Metaverse Media’s 2021 Guide to Best Picture

The last time the Academy Awards were held feels like a different time — February of 2020, a mere month before the COVID-19 pandemic completely shut down the film industry. At this upcoming first COVID-era Academy Awards, eight movies have been nominated for Best Picture. We, the Metaverse Media writing team, each gave our opinions on one of the films nominated this year as to whether or not it deserves the Oscar.

Judas and the Black Messiah — Rox

Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King) follows the true story of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who, on a plea deal, agrees to go undercover in the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant. His goal is to get close to Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and report back to FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). As O’Neal grows closer to Hampton, Mitchell begins to demand more of him. O’Neal is hesitant but continuously pressured to go further, ultimately playing a huge role in Hampton’s assassination. The film shows the kind, tender side of Hampton, highlighted by the treacherous nature of O’Neal. Complete opposites, where Hampton is selfless, O’Neal is selfish. The two actor’s contrasting roles, along with King’s incredible writing, creates a captivating and truly emotional film.

This is Shaka King’s first major feature film. As the writer, director, and producer, he had full creative control, earning him the nomination for both Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. Stanfield and Kaluuya are both up for Best Supporting Actor, despite Stanfield clearly being the main character. This is Stanfield’s first nomination and Kaluuya’s second, and they both have a strong chance at winning due to their incredibly powerful performances. I haven’t seen any of the other Best Picture nominations, but it’s definitely one of my favorite movies in the past few years. With the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy still looming, and Parasite’s sweeping win last year, it’s hard to know what the Oscar Committee is thinking. This film is not trying to soften anything that happened in real life, extremely raw and political. And in the midst of such a political point in time, the Oscar Committee may play it safe so they don’t appear to be taking a political position. Hopefully, their desire for neutrality will not overweigh the praise that this movie deserves.

Mank — Megan

Mank (dir. David Fincher) may only be 11 minutes longer than its subject matter Citizen Kane, but its lethargic pace makes it feel a lot longer. Following Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz’s race to finish the screenplay, Mank features notable performances from Gary Oldman as the titular alcoholic Mank and Amanda Seyfried as his friend, Marion Davies. We flash between the 1940s “present” (Mank laying in bed with a broken leg, dictating a script to secretary Rita) and the past, where the brunt of the story happens. Not only do we watch Mank’s growing relationship with Marion and her benefactor William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), but we also follow the 1934 gubernatorial election between Upton Sinclair and MGM-favorite Frank Merriam. The film ends with a drunken soliloquy from Mank and a fight with Orson Welles (Tom Burke) that concludes in the two splitting credit for Citizen Kane.

Mank begins with a series of confusing, unrelated, and underdeveloped scenes, and it took me a while to get my bearings. A drawback of a black-and-white film with many middle aged white men is that it can be hard to differentiate between them, especially when all they do is sit in offices and speak in vague, wannabe-snappy dialogue. The second act is surprisingly good, given the chaos of the first, and Fincher finds his rhythm documenting Mank’s drunken adventures, which were much more entertaining once I actually understood what was going on. However, the third act matches the first in terms of disjointedness, and I yet again found myself struggling to comprehend the series of events unfolding on my screen. The entire election plotline seems irrelevant, and distracts from the film’s main narrative.

If directed by a less prolific name, I probably would have enjoyed Mank a lot more, but Fincher has set the bar too high with his other films — I expect much more than mediocre from someone with his skillset. It’s ironic, given that the film revolves around writing Citizen Kane, but the weakest part of Mank was the screenplay itself. Fincher’s late father, Jack, wrote this screenplay, and while I appreciated the tribute, Fincher had his work cut out for him. He did the most with what he was given, but Mank would have been much more compelling if it had succeeded because of the screenplay instead of in spite of it.

Minari — Hugh-Jay

If I had to describe Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung) in a singular word, it would be “tender.” Growing up Korean-American allowed Minari to hit especially close to home, but even independent of my cultural background, Minari is a shockingly earnest dissection of the American dream. Minari tells the story of the Yi family as they move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Jacob (Steven Yeun) aims to carve out his vision of the American dream by trying to become a successful farmer of Korean produce. This mindset puts him at odds with his wife Monica, (Han Ye-ri) who wants to find more financial stability to secure a future for their two children, Jacob (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho). At the same time, Alan attempts to assert what he believes to be an “American” identity, a position that puts him at odds with his grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) when she visits the family. 

Minari’s strength is the genuine bond of the Yi family. Jacob and Monica are nice parents in the way many Korean immigrants are — sparing outward expressions of love, but an implicit acknowledgment of unwavering care. But on a larger scale, Minari succeeds by showing the struggles that most immigrant families endure through their assimilation. There is no antagonist, no mustache-twirling evildoer that forces the Yis to bond together – just a family trying to survive. Minari is a film centered around its characters and their tribulations, and it triumphs in allowing the viewers to understand and empathize with every character’s decisions and mindsets. I’ve only seen less than half of the Best Picture nominees this year, but out of the ones I’ve seen, Minari is my clear favorite.

Nomadland – Will

Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao) is an exploration of the life of nomadic people, who travel in RVs or vans year-round rather than calling a specific place home. After the death of her husband and the loss of her home and job due to the Great Recession, Fern, played by Frances McDormand, decides to live her life as one of these nomads. The movie follows her across the Southwest over the span of a year, as she meets other nomads (many of which are real life nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves) and sees the unique hardships and beautiful moments of this lifestyle. 

It is difficult to find the cinematic terms for a film as unique as this, so I must turn to the theater world. The devised production — a play written during rehearsals, largely by actors themselves who frequently blur the line between their characters and their real, lived experiences — has been transformed in the last twenty-odd years into a tool for social awareness and change. By placing reality into the confines of a traditional narrative, what might have reached a niche audience as documentary is given general accessibility as drama. Chloé Zhao has proved an uncanny ability to bring this unique part of the theatrical world onto the screen through her entire filmography, and Nomadland is no exception. The phenomenal, brutally honest, and ultimately kind portrayals of nomads by Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, supported by several real life nomads, paints an incredible picture of this lifestyle with a compelling story at its center. While I haven’t seen many of the films it is up against, I am confident that few (if any) would go home unhappy if Zhao and Nomadland were to take home a well-deserved Best Picture trophy. 

Promising Young Woman – Olivia

CW: Sexual assault

Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell) follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a thirty year old woman who dropped out of medical school after her best friend, Nina, was raped, no investigation was carried out, leading Nina to kill herself. Cassie now pretends to be drunk at bars, allowing men to take her home, and then revealing that she’s sober and shames them when they try to take advantage of her. When she learns that Nina’s rapist is getting married, she begins her crusade to get revenge on those directly involved in Nina’s case. 

Let’s start with the positives of this film.The cast is incredible. Besides Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton and Alfred Molina all give incredible performances despite their small roles. The production design is beautiful, full of bright colors and interesting sets. Sadly, throughout the film there are several shots inserted of on the nose imagery that dumbs down other points made in the film, such as Cassie being framed with a halo reminiscent of art of the Virgin Mary. 

Now onto the negatives. I genuinely believe that this movie can be compared to The Joker (dir. Todd Philips). Both films are incredibly on the nose, and ask their viewers to identify with and support an objectively bad person. The directorial styles are also reminiscent of each other, holding the audience’s hand and repeatedly telling them exactly what they need to think. Cassie operates on the idea that everyone is complicit in rape culture except for her, which is proven false by her actions throughout the film.

One of my friends described the dialogue of this film as “an argument you would have with yourself in the shower”, where everything you say is right, no matter what, and quite honestly I can’t think of a better way to summarize it. The script of this movie is poor and the ideas it presents seem like half-formed college discussion posts written by students who didn’t do their readings. Cassie’s anger is all consuming and at the same time easily quelled by Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) telling her to move on, or the lawyer who represented rapists (Alfred Molina) crying and apologizing for his sins. Speaking of Nina’s mother, who we see in one scene, I refuse to believe that a mother would tell her dead daughter’s best friend to move on. In fact, she all but tells Cassie to forget Nina and continue on with her life. 

The movie would be bad but forgivable if it ended before its Act Three, but the finale makes it unbearable. The movie ends with an almost comical misunderstanding of how the criminal justice system handles sexual assault. Rape revenge is an incredibly heavy topic, and for me, Promising Young Woman fails at addressing anything with care or nuance. If you want proof that a rape revenge film can be well made, I’d suggest watching Jennifer’s Body (2009, dir. Karyn Kusama). Overall, Promising Young Woman, in my opinion, does not deserve it’s best picture nomination, and it especially doesn’t deserve to win.

Sound of Metal – Brewster

If you’ve heard about Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Mauder), you’ve probably been told that it’s the story of a drummer who begins to lose his hearing. While that’s technically correct, it fails to describe the thoughtfulness and subtlety that makes Sound of Metal such a great film. As protagonist Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) navigates his way through life after his world begins to fall apart, every small decision begins to feel monumental. Tense scenes are generated with nothing more than some dynamic audio changes, and conflicts ebb and flow naturally. It’s a story primarily concerned with finding peace, using Ruben’s deafness as a surrogate for a deeper look into the human psyche. It asks, What can we do when what we love is taken away from us? How do we know it’s time to move on? 

Sound of Metal engages you from the get-go and has you clinging on to Ruben’s every move. Riz Ahmed is absolutely fantastic as Ruben and 100% deserves to take home the Best Actor award. It’s his performance that really carries the film, as the plot is so hyper-focused on his mind and body that he has no room for error. He’s flawless in every scene, infusing Ruben with so much heart and life that you want him to find peace even when it seems most unlikely for him. The supporting cast is great, too (Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci), as they provide an emotional core for Ruben that helps to guide him along his physical and mental journey. Sound of Metal also succeeds with its pacing; each scene takes exactly as much time as it needs to, and each new action feels like a logical next step, even if the movie doesn’t go in the direction you’d expect. What really pushes Sound of Metal over the top for a lot of people, including myself, is the sound design. The film alters, muffles, and mutes sounds to put you inside of Ruben’s shoes. It’s hard to describe through text, as Sound of Metal succeeds as an aural experience. It’s easily one of the most creative uses of sound in a film that I’ve ever seen.

I think Sound of Metal would be an unlikely choice for the Academy for Best Picture. Even though I’ve only seen two of the nominees (this and Nomadland), I do think that Sound of Metal would be a worthy selection for Best Picture if it ends up winning. It’s a quality film that boasts an incredible lead performance, a creative use of audio engineering, and a unique story to tell. 

The Father – Jack

I sat down to watch The Father (dir. Florian Zeller) knowing nothing about the plot of the movie except that it was about a person who has dementia. In retrospect, I’m not sure knowing the plot of the movie down to every last detail would have helped me. The Father was one hour and 37 minutes of confusion and paradox, but I loved it regardless. The Father centers around Anthony Hopkins, who plays the titular character (coincidentally, also named Anthony) and his daily life and relationship with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), among various other caretakers. I can’t say much more without giving things away — even with how confusing this movie feels at times, The Father works best with as little information as possible.

This is Zeller’s directorial debut, adapted from his 2012 play of the same name. The theatrical origins of the play show through. The movie is very dialogue-based, with exposition provided only through visuals or when Anthony’s memory fails. Some viewers might be turned off by the talking-headiness of The Father, but the movie’s merits far outweigh the downsides. The set design and shot selection are gorgeous and uncomfortable in a way I can’t explain easily.

I can see some audiences getting lost in The Father and completely missing the point. The point, to clarify, is that the father has dementia and can’t make sense of the world, so a movie through his eyes inherently needs to be incredibly confusing. Because of the movie’s confusing structure, I’m not entirely sure that The Father can win Best Picture. Consider it a dark horse. What I am sure of is that the father is Anthony Hopkins’ best performance. He’s just so… normal. It doesn’t feel like he’s acting. In the original play’s run on London’s West End and Broadway, the actors playing the father won the Lawrence Olivier and Tony awards for Best Actor. While I would be surprised if Best Actor this year goes to anyone other than the late Chadwick Boseman, I must humbly submit Hopkins as an alternative.

Trial of the Chicago 7 – Betsy

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (dir. Aaron Sorkin) is an aggressively mediocre movie. While I cannot speak to its historical accuracy, it is a wholly average film. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is based on the 1969 trial in which the federal government charged seven defendants of conspiracy following counterculture protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the previous year. It features a stacked ensemble cast, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, and Jeremy Strong. 

Aaron Sorkin’s stylized screenwriting is on full display, with every character getting at least one of his signature quips; however, what was once a strong point of his writing style now feels less clever and more rote. The real highlight of the film is its performances. Every actor gives a strong performance, but the real star of the show is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, delivering a layered performance that upstages every single one of his co-stars. While there are some swelling emotional and narrative heights — the “Someone in the crowd shouted…” sequence comes to mind — Chicago 7 ends up fizzling out and being just okay.

Definitely the most “Oscar Bait”-y of this year’s crop of nominees, The Trial of the Chicago 7 falls on the forgettable end of the bunch. It lacks the buzz surrounding other films like Nomadland and Minari, and it seems to have faded from conversation since its release and nomination. If it ends up winning, it’ll likely be one of those Best Picture winners that leaves future viewers scratching their heads as to why, out of all of the nominees, the Academy thought this was the best movie of the year.

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