It’s Oscar season, and … meh.
That’s not a “meh” for the quality of the nominees this year; some terrific films are in the race, and the lack of big-studio tentpoles has given more visibility to smaller, interesting movies. But for those of us who fell in love with movies because of their immersive, larger-than-life-ness, the year’s been a big cinematic sigh. With cinemas shuttered for much of 2020, and many potential moviegoers still waiting for vaccinations before venturing out, it’s been a time of watching movies at home, wondering what the experience might feel like in their proper size. And the Oscars (on April 25) feel weirdly off-kilter; pushed out two months from their usual late-February slot, and decidedly unfestive this year (no Oscar parties, alas).
However, let us look on the bright side: This year’s nominees are as accessible as they have ever been, with all but one best picture nominee currently available for streaming. And they’re a fresh and compelling lot. Catching up with a few of them, I was struck anew by what it feels like to watch a crowd of people, or even a small maskless group. Movies are always time capsules — this year, more than ever.
So, as I anxiously await a return to movie theaters, let’s take a look at this year’s eight best picture candidates, viewed virtually. (Curious number, that. I know the answer lies in math and weighted ballots and all that, but really, Academy voters — why not just go crazy and do 10?)
Two of the front-runners are films I reviewed earlier this year. Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which won the Producers Guild Award March 25 (often a harbinger of Oscar gold), showcases a brilliant Frances McDormand as a woman for whom home isn’t a place, but something you carry. It’s a quiet, meditative film of often stunning beauty (the gorgeous cinematography, by Joshua James Richards, is also nominated, as is Zhao herself for director, screenplay and editing) and while I watched it wishing I could have seen McDormand work her magic on a larger-than-life screen, it nonetheless has pleasantly haunted me thereafter. (Available on Hulu.)
“Minari,” a delicate drama from Lee Isaac Chung, follows a South Korean immigrant family in pursuit of their American dream; it’s a deeply personal film for Chung, who drew on memories of his own ’80s Arkansas childhood. In another year, a film this quiet might have easily been overlooked, but luckily we can call “Minari” a pandemic gift. The film received six nominations (including a best actor nod for Steven Yeun, the first Asian actor ever nominated in the category) and an ever-growing audience; it’s a gentle love letter both to Chung’s family, and to ours. (Available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu.)
The British film “The Father,” directed by Florian Zeller (based on his play), is a very different kind of family drama — a devastating, artful portrait of a man slipping away. Anthony (a masterful Anthony Hopkins, nominated for best actor), struggling with early stages of dementia, has moved in with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, nominated for supporting actress) and we watch as he desperately tries to impose order and control on a life that increasingly seems unfamiliar. Zeller puts us directly inside Anthony’s confusion: Familiar faces suddenly seem to be strangers (literally, due to clever casting changes that keep us confused as well) as his life becomes a frightening hall of mirrors. By its heartbreaking ending, “The Father” has taken us on a painful journey well worth taking, and reminded us that Hopkins — making his character vulnerable yet lionlike, fading away yet fighting to stay visible — is among the greatest of screen actors. (Available on Amazon Prime Video and Google Play.)
‘Sound of Metal’
“Sound of Metal,” from first-time feature filmmaker Darius Marder, likewise shows us a central character trying to find his way through a major life change. Ruben (best actor nominee Riz Ahmed) is a punk-metal drummer who is horrified one day to realize that he has experienced significant hearing loss. I loved how this movie uses sound, letting us hear things the way Ruben hears them: the eerily vibrating silence, the faraway quality of the voices, the way he flails away on his drums, desperately trying to make a noise he can hear. Unfolding slowly and deliberately, the film becomes a showcase for a beautifully nuanced performance by Ahmed, and a reminder of the importance of finding moments of stillness. This is another one I would have loved to have seen in a theater, letting that sound wrap around me, but I’m happy to have seen this film in any way — and that the Academy recognized its quiet power. (Available on Amazon Prime Video.)
It’s been several months since I watched “Mank,” David Fincher’s black-and-white tale of Old Hollywood (its title character, Herman J. Mankiewicz, is the screenwriter of “Citizen Kane”), but I remember very clearly how I felt when I finished it: simultaneously impressed and disappointed. I wanted to love it; I didn’t. The film is clearly a labor of love for Fincher, whose meticulous devotion to the period (World War II-era Hollywood) is evident in every soft-gray frame — and the more you know about old movies in general and “Citizen Kane” specifically, the more you’ll enjoy spotting the many affectionate references Fincher throws in. But ultimately, for me, “Mank” felt like an overlong exercise in style, never quite making the case for its central character (played by a nominated Gary Oldman) being worthy of such a tribute. Maybe I need to watch it a few more times. The Academy disagrees with me; “Mank” received 10 nominations, more than any other movie. Not sure I’d put money on it winning any of them, but we’ll see. (Available on Netflix.)
‘Promising Young Woman’
The audacious, candy-bright and wicked-dark thriller “Promising Young Woman,” written and directed by Emerald Fennell, is the sort of movie — unlike “Mank” — that the Academy usually would never honor. A metallic shriek of a film, it stars Carey Mulligan (nominated for best actress) as a young woman determined to seek vengeance for an act that the movie takes its time revealing to us, putting herself into danger by pretending to be drunk in bars and going home with strange men. “Promising Young Woman” is fierce, feminist and not perfect; I struggled with its ending, and its playful tone occasionally slips off the precipice on which it dances. But I love that there was room in the Academy’s list for this film, and particularly for Mulligan’s sly yet heartbreaking performance. (Available on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu.)
‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’
Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” like typical Sorkin fare, is a) crammed full of rapid-fire dialogue, to such an extent that watching it is occasionally exhausting, b) longer than it needs to be, and c) slyly entertaining. Some of it feels all too scripted (the rousing final speech by Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden is a Sorkin invention), but a lot of it is an accurate representation of a remarkably theatrical event: the aftermath of anti-war demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when eight defendants were put on trial. The cast, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, is skilled, the subject matter feels timely, and the movie works well on a small screen — the diminution calms things down a bit. (Available on Netflix.)
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
I haven’t yet seen Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” (it’s not currently available for streaming, though it is playing locally at the Varsity), but hope to watch it before Oscar night. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it a “tense, methodical historical drama,” in which Lakeith Stanfield (nominated for supporting actor) plays real-life character Bill O’Neal, at once head of security for the Black Panther Party in Chicago and paid informant for the FBI. Stanfield will be up against castmate Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Illinois Black Panthers head Fred Hampton; the film is also nominated for best screenplay, cinematography and original song.
The Oscars will be handed out in what organizers say will be a limited-attendance, in-person ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles — a fitting end to a movie year in which, to sadly paraphrase Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” the pictures all got small.