With movie theaters closed and no box office revenue, 2020 was obviously a very weird year for film. The Oscar nominees are almost always “prestige films” that aren’t really meant to be crowd pleasers, but this year’s crop takes that to a whole ‘nother level: the studios simply held back on releasing anything that audiences were supposed to actually enjoy. The one exception I can think of was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. I don’t follow industry news, but I’ve got to imagine that part of the push was that they suspected the film could be in line for more than the Production Design and Visual Effects nominations that it got. Unfortunately, Tenet indulged Nolan’s penchant for complex technical filmmaking and movie-as-puzzle-box without offering either characters with any depth or a plot that audiences could enjoy instead of trying to solve like a math equation. The point is that most years at least a few big-budget crowd-pleasers make it onto the list (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Black Panther; Dunkirk; La La Land; Mad Max; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Wolf of Wall Street; Django Unchained; Moneyball; Inception…). This year there was only one such swing, and it was a miss.
It seems to have become a tradition that in addition to commenting on the actual nominees, I also pick out one non-nominee that I particularly enjoyed. Last year it was Knives Out; the prior year I chose Into the Spider-Verse. This year I’d like to call out Palm Springs. There have been several good time-loop movies (Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code come to mind), but Palm Springs is by far the best one since Groundhog Day. It was a genuinely refreshing surprise, and quite apt for a year in which so many people felt all their days blurring together.
As for the nominees themselves, they may not have been terribly enjoyable, but only two and a half of them were actually bad. Two and half were just a bit meh, and three were quite good.
Promising Young Woman
There’s some irony in the fact that the worst of the nominees is also the only one that even tried to play to the crowd. I can totally understand people enjoying this film. But let’s be clear: it’s trash.
It’s “fun” to the extent that revenge fantasies can be fun, but it felt like some script doctor had gone through the screenplay erasing every trace of nuance that could be found. Every man in the film is a monster, with a truly cringeworthy performance by Alfred Molina the (non)exception that proves the rule.
For a while I was expecting there to be a clever twist where this fantasy is revealed to be just that—a fantasy in the mind of a woman who’s been driven mad by grief—with the tipoffs being the unexplained lack of consequences for anything she does, from smashing up cars (you don’t whip out your phone to snap a few pictures after a woman does hundreds of dollars of damage to your truck for no reason?) to literally kidnapping a woman’s daughter. And the story shifts from “nobody believed it happened” to “it was actually on video and everybody saw it and that’s what was really so bad” in a way that only makes sense if you’re disposing of your characters and plot points serially and never looking back. But no twist. It’s just a bunch of things that happen and we’re expected to swallow it all.
And oh my the monologs.
I suppose it’s meant as feminist statement, but the philosophy espoused is remarkably regressive. Apparently having your married friend raped is beyond the pale, but convincing her that she’s been raped is completely moral…because a woman’s “virtue” is far more important than her emotional health? It takes a lot for a movie to walk me all the way from “having sex with someone too drunk to consent is outrageous!” to “it really seems like you’re overreacting and you should just get over it”, but it got me there.
The film could well have ended with our protagonist dead and everyone shaking their heads over how crazy she was, but instead the villain remains a blubbering mess without a moment of cogent thought for eight hours straight, and his buddy (who I think is supposed to be the one who took the video) immediately jumps straight to pulling a Very Bad Things and snatches defeat from the jaws of…maybe not “victory”, exactly, but at least survival. With every other character completely falling to pieces at the slightest trauma, however, I found his can-do attitude refreshing.
An Oscar nominee should not end with a bunch of atrociously-written deus ex machina text messages. It’s a rule.
Citizen Kane was a groundbreaking movie for its time, but you can’t blame a modern audience for finding it tedious and trite. Well, replace that film’s visual artistry with a firm belief that you can never have too many long, lingering shots of clouds in black and white; replace an epic plot that steadily chronicles its protagonist’s relentless devolution scene by scene with a meandering showcase of different conversations saying the same thing over and over; replace a universal tale of success breeding isolation and moral rot with a few caricatured snapshots of 1930s California politics in which all consequences are consigned to “Where are they now?” epilog text. The result is a dull nothing of a movie that only Academy voters who felt La La Land was far too restrained in its glamorization of old Hollywood could enjoy.
If you’re desperately in love with old-timey black and white cinematography, watch the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, a much better film than this one in every respect.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
I wouldn’t exactly describe this film as a crowd-pleaser, but it did have exactly the kinds of kinetic energy, entertaining characters, and classic Sorkin banter that the other films lacked. It was not a chore to watch. (High praise!)
With that Sorkin banter, of course, we also got the Sorkin erasure of nuance and elevation of every character into an embodiment of high-minded purpose. There are no real people in this film at all, and no character development. It feels like a movie a lazy high school history teacher would show the class because he thinks it will make them better people.
Regarding that history, however… The film constantly revisits the refrain “how could we have engaged in a conspiracy if we never met each other?”, and this is highlighted as the trial’s fundamental absurdity. And yet we conveniently skip over the fact that the jury found all defendants not guilty of conspiracy. Apparently Sorkin felt that the actual injustices of harsh sentences for inciting a riot and punitive contempt charges weren’t enough to hang a story on.
Sacha Baron Cohen steals the show, but far more startling is that Eddie Redmayne does what he can to ruin it with a performance better suited to the rich bully in an 80s underdog-frat comedy than a modern courtroom drama. What little relatability Sorkin’s script gives Redmayne’s character is completely overpowered by constant pretentious sneering.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 also one-ups Promising Young Woman’s texts from the grave and Mank’s where-are-they-now epilog text with a judge frantically flailing his gavel as all the characters rise to demonstrate their unrepentant nobility supported by a string crescendo. And where-are-they-now epilog text. It’s such a cheesy ending it almost made me relegate the film to the “bad” cateogory. Which we now leave:
Are we sure this film wasn’t also in artsy black and white as well? Because it really felt like it was.
This is the first movie in the list that wasn’t bad, and that I think clearly deserved the nomination. It made hard-to-know characters relatable, and it did so with nuance. The choice to see everyone’s story as a heroic tragedy is just that—a choice reflecting the protagonist’s own outlook.
As political commentary, it’s a valuable record of this moment in history, from a perspective that is consistently ignored.
But the faux documentary has no plot whatsoever, and merely demands that the audience endure it until it just kind of peters out.
Judas and the Black Messiah
It’s difficult to watch this film and not think of 2019’s BlacKkKlansman, and just about everything I wrote about that nominee at the time applies just as well to Judas and the Black Messiah. Unlike all the prior films on this list, there weren’t any major problems with the film. It was, however, a rather rote story that didn’t dive particularly deeply into the activist/informer conflict that formed the heart of the protagonist’s struggle. Nor did it say anything terribly interesting about the black power movement.
I’m forced to admit that it’s hurt a bit on this last front by the release around the same time of One Night In Miami, a much, much worse film (if you can even call it that; it’s a very clumsy adaptation of a stage play). One Night’s treatment of black life and politics in America in the 60s was rather cliched and delivered entirely by characters obnoxiously speechifying at each other for no particular reason…and yet at least it did touch on the observation that “organizations” and “movements” are nothing more than names for collections of individuals all with their own complex lives to lead. I’m not actually suggesting that Judas and the Black Messiah should have been a political piece; only that it wasn’t one.
Sound of Metal
I’d be fine with any of these last three winning Best Picture: they were all excellent films that, while still perhaps not “enjoyable”, did leave me at least somewhat satisfied with the experience.
What struck me most about Sound of Metal was how effectively it used silence. I’m a huge proponent of the rule that movies must show and not tell, and this film clearly buys into that philosophy. We never really get inside the protagonist’s head, and are forced to get to know him merely by watching. I particularly liked that the opportunities for articulate self-reflection were offered up on a platter—his journal; emails to his girlfriend—but we stayed true to the character as a man neither gifted with nor interested in that form of expression. And it all works precisely because we’re discovering him in exactly the same way he’s discovering himself.
Or, perhaps…not discovering. There’s a temptation is narrative art to drive towards some answer, while in life maturity is just as often becoming more comfortable leaving easy answers and easy definitions behind. In the end our main character is far less defined that he was in the opening scenes. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
The Father is an absolute clinic in using the medium to deliver the theme. The cast and set changes; the nonlinear timeline; the framing of each shot to omit lost detail…it’s perhaps the most immersive (and unsettling) depiction of losing one’s grip on reality that I’ve ever seen. It was sad and terrifying and left me with more empathy and understanding for having watched it.
It’s great that Asian Americans are finally being brought into the American immigrant story. The Academy is of course political and our “Stop Asian Hate” moment certainly helped to push this film’s nomination (more than last year’s Parasite, which I think succeeded on its own). But the trendiness of a bit of politics doesn’t invalidate its merit, and I’m glad to see the American cultural mythology extend beyond the white immigrants (from, e.g., 2015’s Brooklyn) and the many “black citizen” histories for which “immigrant” isn’t the right word.
The screenplay also gets the immigrant perspective right in a way that so many films don’t: for all the aspirations that America represents, our protagonists are convinced that Korean smarts have an edge over dumb American superstitions. The ending of the film undermines this a bit, but its inclusion at all speaks directly to why immigration is so central to making America “the greatest country in the world”. New people are constantly arriving and bringing the best of where they’re from.
Race politics aside, a lot about this film hit me surprisingly personally. My parents immigrated to the US at roughly the same time and age as this film’s family (albeit with enough education to get a pretty solid handhold on a middle class life right from the start), and so many little things resonated with me.
To pick just one moment: the grandmother comes from Korea, and there is a tiny little pause of disbelief when she and her daughter see each other for the first time in who-knows-how-long. I don’t think it’s possible to explain to people who came of age in the email era what distance used to mean. When leaving a country meant really leaving it behind. When a phone call around the world was a monthly luxury whose expensive meter ticking away meant sharing news and not relaxing chitchat. When an intercontinental flight was a purchase one would plan with the care of buying a new car. When a reunion really meant something, because there was no way to have a relationship across such distances. Immigration (at least from rich countries with modern infrastructure) will never again be as daunting as it was forty years ago.
For all the resonance this film had, it wasn’t without its flaws. I’m fine with a film that doesn’t wrap everything up in a bow…but this didn’t feel like a complete story. It’s just a bunch of things that happened until the runtime ran out, so it left me with a tiny bit of the same unsatisfied feeling I got from Nomadland.
More disappointingly, the wife was never given any depth and just came off as the villain of the piece. I genuinely chuckled at her “this isn’t what you promised!” in the opening scene and was looking forward to her stubbornness helping them grind it out…but instead she never seems to understand, let alone support, her husband’s ambition for the family, and I honestly didn’t really follow her rationale for (considering) abandoning him. I’ve got to think there there are a few more minutes of film that would have rounded her out but got left on the cutting room floor.
So several quite good films this year, but I’m very much looking forward to 2021, when having fun at the movies will hopefully make a comeback.