I have been vocally against the extended Oscar season timeline from the first, but if there is one good thing about it from my perspective, it’s that this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever seen all of the Best Picture nominees before the ceremony. Almost by accident, I’ve also written about those eight movies, and so I thought for ease of use, I’d put them all in one easy to find spot. For the sake of variety, I’ve ordered them from the movie I think is best to the movie I thought worst. Also, as a bulk warning, these all have spoilers.
1) Minari, dir. Lee Isaac Chung
This is not a revelatory shot by any means. It’s almost comically simple, the kind of thing a high schooler in an introductory class should be able to replicate. But for clarity of vision, for the acting that’s down to essentials, for the way it demands that you think about the unbearable gap between Jacob and Monica, this has to be 2020’s best shot from a mainstream American movie.
2) Judas and the Black Messiah, dir. Shaka King
A small business from which he may earn a living, but one without the prospect of moving up, or ever making all that much more than what he has. One that keeps him stuck to a single location. One that will put “Yes sir” or “Right away, ma’am” in his mouth forever. It is cruel recompense for a cruel deed, and while this movie is missing that scene—you know the one, where Bill, tormented by his choice, gets loaded, he puts on some loud music that continues to play through cuts that go through the course of an evening where he drinks more, weeps to himself, screams, you know, that one—the one we get instead here is staggering. The look on Stanfield’s face is indescribable, because the feeling Bill must have at that moment is indescribable, one that it is impossible to empathize with.
3) Sound of Metal, dir. Darius Marder
As they hold each other in that bed, knowing that a different kind of intimacy between them went away forever when Lou got a ride away from the shelter where she left Ruben, there’s an honest tenderness we can see. Whether or not you think this scene should be set in France or in like, upstate New York is to some extent a matter of preference. I think putting this scene across an ocean is essential, sort of the way that the Dodsworths would never have considered a divorce if they’d stayed in Zenith or how the man and the wife of Sunrise could never have fallen in love again if they’d stayed off the lake.
4) Nomadland, dir. Chloe Zhao
Replacing Brady Jandreau with Frances McDormand—a brilliant actress who I could not rate more highly as a performer!—makes Nomadland a basically non-serious movie. There’s that terrific scene in The Rider where Brady works on breaking a horse, a scene that feels real because it was real. We watch Frances McDormand packing up boxes in an Amazon warehouse; is it all that different from watching Danny Aiello make pizza? If McDormand took shifts cleaning bathrooms somewhere as research, then is that really any different than Natalie Portman training in ballet to do the part?
5) The Father, dir. Florian Zeller
he film is successful, it is extremely difficult to have our bearings. When the film is unsuccessful, we understand a great deal about what’s happening to Anthony, where Anne is, the story of Anthony’s daughter Laura, the identities of the men. Seeing Anne without Anthony is a mistake because it damages the intensity of our understanding only through Anthony’s baffled subjectivity, but it happens more and more throughout the film. In other words, the narrative is the impossible task, because a narrative not only dilutes the power of Anthony’s confusion by giving us something to hang onto, but it cheapens the story itself.
6) Mank, dir. David Fincher
Maybe it was Fincher’s precision that led him to want those fake and totally identical imperfections blipping onto the screen. You know, the ones you get when physical film is damaged…even though this was shot on digital. It’s such a self-evidently dumb idea that it singlehandedly proves the sycophancy of people in the industry; someone, somewhere, had this stupid idea, and no one, anywhere, was able to challenge it. It’s the kind of thing that you do if you think that’s what old movies are “like,” which is why the movie that Mank reminds me of most is The Artist.
7) Promising Young Woman, dir. Emerald Fennell
She feeds the dean a story about having dropped off her daughter, Amber (Francisca Estevez) with some drunk guys from a band the girl likes, and then tosses her the girl’s cell phone to amplify the dean’s helplessness. Amber is not actually in any danger, but the dean doesn’t know that, and neither do we. Eventually Cassie reveals all, and having made her point (“I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love”) she leaves. Cassie does something similar to a former classmate, Madison (Alison Brie), who expressed some ambivalence about the tragedy of Nina’s case because of how drunk she was; she gets Madison drunk and lets her believe that she might have been raped by a stranger, who Cassie has paid off to essentially plant that fiction in Madison’s head. Think twice about judging, lest ye be hoodwinked by an avenger in floral prints. The film only has that one move, that almost comical adaptation of “Better believe in ghost stories, Miss Turner: you’re in one!”
8) The Trial of the Chicago 7, dir. Aaron Sorkin
Perhaps most importantly, it turns out that Hoffman respected Hayden the whole time except for his use of “vague noun modifiers” in his writing. (There’s a subspecies of nerd that looks on the “vague noun modifiers” stuff as evidence of witty screenwriting, just like there’s a subspecies of nerd that posts screencaps of MCU movies and says “these have unbelievable cinematography,” and it’s tough for me to decide which is more odious.) In short, the movie packs an awful lot of stuff into its long stretch run, and it needs Bobby Seale out of it so we can give our whole attention to the Chicago 7 instead.
One is a little curious why Seale and what he represents are less interesting to the movie than, say, making sure that we see Schultz (the only other parent whose kids we see among the principals) as a basically humane guy tasked with doing an unsavory job.