Quick Takes: 2021 Oscars Catch-up

There’s usually very little room for surprise on the morning Oscar nominations are announced, but this year really did catch me off-guard.  I was amazed that even though I watched over 80 feature films released in 2020, only four were nominated in any category – even the lowly technicals.  Usually, I’ve seen at least a dozen without trying.  And of the four films I had seen, only one registered as anything especially praiseworthy.  Judas and the Black Messiah was decent-enough, but I honestly only watched it because I knew it would be nominated.  Meanwhile, Borat 2 was meh, Shaun the Sheep 2 was bleh, and Emma. was one of my personal favorite films of the year but was only nominated for Best Costuming & Best Makeup awards – which feels like the Academy on autopilot, treating it like a standard-issue costume drama.  Looking at the 42 feature films nominated for statues this year, I felt totally out of sync with what titles the film industry has deemed Important.  Or maybe it was just another sign of the pandemic scrambling everything up to the point where there is no clear zeitgeist right now.  Hard to tell.

Knowing that I’ll end up watching this year’s Academy Awards ceremony live on TV with or without having seen any of the films nominated, I used that moment of surprise as an excuse to catch up with some of last year’s high-profile releases that had slipped by me.  I set a couple rules for myself: only movies I could access for free or via a streaming service I already subscribe to (so no outrageous $20 rentals of films like The Father or Minari) and only movies that I had a genuine interest in seeing (so no enduring whatever the fuck is going on in Mank).  Usually on this website, we post a ranked list of films we’ve reviewed that happened to be nominated for Oscars.  This year, I have a ranked list of movies I watched because they were nominated for Oscars – each with an accompanying blurb.  It was partly an excuse to check out a few titles I meant to catch up with anyway, and partly an excuse to gawk at all the sparkling evening gowns at this week’s televised ceremony.  Enjoy.

Pinocchio

Nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Holy shit, this rules.  Matteo Garrone applies the same dark fairy tale wizardry he established in Tale of Tales to a much more widely familiar story.  The uncanny prosthetics & CG effects make the old feel new again in a deeply unsettling, uncanny nightmare that had me laughing and recoiling in horror, often in the same moment.  Shocked I loved it as much as I did; bummed it was so readily dismissed by online film nerds for ~looking weird~.  It does look weird, as more movies should.

I should confess that I have whatever defective gene makes Roberto Benigni funny, so I found his tragic-comic Geppetto wonderfully effective.  Regardless of that much-mocked casting choice, this is some deliciously dark Movie Magic.  Easily the best discovery of my Oscars Catch-up, and so far it’s the one title from last year I wish I’d seen before our Best of 2020 list-making ritual.

Sound of Metal

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Riz Ahmed), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Editing, and Best Sound

I really connected with this on an emotional level in a way I did not expected to, especially after a year where so few straightforward dramas cut through the constant background chaos churning around in my head and the world outside.  The disability and addiction narratives aren’t realms I personally know, but the D.I.Y. music scene and the struggles with explosive anger & codependency are definitely a world I recognize, and Riz Ahmed’s performance feels true enough to them. More importantly, it’s just a solid drama on its own merits.

For all its modern-world authenticity, it actually reminded me a lot of traditional Old Hollywood melodramas, particularly an Ida Lupino picture I reviewed recently called Never Fear about a dancer who’s rapidly paralyzed by polio.  Nothing wrong with some broadly traditional structure, though, especially when it still hits so effectively. 

Time

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Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

This one did help clarify why I hadn’t seen many of the major Oscar noms this year: they’re emotionally tough!  It’s not so much that they’re Homework, but most of my major blind spots tackle dead-serious subjects I would’ve been reluctant to engage with in a year that was already difficult enough to get through without filling my free time with discomfort watching.  This one’s a prison abolitionist doc about a Louisiana woman’s decades-long, uphill battle to get her husband released from Angola.  I’m glad the Awards Season ritual finally pushed me to watch it; it’s as deftly crafted as it is emotionally draining.

Listening to Fox Rich advocate both for her husband and for wider prison reform in present-day footage is powerful in itself, but it’s the poetic use of her decades of home video recordings that really weighs on the heart.  You watch her family age in her husband’s absence in a way that constantly emphasizes exactly what he’s missing out on, often directly addressing him just to fill him in on the smallest details of their day-to-day life.  Looks great, feels awful.

Tenet

Nominated for Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects

I resisted Nolan’s urging to spread a lethal virus by waiting to see this for free on a borrowed library DVD with the subtitles flipped on.  Turns out it’s a dumb-fun action movie with the absurd intellectual self-esteem of a freshman Philosophy student. I had a ton of fun with it.  Reminded me of the eerie, off-putting mutation of the modern action film in Gemini Man, in that it’s just slightly off in a way that’s compelling but difficult to pinpoint. Also reminded me of that episode of Wonder Showzen that stops halfway through to run the same gags backwards.

Its nomination for Best Visual Effects feels totally deserved, especially in a year with so few genuine blockbusters.  I was tickled by the hyper-convoluted dialogue in lines like “We’re being attacked by the future, and we’re fighting over time,” but during the backwards-fighting sequences I was genuinely wrapped up in the spectacle of it, no questions asked. At least no questions that matter more than watching stuff get blowed up real good (and then un-blowed-up even gooder).

Love and Monsters

Nominated for Best Visual Effects

An adorable creature feature about a young coward’s travels with a heroic stray dog across a post-apocalyptic wasteland to reconnect with his long-distance girlfriend. Shares a lot of weirdly pandemic-relevant dark humor with last year’s Spontaneous, although maybe without the same emotional heft. I probably should not have been surprised they also share a screenwriter.

Its coming-of-age neuroticism is cute enough on its own, but it wouldn’t be much without the inventiveness & grotesqueness of its creature designs. There are about a dozen uniquely nasty beasts spread throughout, and that variety was a smart choice in keeping the novelty alive once you settle into the rhythms of the plot. The dog could’ve also used an Oscar Nomination for Best Boy, though; quite the snub.

Crip Camp

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Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

A historical documentary about a hippie-run summer camp for kids with disabilities, tracking how its radically inclusive environment inspired its alumni to protest for Disability Rights in their adulthood.  Straightforward in its presentation, but in a way that’s smart to stay out of the way of the inherent power of its subject.

The overload of archival footage is the true wonder.  It has so much to work with that it can just hang out with the campers as they joke at length about a genital crabs infestation going around the bunks or debate whether they should eat lasagna for dinner. It lets the kids be kids (which is exactly what it’s praising Camp Jened for doing in the first place) then clearly demonstrates how empowering that can be as they grow into themselves. Unfortunately, its conventionality gradually overpowers its exciting first hour the further it gets away from the camp, but it’s still solid overall as both portraiture & political advocacy.

Judas and the Black Messiah

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Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Music (Original Song), and Best Cinematography

Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old.

If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.  At least it’s not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform.  Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s police-state execution is a genuine, real-world good.  The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.

Da 5 Bloods

Nominated for Best Music (Original Score)

I initially avoided this because I’m generally bored by the Vietnam War Movie template to the point of total numbness. Instead of dodging the redundancy of genre, this one dives headfirst into it — directly commenting on its tropes & untruths. It’s revisiting & unpacking Vietnam War Cinema as much as it’s picking scabs leftover from the war itself.  Which means there are Apocalypse Now-themed dance parties, Rambo jokes, and deliberately corny helicopter warfare.  No CCR needle drops, though, thankfully.

Can’t say I completely overcame my genre bias here, and I’m not convinced the movie overcomes the hurdle of Netflix Flatness either.  Still, I’m always on the hook for Spike Lee’s messy multimedia jabs at all ugly corners institutional racism, and this particular topic opens up a wide range of opportunities for his deliciously unsubtle political commentary. Would’ve been much more excited by an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay over Best Original Score.

Another Round

Nominated for Best Director and Best International Feature Film

Look, I only have enough capacity to care about one self-amused film about pathetic men’s midlife crises at a time, and right now that space is occupied by Deerskin.  This one’s mildly engaging once it heats up, but it’s a chore getting there. The wonderful, much-praised ending almost felt like earning a lollipop for enduring a doctor’s visit.

To be fair, it does a good job of covering all the positives & negatives of social & antisocial alcohol consumption, but I kinda found that to be a mundane topic at this length — almost as much as the macho fears of losing virility in old age.  It’s fine overall, but considering it in the context of Awards Season doesn’t do it any favors.

Nomadland

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Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (France McDormand), Best Director, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Cinematography, Best Editing

It’s an undignified ritual, but every Oscars cycle I end up watching something mediocre solely to be in tune with The Discourse.  Everything I’ve heard about this film’s muddied labor politics, Malickian awe with the American landscape, and emphasis on rugged individualism had me convinced it’d leave me either bored or annoyed.  I watched it anyway because it’s pretty much a lock for Best Picture, like a rube.

It was mostly fine.  Not exactly for me, but I knew to expect that.  The corporate sponsorships & celebrity protagonist occasionally had me rolling my eyes, but I do think it’s critical enough about America’s complete lack of a social safety net to get by okay.  The poetry it finds in life off the grid and the vastness of the West is completely lost on me, but that’s more a personal hang-up than a fault of the movie’s.

It’ll probably win Everything, then promptly be forgotten – another ritual that happens every Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Naively, I hoped last year’s bizarro movie distribution vortex might make for some exciting, unconventional Oscar nominations. Instead, it seems most of this season’s frontrunners are typically-awarded Prestige Dramas that weren’t available to the wide public two months into the next calendar year. It’s impressively stubborn. Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old. If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, the aforementioned Black Panther organizer who was murdered in his sleep by the FBI (a real-life biographical detail that recalls the recent police-state execution of Breonna Taylor). Hampton’s internal life is kept at a careful distance here, as the movie is more interested in his Political Importance, especially in his ability to captivate & motivate large, diverse crowds with passionate speeches about wealth distribution & racist police-state violence. Our POV character is the undercover FBI informant who sold Hampton out to the pigs, Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. At its most enthralling, the movie focuses on Stanfield’s self-conflicted & self-loathing inability to stop the momentum of Hampton’s assassination once he’s already pushed those events in motion. He gradually realizes how insidious of a lie it is that the FBI frames the Black Panther Party to be just as hateful & anti-American as the Ku Klux Klan (a lie that I remember being taught as a kid myself), but by then his betrayal has already snowballed out of his control, which accounts for most of the film’s dramatic tension.

Judas and the Black Messiah is caught between two extremes; it achieves neither the thrilling undercover-cop genre subversion of a BlacKkKlansman nor the exquisite art-film portraiture of a If Beale Street Could Talk. In most ways it’s a firmly middle-of-the-road actors’ showcase meant to earn Awards Season buzz for its two central performers, something the movie even directly jokes about when an FBI agent muses that Stanfield’s informant “deserve(s) an Academy Award” for his deception. Kaluuya & Stanfield both deserve awards; they’re among the best working actors we’ve got. It’s just that they most often traffic in the kinds of high-concept genre films that don’t typically get recognized by the Academy (titles like Get Out, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, and Uncut Gems). This is the kind of work they have to put in to earn mainstream accolades, so the best we can do is celebrate that they’re not being used to voice mainstream rhetoric.

Judas and the Black Messiah is at least not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform. Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s execution is a genuine, real-world good. The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.

-Brandon Ledet