2021 Best Picture Contenders

The best line of the year:

"I didn't want my sailboat to be in the driveway when I died."
-- Nomadland

I love to go to the movies. I actually prefer to go the movies by myself. I sit where I want with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water and lose myself completely in the story. I tend to laugh out loud and cry at the silliest things. Alone, I don't have to worry about whether my companion is having any fun. If I love the movie, I can give into it completely. If I hate it, I can leave.

For obvious reasons, I did not get to any movies to speak of in 2020. But, for the past few years I have made a point of seeing all the nominated Best Picture movies before the Oscars. To my surprise, when the nominees were announced this year, I had only seen one. I had my work cut out for me.

For the first time ever, I streamed all the movies this year. It wasn't quite the same as sitting in a dark theater, but I was super comfy wrapped up in a quilt in slouchy clothes that just would not be acceptable out in the real world. And, popcorn at home can be just as good as movie popcorn.

So, I managed to keep my streak going. Here, in reverse order of how I enjoyed them, are the eight nominees for the 2021 Best Picture Oscar:

8. Mank (Netflix)

It makes me crazy that Citizen Kane is almost always proclaimed the greatest movie ever made. I have seen it several times on screens both large and small and I just do not understand. For me, the movie is bloated and more than a little self-reverential.

On the other hand, I love stories about old Hollywood. Especially stories about the studio system and the movers and shakers who made movies that we are still watching three quarters of a century later. So, I went into this movie looking forward to the story about a writer of one of those movies.

I thought several of the actors did an outstanding job. Amanda Seyfried ingested Marion Davies with so much intelligence and humor I had to re-think what I thought of both of them; Gary Oldman was superb. The story, however, and the way the movie is shot is not for the average film goer; it is made for people who spend their lives with movies or for people who agree that Citizen Kane is the best. I am neither.

I enjoyed it on a certain level, but it went on far too long and lost me in the morass of inside jokes and tongue in cheek references. Not a movie I will rush to watch again.

Not everyone agrees with me. CoramDeo included it as one of the best of 2020.

7. Minari (Amazon)

I went into this movie with a callous heart. I was sure I was about to see a movie I have seen many times before. Man buys farm; man and family endure racism and ignorant biases from the people around them; something happens that wins over the townspeople; farm is a great success and everyone lives happily ever after.

I could not have been more wrong. Both the people and the situations that we spend two hours with felt real, not melodramatic. I fell madly in love with this family, especially the matriarch who, as played by Yuh-Jung Youn, transforms what could have been a stereotype into a person that many of us will recognize. She turns the grandmother trope on its ear and has a ball doing it.

I found myself crying when something awful happens to the family, but as so often happens in life, the tragedy ended up being a blessing in disguise and the movie ends on a quiet but upbeat note. I recommend this one.

6. Judas and the Black Messiah (FandangoNow)

I wanted to love this movie. I didn't. I liked it, a lot. But, I didn't love it.

This movie is worth seeing for the story which made me seethe. I had a really hard time with the racism, especially when it occurred to me that this movie takes place within my lifetime. How any human being could treat another like that just boggles my mind.

The movie is also worth seeing for the acting. The two leads are magnificent and play against each other to perfection. What each did to an exceptional degree was show that these two men were human beings, neither completely a saint nor completely the devil. Why they are both only nominated for Best Supporting Actor rather flies in the face of logic.

So why didn't I love the movie? It needed a bit of editing. I thought several of the scenes ran on long after the point was made. Additionally, there was a fair bit of repetition that did not move the story ahead at all. You need to see this movie as it tells a story worth hearing. Just go into it with a degree of patience.

5. The Father (Amazon)

Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman give one of the performances of their career in this movie -- and that's saying something. Both manage to completely inhabit the characters they are playing while making them all too human and all too real.

Which is what makes this movie so hard to watch. I spent the entire film not sure exactly what was happening, where we were, who was who, and what was "true." Incredibly disorienting, it was also a powerful way to convey what Anthony, the lead character, is going through. It is impossible to look at what is happening from afar and so I found myself completely engrossed and siding with Anthony, even when he is behaving badly.

Because it is so disorienting and because we grow to care about these characters so much, it is also profoundly upsetting. There is no comic relief in the 96 minutes of this film; it is a relentless barrage of what old age and dementia look like both internally and externally.

This is a movie worth watching for the performances, but don't expect to emerge from the experience feeling anything but extremely sad.

4. Sound of Metal (Amazon)

This movie affected me much more than I thought it would going into it. We've all seen movies about people overcoming disabilities and I thought this was going to be just one more.

In some respects, it is. Ruben, played to perfection by Riz Ahmed, loses his hearing suddenly. We watch as he comes to terms with the changes in his life and we watch as he makes some very hard choices about what is going to happen next. While there are some stock moments, there are several scenes that are truly moving. Ruben finds he has a way with kids that culminates in a moment on a slide that brought tears to my eyes. The final scene quite took my breath away.

This movie is worth seeing just for the sound editing. Nicholas Becker is to be congratulated on how completely he was able to get us into Ruben's head and to hear (or not as the case may be) what he is hearing.

I recommend this movie. It made me appreciate what I have.

3. Nomadland (Hulu)

I was looking forward to seeing this film as I am a nomad at heart. The thought of owning a piece of property scares me beyond the telling of it. I need to be able to pack up and go at a moment's notice. I know that because I have done it.

The main character of this film, Fern, is also a nomad at heart. The one time she settled down, it was because she was in love with her husband and he loved the town where they lived. Interestingly, she describes the house they lived in as bearable because it looked over a huge swath of desert leading to the mountains.

Frances McDormand deserves every bit of praise she is getting. She is magical, playing against both seasoned actors and real life nomads with equal aplomb. I knew this woman right from the start and wanted to go on this journey with her. I am so glad I did.

This is not an easy movie to watch. It is at times heartbreakingly sad. Yet, it does not fall into any pat answers or artificial happy endings. Fern has opportunities to come off the road, yet chooses to stay on it for reasons that made sense to me. Her life may be more difficult than it needs to be, but it works for her. Highly recommended, with the caveat that you have a box of tissues close by.

2. Promising Young Woman (Amazon)

It's hard to pinpoint this movie. It is part revenge thriller/part romantic comedy. It is hilariously funny at times and tremendously sad at others. The main character is deeply flawed, even deeply disturbed on some levels. Yet, you find yourself rooting her on even though the sane part of your mind knows that what she is doing is crazy.

This movie is worth viewing simply for Carey Mulligan's performance. It is rare that I am in awe of an actor's portrayal of any character, but Mulligan manages to convey every emotion out there and do it sometimes turning on a dime. A true tour de force.

The fault with this movie occurred to me as I kept thinking about it the days after I had seen it. All of the men, literally all of them, are horrible human beings who treat women like sexual toys. While I have come across some men that fit that description in my life, many do not. There really are some good guys out there, but they are missing from this film.

Having said that, this movie is ripe for the #MeToo era in which we are living. I highly recommend it, but go into it expecting to be highly disturbed.

1. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)

To be fair, the other movies in this list did not have much of a chance when compared to this film. I love the law so much I went to law school just so I could learn all about it. If I had been an attorney, I would want to be William Kunstler (who was a professor for a year at the law school I attended).

But, more importantly, I believe that when it comes to writing for a screen (big or small) it is hard to beat Aaron Sorkin. His ability to write dialogue and characters one cares about is astonishing and I always watch his work with admiration. If I am being scrupulous, I am sure that Sorkin used transcripts and other primary source materials this time around, but there was still a lot of Sorkin in the script (including a joke I have now heard at least twice if not three times).

This is the one film I had seen before the nominees were announced. My family watched it over the holidays and enjoyed it, but I loved it even more when I watched it the second time for this article. The transitions during the opening montage, the small moments that each character gets, and the closing scene are all among the best I have watched in a long time. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. Victoria recently agreed with me.

CONCLUSION:

For a year in which access to filming, to studios, and to theaters was extremely curtailed, this group of Best Picture nominees is the strongest in years. Of the eight, I would watch seven again -- and probably will. What makes this year so exciting is how different each of the films is and how well acted each is.

At this point, I have no idea of which will win or even which should. Depending on the article I read and on which day of the week I read it, it could pretty much be any of them. I will be watching Sunday night to cheer on the winner.

ChrisB has spent way too much time in the past year staring at a small screen or a book.

6 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Chris, thanks so much for putting this together. I'm terrible with the Oscars, mostly because I don't watch the movies. This year, I'm proud to say that I saw one -- Nomadland, and I totally agree that it was terrific. I've often fantasized about taking off and living in a van. This movie pretty much convinced me that it wasn't something I could ever do. :)

ChrisB said...

Billie -- I completely understand, yet the movie made me kind of regret that I just recently renewed my lease for a year! :) #VanLife is something that appeals to the roamer in me more than I care to admit.

magritte said...

I saw only 3 films this year, and I think I'll agree with you on #1, as the most satisfying of the three. Maybe in a different frame of mind, I would have opted for the more ambitious "I'm Thinking of Ending Things", but my relationship with it was a distant one, intrigued by it as a puzzle, but not really moved. The only other film I saw, Antebellum, doesn't really rate consideration.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched far more film than TV. At times, I didn't even own a TV. But now things have totally reversed and there are far fewer movies that interest me and far more TV.

Victoria Grossack said...

Since I watched none of the other movies, I can't rank them. But "The Trial of the Chicago 7" was very, very good, and I am glad you agree with me.

TJ said...

Fantastic review Chris!

I usually see all the Oscar Best nominees as well, not this year though. The only film I have seen is 'Hank', and I am glad it was last on your list, because I didn't like it at all.

I loooove Citizen Kane though, but I see your point. It's not for everyone. I kind of think of it as a Hitchcock movie from the 40s or 50s. Hitchcock often concentrated on "painting" a picture, the look of each shot was important to him, the story was secondary. I think of CK that way.

CoramDeo said...

Hah! Funny you should mention it; Mank has only fallen in my estimation upon further reflection. Now, having seen a lot more from the year's films, it's dropped fully out of my top 20!

Great article, although I wasn't a big fan of Trial. It especially loses something when inevitably compared with Mangrove, the first of Steve McQueen's Small Axe films this year.