Oscar Gold 2021 – Best Picture

We made it, everyone! After 22 categories, it’s finally time to tackle the big one. In a year that I think we can all agree was utter shit, the movie-going experience changed dramatically, and not for the better. I think we can also agree that, as years go, the overall quality of movies was lower than normal. Part of this is because studios decided to hold off on some of their releases until this year in hopes of renewed interests and box office, and part of it is, as Bill Maher described in his closing monologue a couple weeks ago, a lot of the films that did come out were either terrible or terribly depressing. That’s not to say that having a downer film can’t be a good thing, and honestly, all of the nominees here have something to get behind artistically, it’s just that given the year we all just endured, watching a dramatic film where people are beset by negative issues only seems to amplify our collective malaise, rather than providing the escapism that cinema usually does.

This entire Awards Season will have something of an asterisk on it, and not just because the eligibility period got extended by two months. We’ve all had a lot of crap on our plates and on our minds this past year, and as such, while the nominated films are good-to-great, most of them aren’t exactly memorable. Even I’ve had trouble with this part. Despite obsessively covering the entire process, I have to admit that I’ve forgotten at least one or two of the nominees every time I’ve tried to list them off and plan my writing. There are only eight nominees this year, and yet half the time I can only name six on demand. They just don’t stick in your mind like in other years, even when there are nine or 10 films vying for the top prize.

But like the adjustments we all had to make thanks to COVID, this is what we’ve got, and we have to deal with it as it is, not how we want it to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sunday’s ceremony was the lowest rated ever, thanks to an inability to see and engage with the nominees without significant effort, or if it was the highest rated in years just for the distraction. What I do know is that we’re all looking forward to moving on, and Sunday will be, for film lovers at least, the point where 2020 is officially put to bed at long last.

If it sounds like I don’t really want to cover this category, I apologize. I don’t mean to come off that way. I’m just acknowledging the feelings I’ve dealt with for the last several months, and I’m sure you’ve all felt them too in one form or another. This is a relatively weak slate of films compared to other years, but last year was an extremely weak year for all of us, and despite that, we still ended up with some high art to go out on. I’m looking forward to Sunday just as much as I would any other year, and I want to see how it all plays out. At the same time, I can’t deny that I’m much more excited for what’s to come once we’re done with all this.

For those new to the Blitz, I handle Best Picture much differently than I do the other categories, because the Academy itself handles it differently. Unlike the other fields, the top prize is determined by a ranked choice voting system rather than a straight single preference. I’ve been over it before, so I’ll keep this bit brief, but suffice to say, Best Picture is not chosen solely on a plurality of votes. Academy voters are asked to rank all the nominees from top to bottom, so that if no film gets an outright majority of first place votes, the films with the least votes get eliminated and their votes redistributed until we hit that magical 50%+1 line. It’s a much more representative system that gets us closer to consensus, especially in a category where a simple majority is highly unlikely given the number of candidates.

As such, I will dispense with the usual method of introducing the nominees in alphabetical order and then listing my personal rankings at the end. Every film here is up in at least five categories, so I’ve covered them all multiple times before now. You all know basically what these films are. So instead, I’ll simply list the nominees from bottom to top as if I were turning in an actual ballot.

And since this is the biggest award of them all, I won’t just stick to personal preference. Over the last few years, I’ve been fine tuning a weighted grading system based on all the major aspects of production. Acting is the most important thing the audience sees, so it is given the most weight, followed by writing and directing, and then the artistic, technical, and musical elements. I rank each film in each category, then score them on reverse points to come up with a final score to determine the ranking.

The one change I’m making this year is to include my personal enjoyment of each film inside that ranking. The last two years I used it as a tie-breaker if two films finished with the same score, but that became insufficient given last year’s results. Even though I loved it, my system forced me to rate Little Women as the best overall production despite Parasite being my favorite overall film of the year. And then Parasite went on to win the whole shebang. So clearly there’s a flaw in my system. It’s one thing to have a film I enjoyed slightly less than another outrank it on overall production values, but it’s another thing when I’m painting myself into a corner to overrule my absolute #1 film of the year, especially when it then becomes the big winner. It feels like I talked myself into betting on the wrong horse. Mind you, it’s actually a good illustration of why ranked choice is a superior system, because were I an Academy member, I would have voted Little Women #1, and then when it got eliminated, Parasite would have gotten my vote and held on for the win.

So what I’m going to do is allow my personal rankings of the eight films to be counted among the rest of the elements, because no matter how well made a movie is, if I hate it, I still hate it, and therefore don’t want it to win. The same goes in reverse. If I really like a film, but it’s not all that well made, I can at least endorse it up one or two spots without giving it the win. For the purposes of my weighted scale, my personal preference will be equal to Artistic, Technical, and Music rankings, in that it will only be counted once, whereas Acting gets counted three times and Writing and Directing count twice. That equals out to a possible total of 88 points that each film can receive if it’s ranked #1 in all areas.

I saw 50 films in calendar year 2020, but the final count expands to 99 with all the viewing I did in preparation for the Blitz, including nominees, shortlisted films, and international submissions. Below I will rank the eight nominees relative to each other, and in parentheses give their overall ranking amongst everything I saw, bearing in mind that the list is always top-heavy, as I thankfully don’t see too many terrible films that get bottom grades.

Personal Preference:
1) Minari (3)
2) The Father (4)
3) Judas and the Black Messiah (18)
4) Nomadland (20)
5) Mank (22)
6) Sound of Metal (33)
7) The Trial of the Chicago 7 (34)
8) Promising Young Woman (65)

So based on that, Minari gets eight points to start the rankings, while Promising Young Woman gets one. Everyone else gets points proportionate to the reverse of their ranking.

That’s how I’m doing my system. The other 80 points up for grabs will determine, at least in my mind, what the best overall production was for 2020, and as such, my ranked vote for Best Picture, as the award goes to the film’s producers.

Everybody got it? Then let’s get to it. I pray that one day I’ll get an actual vote for the Oscars, and if I had one this year, this is how it’d go down.

This year’s nominees for Best Picture are:

8. Promising Young Woman – Ben Browning, Emerald Fennell, Ashley Fox, and Josey McNamara
Score: 18 out of 88

If you’ve been following the Blitz, this shouldn’t surprise you. Hell, it only just barely cracked the top two thirds of my personal rankings for the year. Mind you, that was still a B-, which means the film is good, just not great. There’s always at least one Best Picture nominee every year that has no real business being there, and this year this is the one. I’ll even go a step further and suggest that the only reason it’s even on the radar is because of the pandemic. I can say with a good deal of confidence that if COVID hadn’t happened, and this movie had been released last April as originally intended, it wouldn’t have gotten nearly the amount of attention it did, and it likely would have been completely forgotten by Awards Season, save for perhaps Carey Mulligan. However, the pandemic shutdown allowed for the film to be rescheduled for a Christmas release, and thus was fresh in the minds of voters and ripe for awards marketing.

Again, it’s not that this is anywhere close to being a bad movie. It’s just that the other seven nominees all blow it out of the water in just about every possible measure. Of the ranking criteria laid out above, Promising Young Woman ranks last in all but two areas, Artistic achievement (where it ranks fourth) and Technical aspects (ranking sixth). I will die on the hill that this film should have been nominated for Production Design, because the scenery is spectacular pretty much throughout the film. Also, given the better than average editing, I felt it belonged above the bottom rung from a technical standpoint.

But everything else is middle of the road at best. Carey Mulligan gives a great performance, and Laverne Cox is fun, but the rest of the cast falls flat. I’ve made my issues with Emerald Fennell’s script and directing style quite clear. And as for music? Paris. Fucking. HILTON! I don’t need to say anything else. You could have somehow found the next Mozart to compose a grandiose score the likes of which would make John Williams cry, and yet the inclusion of Paris Hilton is enough to utterly and completely disqualify the film from musical consideration.

7. Judas and the Black Messiah – Ryan Coogler, Charles D. King, and Shaka King
Score: 42 out of 88

From here on out I can safely say the films deserved their consideration, and the scoring gets a lot closer. There’s only a 22-point difference between seventh and first place (as opposed to the 24-point drop-off from seventh to eighth), and given the personal preference rankings (3rd of the set, 18th for the whole year), don’t be surprised if these production values shuffle the list a bit.

Judas doesn’t rank #1 in any of the six areas I’m grading, but it does rank second for Music, thanks to its Original Song nomination and very well-written score that I wouldn’t have objected to seeing nominated as well. It’s a powerful, striking film that’s very much more than the sum of its parts, but the other films on the list go further in these specific areas. For example, despite two Supporting Actor nominations (plus a viable argument for Dominique Fishback as Supporting Actress even though she didn’t get a nod), the film ranks sixth for me in the Acting department. That’s not a knock on this film, more an endorsement of the others.

Where the film does the best overall is in Shaka King’s script and direction. Sadly, he only got nominated for the former, because the two work in tandem to spin the story of Fred Hampton’s betrayal and murder into a modern, racial passion play that works on a lot of levels.

6. Nomadland – Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, and Chloé Zhao
Score: 46 out of 88

This film heads into Oscar Night as the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, mostly due to the one-woman band that is Chloé Zhao, who handled direction, the script, and the edit. The woman wore more hats than a haberdasher on this project, and she did a tremendous job. This is a wonderful film and a worthy winner if that’s what happens. But for my purposes here, there are better entries because of the wider production values, and if we were still in a five-movie field for Best Picture, this would have just missed the final cut.

For example, this film only ranks seventh in Acting, because it’s all Frances McDormand. David Strathairn is there as well, and he does fine enough, but again, he’s just sort of there. The same goes for Bob Wells and the other real-life nomads who appear in the film. They’re a fun distraction, but they aren’t actors and it shows. McDormand does an incredible job, which might lead to her third Oscar win, but she’s just one person. Other films had larger casts with more nominations, so this film ranks lower in that area. Again, it’s not a knock, just the best apples-to-apples comparison I can make.

Chloé Zhao herself ranks #2 in Directing, as reflected in my breakdown of the category last night, boosting this film’s score by 14 points, which is really good. Unfortunately, it’s fairly middle of the road in the artistic and technical areas, and barely registers musically, which drags the score down a touch. It’s still very likely to win on Sunday, but this is how my headspace would work were I voting myself.

5. The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Stuart M. Besser and Marc Platt
Score: 51 out of 88

Aaron Sorkin gets a major boost from one of the best screenplays of the year and for his more than competent directing, which I’m still shocked wasn’t nominated. The strong ensemble cast, led by Sacha Baron Cohen in his nominated role as well as Mark Rylance and the least punchable version of Eddie Redmayne I’ve ever seen also gives the film some heft.

More than even the Adapted Screenplay nominees that reworked a stage play, this movie feels like something you’d see in a Broadway theatre rather than a movie theatre, and a lot of that is down to Sorkin’s affinity for the stage. To the film’s credit, he leans into this aesthetic rather than eschewing it, which has the added effect of letting the cast essentially speak directly to the audience via the fourth wall.

In most of the areas this film is ranked in the middle, which allows for its overall finishing spot to make the most sense. The script is great, the acting is above average, and everything else, from the nominated Original Song to the editing and cinematography are right smack dab in the middle, bridging the gap between the also-rans and the true contenders. If there’s one film that should definitely be remembered after the lights go out on Sunday, it should be this one, though. Those of us who glue our eyeballs to the news saw justice done in Minneapolis yesterday after decades of excuses and denials. This film should serve as a dramatic reminder that miscarriages of law and order are still very much possible, and in the hands of a repressive government, could very well become the norm again, so we must stay vigilant.

4. Sound of Metal – Bert Hamelinick and Sacha Ben Harroche
Score: 57 out of 88

Now we reach the cream of the crop. Sound of Metal naturally ranks #2 in the Acting category, thanks to pantheon-level performances from Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci. And of course, it takes the top spot in the Technical fields due to the beyond exceptional sound design, which no film relied upon more. That’s a huge chunk of the film’s points right there. I even boosted it a bit for Darius Marder’s direction, which didn’t get a nod, but I think he deserves a lot of credit for the technical orchestration and the overall thematic tone of the film.

The reason it doesn’t rank higher is that it suffers a little bit by default. The script, while good, only ranks sixth, and the film is in dead last in the Artistic achievements. That’s by design, mind you, because the film basically didn’t bother with things like Production Design or Costume Design, and apart from Ahmed’s bleached hair, the HMU team barely registers at all. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the film had other priorities, which is perfectly fine, but it allows the other films to gain some ground and eventually overtake it.

What really matters here is the quality of the performances and the unique nature of the technical design, particularly the sound. These are seriously well done, including the approximation of cochlear implant sounds that we can only guess at. And as for Ahmed and Raci, I covered this earlier when I mentioned that affliction is often a box check for nominations, but both these performers work in such a way that their lack of hearing is just an aspect of their characters, rather than the entirety, as would happen in a lot of other movies (*COUGHGODZILLAVSKONGCOUGH*). This is arguably the most unique film of this year’s class, and I think in years to come it might retroactively be looked upon as the best of the bunch.

3. Mank – Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, and Douglas Urbanski
Score: 59 out of 88

It’s no secret that Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back and celebrate the films that celebrate it. That can lead to some well-deserved cynicism in certain cases, but I don’t think it’s warranted here. Sure, there are flaws, like the implication that Herman Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane to spite William Randolph Hearst because of unconfirmed involvement in anti-democratic propaganda films. It also doesn’t help that Gary Oldman is playing a man half his age without even trying to act younger than he is. But to me, those are minor, and in a weird way they can actually work towards making the film feel more like a charming flight of fancy rather than an attempt at historical accuracy.

This is a wistful look at what is generally agreed to be the greatest film of all time, and the homage is accomplished beautifully due to a combination of great acting, direction, and production elements. Overall, this film ranks first for me in Directing and Artistic achievements, and second in the Technical areas, which give it a tremendous boost, as David Fincher more than accomplished his goal of creating a tribute to Citizen Kane through a stylistic imitation.

However, this isn’t the top overall pick because of some better competition in crucial areas. Mank has a wonderful cast, from the nominated Oldman and Amanda Seyfried to the supporting ensemble that includes Charles Dance, Arliss Howard, and Bill Freaking Nye. But it only ranks fourth overall in this area. Similarly, while the film is about the art of writing, the late Jack Fincher’s script ranks seventh out of the eight here. Again, it’s not bad, there are just better ones above it. The distance from first to seventh from the writing standpoint is a 9.9 to a 9.0 basically, so a matter of the smallest degrees does skew the rankings just a bit.

Still though, this is a film that movie nerds like me just eat up. I’m an absolute sucker for self-reflexive and self-referential cinema. I have been my entire adult life. It makes you feel like you’re part of a community, a secret club if you will, for people that find all the little surprises and in-jokes. I know sometimes it can come off snobbish, and when Hollywood is applauding itself, it can feel trite. But of all films to apply that standard to, this is the one that does it with earnestness and good humor.

2. The Father – Philippe Carcassonne, Jean-Louis Livi, and David Parfitt
Score: 60 out of 88

It is rare that a film can actually traumatize me. The last time this happened with prestige fare was 12 Years a Slave, which made me cry so hard at what I was witnessing, and made me wince with pain as Lupita Nyong’o got the whip. It was a film that was seared forever into my brain, to the point that I will likely never see it again, despite wholeheartedly loving it and knowing it needed to win Best Picture. It takes a lot for a film to affect me so.

It happened again with The Father. It was an onslaught of emotion to sit through this film, knowing what my family and I have gone through over the last year, and knowing that it will only get worse. I saw my sister in Olivia Colman. I saw my mother in Anthony Hopkins. Oddly enough, I couldn’t see myself in anyone, which was both cathartic and worrying at the same time. The film is truly brilliant, and the most brutally honest depiction of dementia ever put to celluloid, and at times it simply broke me.

So why isn’t it #1? Well, let’s break it down. It is tops overall from an acting standpoint. I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue against that. There’s great acting all over this list, but only Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom could have possibly topped this, and it bafflingly didn’t even get nominated. Colman and Hopkins alone do what 20 Frances McDormands are capable of in this film. It also ranks second from an Artistic standpoint and third for the script, the best Adapted Screenplay of the bunch as far as I’m concerned.

Where it falls short is Directing. Florian Zeller did a fine job, as well he should, as this was an adaptation of his own stage play. You can feel his words from the script, but there’s no personal touch from Zeller as a director that I can pinpoint as truly affecting the course of the film. I sort of get the feeling that he let his design teams do what they needed, and once he had two of Britain’s finest actors on hand, simply gave them basic blocking and let them make magic. Sometimes that’s the right course of action, and it might have been here. But because of that, Zeller only ranks seventh of the eight directors. Combine that with a seventh place ranking in Music and fifth on the Technicals, and this just misses the top spot.

1. Minari – Christina Oh
Score: 64 out of 88

Of all the depressing films this year, Minari is the closest to being truly uplifting, and even then it requires grandma to have a stroke and burn down the farm to get there. We were looking for something, anything, to be life-affirming in 2020 cinema, and while Nomadland also has shades of it, Minari is the one that truly brought it.

Lee Isaac Chung’s stylized retelling of his youth on an Arkansas farm is a unique spin on a classic story, one that recognizes and celebrates the basic humanity of everyone around us, warts and all. People have quirks, disagreements, outright fights sometimes. But in the end, we’re all just decent, good people for the most part, trying to find our way and do what’s best for our loved ones. Chung’s vibrant Yi family is a perfect example of that fundamentally good nature.

Ranking first in Writing, third in Acting, and fourth in Directing, Minari is the only film in this set to be in the top half of all three areas that had extra weight assigned to them, which allows it to easily overcome a dead last ranking for Artistic elements. Even if it hadn’t ranked so high there, the last place on one end is completely nullified by its top ranking for Music, given the wonderful score and the absolutely gorgeous “Rain Song” that was criminally left off the Original Song list. At the end of the day, the most important things in a movie are what we see and hear, and Minari succeeds in spades on both accounts thanks to the performances, dialogue, and music.

But even without my convoluted ranking system or my simple personal taste, I’d be tempted to vote Minari #1 because it was the film we needed most this past year. We needed a film to show us that even when things seem dire, they can work out. We needed a film to remind us that despite all our differences, we’re still humans and still deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. We needed a film to let us bask in the wonder of a child and the wisdom of a parent, all while having a few cathartic laughs. There are so many great things about Minari as a piece of cinema and a work of art, but where it worked best was as a tonic for the collective dumpster fire we all just endured and continue to emerge from. No other film this past year was able to do that at the same level. We’ve found ways to be entertained. We’ve found ways to laugh. We’ve found ways to distract ourselves from the maelstrom of shit swirling around us. But no film did better than Minari to remind us all to find ways to love, and to be there for those who need it.

In a year where we almost lost our humanity, it was the most human film of 2020.

***

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, tomorrow is the Independent Spirit Awards, which will officially clean up the last of the undercard awards ceremonies. I’ll have a rundown of all the major circuit honors then, which will hopefully give me all the information I need to help you fill out your office brackets on Friday, when I put my non-existent money where my very large mouth is, and answer the burning question, Who Will Win? Join me then!

Join the conversation in the comments below! How do you rank these films? What else should have been nominated? How much would racists flip out if two films about Korean families won back-to-back? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Gold 2021 – Best Picture

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