The Oscars 2021: Nominations for Best Picture
By Ed Streatfield 23 April 2021
Image Courtesy of Screen Rant
The Academy Awards are finally set to return on 26 April to frustrate me way more than it should. With its supreme air of Hollywood elitism and plastic celebrity sensationalism, I could go on. But what’s interesting from this year’s nominations is the effects the pandemic will have on the award show.
Studios haven’t been able to release their Oscar Bait as smoothly, and streaming platforms are now eligible. The number of nominations is now fixed at 10. The Academy have taken this to increase their range of diversity after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign accused them of side-lining BAME, women and minority voices. However, the Oscars do not care about morality.
Harvey Weinstein’s legacy still looms over the awards after the #MeToo movement came to prominence in 2017, and the film that so fiercely, gut wrenchingly addresses it, The Assistant, gets zero nominations this year. After Parasite won Best Picture last year, assumingly changing the game for how foreign films are recognised at the Oscars, no ‘international feature films’ were even nominated for Best Picture this year; this includes Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, a hilarious but poignant commentary on alcoholism and life affirmation.
The Sound of Metal will sadly be snubbed on all awards except deservedly clinching Best Sound, and whilst I haven’t been able to watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 or The Father, below are what I believe to be the main contenders for the Oscars 2021: Best Picture.
Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao)
Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ is predicted to be this year’s Best Picture winner and with good reason. Frances McDormand (Three Billboard’s Outside Ebbing, Missouri) plays Fern, an aging bereaved woman, who decides after being financially forced into an Amazon warehouse, to face the American wilderness in her van. She reflects on the smaller beauties in life unapparent to those who have no time to consider them.
Nomadland epitomises the plight of the American working-class post 2008 financial crash perfectly. Teetering on the edge of ruin, where an unexpected medical bill or failed engine can plunder you into deprivation. Where a job of lifetime membership, the colleagues who became friends after decades, a respectable job where you can build and have pride; gone because the ‘invisible forces of the market’ deem it so, and there’s nothing left to show for it. This film caught attention after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival, and later the Golden Globe for Best Drama Motion Picture. Technically the film is a marvel; wide shots of expressionist nature with absolute tranquillity, where within Fern must gaze and find her sense of purpose. McDormand proves her critical acclaim, manifesting charm like a mage whilst keeping her performance grounded. This film is life affirming yet sketches the particular cold realities of 21st century American alienation, making it simply remarkable.
Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)
Minari garnered controversy when it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. The film follows a Korean family who move from California to Arkansas to start a Korean vegetable farm. They’re faced with a juggling act of fears: The conflicting homesickness of the Mother; the split alien identities of their increasingly Americanised children; even stranger the American people themselves, all under the looming anxiety of economic insecurity. The film is in Korean, but the story is fundamentally a Steinbeckian tale, confronting the American Dream. Despite this, it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Isn’t it so predictable that Hollywood has found a way to conjure an American picture for best foreign language film while pushing it aside from the main competition? There are no excuses anymore; cinematic language is universal, and subtitles smash language barriers.
It is just such a shame that the film was pushed into this light because it truly is beautiful. It utilises the influences of Chung’s dual identity perfectly. A fusion of the heart wrenching family dramas of Asian Directorial genius Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story), and Terrence Malick’s ethereal and divine experience of nature in The Tree of Life. Americans are presented as the ‘other’. The mother can only watch with horror as her son and his Korean Grandmother awe over WWE, drinking Mountain Dew. It perfectly demonstrates the potential for cinema to bridge the chasm between languages and perspectives. Experiencing the American Dream through the Asian American perspective is so interesting, in a field historically reserved for White Americans alone. Because, if we are honest about the American legend; the bravery of the pioneers, wading into the unknown for a better life, this is the natural 21st century progression.
Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennel)
Emerald Fennel’s (Killing Eve) unashamedly feminist debut is a genre bending thriller/black comedy satire, where every aspect of our patriarchal culture is lunged at by the gullet. Influenced by rape revenge films, but from the directorial female gaze, Cassie (Carey Milligan) after the traumatic rape and suicide of her friend, is driven to confront her targets, who have tacitly or implicitly, preserved the institutional and cultural protection of rapists. The film has been criticised for being too nihilistic, but the black comedy sustains the viewer, though a topic which if displayed honestly, is nihilistic. This is the reality of chauvinism, and to dismiss the film as nihilistic, is only to dismiss the truth of real suffering.
Every aspect of this film is confrontational to patriarchal conventions. Aesthetically, the film’s bubble gum pop drive is adversarial to standardised male tastes, and within genre conventions, vengeful women are often framed as antagonistic. But is Cassie antagonistic when the legal system and civil society masquerades violence against women in a vail of bureaucratic indifference? This poignancy only makes her daily routine, of pretending to be paralytic in local bars, and petrifying men who plan to take advantage of her with their repugnant actions, so satisfying. What makes this so, is the attentive and comic portrayal of sexist men, where I feel Milligan plays the part therapeutically. Confronting her past experiences of sexism through the empowering role, with such authenticity, it’s an exciting reminder of what representation brings to cinema. Women responding to sexism through film, not as helpless damsels in distress, not second-hand through the male gaze, but by merely holding a mirror to the cognitive dissonance of the audience.
Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King)
Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and deputy head of the National BPP between 1966-69. He sought to unite all races under the ‘Rainbow Coalition’, as a socialist resistance against the bourgeoisie, who utilise racism to divide the working classes and maintain capitalist exploitation. His popularity was growing day by day, amongst all different races. Tragically, at the age of 21, Hampton was assassinated by an FBI tactical unit while asleep. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah serves as a dramatic biopic of Fred Hampton’s (Daniel Kaluuya) time in the Chicago Black Panther Party. Primarily, it is a character study of William O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), an undercover FBI informant, who led to Hampton’s demise. Kaluuya and Stanfield’s performances demonstrate a fire and complete versatility in their craft. Kaluuya is electrifying as Hampton, and Stanfield provides such interesting emotional complexity, displaying guilt through overly conscious actions and wavering eyes.
The noir aesthetic, warm colour tones, and abrupt jazz give the film a punchy artistic flair. While the film is technically excellent and displays real directorial prowess, the radical socialist message projected by Hampton is reduced to soundbites. This isn’t at all surprising, considering Warner Brothers financed the film. Hampton never goes into depth about the core reason he formed the Rainbow Coalition – working class solidarity. He discusses politics being war and war being politics, but never states who the war is against. The FBI are realistically shown to be extremely racist, but their main fear around Hampton was not racial solidarity, it was class solidarity. The more the working classes of all races are united, the more they can hold real economic power through collective action. This is what Hampton was all about, and I fear that the corporate filtration of his message will have him spinning in his grave.
Mank (dir. David Fincher)
David Fincher’s latest film is about the disproven conspiracy that Orson Welles stole writing credits from Herman Mankowitz’s screenplay for Citizen Kane. While praised beyond the point of platitude, Citizen Kane is still a remarkable film to this day, for Welles’ audacity to be an auteur within the rigid Hollywood production line. But watching Mank only reminds me that I would prefer to watch Citizen Kane. Fincher is highly detailed and precise, but his discipline leaves no room for emotion. Like the sentimentalism of a cold indifferent aunt. This is what noir aesthetics and golden Hollywood era nostalgia culminates to when a Best Pictureless director is getting desperate from the beckoning of his seniority.
I understand that the film was a passion project based on his father’s screenplay, but this is a copiously dry script and consequently arid film. The technicalities are masterful; Trent Reznor gives the film life with its inventive walking basslines and percussive typewriting; Gary Oldman and Tom Burke maintain fine-tuned performances throughout. But with such a drab script, it feels like the clearest view of a grey sky. As a fan of Fincher’s filmography, it is with great pain that I have to say I would be astounded if anyone chose to watch this a second time.
While these nominations are masquerading as The Academy’s reformation of diversity, none are radical breaks from the mould. Like Bear Grylls, The Oscars have adapted, survived, and overcame criticisms of a lack of diversity, but in reality, the Academy Awards slumber in their own conventions, as Bear sleeps in hotels. International cinema has been swept to the side as an inconvenience to read, and genuine innovation and love for filmmaking is ignored.
But from the nominee’s I hope that Nomadland wins Best Picture. It is rare for the Oscars to address such a contemporary and authentic portrayal of the dispossessed American working class. Although the film has political connotations at its core, fundamentally it is a wonderful character arc, driven by McDormands sublime acting. The Academy tend to favour overly sentimental character arcs, but Zhao has real scenic and tonal control. Utilising gorgeous mise-en-scène, often seen in films debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.
I can imagine David Fincher winning Best Director as a ceremonial late congratulation, for all his previous masterpieces he was snubbed for. Thomas Vinterberg is nominated for Best Director for Another Round, however I can only see this as a nomination to appease international cinema-goers. Chadwick Boseman will earn a posthumous Best Actor award for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Meanwhile, I can imagine Carey Mulligan winning for Promising Young Woman.
The viewership of the Oscars had trailed around 30-40 million this century until 2014 where it has been on a slow decline to 23.6 million last year. The Academy is desperate for viewership since streaming became a major competing force. Since 2009, the Oscars changed its voting system from a plurality vote to preference voting. Meaning that even if film A gets the greatest number of votes, if enough people choose film B as their second preference, B will win. This rewards mediocrity and passive filmmaking; truly ground-breaking and powerful art is by nature confrontational.
Preference voting has left us with routine bland films such as The Artist, Green Book, and Spotlight just to name a few; but it’s unlikely they will be remembered in 20 years’ time. While of course Parasite, Moonlight and Birdman are exceptions, the viewers have lost faith in the Academy’s choices. In the landscape of Disney’s ever-increasing monopolisation of cinema, it is our duty as viewers to keep the true Gesamtkunstwerk, Cinema, the total artform of sympathy alive.
The Oscars will air 26 April on Sky Cinema’s sub-channel, Sky Cinema Oscars.