It’s safe to say that the 2021 Academy Awards is strictly adhering to the new normal. This doesn’t have to do with the pandemic, however. For Hollywood, “diversity” is the new normal.
In this year’s Best Picture nominees, it’s obvious that the Academy voters have acquiesced to the clamor of marginal groups. For years they’ve criticized the Academy for its lack of diversity and for its “whitewashed” list of nominees.
Finally their voices have been heard. Hence the 93rd Academy Awards has given recognition to films that tackle pressing issues such as racial and social inequality. Not everyone is represented but this is a banner year compared to previous ones.
I’ve seen few of the films that are being honored on April 25 (Monday morning telecast in the Philippines) and they’re very impressive; their talented filmmakers deserve to be lauded.
Perhaps the membership roster of the Academy is now younger and more “woke.” Their preferences veer towards productions that tackle social ills, thus assuring the success of the likes of Spotlight and The Green Book. Recently, they shunned a popular musical like La La Land and favored a little known film called Moonlight. It’s also why a superlative Korean import like Parasite elbowed its way to Hollywood last year and grabbed the major awards.
For the past week, I’ve been binging on old Oscar night clips on YouTube. Wow, they were fun! Yes, those evenings of yore were completely whitewashed. But they did satisfy the public’s thirst for a glamorous Hollywood evening that promised us an escape from our humdrum lives.
The movies then were huge and expensive and star-driven. Epics like Ben Hur ruled the race but there was still room for thoughtful, low-budget dramas written by the likes of the late great Paddy Chayefsky.
And once upon a time, My Fair Lady slugged it out with Mary Poppins. It was a bloody race, even during the awards show as TV cameras panned to the audience and alternately zoomed in on Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews.
But by 1970, the family-friendly Hello, Dolly! would lose the Best Picture to the then x-rated Midnight Cowboy. The two films are worlds apart and the fact they made the final cut showed that Academy voters were now divided into two groups. First was the old guard whose members preferred traditional extravaganzas. Second was the younger set that pushed for more youth-oriented, thought-provoking films.
It would be the same story in the 1970s on up to the 2000s. In a year when gritty dramas like Taxi Driver and Network would be vying for the coveted accolade, there was still room for a feel-good movie like Rocky.
This year, the Academy nominated eight films for Best Picture. Despite the bigger number of contenders, no room was left for any movie that could leave you smiling or feeling good at the end. It must be recalled that the Academy welcomed more nominees to accommodate critically successful blockbusters (read: Marvel). But no such film made the list this time.
Instead, viewers will probably marvel at the skillful way these films were mounted and rave over the outstanding work of the actors.
The British invaded Hollywood back in the 1960s. As far as this year’s Oscar derby is concerned, they’re still in fighting form. And why not—The Father has an impeccable pedigree. It’s based on an acclaimed play by Florian Zeller who adapted and directed it for the screen.
Anthony Hopkins plays the title role, a man suffering from dementia. Olivia Colman has a smaller part; the daughter whose own personal life is put on hold when she has to do something about her father’s deteriorating mental health. The problem is the man is in denial.
The Father plays like a mystery thriller. As his dementia worsens, strange things begin occurring. A man he has never met moves into his home and his daughter vanishes. As the plot is told from his point of view, the audience is left as baffled as he is. And like any mystery thriller, there’s a twist.
This film is also up for other major awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Olivia Colman), and Lead Actor. Hopkins was the Academy’s darling back in the 1990s and The Father has allowed him to make an Oscar comeback. Dementia has always been Oscar bait. Julianne Moore won her Oscar for playing a woman with the same affliction in Still Alice.
There lies the problem. The subject has been too familiar and depressing even if it does have its darkly funny moments. But I’m not counting Hopkins out of the Best Actor race. He might pull a surprise. After all, in terms of screen time, the father in the film is a much bigger part than Hannibal Lecter.
Judas and the Black Messiah
A biographical drama about the late Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther, Judas and the Black Messiah has won critical acclaim for its gripping direction by Shaka King and for bravura performances.
In the movie, Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is the black messiah. His close friend and party mate Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is his Judas. He turns Judas when he turns out to be an informant for the FBI and was instrumental in Hampton’s death.
Kaluuya and Stanfield won Oscar nods in the Supporting category. Like The Father, the film’s screenplay is nominated, but in the original category. Shaka King, with Will Berson, is the credited writer.
Strangely, King was bypassed in Best Director category. But that won’t lessen his film’s chances of winning Best Picture.
It does take talent to play an old time movie star who had no talent
With its 11 nominations, Mank has a big chance of winning the Oscar. It pays homage to Hollywood, which is always a plus. A sweet valentine to Hollywood helped The Artist, Argo, and The Shape of Water win the grand prize.
Mank chronicles the life of noted Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz when he was writing the landmark film Citizen Kane. The movie within movie was a roman a clef about the powerful newspaper publisher Randolph Hearst and his mistress, the movie star Marion Davies.
Like some of its competitors in Best Picture, Mank is about a regular guy who takes on the powerful establishment, but this time through the power of his pen. But this was only on the surface. Mank’s own enemy was himself as it was his alcoholism that he and his colleagues were up against. Thus it’s difficult for audiences to rally behind an already successful writer whose alcohol binges placed the production of a major movie in jeopardy.
The film boasts a fine performance by Gary Oldman in the role of Mank. He did earn his nod for Best Actor. Amanda Seyfreid is up for the Supporting Actress Award as Marion Davies. It does take talent to play an old time movie star who had no talent.
One of this year’s darlings of the critics, Minari is the story of an immigrant Korean family. “Minari” is Korean for water celery. Head of the family Jacob Yi (played by Steven Yeun) moves his brood from California to Arkansas to set up a farm and sell Korean produce. His mother-in-law, Sun Ja (Yaun Yuh-Jeung), is flown in from South Korea to take care of the children. The travails of running a farm and raising the children almost take ther toll on the family and threaten the stability of Jacob’s marriage.
While Minari is an American production, its director and cast are Korean. Its director Lee Isaac Chung is in the running for the Oscar and so are the leading man Steven Yeun and Yaun Yuh-Jeung, who’s up for Supporting Actress.
While last year’s Parasite won Best Picture, directing and writing categories, it didn’t get the nod for its cast. In Minari, a Korean actor could finally win an Oscar. Yuh Jeung has a bigger chance of winning the prize since she just recently won the SAG award.
As for Best Picture, it‘s still an open race and Minari could win on its merits. It has sweep and majesty and it’s about the pursuit of the American Dream. Add the sympathy vote for Asian-Americans who haven’t been treated very well in the US, and you have a winner here.
Nomadland sheds light on Americans who live in their cars. They travel around the country and take odd jobs at various stops. One of them is Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who’s been laid off from work. She sells most of her possessions, buys a van, and takes on the great open road.
While in Arizona, she meets another nomad who invited her to a support group for people like them. There she makes friends who have their own sob stories to tell. She is also taught how to survive on the road. One of the men falls in love with her and asks her to settle down with him in California. But it seems she prefers to travel the lonely road.
Directed and adapted for the screen by Chloe Zhao, Nomadland is for those who like to go on trips. But those who like their road trips fun and happy will probably be disappointed with the film. It’s less of a road movie and more of a character study of Fern, whose portrayal by McDormand has won her rave reviews. She may yet bag her third Oscar for Best Actress.
Zhao’s story telling style has also been greeted with enthusiasm and the nominations she got for best direction and writing prove that Asian-Americans and girl power are alive and kicking in this year’s Oscar race.
Here’s a movie that’s a clear departure from the rest of the nominees
Promising Young Woman
Here’s a movie that’s a clear departure from the rest of the nominees. Carrey Mulligan plays the title role, a promising young medical student who drops out of med school. As it happened, her best friend had been gang raped and was never given justice. Her plan is to exact revenge on the culprits.
Meanwhile, it’s become her past time to lure sexual predators by hanging out in bars alone and pretending to be drunk and helpless. And just when the man attempts to take advantage of her, she reveals she’s isn’t intoxicated at all. Her revenge plans go into motion when a friend gives her a video of the rape of her friend.
But like other nominees, Promising Young Woman has a downer of an ending. So far, however, it’s won numerous plaudits, especially for its star Carey Mulligan, who plays the vengeful anti-heroine with relish.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman follows in the footsteps of films about women who are compelled to hate men. Thelma and Louise comes to mind. On the surface, Fennell’s take on this sub-genre doesn’t seem like the kind that could win an Oscar, but it does tell its social message in a unique and bizarre manner. Watching it doesn’t feel like an obligation.
Sound of Metal
Another strong contender is Sound of Metal, which is the saga of a metal drummer who loses his hearing. That’s the worst thing that could happen to a musician and it turns the drummer’s life upside down.
Its premise might seem soapy but critics have hailed the film and its star, Riz Ahmed. He’s already won the Golden Globe so his chances on Oscar night are huge. It’s also up for the awards in directing, writing supporting actor (Paul Racy, who plays a sympathetic man who runs a school for the hearing-impaired), and even Best Song.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
A historical drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7 reenacts the unjust trial of the seven American activists who were charged with conspiracy and inciting riots during the anti-Vietnam War protest in the late ‘60s. It’s well crafted and acted though it’s somewhat manipulative. But it’s the kind of movie liberal Academy voters love.
Spike Lee’s Vietnam War movie Da 5 Five Bloods didn’t make the list of final eight nominees but it’s worth mentioning since its earned rave reviews. Also, its star, the late Chadwicke Bose, is up for Best Actor. He could win a posthumous award since his performance has been so acclaimed. He’s already won the SAG Award for Best Actor.
Ultimately, Academy voters deserve credit for having chosen eight films that represent almost every sector of American society. However, it makes a viewer wish there was a nominee that had an uplifting finale; one that could offer an escape from these difficult times.
Any of these films is worthy of an Oscar but this list makes us wish we were alive 70 years ago when timeless classics such as Sunset Boulevard was in contention alongside All About Eve. Back then movies were movies and they didn’t feel like religious obligations.