I didn’t make as much of an effort to prepare for the Academy Awards this year, because… pandemic. I’ve had less energy to engage in projects that take a lot of time and concentration, and I’ve been reluctant to shell out $20 to digitally “rent” some of the nominated films. However, I did manage to see six out of eight of the best picture nominees as well as a smattering of the rest. Below are some of my thoughts.
Short version: it was a great year for Oscar noms. I liked all of the best picture nominees that I have seen (no duds like last year), and some were really great. It’s a shame One Night in Miami… wasn’t recognized more, though.
The two best picture nominees I didn’t see were Promising Young Woman and The Father. In the case of Promising Young Woman, it was because I encountered some spoilers early on that made me recoil in distaste, and nothing has emerged since then to convince me to give it a try. The Father is one of the films that is only available in theaters or for $20 online, and I just don’t feel like paying to watch a depressing movie about an old man with dementia right now. Maybe someday.
Mank – Citizen Kane is one of my favorites, so I was intrigued by the concept of this “movie about movies”, especially when I heard that Fincher had filmed it in black & white in an homage to the original. The result is quite impressive in a technical sense, but I found it lacking in emotional heft. The acting is great, and the politics of the day get some welcome screen time (the underhanded techniques used to prevent a socialist candidate from winning an election will resonate with fans of Bernie Sanders today), but at the end I felt it didn’t quite add up as I had hoped it would. 3 out of 5.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – This film about the famous trial of political protesters in 1969-70 again has good acting, but the narrative is a bit muddled. The events of the riot are kept in reserve until they come up in the trial, and there is no clear explanation of how the seven are reduced to five by the end. Regardless, it opens a fascinating portal into a period of American history that was extremely tumultuous and makes me want to learn more about all the main characters, which is an achievement. 3 out of 5.
Judas and the Black Messiah – One of the fascinating characters who makes an appearance in Chicago 7 is Fred Hampton, the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969. Partway through that trial, he was shot and killed by police in a nighttime raid, and this movie depicts the lead-up to that event, focusing on Bill O’Neal, an FBI informant who had infiltrated the chapter. The story is absolutely gripping, presenting a welcome corrective to the propaganda that has circulated for decades about the Black Panther Party, and Daniel Kaluuya is riveting in the role of Hampton. Whenever he is on screen, I can’t look away. Lakeith Stanfield is not as successful in the role of O’Neal; I don’t get a good sense of what motivated him, and at times he appears so nervous about being caught that I have a hard time believing he was able to maintain his cover. Overall, very good, but flawed. 3 ½ out of 5.
Nomadland – A meditation on the myth of the American west as well as the people left behind at times of economic recession. For me, the highlight of this film is the time spent with real life nomads, who are both forthright and firmly themselves. I was less enamored of the fictional narrative about Frances McDormand’s character Fern and her tentative relationship with David Strathairn’s Dave. It is ambiguous in a way that feels less fruitful than vaguely frustrating. 4 out of 5
Minari – An enormously affecting depiction of a Korean family’s relocation to rural Arkansas to start a new life as farmers. Everything changes when grandma arrives, for better and for worse. 4 out of 5
Sound of Metal – My favorite of the best picture nominees, this film is bracingly original while also going deep into the universal human struggle of adjusting to unwelcome life-altering changes. Riz Ahmed is amazing in a role that took a huge amount of preparation (he learned how to drum and sign in ASL for the part) but is never showy about it. 4 ½ out of 5.