Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Ranking the Best Picture Nominees (2021)::rating::5::rating::5

With the Oscars fast approaching, it’s time to take a closer look at the nominees.  It’s a boatload of fun to rank things, so let’s make a list, shall we?  Note:  This isn’t necessarily based on what I think will win Best Picture, but more how much I connected with each film.  And now, on with the countdown!

(The Academy Awards will air on ABC on March 27th, 2022, at 7pm CST.)

10.  Don‘t Look Up (2021)

If classic satires like Network and The Hospital slice into socio-cultural conventions with a scalpel, then Don’t Look Up grabs a big rock and bludgeons them to death with it.  Of course, we live in a time where Dr. Strangelove is starting to hit close to home, so maybe belligerent and bloody is exactly what we need.  This Adam McKay spectacle imagines an Armageddon comet hurtling in our direction, and speculates that humanity would be too inert, too distracted, and…well, too stupid to do anything about it.  It’s an allegory for climate change, but this also could’ve been built for our government’s mouth-breathing reaction to COVID.  An all-star cast (Leo, JLaw, Meryl, Jonah, and that guy from Hellboy) plays an assortment of caricatures.  Streep, landing somewhere between a Real Housewife dingbat and a Fox News shill, scores highest as a narcissistic POTUS.  Don’t Look Up certainly has some funny moments…but it’s also just a one-joke movie.  Unfortunately, it hits that joke early, often, and with violent fury.  (Netflix)

9.  CODA (2021)

Engaging, effective little drama, driven by a novel twist:  Talented, mercurial teenage girl Ruby (Emilia Jones), aspires to be a singer, but she is also the only hearing member of her family.  (CODA = Child of Deaf Adults)  In this context, Ruby’s lack of disability proves to be its own disability, and makes her journey more difficult.  Jones is excellent; that goes ditto for Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, as her libidinous parents.  This is earnest, thoughtful filmmaking, and much more palatable than the overcooked TV movie it could’ve been.  Still, CODA gets outshined by other entries on this list.  (Apple TV+)

8.  King Richard (2021)

Set in the early 90s, Richard Williams (Will Smith) grooms his daughters, Venus and Serena, for tennis superstardom.  Turns out, Richard’s biggest obstacle is himself, as his zealous micromanaging and fragile ego provide constant headwind for his life’s work.  Smith is dependably solid, playing a good-hearted man who can be either shrewd or bumbling, depending on the day.  Jon Bernthal also scores as Rick Macci, the girls’ ever-patient coach.  Much like CODA, this is a perfectly good movie, but eighth is about the right ranking here.  (HBOMax)

7.  Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley is half of a great movie, and it’s really up to the beholder which half that is:  Guillermo del Toro kicks off with a macabre opening, set during the Great Depression.  A mysterious, opportunistic drifter (Bradley Cooper) hooks up with a traveling carnival, run by Willem Dafoe.  It’s here we see chicken-chomping geeks, fetuses in jars, and a commune of circus misfits.  Cooper learns how to be a pseudo-psychic, and hatches a scheme to fleece a few rich people.  This puts him with Cate Blanchett’s icy shrink, who may have a few hidden plans of her own.  At this point, Alley veers more toward traditional film noir, and it actually improves in pacing and tone.  The instant chemistry of Cooper and Blanchett doesn’t hurt, either.  Del Toro delivers a gorgeous, eye-popping film.  But, at 150 minutes, it’s also punishingly uneven.  (HBOMax)

6.  Dune (2021)

Devotees of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel spent years proclaiming it could never be filmed.  In fact, David Lynch’s disjointed, dismal ’84 adaptation only gave that argument more oomph.  Well, massive props go to Denis Villenueve for making all those snobs shut their cake-holes.  Dune is a brawny, beautiful spectacle, replete with eye-gasmic cinematography and pixel-perfect special effects, plus Hans Zimmer’s oddly magnificent score.  Most importantly, Villenueve delivers a film that is, for the most part, just coherent enough for us noobs.  That all-star cast is hit-and-miss, mostly because some of them don’t have much to do yet.  (Zendaya, in particular, gets squandered.)  Overall, this is about as well-made and entertaining as a cinematic Dune is ever going to get, but it also can’t escape the vibe that a lot of its payoff is pending for a later film.  (HBOMax)

5.  Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh follows the example of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, and cinematically paints his childhood from memory.  Although the inspiration is similar, the results couldn’t be more different:  Where Cuarón filled his loose biography alternating brush strokes of sweeping tragedy and muffled melancholia, Branagh balances life during The Troubles with more bright, bouncy nostalgia.  Yes, war is terrible, but as long as Van Morrison can belt “Jackie Wilson Said” on the soundtrack, there’s always hope for humanity.  Jude Hill does fine work as Buddy, the stand-in for Branagh as a boy. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds snagged Oscar noms as Buddy’s grandparents, and Hinds is a dark horse to win.  This is a great film, but I still think any of these subsequent entries stand above it in the race for Best Picture.  (On Demand)

4.  Power of the Dog (2021)

Haunting, somber Western, set just as the frontier fades into history.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play Phil and George, squabbling brothers at the head of a cattle drive.  The former is belligerent and cynical, which has caused the latter to spend a lifetime within a shell.  When George meets Rose (Kirsten Dunst), an emotionally brittle cafe owner, Phil’s world shakes to the core. He lashes out, hurling abuse at Rose and her eccentric, precocious son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  Turns out, there’s a lot more behind Phil’s rancid bullying than anyone imagined.  Writer-director Jane Campion (The Piano) carefully builds a tense, intimate character study, and sets it against a sweeping New Zealand backdrop.  (These Kiwi vistas stand in for Montana, which has to be the first such substitution in cinema history.)  Outstanding performances all around, with Cumberbatch emerging as a favorite to win Best Actor.  The ending may leave some viewers baffled, but its moral ambiguity suits the movie’s bleak vibe perfectly.  (Netflix)

3.  West Side Story (2021)

Given the sheer weight of expectations and the very nature of its genre, West Side Story might be the unlikeliest tour de force on this list.  In truth, audiences could be forgiven for dismissing this movie, sight unseen, as a well-made, well-intentioned rehash of a classic that should’ve been left alone.  The good news is Steven Spielberg delivers a lot more than that:  He and screenwriter Tony Kushner approach the source material in a way that’s both reverential and relevant.  Ansel Elgrot and Rachel Zegler are an instant improvement over Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, whose lackluster chemistry was a key debit to an otherwise pristine 1961 film. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for the original work, shines in a newly-created role.  The original movie won 10 Oscars, but I’ll go ahead and say it:  This one is an improvement. (Disney+)

2. Licorice Pizza (2021)

Five Stars

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood) achieves a rarity in cinema:  Licorice Pizza is a full-on nostalgia trip, and it’s genuinely moving, hilarious, and never maudlin.  Anderson takes us back to the Valley, circa 1973, for the backdrop of his childhood.  Here, we meet Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), an enterprising, cheerfully oblivious teenager who always has a get-rich-quick scheme loaded in the hopper.  Gary falls hopelessly in love with Alana (Alana Haim) a freewheeling twenty-something who must come to grips that she subscribes to the same brand of weirdness as he does.  There’s not really a cohesive plot to speak of, just two adventurous souls aimlessly driving on the road to self-discovery.  Hoffman and Haim deliver two of the best debut performances in recent memory.  (Hoffman’s presence is especially endearing, as he is the son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s longtime collaborator.). The supporting players are exquisitely funny, especially Bradley Cooper as a belligerent, coke-addled movie producer/hairdresser named Jon Peters. Pizza may not be as overtly bravura as Anderson’s Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, but it still might be the best film he’s ever made.  This is the kind of movie Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore, and I’m quietly rooting for it to clean up at the Oscars.  (On Demand)

1.  Drive My Car (2021)

Five Stars

A masterful slow-burn on letting go and moving on, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi somehow delivers a film that feels elegiac and beautiful, raw and intimate, all at once.  Early in the story, (Reika Kirishima) Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishikima) loses his wife (Reika Kirishima) to a sudden illness.  Grief-stricken, Yusuke struggles with the confrontation he’ll never get to have over her infidelities, while his enduring love for her aches in a way that will never fully heal.  After a two-year hiatus, Yusuke agrees to direct a multi-lingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and ends up casting one of his late wife’s young lovers in the lead role.  Meanwhile, theater company hires Misaki (Tōko Miura), a sullen young woman, to chauffeur Yusuke to and from work every day.  She becomes drawn to his melancholia, and the story behind it.  Over time, he returns this emotional attachment.  Hollywood would’ve mangled this relationship, or cheapened it beyond recognition.  Here, Hamaguchi spends three hours building these characters into real people, leading to a resolution that couldn’t be more moving and poetic.  Drive My Car hits a rare trifecta:  The acting, writing, and directing are all note-perfect.  (HBOMax)

Leave a comment

the Kick-ass Multipurpose WordPress Theme

© 2024 Kicker. All Rights Reserved.