Best Pictures of 2021, Extra Credit, film, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 4

It seems that my final two films also have a theme – they both deal with the 1960s counterculture, and the events referenced briefly in one are the entire content of the other.

The Trial of the Chicago 7' is as timely as ever | The Stanford Daily

The Trial Of The Chicago 7

In any of my reviews, I try to own up if I have a particular background or perspective which I suspect might influence my opinion of a film. Now, you wouldn’t think this film – an Aaron Sorkin legal drama about the trial of the seven men accused of conspiring to promote a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention would have any particular resonance with me.


In early 1968, just where the film begins, my parents were newlyweds. The film opens with a montage of the government amping up the draft and young men receiving their draft notices; my father worked at a shipyard in Connecticut designing subs for the military, which exempted him from the draft. Midway through this montage there is a clip of Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign; my father worked for the Kennedy campaign, and RFK’s assassination soured my father on political activism for years afterward. Shortly after Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, right about the time when John Mitchell charges his lawyers with prosecuting the Chicago 7 on the film, the draft laws changed and my father was no longer exempt and was entered into the draft pool. He actually had his number called up a few months later and even received an appointment for his physical – but then my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, and my father was released from the draft. This film ends on February 20th, 1970, on the date when Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) made a statement at the Chicago 7’s sentencing hearing; just a few days after that, I was born.

So for the entire action of this film, I kept thinking about how just off camera, while all this was going on, my parents were going to doctors’ visits, preparing a nursery, having a baby shower, and bracing themselves for parenthood, and I was waiting to make my entrance into the world. Hayden’s statement during their sentencing was simply to read a list of all of the servicemen who had died in Vietnam during the course of this trial, and all I could think was that these names stood for 5,000 couples who were never going to get the chance to do what my parents were doing, and 5,000 children who were never going to be born.

…And then, the film ended. And….I snapped out of it.

Roommate Russ has his own quip akin to my “Oskar Flatpack” one: “Sorkin’s gonna Sorkin.” Aaron Sorkin has by now cornered the market on idealistic depictions of government, and of quixotic courtroom dramas; they’ve often got enjoyably quippy dialogue and attention-getting dramatic moments, but they can also be very polemic. There are several scenes where Abbie Hoffman (remarkably well played by Sacha Baron Cohen) locks horns with co-defendant Tom Hayden; they’re from two very different progressive organizations and have two very different approaches to activism, with each frequently accusing the other of endangering the cause. So of course Sorkin includes a scene towards the end where they make peace, and Hoffman admits to admiration of Hayden’s passion and dedication. And of course there’s a scene where the buttoned-up prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) starts to feel some compassion for the defendants, even as he is prosecuting them.

It’s good that the events of this film be told. It’s a story of a definite moment of overreach on the part of our government. However, I question whether Aaron Sorkin should have been the one to tell it.

Poster For Judas And The Black Messiah —

Judas And The Black Messiah

Judas And the Black Messiah, ironically, offers a very good argument in favor of who could have told the story of the Chicago 7 Trial instead. However, it’s better that they told this story instead; the story of the government’s assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers. Fred Hampton appears very briefly as a character in Trial of the Chicago 7, in fact, and his assassination is addressed; but with none of the weight and sensitivity this film brings to the events.

Ironically, the plot sounds almost trite itself. Bill O’Neill (LaKeith Stanfield) is a thief who makes his scores by posing as an FBI agent and “confiscating” his targets’ cars; when he’s caught, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) points out the FBI-impersonation business carries a much harsher penalty than theft alone. But he can drop those charges if O’Neill does something for him – infiltrate the Black Panthers and turn FBI informant, reporting on the actions of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neill starts out indifferent to the Panthers’ cause, but over time comes to admire Hampton – and becomes profoundly conflicted about his assignment.

Kaluuya and Stanield are just as good – if not better – than the cast of Chicago 7. And for certain, the script is much better – there’s more nuance, more intimacy. There’s a heartbreaking sub-plot involving Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a poet turned activist; in one scene, when she is pregnant with the couple’s child she shares a poem with Hampton when he asks her whether her pregnancy gives her concerns about his activism. She manages to convey both support for the cause while simultaneously arguing against dying for it.

For the Black Panthers were not just the terrorist organization the government made them out to be. Most of Hampton’s activism in the film involves free meals for schoolkids, a free medical clinic for people of color, and outreach towards other groups of disenfranchised people – including one eye-popping scene where they visit a group of poor white activists in a room bedecked with a Confederate flag, and actually win them over. Hampton is O’Neill’s best hope for a life of dignity – and O’Neill has been sent to betray him.

I won’t divulge the information – but the title cards at the end, detailing how everyone else in the story fared after Hampton’s assassination, were heartbreaking.

And that’s our Best Picture roundup for 2021! We’ll be watching the ceremony tonight, and I may try liveblogging it – I may have better technical equipment on hand than I did last year. Fingers crossed.

Best Pictures of 2021, Extra Credit, film, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 3

Two more down for this year’s roster of Best Picture nominees – one of which was, for me, an “also-ran.”

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The term “Oscar-bait” gets applied dismissively to some films; the accusation is that the subject matter or the casting or some other aspect of the film is catering expressly to stack the odds of the film receiving a nomination of some kind. I don’t use that term, however, because often the artistic choices people see as opportunistic still work for me. But I know what they mean, and have started using my own term – “Ikea OSKAR flatpack movie” – to describe the impression I sometimes get that a given film is not made so much as assembled, as if the creators weren’t actually making anything fresh but were rather following a well-established formula designed to Produce An Oscar Nominated Film. There are no hard-and-fast rules I can point to, like “it’s always about history” or “there’s always a duck in it” or whatever – it’s more of a feel, a sense that I can predict exactly what kind of tone a given scene is going to take or what kind of a pace the film’s going to have or what kind of relationship the two main characters have or that “yeah, right on time, this is about where the hero has the crisis of conscience and they get a pep talk”. This isn’t to say that the film is necessarily bad – often it is well done, and everyone involved does their jobs quite well. I’m just not surprised by any of it.

Mank was my flatpack movie this year. Ostensibly it is about how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz developed the first draft of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, but it’s also about how Mankiewicz went from being a mercenary party animal to actually giving a damn about things, at a time when it was almost too late for him to do something about it. The film uses a similar time-jump framework as did Kane – skipping frequently between the seedy hotel room in 1941 where Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is holed up and writing, assisted (or babysat) by a pert British secretary (Lily Collins), and to various moments throughout the 1930s, starting when Mankiewicz first meets William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marian Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and is charmed by Marian’s wit and bemused by Hearst’s bombast. He’s equally bemused by his own boss, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), but keeps his opinions to himself for the sake of continuing to get a paycheck. But the political scene of the 1930s causes Mankiewicz to question his principles, especially when he starts suspecting that Mayer and Hearst are conspiring to manipulate the voters against the Democratic candidate.

Again, everyone is fine – the black-and-white design of the film mirrors Old Hollywood nicely, and the actors are all doing perfectly fine. (I was particularly pleased with Seyfried as Marian Davies.) But it just felt like…well, of course they’d shoot in black and white, right? And of course there’d be a couple of Kane shout-outs and of course Mankiewicz’s brother would have a hard talk with him in the third act and of course Mankiewicz would turn up blind drunk at a party and embarrass himself, and…the various plot beats just felt kind of inevitable. Even the bare-bones plot arc the film sees fit to give Lily Collins’ character is predictable – when she gets a telegram early on stating that the ship her naval officer husband is on has sunk, and he is “missing and presumed dead”, you know that by the end of the film she’s going to get another telegram saying that he’s been found alive.

Roommate Russ cynically observed that movies which are Love Letters To Old Hollywood tend to do well come Oscar season. I suppose I’d be happier if this were like a Love Letter to Sundance or something.

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In a sense, Minari was also kind of formulaic in its tale – we have seen a lot of stories of Immigrant Families Trying To Assimilate And Make Good. But the telling of this story had some surprises in it that kept it out of flatpack territory for me.

Set in the early 1980s, the film follows the Korean Yi family – Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), and their two kids Anne (Noelle Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). They’ve just moved to rural Arkansas, following Jacob’s ambition to start a farm specializing in Korean vegetables for the surrounding cities’ burgeoning immigrant populations. And yes, there are plenty of “fish out of water” moments for the family – other local kids asking David and Anne rude questions, Monica feeling isolated as the only Korean woman in town, and a running gag with the Yi’s constantly guzzling Mountain Dew soda because Jacob assumes the name means it’s a health drink. There are also a few “comic misunderstanding” moments after Monica asks her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking card shark, to emigrate from Seoul and move in to look after the kids.

But these elements are all secondary to the film. The bulk of the story is about the nearly insurmountable strain that Jacob’s gamble is putting on his marriage to Monica, and about the blossoming relationship between David and his weird grandma Soonja. It’s implied that David was born in the United States, and so Soonja is a near alien presence to him – she doesn’t make cookies, she swears when she plays cards, she smells funny. But she also sees potential in him the rest of the family can’t see yet, and he gradually comes to rely on that when the tension between his parents starts growing.

And the film handles that tension between Jacob and Monica very well. Other such “immigrant stories” where it is a couple trying to adapt condense their characters’ conflicts into one or two dramatic arguments, where one or the other finally snaps under their tension and lashes out. But here, you have the sense that Jacob and Monica have been having ongoing debates, and raising their voices doesn’t really help because it’s never solved anything before. You have the sense of a much longer history between the two – the ongoing negotiations, debates, and pet peeves, some of which weren’t even about the farm or their move to the United States but are more the particular issues all couples face, when two unique individuals try to coordinate the merging of two separate life paths into one. That kind of negotiation is a lifelong journey – there is no final end point when all the differences have been hashed out and everything’s fine ever after, it’s a continual process as life and fate throw curve balls at you. And the film’s ending is equally open-ended, with some curve balls not quite yet resolved and some obstacles still to dodge, but you are left with a sense of how the family is going to attempt to face things.

Best Pictures of 2021, Extra Credit, film, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 2

Alright! This brings us halfway through this years’ list of Best Picture nominees. And I think this pair of films has another common theme – “don’t trust the trailer”.

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Sound Of Metal

So, I knew what this was “about”, I thought. Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a drummer for the thrash-metal band he’s in with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) who is suddenly forced to contend with sudden-onset and near-total hearing loss. Now – you kind of think you know what you’re going to get with a descriptor like that, yeah? Lots of music, lots of performance scenes, some melodramatic “omigod I can’t hear you!” conversations, a montage of “adapting to being deaf”, maybe a miraculous recovery or some other triumphant ending.

Yeah, almost none of that is in here.

Instead, it’s a surprisingly poignant story about love, different kinds of loss, and making peace with one’s fate. Ruben and Lou aren’t just a couple and they aren’t just a rock band – Ruben is a recovering addict and Lou has been his sponsor, and that “adapting to being deaf” montage is at a halfway house for deaf addicts she finds him. Joe, the head of the facility, quickly senses that Ruben’s been living on high speed up to this point and is likely struggling to cope with way more than just deafness, and gently leads him to not only accept his hearing loss, but also to find a way to serve society – and also to simply calm down a little.

The film’s sound design also got a nomination, and for good reason. A lot of the sound is from Ruben’s own perspective – the muffled early stages, the weird echoey silence he sits in his first night at the halfway house and watches everyone else talking in ASL, the distorted cacophony as he tries a couple of mechanical solutions that don’t quite work as well as he hopes. Most poignant of all is the first exam from an audiologist, who reads him a list of words and asks him to repeat them; we hear things from Ruben’s side first, feeling confident when he hears anything and repeats the word back. But then we switch to the audiologist’s perspective and realize Ruben’s missing a lot of words. This was a surprisingly quiet film – in the emotional sense.

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Promising Young Woman

Another film, another twist from what the trailer lead me to believe. Carey Mulligan is Cassie, a med school dropout who still lives with her parents – and spending her nights dressing to the nines, going out to clubs and pretending to be drunk, luring ill-intentioned guys to bringing her home and attempting to have sex with her – only for her to spring the trap by revealing her sobriety and lecturing them, leaving them embarrassed and in fear of later retaliation. We pick up fairly early on that something like this probably happened either to her or to a good friend in med school, and was the cause of her dropping out.

But the trailer implies that’s pretty much all there is to her story – a dark-comedy revenge fantasy where she exposes a series of creeps and maybe ultimately brings down the Dean of the school she went to. Something like that. But the plot gets much more personal; Cassie does continue her campaign of revenge, but a chance meeting with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) inspires her to redirect her campaign against the specific people involved in her friend Nina’s assault case – the dean who brushed the complaint aside, the defense lawyer who got the assailant off, the girl who gossiped about how her friend was a “slut” who was “asking for it”. At the same time, though, Ryan also inspires her to move on from the revenge game, when they start falling for each other; he’s a sweet doofus who shares Cassie’s acerbic sense of humor, and their flirting is so fun it even made ol’ cynical me grin. And yet, Ryan was friends with Nina’s attacker, and may know more about things than he’s letting on.

On the whole, this is a much more complex and nuanced story than the trailer would lead you to believe.

I also got a kick out of the film’s shout-outs to Night Of The Hunter – there’s a moment where Cassie’s parents are watching it online, and we’re treated to a quick clip of Robert Mitchum talking about women as temptresses, and later, when Cassie has received a severe shock, the soundtrack borrows the eerie song “The Pretty Fly“. Both clips work perfectly.

Best Pictures of 2021, Extra Credit, film, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 1

It’s Oscar Season y’allllllllllllllll! I try to watch all the Best Picture nominees each year, and the fact that everything is streaming means it’s a little easier this time. (Incidentally – did anyone see the article in Variety magazine which was fretting about how no one had heard of the nominees? I’d love to know how we would have done when most of these films weren’t even on streaming platforms until a couple days ago.)

I also like to do a quick-and-dirty review of the nominees; here are the first two I’ve seen.

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The Father

On paper, this sounds like it would be one of the more Oscar-baity entries; Sir Anthony Hopkins stars as a man slipping into dementia, with Olivia Colman as the daughter looking after him. But what spares it from feeling like the kind of formulaic “Oscar movie” thing you half suspect came in an Ikea flatpack is that the film attempts to show dementia from Hopkins’ character’s perspective, and so it gets pretty disorienting – conversations repeat themselves mid-scene, different actors show up in various roles, other characters flat-out deny having said things we heard them say not 15 minutes prior. Even the set randomly changes – paintings appear and disappear, wall colors change, rooms fill and empty. It’s a disarming technique which leaves you unsure, even after the film, exactly who certain people were and when certain events took place. The Wikipedia review claims that the events in the film covered “a few years”, which surprised me as it felt like a matter of a few days.

Colman and Hopkins are unsurprisingly excellent in this and both deserved their nominations for their respective performances.

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I had a fairly complicated reaction to this one.

Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow forced to live out of her van after her husband dies and the mining company where he and she both worked shuts down, and the surrounding town – which was almost wholly supported by the mine – dissolves soon after. It was inspired by a non-fiction book addressing the phenomenon of retirees who were forced to do the same following the Great Recession, and the film actually features several actual transient vandwellers in supporting roles, playing themselves (or fictional versions of themselves).

The Great Recession element left me really uneasy at first, since there was a time – not too long ago – when I feared that I was very close to having to do what Fern did. A lot of people fall through the cracks in this country and are forced into lives where they have very few good options, through no fault of their own. And when your only options are living out of a van or rolling over and dying, sometimes…you have to suck it up and live out of a van, and that is a hard life. I’ve recently stumbled upon some Instagrammers who live out of vans as a kind of aesthetic choice, and I’ve always rolled my eyes – it’s easy to do the #vanlife thing on a lark when you’re 25 and have family money to draw on, but having to do it when you’re 65 and you’ve lost your pension and your IRA was devalued….that’s something else again.

But the van life depicted here kind of sucked me in. Fern does find work – transient work she hears about from people she runs into on the road, like seasonal work in an Amazon warehouse or cleaning staff at a National Park. She finds a community of other travelers, the unemployed or the sick or the just plain outcast who help teach each other coping skills or tip each other off to jobs or pool resources. She even finds possible romance – David Strathairn has a supporting role as another nomad who runs into Fern now and again and is obviously taken with her, and tries to tempt her into settling down.

The biggest thing Fern finds, though, is moments of grace. You don’t actually hear from Fern all that much – McDormand’s whole performance is mostly caught up in facial expressions, whether she is stoically trying to cook chicken soup over a campfire or giggling with a campmate over a joke or staring in awe at the Badlands she is driving through. About 30% of the shots are of the scenery Fern is looking at, distant mountains in Arizona or groves of redwoods in California, and another 30% of the shots are closeups of Fern’s face as she looks out towards the horizon or listens attentively to a new friend from the road. But enough of her story comes out that you gradually understand that somehow, deep down, Fern always was kind of wired for this kind of life – and that harsh as it is, there are also gifts in it.