Regardless of anything, I think we’re all glad 2020 is over, though there is one last thing from that year to wrap up…
The year 2020 managed to be a trying time for everyone, though what I found especially interesting is how the arts fared. Despite all of the difficulties, at least one medium managed to truly shine: music. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but as an educated guess, I think it’s because it forced the cream of the crop to get more attention. Up until 2020, record labels usually got by promoting low-to-mid-tier talent who nonetheless appealed to a wide demographic. That’s not exactly an option when the stadiums are closed, so only records sales were left as a primary source of income for labels. While the low-tier pop acts hardly had trouble moving units themselves, they found themselves having to compete on an even playing field with the far more talented indie acts at the time. Moreover, because music usually has fewer personnel behind its creation than, for example, films or video games, the pandemic didn’t exactly slow down them down. In fact, because these acts no longer had to worry about touring, it afforded them more time to polish their studio material. This is why I can say, if nothing else, 2020 was an amazing year for music with Jessica Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? being a particular standout.
The reason this bears mentioning now is because while musicians found ways to adapt to a pandemic, filmmakers weren’t nearly as lucky. Music and video games got by, albeit not without difficulty, but if you were a AAA film bigwig trying to finance a big-budget action fest or anything featuring an ensemble cast? Forget it— you were doomed from the word go. As such, I don’t think it’s especially controversial to say that 2020 was an awful year for films. Certainly, the box office numbers would support such a conclusion; ticket sales dropped 80% from 2019 – from $11.4 billion in 2019 to $2.28 billion in 2020. For reference, Avengers: Endgame alone made more money than that it in its initial theatrical run ($2.798 billion).
Because of the pandemic, 2020 has the dubious honor of being the first year since I seriously began paying attention to the Academy Awards ceremony wherein my knowledge of the releases’ overall quality is strictly limited to the “Best Picture” nominations. Consequently, and unlike in the years leading up to it, I don’t have a point of reference when it comes to gauging how good the lineup is compared to the larger pool of films in 2020. There could be a ridiculous number of snubs, or it could be a fair representation; I have no way of knowing. The only other films from 2020 I’ve seen as of this writing are The Invisible Man and Class Action Park, which were decent, but not exactly Oscar-worthy.
I’ve lambasted 2018 on numerous occasions because while plenty of great films came out that year such as Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, the actual Oscar nominations were ridiculously lightweight. Adam McKay’s Vice in particular stands out as the single worst film of the 2010s to ever receive the “Best Picture” nomination, beating out his own earlier effort The Big Short for the distinction. The 91st ceremony is what happens when the best films are neither nominated nor given any kind of publicity. Meanwhile, 2019 had the opposite problem; it was such a great year for films that nine nominations didn’t really do it justice. Even so, it did result in the unexpected victory of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. While Todd Phillips’s Joker winning would’ve been a hilarious troll move, Parasite was the right choice, not only being the single best film of 2019, but arguably the entire decade.
The takeaway is that while the Academy is notoriously inconsistent when it comes to “Best Picture” nominees, you can generally use a given lineup to gauge how strong its respective year was in terms of creative output. The lineup for the 91st ceremony perfectly captured the opposing forces sabotaging earnest auteur-driven works in 2018 whereas the lineup for the 92nd ceremony correctly indicated a return to form in 2019.
This year, the nominations went to The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. I have mixed feelings about this particular lineup. To put it bluntly, it isn’t as solid as the 92nd ceremony’s lineup. To be fair, it was a difficult act to follow, and I will offer an olive branch by mentioning that these films, on average, are better than what the 91st ceremony had to offer. When you consider 2018 didn’t have a pandemic to deal with, that should give you an idea of how out to lunch filmmakers were at the time. I also like that a majority of these films were written and directed by relative newcomers. Between the eight filmmakers, David Fincher is the only one whose directorial debut predates the turn of the millennium. Even Aaron Sorkin, who had made a name for himself as a prolific screenwriter, only directed one other film before The Trial of the Chicago 7: Molly’s Game in 2017.
On the other hand, I have to say it’s not an especially great indication of where the medium is heading. If this is the best the new generation of filmmakers can do, then it unintentionally makes the case that the medium is creatively exhausted and desperately needs a shot in the arm to remain relevant in the foreseeable future. Don’t get me wrong, I have little doubt that good art is still being made; it’s just not necessarily filmmakers creating it. Plus, yes, sometimes practice does make perfect. While artists such as Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino managed to knock it out of the park on their first attempt and remained good decades into their respective careers, I find most of the top-tier talent such as Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa actually took a few tries to get it right. For that matter, filmmakers such as Krzysztof Kieślowski and Cecil B. DeMille didn’t make their masterworks until the very end of their careers. It’s very possible that these newcomers will become even better with time and create something truly great somewhere down the line.
Still, it doesn’t exactly bode well, and for me to illustrate my point, we have to examine 2019 a little bit more closely. As good of a year as 2019 was, there is a bit of an asterisk next to my conclusion. While the nominations of the 92nd ceremony were indeed stronger than those from the year before, the lineup was dominated by veterans. Part of the reason 2018 was such a poor year for films is because the new talent, from Ari Aster to Bo Burnham, suffered from a lack of vision. If they did have a vision, it was either an accidental parody of how arthouse productions are perceived outside of cinephile circles or limited to stuff right in front of their faces. It was therefore up to the visionaries of old such as Martin Scorsese, Bong Joon-ho, and Quentin Tarantino to kick the medium back into shape the following year.
Moreover, the fact that a majority of the “Best Director” awards went to international filmmakers throughout the 2010s implies two things. The first is that the American film industry isn’t doing what it can to breed new, homegrown talent. The second is that the true visionaries aren’t being afforded the resources Hollywood has access to, forcing them to make do with small-budget indie efforts. All of this demonstrates just how risk-adverse Hollywood has become since the end of New Hollywood. While the commercial side of an industry has nothing to do with its artistic side, Parasite proved that the audience will make a great film a smash success if it’s marketed properly. Nonetheless, the draconic studio system will only cause the American filmmaking scene to continue squandering its potential.
With that bit of rambling out of the way, I think it’s about time we get started. As usual, this list isn’t intended to be a prediction as to which film will win. I’ve reviewed all eight films, and this is merely a subjective determination as to how they fare in relation to each other. So, without further ado, let’s go.
Want proof this year’s lineup outshines that of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony? Look no further than Nomadland. Had it been released and subsequently nominated in 2018, it would have beaten half of that year’s nominees. Then again, Nomadland also indicates what a step down the 93rd “Best Picture” lineup is from the 92nd in how the weakest nominee from that year, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, overshadows it. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and I find the same principle applies when parsing a given “Best Picture” lineup with the lowest score I awarded the 91st, 92nd, and 93rd ceremony nominees being a 2/10, a 7/10, and a 5.5/10 respectively.
Don’t get me wrong, Nomadland is perfectly fine for what it is. The late 2010s saw no shortage of mumblecore-inspired slice-of-life features dominated by amateur casts. While the thought process behind their creation was admirable, they seldom featured anyone capable of carrying the narrative, which is bad because many of them were character studies. Nomadland doesn’t have this problem, as Frances McDormand is charismatic enough to carry a film on her own. It also does a much better job depicting the effects of the Great Recession of 2008 than Adam McKay’s The Big Short by virtue of being written by someone who doesn’t come across as a raging egotist.
However, this doesn’t prevent the other significant weakness associated with mumblecore-style films from manifesting: the lack of a strong plot. Granted, this is probably my own personal bias speaking because I tend to favor plot-driven works over character-driven works, but the directionless meandering associated with these kinds of films becomes repetitive very quickly. Chloé Zhao does a better job taking what would otherwise be a deal-breaking flaw and making it into a feature than many of her contemporaries, but not to the extent where I could give it a straight recommendation.
7. Sound of Metal
Apparently, 2019 was such a great year for films that it got to be represented in two different Academy Awards ceremonies.
Once again, I do think it bears mentioning that, on paper, it’s very easy to make the case for Sound of Metal being worthy of its Oscar nomination. This is a film made on a limited budget in four weeks with no more than two takes per scene. It would have been a miracle if the film turned out half as good as it did, let alone distinct enough for the Academy to take notice and give it a “Best Picture” nomination. There are countless AAA productions made by people having been afforded more time and money who didn’t even come close to achieving what Darius Marder did with Sound of Metal.
At the same time, the low-budget nature of its production does show, with the writing coming across as second-draft material in places on top of not utilizing its presentational gimmicks to their fullest potential. If Mr. Marder and his team had a chance to iron out the production, Sound of Metal could have been one of the best, most unique films of the decade. Instead, it has to settle for being an honorable mention. It also has much of the same problems as Nomadland in how it doesn’t really seem to know where to go once all is said and done. Regardless, it is a much more focused narrative, which allows its ideas to land more effectively, hence the higher ranking.
Mank differs from the previous two entries on this list in how it doesn’t come across as the embryonic form of a great film that would have been so had if it was given just a little bit more time to develop. Instead, its biggest problem is that it conforms to the very restrictive, inflexible model biographical features used throughout the 2010s. The formula is perfect for crafting a story about overcoming adversity and achieving success, and not much else. Granted, Mank does fit the mold a little better than, say, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book – the creators of which didn’t even bother properly researching their subject. That’s not an issue with Mank; David Fincher and his team had a passionate interest in their subject matter Mr. Farrelly and company did not.
The ultimate problem is that using the formula so unabashedly while also attempting a throwback to Golden Age Hollywood films undermines what Mank does well. You will find it difficult to believe the film was released in 2020 when watching it because Mr. Fincher nails Orson Welles’s unique style in a way very few directors could. Considering the creative stagnation that plagues the American film industry as of this writing, attempting to rediscover techniques from the masters of old and doing new things with them could be just what the doctor ordered. Nonetheless, that the film takes so many creative liberties with real-life events forbids it from ever possessing the timeless quality of bona fide classics such as Citizen Kane. Regardless, Mank is allowed to outrank Nomadland and Sound of Metal by virtue of coming across as a fully formed project and potentially allowing a new generation to discover one of the best films ever made.
Any A24 fans livid about their lack of representation in the past two Academy Award ceremonies were likely appeased by the appearance of Minari in this lineup. I have criticized the studio many times for their amoral marketing tactics and general lack of creative vision despite the critics’ insistence to the contrary. That being said, I must also note that after spending some time hearing out what other cinephiles have to say, I sort of get why they’re such a critical darling. It’s because they’re one of the very few studios that always throws ideas out there. The mainstream studios certainly aren’t, being more concerned with generating profits than making any kind of meaningful art. In a situation where you have nothing to work with, you take whatever ideas you can get – even if none of them are good.
Even so, I still feel A24 benefits from the fact that their artistic competition in the mainstream is decidedly weak; had they been regularly going up against Golden Age or New Hollywood alumni, they would’ve been crushed. This is why I don’t think it was a coincidence that The Irishman beat out Uncut Gems for a “Best Picture” nomination last year. You never settle for a paste imitation when the real gem it’s a crude copy of is being offered at the same price.
Because of this, while A24 is a darling in the critical circle, I tend to think of them as the film studio equivalent of GeoCities. Like GeoCities, it gives anyone who passes through their ranks a platform for themselves. Also like GeoCities, the problem with this proposition is that it gives a platform to a lot of people who, while talkative, don’t really have anything interesting to say. Critics considered it admirable, but in practice, Lulu Wang was one of the few directors who used the complete creative control A24 afforded her with any kind of success. The Farewell would most likely have been plagued by intrusive executive notes had a mainstream studio funded it, so for her to be in a situation where she could call all the shots allowed her unique story to come across unfiltered.
With Minari, Lee Isaac Chung does, to some degree, successfully follow in the footsteps as Ms. Wang because he too had a unique story to tell. A story about the mixture of cultures resulting from having moved from abroad to the United States is best told from a viewpoint of someone who has lived such an experience. Such a story likely would not have thrived as well with an executive constantly looking over Mr. Chung’s shoulder. Unfortunately, in what is something of a running theme throughout the bottom half of this list, Minari is ultimately brought down as a result of its abrupt ending. It ranks higher than Nomadland and Sound of Metal by virtue of having the most cohesive narrative and edges out Mank as a result of its nonformulaic nature, but it could have been so much more.
4. The Trial of the Chicago 7
On the back of what I said about Mank, it may seem a bit strange that I would be willing to award a passing grade to Aaron Sorkin’s film, but not David Fincher’s. After all, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is about a group of defendants found guilty for the crime of challenging a flawed status quo. Considering the kinds of stories that fit the formula best, it would seem as though The Trial of the Chicago 7, which ends with the righteous rebels being found guilty and forced to serve five years in prison, is tantamount to jamming a square peg in a round hole. Logically, what allows Mr. Sorkin’s film to work boils down to a very simple, straightforward factor: it could be seen as a rebellion against the formula itself.
Mr. Sorkin writes the defendants in a way that they know they’re doomed from the onset, so they decide to go down swinging every step of the way. As most contemporary biographical features end on a triumph of some kind, The Trial of the Chicago 7 pensively decides what to do when such an outcome is impossible. Even after the significant challenges that arose in the years since The West Wing ended in 2006, the same idealism is evident in Mr. Sorkin’s sophomore cinematic effort. It makes the case that even when you face impossible odds, your struggles will mean something and add up in the long term. As a result, I can safely say The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a film people needed in 2020, though probably not for the reason most culture critics were thinking.
3. Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds for many of the same reasons as The Trial of the Chicago 7, using a tragic historical event to teach its audience of timeless ideals worth upholding. In all honesty, these two films are roughly as good as each other, but I give the nod to Shaka King for doing a slightly better job rebelling against the contemporary biopic formula than Aaron Sorkin. Mr. Sorkin’s own attempt is laudable itself, but certain portions do shamelessly employ the schmaltzy, feelgood tropes one would expect from a mainstream 1990s feature. Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional schmaltz, mind you, but a little sincerity goes a long way.
Indeed, when Judas and the Black Messiah came out, I heard countless critics lament that things haven’t really changed since 1968 – the year in which this film is set. However, while typing this string of reviews, history was made when Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, had been found guilty. This is why I can say for certain that, while more progress absolutely needs to be made, to say nothing has changed since 1968 is an objectively incorrect statement. The look on Chauvin’s face as the judge read the guilty verdict said it all – his eyes darted around the courtroom as though he were the one slighted. He knew that had he committed his crime ten or even just five years earlier, he likely would have been let off the hook. Therefore, on April 20th, 2021, a historical precedent was set.
Now, I cannot definitively say whether or not Mr. King’s film actually swayed the public to take a stand against police corruption. It is entirely possible that the depiction of J. Edgar Hoover’s quest to destroy the Black Panther Party nudged the Overton window just enough so the jurists were convinced they couldn’t let another criminal escape justice. It’s also just possible that they were simply tired of the corruption and the COVID-19 pandemic removed all distractions to the point where a unified effort could easily form in order to stamp it out. Tellingly, it only took the jury two days to reach that verdict. Either way, even if Mr. King was only 1% responsible for the verdict, then it reinforces the idea that his film came out exactly when the people needed it.
However, as with The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t succeed merely because of the comparisons between it and contemporary problems that could be drawn. It succeeds because it’s a story with plenty of applicability outside of its intended context, and its masterful religious symbolism only makes the narrative that much stronger.
2. The Father
Now, I know what I said before I started the list sounded a little pessimistic. While I do genuinely believe the current wave of auteurs suffer from a lack of drive and ambition, I will point out that the two best films in this lineup happen to be directorial debuts. In fact, between the four films in the top half of this list, two of them are debuts and two of them are sophomore efforts. I will also admit that, for better and for worse, the latter half of the 2010s did stand out more than the former half, so once the current wave finds their voice, the medium could very well make a comeback.
This all bears mentioning because, with his debut, Florian Zeller weaves a bleak narrative about dementia, sending the audience on a journey that will leave them as confused as the protagonist. It’s an extremely difficult watch – especially for anyone who has dealt with a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it deals with the subject so well that it may leave those who can relate to the experience catatonic. Even so, The Father wins out over the previous six entries due to its stunning ambition. It’s not a film I intend to revisit due to its heavy subject matter, but for Mr. Zeller to prove himself a master of visual storytelling right out of the gate is truly remarkable.
1. Promising Young Woman
I do want to reiterate that, despite not surpassing the incredibly high bar the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony had set, this set of nominees is still far better than those from two years prior. Nonetheless, as I reach the end of this list, I find myself in a similar position as I did two years ago. My choice for the number one position two years ago was between Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I opted for the latter as kind of an act of rebellion against film critics, who had become incredibly stuffy and pretentious around that time – more so than usual. It was an admittedly tenuous reason, but I wrote the list the way I did to subtly signpost how I lacked a horse in that particular race.
This was, to some degree, my guiding principle when I decided to make a case for placing Emerald Fennell’s debut effort, Promising Young Woman, at the top of my 93rd Academy Awards ceremony’s “Best Picture” list. It is very much the feminist answer to Jordin Peele’s Get Out, being cast from the same mold borne from youthful, righteous rebellion. Like Get Out, Promising Young Woman is a black comedy that ruthlessly attacks a major societal problem. Get Out lambasted racists who legitimately believe themselves to be liberal, but nonetheless actively benefit from the disparity the far right creates. Promising Young Woman does very similar things, but with “Nice Guys” and rape culture instead.
It’s also the film Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers tried and failed to be. The problem with Hustlers is that, just like Vice, it has so much vitriol to spew, entirely innocent parties wind up taking the brunt of the ire. Ms. Fennell’s film doesn’t make the same mistake, which is ironic because it arguably has fewer sympathetic male characters. Nonetheless, it is not a sexist film as much as it is laser focused on a very real problem. Part of what made the cast of Hustlers so difficult to sympathize with was the number of degrees of separation between themselves and their marks. Meanwhile, the titular promising young woman has a far more relatable plight, and the people she takes revenge against have directly wronged her. This makes it downright cathartic when she effects her elaborate schemes.
Giving a voice to the hitherto voiceless is one of art’s greatest strengths, and it is for that reason I can dub Promising Young Woman the shining star of this year’s “Best Picture” nominees.