The Oscars are on Sunday, a celebration of the finest in motion pictures, with 10 eclectic films duking it out for Best Picture. Indeed, as Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang recently pointed out, the race for the big prize “features a musical, a western, a sci-fi epic, a neo-noir, a youth comedy, a disaster flick, a sports movie, a personal memoir, a scrappy Sundance crowd-pleaser and a Cannes auteur’s magnum opus. … There’s something here, in theory, for everyone.” And yet, with a few exceptions, they’re all stories about men — even in the two female-driven stories, CODA and Licorice Pizza, the woman at the center is surrounded by male characters who serve as allies or obstacles.
In the wake of #MeToo, Hollywood has had several reckonings, first by jettisoning some of the industry’s worst sexual assulters who, for years, were allowed to keep making movies because they were deemed too powerful to topple. But there’s also been a greater focus in recent years on films that detail how toxic masculinity seeps into every aspect of society. Whether it’s in horror movies or indie comedies, writers and directors are interrogating manhood more critically than ever before.
But has that changed the films that the Academy deems the best of the year? I decided to rank all 10 Best Picture nominees by how awful their male characters are. To be clear, this isn’t a judgment on those characters — or the movies themselves — but, rather, it’s a survey of what these nominees have to say about men. Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of the films had a pretty dim view of guys — or just society in general — with a few feel-good movies sprinkled in that argue that we’re all basically decent human beings. (It’s a nice thought, at least.)
Don’t assume, though, that the darker portraits of manhood necessarily guaranteed better movies: Just because a dumb comedy (looking at you, Don’t Look Up) parades the fact that guys suck doesn’t make it a masterpiece.
The season’s surprise sleeper, this Sundance hit looks poised to upset The Power of the Dog and win Best Picture. If you want to know why, one reason may be its low ranking on this list. A look at a mostly Deaf family, CODA is the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), the one hearing member of the Rossis, who live in Gloucester and work in the struggling local fishing industry. Ruby’s life changes, though, when her school’s music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) is wowed by her singing voice and encourages her to apply to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. But can she really leave her family behind?
Outside of a few bullying classmates, CODA is full of very appealing characters, with Ruby’s dad (Oscar-nominated Troy Kotsur), her sensitive brother (Daniel Durant) and her love interest (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) also basically good dudes. (As for the music teacher, he’s essentially the tough-love-but-goodhearted Mickey training our endearing Rocky.) Men are supportive allies in CODA, and the film’s feel-good spirit, while somewhat formulaic, is a balm for viewers who are tired of dark stories about bad people. If CODA takes home the top prize on Sunday, that will be a big reason why.
Despite being set during the Troubles, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical period piece isn’t especially traumatic or searing, instead presenting a largely wistful vision of Buddy (Jude Hill), a sweet-tempered boy who’s a stand-in for the writer-director. As a result, Belfast doesn’t have a lot of toxic masculinity on display outside of one side character, Billy (Colin Morgan), who tries to recruit Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dornan) to the militant Protestant cause.
Otherwise, this is mostly a rose-colored portrait of childhood — albeit one presented in black-and-white — filled with likable male role models, including Buddy’s struggling but reliable father and his warm, mischievous, wise grandpa (Oscar-nominated Ciarán Hinds). There are a couple riot scenes, but Belfast is oddly sunny — bad men exist in the world, but only out there in the distance, far beyond the purview of this film.
8) King Richard
There are other men in King Richard — well-meaning tennis instructors trying to make Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton) champions — but the film is built around their father Richard, a role that’s probably going to win Will Smith his first Oscar. I’ve mentioned before my reservations about how this biopic lauds Richard, slightly smoothing down the real man’s rough edges, but there’s no question the film is an occasionally fascinating study of a stubborn patriarch who insists he knows best, betting his daughters’ future on his instincts.
A better, more layered movie would have been more critical of Richard, weighing the chip on his shoulder against his desire to ensure Venus and Serena have a better life than he did. Unfortunately, King Richard ends up being a little too idolizing of the man’s commitment to stick to his guns, even when he drives everyone around him crazy. In other words, it’s a depiction of a very human, imperfect father that tries to be an inspirational portrait at the same time — by definition, King Richard isn’t trying to tell us that this man was that awful at all.
Befitting its epic widescreen vision, this adaptation of the Frank Herbert tome features a wide range of different characters — some good, some bad. The villains are especially vivid, including Stellan Skarsgård’s vile Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, while the heroes are distinct variations of noble warriors fighting to protect the universe.
But what’s interesting is how director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve crafts a whole panoply of portraits of masculinity: Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho is a strapping, ass-kicking hunk, while Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides is a gentler, more soulful spirit (although he, too, is pretty good with a blade). Oscar Isaac (and his magnificent beard) is the embodiment of the kindly father figure as Paul’s dad Duke Leto Atreides, while Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck is a gruff mentor who loves Paul but also wants to get him ready to be a leader. The entirety of House Harkonnen wants to kill Paul and his kind, but Dune’s very good men are models of emotionally mature heroes — the rare characters in a blockbuster who actually seem worth rooting for.
6) Drive My Car
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s acclaimed drama, based on the short stories of Haruki Murakami, follows the complicated grieving process of Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director and actor whose unfaithful wife has died. Staging a production of Uncle Vanya, he ends up casting a callow young actor, Kōji (Masaki Okada), who was having an affair with his spouse. Drive My Car is populated by nuanced individuals, with this three-hour film taking time to explore the lives of other actors in the stage production as well. But of the male characters, the most complicated is Kōji, who is trying to rehabilitate his image: He was once a television star who’s been laid low by the revelation that he was involved with an underage girl. Turns out, however, that’s not the only thing problematic about him, leading to one of Drive My Car’s later plot twists.
Many of Hamaguchi’s previous films, including 2021’s equally superb Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, focused on female characters, and so it’s notable that Drive My Car is a movie about two very different men — one grieving and disillusioned, one sullen and brazen. But the film depicts its male characters as representing a whole spectrum of human behavior, the sensitivity of the portrayals part of what makes this likely Best International Feature winner so singular.
5) The Power of the Dog
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank may have been the movie year’s most fascinating man: a closeted cowboy trying to play up his macho demeanor while secretly pining for Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the delicate lad he publicly bullies. The Power of the Dog revolves around four characters, with the alcoholic, melancholy wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) trying to find comfort in her loving husband George (Jesse Plemons), Phil’s gentle, well-mannered brother. But the film feels most attuned to the three men at its center, each of them demonstrating how a softer, more feminine kind of masculinity can (or can’t) survive in the American West.
Because Phil is such a colossal brute, parading around a cartoonish version of toughness to hide his sexual orientation, Jane Campion’s anti-Western may be one of the few films where another character’s murderous inclinations end up not being such a bad thing. Still, in the battle for Best Picture, The Power of the Dog’s thorny investigation of manhood — not to mention its challenging, thought-provoking exploration of identity — may make it a tougher proposition for some voters than the nice, crowd-pleasing CODA. Sometimes, that’s all that matters at the Oscars.
4) West Side Story
This classic romantic tragedy tells the story of the goodhearted but troubled Tony (Ansel Elgort), who falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), who’s connected to a rival New York gang. West Side Story is pretty bold in its depiction of racism — how it corrodes the soul and destroys communities — and so we witness plenty of scenes of young men behaving awfully to one another because of a difference in skin color. Steven Spielberg’s remake is often fairly despairing, seeing bigotry as a perhaps intractable problem, which only makes the joyous musical sequences more potent by comparison.
But there’s another, extratextual element to West Side Story that complicates this new version: Elgort has been accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old when he was 20. The actor has denied any wrongdoing, but for many viewers, the allegation made it hard to accept him as Tony, a lovable hero who’s done some racist things but is trying to turn over a new leaf by being the ideal man for Maria. Both onscreen and off, this West Side Story has proven to be a cautionary tale about how hard it is to escape the past.
3) Don’t Look Up
There are basically two types of dudes in Adam McKay’s irritatingly smug satire: morons and weak-willed pushovers. In the moron category, you’ve got everyone from Jonah Hill’s infantile chief of staff for Meryl Streep’s President Orlean (who’s also his mom) to Tyler Perry’s vain, vapid morning-show host Jack. The biggest pushover? Well, that’s Randall (Leonardo DiCapro), the nerdy scientist who’s discovered that a meteor is coming to destroy Earth — except he’s so ineffectual he can’t get anyone to be concerned about the planet’s fate. Randall’s no hero, though, cheating on his wife with Brie (Cate Blanchett), Jack’s shallow co-host, once he starts receiving some media attention.
In McKay’s world, anyone in power is a jerk or a hypocrite or an idiot — and maybe a racist or a sexist to boot — and the caricatures get tiresome fast. If you’re looking for some semblance of normal human behavior, Timothée Chalamet’s sweet hipster Yule and Rob Morgan’s rational planetary defense head Teddy are as close as you’re going to get. Here’s a movie that tells you that men (and women) are bad, but only in the laziest, most obvious ways — one longs for the genuine insight McKay brought to portraits of problematic men like Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby back in the day.
2) Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson has never shied away from depicting difficult, “unlikable” male characters, and his laidback 1970s saga has its share of them as well. In fact, it’s opened the door to Licorice Pizza’s most prevalent criticism, which is its inclusion of a racist white businessman (John Michael Higgins) who speaks in an exaggerated Japanese accent to his Asian wives. Whether or not you think the satire lands — my feeling is that it’s clumsily handled — the character is but one of the bad men that Alana (musician Alana Haim) encounters over the course of the film, which means to illustrate how this young woman navigates a mid-20s crisis, all the while dealing with a series of jerks.
Whether it’s Bradley Cooper’s antagonistic Jon Peters or Sean Penn’s lecherous Jack Holden, Licorice Pizza is a minefield of sexist, patriarchal behavior — with Alana’s young friend Gary (Cooper Hoffman) just about the only decent guy in sight. (The other is Benny Safdie’s Joel, a closeted idealist running for mayor.) But Anderson is clear-eyed about the nightmare women like Alana have to endure — none of these bad men are monsters to the level of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, but you’d want to avoid them all the same.
1) Nightmare Alley
Based on the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel, which was previously turned into the 1947 film, Nightmare Alley is a cesspool of despicable human behavior. The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro paints a world where greed and cynicism rule, led by Bradley Cooper’s Stan, a conman who presents himself as a genuine psychic, eventually teaming up with an unscrupulous shrink (Cate Blanchett) to bilk a gullible tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with dark secrets.
Noir is often fixated on humanity’s unsavory side, but in Nightmare Alley, del Toro really luxuriates in his characters’ awfulness. Stan is a charmless murderer and drunk, uninterested in redemption and still traumatized by memories of an abusive father. But this bastard is in good company: Willem Dafoe’s carnival owner preys on the weak and the desperate, while David Strathairn’s clairvoyant is nothing but a sham and an alcoholic. Nightmare Alley ends up being more about its sumptuous look than its story, but there’s no denying the endless rottenness of these men (and women). Even though the film is set more than 80 years ago, the moral ugliness on display feels uncomfortably modern.