2021 Best Picture Nominees
I won’t dance around this: I don’t think any of the Best Picture nominees this year deserve to win. Some awards—the Hugo awards for science fiction writing, for example—ask voters to rank all the nominees, as well as a “No Award” item; I’m afraid that for the 94th Academy Awards I’d rank “No Award” first for Best Picture.
I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on that opinion: am I getting even more jaded and negative? is watching the films at home (and even occasionally second-screening when my attention wanders) ruining my ability to recognize, let alone appreciate, good films? is the Academy now somehow more motivated to nominate worse films, perhaps to prove some kind of point about “integrity” or “art”? are market forces (eg the elimination of mid-budget filmmaking) conspiring to prevent the production of quality films? I don’t know. Perhaps some of all of these; the list of nominees rules out any one of them as a sole factor.
Every year I pick one non-nominee as an excellent film that just doesn’t quite fit the (Academy’s definition of the) Best Picture category. Candidates I considered this year included Last Night In Soho (a brilliantly, beautifully made film that I enjoyed despite never caring for even a moment about the plot) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (which somehow offered a lot that was fresh and exciting within a franchise and framework that by all logic should have run out of steam long ago), but I think I’d rather highlight Ghostbusters: Afterlife, mainly because it delivered on what it promised despite a high degree of difficulty trying to reprise one of the greatest popular films of all time. It didn’t try to launch a new franchise; it relied on charismatic new characters and a fresh story instead of merely remaking the first film; and it managed to service my emotional attachment to the first film (and its cast and characters) without making any pretense of getting by on merely nostalgia and cameos. Of course it was nothing like the cultural phenomenon of the original Ghostbusters, but it was a solid and entertaining movie that stayed true to the tone and the fun of the genre that original defined. I had low expectations going in, but left with a grin.
Anyway, talking about films that you don’t like isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) much fun, so I’ll keep my individual comments relatively brief. This is my ranking from worst to best, but that’s particularly arbitrary this year: if I think too long about any of these films I can get angry enough to want to put it last:
The Power of the Dog
Just an incredibly tedious, pretentious slog, with no effort to provide any forward momentum for the audience to latch onto. You can see Benedict Cumberbatch acting the hell out of every second of screen time, and that’s not a compliment.
Instead of this, just go back and watch Brokeback Mountain, which is as beautiful and heartbreaking (if not as ostentatiously bold) as it was when it was released.
I’ve always had a bias against Hollywood telling stories about Hollywood, which is where this starts (although it admittedly doesn’t dwell there). But beyond that it’s not a complete story, just a collection of vignettes of characters…none of whom I liked at all.
Instead of this, watch Almost Famous.
I think it was Roger Ebert who said that a great film has two great scenes and no bad scenes. But we can go past that: a great film has some great scenes, which are why the film is worth watching, a bunch of good scenes that offer building blocks to enable the great scenes, and perhaps a few fun self-indulgent scenes that could have been left on the cutting-room floor, but what the heck a great film is allowed a little bit of slack.
Belfast is nothing but self-indulgent scenes that feel like they were pulled from the cutting-room floor of great films.
I was working so hard to give Branagh the benefit of the doubt on both the “he stole soap flakes!” and the “she made him return the soap flakes!” gags…but the plot hinges on a mother literally putting her son’s life in danger over this light-hearted fun.
If you want unreliable child narrators, watch 1987’s Hope and Glory, or even 2019’s Jojo Rabbit.
I really wanted to like this film, if only because it was mercifully short. But it is an atrociously written mashup of a handful of much, much, much better films. The explanation I finally arrived at for the script’s absurdities is that this wasn’t made as vapid Oscar bait (like the above three films), but rather that it was repackaging several adult films about adolescents for adolescents.
Watch Billy Elliot. Watch Whiplash. Watch The Sound of Metal.
(If you want singing, then I guess people seemed to like Pitch Perfect, and there must be a dozen teen romances with more meat on the bone than this nonsense. I’m afraid my knowledge of those genres is nonexistent.)
As a final note, the lead is a capable and charismatic Emma Stone/Watson knockoff. But you simply cannot base your film on “…but her voice was so spectacular that joining the school choir her senior year was enough for everyone else to push her into a professional singing career” if your lead’s voice is, you know, fine. At best.
The Williams story is spectacular.
This film, however, offers absolutely no depth to that story. At all.
There’s one mention that Richard Williams actually has (lots of) other kids, who he didn’t invest his life into making stars. So that fascinating angle on what makes a “good father” goes completely untapped.
There are multiple mentions that he’s a shameless public promoter for his daughters, but this all happens entirely off screen, and what we’re shown is merely what (the screenwriter assumes) he said directly to his daughters. So any possible contradictions there go unexplored.
And I realize everyone likes Will Smith. I realize the Academy’s only hope for making this year’s awards ceremony relevant to the public is for Will Smith to win Best Actor. But his performance felt to me like a caricature.
If you like cringeworthy Will Smith performances that dance with racial tropes in shallow sports movies…then maybe just watch The Legend of Bagger Vance?
West Side Story
If you were going to remake a film, then I’d have hoped you’d have a reason for it. A new angle. Something new to say. But there’s nothing new here. I mean, Spielberg throws the camera around in ways nobody could have managed sixty years ago, but the staging and choreography he’s flying through are straight out of 1961.
I admit I haven’t gone back to watch the original film, but the main change I noticed in the script is that the racist street kids who start the whole thing by vandalizing a piece of civic art also try to gang rape a woman for being the wrong race? And this is, like, explicitly called out? I would have remembered that from the old version, wouldn’t I?
I didn’t enjoy 2016’s La La Land (again, my bias against Hollywood stories), but it at least provided a modern cinematic take on the musical. If you want a musical that suffers all the staging constraints of a theatre production, then just watch the 2020 release of Hamilton.
Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay makes movies for dumb people. He identifies a simple idea he wants to get across, he turns it into a screenplay, he goes through that screenplay line by line, identifying every shred of nuance or subtext, and then he takes those shreds and makes sure that some character in the movie says them out loud so that the audience can’t possibly miss them. It’s insulting. It’s depressing. It’s exhausting.
Some reviews say that Don’t Look Up is a satire. These people don’t know what satire is. Satire doesn’t involve people yelling “that sounds like satire!” at potentially satirical lines. Don’t Look Up is instead a polemic in narrative form. A relevant polemic; a polemic with which I largely agree; but a polemic. And not a particularly deep or thoughtful one. It’s meant as a metaphor for climate change, but all the details that have made that problem intractable—the uncertainty and false steps in developing the science; the absence of objective thresholds to provide unambiguous targets; the inherent inequities not just in impact but in who get the chance to contribute to the problem (and reap the rewards) that complicate any intuition of “fairness”—are totally erased to make some utterly anodyne points that provide no guidance for future action.
“Politicians care only about winning elections!”
“Rich people will risk everyone else’s lives to get richer!”
“Fame is seductive!”
If Don’t Look Up is what it took to get you to really think about those nuggets of wisdom, I have absolutely no faith that applications of your new enlightenment will be anything but counter-productive.
Still, all these are arguments that this isn’t a particularly good film, not that it’s a bad film. And it isn’t bad. It’s well made. It’s fairly well paced. It has a real arc. There are a few good gags (the mid-credits scene got a laugh from me). And Jonah Hill is a delight.
The obvious film to watch in place of this is Dr Strangelove. But the British series The Thick of It and its feature film spin-off In the Loop, as well as the American series Veep, are all much more entertaining critiques of political incompetence.
Dune is one of the most influential franchises (if not the most influential franchise) in all of scifi. I’ve read the book. I’ve even seen Lynch’s bizarre 1984 film. And I kind of enjoyed both. But at this point the basic structure is so ingrained in the genre, and so many of the details that must have been engrossing in 1965 when the book was first published have been aped by other properties, that it’s very tough to evaluate them as though they are “original”. This 2021 film is beautiful. Worth seeing on the big screen. But it brings no nuance to the story that wasn’t already there, it is utterly devoid of humor, none of its characters have any depth, and honestly I’m skeptical that anyone not already familiar with the plot could even follow what’s going on.
Worst of all, however—what completely knocks it out of contention for being a Best Picture—is that it’s not a complete movie. 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War was conceived, written, and marketed as the first half of a two-parter, but it had an internal arc that reached a coherent conclusion making sense of everything it contained. Even the first half of 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia (a rather obvious parallel with Dune) offered viewers a satisfying story arc. Villenueve’s Dune is merely a bunch of things that happen before the budget and runtime are exhausted. There’s absolutely no attempt to tie up threads; in fact an absurd amount of screen time is spent promising us exciting things that this first part never makes any attempt to deliver. Including Zendaya. It doesn’t even bother pacing itself for some big cliffhanger—it just…stops. Maybe both parts together will constitute something that I could consider Best Picture (in an off year). But this on its own is an insult, and the nomination is a declaration that the Academy cares more about visual artistry than any aspect of story.
On the Dune story itself
Instead of running the film down any more, let me use this space to rebut one common criticism of Dune: that the emperor giving the most valuable planet in the universe to someone he fears is a plot hole. I admit I’m doing a little bit of head canon on this, but I say the opposite. Grokking the emperor’s perspective is the only way to redeem what would otherwise be a miserable story about one man’s greatness saving the galaxy.
The Bene Gesserit, a secretive cabal that has infiltrated every power structure in existence, have spent centuries doing two things:
- Constructing a latent army on Arrakis powerful enough to permanently seize the planet, control Spice production, and thus own the greatest bargaining chip in the universe. But an army that crucially will not go rogue.
- Breeding a messiah for this army that they can control.
A centuries-long breeding program doesn’t culminate suddenly. Leto Atreides (Paul’s father) is a nutjob with a messiah complex and the ability to inspire loyalty to the extent that his followers lose all rationality. When the book(/film) opens, he’s convinced himself that somehow he’s accrued real power in the universe. He’s convinced his followers of this. They are are all utterly deluded. This is like a middle manager at a giant corporation who suddenly thinks they have clout in the way the founders and primary shareholders do. Just bonkers.
The emperor sees this nutjob, rolls his eyes, and says “man you sure are powerful! Good for you! I’ll give you the most valuable thing in all of existence, and all you have to do is peacefully transfer all your current responsibilities to others, and gather you, your family, and all your fanatics—I mean followers—in one place!”
Leto Atreides does. He thinks “there’s something suspicious about this, but my genius will see me through this intricate game of five-dimensional chess…” He’s an idiot.
Immediately upon making himself trivial to cleanly eliminate, he is cleanly eliminated by the emperor, who hands Arrakis right back to its prior administrator. This was not a squeaker of a battle and House Atreides got unlucky. They had zero chance—zero—of holding Arrakis against the emperor’s will.
And of course the Bene Gesserit don’t care a whit. Maybe they whispered in the emperor’s ear to ease this along to give Paul Atreides even more claim to legitimacy on Arrakis, but after breeding him for the same ability to inspire fanatical loyalty as his father, and then training him (perhaps subconsciously) through childhood to fulfill the prophecies they’d seeded among the Fremen (“he already knows how to wear a stillsuit!”) he probably doesn’t even need that to take control of their underground army.
And the thing about all this is that his visions—the ability to see through a tree of possible futures—may just as well be nutty drug-induced hallucinations related to his messiah complex. Paul is a peg of Bene Gesserit design fitting into a hole of Bene Gesserit design. He’s a kook and doesn’t know it. And, as the Bene Gesserit make very clear to his mother, he is the most easily replaced part of the plan. They’ve been preparing other pegs that would fit just as well.
The emperor’s mistake was not seeing the power of Bene Gesserit long-term planning. Wiping out House Atreides was perfectly reasonable, and went off entirely according to plan.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Guillermo del Toro is on my list, with Edgar Wright, of filmmakers whose films I will watch no matter what they’re about. Nightmare Alley is a beautiful film, in the “every frame a painting” sense. He’s a master of the visual side of the artform.
He’s not a master, unfortunately, of plot, or structure, or character, and Nightmare Alley left me cold on all of those fronts. There is nothing in the first half of the film to pull the audience into the future; it’s just a bunch of things that happen one after the other. When tension finally is created in the second half—there’s an endgame with Grindle to drive towards—the stops and starts along the way seem arbitrary and forced. This felt to me like a result of never really establishing either Molly or Ritter as full characters, just obstacles motivated solely by the need to advance the plot. I wonder whether there were a few scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor that could have helped with that.
Not that I would actually endorse putting back any cut scenes; at 150 minutes this is already far too long a film. The trouble is that there are just so many plot points this film needs to get through it’s a huge challenge to actually motivate them all. Any one of the acts could have been a (good) two-hour film of its own.
If you want a visually stylish film along these lines, I guess the obvious alternative is The Shape of Water. If you’re more interested in the period character study aspect, then I recommend 2006’s The Prestige, a good film that seems to have been widely forgotten.
Drive My Car
I’ve read a handful of Murakami novels, and I see the art and appeal of them, but they’re not for me: four hundred pages of people experiencing ennui and finally concluding that, you know, life is sad. (Sometimes the characters kill themselves. Finally.) But if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy putting yourself through, this is the film for you!
I’ve already mentioned (several times) that I hate films about film culture, and Drive My Car has that in spades. But I also have another bias: I love it when films take details of niche passions seriously. 1994’s Clerks (a bad film) took Star Wars fandom seriously, and 1997’s Chasing Amy (an okay film) had a couple of real conversations about making comics, so I can’t hate Kevin Smith despite considering him a terrible filmmaker. The long, going-nowhere scenes tracking the minutia of theatre rehearsals in Drive My Car leave me torn. There is zero chance—zero—that any filmmaker would allow such indulgent dives into any other discipline. You’ll never see a twenty-minute sequence tracking the emergence of a software architecture or the identification of a programming error, no matter how brilliantly the associated methodology mirrors the philosophy of the film. I’m bewildered that movie folks can’t see that double standard. So there’s that.
I feel obliged to note that there’s an arc on Seinfeld where they make a TV pilot in which a man gets in a car accident and is sentenced to be Jerry’s butler. They take this pilot to a bunch of Japanese TV executives, and the executives ask “Is this common in America? For a man to be sentenced to be another man’s butler?” Similarly, I must ask: is it common for one visiting artist to get in a car accident, and then for all subsequent visiting artists not to be allowed to drive? Because the film makes it seem like that is a normal thing in Japan. I—a westerner unfamiliar with the exotic customs of The East—do not think that is a normal thing.
And finally: the pacing. The nominees this year include several 150-minute slogs, but pushing past the three-hour mark—for a film with very, very few plot points—is ostentatiously advertising that you’re going to take your time. Forty minutes into the film, the opening credits appeared, and I laughed out loud. The car had a sunroof, and they aren’t using the sunroof, and they’re doing Chekhov, right? So they have to use the sunroof, right? And in the last sequence they used the sunroof, and I cheered. Because when the filmmakers have consciously decided that their goal is to trap an audience in a theatre and deprive them of all joy for three hours, you’ve got to find your own, auteur’s intent be damned.
So it was tedious, and pretentious, and self-absorbed, but at least with this film I’ll concede that it was coherent: the digressions and silences and the sheer grinding boredom for its own sake all fed into the theme. They managed to tie it together, and I grudgingly admit that it more or less worked for me.
Could I recommend this film? No. Of course not. Watching it was a terrible experience and I don’t feel it enriched my perspective in any way that a dozen more enjoyable works haven’t already done. Best film of the year!