The 2021 Oscar race is like no other in memory, as watching at home became the default for those millions of us who love the movies. Bathroom breaks got exponentially easier, and so did the possibilities for greater intimacy in the storytelling. In that vein, many wonderful films that might have gotten lost in a ‘normal’ year gained our attention, and though the other categories are equally worthy, time is short. So here are my thoughts about the best full length narrative films from America.
The Best Picture Nominees for 2021:
Judas And The Black Messiah
Promising Young Woman
Sound Of Metal
The Trial Of The Chicago 7
The Father boasts yet another of the extraordinary performances that have come to define the career of Anthony Hopkins. Supported by the brilliant Olivia Colman as his daughter, Anne, we watch Sir Tony dance and rage against the multiple creeping crises of a man facing the death of his mind.
Hopkins’ character, Anthony, may have previously grown to become a lion in life. But like many of us in this age of medical marvels, he may well return to a state of infancy before his days here are done, his body outliving his sense of who and even what he is.
Hopkins is a genius, and the movie lands bone deep. From start to finish, The Father is absolutely spell binding.
Judas And The Black Messiah
Judas And The Black Messiah tells the equally mesmerizing, true life story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the mid–sixties Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1967, the charismatic, openly revolutionary Hampton had been identified as a “threat” by FBI Chairman J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). By December of 1969, Hampton would be murdered in his sleep.
The film hinges on the delicious, “will he be discovered?” tension between the FBI’s planted informant, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stansfield), and the Panther hierarchy. The quick pace of the narrative carries the powerful social implications of the story effortlessly.
In a gripping early scene that sets the stakes, FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), offers the newly arrested car thief –– O’Neal –– a deal that will keep him out of prison. Writer/director Shaka King refers to this scene as a means of illustrating the dangers of remaining apolitical. Once Agent Mitchell establishes that the recent assassination of Malcolm X had meant nothing to O’Neal –– he knows he can turn him.
Says director King: “We wanted to ‘hit home’ the old phrase: ‘If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.’”
In reality, O’Neal lived under an alias for twenty years after his cover was blown. Knowledge had leaked that he’d drugged Hampton on the night of the Chairman’s assassination, having provided the police with a map of the man’s apartment, where Hampton, preparing to leave the country, was passing his last night with members of the Party. Despite the police firing a hundred rounds during the 4:45am raid on their sleeping prey, and the Panthers firing but one, into the ceiling, the official inquest ruled the multiple Panther deaths to be “Justifiable Homicide.” The last two last bullets fired, to the back of his head, ended Fred Hampton’s life.
The informant who stayed out of jail by agreeing to facilitate the destruction of the Panthers was tortured by the guilt of having done so. In the early morning hours of January 15, 1990, Martin Luther King Day, a distraught Bill O’Neal tried to jump out the upstairs window of his uncle’s apartment. Restrained, he immediately ran out the door and onto a nearby Expressway, ending his own life. He was 40.
Mank mines the remarkable life of the legendary writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), focusing on the creation of Citizen Kane, which Mankiewicz co–wrote with Orson Welles (Tom Burke).
As directed by David Fincher from a script by his deceased father Jack and the Oscar–winning screenwriter Eric Roth, Mank transports us to the top–shelf sheen of old school Hollywood glamor, wit and style and nails it. The film brilliantly foreshadows the era of “Fake News” that plagues us now, boasting an amazingly honest drawing–room set piece that dissects the enduring political struggle between Fascism and Socialism with a casual intelligence, and delightful sense of humor, that is every bit as shocking as it is irresistible.
Despite the Screenwriting Oscar it won them, it’s easy to make the case that in collaborating in a thinly disguised takedown of the media colossus William Randolph Hearst, Welles and Mankiewicz damaged both their careers. But it’s also undeniable that in that collaboration, through all the studio politics, epic self–destruction and ego–driven animosities of the day, the two of them delivered one of the greatest films in the history of cinema.
Mank does an unforgettable job of telling the fascinating story of that achievement.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a quiet masterpiece –– a gentle gem of a film.
In his semi–autobiographical tale, we fall into the story of a Korean family that comes to rural America in the 1980s. Its hard-working patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yuen), intends to wrest some dignity out of life by building his own vegetable growing business. Jacob wants to become his own boss.
After overcoming initial obstacles, including the dismay of his wife as she realizes he has withheld critical details about their new living conditions, Jacob’s love of the “dirt” he has chosen, and his fierce commitment to succeed, seems for a while like it might be equal to the daunting challenges he faces. With his youngest child carrying a potentially lethal heart condition, his wife increasingly despondent and his debts mounting, he buys time with the strategic decision to bring his mother–in–law to live with them. It’s grandma Soonja (Yuh–Jung Youn) to the rescue!
And thus is set in motion, both the blooming of the film’s magical heart, as grandma and her initially reluctant grandson (Alan Kim) forge a bond in their mutual sense of mischief, and the implacable, ‘rooted in best intentions’ machinery of the film’s heart-stopping climactic sequence.
Minari is a delight. It is intense but understated, awash in the unforeseen ironies and potent graces of hard work, unshakable faith, and acts of human kindness. It’s not to be missed.
Nomadland was born in Jessica Broder’s book about the legions of Americans who were swept out of their previous lives by the Great Recession of 2008. Ms. Broder went out into the heartland and documented the way these people reacted to the sudden destruction of their standing in the American Dream.
Ten years later, Frances McDormand optioned the book and brought the great Chloe Zhao onboard to direct. The two had the visionary clarity to recruit actual human beings from the book into the making of the movie. And these real–life refugees interact soulfully and seamlessly with the professionals in the film, no doubt empowered immeasurably by the quiet, anchoring presence of these extraordinary women. “Fran” McDormand is as unpretentious a great actor as the calling has ever produced.
The result is a masterpiece.
One wonders: how many of these new American “van dwellers”, choosing to be “houseless” rather than “homeless”, harbor bitterness toward the system that spit them out after yet another Wall Street season of violent ‘correction?’ If they’re pissed, they don’t show it. They appear instead to have found compensation in a deeper, more satisfying and sustainable sense of connection to the natural rhythms of life.
Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman is a comedic thriller, the arresting brainchild of the powerhouse British actor/writer/director/producer Emerald Fennell. Ms. Fennel cast the always excellent Carrie Mulligan as the film’s protagonist, Cassie.
Cassie has abandoned her once promising future as a doctor, after her best friend Nina was raped at a party by a fellow medical student. Nina’s humiliation was universally reported among the student body (there was video) and nothing was done about it. This public desecration destroyed Nina, and by extension, Cassie as well.
She now works in a coffee shop and devotes her life to pretending to be shit–faced drunk in clubs at night, going home with the first predatory man who offers to ‘help’ her. Before the mark can take sexual advantage of her ‘barely conscious’ state, Cassie suddenly sobers up and scares the bejeezus out of him. Dangerous and repetitive work in this woman’s heartbroken thinking, but work she is duty bound to do.
Cassie’s journey eventually takes her to the ‘isolated in the woods’ bachelor party of the man who raped Nina. Nina by now, is long since a suicide and forgotten by those who disdained her. Cassie poses as a stripper to gain access, and we brace for the comeuppance to come. She is a cunning strategist in her campaign to get even, and the storytelling pleasures of her epic foresight extend to the very last frames of the film.
Sound Of Metal
Sound Of Metal poses the question, “How does a person best respond to an irreversible loss?” In this case, the loss is his hearing, and the person in question is a heavy metal drummer by the name of Ruben (Riz Ahmed). Ruben and his lover Lou (Olivia Cooke) are a wondrous Thrash Rock duo, and as directed by Darius Marder, this film makes for a poignant, harrowing tale.
When his hearing begins to desert him, a moment exquisitely played by Ahmed, Ruben reacts with fierce denial, convinced that he can continue to play with Lou just by watching her onstage… It doesn’t work. Bowing to her insistence, he eventually agrees to become a student at a School for the Deaf that Lou has found, and she returns alone to her native France. They pledge to stay true to their love.
In the school, Ruben begins to thrive not only as a learner of sign language, but as a drum teacher as well. A hard-won journey of reassessment is joined, guided by the school’s director, Joe (a brilliant Paul Raci), and the possibility of a new purpose in life is offered in the form of a permanent job. But Ruben is an addict at heart, and surrender is a bridge he’s not yet crossed.
His story is a beautifully executed, deeply cautionary fable about the foolishness of taking a blessing for granted. As such, it makes for a truly wonderful film.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7
As written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is set against the backdrop of rage that rose to meet America’s soul–crushing mistakes in Vietnam. The trial of some of the nation’s most prominent activists of the day takes center stage in this riveting, circus–like drama. The top–notch cast delivers Sorkin’s typical eloquence with brio and aplomb, Sacha Baron Cohen reminding the world that beyond the comedic genius of Borat, he is a fine dramatic actor.
The defendants in the trial had come to the 1968 Democratic National Convention to galvanize resistance to the war, which had been grossly escalated by Lyndon Johnson, using the pretext of an ‘Attack on America’ in the Gulf of Tonkin (an attack that didn’t actually happen) to facilitate the escalation. The president had thereby seized unprecedented War Powers, which he wielded disastrously.
With the Pentagon Papers still several years from being published, the extent of Johnson’s lies was not yet officially known. But the parade of returning body bags, and stories of American soldiers killing their own platoon leaders in open defiance of the sunny reports of “enemy body count progress” being touted on the nightly news, were already circulating in the conscience of the country. Especially among the progressive young.
The trial was presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, incisive as always) and His Honor’s open hostility toward the defendants would eventually provoke the overturning of their convictions. Hoffman refused to allow the jury to hear the testimony of former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who had concluded that it was the Chicago Police who had rioted in the streets, and not the defendants.
Judge Hoffman also repeatedly attempted to force an eighth defendant, Black Panther Party National Chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), to accept William Kunstler (Mark Roylance) as his attorney, against the wishes of both men. Hoffman went so far as to have Mr. Seale removed from public view and beaten, then gagged and chained in court to silence his protests.
It’s worth noting that when the soon to be murdered Fred Hampton, the Illinois Chairman of the Panthers, was seen speaking to Seale in court, Judge Hoffman attempted to declare Mr. Hampton Seale’s attorney as well.
Yes, the trail of the Chicago 7 was a circus. And the caustic issues around which it revolved haunt us to this day. The movie brings them back into focus with an eye on the present, and one thing is clear: Though much has improved, we remain a country divided on many fronts and the divisions are screaming as never before to be addressed.
Should we continue to kick them down the road, we will do so at our own peril.
Meanwhile, as the pall of last year finally begins to lift, we’ve been gifted with an unprecedentedly diverse, undeniably timely, and astonishingly accomplished array of fine cinematic art.
May the ‘best’ film win. Vegas has Nomadland in a rout, but here’s hoping we make plans to sit down with every one of these remarkable stories.