One Amateur Film Critic Watches the Oscars Best Picture Nominations for 2021

Academy Award Statuette, Nicknamed Oscar. Illustration by Ada Hallstrom

Many of you, like me, have lost all concept of time and therefore did not realise the Oscars came and went. Because I am not only a consumer of media and a big fan of movies but also an egomaniac whose opinion needs to be shared, I took it upon myself to watch and voice my thoughts on the Best Picture nominees for 2021. Let’s get started: 

Promising Young Woman:

mild spoiler warning

trigger warning for sexual assault, violence

As an amateur film critic, I can only sum up my feelings while watching this movie in a few words. Absolutely emotionally crushed. The story follows the main character Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as she goes to bars each night pretending to be drunk to see what kinds of men use the opportunity to take advantage of her. Cassie reaches the peak of the story when she finds out the man who raped her best friend in college is getting married and sets out to execute her meticulously planned revenge plot against him. The movie is a double horror, for both Cassie, as the past comes back to consume her whole life, and on the flipside a horror for anyone who is on the receiving end of her revenge. This is emphasized by the music, a string version of Britney Spears’ Toxic and other horror-esque songs which contrast starkly with the pastel visuals of the scenes. 

There was a deliberate choice to cast actors who have a history of playing typically non-threatening characters, which I saw as an important commentary on how rape is mostly portrayed by physically imposing and outwardly threatening men, which in reality does happen but is not always the case. The film also points a focus on the people who should be held accountable for their actions but often are not: a school dean who dismisses a case, a friend who doesn’t believe it happened in the first place, a classmate who watched the whole thing and said nothing while the allegations were dismissed due to lack of evidence. 

This whole film made me tense while I waited for something terrible to happen, an effect made possible by the acting, music, visual directing, storytelling and palate of the movie. Truly a horror movie at its greatest. 

Sound of Metal:

mild spoiler warning 

As the second movie I watched, this set me up for a strong start. Ruben Stone, rock musician and newly deaf, is brought to life by actor Riz Ahmed in such an emotional performance but in quite a different way than Promising Young Woman. Right from the get-go, everything about this movie screams intensity, beginning with a loud strum of electric guitar. 

After Ruben loses his hearing it starts to put a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend, his relationship with recovering from his addiction, and completely changes the way he can interact with his music. At this point we are immersed in this story, cutting back and forth between the muffled white noise Ruben hears and what a hearing person would, as if they were standing next to him. It’s a disorienting experience which made me as a viewer start to feel frustrated alongside Ruben, as we started to feel out of the loop on what is going on. Ruben started the movie with only his girlfriend, Lou, and the life they had built which he thought was the only thing for him. Losing his hearing so unexpectedly in the way that he did brought him to a deaf community, some of whom were also newly or longtime recovering addicts. This helped show Ruben options for his future, that there were other things for him than what he originally envisioned for himself. 

As somebody who has no emotional tie to heavy metal music, the deaf community, or struggles with addiction, I was surprised to find myself pulled in and wholeheartedly emotionally connected to the story which is the most amazing thing For me that’s what made Sound of Metal such a great movie and in my opinion the film that should’ve won Best Picture. 

Nomadland:

I watched Nomadland a couple of days before they announced the winner for Best Picture, so I wasn’t watching it knowing it had won. Thinking back I can understand why it did. The cinematography was beautiful and the story was touching. I thought the theme of being houseless but not homeless was an important narrative to portray, and the connections between Fern (Frances McDormand) and her fellow nomads showed these impactful moments of human interaction. 

The main thing that fascinated me about this movie after watching it was that it was so compelling, given it had no concrete plot. The storyline read like a diary to me, focusing on moments and feelings without an overarching storyline to tie it together. Even with long stretches of scenery with no dialogue I didn’t find myself getting bored the way I normally would watching a movie like that. 

Despite this I felt less drawn to it then I did Sound of Metal, maybe because the character Fern seemed so reluctant to accept help from anyone, I felt distanced from her even as a viewer. Maybe the raw emotion of Sound of Metal just spoke to me more. I don’t think this was a bad movie in any regard, just not the one I would have chosen for Best Picture. 

Minari:

Mild spoiler warning 

Minari is about a Korean-American family who moves to Arkansas from California because the father, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, has dreams of starting a farm. The family is complete once Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), the energetic, card playing, trash talking grandmother is introduced. The parents struggle with money and trying to get their farm started, as well as conflict around differences in opinion of the right decisions for their family. 

Personally I found this film entertaining, funny and engaging but for a huge portion of the movie I didn’t feel emotionally attached to the characters, the husband in particular because I couldn’t empathize with any of his actions. Throughout the film Jacob chooses his dream of his farm over the family and this causes a lot of conflict between him and his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri). 

My favorite part of Minari was the relationship between the grandmother and the son, David (Alan S. Kim). Early on David connected the family stress to the grandmother moving in so their relationship starts one sided, with him being dismissive and sometimes hostile towards her. They eventually connect and take care of each other. Their strange but heartwarming dynamic really sold me on the movie. Overall a solid film which I would recommend to anyone.

The Trial of the Chicago 7:

mild spoiler warning 

Trigger warning: police brutality

I have to admit, when looking at the list of movies I had to watch for this article I was not particularly excited to watch this one. I knew very little about the events The Trial of the Chicago 7 was based on and I am not usually a fan of historical retellings or courtroom dramas. That being said, I loved this movie. For people like me who needed to pause and look up some details, this movie is set in 1969 Chicago, Illinois at the trial of the seven defendants who are being charged with the conspiracy of organized protesting after being arrested for organizing anti-Vietnam War gatherings at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. 

This film used a mixture of different scenes, including courtroom testimonies, Abby Hoffman’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) speaking engagements recalling the events of the trial, and flashbacks to the protests, which I found to be a really compelling way of telling this particular story. While this movie was a dramatization of events in some regard, the courtroom dynamic was accurately captured according to PBS, including details like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), co-founders of the Youth International Party, or the ´Yippies´, showing up to court in judges robes. 

From the first few minutes of the trial it was clear the bias and prejudice the judge and the justice system had for the defendants but especially the blatant racism towards Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), co-founder of the Black Panther Party. I think highlighting the violence and brutality from the police during the riots was also important for this movie, not only for telling the story but also as a reminder and comparison to the same kinds of actions happening now.  

Judas and the Black Messiah:

mild spoiler warning

trigger warning: police brutality

After watching Trial of the Chicago 7 and thoroughly enjoying it, I watched this movie with a more open mind towards this historical retelling then I did previously, and it did not disappoint. 

I would recommend watching this movie the way I did, back to back with Trial of the Chicago 7, because you are introduced to and get background on both Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton, who is one of the main characters of Judas and the Black Messiah. The plot follows Bill O´Neil (LaKeith Stanfield) as he becomes an informant for the FBI after taking a plea deal to gather information on both the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the Chairman of the Illinois branch. 

The highlight of the film was the characterization of Fred Hampton, brought to life by Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Hampton brought people together, he connected with others and was someone people were willing to follow, something never explicitly stated, but conveyed through his actions and the people’s responses. 

The Black Panthers were a target of FBI surveillance and violence, a known fact but an important part of the movie all the same. The scenes that focused on Hampton and his visions and goals, not only for the Panthers but for all people, were compelling and interesting, and knowing Hampton’s fate at the end of the movie made it even more so. 

The Father:

mild spoiler warning

The Father, based on the play by the same name, is about 80-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) who lives in a London flat and refuses all the help his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) tries to give him as he ages. Unfortunately, it seems help is needed as Anthony’s memory is failing him and he becomes more confused by the day. 

Scene by scene the viewer has to stumble through the story with Anthony, confused about what is real and what is imagined. The film uses visual aids like a particular shirt or the tile in the kitchen to help the viewer feel less lost, although it’s so wonderfully done I could barely comprehend what order events took place after getting mixed up. Not only are we getting information mixed around, nothing about the film is there to make it easier for us, and I often found my personal confusion to be echoing what was happening on screen. 

The music also helped heighten emotion, often mimicking the long drawn out scores of horror films to increase tension, and pairing this with repeating scenes and overlapping dialogue, it proved to be a very effective storytelling device. 

I was a little put off by the way some of the characters seemed to be talking with Anthony, prompting him to remember details he had clearly forgotten or seeming frustrated when he couldn’t provide information. It seemed to me a cheap way to draw out an emotional or defensive response from the character, especially since it seemed clear from the start of the film this was not a new development.  

Mank:

I will start off by saying I have not seen Citizen Kane, nor do I know anything about Herman Mankowitz, but I doubt knowing about either would have made me enjoy this movie. What I can gather is it was about alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankowitz (Gary Oldman) after he was propositioned by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write the screenplay that would become Citizen Kane

Mank is in black and white, an homage to the films of the 1930s when it’s set, but other than that I don’t find it adds anything particularly special to the film. I found this movie dull and uninteresting, and myself wholeheartedly unattached to any of the characters or story. Mankowitz was a fairly one dimensional character and even the supposed heartfelt or emotional moments fell flat for me. 

I would say this film was my weak link in the set of eight. I didn’t find the story intriguing and sitting through two hours of this movie was a little disappointing after watching the other nominees. I can imagine someone interested in old Hollywood or filmmaking would have a better time with this movie but personally I would recommend skipping this film, and picking another movie to watch. I would recommend Sound of Metal or Trial of the Chicago 7; they were my personal favorites. 

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