Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

A Guide to the 2021 Best Picture Nominees

There is a very compelling collection of Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars. The film industry, like many others, was left scrambling at the onset of the pandemic. Major changes had to be made on both the production and consumption side, often making accessibility to big-ticket movies easier from the comfort of one’s home. The Oscars will take place on Sunday, April 25. It will not be held over Zoom, as a number of events have been this year. Despite, or perhaps as a result of, the tumultuousness of 2020, the collection of Best Picture nominees is as interesting as ever. 

More politically-oriented movies explore particularly relevant themes, including violence against women, police brutality, protesting, and activism. These issues are by no means unique to 2020, but there is no better time than the present to address the most poignant social issues facing our country. The world of cinema provides a unique opportunity to delve into narratives, both fictional and nonfictional, that are framed around larger social and political statements.

The Father

This movie traces the journey of an old man as he slowly loses his grip on reality, as well as the effort of his daughter to get him the care that he needs. It is a masterful and emotional portrait of dementia and all the hardships that go along with it. With star Anthony Hopkins playing the titular father and Olivia Colman playing his daughter, the acting is bound to be incredibly compelling. The Father is a quiet masterpiece.  

Sound of Metal

If you’re a professional drummer, the premise of Sound of Metal is somewhat of a horror story. Ruben, played by Riz Ahmed, is a punk-metal drummer who begins rapidly losing his hearing. Of course, the movie is more complex than this. The sound fluctuates in and out of the perspective of Ruben, giving the audience a sense of his particular struggle and creating a very unique viewing experience. Sound of Metal is heartbreaking and unapologetic. There is no false hope and there are no unrealistic outcomes. A man must come to terms with his new reality. Riz Ahmed’s performance is incredibly powerful, giving him a well-warranted nomination for Best Actor.

Mank

Mank is best suited to viewers who are already familiar with the much-hyped Citizen Kane. Starring Gary Oldman as iconic screenwriter Herman Mankewicz, Mank primarily portrays the turbulent days of Mankewicz’s race to write Citizen Kane. The movie also features Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, the elegant Hollywood hostess, actress, and mistress to William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance. Davies and Hearst are two figures whom it is speculated that Citizen Kane draws its inspiration from. Mank takes a close look at this controversy. Entirely in black and white, this movie feels nostalgic for the old days of Hollywood, something that has always been an ingredient for big wins at the Oscars. 

Judas and the Black Messiah

A gripping historical drama, Judas and the Black Messiah follows the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the young chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the “Judas” from the title, is cornered into becoming an FBI informant on Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. As history recalls, Fred Hampton was killed in a police raid at age 21. This is the centerpoint of the movie. It is also mentioned as a subplot in The Trial of the Chicago 7. The details of the police raid that killed Fred Hampton feel all too familiar in light of recent acts of police brutality. This points to the difficult truth that 50 years later racism is still deeply woven into the fabric of American society, specifically with respect to policing. Fast-paced and thrilling, Judas and the Black Messiah is an important movie to watch this year.

Nomadland

Nomadland has a rare type of clarity and beauty to it. Acclaimed actress Frances McDormand stars in the film as Fern. But the rest of the main characters, such as Linda May and Swankie, are played by true nomads. They are essentially playing themselves, making the film feel very close to reality. Nomadland is not particularly political, choosing instead to focus more on the relationships and inner journey of the characters, as well as the unique, communal way of life out on the road. However, the movie is also a portrayal of an often forgotten slice of the working class in America. Empire, Fern’s now-abandoned mining town in Nevada, was a casualty of the 2008 recession. Scenes of Fern working in an Amazon warehouse, facing difficulty finding jobs as an older woman and struggling to make ends meet, make the political underpinnings of the movie hard to ignore. 

Minari

Minari is the latest movie from the A24 studio, which has produced many critically acclaimed films in recent years, including Moonlight and Lady Bird. It follows the story of a Korean-American family and their journey as immigrants in rural Arkansas. There was some controversy concerning the movie’s nomination and subsequent win for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. Although a large portion of the dialogue is in Korean, Minari is a distinctly American film, providing a quintessential yet wholly unique take on the American Dream and what it can mean to immigrant families. 

Promising Young Woman

Far too often in mainstream media, men accused of assault or rape are defended on the grounds of their supposed good character or their presumed potential for success in life. They are “promising young men.” It is from this phenomenon that the title Promising Young Woman was born, a title fitting for a revenge thriller that focuses heavily on violence against women and the facades put up by the “nice guys." Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is a cunning woman seeking revenge for the brutal assault of a close friend of hers. It goes without saying that the topic of this exhilarating movie will always be relevant. Estimates suggest that 1 in 3 women worldwide are subjected to partner or non-partner sexual violence, a figure that does not include sexual harassment. Promising Young Woman is both intensely entertaining as a stand-alone story and thought-provoking as a beacon towards a larger issue. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a gripping courtroom drama based on the famous trial following the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was alleged by the federal government that eight various organization leaders and protestors, which would later become seven, conspired to incite violence in Chicago. The question of who actually started the 1968 Chicago Riots—the protestors or the police officers—is brought up throughout the movie. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is entertaining and inspiring. The ensemble cast includes Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz, and more. It is never lost on the characters of the film that the ultimate cause they are fighting for is the end of the Vietnam War. However, issues of protesting and police brutality are inevitably brought up. Scenes of the violence are very sobering, especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests of this past summer. Additionally, the at times infuriating courtroom scenes in the movie can’t help but provoke thoughts of the Chauvin Trial. It would be inaccurate to draw direct parallels between these trials, as there are a vast array of complications and differences. However, the underpinning conversations of social justice, civil rights, and discrimination that surround each trial feel similar in many ways.

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