It’s that time of the year again, when film nerds argue endlessly over what should win Best Picture only to be disappointed by the old rich white men who run the Oscars, the equally important and self-congratulatory Hollywood event. The nominees (and debate fodder) for this year are: The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. This list is sorted from this writer’s least to most favorite, with extra thought to the films without existing reviews in The Maroon. Let’s get this party started.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is both the most substandard Aaron Sorkin film and the most obvious Oscar bait. This film is nominated for six Oscars, and the only ones I feel are justified are Best Supporting Actor for Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman), and Best Original Screenplay for Aaron Sorkin. Unfortunately, everything else about the film is either incredibly generic or cheesy. Apart from Cohen, the cast was incredibly serviceable and generic: actors like Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden) and Joseph Gordon Levitt (Richard Schultz) could have been replaced by pieces of plywood without any notable difference. The lifelessness continued with the film’s directing: The only interesting moments came with the cuts of documentary footage, the music was manipulative and distracting, and every minute of the film failed to justify its bloated 2 hour and 10 minute runtime. I was technically never bored while watching, but it’s only because I cringed every time something incredibly cheesy or over-the-top happened. 4/10.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is nominated for five Oscars, but the only ones I feel are justified are Best Actress for Carey Mulligan (Cassie Thomas), and Best Director for Fennell. There are a lot of well-done aspects in this film that I can genuinely praise: The directing breathes life and personality, using complex, coordinated camerawork, color and specific moments of editing to tell an incredibly important story about male privilege and sexual assault; in addition to Carey Mulligan, supporting actors such as Bo Burnham (Ryan) and Alison Brie (Madison) also gave fantastic performances.
However, some aspects also caused the film to drag: The use of music was incredibly overbearing and cheesy, exemplified by the film’s bizarre and distracting tonal shifts every 30 minutes or so. But the thing that bothered me the most is without a doubt the ending, which was so hypocritical that it made me question the entire point of the film. Overall, while I do like Promising Young Woman, it’s a film that has a lot of negative qualities that prevent me from calling it great. 6/10.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland is nominated for six Oscars, but the only ones I feel are justified are Best Director for Zhao, Best Actress for Frances McDormand (Fern), and Best Cinematography for Joshua James Richards. Right off the bat, this is without a doubt the best-looking film out of all the nominees. I really appreciated the documentary-style of filmmaking Zhao chose to approach the story, as everything about Nomadland feels natural and real, elevated by McDormand’s performance. Unfortunately, the film lacks any real meat or story to keep its viewers engaged.
The film is very interested in capturing Fern’s journey and experience as a nomad, and while it is beautifully realized, it never gives me a reason to be emotionally invested. The film starts out strong with Fern having to give up the rest of her belongings and beginning her journey as a nomad but doesn’t give her any development after that. Nonetheless, I do genuinely want to revisit this film, and hope to enjoy it more on a second viewing. 6/10.
Directed by David Fincher, one of my favorite directors working today, Mank is both a technical masterpiece that deserves every one of its leading 10 nominations and a dragging, bloated, journey. A biopic about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his journey of writing the script for what would become Citizen Kane, Mank explores Mankiewicz’s relationships with Citizen Kane’s director and star Orson Welles (Tom Burke), movie actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). It’s a very meaty, densely packed story that will divide audiences between those who love it and those who think it’s boring. I’m somewhere in the middle.
Mank is Fincher’s best-looking film to date, and part of the reason is the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, especially during scenes involving smoke or fire. Despite the film being shot in 8K, the footage was degraded considerably, making Mank feel as if it was an actual film from the ’30s and ’40s. This was emphasized with the sound mixing, sound design, and soundtrack; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the soundtrack’s composers, were particularly unique and outstanding. I also thought the acting in the movie was incredible. Gary Oldman was great as usual, but I was even more impressed by Amanda Seyfried and Charles Dance, who completely stole the show. However, Mank’s story and characters are not nearly as fleshed out or realized as they could have been.
Mank is made for people who love filmmaking, film history (especially this era of film history), and Citizen Kane; if none of these topics interest you, I doubt you’ll find any enjoyment in the film. However, even as someone who is interested in all three of the above, I was neither fully invested nor engaged with the film’s exploration of these topics. While I did find the character of Mank interesting, especially when examining his quirks and personality, I don’t think he’s as compelling of a character as Fincher makes him out to be. Mank is just so desperate to be an important movie about Something, that it forgets its audience has to care about that something. This is certainly not David Fincher’s worst film (nothing will be worse than Alien 3 or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but it’s certainly not his best. 7/10.
Sound of Metal
Written and directed by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal’s six Oscar nominations are completely justified. The film follows a young heavy metal drummer named Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) who travels to a rural shelter for deaf-recovering addicts after losing his hearing. Run by a man named Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War, Rubel must come to terms with both his deafness and himself during his stay at the shelter. Ironically, for a movie about deafness, the film has some of the best uses of sound mixing and design that I have heard this year, alternatively distorting and muting certain sounds to force the audience to “listen” the same way Ruben is. Unfortunately, the film does not fully commit to this technique as there are several moments where the audio is perfectly clear and the audience can fully hear everything the characters are saying, despite most of them being deaf.
Beyond the sound, the film also has some of my favorite performances of the year. Riz Ahmed is absolutely amazing and without a doubt my second choice for Best Actor. Ahmed infuses Ruben with depth and subtlety, helped by the film’s aforementioned use of sound. Additionally, I also thought Paul Raci gave an amazing performance as Joe. He is without a doubt the Best Supporting Actor. Unlike Ahmed’s loud and impactful performance, Raci’s subtle and nuanced performance masterfully conveyed emotion and character. Towards the end of the film, there is a scene where Joe confronts Ruben after doing something that Ruben believes will finally solve his deafness “problem.” The way that Joe lectures Ruben about how he shouldn’t view his deafness as a handicap, the qualities that define an addict, and his ultimate disappointment in Ruben really fleshed out his character and made me sympathize with him. Joe never had a moment of loudness or anger, and that’s what made both the character and Raci’s performance all the more amazing.
However, while the film is definitely well-shot, -edited, and -written, it’s not incredibly exceptional or unique. In comparison with films like Mank or Nomadland, Sound of Metal fails to stand out in terms of directing and cinematography. I also thought the other actors, while serviceable for the story, didn’t give as impactful a performance as Ahmed or Raci. Overall, I really enjoyed this movie, and I can’t wait to check it out again in the future. 8/10.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is nominated for six Oscars, and every single one of them is rightfully earned. This is a beautifully directed, well-written, and well-edited film with great performances and a gorgeous musical score. Minari explores the theme of the American Dream and how it intertwines with the meaning of family. This is without a doubt my favorite ensemble cast of all the Best Picture nominees as there is not a single weak performance throughout this entire movie. Steven Yeun as Jacob, the patriarch of the family, is great as always; Alan Kim (David) and Noel Kate Cho (Anne) are surprisingly amazing and way better than most child actors I’ve seen, Han Ye-ri is genuinely amazing (and in my opinion, snubbed by the Academy) as Monica, the matriarch of the family, and even Will Patton’s performance as Paul, an extremely religious Korean War veteran, is not lacking. However, my favorite actor in the entire film is without a doubt Youn Yuh-jung, who plays Soon-ja, the grandma that immigrates to Arkansas to live with the family. Not only did she give the best performance of the entire film, but she legitimately gave my favorite female performance of the year and is without a doubt my choice for Best Supporting Actress.
Aside from the performances, the film boasts gorgeous cinematography through several long takes and shots of the family exploring their environment. The cinematography is also enhanced by the film’s use of lighting. Overall, this is an amazing movie that I love not only on its own, but also as something that I can truly appreciate and be proud of as a Korean American. Not only could I fully relate to the film, but it also made me reflect on my own life, my relationship with my family, and how much we’ve achieved regarding the “American Dream.” While the film did get quite sappy and sentimental, and I really didn’t understand the purpose of Paul’s character, I did not find these issues significant enough to ruin the film. I really enjoyed this movie, and while I know this has no chance of winning Best Picture (because the Academy is still run by old racist white men), to see it nominated is enough to fuel me with pride. 8.5/10.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Cowritten and directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah, or as I like to call it, the good version of Trial of the Chicago 7, is nominated for five Oscars. While I think these nominations are completely justified, the nomination of Best Supporting Actor for Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal) is confusing, as his character was significant enough for a Best Actor nomination instead. The film shows the story of the betrayal of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1960s Chicago, at the hands of Bill O’Neal who becomes an FBI informant and infiltrates the BPP in exchange for having his carjacking charges dropped by Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). This is an incredibly tense and thrilling movie that I loved from start to finish, and it is one that I would definitely rewatch.
Without a doubt, Kaluuya, Stanfield, and Dominique Fishback (Deborah Johnson) gave incredible performances, easily transforming into their characters with both detail and nuance. An interesting and likeable ensemble, their performances completely elevate this movie. It simply would not be the same without them. Additionally, this film has my favorite story of all the nominees. Not only is it an interesting examination of the lives of Hampton and O’Neal, but it is also incredibly well-paced, wasting no time at all in getting into the meat of the story. Enhanced by the excellent music, Judas and the Black Messiah’s scenes are so tense and exhilarating that it felt less like I was watching a biopic and more like an intense crime thriller along the lines of The Departed or Heat.
On top of that, the cinematography is incredibly gorgeous: Lighting, editing and framing come together in one of my favorite shots, during a shootout between the BPP and the Chicago Police. Although certain events in the movie felt clichéd and convenient, they do not ruin the experience of the overall film. I cannot wait to see what this director does next, and I hope more people check Judas and the Black Messiah out as well. 9/10.
And last but not least, cowritten and directed by Florian Zeller, The Father is undoubtedly my favorite film nominated for Best Picture. It is nominated for six Oscars, all of which are absolutely earned, though I am upset that there isn’t a Best Director nomination for Zeller. The film follows the story of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an 80-year-old man who is suffering from dementia, but refuses any help from his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman) or the caretaker (Imogen Poots) that Anne provides for him. While there have been multiple films made on this subject matter, what makes this one incredibly unique is that it is told entirely from Anthony’s perspective. Throughout the film, strange occurrences constantly transpire, such as specific scenes repeating themselves or the character of Anne switching actors at a certain point in the film, allowing Zeller to show exactly how Anthony is thinking and feeling. Zeller wants audiences to comprehend what it’s like to have dementia, an absolutely brilliant approach to a film of this kind.
Anthony Hopkins not only gives my favorite male performance of the entire year, but he also gives the best performance of his entire career since Silence of the Lambs. His constant state of confusion, his struggle to understand what is going on, and his ultimate breakdown, crying about how nothing made any sense to him anymore, truly left me heartbroken. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Hopkins’s character, and to get that kind of emotional attention from me says a lot about both Hopkins and the film. I really hope Hopkins wins Best Actor as I think he truly deserves it.
The intricate presentation and production design also really added to the film, almost as if the entire building that the film takes place in is an elaborate maze that Anthony is struggling to get out of; this was aided by excellent directing, editing and cinematography, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that Anthony, and by extent, the audience, could feel. There really isn’t a movie like this, and once the credits rolled, I was left in tears, completely heartbroken. This is without a doubt my choice for Best Picture. 9.5/10.
Note from the Editors
This year’s Oscars look to be a bizarre array from a bizarre year, as most of the films above enjoyed far fewer in-person screenings, in favor of virtual ones. Still, despite the numerous delayed releases of the past year, the eight films above all provided us entertainment, thought-provoking responses, and an escape from a pandemic-ridden reality. So, get vaxxed, debate endlessly over which films you think should win (because Hollywood will obviously never get it right), and tune in to the ceremony this Sunday, April 25.