From Minari to Sound of Metal, these are the contending films to see.
by Bradley Langham
Film awards season can be an incredibly overwhelming time. With so many films in the running, deciding where to start watching is hard. Plus, The Academy has, in recent years, been accused of not having their fingers on the pulse, not giving each film a fair shot, and no one is going to forget THAT ceremony any time soon.
Combined with what has been a difficult year for cinema; forced closures and studios forgoing their usual release window in favor of recruiting subscribers for whatever streaming platform they have a stake in—it’s nothing short of a miracle the ceremony is happening at all.
Film, like all art mediums, is of course subjective and who are these institutions to tell you which films are or aren’t worth your time. The same could be said for myself, of course, but here are my personal recommendations (as a cinema obsessee) for the best films nominated for the 2021 Academy Awards.
Another Round (2020)
Dir. Thomas Vinterburg Nomination: 2
How much better would life be if you were drunk? Four middle-aged high school teachers, barrelling towards mid-life crises, discover a hypothesis that suggests the body’s natural blood alcohol content is too low and should be kept at 0.05% to stay relaxed, open to creativity and those around them. Naturally, they collectively decide to test this theory, for scientific purposes. They see improvements at first, but as they try to push their limits, and their luck, can this lifestyle be kept up? Thomas Vinterburg’s latest is a hilarious but tender exploration of the ramifications of drinking culture (the Danish title ‘Druk’ literally translates to ’Binge Drinking’) and the fragility of the middle-class male ego. The director’s second collaboration with actor Mads Mikkelsen (the first being 2012’s superb The Hunt) showcases the Danish actor’s range with an incredibly nuanced performance. The lack of a best actor nomination is nothing short of a crime.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Dir. Shaka King Nominations: 6
When awards season starts, it inevitably brings a wave of biopics; obvious misty-eyed trophy plays like The Trial of the Chicago 7. Whilst that film and this may take place in the same era, even share a character, its tone could not be more different. This biopic follows petty criminal Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield) who, to get out of jail time, is enlisted by the FBI to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the BPP and its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Director Shaka King and DOP Sean Bobbitt bring the gritty, unsentimental bleakness of sixties Chicago to life with both Stanfield and Kaluuya—incredible performers in Black cinema (Get Out, Queen & Slim, Sorry to Bother You)—playing two sides of the same coin; Stanfield’s conflicted but self-serving mole in stark contrast with Kaluuya’s electric revolutionary. As it hurtles towards its inevitable conclusion, it highlights many societal issues that, even fifty years later, never went away.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Dir. George C. Wolfe Nominations: 5
On a hot July in 1920’s Chicago, a group of jazz musicians, including confident trumpeter Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), gather to record with legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Due to technical issues and clashing egos, tensions begin to rise along with stifling heat. Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s play, the script moves at a lightning pace, exploring the history of the Blues and how it seeped into every corner of American history. The acting is superb throughout, with character actors Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts filling out the band with Davis’ unpredictable band leader coming up against Boseman’s livewire Green. It’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman. His performance here, all simmering rage with a Cheshire cat grin, is a career-best in an inspirational legacy of an actor gone too soon.
Dir. Chloé Zhao Nomination: 6
After losing her job, community, and husband due to the recession, there’s an early scene in Nomadland where lead character Fern (Frances McDormand) finds an abandoned dog in the parking lot that she also currently calls home. Given the option of adopting it, Fern declines, leaving it to an unknown fate. This isn’t a Hollywood story of people searching for happiness, it’s a story of people who had happiness, lost everything, and are terrified to find it again. Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name, Fern has joined a large community of van-dwellers and we follow her as she travels the country for work, meets new people (some played by real-life members of this forgotten group), and visits places she never would have otherwise. McDormand is incredible as Fern, and Zhao’s pragmatic writing and direction show us a world full of beauty and danger, reminiscent of the works of Steinbeck.
Dir. Lee Issac Chung Nominations: 6
This semi-autobiographical account of writer/director Chung’s upbringing is seen through the eyes of David (incredibly cute newcomer Alan S. Kim), the youngest of a Korean immigrant family who relocates to rural Arkansas. His father, (Steven Yeun) wants to grow Korean vegetables, capitalizing on the growing numbers of those emigrating to the region; but his enthusiasm is not shared by his mother (Yeri Han). The narrative is a slow burn, stitched together through Chung’s memories, rather than actual events. The Midwest’s unpredictability is stunningly filmed combined with a subtle score. Yeun and Yuh-Jung Youn’s acting nominations are both well deserved but it’s Kim’s David that really holds it all together—roaming the surrounding fields with his sister and grandmother, adapting to this new life. Both joyous and achingly sad, this tale of heritage is one, ultimately, of perseverance and hope.
Promising Young Woman (2020)
Dir. Emerald Fennell Nomination: 5
After dropping out of a promising medical career, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) now lives with her parents and works in a coffee shop during the day but frequents bars at night, pretending to be drunk and unaware of her surroundings. Never giving consent, she is taken home by multiple “nice guys” who attempt to sexually assault her, where she reveals her sobriety and forces them to face their actions. Carey Mulligan astounds as the vengeful Cassie, playing each side of her with precision. The stacked supporting cast is used to powerful effect, mostly known for unassuming or supportive roles in shows such as Veronica Mars and Friday Night Lights, flipping expectations. The debut of writer and director Emerald Fennell (she was a showrunner for Killing Eve), the film is a tense and tightly scripted thriller, drip-feeding Cassie’s motivation, drenched in neon and Paris Hilton songs whilst making for some very uncomfortable viewing.
Sound of Metal (2019)
Dir. Darius Marder Nominations: 6
During a scene in Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is given a task: learn how to be deaf. One half of a metal band, his hearing begins to go and throws his life into disarray. A recovering addict, he keeps himself busy through music but now is only faced with a deafening silence. Through its powerful use of sound, the film takes the audience on Ruben’s journey with him, when his ears begin to fail him so does the mix, forcing us into his isolation and shining a light on the deaf community—an often overlooked minority, especially in Hollywood. Though his first time directing fiction, Marder’s previous writing credits include The Place Beyond the Pines, so he is used to reflective silences and here uses Ahmed to incredible effect. Though he has been giving magnificently restrained performances for over a decade, this is a career-best, no longer able to rely on words, Ahmed’s expressive eyes taking us through every emotion we need.
Dir. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart Nominations: 1
While Disney and Pixar may have dominated the animation scene for the last twenty-five years, bringing the technology forward in leaps and bounds, there are a handful of studios still fighting the good fight for hand-drawn animation. One such studio is Cartoon Saloon. Based in Kilkenny, Ireland the studio has only four features under its belt, but each one has been nominated for the Best Animated Feature award. Rounding out their Irish mythology trilogy (with the equally delightful The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea) this beautiful tale is about Robyn, daughter of a hunter, who has relocated to Ireland to kill the last wolf pack. Whilst roaming the woods, she stumbles across Mebh, a mythical creature who roams the woods as a wolf while her human body sleeps. To say any more would spoil this wonderful journey; the stunning animation, voice-work, and beautiful soundtrack all come together in a truly staggering, rare piece of art.