All 40 movies nominated for an Oscar this year, ranked
This was always going to be an extremely weird Oscar year. What was less certain was how strong of a year it turned out to be, too. Though the Academy of Arts and Sciences delayed their ceremony until April 25 — the latest date ever — the crop of films that made it into competition in spite of the raging pandemic are largely worth your time.
Then again, not all of them are. Besides, who actually has the full 74 hours it would take to watch them all in the first place?
That's where The Week comes in. Here are all of the feature-length 2021 Oscar nominees, ranked.
(The Man Who Sold His Skin | Samuel Goldwyn Films)
40. The Man Who Sold His Skin
Nominated for: International feature
I get what Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania is going for here: The Man Who Sold His Skin is a parable about the exploitation of refugees in Europe, in which a Syrian immigrant, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), agrees to be turned into a piece of artwork by having the coveted Schengen visa tattooed on his back (in exchange for becoming a piece of artwork, Sam is given a real visa — and access to his girlfriend, who's been married off to a no-good bureaucrat in Brussels). The film highlights the deal with the devil that refugees are forced to make, sacrificing their bodies and souls for a chance to live on the continent, but that's a popular subject in arthouse, European movies these days, and this effort doesn't push past the expected, surface-level observations. On top of that, it's awkwardly shot, often to the point of being repellent to watch; one scene bafflingly involves popping an enormous pimple on Sam's back. Though the film indulges in the sort of liberal hand-wringing Oscar voters love in the international feature category, it otherwise falls flat.
39. The One And Only Ivan
Nominated for: VFX
Hey Disney — your visual effects teams were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should. The One and Only Ivan is another of Disney's photo-realistic animation experiments, but like 2016's The Jungle Book and 2019's The Lion King before it, the critters in this story lack even a semblance of the expressiveness or charm of Disney's hand-drawn animations of yore. Even the star-studded voice cast — Sam Rockwell as Ivan the Gorilla, Angelina Jolie as Stella the elephant, Danny DeVito as Bob the stray dog, Helen Mirren as Snickers the poodle, and Phillipa Soo as Thelma the macaw — can't quite inject life into the life-like circus animals on screen. The One and Only Ivan is a technical feat, and deserves its nomination for being such. But the archival footage of the "real" Ivan, included during the movie's credits, is more charming than anything that comes before it.
(Pinocchio | Roadside Attractions)
Nominated for: Costume design; makeup and hairstyling
I tend to be a fan of the Italian director Matteo Garrone; I quite like his 2008 crime drama Gomorrah, and was warm on his 2012 reality television satire, Reality. But Garrone lost me with his live-action Pinocchio adaptation, which is emotionally remote at best, and at worst, grating. Even thinking about it as a showcase for costume design and makeup and hairstyling — for which this film is nominated — I was less than enchanted. Real Pinocchio fanatics (are there such people?) might proceed with caution, but everyone else is advised to wait for the forthcoming stop-motion adaptation by Guillermo del Toro for Netflix, or Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture one coming for Disney.
37. The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Nominated for: Best actress (Andra Day)
The Academy loves to nominate musical biopics: see also Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Walk the Line, Straight Outta Compton, Ray, Amadeus, Judy … I could go on. But The United States vs. Billie Holiday does the bare minimum in this story that follows Lady Day as she struggles with a heroin addiction while being harassed by federal agents, who are agitated by her haunting song "Strange Fruit." By the end of the movie, however, I didn't feel I knew anything more about Billie Holiday as a person; only that I'd watched an unfocused, two-hour-long lecture about how the police unjustly treat Black Americans (a theme that is far better tackled by several other movies on this list). Though Andra Day, in her first major film role, is a force on screen, she can't elevate this film above its color-by-numbers approach.
(Hillbilly Elegy | Netflix)
36. Hillbilly Elegy
Nominated for: Best supporting actress (Glenn Close); makeup and hairstyling
The best thing I can say about Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy is that it's … watchable? Based on the reviews — which had called it "possibly the worst movie" in recent memory, "an absolute crock of s--t," and liable to give you "post-traumatic stress disorder" at the mere thought of rewatching it — I'd expected something a little more like if Green Book had been remade with the characters from Cats. Actually, I'd rather have watched that movie; Hillbilly Elegy's problem is possibly even worse, in that it's dreadfully boring. (I'm happy to go on, though, about how the script's apolitical approach to a story about modern Appalachia is an insult to its viewers' intelligence, and how Amy Adams is way too good an actress to have been sucked into this thing). A fun bit of trivia: Glenn Close is the third actor to ever be nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie for the same role, an unwelcome achievement also netted by Amy Irving in 1984's Yentl and James Coco in the 1980 movie Only When I Laugh.
35. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Nominated for: Best picture; supporting actor (Sacha Baron Cohen); best original screenplay; original song ("Hear My Voice"); editing; cinematography
And so we arrive at the worst of this year's Best Picture nominees. It's not that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an incompetently made movie, like Bohemian Rhapsody, or an insulting one, like Green Book (2019 was really a banner year for the Oscars, huh?). Rather, Aaron Sorkin's sophomore directorial feature — about the trial of the eight Vietnam War protesters who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention — boils down to being a self-congratulatory history lesson, more focused on righteous lecturing than anything resembling urgent art or entertainment (critic K. Austin Collins calls it, accurately, akin to "three kids in a trench coat pretending to be a movie"). The most interesting moment in the film — when Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, is bound and gagged in the courtroom — comes and goes almost completely unexplored. Maybe, at one point, there'd been a good movie here? But Sorkin sweeps on.
(Greyhound | Apple TV+)
Nominated for: Sound
Did you know that a Tom Hanks movie came out last year in which he reprises the role of a ship's captain? Greyhound barely made a blip on the radar, though, dumped as it was on Apple TV+. It's not entirely the fault of the distributors; for being a war film about the longest continuous military campaign of World War II, it's a surprisingly dull movie. Hanks wrote the script, which is bogged down in dusty clichés.
33. The Mole Agent
Nominated for: Documentary feature
Is a documentary still a documentary if its entire premise is set up and staged? That's the boundary pushed by The Mole Agent, a sneaky little Chilean film that follows 83-year-old Sergio Chamy after he responds to a newspaper ad seeking a candidate who will spend three months embedded in a nursing home undercover, looking for signs of elder abuse. Chamy moves into the home as a spy, where he's followed by director Maite Alberdi's camera crew — who are filming in the home under the pretense of making a movie about life there. Though no elder abuse is uncovered, Chamy — and the viewer — see instead the residents' loneliness, having been forgotten by their relatives living on the outside. Elder care is an important global topic, but the packaging of this approach is gimmicky.
(The Life Ahead | Netflix)
32. The Life Ahead
Nominated for: Best song ("Io Si [Seen]")
The Life Ahead is the type of movie that Academy voters traditionally gobble up. It tells the story of a 12-year-old Senegalese orphan who is living in an Italian seaside town, committing petty crimes, before he gets taken in by a kind former prostitute and Jewish Holocaust survivor, who teaches him about life. Are your heartstrings tugged yet?! The film's biggest draw (even bigger than its "best song," which didn't strike me as anything special and is certainly no "Húsavík") is Sophia Loren, the legendary actress who, now 86, hadn't done a film in over a decade (Loren's son, Edoardo Ponti, directed this film, explaining her involvement). For diehard fans of Loren, it's worth watching, albeit disappointing. For anyone else, it's melodramatic and feels like something you've seen a million times before.
31. The Midnight Sky
Nominated for: VFX
RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico described The Midnight Sky as feeling almost as if it'd been "designed by a screenwriting algorithm informed by some of the top genre films of the last couple decades" — a bit of Gravity, Interstellar, Ad Astra, The Martian, and The Road all in one — and I haven't been able to shake that description from my head. Directed by, and starring, George Clooney, Midnight Sky never manages to be as strong as any of its parts, though. In the film, Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist who chooses to remain behind on Earth, where there's been a catastrophic radioactive event, in order to warn a spaceship returning from a mission to one of the moons of Jupiter not to come back. The story jumps between Augustine's efforts to send the signal from a station in the arctic, and the space mission, but neither ever effectively land (though it at least looks pretty while it's all going on, thanks to the "a sci-fi dream team" of VFX supervisors). To get more mileage out of a space genre homage, watch A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon instead.
(Over the Moon | Netflix)
30. Over the Moon
Nominated for: Best animated feature
The 2021 best animated feature slate is absurdly strong this year, which is why it's disappointing that Over the Moon is such an outlier from the rest of the nominees. The film is mostly a retread of themes and images we've all seen before: It's a Netflix knockoff of a Disney film, right down to the style of animation and the recycled dead mom trope. An American-Chinese co-production, Over the Moon is technically a musical as well, though it'd have been nice to see it lean more into its cultural influences rather than what it does instead, with its forgettable and poorly-written pop songs. Longtime Disney animator Glen Keane (The Little Mermaid; Beauty and the Beast; and the Best Animated Short Film-winning "Dear Basketball") directs from a script by the late Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give), but the concept never quite comes together.
29. Promising Young Woman
Nominated for: Best picture; best actress (Carey Mulligan); best director; best original screenplay; best film editing
I really wanted to like Promising Young Woman. I have a Ms. 45 poster in my apartment; I love the 2017 film Revenge, a gory takedown of male objectification. But Emerald Fennell doesn't seem to understand the genre she's working within; Promising Young Woman is a rape-revenge fantasy where the revenge is a stern talking to, and the police save the day. "The thing with the revenge [genre] that we don't talk about very much is revenge and vengeance aren't good things," Fennell even told Vulture, further evidence she misunderstood the whole assignment. Really, I can't say it better than Ayesha A. Siddiqi does in her takedown: "[Promising Young Woman] is mainstreamed, celebrated even, in part because it's limited to the voyeuristic consumption of trauma and confessional politics of absolution." You should read the whole piece.
(Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm | Amazon Studios)
28. Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm
Nominated for: Best supporting actress (Maria Bakalova); best adapted screenplay
Is there anything more uncomfortable than watching a Borat film? But while the first Borat, released during the George W. Bush era, peeled back the more presentable face of America to expose the ugliness and absurdity underneath, the shtick works less well in 2020, when we had a president who was doing that work himself. It's not a cringe-y revelation anymore to show that there are Americans who will say things that are racist, sexist, and antisemitic — we see them, unashamed, on our TVs all the time. That doesn't stop Subsequent Moviefilm from being newsworthy, however; in particular, the scene involving Rudy Giuliani may have effectively put a stake through the heart of his zombified political career. Maria Bakalova deserves her best supporting actress award for convincingly springing the trap; she might deserve a Pulitzer, too.
27. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Nominated for: Best actor (Chadwick Boseman); best actress (Viola Davis); production design; costume design; makeup and hairstyling
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is an example of how a single luminous performance can make a whole movie worth watching. And though Viola Davis is wonderful in everything she does, it is the late Chadwick Boseman who is transcendent in this film. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, based on an August Wilson play, tends to feel like a movie that didn't need to exist; nothing is added to the story, anyway, by virtue of it being filmed rather than performed on a stage (The Father is another play-turned-movie nominated for an Oscar this year that does this better through its editing). But Boseman's incredible performance as Levee, an ambitious trumpeter hired by Ma Rainey (Davis), would have been a career-capping glory even if it weren't for the tragic, premature death of the actor last year.
The just okay
(Better Days | Well Go USA)
26. Better Days
Nominated for: International feature
I confess I initially had low expectations for this Chinese film, which opens with a title card telling viewers that bullying is bad. But the moralistic tone mostly drops for the rest of the film, which is about a promising but bullied schoolgirl (Zhou Dongyu) who finds protection from her tormentors under the wing of a rough street thug (Jackson Yee). The two fall in love, of course; the film was an enormous box office success in China, and when you take a look at the two dreamboat main characters, it's pretty easy to see why. Though Better Days has its flaws — a good half-hour could have been shaved off from the twisty, procedural ending — it is, overall, surprisingly touching. Hong Kong-born director Derek Tsang (who shot the film in mainland China, though it was submitted to the Oscars by Hong Kong) will be one to keep watching.
Nominated for: Animated feature
I don't have much to say about Onward other than: it's really cute! The film has the same glossy perfection as most Pixar films, although it doesn't ever reach the emotional heft of the studios' best works, like Toy Story or Up (or even the other Pixar movie on this list). Onward's simple exploration of kid-friendly themes — like brotherhood and self-doubt and death — hobble it overall, but it's diverting enough to watch if you're looking for easy awww's.
(One Night in Miami | Amazon Studios)
24. One Night In Miami…
Nominated for: Original song ("Speak Now"); supporting actor (Leslie Odom Jr.); adapted screenplay
One Night in Miami has my absolute favorite five seconds of any movie I saw last year: It's no spoiler to say it's the reaction shot of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) that closes out the film. I'm less enthusiastic about the rest of the movie, which imagines the conversation that took place between Malcolm, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) when the four gathered together in Miami after Clay's victory in a boxing match against Sonny Liston. Like Ma Rainey, One Night In Miami, it can at times feel limited by the stage play it's based on — it's definitely a "men talking about important topics" movie, and I only wish first-time director Regina King had been more ambitious, overall, in her approach. But King still manages to draw out terrific performances, and oh, that ending. That ending.
23. Sound of Metal
Nominated for: Best picture; best actor (Riz Ahmed); best supporting actor (Paul Raci); original screenplay; film editing; sound
In a year packed with major ensemble films, you might look right past Sound of Metal as one of the best-acted movies of the year. But while Riz Ahmed is great in the lead role as Ruben, a metal drummer who's starting to lose his hearing, don't stop watching there. Paul Raci absolutely deserves his nomination for his performance as Ruben's deaf counselor, Joe (Raci actually grew up as a CODA, a child of deaf adults), and it wouldn't have been surprising to see Olivia Cooke snag her own supporting nomination for playing Ruben's girlfriend, Lou. Though the script doesn't hold any surprises, it's a perfectly serviceable showcase of actors, all of whom I hope to see more of down the line.
Nominated for: Documentary feature
In 1997, newlyweds Sibil Fox Richardson and Rob Richardson opened a hip-hop clothing store together in Louisiana. But, as Fox Rich — as she goes by — put it in a voiceover in the documentary Time, "Desperate people do desperate things." When the store fell into financial trouble, the couple robbed a credit union. Fox subsequently spent three and a half years behind bars; the sentence for Rob was much harsher, 60 years without parole. Time documents the ensuing 20-year battle that Fox, a mother of six, fought to get Rob freed. But while Time is an indictment of America's excessive punishment, its politics remain just remote enough that it doesn't fully support the far stronger prison abolitionist narrative that many leftist critics have interpreted it to be. You can certainly look at a case like the Riches' and project your own politics onto it; but I'd have preferred to see Time be even more uncompromising with its message.
(Love and Monsters | Paramount Pictures)
21. Love and Monsters
Nominated for: VFX
I'm a little surprised I haven't heard more people talking about Love and Monsters, a movie that is very adorable! Maybe it had something to do with no one being in the mood for a quirky film about a cataclysmic event that wipes out most of humanity? Admittedly, Love and Monsters is a fairly simple hero's journey — a survivor traverses the monster-infested wilderness to reach his girlfriend — but one that is extremely satisfying and fun in execution. Perhaps one day there will be a reappraisal of Love and Monsters, or a cult following of the sort that rallied around Alita: Battle Angel; either way, it deserves more affection than it got.
Nominated for: Best picture; best actress (Frances McDormand); best director; adapted screenplay; editing; cinematography
I went back and forth a number of times about bumping this up into the category of "the good" — there is truly so much to love about Nomadland, from director Chloé Zhao's expansive and Malickian way of capturing images of America, to the smart inclusion of nonprofessional actors who are real-life nomads, to the looseness of the script that leaves the great Frances McDormand space to expand. But ultimately, the crowd-pleasing, politically-voiceless approach earns this film a significant knock against it (it's the same criticism I had against the way the blue-collar community was approached, with gloves on, in Hillbilly Elegy). Additionally, that the filmmakers sucked up to Amazon during production doesn't sit right with me, especially since it's so antithetical to the story's nonfiction source material.
(My Octopus Teacher | Netflix)
19. My Octopus Teacher
Nominated for: Documentary feature
Somewhere along the way, My Octopus Teacher got labeled as the horny cephalopod sex movie, which it is not! What it is, though, is a really solid nature documentary that will make you hate pajama sharks. The footage captured by South African filmmaker Craig Foster in the waters where he befriends the octopus is truly remarkable, even before considering it involved him swimming out to visit the kelp forest every day for a year, without a wetsuit or oxygen tank. My Octopus Teacher, as a result, is a tidy and personal meditation on how intimacy (not the erotic kind!) with our environment raises the stakes for us, and invests us in protecting the natural world.
18. Crip Camp
Nominated for: Documentary feature
And the award for most tear-jerking use of Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain" in a motion picture goes to … Crip Camp! This lovely documentary profiles Camp Jened, which opened as a summer program for teenagers living with disabilities in 1951, but would offer its campers such a joyous and inspiring idea of what the world and their lives could be that it helped launch the modern disability rights movement. It's easy to see why Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground, was attracted to this story — which charts the rise of a small grassroots movement — but don't let their affiliation turn you off of this doc, which has less to do with sunny liberal politics than it does revolution, justice, and self-empowerment. Even if it never deviates from its expected course, Crip Camp is worth seeing; it's a great story.
(Mank | Netflix)
Nominated for: Best picture; best director; best actor (Gary Oldman); best supporting actress (Amanda Seyfried); score; production design; costume; sound; makeup and hairstyling; cinematography
When the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced last month, Mank led the pack with 10 nominations — even though 78 percent of Americans had never heard of the movie. While I've blamed this on the growing fragmentation of what people watch, Mank admittedly isn't the sexiest film going. In fact, even the summary of it is a bit of a snoozefest: the film is a David Fincher-directed biopic about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he attempts to write the screenplay for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. But though a lot of people quickly wrote this movie off, I found it to be far cleverer than it initially lets on, a "reminder of the responsibility of the movies, and the funny way moving images have of superseding the truth."
Nominated for: Best picture; best actor (Steven Yeun); best supporting actress (Yuh Jung-Youn); best director; original screenplay; score
Even though it's not my favorite of the Best Picture nominees this year (the screenplay stays safely formulaic, when I'd hoped for a little more from it), I love absolutely everything about Minari being in competition. This film is what the Oscars should be about; though by no stretch of the imagination a "popular" film, it's a deeply moving, American story about Korean immigrants who try to make a home for themselves on an Arkansas farm. An Arkansas Times journalist even described Minari as "the most authentic coming-of-age story I've seen reflected on screen about our part of the world." But because the film is primarily in Korean — the language the family speaks at home — it was controversially relegated to the "foreign language" category at the Golden Globes. The newly-diverse Oscar voting body rightly put this powerhouse of an American dream story where it belongs: alongside the pricer, more star-studded competition, but no less a part of the top films of the year. Alan Kim, who plays the young son, is especially terrific, despite not notching a nomination.
(News of the World | Universal Pictures)
15. News of the World
Nominated for: Original score; production design; cinematography; sound
Seeing Tom Hanks in his first Western makes me wish he'd spent a little more of his career on horseback and a little less on big ships. News of the World is a tidy little film about a traveling newspaper reader who stumbles upon a German girl named Johanna, who'd been kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa people since a young age. He's tasked with returning her to her next of kin, a journey that takes them through what you might expect of the Wild West: bandit-infested canyons, dust storms, and towns electrified by the not-yet-defused tensions of the Civil War. While this film isn't perfect — director Paul Greengrass is clunky with his action scenes, and it's sometimes hard to believe perennial good guy Hanks was a former Confederate captain — News of the World's cinematography and score fantastically set the time and place.
14. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Nominated for: Animated feature
Other films might be able to make lifelike lions speak with cutting-edge digital technology, but Shaun the Sheep is a testament to how much more "alive" animation can be when it's made by hand. From the British claymation studio behind Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace & Gromit comes this virtually wordless story about what happens when a spaceship crash lands near the farm where Shaun and the rest of his flock are living under the authoritarian rule of the sheepdog Bitzer. Though the movie's slapstick humor is universal, there are clever references throughout to other sci-fi works, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters, X-Files, and Doctor Who. I was struck by how wide the age appeal of the movie could be; whether you're 2 or you're 79, you'll find something to love here. I still prefer the classic Wallace & Gromit stories overall, but Farmageddon is a worthy addition to their universe.
(Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+)
Nominated for: Animated feature
Speaking of vibrant animation, Wolfwalkers just barely edges out Farmageddon with its Irish-inspired tale of a young huntress who dreams of wiping out the wolves plaguing her town — only to be bitten by a magical Wolfwalker named Mebh, and get sucked into a quest to bring her missing mother home. As part of director Tomm Moore's folklore trilogy, which started with The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, the whirling, complex, stylized art might be familiar to some animation fans already. But there is nothing dull or tired about the final product, which looks like a storybook come to life; every single frame is meticulously constructed and considered, with never a line out of place.
12. The White Tiger
Nominated for: Best adapted screenplay
This snappy rags-to-riches tale took me by complete surprise. It's slick, super fun, and wonderfully acted; Adarsh Gourav walks the line between being the model deferential servant, and filled with righteous anger, in his first leading role (he reportedly worked anonymously with a food vendor, doing 12 hour shifts washing dishes, to prepare for his part). A biting social satire, the "white tiger" of the title refers to the poor but cunning villager Balram (Gourav), who aspires to work as a driver for his corrupt village landlord's son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and Ashok's wife, an American named Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Though the ensuing epistolary tale has all the flair of a Bollywood music video (the legendary A.R. Rahman, who wrote Slumdog Millionaire's hit "Jai Ho," did the score), don't let all the flash and style fool you. This tiger has teeth.
11. Quo Vadis, Aida?
Nominated for: International feature
If you enjoy movies that make your stomach tense up in knots, then this harrowing story of the Bosnian war will fit the bill. The story concerns Aida (the oh-so-good Jasna Đuričić), who is working as a translator for the United Nations in the aftermath of the Bosnian Serb Army taking over the city of Srebrenica. Thousands of the city's refugees have gathered at the U.N. camp, including Aida's two sons and her husband. But when negotiations start to go awry, and desperate calls for backup by the Dutch peacekeepers go unanswered, Aida's quest becomes a desperately personal one. Even if you're aware of the history behind the event, this is a powerful and tragic examination of the human cost of war that shouldn't be missed.
(Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga | Netflix)
10. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Nominated for: Original song ("Husavik")
Yes, I said it: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a better movie than Nomadland, which very well might be the movie that wins Best Picture. But I stand by this ranking! Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams' Eurovision spoof blindsided me with its earnestness and endearing wit. It's also full of bangers, including the song that earned it the Oscar nomination, "Húsavík" (McAdams' vocals were recorded by Molly Sandén of Sweden). I'm serious, give it an Oscar!
9. Another Round
Nominated for: Best director; international feature
In Another Round, the great Mads Mikkelsen plays an aging teacher named Martin, who recovers some of his youthful luster when he agrees to join his friends in an experiment to never let their blood alcohol content drop below 0.05. Though that might sound like the set-up to a raunchy buddy comedy — or worse, a humorless cautionary tale about drinking — Another Round is a unexpectedly sober story about aging. Thomas Vinterberg, who earned a surprise nomination for Best Director for the film, worked on the movie while grieving his daughter, Ida, who died four days into the shoot; he called his work on the movie "life-affirming" in an interview with Vulture. And though I hadn't known about Vinterberg's tragedy before watching the film, you can pick up on its wobbly walk between the extremes of existential weightiness and a celebration of life. The movie's cathartic and infectious ending is one of my favorite scenes of the whole year.
(Netflix | Pieces of a Woman)
8. Pieces of a Woman
Nominated for: Best actress (Vanessa Kirby)
Sometimes when you're watching a Hollywood movie, there will be a scene where it suddenly clicks for you: Ah-ha, you realize, this is the actor trying to win their Oscar. That scene for Vanessa Kirby, in Pieces of a Woman, comes — as they so often do — in a courtroom at the end of the film. But Kirby's performance throughout Pieces of a Woman is terrific, and it's perhaps never more impressive than during the feat of endurance that it must have taken for her to do the film's birth scene in a single take. Pieces of a Woman is a tender study of personal tragedy, a movie more about emotions left unsaid than those that make it into lines of dialogue. And though the 2021 Best Actress category is a tight race, and Kirby the underdog of the group, Pieces of a Woman is a standout of the year.
7. Judas and the Black Messiah
Nominated for: Best picture; best supporting actor (Daniel Kaluuya); best supporting actor (Lakeith Stanfield); original screenplay; original song ("Fight For You"); cinematography
Yes, Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya absolutely deserve to be leading the supporting actor conversation this spring. And no, it makes no sense that they're both nominated as "supporting" actors — who, then, is supposed to be the movie's "lead"? The title, Judas and the Black Messiah, refers to the conflicted FBI informer Bill O'Neal (Stanfield), who agrees to keep the authorities in the loop on the activities of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya). Though the movie follows these events to their violent and enraging end, unlike several other political dramas on this list, Judas and the Black Messiah seems to be interested in being more than just a history lesson. It's also one of the year's best ensemble films, though Dominique Fishback disappointingly went unrecognized by the Academy for her powerful performance as Hampton's fiancée, Deborah Johnson.
(The Father | Sony Pictures Classics)
6. The Father
Nominated for: Best picture; best actor (Anthony Hopkins); best supporting actress (Olivia Colman); adapted screenplay; production design; editing
I made the devastating mistake of watching The Father with my parents; after the movie ended, we just sat in terrified silence together on the couch (my dad still refers to this as "a horror movie" when I bring it up). Believe it or not, this is a recommendation! The Father is the immersive story of 80-year-old Anthony's descent into dementia, where the audience is kept as close to his perspective as possible. The terrific Anthony Hopkins brings us into the mind of the father, and surely would have won his category in any other year, were he not up against Chadwick Boseman's somehow even more incredible performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. But while that film, also based on a play, never quite shakes off the feeling of being meant for stage, The Father uses its medium to build on its patriarch's mounting confusion, loneliness, and fear. I can't say this was an enjoyable film to watch, but it was one that wrung my heart out.
Nominated for: Best score; animated feature; sound
I wish I was too cool for Pixar, but Soul reminded me just how amazing this studio is when it's firing on all cylinders. Middle school band teacher Joe feels like he's lost a chance to pursue his true passion, jazz piano. But just when he gets an opportunity of a lifetime, a mishap involving an open manhole — every New Yorker's worst fear — lands him in the afterlife. Joe (Jamie Foxx) is so intent on not missing his one shot, though, he devises a way to travel back to Earth, albeit with a rebellious soul named 22 (Tina Fey). I laughed! I cried! I was put in my place, by which I mean I was reminded that I am not emotionally stronger than Up or WALL-E or Coco! I feel for the film's animators, who clearly put their hearts into this film, only for it to be released on Disney+ without even premium pricing. Soul deserved better; I hope that down the line post-pandemic, it'll be returned to theaters for the release it should've gotten in the first place.
(Emma | Focus Features)
Nominated for: Original music; costume design
As someone who isn't especially fond of period films, especially ones that are trying to be comedies, Emma should have rubbed me the wrong way. But I was enamored all around with this mischievous Austen adaptation, directed by the portrait photographer Autumn de Wilde and taken from a script by the Man Booker-winning author Eleanor Catton. Anya Taylor-Joy (who you either know for The Queen's Gambit or for those cheekbones) stars as Miss Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy and self-absorbed young woman who amuses herself in her small Regency England town by matchmaking amongst her friends. This film is absolute eye candy all around thanks to the three-pronged effort of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, production designer Kave Quinn, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (holy moly, the clothes!) — though that's not to leave out casting director Jessica Ronane, who didn't miss a single note here. I'm at a loss when it comes to trying to identify a place where the film might have been improved; Emma is pitch-perfect.
Nominated for: Best documentary feature, international feature
On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out in Colectiv, a crowded Bucharest nightclub. Since the building was not constructed with fire exits, the crowd inside panicked and couldn't get out; 27 people would die in the chaos that night. But Collective, the Romanian documentary double-nominated for both international and nonfiction feature, is concerned primarily with the 37 additional burn victims who would die in the days and weeks that followed the fire, from infections in the country's hospitals. In the aftermath, nationwide protests led the entire government of Romania to resign, opening up a one-year window to fight the corruption, negligence, and apathy of those previously in power. On the frontline is Catalin Tolontan, a take-no-prisoners editor-in-chief of a sports daily who doggedly goes after those responsible for the management of the tragedy. Another is Vlad Voiculescu, a new, doe-eyed Minister of Health who has the unenviable job of fighting a bureaucratic, technocratic, and plutocratic mechanism far bigger than he is. The resulting documentary, Collective, is exhilarating, infuriating, powerful, and, when it needs to be, subtle and sharp. It is a triumph.
(Tenet | Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Nominated for: Production design; VFX
For all the time I spent rolling my eyes about Tenet's repeatedly delayed release last summer (and director Christopher Nolan's insistence that his movie be shown in theaters mid-pandemic), I begrudgingly have to admit this movie is a blast. Tenet represents everything I'd missed from blockbusters over the past year: big unnecessary explosions; a great and unjustly snubbed score; time travel; Robert Pattinson. Nolan was really onto something here; the only thing that could've made my experience watching Tenet even more fun was a big bucket of movie theater popcorn. Some people nevertheless dismissed Tenet as Nolan's "worst movie" (having presumably forgotten that he made The Dark Knight Rises), but frankly, Tenet does what it promises. Maybe it didn't exactly "save the movies," but it sure does remind us why we love them.
1. Da 5 Bloods
Nominated for: Best score
The best movie of the 2021 Oscar race earned a single nomination, for Terence Blanchard's score. Never mind that Spike Lee is one of the best living directors, or that his talent is on full display in this blistering Vietnam War epic that touches on everything from generational trauma to imperialism to the Trump era. In Da 5 Bloods, four Vietnam War veterans (played by Delroy Lindo; Isiah Whitlock Jr.; Norm Lewis; and Clarke Peters) return to the jungle to look for the remains of the fifth Blood, Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed in a long-ago firefight. But the Bloods have an alternative motive, too; to retrieve the gold bars they'd abandoned during the ambush that killed Norman. Though the 2021 Best Actor race is stacked, Delroy Lindo's exclusion from the list of nominees is unfathomable; and that Da 5 Bloods didn't make Best Picture even as a dark horse contender, nonsensical. Perhaps worst of all, though, the lack of recognition by the Academy means that now, untold numbers of people will never discover how terrific, disturbing, and deserving Da 5 Bloods is. Don't be among them.