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Oscars 2021

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Time zone issues meant that I was unable to participate in the LGM Oscars podcast, but on the other hand this is the first year in a long time that I’ve seen all of the nominees (not unrelatedly, this is the first year in perhaps forever that pretty much all Oscar nominees were streamable well before the ceremony). So I thought I’d write down my thoughts about, and rankings of, the nominees, plus a few other movies that didn’t make it on to the Best Picture ballot.

Some additional reading in case this isn’t enough Oscar talk for you: as I say below, I’m generally ambivalent about Promising Young Woman, but this review by Rebecca Liu is the best articulation I’ve seen of the argument against it. Jack Hamilton at Slate has a good rundown of the problems with Nomadland‘s (lack of) politics. (Though personally I find the “they’re all probably Trump voters” critique a bit misguided—surely none of the people in the movie vote at all.) And for an irreverent but thoughtful take on all eight nominees plus several others, check out A.S. Hamrah at The Baffler. It’s a bit like Drew Magary’s old Oscar rundowns, except you don’t get the impression that the author is incapable of relating to works by or about women.

And if you’re not Oscar-ed out by now, here are my thoughts on the Best Picture nominees, arranged by ascending order of how much I’d like them to win.

Mank – Hollywood loves rewarding films about Hollywood, which is presumably why this overlong, self-indulgent affair has racked up ten nominations. There are charms here and there—Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies is a lot of fun, and the subplot about Upton Sinclair’s doomed campaign for the governorship of California is a corner of history I hadn’t previously known anything about. But the actual meat of the piece—arguing with a straight face that Citizen Kane was 100% the work of Herman Mankiewicz—is not only highly disputable, but the film never makes a compelling argument for why I should care. Mank himself is a diverting presence but hardly a very magnetic one, so the issue of him getting proper credit (and lest we forget, the man did win an Oscar) doesn’t feel terribly urgent. And worst of all, the film doesn’t even try to remind you of why you loved Citizen Kane in the first place, so the question of its authorship ends up feeling very low-stakes. It seems content with stylistic imitation, which can’t help but come off as shoddy and hackneyed.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – This is exactly the sort of political film that tends to win Oscars: a historical drama about an event that occurred long enough ago that we can all agree it was a bad thing, with a hissable villain who does extremely racist things that the audience can put itself on the other side of, and a compelling but not too radical hero to uncomplicatedly root for. And, for a movie of that type, it’s pretty entertaining and well-made, with standout performances from Sacha Barron Cohen and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. But even before I looked up the trial of the Chicago 7 and learned how wild and weird it actually was, I could tell that the film had sanded off anything strange or offputting about the event, any actual hint of radicalism, and any suggestion that the system could not, ultimately, be trusted to do the right thing. Its obvious goal—to valorize the “good”, electable liberal, Tom Hayden—was so obviously a perversion of the true significance of the event that it’s hard to imagine why Sorkin even wanted to dramatize it in the first place.

The Father – We spent a chunk of last year watching filmed stage plays on our TV, so it seems appropriate for one of this year’s best picture nominees to be essentially a play with a few cinematic flourishes. Watching The Father, you can easily imagine how its staged version would have worked. Which is a bit of a problem, because that imagined stage version would probably have been a lot more effective than the filmed one, which falls into an uncanny valley between cinematic realism and the film’s obvious goal, to put us in the headspace of its title character as he loses the thread of his life to dementia. There are a lot of effective tricks that work towards achieving this—a character who is suddenly played by a different actress, to symbolize the way that people with dementia will sometimes forget their loved ones; scenes that begin and end with the same event. But where these devices might have been riveting and horrifying in the quasi-realistic space of a theater, they come off as gimmicky on screen. It’s left to the actors—chiefly Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman—to carry the film, and though they’re both very good, their characters are too deliberately generic to do so.

Promising Young Woman – Really not sure how I feel about this one. It’s extremely well made, with some outrageous, funny, horrifying set-pieces, and a genuinely excellent central performance from Carey Mulligan. And its core project—a rape-revenge drama that is actually a deconstruction of the rape-revenge genre—is an interesting one. At every turn, what initially seems like righteous violence is revealed as yet another expression of the heroine’s grief, trauma, and most of all her inability to move on with her life in the face of the knowledge that justice isn’t coming. It’s an indictment of the very idea that a single person can make up for the failures of an entire system. That being said, it can’t be denied that the film’s project is also an extremely smug one, almost hectoring its viewers for wanting to see some rapists get trounced. And that smugness sits very poorly with the film’s ending, in which the heroine is both horribly punished and achieves a triumph that is hard to believe in.

Judas and the Black Messiah – Almost a mirror image of Chicago 7, this film distinguishes itself from Sorkin’s slick Hollywood product by refusing to sugarcoat the Black Panthers’ radical politics, or the violence that was an inseparable part of their activism (while still situating that violence in the context of the omnipresent violence of the state). It’s also fairly literal about its titular Biblical analogy, to an extent that eventually starts to feel kind of weird, and maybe also a little flattening of its depiction of Fred Hampton and his betrayer, William O’Neal. (It doesn’t help that, excellent as they are, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are both about a decade too old to be playing these characters.) By its end, both characters end up feeling more like symbols than complex people with a particular political outlook. This is perhaps related to the fact that the film seems more interested in the discussing the way that Hampton and the Black Panthers’ radicalism was perceived as a threat by the FBI than in actually talking about that radicalism. On the other hand, that bit of history is still woefully under-discussed, so it’s worth exposing here.

Minari – This quiet, quietly devastating movie is proof, yet again, that what you need for an effective drama isn’t necessarily a bombastic script or eye-catching concept, but specificity of character, situation, and setting. It’s an immigrant story at a time when these are at the center of the cultural conversation, but what really drives it are the personalities of its central family: the mother’s dismay at what her husband’s last-ditch bid to make the American dream come true entails, the young son’s barely-articulated anxieties about the world, the grandmother’s cheerful determination to live her life as she pleases, the parents’ growing conflict over what’s best for their children. My one complaint about Minari is really about the film’s awards reception: I get why the guy from The Walking Dead and the funny grandma have garnered most of the attention (and to be clear, they are both extremely good), but Yeri Han as the family’s mother is arguably the film’s true main character, and certainly the one through whose eyes most of its events are processed. It’s a fantastic performance that is flying too far under the radar.

Nomadland – Despite being painted as a political movie about rising inequality in America (and despite the fraught discourse over whether it whitewashes conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centers—an insistence that seems extreme give that these only appear in two short scenes in a two-hour movie), when I finally got around to watching Nomadland, I was struck by how apolitical it felt. Most of the people depicted here—including an invented character played by Frances McDormand and many people who are playing themselves—are nomads by choice, and the connections that that choice has to the way that the American economy pushes many people towards the bottom are, for the most part, outside the scope of the film’s story. Which in some ways makes Nomadland not too dissimilar to Chicago 7—a movie that reminds people of politics while avoiding anything that might come off as too controversial or radical. On the other hand, you have Chloé Zhao’s masterful, poetic direction, McDormand’s typically excellent performance as a woman who has to be in constant motion, and a virtually plotless yet gripping narrative that successfully puts you in the headspace of such people, and offers a window onto their community. The result is an experience that is almost seductive, even as you realize that it’s leaving a lot of stuff out of frame.

Sound of Metal – Hollywood loves making movies about disability, but they usually focus on a stable, established person whose comfortable life is disrupted by disability. Sound of Metal‘s simple but excellent twist on the formula is the choice to tell a story about someone who was already barely hanging on, and whose coping mechanism is precisely the thing they have to give up once their physical reality changes. Riz Ahmed plays a man who has spent his life in perpetual motion, at the center of constant tumult, as a way of coping with addiction and emotional problems, and who is forced to learn how to be silent and still. Deafness, therefore, is both the central metaphor of the movie, and a means of expressing the way that the hero’s disability at first narrows his life (when he joins a deaf sober living community and finds himself isolated among people he can’t communicate with) and then opens it up in new and unexpected ways. I knew going in that the movie had been praised for its use of sound to convey to the audience how the hero’s deafness changes his perception of reality, but it’s something that has to be experienced to fully appreciate (and is, of course, anchored by Ahmed’s magnificent central performance). My only real criticism is that the film’s ending seems to sacrifice character for the sake of furthering its central metaphor, but even that is compensated for by a wonderful, moving final shot.

And now, a few other movies with Oscar nominations, arranged by ascending order of how outrageous it is that they weren’t nominated for the big one:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis are excellent, but the movie around them is very decidedly not my thing. It’s not just that it’s incredibly stagey, but that the beats of the story feel entirely predictable—as soon as Boseman’s ambitious, energetic trumpet player is introduced along with his dreams of future success, you know exactly how his story is going to end. Davis gets some good scenes in which her character’s apparent capriciousness is revealed as a savvy understanding of her position, as a black woman with something of value to the white men who want to record her music, but who have no respect for her as a person. But there are no comparable surprises anywhere else in the movie. It feels more like an artifact to be admired than an entertainment to be swept away by.

Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee apparently envisioned this movie as an African-American-themed homage to treasure hunt stories like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Which makes it all the stranger that it’s the first half of the movie, in which the main characters, four aging Vietnam vets and one of their sons, get together, reminisce, get into fights, and pick at barely-healed wounds, that is by far the more engaging. Once the characters get into the jungle, find the treasure, and encounter endless complications getting it back to civilization, a lot of energy seems to come out of the movie. Possibly this is because it’s hard to care who gets the treasure—no one here seems to deserve it, or even need it that badly—or perhaps because the more the characters interact with Vietnamese locals, the more their insistence that they are owed the money in recompense for America’s crimes against black people seems, at best, rather tunnel-visioned. Still, the protagonists remain fantastic throughout, and the very concept of a war/heist story centering on black people is sufficiently uncommon that I’m glad it was attempted, even if the result is something of a mess.

Another Round – The only barrier to enjoying this movie is having to suspend your disbelief sufficiently to buy into the notion that the charismatic, effervescent Mads Mikkelsen is, at the story’s outset, an emotionally shut down bore. If you can clear that hurdle, Another Round is a charming and original twist on the midlife crisis story, where instead of fast cars or extra-marital affairs, the heroes try to rekindle their lust for life by going around permanently half-soused. Without avoiding the obvious pitfalls of such a strategy, Another Round is refreshingly non-judgmental about its characters’ behavior. More importantly, it stresses that alcohol reveals, rather than creating, the fundamental root of their unhappiness, and that solving those problems will require more than another drink. Which makes the film, ultimately, a lot more conventional than its premise initially suggests (though the reminder at its end that the heroes are still capable of choosing to crawl back into the bottle gives it a dark undertone). But that still leaves the delightful performances from Mikkelsen and the other leads, a smart script, and some interesting details of Danish life, all of which make Another Round an eminently worthy watch.

One Night in Miami… – In a year with several high-profile stage-to-film adaptations, Regina King’s directorial debut feels like the only one that cracks the code, at once satisfyingly stagey and excitingly cinematic. The premise—on the night of Muhammad Ali’s wining the world championship, he gets together with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke to party, talk politics, and argue about their varying attitudes towards leading and representing the African-American community—doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of riveting viewing, but the furiously smart script just grabs you and doesn’t let go. Leslie Odom Jr. got the Oscar nod as Cooke (which is sort of fair as he has more to do than the other actors, both acting and singing), but everyone here is fantastic: Kingsley Ben-Adir as the self-serious yet slyly humorous Malcolm X; Aldis Hodge as the self-appointed peacemaker whose chill turns out to be savvy calculation; and relative newcomer Eli Goree, whose Ali is full of (justified) youthful bluster, but who also understands his importance to his community. The fact that the film was left out of the best picture category (and King out of the best director category) is a genuine affront, especially given Mank‘s presence on both.

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