Well, 2021 wasn’t the return to normalcy I think we were all hoping it would be, but it still managed to be a step in the right direction if for no other reason than because vaccines allowed some form of agency. But, of course, some traditions carry on as scheduled, and like the years before it, I made a vow to see every single Oscar-nominated film so I can keep my ten-year winning streak alive (eleven-year by the end of this day). I apologize in advance, but unlike the last two years, however, I simply don’t have the time to review all of them, so we’re jumping into the “Worst to Best” list straight away.
The 94th Academy Awards ceremony saw ten films receive the much vaunted “Best Picture” award. The nominees this time were Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story. Looking at those ten nominees and the people who directed them, I find this lineup is thematically similar to that of the 92nd ceremony. That is to say, the AAA domestic talent clearly wasn’t cutting it, so, once again, the Academy had to resort to indies, veterans, and international mavericks to bust the American film industry out of its protracted flop era. It’s a little disappointing because the new blood should be playing a more active role in this process, but there’s a Jane Campion film among the nominees, so I can’t complain too much.
But, before we can rank the films from worst to best, I find it necessary to address the elephant in the room. After all, they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I think for a lot of people in a time of uncertainty, it’s comforting to remember that certain things always remain the same. The sun rises in the east, every fourth year has an extra day, and if an Adam Mckay production ever receives the “Best Picture” nomination, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be the worst entry in the lineup by a country mile. You know – things you can set your watch to.
Now, I didn’t even know of the existence of Adam McKay’s latest ego trip until one of my friends mentioned it. Considering its surprisingly low critical approval (55% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing), I likely would have missed it completely had I been keeping up with watching these films in theaters. However, the exact moment I found out who directed it, I was certain of three things.
- That it was going to be bad.
- Exactly how it was going to be bad.
- The Academy was going to eat it up.
I’d celebrate making three perfect predictions in a row, but that would imply it was challenging.
Watching the 93rd ceremony was an odd experience because I went into it with zero context for the big picture. As the only films I saw in theaters in 2020 weren’t even from that year, I had no idea at the time whether the choices for “Best Picture” in the 93rd ceremony represented the year fairly or if any snubs occurred. By contrast, I knew the 91st ceremony was a certifiable snub festival with Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace being the most notable victim of their apathy, and none of the other praiseworthy films from 2018 such as George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, or Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor even getting a passing mention. Meanwhile, 2019 was such a great year for films that the Academy – or anybody, really – simply couldn’t do it justice with only nine choices, though thankfully, they picked worthy contenders and kept the snubs to a minimum. Better yet, the greatest film from that year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, emerged victorious in the end. It seemed as though the new, daring Academy – the one that had the audacity to crown Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water “Best Picture” in the 90th ceremony – was back.
Even so, because the COVID-19 pandemic cleared out theaters faster than the screening of a Dinesh D’Souza film, I found myself completely uninterested in keeping up with the new releases. Therefore, it wasn’t until after I saw Regina King’s One Night in Miami… I confirmed that, yes, even with 2020 being a catastrophically bad year for the film industry, at least one worthy contender had indeed been snubbed. There simply wasn’t an excuse for nominating, much less giving the “Best Picture” award to, the lightweight, unchallenging Nomadland over One Night in Miami… – or even The Father, for that matter.
My 2021 filmgoing experiences were very similar, as even after getting vaccinated and boosted, there simply wasn’t anything that piqued my interest enough to get me in theaters. Turns out pandemics aren’t conducive to your average filmmaking project. Who knew? Despite this, and unlike 2020, I am absolutely certain that at least one great film got snubbed. What film got snubbed? I have no idea, but I know it exists simply because Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up was nominated. You can’t nominate an Adam McKay project without snubbing a worthier contender. Fact. The alternative is that Don’t Look Up is worthy of its inclusion, which would, by extension, imply 2021 was one of the worst years in the history of cinema. Considering the high quality of the other nine entries, I’m not willing to accept such a premise. Plus, with ten nominees, which is two more than what the previous ceremony boasted, at least one person clearly felt there wasn’t a dearth of material to choose from.
Surprisingly, Mr. McKay ditching the mean-spirited, in-your-face, faux-documentary style of his last two films in favor of a mean-spirited, in-your-face, faux-satirical style was not the shot in the arm he needed to get over his clear case of arrested development. Like his last two films, Don’t Look Up is a product of an inflated ego who, like other burned out, mid-tier talents unable to hack it with original material anymore, turned to half-baked political punditry in a desperate bid to stay relevant. And he couldn’t even do that right – it left critics more divided than they had been with Vice. Considering the contemporary critic’s tendency to overwhelmingly praise works purely because they have messages they can get behind – subtlety or applicability be damned, this should’ve been a slam dunk for him, but it wasn’t because his writing has only gotten worse and more infantile with each new project. This is the filmmaking equivalent of drawing a royal flush with spades and still finding a way to lose.
So, I know a lot of my readers expected me to put this film at the bottom of my list considering my less-than-favorable review of Vice, but I’m not going to do that. And no, it’s not because I think it’s better than one of the other nominees. You see, one of my grading rules is that, in order for a film to be eligible for a review, it needs to have a narrative. Granted, when I came up with that rule, it was to point out how my criteria greatly depend on the film being a work of fiction or a fictionalized version of true events. This is as opposed to, say documentaries, which can obviously be good, but are a little difficult to grade in the same fashion as a work of fiction because they are made differently and serve their own distinct purpose. I did once try reviewing documentaries such as Free Solo, but I ultimately found grading them was like parsing reference works as pieces of literature. Obviously, they can be good or bad as well, but it’s not fair to hold them up to the same standards when they serve wildly different purposes from each other.
However, I assert that, despite being a work of fiction, Don’t Look Up fails to meet my criterion. There are no real characters, no real story beats, and no real point to it at all. What he wrote could have worked as a comic strip, but turning it into a feature-length film ensured the jokes were, without exception, torturously drawn out – to the point of making your average post-revival Family Guy gag seem succinct. There isn’t even an artistic flair to spice things up – it is one of the most artless films to have ever been nominated, utterly lacking in vision or imagination.
The ultimate problem is that Mr. McKay is an artist who made the fatal error of getting drunk off his own hype, and quite frankly, I’m not under any obligation to play along. Any artist who wants me to give them the time of day must put legitimate effort into their work, and Mr. McKay has been on autopilot since he let the nomination of The Big Short go to his head. Because he refuses to take his craft seriously, I, in turn, refuse to acknowledge Don’t Look Up as a serious entry for “Best Picture”; for the purposes of this list, it is officially beneath consideration.
Now, let’s move onto the nominations that actually matter, shall we?
9. West Side Story
When writing my previous “Worst to Best” list, I remarked that with a few exceptions, you can get an idea of how good of a given Oscar lineup is by examining its weakest link. Granted, it doesn’t exactly work out if the weakest film is a clear outlier. For instance, the 82nd ceremony featured Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 alongside Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, which were, respectively, one of the worst films not directed by Adam McKay to have ever received the “Best Picture” nomination and one of the best efforts of 2009, if not the decade.
Nonetheless, I think it’s a good sign when Steven Spielberg’s film is the weak link in a “Best Picture” lineup. Musical fans must have been ecstatic to be in theaters in the last few years between Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star Is Born. And Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of the legendary musical by the late, great Stephen Sondheim does not disappoint, being an incredible technical achievement in acting, singing, and dance choreography.
So, if it’s that good, why did I rank it last? The answer lies in the element of surprise – or in this case, the lack thereof. In fact, this is a rare instance where I find myself docking points from a quality production for having too many things going for it. West Side Story is a classic, beloved musical and this version was directed by somebody who had a provable track record and top-tier talent at his disposal. That it turned out well is merely to be expected; the only way this project could have been shocking is if it were a Cats-level disaster, which was never going to happen with someone as skilled as Mr. Spielberg at the helm. It’s a little difficult to get excited for a project when the questions of that and how it’s going to be good have been answered well before audiences even knew of its existence. Nonetheless, West Side Story is deserving of its nomination, and will serve as the base for this countdown.
8. Nightmare Alley
Despite film Twitter’s insistence to the contrary, I maintain that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water was the best effort of 2017, showcasing a level of imagination the American AAA industry hadn’t known in decades. It is be expected from someone who once declared video games “a medium that gains no respect among the intelligentsia” and Ico and Shadow of the Colossus to be masterpieces. Someone like that is naturally going to have more frames of reference than those who shun innovation. In fact, considering the film’s content, it was immensely out of character for the Academy to crown it “Best Picture” – not that I’m complaining, mind you. The stodgy, unimaginative Lady Bird fans subsequently blowing their stack over Mr. del Toro’s victory ensured the Academy’s decision was one of the most hilarious, if unintentional acts of trolling they ever committed.
I was therefore excited to see him back in the “Best Picture” lineup. And then I actually watched the film and realized it wasn’t the power move The Shape of Water managed to be. Now, make no mistake, Nightmare Alley is a good film. In fact, with the benefit of having been made after the expiration of the Hays Code, Mr. del Toro’s interpretation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel shines in ways Edmund Goulding’s adaptation couldn’t. The original was begging for the level of R-rated grittiness unthinkable in 1947, but had been rendered trivial by 2021.
Although he is regarded as one of his generation’s finest auteurs, Mr. del Toro has also been frequently labeled a one-trick pony. Therefore, in a way, this film was rather daring for him, as he eschews the fantastical elements in favor of a period piece character study of a carny trying to escape his past. However, even if I do give him credit for leaving his comfort zone, I kind of feel about Nightmare Alley the same way I feel about other creators such who tried to become more serious only to discard what made their work so appealing in the process. That being said, Mr. del Toro largely avoids the worst ramifications of this problem by having made dark fantasy his niche, so a transition into a realistic, yet still gritty neo-noir wasn’t a jarring one. Still, while it is less memorable than his more fantastical works, it outranks West Side Story by virtue of taking an actual risk.
7. King Richard
After several years of appearing in faux-Oscar Bait films, Will Smith finally struck gold by depicting Richard Williams – the patriarch of the Williams family. This family notably includes two of the greatest tennis players of all time: Richard’s daughters Venus and Serena. Considering one of Mr. Smith’s last notable attempts at pandering for an Oscar came in the form of the monumentally awful Collateral Beauty, King Richard was a significant step up. It was such a striking transformation, I didn’t even recognize him initially.
Despite all it has going for it, King Richard is a film held back by the trappings of the early 21st century biopic formula in how it refuses to give a warts-and-all depiction of its main character and is written in a way that occasionally suffers from hindsight bias. Fortunately, these aspects don’t prevent the film from being good; they merely prevent it from being great. Nonetheless, because it didn’t have any built-in buzz like the previous two nominees, which were remakes, I feel confident ranking King Richard above them.
Believe it or not, Dune was the single most difficult film for me to rank on this list. It had nothing to do with its quality, but rather the fact that this story currently isn’t finished. All of the other entries have a definite beginning, middle, and end. Dune, by virtue of having only one part completed, only has the first and part of the second. Personally, I find it a bit odd the Academy would even allow it to compete in such a state. They did do the same thing with The Lord of the Rings back in the 2000s, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that only The Return of the King won “Best Picture”. By then, The Lord of the Rings had truly completed its run, and while purists may argue it was cheating given the third film had a scope the other entries couldn’t even begin to compete with, I counter that it equally made no sense to nominate the preceding installments in the trilogy for “Best Picture” in their respective years. Plus, once again, it was immensely satisfying watching a fantasy film win over the Academy.
Granted, the source material has obviously been completed and beloved for decades, so I can see why, if the nominators were thinking the same thing I was just now, they would treat the follow-up being good as a foregone conclusion. Even so, if the next part drops the ball, then this would retroactively be the worst film on the list. Who could recommend a story with a good first half but a garbage second half? However, considering that Denis Villeneuve is leading the project, I think we’re in good hands. Here’s hoping I didn’t jinx it just now.
Anyway, regardless of how the second part turns out, I can safely say Dune was the shot in the arm science-fiction desperately needed after a group of creatively bankrupt edgelords coopted and desecrated the genre in the 2010s. This is because Dune ultimately came from an age of scientific curiosity rather than people who grew up in an era whose leaders spent the last few decades waging a war on science. Some may call that curiosity naïve; I call it having an actual imagination. Therefore, seeing a science-fiction film in 2021 not vilify science or intellectuals was a breath of fresh air. As the first half of the story, Dune accomplishes what it needed to do, successfully establishing its characters and making the audience excited to see more. It is allowed to outshine the other remakes on this list by feeling more necessary. The original West Side Story and Nightmare Alley adaptations were solid in their own right, and would have been perfectly fine with no remakes. The 1984 version of Dune, on the other hand, simply did not do justice to the source material, so it was up to Mr. Villeneuve to bring it to the silver screen. So far, so good.
5. Licorice Pizza
If you were wondering about the bizarre title of this film, allow me to enlighten you. Licorice Pizza was a record store chain based in Los Angeles. If you still think the title is odd, then one must draw their attention to the humble LP. You see, lateral-cut disc records were sometimes colloquially called licorice pizzas, referencing their round shape and their jet-black color. And no, this is not referenced once in the film at all – not even on the poster.
Over the past few years, I’ve found slice-of-life stories to be a bit of a gamble, as far too often, we’re made to follow immensely uninteresting people who proceed to do immensely uninteresting things for two hours. There’s something to be said for these quieter stories, but I argue that just because you can force your audience to follow a plot where nothing happens, it doesn’t mean you should. Most of the time I see a film like that, I feel the director could benefit from watching Robert McKee’s (played by Brian Cox) epic rant in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation on repeat until they get the message. Anyone who has seen that film knows what I’m talking about; anyone who hasn’t should see it at some point.
Fortunately, in yet another instance of someone with a provable track record stepping in to save the day, Licorice Pizza does not have this problem, for the most part. The film’s actual setup has rather bizarre implications if you think about them too hard, but despite that, Licorice Pizza succeeds with its witty sense of humor, throwbacks to New Hollywood, and an insight to a time in Californian history when it became a significant cultural rival to New York. It’s admittedly not the most memorable entry in Paul Thomas Anderson’s canon, but Licorice Pizza manages to alleviate the more annoying aspects of contemporary slice-of-life films while pitching a few interesting ideas in the process.
Licorice Pizza was good as far as contemporary coming-of-age features go because it ditched the mumblecore aesthetic that had been holding back countless indie directors for the past ten years. However, Belfast takes that improvement and brings to the table something it and it and many other films like it of them lack: an interesting life perspective. Most of the time, when watching these films, I could tell they were written by people who don’t have much in the way of experience, which is a real problem if you’re writing a slice-of-life story.
Fortunately, that is absolutely not a problem Belfast has. Set during the beginning of The Troubles, a thirty-year-long entho-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland, Kenneth Branagh, a native of Belfast, gives us an immensely personal film capable of inspiring and horrifying at the same time. The film really captures how difficult it was for anyone to live in those times, but there are plenty of moments of levity to lighten things up.
CODA marks a bit of a turning point on this list. Up until now, I was discussing films that were good, but not fully surpassing the quality of those of the previous lineup. To be clear, I think even the weakest films from this lineup could give anything the 93rd Academy Awards had to offer a run for their money, but otherwise, they are all on that same level of “good, but not great”. That ends with CODA, which I can definitively say is better than any of last year’s nominees.
I have to admit the reason I haven’t been terribly impressed with indie films in the last ten years is the aforementioned lack of life experience or, barring that, a distinct dearth of imagination. As deeply flawed as it was, Upgrade did prove you could get a visually stunning film out of a microbudget, so these directors didn’t have any excuse whatsoever for being so unambitious.
CODA, on the other hand, is something I want to see more of from the indie scene. Rather than telling a generic story everyone has lived, CODA, examines the life of a teenage girl who is the only member of her family capable of hearing. It does a great job showing what kinds of challenges that would present while having a level of earnestness largely absent in contemporary indie films. In a lot of ways, I feel this is the standard one of last year’s nominees, The Sound of Metal, was going for but didn’t quite reach. To be fair, the manner in which these two films approach the subject matter couldn’t be more different, but CODA wins because it boasts the more polished script.
2. The Power of the Dog
One of the absolute worst consequences of so many writers going the Adam McKay route when it comes to crafting their stories is that it doesn’t afford the audience a chance to think for themselves. It’s not impossible to write well in such a fashion, but I would argue a successful attempt is the exception rather than the rule. Nowhere is that more obvious than how The Power of the Dog was received by audiences. Many simply did not get what Jane Campion was going for. It’s nigh-impossible to blame your average Joe for not getting it with so many unsubtle creators out there having significantly dumbed down their content over the years.
I feel a lot of creators fail to realize that art is ultimately a communal activity, and the ingredients you give to your audience determines what you get back in turn. Naturally, if you flood the market with flavorless paste, you’re only going to get flavorless paste back out. And to be clear, those people weren’t alone, as The Power of the Dog caught me completely off-guard as well. At first, I thought the film was a bit overrated until I began reading into it and discovered so many subtle cues I completely missed. Suddenly, I went from thinking the film was overrated to realizing it would take a monumental effort to dethrone it from the number one spot.
I tend to watch films from various eras and cultures, so how could I have missed those cues? What threw me for a loop was that I simply didn’t expect an early 2020s film to have such a profound level of nuance to its characters. When I’m watching an older film or one from abroad, I find I’m usually more attentive to these kinds of things because I know the writing quality is higher and I must be on the top of my game. Not so much when watching an early 2020s film, although Jane Campion leading the project should’ve been my first clue it was going to be a cut above the rest.
One could say The Power of the Dog continues down the path original blazed by Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon and later followed by Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller by offering a striking deconstruction of the Western genre. Simply the idea of a Western taking place in Montana in 1925 when the Old West was effectively over is highly unusual by itself, but Ms. Campion managed to successfully update the genre with modern sensibilities. The best part is she doesn’t accomplish this by lionizing the past, but rather by exploring the period through the lens of the immense social progress that has been made in the years since the Western’s heyday. For having a level of respect for her audience many of her contemporaries lack and issuing a narrative that seriously challenges various preconceived notions, I find it fitting to deem Ms. Campion’s film the best English-language nominee.
1. Drive My Car
If it’s any one moment that reminds me of the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, it would be when I saw Drive My Car. A film originating from the Far East barged onto the Oscar scene and managed to outshine every single one of its competitors. The early 2020s was an especially dismal period for the medium, so I find myself grateful for Ryusuke Hamaguchi and screenwriting partner Takamasa Oe for providing us with what is possibly the first truly great film of the decade. Or, at the very least, the first great “Best Picture” nominee.
Drive My Car is the story of a screenwriter who, two years after suffering a personal tragedy, winds up making friends with his new chauffeur. There are so many good things about this film, it’s difficult to explain in just a few paragraphs. The characters are great, the conflicts are compelling, and the cinematography is simply stunning. If you are looking for a multifaceted story that shines a light on the creative process and the interpersonal relationships one forms when going through it, Drive My Car has you covered. In fact, it manages to succeed in so many different ways, anyone watching it will likely find their own things to appreciate. With its sheer ambition and an erudite attitude that isn’t even slightly pretentious, I can see no better film to round out this list.
- Belfast (7/10)
- CODA (7.5/10)
- Don’t Look Up (Disqualified)
- Drive My Car (8/10)
- Dune (7/10)
- King Richard (7/10)
- Licorice Pizza (7/10)
- Nightmare Alley (7/10)
- The Power of the Dog (7.5/10)
- West Side Story (7/10)