performances, with the gorgeous younger couple adding some unrealistic but far from unwelcome movie-star glamor to the kitchen-sink drama. Perhaps best of all, Branagh knows the limits of our indulgence, and he wraps his trip down memory lane up in a tidily effective 98 minutes.
WHAT’S THE CATCH?
There are many criticisms to be leveled against Belfast. It’s crashingly unsubtle, with overstated direction, broad characterization, and predictable, on-the-nose story beats. Branagh, never one to be overcome with humility, can’t resist some cringeworthy self-mythologizing. (There’s a shot of the young Buddy reading an issue of Thor, meant to evoke Branagh’s direction of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor movie.) Nor can he bring himself to view his family in anything other than a saintly light. And though his depiction of the Troubles avoids the most obvious pitfalls by sticking largely to one side (Buddy’s perfectly tolerant family and the film’s most despicable sectarians are all Protestants), it’s devoid of nuance and of any attempt to wrestle with the social and political realities, or to depict the human cost. But Oscar voters are less likely to be deterred by any of this than they are by the rough reviews for Branagh’s Death on the Nile.
ONE GREAT THING NO ONE SHOULD MISS
Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Frozen) is a Belfast native and a performer of great soulfulness and humor. It’s wonderful to see Belfast give him a worthy platform. He plays Buddy’s grandfather with tender gravity, giving the town a human voice that could so easily have been drowned out by Branagh’s frenetic setpieces and rose-tinted nostalgia. His Best Supporting Actor nomination is richly deserved.
WHERE DO I WATCH IT?
Belfast is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu. For the other nominees, check out our streaming guide to every 2022 Oscar nominee.
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