Every year for the past few years, I try to watch as many Oscar nominees as possible. For the past couple years I have also reviewed them here on this blog. This year was an ideal year for this exercise, given that the pandemic has forced most nominees onto streaming services that I could watch from home. I got through a whopping 34 nominees!
Here they all are, roughly in order from my personal favorite to my personal least favorite, and linking to the individual reviews. This order is VERY rough and could shuffle dramatically given my mood at any moment. (* denotes Best Picture nominees):
Great Movie / Loved It / Recommend
2. The Trial of the Chicago Seven*
4. The Father*
5. My Octopus Teacher
6. The Mole Agent
7. Quo Vadis, Aida?
8. The White Tiger
9. The Man Who Sold His Skin
11. Sound of Metal*
It’s Fine / Pros and Cons / No Major Complaints
15. Promising Young Woman*
16. Crip Camp
17. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
18. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
19. One Night in Miami
20. Hillbilly Elegy
22. Pieces of a Woman
23. Judas and the Black Messiah*
24. Over the Moon
Nominated Films that I Did Not Watch:
Pinnochio (Hair&Makeup, Costumes)
Love and Monsters (Visual Effects)
Wolfwalkers (Animated Feature)
Da 5 Bloods (Score)
The Life Ahead (Song)
All non-feature-length nominees
This was a pretty odd year for movies, to say the least. With a global pandemic keeping everyone at home, things shifted sharply. Cinemas were closed, and all movies were either shelved, or released via streaming at home. The Oscars themselves were pushed back, widening the window for which films were eligible, as well as the amount of time available to catch them all. Watching from the sofa, while working out, over breakfast, while folding laundry, and, of course, while not going out into the world. So, I kinda would have thought that plenty of my friends would have seen some of these movies, too. I posted a link to every single review to my Facebook author page, and… almost nobody clicked on or responded to any of them (I think I literally had just one friends reading these things). But that suddenly changed a couple weeks ago, when several reviews in a row got comments from people talking about how they had seen the movie and loved it. What did all these movies have in common? They were animated kids’ movies. Apparently nobody is watching movies this year unless they have a small child to watch the movie with. I’m glad people liked their cartoons, but I think it’s a shame more adults aren’t into some of the real gems out there, especially when they’re being served to us on a platter in our living rooms. In other years, we’ve seen the action movies that were worth paying to see on the big screen with crazy surround sound, but haven’t heard of any artsy films. We never see the documentaries and international films because you have to seek them out at the artsy theatre that may or may not exist near you. Dudes, I’m telling you, it is worth taking the opportunity to check out these films. If you’re unsure where to start, take a look at the top 10 films on my list above. They are very good and worth your time.
Another thing different about this year is inclusion and diversity (just Google Oscars so White). This year the Academy introduced strict diversity requirements for their nominees. I wasn’t sure what the new rules actually were, but seemed to be working to me. Then today, in preparation to write this very paragraph, I looked up the new rules and was surprised to learn they haven’t actually been implemented yet. Huh.
But take a look at this year’s big categories:
Best Picture: only 3/8 are about white dudes
Best Actor: only 2/5 are white dudes
Best Supporting Actor: only 2/5 are white dudes
Best Director: only 2/5 are white dudes
The actress categories are admittedly whiter (3/5 leading actresses are white, and 4/5 supporting actresses are white).
Of course, nominations are one thing, and wins are another. Mank is easily the most white-dude nominee this year, and it’s got more nominations than anything else. So we’ll see what happens.
I’m going to do a separate post with my predicted winners, but first, it’s time for something much more important. It’s time for…
THE OFFICIAL HELGA WITHOUT THE H 2021 OSCAR AWARDS!!!
Big Winner: Trauma
So, how was your 2020? Pretty chill? Anything stressful going on? No, we’re all good? Cool. Cool. I tell you what we need right now- a big steaming bowl of more trauma! Let’s pop a click into the ol’ VCR and cry some more! For real, guys, every single movie up for nods this year was thoroughly sad or traumatic in one way or another. We’ve also got dead parents, dead babies, alzheimers, racism, racism, more racism, police brutality, homelessness, institutionalization, addiction, disability, war, genocide, rape, poverty, strokes, the complete and total end of civilization on earth (twice!), refugees, human trafficking, alcoholism, crumbling families galore, child abuse, bullying, broken justice systems, domestic abuse, animal cruelty, xenophobia, mass casualty events, deadly government corruption, elder abuse, depression, and Amazon. If you’re thinking “hey there are more items on that list than there are movies” well.. yeah. These movies are all sad. The oddest thing, though, was thatthe saddest stuff wasn’t necessarily where you expected to find it. To my shock, the kids’ films were easily the saddest (a whopping four of them were about dead or lost parents, ffs!!!). Whereas I was anxious about watching Nomadland thinking I’d be bummed to follow this homeless lady around, only to find it one of the most inspirational films. Minari looked like it might be a fun time (it was not). Sound of Steel is about a metal drummer! That’s GOT to be pretty rockin’! No no no no- zero rock ‘n roll content here. Promising Young Woman is about rape. So presumably that’ll be a big bummer. But turns out this was the lightest, most fun contender. Guys, even the freakin’ nature documentary about an fun-loving octopus honestly had me bawling my eyes out!!! The world has gone topsy turvy here. All that being said, you should still watch these movies.
Big Loser: Hollywood Big-Bugdet Action Features
There’s weren’t many “big” movies up for nods this year, and especially not in the Best Picture category. Even the visual effects category was kinda tame. The only obvious exception is Tenet (production design and visual effects), which was absolute garbage, closely followed by Mulan (visual effects and costumes), and trailed by News of the World (production design, cinematography). Of the best picture nominees, the biggest flashiest option is Trial of the Chicago 7 (my favorite) which oscillated between big vibrant protest clashes and quiet courtroom moments. It’s a far cry from the Lord of the Rings, Titanic, Gladiator, Black Panther nominees of years past.
Saddest Movie: ALL OF THEM
Runners-up: rewatching Schindler’s List, a YouTube video of an abused puppy crying, the VHS copy of your middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie where your voice cracks and all the kids and parents laugh at you and your crush is sitting in the front row making out with your bully
Okay, I’m exaggerating. They weren’t all complete tearjerkers the whole way through. And I realize these comments may discourage you all from actually watching any of these fantastic films. Please don’t be discouraged! There are plenty of really great films here! And many will take you on roller-coaster rides of emotion, both high and low. Many of them made me tear up not because they were over-the-top sobfests (ok a couple of them were), but because they were so effective at making me feel. And that’s damn good stuff.
Least-traumatic Movie: Farmageddon
Borat Subsequent MovieFilm, Crip Camp, Mank, Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Emma, Mulan, Nomadland
Farmageddon is A TON OF FUN! Now granted, it’s still got a couple lightly sad elements. We get a brief flashback to some childhood bullies, and we have a character who misses her parents (spoiler: she gets reunited with her parents). But we are talking lightyears less traumatic than any other film. Everything else in this movie was hilarious and uplifting and fantastic and you should go watch it right now.
For this category I included as a runner-up any nominee that I found generally less depressing and traumatic than average, for those of you who want to dip your toes in the water but don’t want to risk being reduced to sobs. Reminder that all of the nominees have some degree of depressing content, but I found myself crying a bit less during these guys than the others.
Best movie: Collective
Runners-up: The Mole Agent, My Octopus Teacher, Nomadland, Quo Vadis Aida?, Trial of the Chicago 7
There were some honestly amazing, original flicks this year. Only a couple of them were nominated for Best Picture. To me, the real shining stars were hanging out in the foreign and documentary catergories, and this foreign documentary was incredible. Drop what you’re doing right now and go watch it. I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t plan to watch any other movie, this is the movie you should watch. (Unless you can’t handle subtitles, in which case nevermind.)
Most Underrated: The White Tiger
Runners-up: The Mole Agent, Mulan
I think this year’s strongest films were in the documentary and international categories, yet those films rarely make it into the Best Picture list (last year’s big winner Parasite was a rare exception). So we’ll set those films aside for a moment. Of the remaining nominees, I’ve gotta say, The White Tiger should have received more credit. Nominated in the sole category of Best Adapted Screenplay, this story was well-executed through-and-through. We had great performances and thoughtful production throughout. There was space to include up two two more films in the best picture category, so it’s not like I’m even suggesting it kick out other nominees to steal their spot.
Least-Deserving Best Picture Nominee: Promising Young Woman
Runners-up: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari
This film was so hit or miss. If you’re watching it like a regular ol’ movie, then it was fine. It had plenty of pros and cons. It was a cheesy revenge thriller. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cheesy revenge thriller. But we don’t go nominating them for Best Picture, now do we? No. We do not. Oh wait, nevermind, we just did. Am I surprised that the feminist revenge flick that I was more jazzed for than any other film is the one receiving this award? Yes. But wanting a movie to be good does not make it good.
Best Story: The Man Who Stoles His Skin
Runners-up: Soul, The White Tiger
There wasn’t really much imagination on display in this year’s films, at least story-wise. This doesn’t necessarily mean the films were bad, just not really that new. We’ve got biopics, revenge thrillers, court dramas, journeys of self-discovery, etc. Good stuff, but stuff we’ve seen before. The Man Who Sold His Skin, though, was something I’ve never seen before. Based very loosely on a real-life individual who became a human canvas, this film overlays this idea with the state of refugees in Europe, and draws comparisons between human and material value. It’s imaginative and also insightful without feeling too convoluted or confusing.
Biggest Snub: A Love Tale of Taylors
Like many of you, despite being stuck at home this year, I didn’t see many movies (that is, before this oscar challenge began). Instead, I was binging the crap out of TV shows. But there was ONE film I saw that I knew, just absolutely KNEW, would be taking home all the top prizes. Imagine my surprise when, for some reason that defies all understanding, this film wasn’t even nominated for a single award in any categories. How could this be? Does the Academy have it out for the brilliant writing mind of A. Bot? Who knows. You of course all know the film I’m talking about. A Love Tale of Taylors was the most emotional sweeping epic of our generation, and years from now film historians will be crying shame at this year’s academy for this cinematic travesty.
Biggest Disappointment: Emma
Runners-up: Time, The United States vs Billie Holiday
I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, a huge fan of the whole cast, and a huge fan of the promotional materials that went out before this film. I was SO PUMPED going in. And yet, the film fell flat. Tough to put my finger on why, but it just lacked the depth and whimsy we’ve all come to expect from an Austen flick. I rewatched Sense and Sensibility this past weekend and was cracking up the whole time. Emma was just kinda there- glossy and fun to look at and technically saying all the right stuff, but just off in execution.
Best Adapted Play: The Father
Runners-up: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami
I think there were at least three movies based on plays. Two of them felt like someone just took a play and filmed it. But one of them felt like a masterful thriller, almost its own new genre. And as a result it was easily one of the best and most impactful films of the year.
Most Boring: Mank
Runners-up: Midnight Sky. Pieces of a Woman (minus the first 20 minutes, which were the most gripping 20 minutes of cinema ever), Tenet
I’m just kidding. The actual most boring movie is Tenet. But I can’t give EVERY bad award to Tenet! But Mank isn’t exactly a thrill ride, either. Mank is a quiet entry that’s very well done but not particularly captivating. I keep forgetting it exists, let alone top the leaderboard (I think?). Hence it’s the winner.
Toast in a Wig Award: Tenet Whole Cast (except Robert Patterson)
Runners-up: Midnight Sky, United States of America vs Billie Holiday
We’re breaking new ground this year and awarding a whole cast instead of a single character. We’re also awarding some men for once! This award goes to the character (note: not the actor/actress) who was so blandly written and udner-developed that it could be played by toast in a wig. Usually we’re thinking of vapid female sidekicks like “the wife” or “the daughter” who have no personality besides their connection to the male protagonist. This character is also typically played by a legitimately talented amazing actress who is being criminally under-utilized. This year, Chris Nolan’s bloated pretentious snoozefest features a whole loaf of toasts with no distinguishing characteristics, motives, personalities, or charisma to save this craptastic excuse for an action movie.
Coolest Old People: Nomadland
Runners-up: The Father, Hillbilly Elegy, I Care a Lot, Minari, The Mole Agent, Minari
This was one of the strongest categories of this imaginary awards season. I was very happy to see so many really cool roles for senior citizens this year. No longer confined to just depicting the lovign grandparents or the frail skeleton next door, this year’s films feature a ton of seriously badass old people with plenty of personality. We’ve got strong troublemaking grandmas in Hillbilly Elegy and Minari. We’ve got spies and romantic intrigue in The Mole Agent. We’ve got Anthony Hopkins navigating a psychological thriller in his own flat. We’ve even got Diann West doing [SPOILER REDACTED] in I Care a Lot (which I reviewed in error based on Golden Globe results, but I’ll count here anyway). And, of course, we’ve got RVs full of adventurous seniors attending AARP Burning Man in Nomadland.
Animal of the Year: Chicken
Runner-ups: Buffalo, Gorilla, Octopus, Rabbit, Tiger
It was a big year for chickens in cinema! A whopping TWO films (Minari and The Man Who Sold His Skin) featured human characters working low-wage jobs sorting chicks. These are the drama chickens. Another two films featured hilarious chickens who stole the show from the protagonists (Over the Moon, and The One and Only Ivan). This is quite a range for chicken representation! It’s a tough break for the Octopus, who never gets a break at the big screen. Alas, the chickens take this one due to their sheer numbers.
Best Scene: Pieces of a Woman
Runners-up: Midnight Sky (bloody injury in zero gravity), Farmageddon (montage of sheep getting into mischeif), Trial of the Chicago 7 (Bobby Seale is bound and gagged)
There’s no trick editing here. Pieces of a Woman opens with a chilling almost half-hour long single shot scene. It moves from room to room as a woman goes into labor and delivery. An actual baby somehow pops out. It’s terrifying and nuanced and touching and super fucking impressive. Absolutely masterful.
Feminist Movie of the Year: Nomadland
Runners-up: Crip Camp, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Quo Vadis Aida?
This is the second year for this award, which last year went to Best Picture winner Parasite. The standard is this: Are there leading female characters who are defined neither by their relationship to a male protagonist, nor in conflict due to being a woman? Of all the films I saw last year, Parasite was amazingly the only one to fit these criteria. This year we did much better, with roughly 10 or so nominees fitting the bill! Huzzah! Nomadland is all about a woman who sets out on a journey of self-discovery and embraces an adventurous, minimalist way of life.
Worst Movie: Tenet
Runners-up: Midnight Sky, The United States versus Billie Holiday
I’m just making this award so I have one more opportunity to really shit on Tenet. Tenet is bad. It was very very stupid and I hate it and you should hate it too. My dog’s taken dumps with more coherent plots than Tenant. Booo! Fie! Fie!
And now for some statistics!
Percentage of Films Passing the Bechdtel Test: 29%
Down from last year (50%) but up from 2019 (21%)
Oof, this is quite a drop. Granted, my sample sizes are all over the board, but nobody’s claiming that this is a scientific exercise. The Bechdtel Test is passed by a film if it represents two named female characters who converse with each other about something that is not men. By my count, only 11 out of 34 viewed films pass this test. I should note, though, that I don’t usually count children in this calculation (so moms talking to kids doesn’t count). Nor did I count extra-terrestrials, animals, or animated souls with female voices inhabiting a grown man’s body. Still… this is sad stuff.
Percentage of Films Where Someone Dies: between 68% – 76%
Down from both 2019 (79) and 2020 (86)
How very strange, that the year I’m claiming is the most traumatic also has the lowest percentage of nominees where someone dies. If you’re wondering why it’s presented as a range, that’s partially because I’m missing one movie in my count somewhere and don’t care about this enough to figure out which one, and we have multiple films with fake-out deaths this year! I also forgot to start tallying this when I started this exercise, so chances are I’m forgetting a death somewhere in there. Anyway, I guess what I’ve learned this year is that death itself isn’t really the thing that bums us out. It’s the loneliness, unjustness, fear, or anger involved that really hurts. And there are plenty of other ways to make us feel that hurt besides killing. So a gentle passing of a happy fulfilled friend who has accomplished her life’s dreams (like a character in Nomadland) isn’t necessarily as traumatic as causing your entire family to crumble and starve (Minari).
Percentage of Films with Animal Death or Cruelty: 32%
Down from last year (43%) but up from 2019 (21%)
Okay, this is a weird one to keep stats on. And frankly I forgot to start tallying this one at the beginning of this year so who even knows if these stats are right. Two years ago, for whatever reason, I was struck and kinda horrified by how many films featured animal death and cruelty, something which doesn’t really seem like standard movie fare. So it’s ironic that that year was by far the one with the least amount of animal death/cruelty thus far. But anyway… looks like I’m ending this year’s BIG POST with the least interesting or meaningful tidbit. Yup.