I’ve heard from a lot of people that they just kind of… forgot about movies this past year. Without theaters to see them in, without box office numbers to create hits and misses and must-sees, it can be hard for any particular film to gain traction and capture attention. And despite the quality of last year’s releases, if they passed you by, this year’s Oscars ceremony might be a little inscrutable.
I’m here to help. The Best Picture slate this year is, if you ask me, pretty close to excellent. I would describe each movie as “good” at minimum. No Bohemian Rhapsodys here. If a certain Spike Lee movie had made it in, it might be one of the best years in recent memory.
So who to root for? I’ve got some suggestions. Here are all 8 Best Picture nominees, grouped by how correct the Academy would be in choosing them (and then alphabetically).
A — Correct! They did it!
Last year a Korean-language movie won Best Picture. (Remember? Remember when that happened? That was so good.) Minari is nothing like that one. Spoken in hybrid Korean/English, it’s the story of a Korean immigrant who moves three generations of his family to a plot of land in Arkansas in pursuit of his dream of raising a farm. It is the most American movie of the year.
I think this winning would be a pretty direct political statement, in addition to the pro-immigrant message. This last year has seen a surge in violence against Asian-Americans, no doubt goaded by a particular high-profile politician using his platform to spread hateful rhetoric. Hollywood may see this as an opportunity to express solidarity. I hope that interpretation doesn’t overshadow the film itself.
Nomadland is about a woman who, following the deaths of both her husband and her company-run hometown, turns to a transient existence around the country, finding her own community instead of letting society continue to break its promises to her. It is the most American movie of the year.
Barring a freakish upset, Chloé Zhao will become the second woman to win Best Director, and this seems likely to be a case where Best Picture and Best Director match once again. It’s far and away the favorite this year, and is also my personal preference to win. Zhao is an extremely exciting filmmaker and I’m keeping a close eye on what her career ends up becoming.
Marvel’s Eternals releases in theaters November 5, 2021.
B — Solid.
AMPAS is an institution that has been going through a lot of change in the last several years. Weirdos like me like to speculate about what a certain film winning “means” about its composition and future.
A win for The Father would be interesting because it means absolutely nothing. They simply decided that their favorite movie of 2020 is an emotionally resonant and exquisitely acted portrayal of the pain of loving someone suffering from dementia. Other nominees may have more pizazz, and their acceptance speeches may get more play on TV the next morning, but it’d be a tough argument to say The Father isn’t best-of-the-year quality. Don’t let the Oscarbait-style title fool you.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Here’s a list of recent movies that did not win Best Picture: Black Panther. BlacKkKlansman. Get Out. Fences. Selma.
Here’s a list of movies that did: Moonlight. 12 Years a Slave.
Judas and the Black Messiah, to my eyes, seems destined to join the first group.
I’m not suggesting it doesn’t deserve to win, the opposite if anything. Rather, it would be quite a bold statement for the traditionally conservative Academy to declare the Fred Hampton biopic the best film of the year. The pick that launched a thousand thinkpieces. Thinkpieces that I would enjoy the existence of but probably would not read.
Sound of Metal
I’m still floored this got not only a Best Picture nod but five other nominations! This is a wonderful little movie! How did it get here?!
Well, here’s a theory: This is the one movie on the list that makes you say “Yup, pandemic.” I wonder if it would be here had theaters been operating normally. Would a slow-moving piece about learning to adapt to instead of fix a major life change (hey, that sounds familiar) underperform so bad we decide it’s not actually real, or would Riz Ahmed’s performance alone elevate it to indie darling status anyway?
On second thought, I don’t really care. We’re happy to have you here, Sound of Metal. You have no chance of winning, but that’s okay. You’re already in the Criterion Collection. You won.
C — Huh. OK.
Promising Young Woman
This movie is… let’s say “complicated,” and I’m not sure if the connotation of that is positive or negative. Everyone can get on board with the premise — a woman makes a hobby of acting drunk, getting taken home by a creep, and dropping the ruse the moment he crosses the line. Everyone should get on board with the message — every man is capable of this, even the “nice guys,” even the ones reading this now and thinking “Well sure, but not me. I’m different.”
Not everyone can get on board with its execution, and I can understand that. It’s in that realm where even people who are extremely well versed in the subject find it exploitative or clunky or even irresponsible. But it’s here because enough people aren’t. Maybe that makes it a net good.
Also, elephant in the room: a lot of people voting on the Oscars are the type of people this movie is about. We’re far enough away from it to admit Get Out unquestionably should have won, right?
D — Swing and a miss.
If any nomination feels obligatory, it’s this one. Mank is love letter to Citizen Kane, to the extent that it attempts to replicate its cinematographic style and story structure. How successful it is is up for debate.
Citizen Kane famously was nominated for but did not win Best Picture, losing to a (very good!) film that is today most famous for being the movie that took Kane’s statue away. Giving the prize to Mank feels like an attempt to rectify a past wrong. Of course, that’s impossible. It would be an empty gesture done at the expense of more deserving, more relevant films. Even worse, it would encourage the insufferable reddit commenters who complain these awards are just Hollywood congratulating itself. We shouldn’t give them more ammo.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
The other Best Picture nominee with Fred Hampton in it.
It’s timely. It’s entertaining. It takes significant liberties with its subject matter. It’s also, I think, almost unanimously considered the weakest nominated film. No film that ends with an on-screen audience standing and cheering with the “Where Are They Now” biopic trope overlaid should win Best Picture. We’re better than that.
I can’t deny it’s a crowd-pleaser though. My mom wants it to win. Will the my-mom contingent overpower the rest of the field? We’ll have to tune in to find out.
It’s years like this that remind me why I love the Oscars even when they’re so cool to hate. The best picks would be exciting, and the worst picks would be boring, but none would be offensive. I did not make an F-tier, and for that alone I’m happy. I attribute this entirely to the efforts the Academy has made over the last half decade to become more diverse and inclusive. What an overwhelming success that has been. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony begins Sunday, April 25 at 8pm EDT. Follow me on Twitter for reactions.