Ranking The Oscars 2021 Best Picture Candidates (+ Some Extras)

Something nice happened this year. Due to the graciousness of a dear friend of mine, I was able to watch every film nominated for Best Picture this year. That marks the first time in this blog’s far-too-long history that I managed to do so, despite my best efforts (being frugal can be limiting). As such, expect a much longer ranking post this year, as I also managed to squeeze in a couple extra films nominated for other awards I’d like to discuss.

This year’s selection of films, when first announced, seemed to be a more compact group than in recent years. There wasn’t a single film up for consideration that I didn’t (initially) think, “Why the hell is that nominated?” Overall, things looked prime and proper.

Cut to present time, and I now have somewhat of the opposite opinion. Optimism can still be had for the listing overall, though I find that there’s no clear leader among them. Even more so, there’s only a single film among the nominees that I gave an 8/10 or higher score to (oops, spoiler). One would think that among eight different nominees, at least one of them would get me to be substantially hyped, like years past. 2020 seems to have been an overall mediocre year for the film industry, too. (Disregarding the substantial profit losses.)

With that having been discussed, I’ll get on with the list, but first I wish to note that I have not written anything on these films prior to this post, so this is all fresh material. If you’d like to see my previous rankings (for whatever reason), I’ll provide links to my 2018, 2019 and 2020 lists.

8. Nomadland

My Score: 5.5/10

This one hurts for a couple reasons.

One, I really like The Rider, which was director Chloé Zhao’s previous theatrical film. Nevertheless, seeing how lukewarm I was on Songs My Brothers Taught Me, I had a sneaking suspicion that this would also perform below my expectations. I was right, unfortunately.

Second, this is supposedly the underdog choice for Best Picture. I remember when it first started gaining traction after being shown at various film festivals, Letterboxd users gobbled that shit up like candy. It currently holds a 4.0/5 average rating on the site, which is higher than a few films nominated for Best Picture. This being a “fan-favorite” might be an understatement.

Despite all the hype… it’s so bland. True, it perfectly encapsulates the area it wishes to showcase. The nomads, wishing to swear off all ties to the tightened grips of Capitalism, and dealing with the pain of grief. It’s slow, gentle and authentic… along with very boring. A few instances grabbed my attention, such as the scenes where Fern (Frances McDormand) converses with her friends or people discussing their lives. Yet these were so far and few that it ended up being a miserably “blah” existence of just watching people do things.

Worst of all, I don’t see what could have been done to really improve it. Zhao is perfectly within her element, if her past films are any indication. It could very well just be me, who wishes for something more concrete to develop or more character exuberance to lighten up the more passive elements. I didn’t even think the cinematography was all that amazing, either, which is what gripped me so well with The Rider. Hell, it may be time to re-watch and see if that holds up, too.

7. Promising Young Woman

My Score: 5.5/10

There was some internal debate about whether this or Nomadland should be in last place. What I can credit with this film is that it kept me entertained.

I’ve made it apparent on my blog several times that I really prefer subtlety in art. I enjoy when I’m able to interpret things as I wish to, and to analyze the details of a piece creatively executed. Promising Young Woman is like if Step Brothers were trying to make a political statement. (Said analogy was thought up on a whim about 24 hours after viewing this, and I’m quite proud of it.)

Some people like Step Brothers. I get it. Films can be any number of things; their flexibility is what makes the industry so intriguing. But what I mean by the comparison is that Step Brothers is loud, bombastic, and (cynicism shining through) obnoxiously crude. This is pretty similar.

Preying on women is bad. Rape is bad. Misogyny is bad. The patriarchal values seeped into the minds of the general public have often cost women the kind of comfort their male counterparts have long taken advantage of and for granted. I get it. I understand. To ensure that you do understand, that you do get it, Promising Young Woman bangs it over your head incessantly, without an ounce of coyness afforded.

To me, this sort of blatant, middle-finger style of filmmaking, mixed with the general audience-approved blend of pseudo-aggressive humor doesn’t appeal. And the ending is just… the biggest cherry on top of the whole vibe of the film. A feel-good finale that is so absurd that it almost works. Maybe if it were in a different film.

It didn’t put me to sleep, though.

6. The Trial of the Chicago 7

My Score: 6/10

All right, so I actually went into this thinking it would be the worst one of the bunch. Critics I trust thought it was mediocre, a good friend of mine thought so, too… It was easy to write it off as Oscar bait or whatever. Turns out, I slightly disagree!

One thing I will note is that this gets kind of worse as it goes on. Without providing too much detail, the ending is… amazingly stupid. Likely the worst ending of any Best Picture nominee this year—hell, maybe last year, too. I was much more intrigued with the progression of the plot near the beginning, with the inevitable decision getting more and more obvious as it went along.

What helped this along, though, was the charm of the characters. (Not all of them.) Sacha Baron Cohen is up for an award for his performance in this, and… I don’t really see it? He was fine? Kind of seemed like they wanted to give it to him for the way his character subverted expectations with his dumbass, hippie persona. Doesn’t come off as very professional to me. Mark Rylance would’ve been my pick for the best performance in here, as they had me the most amused.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is kind of similar to Promising Young Woman in that its chief desire is to be blatant about its themes. I won’t repeat the “I get it” spiel from the last placement, but I’ll reiterate that this is specifically designed to be as subtle as Barney the Dinosaur starring in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Man, isn’t America just terrible? Don’t you want to be pissed off at the world? #AmericaWTF

Too late, Aaron Sorkin—I’m already pissed off! Yet the film kept my interest all the way through and left an overall decent impression. The sour mood stemmed more from uneven writing.

5. Sound of Metal

My Score: 6.5/10

In terms of aesthetic, this is my favorite film. Riz Ahmed is a very good-looking dude. He rocks that blonde, punk look.

As for the film itself, it’s a little puzzling. Given the cast, the synopsis, and the events that lead up to the well-paced finale, it seems on paper that I should’ve liked this more. Yet I didn’t. Performances were solid, story was generally entertaining, it was easy to get immersed in… just didn’t click.

So while I find the technical aspects of Sound of Metal to be pretty strong, it missed me on the emotional side of things. Annoyingly, I can’t really pinpoint why, either. A thin layer of boredom had me for a good majority of the film’s midway point, so I suppose I could say the plot dragged at times. Seeing Ruben (Riz Ahmed) try and get his life together after the effects of deafness take him was generally endearing—perhaps I found his pessimism frustrating.

Hell, I’m even drawing a blank on how else to describe my experience with this. This is well-received by many, and I don’t really have the arguments to refute that. All else I could say is that maybe this was so solidly founded that it becomes kind of standard because of it. The emotional aspects didn’t vibe with me much, so it’s certainly possible that I’m just missing the point. It’s harder to write this off because the film’s a generally good product, unlike those prior on this list. Oh well.

4. Minari

My Score: 7/10

Cute! That’s pretty much it.

One thing I appreciate with Minari is that it isn’t really one thing, genre-wise. Little bits of comedy, drama, slice-of-life, politics, etc. There is a different vibe to this film that others nominated don’t entirely replicate. It’s cozy in some ways, but foreboding and isolating. There’s a sort of mystical feel to it that’s very pleasant to seat oneself in.

To continue my tirade of being a party-pooper, I also think this is vastly overrated. Currently holding a substantial 4.2/5 average rating on Letterboxd, this is among the highest-rated of all the films nominated for Best Picture, if not the highest (I’m too lazy to check). Looking at that, I finished this and… shrugged. Cute! That’s pretty much it.

What may be my biggest complaint is that this feels very, very formulaic. The path it treads is nothing I haven’t seen before, and if not exactly the same, various story beats are easy to predict and plan for. I was half-expecting this to be some creatively enticing, almost dream-like invocation of good vibes and familial commitment. It’s kind of the opposite, really. Tension is felt from the very start, amplifying as father Jacob (Steven Yeun) tries desperately to successfully start a farm in a new country.

Speaking of Steven Yeun, he is nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for this film, and I do nooooooot get it. First off, he’s not in this all that much—at least compared to his in-film children. Second, he’s good, though not great. Most of his more impressive aspects are on display at the very end, and by that point, does it even matter anymore? His nomination is puzzling to me. What is not is Youn Yuh-jung’s, who plays the family grandmother. She was pretty great.

It’s not particularly overstated or flamboyant, yet Minari gets by with a tranquil passion that knows when to alter the mood for the purposes of conflict. Never too extreme until the very end, where it’s appropriate, it’s a pleasant viewing, even if not altogether invigorating. Cute.

3. Mank

My Score: 7.5/10

Before saying anything, take a gander at that cover above. It’s rad as hell. I like it a lot.

Let’s start with performances. If I had to pick my personal favorite to win Best Actor in a Leading Role, it would be Gary Oldman as Mank. Had you told me I would be picking Oldman over people like Anthony Hopkins, Chadwick Boseman, and Riz Ahmed, I would’ve been floored. Yet here we are. For me, Oldman makes this film ten times more intriguing. His wittiness, bizarre vocabulary, and penchant for the drink makes for a very alluring and screen-grabbing character portrayal.

Then we have Amanda Seyfried, who is nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Once again, I do noooooooot understand. Once again, she is barely in it, and she’s good, though not great. When I think back to Mank, I think of Mank. All others are, respectfully, trivial. She did have a nice vigor to her performance, but is that enough for an award nomination? Is the competition that thin? Who’s to say?

One of the more common complaints I’ve seen of Mank—from Letterboxd and even critics I trust who liked it—is that it’s boring. Sure, this is boring but Nomadland isn’t, okay. Anyway, I would argue it’s less boring than it is just really, really shoved up its own ass. This is described as a love letter to Hollywood and Citizen Kane, which is the principle focus of the film outside of a number of other musings. So, it’d probably be good to have, well, any interest or knowledge of old-time Hollywood films or Citizen Kane. As I have both, I think I was able to appreciate this more.

In a sense, it’s somewhat of an exclusive viewing. It does a decent job of explaining all that needs to be said, even if in somewhat minute detail. What will make this all the more worthwhile is doing some homework beforehand. Y’know, like those Marvel films everyone seems to like.

For me, the farther it went along, the more I wanted to know about the man named Mank. Maybe he was treated like too much of a wizened old veteran, doing mental circles over everyone else as the true, virtuous hero? I could see it. I’d still have a drink with him, and I don’t drink. Just a cool dude livin’ his life.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah

My Score: 7.5/10

A few disclaimers:

  • This was the film I was most interested in seeing.
  • Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield together made me swoon.
  • I almost rated this pretty low.

This, among most other films on this list, are a slow starter. It shouldn’t seem like a slow starter; it just was for me. Initially, I had this empty pit in my stomach that I wasn’t gonna be into this. For about an hour, I had that same passive lethargy I had when viewing Sound of Metal the week prior. T’was scary—all the expectations and none of the payoff.

Graciously, Judas and the Black Messiah heeded my call and supplied a very strong second half.

Stanfield was good; Kaluuya was masterful. Such a magnetic force, with a passion for preaching that had me glued to the screen whenever he took center stage. An immensely likable, grounded character that showed empathy and passion. Kaluuya and Stanfield were both nominated for their performances in a Supporting Role… which makes no sense because one of them has to be the lead… right?

Very snake-like in its execution; it slithers and stalks the prey, waiting for an opportune time to strike. When it does, it’s fast and it’s lethal (species depending). Judas has among the better second halves as any other film I viewed for the purposes of this article. Where the stakes are at their highest, the venom is at its most potent and deadly. Even the closing statements provided prior to the credit sequence had me awestruck. Such saved the story from a rather unremarkable introduction sequence.

That’s about as much as I can say negatively: started pretty soft. Getting accustomed to every character, all their motivations and the ambition of the film was a little lost on me early. Maybe the police were a little too construed as the spicy spit off of Satan’s lips. I really liked the terrible feeling of the guillotine coming closer to my neck in slow motion. Even occasionally veering into goofy territory, the writing knew how to balance things between entertainment and true atrocity.

Almost a 6/10, the ending alone made this a 7.5/10. I want to re-watch it now.

1. The Father

My Score: 8/10

The only film that got at least an 8/10. Least political, least complex. The Father is about a man who is slowly going insane, and his daughter has to watch.

Originally a play written by director Florian Zeller, it definitely exudes that sort of play-like fragrance. Relatively few settings, a heavy focus on characters and their interactions, and a whole lot of talking. It’s great.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins both perform as well as need be, with the extra aid in secondary characters not far behind. One of the best qualities of the story is trying to piece together who’s acting out of character and who isn’t. After all, what is real?

Anthony (Hopkins) is steadily progressing into dementia. What he knows and believes is not quite what exists, or may be it is. He can’t help but think and overthink and underthink and act surprised when he finds he hasn’t thought at all. Each scene has little trinkets of what could be—it’s up to the audience to understand what is.

Just the continual run of inconsistent consistencies make this such a fun watch. Seeing what comes about and why it may, given the information we know about Anthony and his situation. One’s mind has a funny thing about inserting details tainted by bias and unconscious memories into things that may not be true to life. Watching this is like seeing it come to life.

When mentioning that I like things interpretive, subtle, and creative, The Father is something of a worthy specimen. One could certainly benefit from multiple watches, with each new viewing uncovering something new. Layered and detailed, with very clever writing, makes this a solid recommendation.

Now if only I was emotional at all, given the very emotional, depressing nature of watching a man lose control of his life. That’s pretty much my only negative criticism.

Extra: Another Round

I’ll try not to be too long with these ones—the post is nearing 3,000 words already and I need to get this out.

I do intend to have a proper review up for this soon, so I’ll link that when I eventually get it up. Phrasing! Another Round is nominated for Best International Film, being Danish in origin. Starring hunky-hunk Mads Mikkelsen, it’s mostly him and his bros getting drunk and ruining their lives. Pretty fun!

Kind of like Judas, I liked the ending sequences of this film more than the introductory ones, where more was at stake and the characters’ motivations were more developed. As a non-drinker myself, I wasn’t too invested in the plot of a constant state of drunken bliss, though I felt I could understand the addictive nature of it. Denmark denizens sure like to drink, huh?

Good performances, easy to get invested in, sufficiently emotional, and only slightly cheesy. I’d recommend it.

Extra: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

So this film I do have a review up for already, so read that if you want more out of this.

I stated earlier that Gary Oldman would be my personal choice for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Who I believe will win, however, is Chadwick Boseman. Conditions are ripe: his recent death would make for a nice feel-good moment and his performance here is pretty good. Maybe a little too melodramatic, as is the entirety of this film, but solid anyway. Viola Davis is also up for Best Actress in a Leading Role. I don’t personally see her winning it, even if I thought she was, in some ways, better than Boseman.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an overall fine film. A little cheesy/preachy, with what I originally thought was a very random ending. Also pretty fun, mostly because of the back-and-forth between characters. I would also recommend that people get the sun out of all the characters’ faces, though. Hell, I can feel my sentence structure slowly deteriorating as I reach the end of the post. The finish is near—I can smell it!

If you managed to get this far, I appreciate you and apologize simultaneously. With that said, what do you think of my ranking? Am I a big dumb idiot who doesn’t know anything? Let me know what you think.

Thank you for your time. Have a great day.

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