…And the nominees for the 2021 Best Picture Academy Award are…

I hope this past year is the last of its kind.

You don’t need me to provide you with another missive about how awful the year has been. We all know that already, no matter our circumstances or perspectives. But this here is my third annual rundown of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, and it was a lot less fun this year.

Having just typed that, I’m well aware of how trite that last sentence is. Don’t we, as a species, have much more dire concerns than eight movies vying for a trophy? Of course we do. However, in times like these, art, even cinematic art, is more vital than ever for lifting our spirits and sparking our imagination. (And yes, Bill Maher — even these eight movies.)

This is my first year where I failed to see any of the nominated films in the cinema. I hope it’s the last. I find it much easier to lose myself in the world of the movie when I’m seated in a darkened theatre. I will turn off my phone in a theatre, but not at home. I will wait until the end of the movie to use the cinema’s washroom, but at home I’ll use my toilet whenever I want. Pause is a function I’m free to abuse at home, but not at a theatre. I’m sure for all of these reasons more and more viewers are growing accustomed to home viewing, but I find these all to be distractions limiting my investment in the experience.

So, each of the following eight movies have managed a great feat. In an unfortunately unique year, these movies have managed to grab the attention, heartstrings and minds of enough industry heavyweights to earn their spot in the foremost film competition. In a year where most of the world’s film festivals went virtual and digital, voters did the work and sought out some truly impressive offerings, and if these movies hadn’t been nominated, it’s likely that a lot of us, including me, wouldn’t have seen these at all. That’s why the annual Oscar race is such a pleasurable time for me, and why I hope the 2022 Oscar race sees the doors of my local cinema open.

Let’s start with my least favourite of this year’s Best Picture nominees.

8. Mank

David Fincher is a highly accomplished and talented filmmaker that everyone likes more than I do. His films are usually very suspenseful and tense, but I usually find myself worn out and waiting for the ending with about a quarter of the run time left. That’s my attitude with even the most acclaimed of his movies like Fight Club and Se7en. Mank, a film depicting screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s process of penning Citizen Kane, marks Fincher’s third Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is a bad movie, I’m a little puzzled as to how movie managed to fit into the race.

Mank’s screenplay is credited to Jack Fincher, David’s father. Jack passed away in 2003, and the Internet Movie Database lists Mank as his only credit. On that site someone named Anonymous posted a mini-bio for him. He grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, enlisted in the air force in 1950, and had numerous articles published in periodicals like Readers Digest and Saturday Review. Under “Trivia,” it’s revealed that the elder Fincher wrote a screenplay about Howard Hughes, but Martin Scorsese went with John Logan’s script instead for what eventually became The Aviator. Given the subjects about whom Jack wrote, it’s clear he had a fascination with the Golden Age of Hollywood, however – and I type this with all due respect for the deceased – it seemed like he still had more to learn about the craft of screenwriting.

Mank is overloaded with scenes where characters talk about what is happening. Rarely do we witness the scenes those characters discuss. There are party scenes where the dozens of people assembled stand silently so they can hear the movie’s central characters pontificate in the way the screenplay demands. (I doubt that’s how parties happened in the 30s and 40s.) Mank is also about a subject matter that I think has limited appeal, doing not much more than raising the question over the inspiration and authorship of Orson Welles’ 1941 magnum opus Citizen Kane. While I, along with many other movie-goers, love Kane, I can’t imagine someone who doesn’t know about it or shares my reverence of it would get much out of Mank. Shouldn’t awards go to pieces of art that stand solidly on their own rather than depending on the audience’s prior knowledge work from 80 years prior?

I’m confident in assuming that David Fincher made Mank out of an act of love for his departed father, and that he didn’t dare overhaul the elder Fincher’s screenplay too much. David loaded the movie with tons of visual flair, filming it in black and white and with splashy sets and wardrobe. Gary Oldman, who has a Best Actor nomination for playing Mankiewicz, has been one of the planet’s foremost actors for decades now, and this performance only serves to reinforce that fact. In my view, Mank is an impressive production, but as a piece of cinematic art it left me wanting.

7. The Trial of the Chicago 7

There aren’t many screenwriters I respect more than Aaron Sorkin. It seems like he can make the most mundane subjects, such as sports analytics in Moneyball and website creation in The Social Network, fascinating. His characters tend to speak in a patter that is endlessly entertaining, and he always writes to the peak of his intelligence. He already has a screenwriting Oscar for The Social Network, along with a slew of Emmys for The West Wing. It’s no wonder that his screenplays have attracted such visionary directors as Bennett Miller, David Fincher and Rob Reiner.

Four years ago, Aaron Sorkin decided to take one of his screenplays, Molly’s Game, and direct the thing himself. I can’t comment on the quality of job he did because I never saw Molly’s Game, but the experience couldn’t have been too horrific because he decided to take a second crack at directing his own script, this time with The Trial of the Chicago 7. The story of young activists on trial for inciting the riot at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968, the film seems to have been way too perfectly scheduled for awards discussion, especially after the violent insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6 of this year.

Surprising then that this project was begun way back in 2006 when none other than Steven Spielberg first approached Sorkin about writing a screenplay about this historic event. Various work conflicts and a writers’ strike delayed progress, along with the overdose deaths of both Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom were attached to the project.

I can see why Spielberg thought Sorkin was ideal for The Trial of the Chicago 7. Having previously created sizzling courtroom drama in his script for A Few Good Men, Sorkin seems perfectly suited to usher this sprawling tale to the screen, and sure enough, he has given his star-studded cast, including Sacha Baron-Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance some delicious lines into which to sink their teeth.

Still, I can’t help but wish someone like Spielberg, Bennett Miller or Rob Reiner was sitting in the director’s chair. Let me explain….

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a fine film. It tells a true story in a compelling fashion and there isn’t a dud amongst the cast. However, I think a second set of eyes would have helped to unify this project in a way that it doesn’t currently feel. There are no less than eight defendants in this court case, and they all have their own unique story and their own reason for being here. One of them, Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is the co-founder of the Black Panthers and is shown as having absolutely nothing to do with the riot at the convention. Some of the movie’s most powerful moments involve the uniquely cruel and dehumanizing treatment of Seale as ordered by Justice Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella. Unfortunately, Seale’s story ends up feeling like a subplot, because Sorkin concentrates more of his attention on who did what at the riot.

Of the remaining defendants I found the conflict between Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman the most interesting. Hayden is the most outwardly respectable, and Abbie is the most outrageous and charismatic. They inevitably clash over their philosophies and strategies.

Apart from the fragmented nature of this movie, my other problem is the depiction of Justice Hoffman. History has not been kind to this man. A real-life survey of Chicago lawyers showed that 78% had an unfavourable opinion of him, and the appeals court for the particular trial from this movie ruled that he exhibited a “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude towards the defence.” Still, Justice Hoffman was a real human being, but he’s not given the various shadings of a real human being under Sorkin’s pen. Instead, he comes off as cartoonishly evil, making use of every opportunity to make the lives of the eight defendants as miserable as possible. That depiction erodes my trust in the movie, because real life is never that black and white. If Justice Hoffman’s character had been given more nuance, that would have helped me better trust this movie’s storytelling.

I wouldn’t rank The Trial of the Chicago 7 amongst my favourite of Sorkin’s work, but there are moments in this film that shine brightly. If you have a Netflix account you have no excuse for missing this.

6. Sound of Metal

Of all of the Best Picture nominees, I think Sound of Metal has the most indie feel. I’m pleasantly surprised to see this film in the race. Oscar movies don’t usually open in a liquor-stained rock club in the midst of a heavy metal concert set, but here we are.

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a drummer in an up-and-coming metal duo. The other half is vocalist Lou, played by Olivia Cooke, and the two are also in a committed relationship. They share an RV which they drive from gig to gig across the United States. When Ruben suffers a massive hearing loss, he at first tries to hide it from Lou. He finds a doctor who tells him he could surgically install some implants that would simulate hearing, but they aren’t covered by insurance and would cost between $40,000 and $80,000. Ruben tries to carry on without the implants, but storms out in the middle of a concert when he fails to hear a single note. Lou helps Ruben find help in the form of a Vietnam War veteran named Joe (played by Paul Raci) who oversees a supportive community of deaf people. Joe’s mission is for Ruben to learn to accept his deafness, and to stop seeing it as something to fix.

Sound of Metal’s audio team is nominated in the Sound category, and I’m routing for them to win over Greyhound, Soul, Mank and News of the World. Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michellee Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés and Phillip Bladh plunge us into Ruben’s headspace, muffling the audio so it’s often maddeningly impossible for us to decipher what the characters he encounters are saying. As the film carries on, it’s clear that this audio team are increasingly put through its paces, and they meet every challenge.

Ahmed earned a Best Actor nomination for Sound of Metal, and there’s no doubt he puts forth a great performance. You feel the frustration of this rocker who is used to living by his own code, but now has to acclimatize to this institutional setting so he can learn a new way of living. I just think the film has an unnatural jump when Ruben suddenly shows a sense of comfort and happiness in the community. It’s as though some footage is missing.

Director and co-writer Darius Marder has crafted a powerful film about our ability to adapt and the importance of finding and accepting peace and stillness. This seemingly rough and gritty movie is not what you normally expect when you think of the Oscars, but I’m glad the Academy found it within themselves to give Sound of Metal some worthy attention.

5. The Father

I’m a big fan of Sir Anthony Hopkins. I have been ever since seeing The Silence of the Lambs 30 years ago. He’s been receiving rave reviews for his performance in French filmmaker Florian Zeller’s The Father even before it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall. Given that his co-star is Olivia Colman who took home the Best Actress statuette two years ago for The Favourite, I was gung-ho to see The Father as soon as it became available. The day TIFF had it available for digital viewing on their website, I plunked down the money and settled in.

It wasn’t what I expected – in a good way. From interviews I had heard with Hopkins, I knew that the film was going to involve his character experiencing dementia. However, I didn’t expect all the tricks Zeller had hiding up his sleeve. Yes, Colman’s character Anne is struggling to take care of her father, played by Hopkins, as his dementia deepens, but – like the audio team did on Sound of Metal – Zeller has numerous methods to put you in the titular character’s position. Just as you think you’re comfortable, there’s a sudden casting change but the characters deny anything of the sort. A scene will loop in on itself, playing over and over. A painting won’t be on the wall where it once was. It can be very confusing, but clearly that’s the point.

Hopkins is all at once incredibly charming and intensely vulnerable. He is able to convey so much with the smallest touch of his wrist. There’s a reason why Zeller waited more than a year for Hopkins to read Christopher Hampton’s English screen adaptation of his stageplay and accept the role before even considering anyone else for the part.

As the film unravels, clues begin to appear as to why the relationship between Anne and her father is as strained as it is. Did she move to Paris? Didn’t she say she changed her mind about that? Didn’t she start cooking a chicken? Whose flat is this? Where is Anne’s sister? As these questions find answers, we begin to see what event could have triggered the descent of the father’s mind.

This puzzle of a film is highly engrossing. Hopkins, Colman, along with Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss and Olivia Williams make for a tight and unbeatable cast. The Father serves as a reminder of how important empathy is when dealing with victims of dementia.

4. Minari

My father emigrated from Greece in 1956, so immigrant stories are close to my heart. Minari is a great one, showing a family trying to lay down solid roots in their new home. If that makes it sound like Little House on the Prairie, abandon your preconceptions. Minari pulls no punches in showing how the struggles of the immigration journey place enormous strain on not only a family, but the marriage at the centre of it.

Jacob Yi, played by Steven Yeun, is a dreamer. He is certain that other Korean immigrants in America will buy the vegetables needed to make their favourite meals from their homeland if he grows them. So he buys 50 acres in rural Arkansas and sets up himself, his wife Monica (Yeri Han), and their two children inside a trailer on the lot. Monica finds her faith in her husband eroding from the very start. To appease his wife, Jacob agrees to have her mother move in with them.

Monica’s mother, Soonja, immediately turns the house upside down upon arrival. In an Oscar-nominated performance by Yuh-Jung Youn, Soonja is loud and disruptive, but also incredibly loving towards the two children. The youngest child, David, has always been discouraged to exert himself physically by Jacob and Monica due to his weak heart, but the rebellious Soonja soon has him testing the boundaries of his parents’ rules. As the plants start to grow, and as it looks like Jacob’s gamble is going to all be with it, the family’s well more than literally runs dry.

The film is named after an herb that is common throughout southern Asia. In a key scene, Soonja gets David to join her in planting minari scenes by the creek. According to her, “Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be put in medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!” The titular herb is a clear reference to the resilience each member of the family is going to need to survive the struggles brought upon them by their new life in Arkansas.

Minari may be a story of Korean immigrants, but no matter where we or our parents came from, we all have families. We all have struggles. Minari is a story for the ages, and in a very trying period in history, it’s the type of film our hearts need.

3. Nomadland

It could be argued that this movie has an even grittier and truly indie feel than Sound of Metal, but Nomadland possesses a unique sense of freedom in which it revels, and that gives its own strange beauty.

Two-time Best Actress winner Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who has moved out of the house she shared with her deceased husband after their hometown of Empire, Nevada has been destroyed by the collapse of its sheet rock industry. She sets up a stove and a bed in her van and finds a series of seasonal jobs in various parts of the country along with a tribe of other nomadic people who enjoy living untethered to a single place.

Of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture this year, Nomadland is the one least-dependent upon plot. If it wasn’t for the presence of big-name actors like McDormand and David Strathairn, it’s possible that many viewers would mistake Nomadland for a documentary. In truth, many of the other people in the movie aren’t actors, but rather actual nomadic people. A lot of them had no idea that McDormand was an actress, as she actually performed a lot of seasonal work shown in the movie, like harvesting beets and packaging Amazon orders.

One of the undercurrents pulling the movie forward is the attraction and closeness developing between Fern and Strathairn’s character. The two are so free, so their relationship seems ideal. He’ll mention to her that he’s thinking of heading to a particular place next, and he knows he can get her work their too, so she agrees to join him. However, members of his estranged family come out of the woodwork, luring him toward a more rooted existence. Is Fern tempted towards those same roots?

This year’s crop of Best Picture nominees has been criticized by mouthpieces like Bill Maher as being needlessly depressing, Nomadland chief among them. I honestly don’t know how someone can watch this movie and not share in Fern’s euphoria as she runs along a cliffside, or floats in a grotto. Nomadland is a celebration of living un-moored and truly connecting with the land on which we live. Director Chloé Zhao has given us a very special opportunity to experience a unique way of living. She isn’t judging it as wrong, shameful or pitiful, but shining a light on it and its glories.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah

One of the great things about the Academy Awards this year is how fresh the filmmaking talent is. Sound of Metal is Darius Marder’s first non-documentary feature. Nomadland is only Chloé Zhao’s third movie. Judas and the Black Messiah is only director and co-writer Shaka King’s second feature, but it’s crafted with such confidence and vitality, you’d think it came from a seasoned master.

Set in almost the exact same time period and setting as The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of the murder of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Like Aaron Sorkin’s movie, the murders of black people like George Floyd, Jacob Blake and Daunte Wright at the hands of police have given Judas and the Black Messiah an urgency which director and co-writer Shaka King couldn’t have possibly expected.

Daniel Kaluuya is a force of nature as Hampton. If you’ve only seen Kaluuya in Get Out and Black Panther, you are not properly prepared for the enormous amount of charisma and authority he exudes. However, the main character of Judas and the Black Messiah is William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. It’s not as flashy a part as Hampton, because O’Neal is a more covert character, moving around behind the scenes. He is self-serving, mainly motivated by material desires, something the F.B.I. realizes they can manipulate in their favour by making O’Neal their man inside the Black Panthers. O’Neal performs increasingly treacherous acts against Hampton at the F.B.I.’s request, until they make their final ultimate demand. That’s when the title’s biblical allusion becomes explicit.

King has assembled a hauntingly intense movie. The included clips from an interview with the real William O’Neal are particularly disturbing. The entirety of the story told in Judas and the Black Messiah was new to me, and I think it’s so vital that filmmakers like King keep making movies like this to make sure their culture’s history doesn’t get forgotten. Movies like this show that today’s atrocities are nothing new, and that the world has chosen to turn a blind eye for way too long.

And Dimetre would give the Oscar to… Promising Young Woman

The fresh voices from which this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees are truly remarkable. My favourite of this year’s movies is the very first feature from writer/director Emerald Fennell. Shockingly, Fennell was able to helm Promising Young Woman while pregnant, giving birth only three weeks after production wrapped. The vitality contained within her first feature demands that Fennell remain a filmmaker to watch.

The movie is the story of Cassie, played ferociously by Carey Mulligan. Cassie was one of the top students in her medical school, despite her hard partying and promiscuity. Much to the puzzlement of her classmates, Cassie suddenly dropped out following the rape and murder of her best friend. Now, Cassie leads a low-key existence, still living with her parents while working at a trendy coffee shop. Her raison d’etre comes on the weekends, when she dresses to the nines and heads out to a random nightclub where she pretends to be punch-drunk. Invariably a man will approach her and, despite her outward condition, take her back to his place. Then he’ll start to remove her clothing and get ready to violate her, but that’s when she’ll reveal she’s sobre and humiliate the man, making them face their true disgusting nature.

It’s a truly shocking premise for a film, led by an undeniably powerful protagonist. Her methods are without a doubt questionable, but that’s understandable because they’re fueled by anger. She is exacting vengeance on behalf of her deceased friend, and holds no regard for her own well-being. Cassie is a movement of one.

I feel that the best movies have a strong and unique point of view, and out of all eight of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Promising Young Woman has the clearest. Cassie is unwavering and merciless in her quest. Even when it looks as though she might let up on her mission, it doesn’t take much to snap her back to action. Fennell is not trying to make us want Cassie as our friend; she is trying to get us to figure out why we’re willing to accept more injustice than her. It’s a very provocative thought.

At the very least I feel Mulligan has to get this year’s Best Actress trophy. I had no idea she was capable of such a performance. In the months that have passed since I watched Promising Young Woman, I haven’t forgotten any part of it. It has stayed with me in a way that my favourite movies do. In the way that the best art does, it has something very vital to say for the times in which we live, and that’s why, in a field of movies loaded with such exciting new voices, I feel like Promising Young Woman deserves the big prize.