My dear readers, we come to it at last. The big one. The mamma jamma. The reason any of us still pay attention to any of this – Best Picture. Ten films are up for the highest honor in cinema, but only one will walk away with the prize. That is, assuming the presenters don’t fuck it up again and announce the wrong winner.
As always in what is known as “The Preferential Era,” the victor will be determined by Ranked Choice voting rather than a straight winning pick. I’ve explained this a fair few times, including in the accompanying video to this post, so I won’t go into it any further. If you want to know, watch the clip (and like and subscribe because, reasons).
Also per tradition, I have my own system for determining the rankings of my vote. I’ve tweaked the formula every year in hopes of finding the sweet spot, ensuring that a) I don’t just vote for my favorite film on a pure entertainment level, and b) also don’t ignore films of the highest quality in those rare situations where the film I liked best actually was the best (Parasite, anyone?). I explain my grade weighting system in the video as well, but suffice to say, Acting counts times three, Directing and Writing count times two, and everything else – including personal preference – counts once, resulting in a possible score of 100 points when the films are ranked 1-10 with reversed points based on position.
Finally, something that carries over every year, is the fact that at least one of the nominees patently doesn’t deserve to be in consideration. This year, there are three. I do like the Preferential Era on the whole, as it gives us more options rather than snubbing truly worthy films, but it has sadly also opened the door for even more bad or middling movies to get in on studio hype and marketing instead of quality, resulting in great films continuing to be left out.
As ever, for this one category, since the rankings are themselves the votes, there’s no need to break the films down in alphabetical order before getting to the list. I’ll just go in the order that I ranked them. For a full breakdown of how each film ranked in the respective criteria, watch the video.
I will however provide my personal rankings here, with their rank among all 132 films I saw for the 2021 canon in parentheses:
1) Licorice Pizza (1)
2) Belfast (3)
3) Drive My Car (4)
4) Dune (28)
5) The Power of the Dog (32)
6) CODA (42)
7) King Richard (50)
8) Nightmare Alley (67)
9) West Side Story (85)
10) Don’t Look Up (104)
So, without further ado, let’s hand out the biggest hardware of all. Below are my more detailed opinions on how I’d rank the films if I had an actual Academy ballot.
This year’s nominees for Best Picture are…
10. West Side Story – Steven Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger
Total Score: 18 out of 100
I’ve hated on the lesser elements of this movie a lot, and for good reason, but it should still be made absolutely clear that it is, on balance, an entertaining film. However, it has no business being talked about in the same breath as the other nominees. Most of the actors made no impact, the script is awful, and Spielberg’s direction highlights his worst habits, particularly his penchant for virtue signaling, spotlight fetish, and general hubris. Only he could see this musical, with its already Best Picture-winning adaptation, and think to himself, “Not only can I one-up it, I’ll pretend it doesn’t even exist so that people won’t call my film a remake, even though I’m going to put in a litany of references to the original, including in the casting.”
The overall art design and production values are great, and two of the actors (Rita Moreno and Mike Faist) give tremendous performances. It’s just that the rest of the proceedings are dragged down by the exact opposite of best practices, especially Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s absolutely baffling decision to take sides in the Jets/Sharks conflict. Instead of a cheap remake, Spielberg gave us what amounted to a missed opportunity, which may end up being even worse in the long run.
9. Don’t Look Up – Adam McKay and Kevin Messick
Total Score: 20 out of 100
Here’s a bit of trivia for you. What is the only film in the Preferential Era to be nominated for Best Picture with a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than Don’t Look Up? There are at least a dozen from the Old Hollywood Era, including a few silent films, but only one got a literal “Rotten” score before this one in the age of the expanded Best Picture field. Give up? It’s the manipulative 9/11 melodrama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which only succeeded because of the stellar acting performances of Tom Hanks and Max Von Sydow, and has aged very poorly over the last decade.
That’s it. That’s the only nominee in the modern era worse than this. This is a bad movie, plain and simple. It’s heavy-handed, the actors might as well just be bitching about the government in their living rooms, and the satire is so scattershot that it can never focus on any one target long enough to make us care. Adam McKay’s writing is still strong enough to give it some heft, but on the whole it just didn’t work, mostly because his previous two brilliant outings – The Big Short and Vice – were about real events we’d all experienced, and had enough time to recover from to see them in an absurdist light, while this is an extreme hypothetical that mainstream audiences and critics can’t connect with because it just plays like celebrity posturing. Even though I liked it less than West Side Story, the writing and direction were just strong enough to give it a slightly more credible case to win, but only by two points. It too should not be in this conversation.
8. King Richard – Tim White, Trevor White, and Will Smith
Total Score: 27 out of 100
I actually really enjoyed this movie, though I do have to chuckle at the fact that two of our three nominated Producers here almost make Adam Conover’s gag about a fictitious Rosa Parks Story written and directed by “The Whiteman Brothers” feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. But as I’ve noted in the past, Best Picture goes to the Producers, which I always interpret as meaning the award for the best overall production. As much as I liked King Richard, it’s just not as complete a film as the others.
The editing is good, and the script is fine, but director Reinaldo Marcus doesn’t distinguish himself from the other filmmakers on this list, and the only true superlative of the film is in the main performances of Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis. Both are nominated in their respective fields, and deservedly so. Smith is also likely to win, and I wouldn’t complain if he did.
But beyond that, this is a standard-issue sports movie where the overbearing coach is replaced with an overbearing parent. It’s great to watch, but incomplete by comparison to the rest of the list. Still very much worth your time, though.
7. Nightmare Alley – Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale, and Bradley Cooper
Total Score: 41 out of 100
Falling just shy of half credit is this stylish remake of a classic thriller, filled to the brim with Guillermo del Toro’s creative touches. It’s well-acted, the scenery has great designs to it, and the camera work is very strong.
However, let’s be honest here. The Academy already messed up once when they decided del Toro should practically sweep the Oscars for Grinding Nemo. Giving Best Picture to a movie about a lady who fucks a fish is part of the reason the ratings keep dipping. They’re not going to make the same mistake again, nor should they. Also, it’s kind of a sad state of affairs when four of our 10 nominees are remakes in one way or another. People want originality and creativity, and the Academy is one step away from fully surrendering to the Hollywood reboot machine.
6. CODA – Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, and Patrick Wachsberger
Total Score: 52 out of 100
I really loved this movie. It’s sweet, funny, and has one of the most memorable performances of the year in Troy Kotsur. This is the proverbial “feel-good” movie of the set, and if it won, it wouldn’t even be the first Americanized remake of a foreign film to win (The Departed is an American version of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs).
This is a case where the five films above it are just too strong. It’s a perfect example of why we have an expanded Best Picture field, so we can celebrate movies like this and give them credible chances to win in other categories, but the top half of this list has got too much going for them in terms of acting, directing, writing, and technical elements. That said, I’ve never been so moved by “Both Sides Now” and never laughed so hard at jock itch. This is a treasure.
5. Dune – Mary Parent, Denis Villeneuve, and Cale Boyter
Total Score: 64 out of 100
I think more than anyone else in this set, Denis Villeneuve was the best at executing a creative vision, and he did so with what would normally be the most craven of Hollywood cash grab tropes: a remake split into two movies.
But he understood that Frank Herbert’s novel was too dense for one film, and had David Lynch’s version from the 80s to prove it. So he focused on telling half the story, while still leaving it relatively self-contained, and putting all his technical force behind it to give us an adventure on the grandest of scales while leaving us wanting more. It’s an expert turn to be sure.
This will likely clean up the technical categories, and deservedly so. The fact that Villeneuve was able to build so huge of a world with a third of the budget of your standard Marvel movie shows that it’s always very much about quality over quantity. This version of Arrakis is fully realized and alive, and all the characters have a specific, recognizable part to play. That’s not at all easy, especially with such a huge ensemble cast. It’s not enough to win Best Picture, but you can argue it’s the Best MADE Picture.
4. Belfast – Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik, and Tamar Thomas
Total Score: 76 out of 100
I openly wept watching this film. Jude Hill did a stupendous job in his first outing, buoyed by a very strong leading four and a stellar supporting ensemble. Van Morrison’s score was literally and figuratively note-perfect. Branagh’s deeply personal recollection of one of the darkest periods in Ireland’s history is exactly the type of story that movies were made for. There’s not a false moment to be had.
These last four nominees are the ones that truly deserve the honor of being called the best motion picture of 2021. Kenneth Branagh proves how versatile of an artist he is, picking up three nominations this year, bringing his career total to eight nods over a record seven categories. He has a unique ability to tap into something almost primal in our sensibilities, and has the myriad talents necessary to turn that into cinematic gold that will have the audience laughing, crying, and cheering with each successive scene. Whether it’s the reality-crushing moment of a young boy playing with a toy sword before seeing literal bombs go off on his street, or the pure joy of experiencing a movie with your grandmother and seeing the escapist delight on her face, Branagh knows how to deliver the human experience better than most.
3. Drive My Car – Teruhisa Yamamoto
Total Score: 80 out of 100
The best written movie of the year manages the impossible by keeping a solid pace for three hours without ever dragging. Ryusuke Hamaguchi distills human grief and interpersonal relationships through the lens of classic European tragicomedy despite his story taking place in Japan. Language becomes a literal toy to be played with amongst a diverse cast that no one in this country could have expected.
It all comes together for one of the most beautiful displays of humanity ever put to film. I was enraptured the entire way through this lovingly mawkish drama that continuously finds a way to surprise you and avoid cheap sentiment and cliché. The dynamic between Kafuku and Misaki could have devolved into tired Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy territory, but instead of using a driver/passenger setup to establish boundaries, it’s merely a narrative device to bring two lost souls together. It’s a convenient thematic setting rather than the key element. Those movies use the car to define the perception of their characters. This movie uses it to defy them.
2. The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, and Roger Frappier
Total Score: 83 out of 100
In lesser hands, this would just be a run-of-the-mill Western about an abusive cowboy who might be overcompensating for something. You’d probably find some way to have it star Clint Eastwood. But Jane Campion, returning to the mountaintop nearly 30 years after her last triumph, decides to devote her film to one of the most intriguing character studies in recent memory. Not only does she get career-best performances from most of her main cast, all of them playing characters more developed in supporting roles than half of the Best Actress nominees in lead ones, but she creates one of the best cinematic villains in years in the form of Phil Burbank, delivered in a pantheon-level performance by Benedict Cumberbatch.
There is something so deliciously cruel about Phil’s character, and the way he exacts his torment upon his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew is pure Machiavellian gold. But just as his abuse is tempered by its subtlety, so too is the underlying demon that fuels it. Again, this could have been borderline exploitative and gratuitous if his deeds were too over-the-top, and given his repressed sexuality, a lazier effort could have turned this into a version of Brokeback Mountain where the gay cowboy also turns out to be evil.
But Campion is an expert when it comes to dealing in nuance, and it’s on display here in its purest form since The Piano, allowing symbolic imagery and slow burn delights provide just the right amount of tease before the denouement. It’s poetic justice and toxic drama at its finest, and a welcome return to form for an auteur who hasn’t struck gold in decades.
1. Licorice Pizza – Sara Murphy, Adam Somner, and Paul Thomas Anderson
Total Score: 89 out of 100
No film is perfect, but this one came damn close. We got expert performances from two newbies in the forms of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. We got once-in-a-lifetime memorable supporting turns from both leading and character actors going absolutely insane with batshit material from the likes of Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Christine Ebersole, John Michael Higgins, and Tom Waits. We even got insightful minor roles from Benny Safdie and the entire Haim family. This is by far the best acted film of the year, and as such, Paul Thomas Anderson deserves props as the best overall filmmaker, given his ability to set this madness perfectly inside his creative vision of 1970s Hollywood, using the changing geopolitical and social structures of the time as an analog for the literal coming-of-age story being told through his leading pair.
There are some stories that just speak to you on a higher level than others, and for me, this one did it a LOT. I saw the same lingering insecurities in Gary Valentine as I did in myself and my friends growing up, though we never had his swagger to keep it contained for so long. I’ve seen the raw, no-nonsense sexuality and matter-of-fact demand for respect that Alana Kane shows throughout in many friends and coworkers that I’ve admired over the years.
But most importantly, I saw a love for this industry of mine in a way I’ve never really seen it before. Most movies about movies (or the business of it) goes to one of two extremes. Either it’s laudatory beyond measure (and sometimes beyond believability), filled to the brim with loving homages and references, or it’s a nihilistically cynical indictment of all the imperfections of the system and its players, whether or not they were recognized at the time or could have been rectified.
Blissfully, Licorice Pizza is a love letter to Hollywood, but it’s one written from the perspective of an adult who’s grown alongside it. It’s romantic and fawning at times, but it also recognizes the flaws, and can laugh at them, because there’s an underlying commitment and desire to make things better, to improve through affection. That’s a nuance that’s been sorely missing in a lot of discourse lately, to say nothing of Hollywood and movies in general. From cancel culture to political theatre, far too many people either hate irrationally or love unconditionally, with no regard for the little things that make life special. This movie goes to great lengths to show how to do a tribute properly, and thus, it has my vote.
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, it’s time to put my (hypothetical) money where my mouth is and help you win your Oscar pools. We know who I want to win, but tomorrow I’ll tell you Who Will Win!
Join the conversation in the comments below! How would you rank the films? How many deserve consideration? Should the Academy just go back to five if they’re not going to give us 10 worthy nominees? Let me know!