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Niko Tavernise

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Why West Side Story deserves to win Best Picture

Movies can make the old feel incredibly new

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.


West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg


A new adaptation of the classic stage musical by the storied team of Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story subtly updates the story from the Academy Award-winning 1961 adaptation starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. The 1950s take on Romeo and Juliet chronicles a forbidden whirlwind romance between Tony and Maria, two teenagers with strong ties to rival gangs: the white Jets, and the Puerto Rican Sharks. As word of their attraction gets out, they become the nexus of a gang war over a Manhattan neighborhood’s changing demographics, as the Sharks and Jets face off over who owns their neighborhood — and by proxy, the right to the American Dream.


The 1961 film is one of the most lauded cinematic musicals ever made, nominated for 11 Academy Awards and winning 10 — with one of those Oscars going to Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno for her performance as Anita. Remaking that classic is a gutsy move, but the filmmakers responsible — director Steven Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński — also happen to be some of the most lauded in their respective fields, and they’re swinging for the fences on this one.


There’s no shortage of reasons. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at, staged and shot with such dazzling skill that even those who know the play by heart will likely feel like they’re experiencing something new. Rachel Zegler’s debut performance as lead Maria Vazquez is one of the best talent discoveries in a long time, and Ariana DeBose’s turn as Anita lives up to Moreno’s legendary performance and then some. And the elegant new additions to the script subtly nudge the story in ways that remind us that in spite of this story’s age, it still matters, as long as there’s truth there.


The film shares the same fundamental misstep as the original work and its subsequent film: It’s a story about Puerto Ricans told by a bunch of white guys. That said, the filmmakers made a concerted effort to cast from the Latinx community, and they feature a lot of untranslated Spanish in the dialogue, working to make the film’s Puerto Rican community feel more real and not just like ethnic set dressing. The film also suffers from its second lead, Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony, on two fronts: First, the real-world allegations of sexual assault levied against him last summer, and also that his performance falls flat in comparison to his co-stars, making Tony a charisma vacuum in a film otherwise filled with energy. Both are unfortunate millstones wrapped around a stellar film, further complicating a work that is, in itself, a complicated portrait of a community.


The Jets walk down the streets in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story Photo: 20th Century Studios

There are so many standout sequences, it’s hard to pick one, but West Side Story’s best achievement might be “Cool” — one of the worst numbers from the original — reworked into a struggle between Riff (Mike Faist) and Tony over a handgun, and the future of the Jets.


West Side Story is available to stream on Disney Plus beginning March 2. For the other nominees, check out our streaming guide to every 2022 Oscar nominee.

The rest of the series:

Why Don’t Look Up deserves to win Best Picture
Why The Power of the Dog deserves to win Best Picture
Why Belfast deserves to win Best Picture
Why Nightmare Alley deserves to win Best Picture
Why King Richard deserves to win Best Picture
Why Dune deserves to win Best Picture
Why Licorice Pizza deserves to win Best Picture
Why CODA deserves to win Best Picture
Why Drive My Car deserves to win Best Picture


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