Almost every year, after viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award. Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans. I skipped doing this last year after deciding I had little to say about so many of the nominees that came out in a necessarily weak year due to the pandemic. This year, I have no such problem. There are five tiers, consisting of two clear leaders, three that are brilliant but slightly flawed, one that I absolutely loved but is that one nominee that's just too light a film for serious consideration, three that are quite good but more flawed than the others, and one I'm actively angry was nominated at the expense of more deserving films.
There have been few Best Picture nominations that have disappointed me like Dune getting a nod for 2021. Dune is one of the most flawed films to be nominated for Best Picture since Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, and there were plenty of films more deserving for that honor. In the Heights was a magical adaptation of a Tony-winning musical. The Tragedy of MacBeth brought Denzel Washington to a moody translation of a Shakespeare classic. The French Dispatch was a weak entry into Wes Anderson's oeuvre, but it would be far from alone among this year's nominees. Being the Ricardos has nominations in three of the four acting categories. If the Academy wanted to recognize a genre film, Spider-Man: No Way Home is one of Marvel's finest films to date. But the real victim of this horrible mistake can be found later in this list.
Why is Dune undeserving? For several reasons.
First, it's not a complete story. And I don't mean that it's just adapting part of a book. There have been plenty of great films that have adapted only part of a book or was one part of a series. There is not a complete story, a total character arc, experienced by any of the characters. Paul, the obvious focus here given he's the movie's main character, has several opportunities to complete an arc just slightly later in the novel, where he fully accepts becoming one of the Fremen (or, more strongly, accepting his role as their messiah a bit later), but the film leaves him as he and his mother take refuge. This in no way reflects a resolution for Paul. Contrast that to the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, in which Frodo, who had started a reluctant participant in the events, put on the run by no cause of his own and guided by the decisions of others, takes the onus fully on himself at the end of the film. This represents a full character arc, even if it's not the end of the character's story. Dune could have given Paul (or anyone else) a complete arc without having to adapt the entire novel, but chose not to.
|Really, does anyone look like they're not hoping to die soon?|
Second, there's the wooden nature of so many of the performances. I don't know whether to blame the acting, the direction, the script, or some combination thereof, but this was a largely lifeless film. It's easy to point at actors like Josh Brolin, who is not the most energetic performer, but this trait is widespread throughout the cast. Jason Momoa is one of the more charismatic action-oriented actors of his generation, and there were times during his speaking parts where I thought they should check for a pulse. My suspicion lies with director Denis Villeneuve, whose films have always featured reserved performances. It is quite logical that this was a considered decision, wanting the cast to portray a lifeless dystopia of a galactic empire, which is in and of itself an unfortunately overused trope.
|You can imagine just how riveting this scene was.|
9. Don't Look Up
I have been a big fan of Adam McKay's previous two films, The Big Short and Vice, picking both of them as my top Best Picture nomination in their respective release years. Sadly, Don't Look Up does not reach those heights.
It's told with a specific point of view, just like McKay's other two nominated films. It has his usual acerbic wit. But while both The Big Short and Vice were artfully told and deftly navigated complex topics in ways that allow the audience to firmly grasp Why This is a Big Deal, Don't Look Up really dumbs things down, spinning a clumsy allegory for the way politics and greed have interfered with humanity's (and by humanity, the film apparently means the United States) ability to tackle global disasters such as climate change and the SARS-COV-2 pandemic.
|Though there's no doubt some MAGA fans still won't get it.|
|The one true protagonist of the film.|
8. King Richard
The best biopics tell the unblinking story of their subjects, embracing the complexity and nuance of the humans behind the headlines. This is perhaps why the best biopics are either based on well researched biographies or on autobiographies written near the end of the subject's life, when they're more willing to examine their darker moments and impulses. King Richard is not one of those, and instead is a bit of a defense and a love letter from two daughters to their father. For that reason, a very good biographical film falls short of being great despite sterling performances from across its strong cast.
|Richard Williams is a perfect Will Smith role.|
Part of the problem is that it's a contemporary biography. The accomplishments of the Williams sisters is fresh in everyone's minds. Serena Williams is still arguably the greatest active tennis player. The movie's not going to thrill us with a will-they or won't-they succeed narrative. Instead, the strength of the film needs to rest on the character arc of Richard Williams, and he really doesn't have one. What lessons he learns along the way are minor, with the end of the film really reading more like a victory lap than an arc completion.
|The entire cast is very strong, even in their relatively quiet moments.|
It's good to see Kenneth Branagh back in the Oscars mix this year after a decade away. Belfast is a nice pseudo-memoir featuring a child growing up in Belfast during The Troubles. Branagh's analog, Buddy, is pretty much a happy kid who likes to play pretend and fight imaginary battles and who has no idea what he's doing when he develops a crush on a classmate. This innocence is contrasted vividly against the horrors and ugliness of the clashes between Protestants, Catholics, and the government forces struggling to maintain the peace.
|The Troubles lived up to its name for this family.|
|The use of color was at times subtle, but there was never a payoff.|
It seems every year there's that one film that doesn't tell a necessarily important story in terms of addressing a key moment in history, adapting a piece of classic literature, or spinning an allegory for a critical aspect of civilization. Instead, it earns its Best Picture nomination by telling a more personal story with near perfection. This year's film in that category is CODA, short for Child of Deaf Adults.
|The film helps its accessibility by exploring the travails of the working class along the way.|
|Little moments like teaching your crush some simple ASL makes this film so enjoyable.|
5. Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza was the most difficult to place in this list because it's so well done and yet so problematic. In the end, I decided to put it as the lowest of the second tier of films.
Licorice Pizza is a combination of a coming of age film along with a nostalgic look at a particular era of Hollywood culture, which makes it strong Oscar bait. The film ticks all the boxes on the "will they or won't they" story motif, with constant misunderstandings, romantic zigging and zagging, and acts done purely to make the other person jealous. It does this with a backdrop of auditions, talk show appearances, gossip, drunken antics requiring a director, and restaurants who welcome certain individuals by name and take them to their usual table. Hollywood fixtures of that age appear in thinly veiled fictionalization (Sean Penn's character) or openly named lampoon (Bradley Cooper, playing Jon Peters, who I gather was an even bigger ass than the scenery-chewing Cooper made him out to be). This is the kind of film that is often Oscar gold.
|Bradley was good, but I still can't believe people wanted him to get Best Supporting Actor for this caricature.|
|Seriously? What was Paul Thomas Anderson thinking?|
4. West Side Story
If it weren't for its flaws, West Side Story would be a lock for Best Picture. Technically, this is Stephen Spielberg in the groove. It's gorgeously shot with all the camera sweeps, timely pans, dramatic lighting and interesting camera angles you could ask for. He clearly loves the source material and does a great job of updating the craft of the film without losing the "of its time" feel, though nothing short of a miracle is going to make a song with the lyrics "Get cool, boy/Got a rocket/In your pocket" feel anything but dated.
One place where Spielberg went awry was the casting of his leads, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, as his Tony and Maria. The pair have very little chemistry in a film where they're playing Romeo and Juliet. To their credit, Elgort does much better playing Tony as the ex-con who regrets his previous life and Zegler shines as a poor cleaning girl dreaming of a better life. It's just unfortunate that the movie needs them to see the stars shine in each other, because it's not happening.
|Everyone needs more Ariana DeBose in their lives.|
|How hard would it have been to give Valentina more connection at the start?|
3.5 What Should Have Been Tick, Tick... Boom!
It pains me so much that the Academy didn't nominate the best musical of a year filled with great musicals. Tick, Tick... Boom! is an incredibly imaginative piece of work that adapts a semi-autobiographical play into a full fledged Hollywood musical biopic. The film brings us the story of Jonathan Larson, the man who brought Rent to Broadway before his untimely passing. It's also a great view into the creation of musical theater and the ups and downs an artist has to go through to succeed.
|The musical performances were so good.|
|Lin-Manuel Miranda will be a great director if he keeps this up.|
3. Drive My Car
You know what takes talent? Making a movie that's three hours of nothing but talking and driving and making it riveting.
And that's what Drive My Car is. The story of an actor and director who loses his wife but continues his work only to find the connections -- to both his work and the people that become a part of his life as a result -- to finally address the loss, Drive My Car is a completely different kind of film than we normally see. Every film lover should experience it, because it shows what film can be when all of the shiny trappings are stripped away.
|Oto is complicated and I can see why Kafuku fell in love.|
The second part jumps ahead in time and shows Kafuku, still clearly not over the loss of Oto, settling in to direct a run of Uncle Vanya at a cultural center near Hiroshima. He's assigned a driver for insurance reasons (which would make a lot of sense given Kafuku is slowly losing his eyesight, though for some reason this is never mentioned again after it's introduced in the first act). Though solitary and stolid, he slowly has extended discussions getting to know one of his deaf actors and her husband, as well as one of his stars, who just happens to be his wife's last lovers. It's with this lover that the film really plays games, alternately giving us reasons to hate him and then also to think he's not so bad. The end of his part of the story is a real head scratcher, as things about him are revealed only in news stories.
The openness slowly evolved during the second part of the film sets us up for the third part, when Kafuku deepens his relationship with his driver, Watari. Watari has had a hard life, and Kafuku starts to see her as the daughter he and Oto never had the chance to raise. It is here that Kafuku finally achieves the end of his own story and passes on the protagonist role to Watari while he becomes her mentor. It is an elegant shift in focus, and though the coda to the film is a bit of a jump that had me wondering what happened in between, it wraps up Kafuku's story nicely.
|When a movie actually makes you want to go see a Russian play, it's doing something well.|
Drive My Car is far from the typical Hollywood film, and I hold no delusions that it deserves the Best Picture statue. But it is remarkable in its accomplishments and every film lover should experience it.
2. Nightmare Alley
Nightmare Alley might be my favorite Guillermo del Toro film to date. A remake of a 1947 Tyrone Powers film (or, more accurately, another adaptation of the same 1946 novel), it's an effective return to noir in an era where we rarely see noir, a genre that I hadn't realized I missed until seeing this.
Bradley Cooper stars as a loner who falls in with a traveling carnival and slowly wheedles his way into the troupe's lives, learning methods to lie to people for their entertainment. The real action of the film starts when Cooper, along with his lover played by the always riveting Rooney Mara, leave to start a life in Chicago, where Cooper's character makes the mistake of using his ability to lie for purposes other than entertainment.
|So much talent.|
|Don't do it Stan. No amount of money or women is worth losing Rooney Mara.|
As the movie approaches its inevitable end, the film completes its tragedy arc. That fact that it telegraphs its resolution so early yet makes you want to watch it to the end is a credit to del Toro, who for once doesn't depend on the fantastic to drive his plot forward. It is a fine piece of film craft and deserves its place among the leaders for Best Picture.
1. The Power of the Dog
In other years, I don't think I would put The Power of the Dog at the top of my list. I would see it comfortably behind both Boyhood and Birdman, for example. But this was not the greatest year in film history, and so many of its competitors were significantly flawed that it almost wins by not having any major blemishes.
|Okay, time to play spot the dog.|
|Between this and Melancholia, Kirsten runs the risk of typecasting.|
With its excellent script, its strong cast of performances, and its cinematography, The Power of the Dog was the best film of 2021.