About a year ago I was having a conversation with my friend Edgar on a podcast about what the 2021 awards season, especially big categories like best picture, would even look like. 2020 was a big shift for the cinematic experience as some long-anticipated blockbusters went straight to streaming and some went back into hibernation until theaters could reopen. It was easy to be afraid that because of the circumstances, we would have fewer quality movies to choose from, but, perhaps counterintuitively, I found this year’s slate of nominated movies to be particularly stronger on average.
Since there was so much extra free time in the pandemic, this is the first year in a long time I actually managed to see almost every film that was nominated in most categories. However, if you didn’t get a chance to see the best picture nominees, below is my definitive list (some with further reviews linked).
And the Nominees for Best Picture Are…
Minari is, at its core, a story about putting down roots in a new land, both literally and metaphorically; its true genius lies in how it both gets the immigrant story right while, at the same time, painting one of the most accurate on-screen pictures of the South in a long time.
- The Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed delivers one of the better performances of the year and happens to be my dark horse pick for best actor. Tge sound design truly steals the show in this piece, which should come as no surprise from the subject matter. This was the film I saw first out of all eight, but the ending has stuck with me the longest.
- The Father
The Father is the tearjerker of the bunch. Anthony Hopkins delivers a masterful performance as a man in decline due to dementia. Anyone who has witnessed a loved one go through the same thing might want to skip this one, but I found that my tears really came from gratitude towards the nurses and caregivers in assisted living facilities.
In a year where we will see director Chloé Zhao enter the MCU with Eternals, Nomadland is at the far other end of the spectrum. It’s uniquely sparse, like the deserts in which it is set. Frances McDormand plays a version of her Three Billboards character, but many of the rest of the “cast” aren’t actors at all. The semi-documentary aspect of it and its cinematography are the biggest reasons to see it (also, it’s on hulu).
- Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah bends the genres of political biopic and thriller. The film is mostly focused around the life and choices of William O’Neal, portrayed brilliantly by LaKeith Stanfield. The story is a mirror of the ways in which the corrupt systems around us perpetuate themselves today.
- Promising Young Woman
Immediately after first watch, I wanted to rank this lower. I did not like a lot about this movie, but after further discussion with my colleagues here, I have come around a bit on it. I still think it has some inconsistencies between the politics it would like to portray and what it actually portrays, but that is a conversation for another time. The cast is phenomenal. The imagery is impeccable, and, much like Judas and the Black Messiah, its blending of genre makes it well worth a watch whenever you get a chance.
David Fincher took a big swing with this project. Similar to our previous two films, it’s a genre blend of arthouse-retro and biopic. Making a movie in the style of classic noir era film is a cool idea, but having it be about the man who wrote Citizen Kane might not have been the best implementation of said idea. The cast was loaded with talent, although we never really get to see them shine in the way you would like to see Charles Dance and Gary Oldman dialogue.
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
Take the radical revolutionary ideals of movie #5 on this list and add in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing centrism and you get the Trial. It doesn’t have a whole lot to say, nor does it push the boundaries of filmmaking. It’s watchable, but that’s about it. Best Picture? Not so much.