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The Ultimate Choice #22: Best Picture 2021 Contenders

Last year for The Ultimate Choice, I did an edition in February in which I got my fellow film fans and Oscar pundits to write a piece on why each of the contenders should or will win the Oscar. Because I loved that edition so much, I am doing it again and I have gotten a piece on every film contending this year. Even if we know who is actually going to win, I am excited to share the passion behind all of the contenders this year.

The Father

Chosen by Ricky Valero: Twitter | Ricky Valero Linktree

Why do I think ‘The Father’ deserves Best Picture? No film spoke to my film heart more than The Father did in 2020. It was a beautifully directed, written, acted, and technical sound masterpiece. 

Anthony Hopkins is one of the greatest actors of all time, and at almost 83-years-old took on a role that was not just challenging the term of acting but also in the way of life itself. To take on the part of ‘Anthony’ within The Father meant he would potentially face his mortality or his own reality.

As I spoke with the director of the film Florian Zeller, he told me about what it was like for him to talk to Hopkins about this role, as he wrote it specifically with him in mind and even had a dream about it. Zeller also spoke about how he could have played it safe at this age, but Hopkins was the consummate professional as he had to go to uncharted territory.

What may seem confusing for us, the viewer, Zeller spoke about how his head’s vision was the opposite. He talked about the idea of wanting to make a film that had to be seen more than once, that film like Muholland Drive inspired the theme of repeat viewing. When I asked about the daunting task of going from a play to the big screen, Zeller was more than up for the job. He told me about the obstacles he had to face in changing his vision, but instead, he stood his ground, and I respect him so much more for doing so.

With each of my, now, three viewings, Anthony broke me more and more. You pick up on things that you don’t see from your first visit. First, you put yourself in Anne’s shoes (Olivia Colman). She is in charge of taking care of her ailing father, who refuses to let go of the idea he is losing his marbles and ALSO treats her terribly. So you think, what would you do? How much could you take? Would you throw in the towel earlier than she did? Zeller forces us to answer these questions. Then, you put yourself in Anthony’s mind and what it would be like to be in his shoes during something like this. We all like to have control, but at what point do we say, I can’t do this on my own anymore.

Anthony Hopkins is a five-time Academy Award nominee with one victor under his belt for his groundbreaking performance in The Silence of the Lambs. To be good at something for so long is impressive, but to be great at something for so long is even better. Hopkins gave the best performance of his career at 83-years-old, and if that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is. I was mentally and emotionally moved by what Hopkins did in this film like I have been very few times in film before. Within every single movement, every word that came out of his mouth, and every action that he made, he reeled you in and made you feel everything he was feeling. It’s merely one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen in my life.

My admiration for this film was already high but having the opportunity to dissect the film with Florian was life-changing. I am just a guy who loves movies, and who happens to run a website, write reviews and get to be a part of a critics group, and for someone like him to sit down with me was pure joy.

The Father deserves Best Picture because it was the best film from top to bottom in the past year. It might not be the flashiest, it may not be the charming story you are looking for but it’s one man clinging onto life as we do every single day. 

Judas and the Black Messiah

Chosen by Chay Strudwick: Twitter | Letterboxd

So, it’s that time of year again. Awards season. Never has an awards season looked so different; awards being presented via Zoom, films going straight to VOD, it’s safe to say that the 2021 Oscars are the most unusual so far. However, that doesn’t make them any less exciting. A number of great films and people were nominated this year. We had TWO women nominated for best director! Multiple indies nominated for best picture. It’s a great time to be a film fan. Picking a favourite to win Best Picture was no easy task. The films nominated are all of similar quality and would all be equally deserving, something that hasn’t really happened in recent years. However, Judas and the Black Messiah has something that the other nominees don’t have. It should definitely win the big prize!

When we first saw the trailer last year, we all immediately knew that this film was going to be great. There were no doubts, no questions, no concerns. As soon as you saw Daniel Kaluuya deliver the speech in the wonderful trailer, you knew it was going to be a fantastic film. Fantastic it was. Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield (both nominated for Best Supporting Actor) lead the film and give great performances. We have seen both actors grow in prominence the last few years but this film shows their true star quality. They aren’t simply great actors. They are Oscar-calibre actors. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Fred Hampton is arguably the best acting performance of the year. Each time he is on the screen you feel his presence. You feel what it would’ve been like to grace the company of the legendary Fred Hampton. Each speech, each moment is perfectly delivered. He brought the man to life. This performance provides the backbone of the film from which everything leapfrogs. Stanfield plays his role perfectly opposite Kaluuya and you can feel his fear grow throughout the story as he knows what he is doing is wrong and that he should be supporting the Panthers. It was extremely moving to watch as you were infuriated at his behaviour but could feel sympathy towards the actions he was taking. Quite simply, this film is an actor’s film. They bring heart to the story, fire to their performances. All of this makes it well-deserving of the big prize at the Oscars.

Everything about Judas and the Black Messiah is great. The direction, acting and score, in particular, are all fantastic. It would be well deserving of Best Picture and would be a great moment for the Academy. Here’s to hoping it wins! 

Mank

Chosen by Amy Smith

When I put out the call for people to make their choices for what they want to win, I purposefully did not pick until the final one was leftover. Sure, Mank would certainly not have been my pick if I was given free rein, but I think this speaks for the quality of this year’s line-up when I knew I would be able to argue a point for any of the contenders this year.

Mank ended up with the most nominations out of any film this year, and I think that speaks to the level of craft that director David Fincher always puts into his film. It is certainly going to win Best Production Design, a worthy choice given the gorgeous sets that surround this film and help bring the story to life. The costume design, makeup and hair design, and score all in particular are key highlights of this film captured by the gorgeous cinematography.

Out of all of the contenders in this year’s race, it is the one that I am most curious to revisit. When I first saw it, I loved the technical elements but did have a few qualms with the screenplay. However, recently I have been wanting to give it another shot and go back to admire all of the beauty that the film has to show. I have a feeling I may like the film even more on a second watch, especially since I know what I am getting into this time. For a film that tells the tale of the proclaimed greatest film of all time, it is surely something that the Oscars are wanting to show some support to?

Minari

Chosen by Alex G: Twitter | The Rank List Podcast

Even though the Oscar Best Picture race is all but decided at this point I still think Minari deserves a hail mary, because frankly, it’s one of the strongest films nominated this year. 

Minari tells the dramatic story of a Korean American family trying to find their way in an ever-changing US climate, is my second favourite film of the ones nominated for Best Picture this year. Lee Isaac Chung crafts an exquisite blend of family drama, devastatingly convincing performances, a beautifully poignant screenplay, and a beautiful eye for the setting of the film itself. 

These reasons alone should make it desirable to any Academy voter, but what really makes the Best Picture? Generally for a film to take Best Picture at the Oscars, it has to take a few awards in other key categories. Just last year Bong Joon-ho took Screenplay and Director, which led the path to Parasite taking the top award of the night. Now Lee Isaac Chung is nominated in these same categories and to top that off two of his players are nominated in the acting categories, something which Parasite didn’t achieve last year, so the path is clear for Minari to take the top award. 

One of the key themes of Minari is the American dream. Jacob, played wonderfully by Steven Yeun, wants to have his own land, so he can farm and make good money to provide for his family whilst also being able to enjoy himself and have time for the family he so badly wants to provide for. Films with themes such as this usually do well at the Oscars and this year should be no different. 

To refer past Oscar ceremonies one more time, Parasite taking Best Picture, and Roma being nominated the year before, set a precedent for future years, one that doesn’t exclude foreign language films from the top award just for being so. Films like Minari don’t just deserve to sit amongst the likes of Nomadland, The Father, and Promising Young Woman, they also more than deserve to come out on top and I for one have some hope that it does. 

Nomadland

Chosen by Neal McAndrew: Twitter

The Academy for years has had a very stringent set of criteria for what is considered a “Best Picture” kind of film. What the last 20 years have shown, however, is that these criteria are very much open to interpretation and manipulation. Colour film being essential was challenged with The Artist (hasn’t aged well I do admit), fantasy was quashed with the Return of the King, and the small-time indie fare has been the true breakthrough with the likes of The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, Crash and most notably Moonlight, all walking away with the top award with budgets below $15 Million. 

This tumultuous and unpredictable year, however, we see that audiences, guild members, awarding bodies and so many more have responded to cinema that not only transports us to a reality that does not resemble our own but gives us that moment of true and authentic human connection. And no film presents the struggle that we all endure and the strength that we all possess than the story of Fern and the cavalcade of characters she meets on her journey for true personal enlightenment, in the wake of financial ruin as well, as Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland

Zhao has further developed the art of multi-genre hybrid film making, in the vein of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, by taking the source material from Jessica Bruder, researching the true nature of the situation, (where we gain epic performances from Linda May and Swankie), and creating a cohesive plotline and story arc for Frances McDormand to, not only make her presence felt, but ground it in such authenticity and nuance that she does not appear out of place if this were a documentary. 

The directing Oscar is a near certainty, but the cinematography from Joshua James Richards is a thing of true aesthetic beauty. Zhao even has the opportunity to not only be the first Asian woman to take home Best Director, but she could also walk away with four individual awards that night, she edited the whole thing too! 

We see many films go through the awards gauntlet on the back of press attention, proclaiming it to be a true depiction of America in the modern-day. However, Nomadland goes one step further and presents the modern American life, from the perspective of those in the margins, blending the true visceral effect of documentary and weaving a story that grips, entices and informs. Not only do I believe this film should win come Oscar night, I believe the message it conveys should be a resource in schools and community centres, as a way to bridge the gap that is so prevalent in today’s news.

Promising Young Woman

Chosen by Sam Hurley: Twitter | Movie Reviews in 20Qs Podcast

In what feels like an oversimplification of the obvious, the best picture winner at the Oscars should be just that, the best picture. It shouldn’t just be the film that contained the best acting performance, the best cinematography, the best script, the best sound, editing or execution, it should be the film that balances all of that better than all other films.

This year, Promising Young Woman is that film.

While a million good things are being said about Carey Mulligan’s performance, none of the supporting characters are slouches either, with memorable turns from Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Chris Lowell, Alfred Molina and especially Bo Burnham.

The cinematography delivers in droves as well, bouncing between dark hues and bright colours, sporadic uses of white on red, uneasy close-ups and medium shots, and culminating with a penultimate shot that is able to evoke more emotion from one scene than most films can strive for in an entire runtime.

The script hooks you with a basic premise, and from the start, it guides you seamlessly between the blackest of comedies, pertinent moments of hope, and some cathartically depressing moments. While the concept of one woman’s revenge is not new, where it goes and how it gets there certainly is.

The sound is also a massive drawcard. While its use is potentially bettered in Sound of Metal, anyone who’s seen this film will know exactly what scene the words “Paris Hilton” will remind them of, or how woven into the film a Britney Spears song was.

As for direction, well this entire entry could be spent on that alone. Emerald Fennell might not win the best director, but she would definitely be one of the favourites. Simply, she demonstrated something in this film that is way beyond expectations for someone of her experience.  

Finally, the one thing that all best pictures should have is an x-factor. And that is this film’s biggest drawcard. It’s incredibly topical and tackles a massive issue in contemporary society. It handles it in a way that draws equal parts of empathy and anger.

Often what will ensure that a Best Picture winner is truly memorable is a confronting honesty that has been rarely seen before. It’s been done multiple times. In 1976, Network became a prophetic piece that somehow knew where society and its perspectives were going. Three years later, Apocalypse Now captured a post-Vietnam era America and encapsulated society’s view on just how insane that war was. Then, in 1989, Do the Right Thing cinematically captured the levels of racial tensions that had been brewing unabated in inner-city America in the 1980s.

The eagle-eyed cinephiles among you will notice that none of those films won Best Picture.

But they all should have.

And so should this film. 

Sound of Metal

Chosen by Brian Skutle: Twitter | Sonic Cinema

The best films of 2020 asked us to put ourselves in the experience of their protagonists. Some did this more directly than others, but for me, none did so better than Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. The way he approached it was very directly, using his camera and the sound mix to give us the point-of-view of Ruben, a hard rock drummer who loses most of his hearing. For a film that centers on a drummer, it’s ironic that there is not much music, but sometimes, a film score can be a crutch for emotional storytelling; Sound of Metal is not interested in leaning on such things to tell its story, and that’s why it has the visceral impact it does on viewers- they have to take a leap of faith with Marder, the same one Ruben must make in this film.

When something profound happens in our lives, especially if it’s something that leaves deep emotional or physical pain on us, we often find ourselves trying desperately to hold on to who we were before the pain. We want to return to that moment we were happiest, where we felt the most whole. In Sound of Metal, Ruben’s arc is about him realizing that who he was before he lost his hearing is gone forever, and the best thing he can do is discover who he’s destined to be now. That’s a frightening place to be, and this film reminded me of when heightened awareness of my breathing issues after I was hospitalized in 2007 with pneumonia- and the rehabilitation afterwards- also made me more acutely aware of the emotional and mental issues I was going through at the time. It got to a point where I essentially required a hard reset on who I was, because trying to maintain the person I was before my hospitalization was having a negative impact on friendships and myself. To say that I empathized with Ruben’s arc in this film is an understatement- in a way, I felt like I lived my own version of it.

Riz Ahmed’s Oscar-nominated performance, probably my favorite of 2020, shows how self-absorbed our initial reactions can be, as his focus is on what will get him back to normal rather than what will be best for not just him, but others like Lou (Olivia Cooke) in the long run. His anxiety when he first loses his hearing is palpable, and the way Marder uses sound- or rather, the lack of sound- is an example of flawless storytelling instincts, which continue when Ruben goes to a living commune for the deaf run by Joe. Rather than start off with subtitles for the signing at the commune, Marder puts us in Ruben’s point of view, resisting subtitles until Ruben is able to understand what’s being said, and he’s able to communicate. Few movies have been as experiential as Sound of Metal has.

The urge to get his hearing back, somewhat, and try to resume his life leads to one of the most heartbreaking moments of 2020 cinema when Joe has to do something he really didn’t want to do to Ruben when he recognizes Ruben’s behavior as that of a junkie going down a path of self-destruction. Paul Raci’s performance in this scene is worthy of him winning the Supporting Actor Oscar alone- we feel the pain he feels, but also, the realization he has that this is what he needs to do. In the end, he knows he cannot help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. Ruben has to come to his own conclusions of how his life is going to play out. A trip to be with Lou makes that decision a little bit easier, and again, it comes down to Marder’s direction to help us feel the weight of what that means. Sound of Metal is a film that hit me in ways I didn’t expect when I watched it and endures because it doesn’t do so in an easily sentimental manner.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Chosen by Jason Woods: Twitter

It’s Oscar night, the climax of an aeons-long awards season that’s been both unpredictable (Best Actress) and consistently undramatic (Director). The final award of the night, long devoid of any uncertainty goes to…The Trial of the Chicago 7? 

It could happen. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a lot going for it. It features a murder’s row of acting talent: the cast boasts 8 nominations and 2 Oscar wins, not to mention up-and-coming reigning Emmy winners Jeremy Strong and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and a half dozen character actors everyone loves. With such a deep bench, it’s no surprise that the acting was one of the best things about the movie. Seven months ago, debates raged over who would land acting nominations from the cast, and impassioned arguments sprung up for no less than four actors. 

That cast was just recognized at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, winning Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture. It’s a strong portent; actors are the largest voting bloc in the Academy. Though, this statistic cuts both ways: five of the last ten Best Picture winners won the Outstanding Cast award.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is written by Aaron Sorkin, a screenwriting legend and four-time Academy Award nominee, one-time winnerIt’s got that trademark Sorkin zing, filled with lofty idealism and enlightened self-awareness. And the film’s got something the Academy loves: a timely social justice message. 

And oh how timely! A story about police overreach and a corrupt justice system that’s standing in the way of social and political progress. That this film came out in 2020, just months after mass unrest and protest across the United States, is there a film that speaks more to the current climate? 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 did miss Best Director; it hurts. But it was a crowded year; one could easily have made the case for eight different directors deserving a nod. But five of the last ten Best Picture winners didn’t win Best Director, and two weren’t even nominated, so we have recent precedent. 

The film DID pick up the critical nod for Best Editing: only one film in the last 30 years (Birdman) has won without it, so Trial is on the shortlist. It’s also nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Sascha Baron Cohen, himself a double nominee at this year’s ceremony. In fact, the film is tied with FIVE other Best Picture nominees as the second-most nominated film at the ceremony. It’s got the cred. 

In a strange Oscar season, The Trial of the Chicago 7 speaks to the moment. It’s a high-quality film from the acting to the cinematography to the screenplay. So don’t be surprised if somewhere around 11:00 pm EST on Sunday, April 25, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is announced as the Best Picture. Yes, it would be somewhat of a historic upset after Nomadland’s dominance — but the signs are all right there. 

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