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Sifting through clues and contenders in this year’s Oscar best picture race

Gabriel LaBelle examines a film strip under a magnifying glass in a scene from "The Fabelmans."
Gabriel LaBelle in Steven Spielberg’s memory movie “The Fabelmans.”
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / Universal Pictures)

What do you do with a movie that begins with an elephant losing control of its bowels, torrentially defecating right into the camera lens, and then heads straight to a party where we’re immediately greeted with an extended shot of a woman urinating on a reveler?

And that’s just the first five minutes of “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s unconvincing, unhinged three-hour-plus spectacle centered on Hollywood depravity and debauchery and, OK, sure, the transition from silent movies to sound. Think “Singin’ in the Rain” but with piles of cocaine. “Make ‘em Laugh”? Forget it. Chazelle wants to beat you into submission. And the more he ramps up the movie’s energy, the more miserable you become watching it. Anarchic excess is just not this guy’s strong suit.

All the indulgence and disappointment of “Babylon” raises the question: What the hell happened to movies this fall? When the weather turns brisk in L.A. (under 80 degrees) and the leaves change color (brown to a dustier shade of brown), we know it’s the beginning of pumpkin spice latte season and Santa Ana winds blowing through the canyons and also ... the annual influx of movies for grown-ups.

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This year’s Venice International Film Festival premieres offered a sign however that this was not going to be a season to remember. Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” was a Marilyn Monroe biopic that hated Marilyn Monroe. Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” was an arch adaptation of Don DeLillo’s death-obsessed satire. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” was as indulgent as its title and, at nearly three hours in running time, nearly as unbearable.

“The fear and insecurity were in my favor,” Ana de Armas says of playing Marilyn Monroe. That, coupled with the sheer exhaustion of filming, helped the actor get inside the icon’s head.

Iñárritu, to his credit, has since shaved about 20 minutes from “Bardo,” much to the film’s improvement, I’m told. (I’ll give it another look soon.) It’s too late, though, for David O. Russell (“Amsterdam”) or Sam Mendes (next month’s “Empire of Light”) to offer such a tacit admission of miscalculation and reboot their movies. And while every one of these films offers glimpses of ambition and talent, it goes without saying that none of them should be part of this year’s best picture Oscar field.

The failure of these six movies offers film academy voters the opportunity to look beyond the usual vein of prestige-laden prospects and reward superbly crafted genre films, terrific movies from around the globe and, yes, maybe “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the last contender still to be seen, leaving us to say a silent prayer that James Cameron doesn’t miss in the manner of his predecessors.

Here’s a snapshot of the best picture race as we head into the holidays.

THE FRONT-RUNNER

“The Fabelmans”: Steven Spielberg’s not-so-loosely autobiographical story about how he came to love and make movies and used art to weather the tensions fracturing his family took the audience prize at Toronto Film Festival and won ovations at its AFI Fest and academy screenings. In a season of love letters to cinema, it’s really the only mash note of the bunch that we need.

THE CHALLENGERS

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”: Marital comedy, martial arts extravaganza, wildly inventive broadside against nihilism, this multiverse masterpiece has won plenty of hardcore devotees since its spring premiere. Its detractors mostly belong to the old-man-yelling-at-cloud club, and they will only make its fans that much more obsessed with spreading the word and making sure voters don’t follow the bagel into oblivion.

“The Banshees of Inisherin”: Martin McDonagh’s dark fable about a friendship broken has, with “Tár,” emerged as the indie drama that voters are watching. Brutal, bloody and darkly funny, “Banshees” builds to a conclusion that breaks its audience and lingers.

“Top Gun: Maverick”: How about opening the Oscars this year with an interpretive dance number featuring shirtless volleyball players? You want ratings, right?

THE CRITICS’ FAVORITES

“Tár”: An exquisite puzzle, a dazzling provocation, a movie that leaves you with more questions than answers. Not everyone’s onboard, but nearly everyone’s seen it, if just to see what all the fuss is about.

“Women Talking”: At Telluride, I fell for this film’s thoughtful, moving examination of faith and forgiveness, of women coming to terms with trauma and debating how to move past it — if that’s even possible. Again, another movie that challenges rather than comforts and is better for it.

CRITICS’ FAVORITES THAT NEED EVEN MORE OF A BOOST, a.k.a. THE ‘DRIVE MY CAR’ DIVISION

“Aftersun”: Charlotte Wells’ tender, melancholic movie about the bond between a young father and his preteen daughter contains a final image so perfect and so devastating that it will haunt you for days. I can see this winning best picture from either the Los Angeles or New York film critics groups.

“Decision to Leave”: Park Chan-wook’s sophisticated story of obsession has all the dazzling style you’d expect from this master, as well as a slippery mystery that will keep you guessing to the end. (And maybe afterward.)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”: It’s time for an animated film to crack the field again, and Del Toro’s dark take on this classic merits a mention.

“RRR”: India may not have submitted S.S. Rajamouli’s electrifying romp for the Oscars, but that hasn’t derailed the dream that this glorious movie might still make a showing. Slotting in its showstopper song “Naatu Naatu” during the ceremony would levitate the auditorium — and boost interest in the Oscars overseas.

POPULAR MOVIES THAT COULD HAVE VOTERS THINKING: ‘SURE, WHY NOT?’

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”: We should be so lucky if Daniel Craig stars in as many “Knives Out” movies as he did Bond films.

“Elvis”: A well’a bless my soul.

“The Woman King”: Masterfully crafted by Gina Prince-Bythewood and led by Viola Davis, this majestic drama blended spectacle with social conscience to thrilling effect.

GOOD MOVIES THAT MIGHT RESONATE

“Living”: If you’re going to remake “Ikiru,” it helps to have Bill Nighy as your lead.

“She Said”: This tense journalism procedural lays out the New York Times’ investigation into producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses in an effective, straightforward fashion, aided by empathetic work from leads Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan.

“Thirteen Lives”: Ron Howard’s crackerjack cave rescue drama has been chugging along since its unceremonious, late-summer release. A few voters I’ve spoken with call it their favorite film of the year.

“Till”: Danielle Deadwyler will be nominated for her moving lead turn as Emmett Till’s crusading mom and could possibly carry the movie along with her.

“The Whale”: Brendan Fraser will be nominated for his moving lead turn as a morbidly obese teacher trying to make amends with his daughter and could possibly carry the movie along with him.

THE SEQUEL THAT TRIED ITS BEST

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”: “Black Panther” is the only Marvel movie to earn a best picture nod — deservedly so. Its sequel is capable enough but also overstuffed and burdened by what feels like IP-driven needs. Box office notwithstanding, Marvel fatigue is real, and this movie faces an uphill climb to a nomination.

THE MOVIE THAT COULD TRANSCEND ‘THE SLAP’?

“Emancipation”: Director Antoine Fuqua believes that “400 years of slavery is bigger than one moment,” referring to “Emancipation” star Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars earlier this year. It’s a good line, even if it is a little optimistic about Hollywood’s willingness to forgive and forget and not carry a grievance to the grave.


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