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

The Future (2011)

One thing I noticed while drafting a potential Best Films of the 2010s list in recent weeks is how little the twee aesthetic means to me at this point in time. As a budding film nerd (and pretentious college campus twerp) in the 2000s, twee was the exact modernized introduction to the capital-c Cinema sensibilities of the French New Wave that I needed in my life. I even still appreciate the aesthetic to this day (if not only for nostalgia’s sake), but it’s now something I can apparently live without. Twee heavy-hitters like Wes Anderson & Michel Gondry released excellent films in the 2010s that doubled down on the visual fussiness & whimsical melancholy that made them famous in the previous decade. Smaller pictures from new voices like Girl Asleep & I Lost My Body even strived to push the sensibility into fresh, exciting directions. Yet, I can’t find a place for the twee aesthetic on my list of my favorite films of the 2010s. There just wasn’t anything especially urgent or resonant about its presence on the pop culture landscape that decade. The closest any title comes to touching on that end of precious cinematic melancholy that I’d consider best-of-the-decade material is Miranda July’s sophomore feature, The Future. And even that film feels more like a post-twee cultural autopsy more than it does like a genuine twee specimen.

If the heart-on-sleeve earnestness, despondent whimsy, and pastel-tinted visual fussiness of July’s debut Me and You and Everyone We Know operates as a genuine entry in the twee canon, her follow-up feels like a breakthrough to a post-twee world. With nearly a decade’s worth of retrospect behind it, The Future now plays like the official, miserable onscreen death of Twee Whimsy. This time-obsessed breakup drama for a pair of listless thirty-somethings captures that post-youth stare in the mirror when you first realize you’re not special and that life is largely pointless & devoid of magic. It’s a painful but necessary rite of passage, one that directly mirrors my own experience with wonder & self-worth over the past ten years. Curiously, it’s also a breakthrough that seems to be lost on most viewers, who apparently see the move as more of the same held over from July’s debut. It’s fascinating to see on Letterboxd that a lot of people view The Future purely as self-absorbed hipster quirk, when that’s the exact subject the film coldly picks apart in a despondent autopsy. There’s something about July in particular that sets off more cynical audiences’ Bullshit Detectors before she’s even allowed to get her point across, which is a total shame, since she taps into private, internal triumphs & crises no one else thinks to put onscreen. In general, I don’t think the (loosely defined) twee genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just under its meticulously curated surface, and Miranda July is maybe the most undervalued dabbler in despair to be dismissed in that way.

The biggest roadblock that July’s skeptics struggle with in The Future is its choice of narrator: a cat. What could be cutesier than a talking housecat narrating the story of a young couple’s struggle with mid-30s ennui? Except, the execution isn’t cute at all. The cat is ill and lonely in captivity at a “kill shelter,” waiting for the couple (played by Hamish Linklater & July herself) to adopt it before it’s euthanization day arrives. That rescue mission never comes to fruition, though, as the couple becomes so absorbed in their own increasingly meaningless bullshit that they forget about the promise they made to that pitiful beast. Likewise, a magical realist interaction with The Moon where a character stops time to delay an imminent break-up argument and converses with the celestial body in that frozen moment sounds like saccharine whimsy in the abstract. In practice, it’s a devastating illustration of how a moment of heartbreak can leave you feeling as if you’re struck in time. There is no magic in this world, and as soon as the ruse of being able to pause time to prevent hurt is lifted, it’s revealed that weeks have gone by without you. The world has moved on; you are not its center. In the twee era of mildly magical romances like Amélie & The Science of Sleep, these characters’ love for each other might have broken through the restrictions of physics & time to save the proverbial cat. In The Future, magic is dead, and all hope is lost. All we can do is bide our time until we are old enough to die – preferably with company we can stomach.

If your mid-30s sounds like too early in a lifespan to give up & wait for death, don’t worry; the movie’s willing to make fun of that premature panic too. Faced with the responsibility of adopting an ill housecat, our central couple—a work-from-home tech support dweeb and an overqualified children’s dance instructor—trigger their shared mid-life crisis at least a decade too early. Their first-act freak-out that life is essentially over at 35 and everything to follow is “loose change” is eventually treated as a naïve oversimplification and, essentially, a bratty temper tantrum. As long as you live to old age instead of perishing prematurely, there’s plenty of time to live after your youth shrivels up. Too much, even. The realization they suffer here is more that their options & freedoms are becoming severely more limited as they settle into the grooves of adulthood. Feeling that they have been “gearing up to do something incredible for the last fifteen years,” they suddenly realize that nothing incredible is ever likely to happen. They’re doomed to be mundane, unspecial, and purposeless until they die (a very long time from now): the same curse that afflicts the overwhelming majority of humanity. Any attempts to shake off their limiting responsibilities as budding adults to instead pursue “Fulfilling Experiences” only alienate them further from the one comfort they have in this meaningless, increasingly isolating world: each other. Magical escapes from their mundane doom become less fulfilling with time, operating more as distractions than life-changing epiphanies. Few of us will ever amount to much or affect any large-scale change in the world, which is the exact tragic realization that gradually dawns on this couple on the verge of dissolution.

If the title of this film suggests that it’s attempting to predict the actual future, I’d say July was fairly successful. Its varied themes of Climate Change defeatism, post-Obama disillusionment, the pressure to turn self-gratifying art projects to public displays, and the isolating effect of social media obsession all feel accurate to how the 2010s played out in the long run – give or take a flip phone to smartphone upgrade. Extratextually, the film also felt like a prescient death knell for the twee sensibility’s importance on the pop culture landscape. The aesthetic’s ghost continued on in twee-as-fuck films to follow like Moonrise Kingdom, God Help The Girl, and even my beloved Paddington 2, but July had already given it a proper burial in The Future. It’s a film that will alienate many a cynical grump who stumbles across it by accident – if not as soon as its cat-narrated intro, then at least by the time July is doing an interpretive dance about vulnerability to a Beach House track. Still, for those more in tune with the heart-on-sleeve melancholy of the twee sensibility (or its equally ill-defined “mumblecore” aftershock), it really does feel like the end of an era in wide-eyed wonder & hope for what’s to come. It’s a shame that it’s taken July so long to follow up this soul-crushing bummer with a third feature, as I’m very curious to find out what adulthood milestone is going to break my heart next.

-Brandon Ledet