Sunday, March 27, 2022

2021 Best Picture Rankings

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.  

10. Dune

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.
Finally, there is the awful lighting of the movie for its night scenes in particular.  Again, this looks like a conscious decision on the film makers, and it's one that detracts from the viewing experience.  There are scenes in which the screen is a black sea of nothingness unless viewed in absolute darkness.  Unfortunately, the modern viewing experience doesn't uniformly offer that, especially as movie theaters move to the dine-at-your-seat model and so many pandemic viewers choose to watch from home.  If we can rightfully ding Christopher Nolan for the audio peculiarities of this movies (read any of several dozen screeds about the sound quality on Tenet), we can and should rightfully ding Dune for its poor visibility choices.

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.
By clumsy, I mean the film hits you over the head with its message repeatedly.  Specific points are made repeatedly and with no subtlety whatsoever.  Supporters of the President's ignorant plan look exactly like MAGA fans with a gullibility that somehow manages to dwarf their real life analogs.  American media obsession over stories that really don't matter is skewered, and then skewered again, and then again.  This is done with all the art of a bad Saturday Night Live skit, the same jokes repeated endlessly.  As a result, the movie feels much longer than its two hour runtime.    

The one true protagonist of the film.
There are no characters in this film to make you even root for humanity.  The rich and powerful don't care what happens because they always assume things will work out for them.  The media only break out of their vapid stupidity to be just clever enough to get ahead.  The population of bureaucrats are divided into sycophants who act against everyone's best interests to get ahead and well-meaning individuals who seem befuddled by the very system they've somehow worked within for years.  And the general public demonstrates absolutely zero redeeming qualities.  If Don't Look Up has a hero, it's the comet speeding its way to wipe all these motherfuckers out. 

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.
Will Smith plays the titular Richard Williams, father of co-executive producers Venus and Serena Williams.  It's clear the film was written from the perspective that Richard Williams was grossly misunderstood by, well, practically everyone.  The film's Richard Williams has an ego, is a driven taskmaster, and has to have his way at all times.  But these are his only flaws, and the film pushes hard on a narrative that even if he didn't communicate his plan the best, he was always right.  Maybe all of this is accurate and Richard Williams is the nicest guy to ever be vilified by the general public.  But even if that's accurate, it doesn't make for the most compelling film.

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.
What saves this film is the incredible job done by the cast.  This Richard Williams is a perfect role for Will Smith, who plays underdogs with ample chips on their shoulders with the best of them.  His Richard has some interesting parallels to his Ali and his Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness).  Aunjanue Ellis is an able partner as Venus and Serena's mother Oracene Price.  Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton shine as young Venus and Serena.  It's unfortunate that they didn't have a better story to tell.  It's a great feel-good movie, but with a harsher spotlight on the excesses of its main character, it could have been a great film.

7. Belfast


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.
While he's the main character, Buddy isn't really the protagonist so much as the point of view through which the audience gets to witness the events unfold.  The primary protagonists are instead Buddy's Ma and Pa, ably played by Caitríona Balfe and a surprisingly effective Jamie Dornan.  Ma and Pa are trying to make their way through this dangerous world, Ma trying to keep the extended family together and safe while Pa trying to provide for the family while also attempting to keep them disentangled from the neighborhood loyalist gang.

The use of color was at times subtle, but there was never a payoff.
Branagh deftly winds through the narrative landscape, switching back and forth between universal vignettes of growing up and serious scenes of the Troubles.  The film doesn't remain focused on either element too long, allowing the film to breathe.  I'd in fact put Belfast higher on my list except it feels incomplete, where Branagh for some reason chooses not to tell the full story.  The clearest example of this is in the fact that, while the film is largely shot in black and white, color pops in whenever Buddy gets to experience the movies, television, or live theater, yet Branagh never explains why.  It seems this is one of the places where the film becomes most autobiographical, so it's strange that he doesn't fully embrace it and incorporate it fully into his narrative.  With just a few small changes, Belfast would be vying at the top of my list.

6. CODA


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.
I could write a treatise on everything this film does well: capturing the loving isolation of the child that stands out from the rest of the family, painting a vivid picture of the struggles to make a living in a field of work that has been overindustrialized, finding new ground to cover in the classic coming-of-age story, showing the joy of finding something you're really good at.  

Little moments like teaching your crush some simple ASL makes this film so enjoyable.
Though Troy Kotsur is the only member recognized with an acting nomination, the cast is absolutely stellar.  Main character Ruby, brought to life by Emilia Jones, is the perfect example of the child forced to act as the adult for her free-spirited parents.  I don't envy Ruby when she has to deal with the ramifications of her parents' very active and happy sex life.  The fact that these responsibilities impinge on her ability to pursue her own dreams creates much of the drama that drives the film forward.  The complexities of the relationships among the family members are slowly unwound as the movie progresses.  You start the film rooting for Ruby and end up cheering the family.  There's not much more you can expect from a film.

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.
But then you think about some of the story elements a bit more.  This is a love story between a person in their mid-20s and a person in their mid-teens.  It's meant to be "okay" because the older individual is the woman in the coupling and she doesn't give in until he's 17 and she's 27 (well, except for when she raises her shirt to show him her breasts when he is probably 16), as if doing little more than casting lots of side eye glances for two years until he's almost of age makes everything okay.  The fact that the film can't explain why she spends all of her time hanging out with a teenager horndog and his friends other than "he's too irresistible" really makes this a teenage boy's power fantasy.

Seriously?  What was Paul Thomas Anderson thinking?
The movie also suffers from playing a blatantly racist restaurant owner for laughs.  I love John Michael Higgins in almost everything he does, but his restauranteur who goes through a string of Japanese wives while speaking to them in the most over the top sing song caricature of their accent is the epitome of cringe.  The fact that the film thinks this is comedy gold is a complete head scratcher.  I'd put Licorice Pizza much further down the list and question the Academy's wisdom if not for the excellent craft put into such a problematic film.  But hey, Birth of a Nation once got good reviews, so this is nothing new.

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.
No, the real power couple of this film are Anita and Bernardo, played so effectively by Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez.  Anita is a star turn for everyone who plays her on stage and film, and it's no different for DeBose, who jumps of the screen every time she appears.  When she's happy, her smile lights up the theater.  When she's angry or hurt, the heart aches.  And when she's sexy, everyone breaks out into a sweat.  If she doesn't win her Supporting Actress statue, something is horribly wrong in Hollywood.  Alvarez also shines as a Bernardo who cares deeply about Anita, about his sister Maria, and about his people in general. Really, Spielberg could have decided to make a completely different film with Anita and Bernardo as the main stars and it would have been glorious.

How hard would it have been to give Valentina more connection at the start?
One place Spielberg does make a change is replacing the character of Doc with his widow, played by the great Rita Moreno.  Moreno is wonderful in everything she plays, and she provides a nice connection to the original film adaptation for which she won her own Oscar.  The substitution allows for the film to push further into the trope of a character being a part of two worlds but not fully in either.  While this is a laudable goal and Moreno gives it her all, the film doesn't do the work early to make it really pay off.  In the early stages of the movie, Valentina is only shown interacting with the Irish gang, primarily because of her relationship with Tony.  The film later tries to show Valentina struggling with having to take sides, but the only reason the film has given her to want to side with the Sharks is her name and accent.  Having some throwaway appearances early showing her being an active part of the Puerto Rican community too would have gone a long way to bolster the desired effect.  It's a small thing, but it's these small things that have me place West Side Story here in this list rather than at number one. 

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.
It's ably directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, doing a wonderful job for his first time in the chair.  Tick, Tick... Boom! is a musical, and Miranda is of course no stranger to pulling off a good musical.  The musical performances are on point, with a mixture of stage pieces and interpretive scenes.  The cast performs well, led by Andrew Garfield as Larson himself.  I know lots of people are shocked by his singing talent, but I fear that may overshadow the wonderful job he does on the acting side.  This is no mere "look I can sing" performance -- Garfield's performance is well rounded and he pulls off playing a genius with ease.  He is by far my Best Actor pick because of this.

Lin-Manuel Miranda will be a great director if he keeps this up.
Depicting genius and the musical creative process is difficult in a visual medium, but Miranda pulls it off with inspired scene construction and tasteful application of visual effects along with just the right character tics to push the narrative of the process along.  The movie's Jonathan Larson sees music in almost everything, from the lines at the bottom of a swimming pool to the rhythm of his fingers caressing his girlfriend's shoulder.  He finds inspiration in the cadence of an argument and the aggravation of diner patrons.  The fact that this work of art wasn't even given a nomination (especially given the flaws of so many of the films that were nominated) is truly an unforgiveable act by the Academy.

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.
It's really a film in three parts revolving around stages of loss by main character Yūsuke Kafuku.  The first part revolves around Kafuku's marriage to his wife, the screenwriter Oto.  They are a couple brought together by creativity and passion, but Oto also cheats on Kafuku.  It seems like Kafuku is on the path to losing Oto until he comes home to find that she's died.  We learn even more about Oto later in the film, and she's a nicely complex character -- a whole person, which is uncommon for characters who die early in films.

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.
Throughout, Uncle Vanya hovers above all the proceedings.  Kafuku constantly listens to different parts of the dialogue, as it's the last words of his wife he has to hold onto.  The lessons of the play also provide a structure in which to understand the messages of the film itself.

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.
The carnival is brought to vivid life by a cast of luminaries including Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Toni Collette, and David Strathairn.  You can easily see each of them having fallen into the carny life, and they inhabit it with ease.  This part of the film is important not only for setting up Cooper's move to the city, but also as a foreshadowed warning that he all to eagerly ignores.

Don't do it Stan.  No amount of money or women is worth losing Rooney Mara.
The majority of action occurs in Chicago, as Cooper's Stan builds a life as a stage psychic with Rooney's Molly.  However, it's not enough for Stan, as he looks for bigger scores, both in terms of money by conning the rich and in terms of women via wooing a psychiatrist vamped into life by Cate Blanchett.  The plot serves as a lesson against letting greed get the better of you. In this movie, no one has clean hands, but Molly's are the cleanest, so you are set up to root for her, just as you know that Stan's excesses will lead to trauma and trouble.  

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.
That's not to say it's not a great movie -- it certainly is.  It's well written, it receives strong performances from its principals, and it is shot absolutely gorgeously.  Jane Campion uses all of the tools at her disposal effectively.  Possibly the star of the movie is the New Zealand wild, which ably stood in for 1925 Montana.  It was a different era for cowboys, and the juxtaposition of old fashioned cattle trains with old timey cars, ubiquitous electricity, and the other trappings of that era's modernization make for a feeling of anachronism that helps the unsettling feeling of being out of place that the movie thrives on.

Between this and Melancholia, Kirsten runs the risk of typecasting.
Being out of place is the central theme of the film, which portrays it in many different dimensions.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a closeted gay man trying to live up to -- and instill -- the kind of masculinity Sam Elliott apparently wants everyone to have.  Jesse Plemons is a rancher who wants to be a part of modern society, even if he needs to drag everyone around him there.  Kirsten Dunst is a poor innkeeper pulled into a life that she does not understand and which seemingly doesn't want her.  And her son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is someone that no one really understands.  With a mixture like that, something will have to give, which is what the core of the film builds to.

With its excellent script, its strong cast of performances, and its cinematography, The Power of the Dog was the best film of 2021.

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