Another awards season has come and gone. While this year’s awards season has unfortunately been full of controversy, it has been extremely satisfying to see films back on the big screen where they belong in 2021, after the previous year’s awards season was much changed due to the pandemic. With so many films coming out in 2021, it also is extremely satisfying to see ten films being selected for the top prize this year. This year’s crop includes a new adaptation of a classic musical, part one of an enthralling adaptation of a beloved sci-fi novel, a heartfelt coming-of-age story, the inspiring story of the father of two of the best athletes of all time, a gothic-noir thriller, and a beautiful semi-autobiographical film of the significance of the place we call home.
A (mostly) impressive crop of nominees, but as usual, only one film will emerge victorious. So, without any further ado, here’s my ranking of these films worst to best, starting with…
10. Don’t Look Up
Full review here
I always say, that every year there’s going to be one Best Picture nominee potentially that you are not going to get the fuss about. However, it has been a few years since a film has appeared in this lineup that I’ve completely and totally LOATHED. Adam McKay’s latest attempt at a satire takes that title this year, and the last time it happened, was another McKay film, Vice.
There’s not been a single one of McKay’s satirical films that I’ve enjoyed. The Big Short had its moments, but I was not a fan of it for the most part. It’s been a recurring theme throughout each of these films, there’s an overbearing smugness and pomposity to them that just winds me up something fierce. I thought Vice was bad, but here, that smugness was dialled up to the maximum, and it was just an extremely unbearable and rage-inducing film to sit through. There is an important, urgent message at its centre which I begrudgingly give the film credit for. However, by attempting to portray that message with the most unsubtle and unfunny satire, which is at times is practically insulting its audience, it renders the whole thing utterly pointless. The Academy clearly has a love for Adam McKay’s satires that I don’t think I will ever have. This film won’t want to look up and see its position in this list.
9. Licorice Pizza
It is incredible to think that for a director as beloved as Paul Thomas Anderson, he has so far, failed to win an Oscar, despite his films often getting recognition. There was much hype about his latest film, and on paper, it ticked all the boxes. A sweet 1970s set coming-of-age story, drenched in nostalgia. It could be the one film to end his long wait for an Oscar, but I for one, find the love for this film completely baffling. While it’s not as infuriatingly offensive as the preceding film on this list, it’s not a million miles off.
The film is immaculately shot and the performances of its leads Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are excellent. However, there’s so much about this film that just fell completely flat. Firstly, the plot (if you can call really call it that) meanders and is at times extremely tedious, and it all felt extremely aimless and unconnected. But the film commits a couple of massive indiscretions that are just completely baffling, and avoidable. The first of which is the age gap between the leads. As a 25-year-old woman falling in love with a 15-year-old boy, the age gap felt extremely icky, especially as the film wanted these two to find a way to be together. If the genders were reversed, there would be a justifiable furious outcry. There’s a fantastic piece on why this age gap is so problematic, which you can read on In Session Film. It was a problem that could have been so easily avoided, Hoffman’s character is perceived to be grown up because of how mature he is, so why not just make him an adult? As if that wasn’t problematic enough, there are also two scenes that feature instances of a deeply uncomfortable depiction of a racist stereotype that serve no purpose to this story, and could have very easily been taken out of the film.
8. Nightmare Alley
Now, we’re into the stuff that actually deserves to be here. The newest film from Guillermo del Toro since he scooped Best Picture and Best Director for The Shape of Water at the 90th Academy Awards. Whenever you think of the Mexican auteur’s films, chances are you might associate them with the mythical monster genre. There’s nothing quite like that in his newest film, but there’s still a distinctly noir vibe to this enchanting mystery that pulls you in and keeps you engaged. A fascinating thriller focusing on Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle, a con man who charms his way into working at a carnival. As usual with any GDT picture, the production values are all excellent, from the stunning production design, Dan Lausten’s cinematography, it’s all visually immaculate. The first half is a bit sluggish in its pacing, but from the moment Dr. Lilith Ritter (a riveting Cate Blanchett) enters the picture, the film pulls you into the mystery and never lets up.
7. West Side Story
In 1961, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story won a grand total of 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. 50 years later, acclaimed director Steven Spielberg took on the challenge of bringing this musical to a brand new generation. Quite the daunting task, especially for a director even one as acclaimed as Spielberg, especially when you consider that he’d never done a musical before!
In the hands of Spielberg, there was never any doubt that the film would be visually tremendous, even though Spielberg got a bit too trigger happy with the lens flares. Rachel Zegler, in her first film role, proves that she is an absolute star in the making with an incredible debut performance as Maria. Alongside her, Ariana DeBose excels as Anita with a performance that will surely land her a history-making Supporting Actress Oscar win. The story of finding love and hostility between rival communities remains as painfully relevant now as it did back in the 1960s. However, the presence of Ansel Elgort here really drags the film down. He lacks the charisma to be a leading man, but furthermore as everyone else around him by comparison, is a much more talented singer/performer, he really sticks out like a sore thumb.
6. Drive My Car
Grief is something that all we go through whenever someone near and dear to us departs this world. How does one process this when that happens to them? While there’s no right answer to that question, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s moving film provides a meditative and thorough examination of this process and how we as humans cope with it. Clocking in at three hours, the film does its best to keep the audience engaged right throughout as it takes a thought-provoking look at melancholy, and how we process the grief that we experience when someone extremely close to us has passed away.
The film focuses on a renowned theatre director (an outstanding Hidetoshi Nishijima), who’s struggling to come to terms with the loss of his beloved wife. To that end, he is driven to work by a chauffeur hired by the production company. A film that touches on such a difficult subject matter, with that runtime could have very easily been a recipe for disaster. While it is extremely heavy to watch, and you do begin to feel the three-hour run time by the end, Hamaguchi’s nuanced screenplay packs a lot of layers into the film and is a thought-provoking look at how we come to terms with grief and loss.
5. The Power of the Dog
Full review here
To the first film that is one of the two favourites to be the film that takes home the big prize of the evening. Jane Campion’s return to the director’s chair after a 12-year wait was a layered Western that has much more than shootouts on its mind than Cowboys and shootouts. Focusing on the tense relationship between two brothers in 1925 Montana, one very unhospitable and unkind to pretty much everyone and every one, one very much the opposite. So when one brother gets married, it becomes a great source of tension between the more cruel and inhospitable brother and his more gentle brother’s new family.
Brilliantly acted by its entire cast, especially Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee, Campion’s layered and nuanced screenplay slow-burner is a fascinating exploration of the concepts of toxic masculinity and homosexuality at a time when it would have been extremely taboo to talk about both. It bides its time with its script, thoroughly exploring the characters and the internal conflicts that are raging in them,
Full review here
And now to the second film that’s heavily tipped to take home the top prize. Coming-of-age stories have been plentiful over the years, so it can be hard to distinguish yourself from the crowd, but this is exactly what CODA does, and it does it in a beautiful and emotional manner. Focusing on Emilia Jones’s Ruby, a child of deaf adults, as she pursues her dream of going to a prestigious musical college. A dream that her deaf family can’t understand as they’re unable to appreciate Ruby’s talent.
There are familiar narrative beats that you will see in plenty of coming-of-age stories, and while CODA doesn’t deviate from these, it provides crucial representation for the deaf community. This is a very sweet and sincere love letter to the warm embrace and the emotional support that comes with being surrounded by a loving family, with Troy Kotsur stealing the show as Ruby’s father. With just one word, he was able to break the audience’s emotions into a million pieces. Plus, the fact that the two films that are the favourites to win Best Picture are both directed by women is something to be celebrated.
Full review here
No matter where we go in this crazy world we live in, you never truly forget where you come from. Those formative years can play a massive part in shaping you as a person and they may well define the later years of your life, particularly if you’re growing up at a time when your country is in the midst of political turmoil and the threat of political violence erupting at any given moment. In what is his most personal film to date, Kenneth Branagh frames all this from the perspective of young Buddy, who watches all this unfold while trying to enjoy his childhood surrounded by his beloved family.
Jude Hill excels in what is a fantastic breakthrough performance as Buddy. He leads an outstanding cast of exceptional performances. From Jamie Dornan and Catriona Balfe as his loving parents, to Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench as Buddy’s Grandparents. The mark of a quality performance is one where you see the character and not the actor, and this applies to every member of this cast. Given when the film is set, it seems unlikely that there’d be much room for comedy, but Branagh’s screenplay expertly balances the political tensions with brilliant moments of humour.
2. King Richard
Full review here
Venus and Serena Wiliams: two of the most instantly recognisable names in any sport. Over the course of their careers, these fantastically gifted athletes have cemented themselves as two of the best athletes not just in the sport of tennis, but of all time. While you will undoubtedly know their name, someone whose name you might not know is their father: Richard Williams. This emotionally uplifting biopic provides a detailed look at the integral impact that Richard had on two of the best athletes of all time.
The film pays tribute to the parents who sacrifice so much so that their budding sports superstars can achieve their dreams of success. Will Smith’s likely Best Actor win will be so well deserved. He’s a man who’s committed to his plan to ensure his daughters achieve their superstar dreams, and will not suffer fools gladly. In a film that is the biopic of two of the biggest stars in the history of tennis, it might seem odd to frame it from Richard’s perspective, yet the film makes you understand just how much of an impact Richard had on his daughters’ early careers. Yet, crucially, the film doesn’t lose sight of the women in this story. Aunjaune Ellis’s towering performance as Venus and Serena’s mother Brandy goes toe to toe with Richard, and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as the young versions Venus and Serena are all equally brilliant.
Full review here
In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of cinemas across the world meant that there was a distinct lack of the iconic cinematic blockbusters that audiences have enjoyed for decades. With the return of cinemas last year, it was extremely pleasing to see these blockbusters return to where they belong. No film typifies the wondrous experience of seeing films on the big screen in 2021 than the first half of this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel from visionary director Denis Villeneuve.
Villeneuve’s passion for the source material shines through with every frame. The sheer scale of the world-building is awe-inspiring, in a manner that’s akin to Lord of the Rings, for example. It sweeps the audience up with its breath-taking visual majesty, perfectly accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s score that will transport you back to Arrakis in an instant. The stacked ensemble cast is all pitch-perfect in their roles, and Villeneuve’s direction is masterful in every respect. The novel was said to be unfilmable, but Villeneuve proved everyone wrong. I cannot wait to make the trip back to Arrakis in 2023 to witness Part Two.
Could/should have been nominated…
This year, for the first time in what feels like a long time, we have a full set of ten films that are up for the biggest prize. But like I do every year, I like to have a look at what could have been, because there are some films that simply put should not be in this year’s race. So if I was an Oscar voter, here are three films that would make a perfect Best Picture lineup this year. So out go Don’t Look Up, Licorice Pizza, and Nightmare Alley and in their place, we have:
The Last Duel (review). I am at a complete loss as to how this has completely missed the mark for this year’s awards season. It really should be a contender in numerous categories and should be absolutely running away with Best Actress, as with the exceptions of Kristen Stewart and Tessa Thompson, no one came close to matching Jodie Comer’s brilliant leading actress performance in this enthralling historical epic. Directed by the legendary Sir Ridley Scott, the film’s poor box office probably didn’t help matters, but that shouldn’t have mattered. Its important and timely themes meant that it should have been a frontrunner, and the fact that it’s not is something I will forever be bitter about.
Spencer (review). Speaking of Stewart, the fact that hers is the only Oscar nomination for Pablo Lorrain’s biopic of Princess Diana is so baffling. While that nomination is thoroughly deserved, the film was an extremely unique biopic that took creative liberties with the troubled marriage between Diana and Prince Charles as it was clear that the marriage had broken down. It should have been a shoo-in for production design and costumes at the very least…
Passing. The subject of race has been a major talking point over these last few years, and in her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall takes a considered and thought-provoking approach to this topical issue, and gets awards-worthy performances out of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Two more actors who, along with Comer should have been nominated this year at the very least. Like The Last Duel, Passing being completely shut out of this year’s awards season is just beyond baffling.