Oscar Nominations 2021 : A Film Critic’s Guide

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Like every area of our lives in the past year, the world of movies has been upended, transformed, battered and reinvented. Theaters were shuttered. Blockbuster releases were postponed—then postponed again. Major studios embraced direct-to-streaming (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm). And in all this madness, even while we’ve been wedded to our screens as never before, it’s been harder than usual to keep up with this year’s major titles.

This morning, the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced. Below you’ll find the Best Picture competitors—plus titles in other major categories—and reactions from the Journal’s film critic Joe Morgenstern.

The Father

Directed by Florian Zeller ; written by Christopher Hampton, based on the play by, Florian Zeller; starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman and Mark Gatiss

Father-daughter relationships are beautiful, complicated things, as is the case in this small-scale production. Anthony Hopkins stars as an 80-year-old Londoner, now in mental decline, being tended to by his dedicated if overburdened daughter, played by Olivia Colman. As his grip on reality becomes ever more tenuous, his daily experience becomes filled alternately with pleasure and pain, joy and terror, in “a performance that’s astonishing and inspiring in equal measure,” as Joe Morgenstern puts it. Far more than a standard drama about the perils of dementia, “What might have been predictable or sentimental in other hands becomes startling in the film’s approach, as well as beguiling, unsparing, terribly moving and occasionally very funny.”

Judas and the Black Messiah

Directed by Shaka King ; written by Will Berson and Shaka King; starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons

Daniel Kaluuya portrays famed Black Panther Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield portrays Bill O’Neal, the FBI informant who played an integral role in Hampton’s killing, in “a matched pair of phenomenal performances” at the center of this politically charged thriller-cum-biopic. While the action here is purely historical, it’s nonetheless a story of the present, “a drama for our time set half a century ago, when, as now, America was struggling with racism, beset by violence and riven by fear and hate.”

Mank

Directed by David Fincher ; written by Jack Fincher ; starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins

This dramatization of the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who received top billing for the original “Citizen Kane” screenplay, is an ode to Hollywood in all its glory and chicanery. The rich, famous and powerful abound in the tale—not just Orson Welles but Marion Davies, L.B. Mayer and more. And while the film may not be for everyone—it marks “a signal event for film lovers and history buffs” as well as “catnip for film critics.” Even if it occasionally feels weighed down by heavy handedness or plot diversions, it stands as a “celebration, with ample irony and paradox, of screenwriters in general and Herman Mankiewicz in particular.”

Minari

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung ; written by Lee Isaac Chung; starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han and Alan S. Kim

This partly autobiographical drama follows a Korean family who moves to Arkansas in the 1980s, adapting to hardscrabble rural life in the South as they try to make an agrarian living amid a crumbling marriage. A grandmother arrives to help with childcare, upending the staid existence of the household with her penchant for gambling and lackluster cooking in a film with riveting performances thanks to skilled direction: “Mr. Chung manages all of his characters like a maestro conducting a chamber orchestra.” As Joe Morgenstern raves, “This heartfelt, heart-filling celebration of putting down roots—the title refers to a resilient Korean variety of watercress—calls for gratitude and wonderment at how such an outwardly straightforward story could be so intimate, poignant, improbably funny and steadfastly stirring.”

Nomadland

Directed by Chloé Zhao ; written by Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder ; starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn and Linda May

Frances McDormand plays a widower whose life falls apart thanks to the Great Recession, causing her to hit the road and meet a motley, persevering group of wanderers as she adapts to her newly unrooted existence. Chloé Zhao’s film, which Joe Morgenstern calls “a modest masterpiece like no other,” features many actual nomads playing versions of themselves and is much more than a keen-eyed look at a particular kind of lifestyle: “Rather than categorize their way of life solely as a response to recession and unemployment, it’s possible to view it as prophecy, a way for many more Americans to survive in a future when economic and environmental dislocations become more frequent.”

Promising Young Woman

Directed by Emerald Fennell ; written by Emerald Fennell; starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham and Alison Brie

In this revenge story for the #MeToo era, Carey Mulligan stars as a woman haunted by the inability to protect one of her friends, spending her days as a barista and her nights as a vigilante, seeking out predatory men in bars and clubs. While the star here draws viewers in—“Ms. Mulligan, one of the most gifted actors of our time, does what she can,” says Joe Morgenstern—there’s little else to recommend in this “stylized but airless polemic on a serious subject.”

Sound of Metal

Directed by Darius Marder ; written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder ; starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci

Riz Ahmed stars in Darius Marder’s debut feature, about a heavy-metal drummer who discovers that he’s losing his hearing and struggles to cope with his diagnosis while trying to navigate his relationship and the hard-of-hearing community.

Directed by Aaron Sorkin ; written by Aaron Sorkin; starring Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp and Sacha Baron Cohen

Aaron Sorkin, known for his one-of-a-kind dialogue, tells the story of the court case that followed the civil unrest during the 1968 Democratic convention. This particularly timely film, released in a year that saw nationwide protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd, uses transcripts from the real-life trial proceedings as its guide, reintroducing once-familiar names into the contemporary conversation: Bobby Seale, Julius J. Hoffman, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden. But this retelling is a mixed bag—in Joe Morgenstern’s words, “Mr. Sorkin’s film is sometimes eloquent, and sustained for the most part by his flair for hyperverbal entertainment. Yet it also diminishes its aura of authenticity with dubious inventions, and muddles its impact by taking on more history than it can handle.”

SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL

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