We’re almost out of the woods – at least as far as the seemingly unending 2021 awards season is concerned. As for the rest of everything that’s been thrown out of whack because of our global pandemic, who knows? There are reasons to be optimistic in that regard, and others to be more skeptical. Some may say that any breath given to this year’s Oscar race is wasted when there’s far more pressing matters at hand.
However, making space for something trivial – and calling it so is something I’ve bristled at in the past for economic and social reasons – is the kind of soothing balm of distraction needed by those of us who typically invest even a modicum of energy into the great Hollywood dog-and-pony show. As is usually the case, this 2021 season has provided a lens through which we can view some of our other concerns, some social and some industrial. The Dream Factory was already in great flux before the pandemic shut down movie theaters (and even shuttered some permanently), forcing viewers to their television sets or computers to catch the latest “big screen” films. They were already doing so in increasing numbers, so for distributors, their games turned into release date Frogger, ever-moving revenue targets, and/or online streaming-platform wars.
For the most part, the major studios withheld their major theatrical players, with exceptions like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney/Pixar’s Soul launching in various ways in 2020. What eventually trickled out from this sieve was a relatively robust slate of small- to- mid-size productions – exactly the kind of films we critics have feared were being held back from the bandwidth taken up by billion-dollar franchise films. As far as awards contention, surely the two aforementioned once-potential tentpoles would show up in the Best Picture final cut. How else would Hollywood celebrate what they’re currently best at?
That didn’t pan out like those two major studios had likely expected. The releases of 2020 – and some from this year due to the extended window of eligibility that’s prolonged the ceremony until this weekend – resulted in the most welcomely wild set of Oscar nominations in recent history in both content and makeup. Within the Best Picture lineup lies two films directed by women: Nomadland and Promising Young Woman. Three films by non-white directors are also present: Nomadland, Minari, and Judas and the Black Messiah. However, even with a lack of critical support, more traditional (read: White cishet male) Oscar bait still showed up, with Netflix productions Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 pushing out what were once sure-bets for nominations like One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Da Five Bloods. The more adventurous indie fare of The Father and Sound of Metal may round out the group, but their inclusion over the more widely recognizable Black-directed trio of runner-ups continues to beg the question of just exactly who is doing the gatekeeping and why.
Those questions will continue to prevail and need much more space, time, and nuance for answers. What I can provide here is the inarguably and absolutely correct rank of the 2021 Best Picture Oscar slate. There’s nary a big stinker in the bunch, with the overall quality of the lineup batting just above-average resulting from a couple of misses with questionable choices at the bottom to some truly solid work from up-and-coming filmmakers at the top.
8. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin taking a swing at writing and directing the saga of the riot-incitement trial of the Chicago Seven likely always meant that it would be a liberal-baiting grandstand of a film. What’s curious about the resulting big-budget period piece is just how far Sorkin twists the words and actions of great activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and Abbie Hoffman in an attempt to draw parallels to centrist contemporary politics. At one point, Sacha Baron Cohen, in an utterly miscalculated serio-comic performance as Hoffman, is forced to turn the incendiary progressive political powderkeg into a deep-down-we’re-all-the-same bleeding heart. This well-oiled machine provides a smooth ride, but that’s exactly why it fails – especially in comparison to the enthrallingly bumpy roller coaster of the similarly themed Mangrove from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology.
Cribbing the “kill list” structure of revenge films past and more than a few stylistic notes of hyper-cool modern auteurs like Nicholas Winding Refn, Emerald Fennell teases a complex update of the well-trod rape-retribution narrative in her debut feature. In its final noxious moments, the director unwittingly reveals that star Carey Mulligan, who physicalizes Cassandra’s queasy quest as a mix of righteous and wrong-headed, is the one responsible for adding complexity to what ends up being a two-hour pop shock-and-awe campaign.
Chloé Zhao’s lauded previous film, The Rider, was mostly successful in balancing a garish reality within an occasionally overly prettified aesthetic drained of meaning. With her latest docu-drama, Zhao goes full Instagram story travelogue with Frances McDormand acting as tour guide. That’s not to discredit her character’s journey across the United States in her RV home as credibly performed with nuanced heartache and determination. However, the great actor’s presence grinds away at what was most interesting about the director’s previous outing and this one: the gentle and insightful observation of non-professional actors portraying versions of themselves within their rarely visited cultures.
Mank, in which the meticulous David Fincher finally perfects himself into a corner, is overflowing with curious choices. Why doesn’t the widescreen film adopt the square aspect ratio of Citizen Kane, the making of which is the subject here, when it painstakingly mimics all the visual splendor of the Greatest Film Ever Made elsewhere? Does Fincher and crew really think 1940s films sound like they were heard through tin-can telephones? What exactly is the filmmaker attempting to say about his Hollywood political parable’s parallels to today? Aside from trying to understand his metaphorical and literal daddies (the latter of which, Jack Fincher, is given posthumus screenplay credit), what’s the point? To misquote the film, you cannot understand a man's confused but fascinating thought process in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.
4. The Father
“The Queen,” the best episode of Hulu’s Stephen King muliti-verse series Castle Rock, is centered on the experience of Ruth (Sissy Spacek), a woman increasingly losing her grip on reality from the effects of Alzheimer’s. Horror hallmarks explicate a true-to-life horror: she slips in and out of disorientingly juxtaposed memories made even more slippery by dizzying camerawork and set design. Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play about a dementia-afflicted man (actor Anthony Hopkins really showing up here) uses similar sympathetic means, but the Sony Pictures Classics awards-bait sheen, coupled with its Memento-like puzzle-box gameplay, presents a roadblock to the viewer in fully walking in the character’s shoes.
3. Judas and the Black Messiah
It was a keen move for Shaka King to adopt crime-genre conventions to shape the story of the Black Panther Party’s infiltration by FBI informant Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, going even deeper into fidgety paranoia mode than in Sorry to Bother You ). The typical structural conceits are expertly deployed in a process of historical edification, even if it seems that doing so – in a Warner Bros. Hollywood production, no less – is at odds with the Panthers' revolutionary ideology. Sometimes the mode leaves Daniel Kaluuya to do some heavy lifting to make party leader and figurehead Fred Hampton into a human being, but the actor is more than capable of meeting that challenge.
2. Sound of Metal
The two best 2021 Best Picture nominees prove that the Academy is still capable of recognizing the smaller, independently produced work that, at least during the ’90s and ’00s, were once their bread and butter. Sound of Metal may be about the male half (the Internet’s boyfriend, Riz Ahmed, revealing another new card from his stacked deck) of a heavy-metal duo losing his hearing, but any promise of brash demonstration in its title or plot description quickly disappears. Instead, what’s there is an honestly told portrait – its chosen medium’s visual and aural possibilities used delicately and modestly – of a person who faces tough decisions and their inevitably tough consequences.
The most gentle Best Picture nominee in recent memory, Minari nevertheless contains raging currents under its calm surface. Writer and director Isaac Chung may take some easy shortcuts in dramatizing his own experiences as a Korean-American child, but truths are palpably identifiable in each member of his immigrant family’s acclimation into life in 1980s Arkansas. As a unit, they’re headstrong and persistent in the face of boot-strappin’ myths, even as their relationship to them and each other begins to mutate for better and worse. Minari may just walk away with one award: a deserved Best Supporting Actress trophy for Yuh-Jung Youn as the ingratiating wiseacre matriarch of the crew. Gold-plated credit is also due to nominee Steven Yeung and also-ran Han Ye-Ri, playing the parents of the smaller Yi family members, who sympathetically actualize their director’s memories of the devastating realities of the Great American Promise.
The 2021 Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, April 25, at 7 p.m. CST on ABC.