Oscar Picks
Issue: January/February 2024

Oscar Picks

With all the strikes and labor disputes, still-sparse post-COVID audiences, and ongoing threats from streamers and AI, 2023 was a trying year for the business industry of Hollywood. On the bright side, the 96th Academy Awards are almost here, the nominations are in and everyone can agree that 2023 turned out to be a great year for movies. Exhibit A? The double-headed, critically-acclaimed, box-office juggernaut (over $2 billion and counting) and cultural phenomenon “Barbenheimer,” which showcased two hugely ambitious films that couldn’t have been more different. 


At the serious end of the spectrum is Oppenheimer, a tense drama, directed by Christopher Nolan, that tells the story of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and follows the work of his team of scientists during the Manhattan Project, leading to the development of the atomic bomb. Starring Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, it features an all-star ensemble cast, including Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh and Kenneth Branagh. It dominated the competition with 13 nominations, including ones for Best Picture and Best Director.

At the fun end of the spectrum is Barbie, surely the most unlikely invite to the Oscar party ever (we assume it was all tied up with a big pink ribbon). The biggest hit of the year was helmed by previously Oscar-nominated writer/director Greta Gerwig (Little Women, Lady Bird), stars Oscar-nominees Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, and is a joyful celebration of girl power that effortlessly manages to combine frothy romance, sharp satire, stylish musical numbers, wacky car chases and warm-hearted comedy. It scored eight nominations, including Best Picture, but in one of the biggest surprises, director Gerwig and Robbie, its star and producer, were both snubbed. Apparently, voters just couldn’t bring themselves to take a brilliantly inventive and subversive comedy seriously enough, and assumed that it just directed itself.


Yorgos Lanthimos’ lavish and audacious Poor Things scored an impressive 11 nominations, while Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s epic historical crime drama about murder, racism, the Osage Nation and their oil wealth, received 10 nominations, including Best Director for Scorsese, who, at 81, made history as Oscar’s oldest directing nominee.

Another Oscar first? Three of the Best Picture contenders — Barbie, Past Lives and Anatomy of a Fall — were helmed by women, although only one of those filmmakers, Anatomy’s Justine Triet, earned a Best Director nomination.
With all that in mind, we now present our annual look at some of the nominees.


You could be forgiven for thinking that the Oscars have recently begun to seem more like an indie film celebration, with top honors going to such small-budget, quirky films as Nomadland, CODA and last year’s surprise winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once. But this year it looks like the natural order has been restored, as several big-budget, high-profile, high-concept films, including Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, Maestro, Barbie and Poor Things, battle it out for the top prizes. 


Oppenheimer, the de facto frontrunner, ticks all the boxes. It’s a prestige project with an all-star cast that also boasts a stellar creative team, including Nolan’s go-to director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, NSC (Dunkirk, Tenet), and editor Jennifer Lame, ACE (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Tenet), who were both Oscar nominated for their work on Oppenheimer, along with Nolan. Despite his career total of eight nominations, the director has never won. But this year looks likely to change all that.

The film shot in five major locations, with Nolan filming mostly in New Mexico, including shooting most of the interiors at the real Los Alamos. Oppenheimer marks the fourth collaboration for Nolan and van Hoytema, who says, “My biggest challenge with Oppenheimer rests in the way it is very different from the other films I’ve made with Chris. In Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet, there’s an emphasis on action. Oppenheimer is more like a psychological thriller; it’s reliant on the faces of its characters.” 

Adds Nolan, “It’s a story of great scope and great scale and great span. But I also wanted the audience to be in the rooms where everything happened, as if you are there, having conversations with these scientists in these important moments.”

To this end, Nolan and his DP filmed in a combination of IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film photography, including, for the first time ever, sections in IMAX black & white analogue photography. With the large-format film, and different kinds of stock, the challenge of creating Oppenheimer with multiple formats continued into post production, as the film had to be edited, color corrected and printed for IMAX, digital and standard presentation. 

Nolan and his cinematographer also worked closely with special effects supervisors Scott Fisher (a Nolan vet, who won Oscars for Interstellar and Tenet) and Andrew Jackson (who also won an Oscar for Tenet) on VFX, depicting everything from the first atomic test in the New Mexico desert to physical phenomena, ranging from subatomic particles to exploding stars and black holes. As the film’s sole VFX partner, Dneg delivered over 100 shots, crafted from more than 400 practically-shot elements, to help create some of the film’s most important and explosive sequences, including recreating the nuclear tests and showing the terrifying scale of an atomic blast. For the Trinity test sequence, Jackson and Fisher captured a wide spectrum of explosions using IMAX technology, including huge detonations, as well as smaller and underwater detonations. For the plasma ball atomic test, featured in the high-speed archive footage, the team used underwater micro explosions combined with a massive explosion, and then did extensive compositing work to seamlessly integrate the elements.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Like Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon is another epic story, but it’s also quite intimate, and showcases the creativity of another enduring partnership — that of Scorsese and DP Rodrigo Prieto, who first teamed up on The Wolf of Wall Street and followed that with Silence and The Irishman. Prieto reports that to find the right look and tone for the project, he did a lot of tests, including “all sorts of lenses and different ideas about negatives and looks, even pin-hole photography, a 1917 Bell & Howell vintage camera for the newsreel footage... and infra-red.” 

Another key element was working with colorist Yvan Lucas on the LUTs, starting in prep, and taking it right through post to the DI. 

“All the careful work we did with the LUTs in prep was essential, as Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker spent many months cutting all the material so they could really get used to the look,” he notes. “So, it was crucial that the dailies they were editing with were as close as possible to what I intended, and Yvan also supervised the dailies workflow.” 

Lucas and Prieto made adjustments in the DI, but “it wasn’t a big departure from the dailies,” notes the DP, who reports he went for a higher level of contrast than in the other films he’s done with Scorsese, “to represent the darkness that’s happening in the story.”

The Zone of Interest

Another very dark story, the British Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest, about the Auschwitz concentration camp, also earned a Best Picture nomination, as well as four more nominations, including a Best Director for Jonathan Glazer, whose other films include Under the Skin and Sexy Beast. Brilliantly conceived and shot using a hidden crew, and ten fixed and remotely-operated cameras, as if it were a reality TV show, the horrors of the Holocaust are made even more devastating by a film that never shows the industrial scale mass murder of the gas chambers. Instead, the British director, who adapted his screenplay from the Martin Amis novel, focuses his lens on the wholesome family of the camp commandant, who live serenely in a lovely house and garden just feet away and separated from the camp by a tall concrete wall. Glazer calls his fly-on-the-wall technique ‘Big Brother in the Nazi house,’ and it’s hard to imagine a more effective approach to dealing with the house of horrors right next door. 

The film’s soundscape, created by the Oscar-nominated team of Tarn Willers and Johnnie Burn, also plays a crucial role in telling the story, as the banality of the family’s everyday life is punctuated with gunfire, muffled screams and the sounds of engines that barely register, yet coat every scene with a sense of dread. 

The German-language The Zone of Interest is joined by two other acclaimed international foreign-language films in the Best Picture category; Celine Song’s Past Lives, a drama about lost love, shot in both Korean and English, and Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, a French courtroom drama that debuted at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. The latter was nominated in four other categories, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, and together, the three films have set another new Oscar record for the most foreign-language films ever nominated for Best Picture. 

Past Lives

It’s also notable that two of the eclectic Best Picture list — Past Lives and American Fiction — were directed by neophytes, whose lack of experience belied the impressive results. South Korean-born playwright Celine Song’s assured directorial film debut Past Lives is a romantic and deceptively simple film that is both semi-autobiographical and universal with its themes of love and loss. Also, strikingly intimate and ambitious in its scope, Past Lives is broken into three parts spanning countries and decades, and was shot in Seoul and New York. 

“I didn’t know how hard it was going to be shooting my very first movie,” says Song. “I think it’s the first-timer bravery. I didn’t know enough to be afraid, but I loved post and editing. I’m a writer, so I was looking at the editing process very much as editing text. So I honestly felt like I was the most equipped to do post. I had never done it before, but post was like my domain. And what I really loved about editing and VFX in film is that you have so much control to add and remove stuff you don’t want or need.” 

Past Lives

Song also loved “the whole DI process” and working on the grade with colorist Tom Poole at Company 3 with her DP Shabier Kirchner.

American Fiction is writer Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut, a comic satire starring Jeffrey Wright (nominated for Best Actor) as a novelist who, sick of seeing the establishment profiting from stereotypical “Black” entertainment, uses a pen name to write an outlandish “Black” book of his own, only to find it become a huge critical and commercial success — the very thing he despises. 

“Directing is something that you can’t really understand until you do it,” he reports. “It was sort of like a trial by fire, and just kind of getting in there and doing it.” 

To help deal with the “very steep” learning curve in post, Jefferson relied on the experience of editor Hilda Rasula (French Exit) to help handle “all the tonal changes and pivots that the movie takes, as it goes between comedy and drama.” 

The team edited in the offices of T Street, the production company, which is base to Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman’s company, and their go-to VFX supervisor, Giles Harding, oversaw all the film’s VFX. All the color grading and mastering was done by FotoKem, and the colorist was Philip Beckner. Mandell Winter was the sound supervisor, and the film was mixed at Signature Post with mixers Alexandra Fehrman and Richard Weingart. 

“I really loved the whole post process,” notes Jefferson, “and I can’t wait to direct again.”


Biopics are always an Oscar favorite, and in Maestro it’s producer/director/writer/star Bradley Cooper who plays charismatic New York conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein. The movie scored seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but Cooper missed out on a Best Director nod for his second directorial effort. Similarly, Oscar perennial Alexander Payne’s bittersweet Christmas dramedy The Holdovers, which reunites him with his Sideways star Paul Giamatti, also scored a Best Picture nomination, but no Best Director nod. (See my interview with Payne in Post’s November/December issue.)

Poor Things


As might be expected, this year’s contenders for film editing include such high-profile releases as Oppenheimer (Jennifer Lame); Killers of the Flower Moon (Thelma Schoonmaker) and Poor Things (Yorgos Mavropsaridis) (see Marc Loftus’ story in the November/December issue). Rounding out the list are two more modest films: Anatomy of a Fall (Laurent Sénéchal) and The Holdovers (Kevin Tent).

First-time nominee Jennifer Lame, who cut Tenet for Nolan, looks like the frontrunner at press time, thanks to her tour-de-force nonlinear intercutting of the various complex storylines and scenes, some of which were shot in black & white, while others are in color. Besides managing to make Senate confirmation hearings dramatic and tense, she also masterfully managed the film’s pacing and internal rhythms so that the three-hour epic played more like a 90-minute thriller.

Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, already a three-time winner, is the most nominated editor in Academy history with her ninth for the director’s first Western, Killers of the Flower Moon. During her 53-year partnership with Scorsese, Schoonmaker has edited all 24 films he’s made since 1980, and she says that much of the film’s structure was shaped during the shoot. 

Killers of the Flower Moon

“As a director, he is always thinking like an editor when he’s shooting, which is a wonderful gift to me.” 
The duo spent nearly a year together in the edit bay assembling the footage and refining every cut to make the film as strong as it could possibly be. 

“The thing that’s quite unusual about it is that sometimes things aren’t explained,” Schoonmaker says. “You just cut to a scene with the character who’s murdered. It’s just thrown at you and you have to suddenly react, which is very powerful. The audience has to keep up with what’s happening without being told what to think, which is something that Scorsese hates to do in a movie. The structure is radical.” 

Even after so many decades working with Scorsese, Schoonmaker says she’s still surprised by the discoveries they make in the edit bay, and always feels as though she’s learning something new when working on the director’s projects. 

“He’s always searching for the truth, and he doesn’t like to repeat himself, and that makes working with him thrilling. It’s always a new challenge.”

The Holdovers

Editor Kevin Tent has also enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with director Alexander Payne. Their first film together was the 1995 Sundance hit Citizen Ruth, and he’s edited all of Payne’s films since then, earning his first Academy Award nomination for his editing on The Descendants, starring George Clooney. 

“I rarely go to the set, maybe just for a quick visit,” reports Tent, who, as usual, began his assembly back in LA while Payne shot The Holdovers on location in Boston. 

“He was really focused on his coverage on this, and he’s always super smart about what he needs. It’s all about performance and he doesn’t want to burn out his actors on wide shots and masters. He does four to six takes on average, but allows his actors to take their time and get these great performances. Then, when we get to the cutting room, we try to condense them and make them efficient and deal with pace and rhythm and so on. The whole editing process, from shooting to finishing, was probably nine months, and then we spent a month or so doing the final mix at Signature Post in Santa Monica, and did the DI with colorist Joe Gawler at Harbor in New York.”

The Creator

Leading the VFX pack is the epic, sci-fi, action thriller, The Creator, written and directed by Gareth Edwards (see my feature story in our September/October issue). Edwards cleverly turned his low-budget indie concept into a mega-budget-looking blockbuster by essentially reverse-engineering the film’s whole approach to the crucial VFX. 

“We scouted all these amazing locations, shot all this material, and then went to ILM and asked them, ‘Can you do the VFX process without the usual tracking markers, without people in motion capture? Let’s try and reverse-engineer it.’ And everyone was very surprised it went so well, and it cost very little. So we showed that teaser to the studio and they greenlit it.” 

The film was largely shot on the low-cost prosumer Sony FX3 camera and posted all on the Fox lot. 

“We edited for over nine months and we had a small VFX producer team with us, and did the sound there too,” he reports.

Godzilla Minus One 

Godzilla Minus One is another underdog getting a lot of Oscar attention — and it’s also the first Japanese-language film to earn a VFX nomination. Director and VFX supervisor Takashi Yamazaki and his small team created over 600 CG shots on a tiny budget, including an impressive title character and complex water simulation for the climactic battle sequence. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

For Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the final film in director/writer James Gunn’s blockbuster trilogy, Gunn and his franchise VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti oversaw over 3,000 visual effects shots, created by a raft of companies, including Weta FX, who were responsible for the climactic final battle sequence, Framestore, ILM, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Rodeo and Crafty Apes. Heading up the Weta team was VFX supervisor Guy Williams, who previously collaborated with Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, for which he was also Oscar nominated. He oversaw the big challenges of creating “significant amounts of destruction work” and the large-scale build of the Arête spaceship, along with the big battle scene, where it’s slowly being destroyed. 

Weta also did The Abilisk Pit sequence, tackled water VFX — “always a huge challenge,” notes Williams — and the battle onboard the Arete, where 18 shots were stitched together into one seamless two-and-a-half-minute action shot. For the surrounding city scenes, the team used a CityBuilder-like approach to procedurally generate the layout and dressing for about 24 square miles on the Arête’s structure. They also built an entire city surrounding the Arete that was loosely based on Seattle. For all the character work, Weta worked closely with Framestore and the other VFX houses.


Battle scenes also starred in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, which seamlessly blended MPC and ILM’s CG work with practical effects. The film’s highlights include the massive digital armies created by MPC and their VFX supervisor Charley Henley using some 700 actors and stunt men, which were digitally multiplied in post (see Marc Loftus’ feature in the November/December issue).

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One also scored a VFX nomination, a first for the franchise, which was also nominated for Achievement in Sound. The seventh film in the series is stuffed full of spectacular VFX, and Oscar-winning writer/director/producer Chris McQuarrie and his team did a lot of previs and postvis. Some sequences, such as the car chase in Rome, only needed a minimum.

“We had to previs the Spanish Steps bit, owing to the hugely-complex problem of how to destroy the steps without ever physically touching them,” reports McQuarrie. By contrast, the train wreck was previsualized extensively, as the final result mixed a real train plunging off a VFX bridge with VFX simulating explosions. 

The motorcycle jump Tom Cruise makes off a mountain top was also one of the most difficult VFX sequences to create, as it involved the star riding a real motorcycle on a ramp before he paraglides off the mountain. 

“The nature of the camera move and the fact that the ramp had to be smooth, yet the terrain had to feel natural, made for an insane number of frame-by-frame complications — compounded by our insistence that no digital-doubling was permitted,” he explains. “Despite countless iterations, there were still a few frames that I was not satisfied with. Finally, [editor] Eddie Hamilton and I added a simulated a camera bobble, a barely perceptible 22-frame bump.” 

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One

VFX included countless graphics shots, all “precisely honed down to the millisecond, conveying non-stop story that has to be conveyed in shots often as short as 13 frames,” he notes. Ultimately the team created over 2,500 VFX shots, with ILM doing the bulk of the work. 

Other vendors included BlueBolt, Rodeo FX, Lola, SDFX, Yannix, BeloFX, Alchemy, One of Us, Cheap Shot, Atomic Arts, Untold Studios, Blind Ltd. and Territory. 

“We had a great deal of VFX work just removing camera rigs and safety gear, and the underwater submarine shots are entirely CGI,” he adds. “I drove the VFX people crazy, but their work speaks for itself.”

And the winner is…..stay tuned!