Well, I am surely not the only person to use this pun to describe last night’s Academy Awards, but for a ceremony that primarily took place at Los Angeles Union Station, it certainly went off the rails at the end. This ceremony was never going to be perfect or look the way we’ve grown accustomed to as an audience in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I could never have imagined just how crazy this year’s Oscars, which was for the most part fairly uneventful throughout, would end up. The show still had some great moments, hilarious parts, and inspirational speeches, albeit along with some very miscalculated bits—here’s my review of the 93rd Academy Awards.
It’s probably necessary to get to the show’s twist ending first. At every Oscars since 1948 (with the 1971 ceremony being the lone deviation), the Best Picture award has been announced last. Clearly, if you dig into Oscars history, you’ll find that most early ceremonies didn’t utilize this setup, but nearly every film fan, for the most part, has grown up watching the biggest award in world cinema deservedly announced last. This year, things got weird when Rita Moreno stepped onto the stage and started reading off nominees for Best Picture—I was quite confused, wondering if I had somehow blacked out for the two lead acting categories, rewinding my TV a bit to make sure. The nominees also looked a bit stunned by the reorganization of the show’s homestretch. At that point, it felt like the Oscars producers (which this year included previous Best Director winner Steven Soderbergh) mixed things up to deliberately set up a massive emotional climax for the night—Chadwick Boseman becoming the third actor to win a posthumous acting award for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. My goodness, was that a mistake. The Academy famously doesn’t know the results of any category until the envelopes are opened during the live broadcast, as its longtime accounting firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, tabulates the ballots and keeps the results entirely confidential—that couldn’t have been clearer in light of how this show ended up.
After Renée Zellweger presented the Best Actress award to Nomadland’s Frances McDormand (a win which made her only the second woman to win three career Best Actress Oscars, behind only Katharine Hepburn who won four) last year’s Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix strutted out and, in trademark fashion, stumbled through an intro about acting. Eventually, after reading the nominees, Phoenix opened the envelope and the rest is history. Instead of Boseman winning the Oscar, the award went to legendary actor Anthony Hopkins for his performance in The Father, who, at the age of 83, became the oldest actor to win an Oscar. However, Anthony Hopkins didn’t show up this year, either in Los Angeles or at any satellite location (including London). Via Phoenix, the Academy accepted the award on Hopkins’s behalf, and then the camera cut back to in-house DJ Questlove, who thanked everyone for watching and ended the show. It was mind-boggling—truly the epitome of the term anticlimactic.
This year, I personally (and I recognize that it’s all subjective) had Riz Ahmed, Anthony Hopkins, and Steven Yeun ahead of Chadwick Boseman on my Best Actor rankings. Ahmed gave such a powerful performance in my favorite movie of the year (Sound of Metal), Hopkins delivered arguably the best performance of his career in The Father, behind only his Oscar-winning role in Silence of the Lambs, and Yeun was beautifully poignant in the wonderful Minari—although Boseman was certainly stunning in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I personally felt other performers in far-better movies were more deserving of being declared the year’s best actor. With that said, I was certainly on board and excited for Boseman to win this year—in his final film performance, while in the final stages of his cancer, he gave an impassioned portrayal of Levee Green, and the Oscar here would have felt like a fitting tribute to an incredibly talented actor who impacted the world in so many incredible ways through films like Black Panther and whose life was tragically cut short by cancer. The betting odds heavily favored Boseman at -1667 and other than the BAFTA (which went to Hopkins), Boseman swept the other major pre-Oscars awards. The world certainly expected to see Boseman winning this award.
If you ventured to Twitter after the show, it was full of Oscars slander for Boseman’s surprise loss. And understandably so, as literally everything pointed to Boseman’s posthumous win. The Academy built the entire close of the show around the possibility for a heartwarming emotional high point based on an expected Boseman victory, and instead, we ended the show on an award without its winner anywhere to be found to deliver an acceptance speech. Steven Soderbergh and the producers gambled big on that setup…and ultimately, they lost big.
They build the entire show around a Chadwick Boseman ending and then Anthony Hopkins won and didn't show up
Aside from the Oscars’ twist ending, there were a number of other noteworthy moments from this year’s ceremony. First, last night was a major step in the right direction for the Academy as it works to overcome the infamous #OscarsSoWhite controversy a few years ago and be more inclusive. This year’s class of nominees was the most diverse in Oscars history, and a number of historic moments followed. Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao became only the second woman (and first woman of color) to win the coveted Best Director award. Both the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress winners (Daniel Kaluuya and Youn Yuh-jung, respectively) were people of color. Emerald Fennell won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the first woman to do so since Diablo Cody won for Juno in 2008). And for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first black women to ever win for Makeup and Hairstyling. It was a great night for inclusion and diversity.
Additionally, per usual, there were some great speeches, ranging from inspirational to hilarious. In particular, I enjoyed watching Daniel Kaluuya, who won Best Supporting Actor for my favorite acting performance of the year in Judas and the Black Messiah, deliver a wonderful tribute to Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. (He also referenced his parents having sex, which turned out to be particularly hysterical as the camera then cut to a live shot of his mother, who was watching from the British Film Institute in London.) I was also nearly brought to tears listening to Thomas Vinterberg, who won Best International Film for his brilliant Another Round, dedicate the Oscar to his late daughter, Ida, who was supposed to appear in the film but died in a tragic traffic accident just days into production. On the lighter side, it was a joy to watch Youn Yuh-jung give her acceptance speech after winning Best Supporting Actress for her scene-stealing performance in Minari. Youn was just as adorably funny in real life as she was in Minari, especially as she gushed over her presenter, Brad Pitt.
Lastly, I couldn’t do a proper review of the show last night without mentioning the funniest moment of the evening. During the middle of the show, there was a musical bit where actor/comedian Lil Rel Howery picked actors in the audience to listen to past movie songs (played by Questlove) and guess whether those songs won an Oscar for Best Original Song, were just nominated in the category, or none of the above. Truthfully, I didn’t enjoy this bit almost in its entirety—it was a bit choppy and didn’t land the way the producers probably thought it would. However, this “game” provided us with the night’s most gif-worthy moment—acting legend Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt,” the song featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. I sure didn’t see that one coming, but it was very, very funny!
In advance of tomorrow’s 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, it is time to reveal my ten favorite films from the COVID year in cinema!
My Top 10 Films of 2020 (COVID Year)
No. 10 – I Care A Lot
The Netflix film I Care A Lot (written and directed by J Blakeson) is a very, very dark comedy, which follows Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a charismatic (yet incredibly brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. The movie’s plot takes off when Marla rips off the mother of a dangerous crime boss (Peter Dinklage). Although I Care A Lot has been fairly well received from critics (its critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is 80%), it has received surprisingly negative reviews from audiences (its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 35%). One of the main criticisms I’ve read is the fact in this film, basically no character has any redeeming qualities. Most audiences want someone to root for, and I will definitely not shy away from the fact this film lacks that traditionally heroic (or at least ethical) character. But for me, that aspect of the film does nothing to change my opinion—this is a biting and ruthless story, told with an almost jolly tone, and I loved every minute of it. Rosamund Pike is stellar in the lead role, embodying Marla’s sociopathy in haunting fashion. Dinklage is also superb as the film’s more traditional “villain.” Additionally, I was in love with the film’s score—its electronic sound gives off serious Drive vibes. To put it plainly: I really loved this movie. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 9 – Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell (for all you fans of The Crown, Fennell plays Camilla Parker Bowles in seasons 3 and 4), tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a modern-day femme fatale who, motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men in order to ultimately confront those guys and hold them to account for their behavior. Eventually, Cassie directs her revenge at everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Promising Young Woman is such a great film. Although its setup is fairly straightforward, Fennell keeps us guessing throughout the development of the plot, sending the audience on a weaving path full of unexpected twists and turns. A vital story for the times, Fennell deservedly earned Oscar nominations this year for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture—it’s great to see the Academy recognizing the immense contributions by a female filmmaker to the silver screen. From an acting standpoint, the film features a number of great cameos (e.g., Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Alfred Molina), as well as fantastic supporting performances from Laverne Cox and funnyman Bo Burnham. However, the movie truly thrives in no small part because of the amazing performance by Carey Mulligan in the leading role. As I pointed out when I reviewed Mulligan’s performance a few days ago, Cassie is an ice-cold character in a darkly comedic thriller, which is staggeringly different compared to the roles Mulligan traditionally plays in bona fide period pieces and hard dramas. Mulligan’s brilliant departure from her comfort zone led to stunning results, and it just may land her an Academy Award tomorrow night. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 8 – The White Tiger
The White Tiger, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, is a film set in India that examines the country’s brutal caste system from the perspective of its lead character Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav), a young man with dreams of escaping poverty and living a life of luxury in the upper echelon of Indian society. This movie was one of the surprise hits of the film season for me—I really only heard about it following the announcement of its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay last month. I am so glad I watched The White Tiger. Not only is the movie an important examination of India’s system of social stratification, but it’s also a wildly entertaining story. At the center of the tale is Balram, portrayed amazingly by breakout star Adarsh Gourav. Balram brims with ambition, and he carefully bides his time and strives to get his at all costs, even if it takes a long time to come to fruition—Gourav is wonderful in his portrayal. In addition to Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas was remarkable as Pinky, the wife of Balram’s master. Although this is Balram’s story, Pinky plays an important role in inspiring Balram to break out from the shadows, and Chopra Jonas nearly steals every scene she is in—she was truly exquisite. I didn’t know what to expect from The White Tiger when I turned it on, but what I do know now is I was thoroughly entertained. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 7 – Minari
Minari, a semi-autobiographical film by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, follows South Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) as they move their family from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to fulfill Jacob’s dream of starting a Korean produce farm. Although the dialogue is prominently spoken in Korean, Minari is absolutely an authentic American tale of hopes, dreams, failures, successes, and, above all, perseverance and familial spirit. This film by filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung is beautiful, in every sense of the word—the scenic landscapes are striking and the overall heart of his story is inspiring. Other than Chung’s methodical filmmaking style and deliberate storytelling, the highlight of Minari (that truly makes it a must-see film) is the incredible acting. As the Yi family patriarch, South-Korean born Steven Yeun is first-rate in his thoughtful portrayal of Jacob’s commitment to providing for his family, flaws and all. Additionally, Han Ye-ri poignantly depicts Monica’s emotional struggles to balance her husband’s ambitions against her own happiness and the well-being of her family. Moreover, the young Alan Kim is adorable and charming as David, the youngest of the two Yi children. For me, though, the standout performance came courtesy of veteran South Korean actress, Youn Yuh-jung. Youn plays Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to stay with the family while Jacob and Monica work, and Youn excels fiercely as a foul-mouthed, blunt, and hilarious character, providing most of the film’s most sweet and funny moments. This is such an emotionally affecting movie, and it is quite deserving of its six Oscar nominations—here’s to hoping it takes home some gold tomorrow night (especially Youn for Best Supporting Actress)! Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).
No. 6 – The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night is a science-fiction film by first-time director Andrew Patterson, which is set in New Mexico during the 1950s and follows two teens—Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ for the local radio station—who search for the potentially extraterrestrial source of a mysterious radio frequency. The Vast of Night has easily become one of my favorite sci-fi films, and yet, it was completely devoid of any expensive Spielberg-esque special effects or set pieces. This film is vastly different than your traditional alien flick in that it focuses almost exclusively on the characters and the mystery of its storyline, rather than on any larger-than-life depiction of extraterrestrial beings. Of course, Patterson had no choice, as this film was made with a budget of just $700,000. It feels almost impossible that a filmmaker could create a worthwhile modern science-fiction thriller on such a shoestring budget, but here, Patterson has done just that. He defied the odds and delivered an edge-of-your seat cinematic experience unlike many others in the genre. In addition to his captivating storyline, I was quite taken by Patterson’s filmmaking style. He utilized a long, fast-paced tracking shot in the opening scene, which gives the audience the lay of the land in this mid-century New Mexico town, and a brilliant long take of Fay frenetically working the switchboard. It’s incredible filmmaking, which makes it even more hard to believe this was Patterson’s debut. If you like sci-fi movies, this one is absolutely worth your time. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
No. 5 – Palm Springs
Palm Springs, written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow, is a romantic comedy that follows Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), two guests at a wedding in Palm Springs who are stuck together in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. If you read that plot summary and watch the trailer, you’ll likely get vibes of Groundhog Day—but Palm Springs is so much more than that. This is a brilliant film, which strikes the perfect balance of comedy, romance, and drama, all without falling victim to the traditional clichés in similar genre flicks. We learn early on that Nyles has been stuck in this time loop for a very, very long time, while Sarah first enters the loop during the early part of the film. Nyles is resigned to simply not giving a fuck anymore, accepting the time loop is now his life and refusing to care what anyone thinks of him at the wedding. On the other hand, Sarah is a newbie to this time-warped situation and constantly seeks a way out, as if Nyles hasn’t already tried that. (There is a section in the middle of the film where Sarah creatively tries out a number of new ways to die, in hopes that it will break the loop, and it is one of the best and most hilarious sequences in the movie.) Barabkow and Siara have together made a movie that explores some very deep themes in such a charming, comedic, and heartfelt manner. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are wonderful together as the two leads, playing off each other entertainingly and demonstrating a beautiful chemistry, which lends to the film’s emotional hook. Palm Springs is the only out-and-out comedy on my Top 10 list, but it is more than deserving of its high ranking—a surprise hit! Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 4 – Tenet
Christopher Nolan’s newest movie Tenet follows The Protagonist (John David Washington), a secret agent who must undertake an incredibly risky and life-threatening assignment (which involves people and objects with inverted entropies moving backward through time) to prevent global annihilation. This past year, Tenet supplied me with one of my most memorable cinematic experiences. At the end of last summer, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I masked up, sat down in my local socially distanced AMC theater, and watched (in a near-empty screening room) the blockbuster I had been anticipating for a year in glorious IMAX—and for me personally, despite the criticisms it has received, Tenet lived up to the hype. Through his films, Christopher Nolan continually demonstrates why movie theaters are absolutely, unequivocally needed—at least for the traditional big-budget action movies. In Tenet, Nolan expertly delivers a product that is equal parts spy thriller, cerebral sci-fi flick, and gigantic action extravaganza—visually, it is truly a sight to behold. Some of the film’s highlights include an action-packed opening scene at a Ukrainian opera house that punches you in the mouth (setting the tone for what the audience is in for throughout the rest of the film), a wild bungee jump onto a high-rise in Mumbai, a set-piece involving a real Boeing 747, a mesmerizing car-chase spectacle, some fantastic fight scenes, and an immense battle sequence. Again, visually, no one is consistently better than Nolan. It is also worth mentioning that Ludwig Göransson, who won an Academy Award for Black Panther, composes the score, which is phenomenally pulsating and sets the perfect vibe for the movie. Critics and audiences have complained about a number of things in this film, most notably its sound—and these criticisms aren’t invalid, as there are some parts involving vital exposition that are hard to hear in light of Nolan’s (likely very intentional) sound mix. Ultimately, the film’s occasional flaws do nothing to bring its overall value down in my mind. This is by far one of my favorite Nolan movies (probably his best since Inception), and Tenet will always have a special hold over me personally for the experience it gave me during the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 3 – The Invisible Man
Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (the most recent film adaptation of the acclaimed 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name) follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who leaves her life of luxury to escape from her abusive, gaslighting boyfriend, Adrian Griffin, a wealthy tech entrepreneur. Cecilia believes her nightmare might finally be over when it appears Adrian commits suicide, until a number of strange events occur, leading Cecilia to believe Adrian has created a technology which makes him invisible. I am a bit surprised myself to find this jump-scare filled horror film so high on my list this year, but it is simply a testament to just how good The Invisible Man is. My initial interest in this movie was the filmmaker behind its creation, Leigh Whannell. Just two years ago, my No. 7 favorite film of 2018 was Upgrade, a visually stimulating sci-fi horror action thriller written and directed by Whannell. From that moment on, it was abundantly clear the degree of skill this filmmaker possesses. Here, Whannell puts his experience and background in the genre to good work (Whannell previously penned the scripts for the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all four Insidious films, the last of which he also directed), creating one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. Whannell builds up the suspense in The Invisible Man with perfect pace, and the pay-offs are worth it. In conjunction with Whannell, lead actress Elisabeth Moss delivers a performance that is nothing short of sensational. As I discussed a few days ago (when I argued for why Moss should have received an Oscar nomination for this role), Whannell’s rendition of Wells’s classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims—Moss is the perfect vessel through which to tell that story, using her immense acting skill to portray her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion throughout the film. Cecilia is constantly living a nightmare, haunted by a man who simply cannot accept her leaving him, and Moss’s intense, yet meticulously subtle, portrayal of this dynamic is enrapturing. Between Moss’s incredible acting and Whannell’s spine-tingling filmmaking, The Invisible Man has secured a place in horror history. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 2 – Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of Fred Hampton (the titular Black Messiah, played by Daniel Kaluuya), the real-life chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, who was gunned down by law enforcement in 1969, and William “Bill” O’Neil (the titular Judas, played by Lakeith Stanfield), the criminal-turned-informant who infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party at the FBI’s behest. On the day Judas and the Black Messiah was released on HBO Max (for its 31-day streaming release in accordance with the HBO Max/Warner Bros. deal), I watched the film twice. And even after that, I routinely went back to it to relive some of its best scenes, as I just simply couldn’t get enough—it’s truly incredible filmmaking. This movie is so very important and should be required viewing as a remarkable depiction of the underlying racial, societal, and political forces which both brought Fred Hampton to prominence and resulted in his assassination by the Chicago police. This story, like so many others in the history of the African-American experience in this country, deserves to be told, and my hope is that folks without a good idea of who Fred Hampton was (or what the Black Panther Party at its core truly believed in) see this movie and gain a greater respect for these freedom fighters and the immense challenges they faced. Aside from the imperative story of the civil rights movement at the heart of the film, Judas and the Black Messiah should be used as a tool in every single acting class. As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying. The film features a number of scenes depicting rallies and speeches, as Hampton was a commanding orator during the civil rights movement, and this is where Kaluuya succeeds the most (although he is also impressive in his character’s quieter, more intimate moments). The church speech alone makes this film one of my favorites of the year, as Kaluuya demonstrates a true embodiment of Hampton’s real-life role as a revolutionary—it is definitely one of my favorite scenes in movie history now. In addition to Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield is extraordinary as the controversial Bill O’Neil. This film is at its root a story about O’Neil (for which Stanfield should have been nominated for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor), and Stanfield was stunning in his nuanced portrayal of an incredibly complex figure—he delivers the performance of his career with unmistakable precision. Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).
No. 1 – Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder and written by Darius and his brother Abraham Marder (who also composed the film’s score), tells the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering drug addict and drummer in a hard metal band, who suddenly loses his hearing. Eventually, Ruben makes his way to a sober-living community for deaf people, which is run by Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. The tagline for this film is, “Music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one.” This is a perfect description of the film because although Ruben’s hearing loss is set up early in the movie, the heart of Sound of Metal firmly resides in his experience learning to live with his new circumstances. Sound of Metal is an amazing movie and unique cinematic experience, saying so much in the film’s many moments of silence. The story and acting performances go hand in hand, as the performers masterfully breathe life into their characters and capture the audience’s emotions. At the center is one of my favorite acting performances in recent memory from Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Ruben’s arc is complex—he’s understandably overwhelmed by the sudden unrelenting silence in his life and spends the film fighting against addictive-like urges to seek out quick fixes to his circumstances—and Ahmed portrays the character masterfully in heartbreaking fashion. Ahmed delivers an absolute master class in acting. In addition to Ahmed, Paul Raci gives one of the year’s best supporting performances as Joe. As I pointed out a few days ago when I reviewed Raci’s performance, the actor is not deaf, but he has a deeply personal connection to the story, as he is a C.O.D.A. (i.e., child of deaf adults). This fact about Raci, in conjunction with his fluency in American Sign Language, provides an authentic context to the story, which results in Raci’s magnetic performance as the stoic, yet kindhearted, Joe. Had Daniel Kaluuya’s performance not existed this year, it’d be hard for me to accept anyone else taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor other than Raci. Overall, Sound of Metal is a beautiful and emotionally affecting movie, and it is the single best film I saw this past year. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
Tomorrow, I will finally reveal the list of my ten favorite films from the past year. However, before we get to the Top 10, it is worth discussing the five films that just barely missed out on cracking that list—these films are stellar and deserve attention. Let’s go!
No. 15 – Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
In Birds of Prey, the eighth installment in the DC Extended Universe, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)—fresh from her breakup with Joker and now roaming Gotham without his protection—joins forces with a squad of badass women to take on the city’s criminal underworld, namely crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). In a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists, the folks at DC Films have immensely underwhelmed (with very few exceptions) in an effort to compete in the modern comic-book film space. With that said, DC continues to strike absolute gold with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Robbie was the best (and maybe only decent) part of 2016’s Suicide Squad, and her return to this character is triumphant. (I can’t wait to see her embody the role for a third time this summer in The Suicide Squad.) Harley is a violent, foul-mouthed, badass superheroine, and Robbie brings the character to life with extravagant style and colorful passion. Ewan McGregor is also fantastic in this film as the egotistical antagonist, as are Harley’s titular Birds of Prey (played wonderfully by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Rosie Perez). Birds of Prey is definitely a fun, stylistic cinematic ride. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 14 – Soul
Soul, Pixar’s most recent release, tells the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher in New York City with bigger dreams of becoming a professional jazz pianist. After Joe finally gets his chance to impress jazz legend Dorthea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett) with his skills, Joe falls down a manhole, entering a queue of “souls” headed for the “Great Beyond” (i.e., the afterlife). Not ready to die yet, Joe navigates his soul to the “Great Before” (i.e., the beforelife), and with the help of 22 (a beforelife soul still looking for her “spark” of life, voiced by Tina Fey), Joe works to reunite his soul with his body on Earth. As you can see from the basic description of the film, Soul explores a number of heavy themes, but that is what attracts me to this movie so much. What sets Pixar apart from all other animation studios is both its willingness to explore complex adult themes and its thriving success in doing so. (Although here, I am still a bit uncertain how a more youthful audience can connect to this movie, as it is the adultiest of Pixar’s more adult films.) Like Coco before it, Soul centers around death and the afterlife, but taking it a step further, Soul also explores the idea of a beforelife (or pre-existence), which is truly magical to watch. Not only did I genuinely love and feel emotionally affected by the story itself, there are a number of other highlights. First, the voice acting was stellar—Jamie Foxx is great as Joe, Tina Fey is wonderful as 22, and Graham Norton was hilarious as one of my favorite characters, Moonwind. Second, the jazz music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste is some of the best Pixar has ever done. Representation in movies (especially children’s films) matters, and I have really appreciated Pixar’s efforts to offer more diverse stories—the first Pixar film to feature an African-American lead is delightful. Streaming for free for subscribers to Disney+.
No. 13 – Blow the Man Down
Written and directed by relative unknowns Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, Blow the Man Down (which is set in a fishing village off the coast of Maine and gets its title from the sea shanty of the same name) is a dark comedy that follows Mary Beth and Priscilla Connolly, two sisters who have just lost their mother. After an unfortunate set of circumstances results in Mary Beth killing a man, the sisters are forced to cover up the crime, which then opens up Pandora’s box to reveal more nefarious secrets about the town and its matriarchal figures. This movie was released right at the very beginning of lockdown, and it quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Morgan Saylor and Sophia Lowe were fantastic as the Connolly sisters, and the film also features wonderful supporting performances from acting vets like Margo Martindale (who is utterly fantastic as Enid, a local brothel owner), Annette O’Toole, June Squib, and Marceline Hugot. Blow the Man Down is equal parts thriller and black comedy, and these young filmmakers brilliantly blend the two genres to craft an entertaining story that catches your attention and doesn’t let go. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
No. 12 – Nomadland
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (the presumptive favorite to win four Oscars this year, including both Best Picture and Best Director) tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant she used to work at in her hometown, makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Nomadland is an incredibly beautiful story and a remarkably scenic film, with the veteran McDormand deftly portraying her character within the confines of Zhao’s picturesque backdrop. The film almost feels like a documentary in that Zhao utilized a number of non-actors (and real-life nomads) to fill out the cast and cinematographer Joshua James Richards’s camera moved with impulsive fluidly—it absolutely works here. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 11 – The Climb
For me, the biggest surprise hit was The Climb, a film directed by Michael Angelo Covino and produced, written, and starring Covino and his real-life best friend Kyle Marvin. The film, divided into seven chapters (I’m Sorry, Let Go, Thanks, It’s Broken, Stop It, Grow Up, and Fine), follows the many ups and downs of lead characters Mike and Kyle’s relationship after a woman divides the two lifelong friends. This movie is hilarious, but not in any manner resembling slapstick or traditional comedy—it’s immensely dry, which fits these filmmakers’ personalities perfectly and adds to the movie’s overall charm. The funniest scene in the entire movie is a funeral speech in Chapter Two that does not disappoint. I also really enjoyed the cinematic style of The Climb, which features a number of continuous shots, including an 8-minute long take featuring the two leads riding bikes together to open the film. This is simply a delightful film. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
In today’s post, I will review the Best Actor category for this year’s Academy Awards. Let’s go!
Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)
Filmmaker Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed), a recovering drug addict and drummer in a hard metal band with his girlfriend Lou (played by Olivia Cooke), who suddenly loses his hearing. Eventually, Ruben makes his way to a sober-living community for deaf people, which is run by Joe (played by Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. Ruben’s hearing loss is set up in the first act of Sound of Metal, and thus, the bulk of the film is substantively focused on Ruben’s experience learning to live with his new circumstances. As I will get to in greater detail when I reveal my Top 10 Films of the Year this Saturday, Sound of Metalis an incredible cinematic experience, and Riz Ahmed is stunning as the movie’s protagonist. Ruben quickly becomes overwhelmed by the sudden and incessant silence associated with his deafness, which ultimately causes him to engage in addictive behaviors that Joe feels threaten Ruben’s sobriety—Ahmed skillfully plunges deep into this portrayal of Ruben’s complex journey to realizing deafness is not a handicap. It is a moving performance that at times will bring you to tears, and although the film as a whole is superb, Ahmed’s depiction of Ruben is the most vital ingredient—a truly impressive display of acting bravura.
Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
In his final film role before his death just 8 months ago, Chadwick Boseman plays Levee Green in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the film adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play of the same name. In the movie, which tells the story of a turbulent studio recording session with Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis) and her band in 1920s Chicago, Levee is an ambitious, yet cocky and erratic, trumpet player who ultimately experiences an emotional collapse—Boseman is utterly exceptional, depicting this hot-tempered character with mesmerizing style and fiery flair. This is just the ninth time a performer has received an Academy Award nomination posthumously in an acting category, and only Peter Finch and Heath Ledger have previously won in those circumstances—based on the results at the other major film awards this season, Boseman is sure to become the third such winner.
Anthony Hopkins (The Father)
In Florian Zeller’s film The Father, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the titular father (whose name is actually Anthony in the movie), an elderly man battling against the degeneration of his own mind at the hands of dementia. It goes without question that Anthony Hopkins is one the greatest actors of all time. This year’s Oscar nomination is the sixth of his career (and second consecutive nomination following his inclusion in the Best Supporting Actor category last year for The Two Popes), and in The Father, Hopkins delivers what is arguably his greatest acting performance, behind only his Academy Award-winning turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins’s character in the film is snappy and petulant throughout, clearly struggling to come to grips with his condition. He quickly oscillates between moods, engages in unkind outbursts, and hurls a number of cutting comments at his daughter, Anne (played by Olivia Colman), and yet, he’s also such a sympathetic character. It’s understandable why Anthony is who he is, and Hopkins embodies this character masterfully, giving us a peek into the man’s heartbreaking circumstances. I got choked up a number of times during this movie, but never more so than when Hopkins brought the performance home with a crushing final scene. Anthony Hopkins epitomizes dramatic acting, and even in his early 80s, he’s still showing the industry how it’s done.
Gary Oldman (Mank)
David Fincher’s black-and-white biopic Mank (written by Fincher’s late father Jack, who passed away in 2003) tells the story of famed Hollywood screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) and his role in developing the screenplay for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, often credited as the greatest film in cinematic history. Mank is definitely a love letter to Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” and I had incredibly high hopes for it since Fincher directed it. Unfortunately, for me, the film underwhelmed altogether. Gary Oldman, a master of his craft, was obviously great in his role of the titular Mank, but I never felt while watching it like this was worthy of a surefire Oscar nod—certainly, I expected it to get a nomination, as the film is the prototypical Oscar bait, but I never felt blown away by his performance. Oldman’s spot among the nominees should have gone to more deserving actors this year.
Steven Yeun (Minari)
Minari, a semi-autobiographical film by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, follows South Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (played by Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica Yi (played by Han Ye-ri) as they move their family from California to rural Arkansas to fulfill Jacob’s dream of starting a Korean produce farm. South-Korean born Steven Yeun, who is best known to audiences as Glenn from the AMC television series The Walking Dead, is stellar as the Yi family’s patriarch in this film, and I was incredibly excited to see him become the first Asian-American of Korean descent nominated for the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Despite Jacob’s painstaking commitment to achieving his piece of the “American dream,” the bullheaded character is also marred by stubborn imprudence. Yeun’s portrait of this complex character is first-rate and exquisitely captures the enduring spirit of an immigrant’s inspirational journey to achieve success for his family in America.
Snubs and Other Performances
Despite the year’s many wonderful acting performances from male leads, it was always going to be difficult snagging an Oscar nomination, as the field was certainly crowded. Other than the nominees, here are a few other performances that caught my eye during the past year in film. First, one of the surprise hits of the film season was The White Tiger, a film set in India that examines the country’s caste system from the perspective of its lead character Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav), who cleverly escapes poverty. Gourav was remarkable in his breakout starring role, and I hope to see much more of him in the future, as he’s proven to the world just how capable of a performer he is. Second, in addition to his blockbuster role as Vision in Marvel’s Disney+ television series Wandavision, Paul Bettany was equally extraordinary in Uncle Frank, a film set in the 1970s, which tells the story of the titular Frank, played by Bettany, a gay man living in New York City who, following the death of his father, must grapple with his past and his South Carolina-based family. Bettany turned in a beautiful performance as Uncle Frank, and although he hasn’t been nominated for too many major acting awards in his career, it’s hard to think he didn’t deserve more attention for this fantastic role. Additionally, Ben Affleck was superb in The Way Back as a former high school basketball star and alcoholic seeking redemption as the coach of his former team. In light of Affleck’s real-life issues with alcoholism, it’s clear this perspective for the role allowed him to uniquely portray the heartbreaking struggles of the addiction—Affleck delivered a great performance.
This year, I believe the biggest snub in any category was Delroy Lindo missing out on a nomination for his stellar performance in Da 5 Bloods. Spike Lee’s latest film tells the story of four African-American veterans of the Vietnam War who reunite to travel back to the Southeast-Asian country to both locate the remains of “Stormin’” Norman (their former squad leader, played by Chadwick Boseman, who died during the war) and to find a massive treasure the group hid during their time in Vietnam. Like most Spike Lee films, Da 5 Bloods explores a number of important themes, including the horrors of war, race relations, and redemption. At the center of the story is Lindo’s emotionally complex character Paul, a cynical Trump supporter whose hostile demeanor is shaped by tragedy and oppression. Lindo, who previously collaborated with Spike Lee on three films in the 1990s, is spectacular in his depiction of Paul. The character is tragic in every sense of the word, and Lindo delivers his performance with heart, passion, and above all, masterful skill. My tweet on the day the Oscar nominations were announced says it all.
With respect to the #OscarNoms, one of the biggest snubs for me is Delroy Lindo missing out on a Best Actor nomination for Da 5 Bloods. It truly was one of the most moving performances of the year. I would easily swap him with Gary Oldman in that category.
Sir Anthony Hopkins’s performance in The Father is clearly one of the best of his storied film career, and for that, if anyone is going to overcome Chadwick Boseman’s incredible frontrunner status to pull off an upset on Sunday night, it’ll like be Hopkins. Presently, Hopkins is getting +700 odds, the best of any challenger in the category.
Who Should Win: Riz Ahmed
My personal pick for Best Actor is probably the toughest call in any category, and despite my love for Anthony Hopkins in The Father, if I had a vote, it would go to Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Ahmed committed to his role in stunning fashion, spending a great deal of time learning American Sign Language and how to play the drums. His many hours of preparation were well worth it, as Ahmed turned in a perfect performance in a film that highlights a community not often depicted with regularity in film. Although Ahmed won’t win this year, he’d have my vote.
Who Will Win: Chadwick Boseman
I simply cannot see anyone beating the late Chadwick Boseman at this year’s Oscars. The only major award Boseman hasn’t received for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the British Academy Film Award, which went to Anthony Hopkins, although it’s likely due to the fact The Father is a British film and Hopkins is one of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished performers. Currently getting frontrunner odds of -1600, Boseman is set to become just the third performer to posthumously win an Academy Award in an acting category.
In today’s post, I will review the Best Actress category, home of the most wide-open race at this year’s Academy Awards. Who will win is anybody’s guess, so let’s dive in for an analysis of the category.
Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the real-life Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), a highly influential African-American blues singer in the 1920s. The film focuses on a tumultuous studio recording session with Ma Rainey and her band in Chicago. Viola Davis is one of the best and most talented actors currently working, and with her turn this year as Ma Rainey, she further demonstrates her impressive range, taking on a distinct physical transformation to play the brash blues legend. Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent Ma Rainey’s generally difficult demeanor with respect to her producers is shaped by her experience as an African-American woman in a world controlled by white men, and Davis depicts the character’s tough-nut-to-crack temperament with strident passion and exquisite flair.
Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday)
Set in the 1940s, Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, one of the most instrumental jazz singers in the history of music. In particular, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s racially motivated preoccupation with targeting and harassing Holiday. The government persecuted Holiday under the guise of drug-related offenses, but Daniels explores another motivation—stopping Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching song, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement. Three-time Grammy Award-nominated singer Andra Day’s performance in this film’s leading role is absolutely stunning, made all the more startling by the fact it is only the third film credit of her career. (She previously played the role of “Minton’s Singer” in Marshall and voiced the character “Sweet Tea” in Cars 3.) Although the film as a whole had a number of flaws, Day’s take on Billie Holiday was surely not one of them—she was singularly the film’s dazzling high point. Day transformed into Holiday, delivering striking moments of passion and restrained moments of intimacy, and it deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination this year.
Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)
The setup for Pieces of a Woman is simple—a young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), lose their baby during a home birth gone wrong, and they are left to grapple with the emotional toll of this tragic event, while also dealing with the stress of a legal case being pursued against the midwife who delivered the child. For me, it was impossible to watch Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman and not come away thinking, “Wow, that is what acting is all about.” The film’s storyline is, at its very core, crushing and heartbreaking, and Kirby delivers every single one of her character’s raw and painful emotions with devastating exactitude. It is a shame Kirby hasn’t been shown more love this awards season in what has turned out to be a wide-open Best Actress race. (She’s been nominated at a number of noteworthy award shows, but her only significant win was the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, the award given out at the Venice Film Festival.) The portrayal of Martha required Kirby to embody the essence of a shattered woman, consumed by inconceivable grief, while also to methodically demonstrate the character’s ultimate revival and enduring spirit to press on—Kirby checked these boxes off with apparent ease. It was an outstanding expression of pure acting prowess.
Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
In Nomadland, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant in her hometown (at which she worked), Fern (played by Frances McDormand) makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Make no mistake, the legendary Frances McDormand is, in accordance with every other role she’s ever played, wonderful in Nomadland. However, for me, if I was going to sneak in another performer who was snubbed this year (see discussion of such snubs below), McDormand would probably be the one to make way. Nomadland is definitely one of the best films this year (when I reveal my rankings in a few days, you will definitely hear more about it), but considering its beautiful story, cinematography, collective supporting performances, and near-documentary style of filmmaking, it’s a film where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts, including McDormand.
Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)
Although Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is full of unique and intriguing twists and turns, the setup is fairly straightforward: Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men (who pass themselves off to her as “nice guys”) in order to ultimately confront those guys about their skeezy behavior and hold them accountable—Cassie is most definitely a modern-day femme fatale. Eventually, Cassie directs her mission to everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Carey Mulligan is nothing short of amazing in this darkly comedic thriller, a bona fide departure from her trademark appearances in period pieces and hard dramas. Cassie is ice cold and vastly different than any character I’ve ever seen Mulligan depict, and if her entrancingly exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman is any indication, I hope we see Mulligan again in the near future taking on another complex modern figure—Mulligan is a first-rate pro!
Snubs and Other Performances
In addition to the nominees, this year supplied movie watchers with a number of other incredible acting performances from female leads who easily could have gotten Oscar nominations themselves—this category is just so unbelievably stacked. First, Jessie Buckley was hauntingly superb in Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, nimbly navigating a cinematic maze of strange, surrealist ideas. Second, in a movie chock-full of first-rate acting performances, Han Ye-ri wonderfully delivered a quiet, yet poignant, depiction of a wife struggling to balance her own happiness against the dreams of her ambitious husband in Minari. Third, Rosamund Pike is enthralling in the Netflix dark comedy I Care A Lot as Marla Grayson, a charismatic (yet brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. I couldn’t help but see a lot of similarities in this character to Amy Dunne (the character Pike played in 2014’s Gone Girl, which earned Pike her lone Oscar nomination), so it’s no wonder Pike knocked the performance out of the park. Additionally, one of my favorite acting performances this year came courtesy of breakout actress Bukky Bakray, who starred in Rocks, a British film about a teenage girl who must take care of not only herself, but also her little brother, after her mother abandons the family. Bakray, just a teenager herself, gave a beautiful, gut-wrenching portrayal of the film’s lead, which earned her a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress and a win for the BAFTA Rising Star Award.
Although these performances above were certainly stellar, there was one this year that stood out to me as a performance that absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination (and yet got snubbed): Elisabeth Moss as the lead protagonist, Cecilia Kass, in Leigh Whannell’s rendition of The Invisible Man. Whannell’s version of this classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims, and Moss was nothing short of astounding in her portrayal of this character. Her performance is incredibly intense at moments, while also meticulously subtle at others. With every apprehensive glance, with every hurried breath, Moss skillfully portrays her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion with fastidiousness. Ultimately, Cecilia gets her revenge, in the most badass way possible, and Moss executes the whole operation to perfection. For years, dating back to Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss has been a critically acclaimed staple of television—this year, Moss deserved an Academy Award nod for her silver-screen talents.
Who Could Win: Viola Davis or Frances McDormand
This year, the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards is by far the most competitive of any other acting category. So far, a different woman has won the Golden Globe Award (Andra Day), Critics’ Choice Movie Award (Carey Mulligan), Screen Actors Guild Award (Viola Davis), and British Academy Film Award (Frances McDormand) for Best Actress. Carey Mulligan is getting slightly better odds than the rest of the field, and of the three other Best Actress award winners this season, Viola Davis and Frances McDormand stand the best chance to pull off an “upset.” (In light of how tight this race is, nothing will actually be an upset this year.) McDormand is currently getting +400 odds, while Davis is getting a stunning +200 odds, which is insanely close to what Mulligan is receiving. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Davis or McDormand took home the Oscar on Sunday.
Who Should Win: Vanessa Kirby
I truly enjoyed each performance nominated in this category, but for me, the most emotionally affecting of the year—Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman—deserves the Oscar. It is a beautifully soul-crushing portrayal of a first-time mother struck by tragedy, and Kirby would have my vote, full stop, if I had one to give.
Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan
As I alluded to above, this category is going to come down to the wire. Carey Mulligan, this year’s winner at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, is currently getting the best betting odds to take home the gold at +125. Although not really a frontrunner due to the razor-thin margin between the nominees, my educated guess is Mulligan takes home the Oscar. Promising Young Woman is a vital, timely piece of cinema, and Mulligan is its standpoint star. Prior to this year’s nominations, Davis and McDormand accounted for a combined 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins—this is only Mulligan’s second nomination ever, and I think the Academy will welcome her into the winner’s circle.
In today’s post, I will review the Best Supporting Actress category for this year’s Oscars. Let’s go!
Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm)
Following his 2006 critically acclaimed political mockumentary Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen reunited with his famous Kazakh character for an equally admired sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The sequel centers on Borat Sagdiyev’s return to the United States for the purpose of offering up his daughter Tutar (played by Maria Bakalova) to then-Vice President Mike Pence as a bribe. This movie is everything I could have expected for a new installment about the crazed happenings of Borat, but what did surprise me was just how amazing Bakalova is as Tutar—she truly is the film’s breakout star. A young Bulgarian actress with few credits to her name and no previous exposure to American audiences, Bakalova skillfully matches Baron Cohen’s wit and humor in every single scene. She deftly (and hilariously) navigates some absurdly funny scenes, such as the “bloody” debutante ball and the pregnancy clinic debacle, but the hype surrounding her encounter with Rudy Giuliani is well worth it—she handled a tricky and potentially dangerous situation like a pro. Bakalova is definitely a star in the making.
Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy)
Ron Howard’s Netflix drama Hillbilly Elegy, which is based on the memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance, follows a Yale law school student who must return to his hometown in rural Ohio to care for his mother (Amy Adams), who is battling a drug addiction—the film also prominently features flashbacks to the lead character’s childhood, which includes the narrative about his relationship with his grandmother (“Mamaw”), played by Glenn Close. This movie isn’t good. In fact, it’s consistently cringey throughout. The only bright spots at all are the acting performances by Amy Adams and Glenn Close. They were great, as usual, and Close is excellent in portraying the tough, resolute Mamaw. Despite Close’s incredibly physical transformation for the role, I didn’t feel the Academy should dignify the one decent aspect of an otherwise terrible film—therefore, I was a bit surprised to see Close snag nominations at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, Golden Globe Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards, in addition to the Oscars. Then again, I unfortunately feel like the Academy is desperate to keep giving Close opportunities to win an Oscar (I am truthfully stunned she has gone winless in her previous seven nominations). Regardless of their intentions, it’s difficult for me to get excited about Close’s nomination.
Olivia Colman (The Father)
In Florian Zeller’s film The Father, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the titular father (whose name is actually Anthony), an elderly man progressively struggling with dementia. Although Hopkins is undoubtedly the most impressive part of the film, Olivia Colman (who portrays his daughter Anne) is striking in her own right. It is clear the role of Anthony is the movie’s most heartbreaking, but truthfully, I felt a greater sense of empathy and pain for Anne, as she is the character with which the audience can most relate. Anne, a devoted daughter who takes her father into her home, ensures care is provided for Anthony in order to make him as comfortable as possible. She adores her father. And yet, she is on the receiving end of Anthony’s mood swings, harsh outbursts, and stinging comments. It’s crushing to see Anne struggling emotionally with the state of her father’s health, but Colman is truly remarkable. Above all, this performance demonstrates the impeccable range Colman has—from her comedic turns in Fleabag and The Favourite (the latter of which earned her an Oscar two years ago) to her immensely dramatic roles in The Crown and The Father, Olivia Colman is unmistakably one of the most talented performers in the business.
Amanda Seyfried (Mank)
Mank tells the story of legendary Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and the origin of his role in helping write the script for Orson Welles’s masterpiece, Citizen Kane. In the film, a black-and-white love letter to Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” Amanda Seyfried plays actress Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and allegedly the real-life inspiration for the Citizen Kane character Susan Alexander Kane. In Mank, Fincher offers a more holistic perspective on Davies’s life compared to her Citizen Kane counterpart, and although the film underwhelmed from my perspective, Seyfried is indubitably exquisite in her portrayal. Seyfried nails Davies’s Brooklyn accent and period-specific mannerisms, and above all, she steals the show in each scene shared with Oldman’s Mank. Thus far in her career, Seyfried is more known for her roles in comedic and romantic films, like Mean Girls, the Mamma Mia! series, Dear John, and Ted 2. However, in 2012, Seyfried proved her dramatic worth via a wonderful performance in Les Misérables. And now, Seyfried has upped the ante, reaching the crowning achievement in her career up to this point with a stellar performance in Mank. Here’s to hoping we see Seyfried take on more superb dramatic roles.
Youn Yuh-jung (Minari)
A semi-autobiographical film by writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows South Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri) as they move their family from California to rural Arkansas to fulfill Jacob’s dream of starting a Korean produce farm. At one point in the film, Monica’s mother Soon-ja (played by Youn Yuh-jung) comes to stay with the family in order to take care of the children while Jacob and Monica work. I have two important thoughts, which are relevant for this review: (1) Minari is one of the best films this year, period, and (2) Youn Yuh-jung is my single favorite part. Chung’s film spends a great deal of time exploring the development of the relationship between Soon-ja and David (played by Alan Kim), Jacob and Monica’s youngest child. David initially doesn’t enjoy his grandmother living with them (especially because he’s forced to share a room with her), but the relationship blossoms into a sweet bond. Youn, an acclaimed South Korean film star, portrays Soon-ja dazzlingly. Soon-ja is foul-mouthed, blunt, and downright funny, and Youn fits the role like a glove, delivering many of Minari’s most memorable moments. In one scene, David wets the bed, and Soon-ja asks if his penis is broken, to which David snaps back, “It’s not a ‘penis.’ It’s called a ‘ding dong.’” Later in a church scene when a boy asks David if he can spend the night, Soon-ja (commenting on Monica’s decision to say “no”) quips, “Ding dong broken.” This is the epitome of Soon-ja, and Youn is excellent in her performance.
Snubs and Other Performances
In addition to this year’s nominees, there were a handful of other noteworthy performances that easily could have earned a nomination, especially in place of Glenn Close. First, Dominique Fishback was stellar in her real-life portrayal of Fred Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson in Judas and the Black Messiah—she is pitch perfect, especially during her character’s more emotional scenes. (Fishback received a BAFTA nomination for her performance.) Additionally, Priyanka Chopra Jonas was remarkable as Pinky in The White Tiger—the Ramin Bahrani-directed film, set in India, was a surprise hit this year (and one of my personal favorites), and Chopra Jonas’s performance was wonderful.
For me, though, the biggest snub in this category was Hollywood legend Ellen Burstyn for her moving performance in Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman. The film, directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, focuses on Vanessa Kirby’s character Martha Weiss, whose baby dies shortly after a home birth. A six-time Oscar nominee (and Oscar winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), Burstyn plays Martha’s wealthy, domineering mother Elizabeth Weiss, a headstrong Holocaust survivor maintaining a tense relationship with Martha. Burstyn is nothing short of incredible in Pieces of a Woman. The highlight of the film is a clash between Martha and Elizabeth at a dinner table, and although it is the defining moment which helped earn Kirby her first Oscar nomination, Burstyn matches her blow for blow. It is an absolute shame Burstyn missed out on an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
Maria Bakalova started the major film awards season off with a bang, taking home a win at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. Since then, however, the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm star has played second fiddle to Youn Yuh-Jung. Currently Bakalova is the lead underdog in this category, receiving +300 odds. While I cannot completely rule out a surprise win for Bakalova this year, I don’t feel confident. Regardless, if betting lines are to be believed, she certainly stands the best chance to upset the frontrunner.
Who Should Win: Youn Yuh-jung
Minari is one of the best movies of the year, and Youn Yuh-jung’s performance is arguably its strongest. Youn’s portrayal of Soon-ja is equal parts comedic and touching, and the 73-year-old veteran actress is simply brilliant. Out of all the nominees this year, it’s crystal clear Youn’s performance most deserves the Academy’s top honor.
Who Will Win: Youn Yuh-jung
Following two huge wins within the past two weeks at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the British Academy Film Awards, Youn Yuh-jung has secured her place as the frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actress category. Currently, she’s drawing -500 odds. Bakalova is still a trendy choice, but I’m growing more and more confident this year’s Oscar is going to Youn.
In today’s post, I will review the Best Documentary Feature category for this year’s Oscars. Let’s go!
The foundational event setting the stage for Collective is a fire in 2015 that broke out in a nightclub called Colectiv in Bucharest, Romania, which initially resulted in the death of 27 patrons and claimed nearly 40 more lives in the following weeks in light of Romania’s gravely deficient hospitals and public health infrastructure. It is these issues with Romania’s healthcare system which form the focus of the film, which follows a number of investigative journalists who delve into the bedrock of government fraud, corruption, and incompetency giving rise to a deadly public health crisis. Collective is certainly a compelling piece of investigative filmmaking, and it definitely paints a raw and harrowing picture of the Romanian government’s sheer ineptitude with respect to governance, especially as it pertains to administering its healthcare system. I will never forget the distressing footage of the fire itself and the shocking surreptitious video of the abhorrent hospital environment for the burn victims in the weeks after the fire. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Executive produced by Higher Ground Productions (founded by former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama), Crip Camp tells the story of a group of hippie teens who in the 1970s attended Camp Jened, a summer camp for youths with disabilities. The campers quickly formed an immense bond, and after their years at Camp Jened concluded, that unique sense of community breathed life into a budding civil rights movement seeking systematic change in the United States with respect to accessibility and disability rights. Although I am intimately familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (which codifies prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of disability) in light of my career as an employment lawyer, I was unaware of the fascinating story behind the journey to securing that critical piece of legislation. Crip Camp is an important film, which brings deserved attention to a critical civil rights movement. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
The Mole Agent
The setup for The Mole Agent is simple: The family of a nursing home resident in Chile tap a private investigator to hire an elderly man to go undercover at the nursing home to report back concerning whether or not the resident in question is being subjected to abuse. Enter Sergio Chamy, an 83-year-old man who answers the call to be the family’s spy. Although this synopsis likely sounds harrowing and depressing, this movie is far from that. The filmmakers present the story in a creative manner, which makes the film feel more like a spy thriller than a documentary. The highlight of The Mole Agent is Sergio, who epitomizes earnestness in the most charismatic way possible. He is a compelling lead, and he serves as a beautiful emotional hook for the overall story. Although I think a number of documentaries deserved an Oscar nod over it, The Mole Agent is still worth a watch. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
My Octopus Teacher
This film follows Craig Foster, a documentarian by trade, as he narrates the story of his seemingly unreal experience of befriending a common octopus while free diving in an underwater kelp forest near his home off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. To put it plainly, this film absolutely captivated me. I love nature documentaries, especially those that explore sea life, but My Octopus Teacher is vastly different from the likes of Sir David Attenborough’s critically acclaimed Blue Planet series. Here, Craig Foster is not a passive observer of the underwater world he explores. Instead, he actively engages. The story of his friendship with the titular octopus is surprisingly emotional, and the film ultimately evoked a number of diverse and intense emotions in me, ranging from sweet to distressing—I was fully invested in the exploration of their relationship. Also, Foster’s homemade underwater footage is mesmerizing, showing us a world we otherwise might never see. This is definitely one of the best documentaries in recent memory. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
This documentary by Garrett Bradley follows Sibil Fox Richardson as she spends over twenty years advocating for the release of her husband, who is serving a 60-year sentence in prison for an armed bank robbery they committed together. (Sibil served a few years for her role in the crime.) There couldn’t be a more apt title for a movie this year than Time. The film plays out almost as the documentary cousin of Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking narrative Boyhood—through home video footage spanning over two decades, combined with new footage chronicling her current fight to secure Rob’s clemency, the filmmakers skillfully present a tale of painful, yet resilient, perseverance against the backdrop of race relations as they particular pertain to the criminal justice system. This is an emotional documentary, in all the most inspirational ways. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime.
Snubs and Other Great Documentaries
This past year, I watched somewhere in the ballpark of 25 documentaries, and in addition to the foregoing films, there were a handful of other wonderful documentaries released. Any of these could easily have been nominated this year in place of The Mole Agent and Collective. First, I was riveted by The Dissident, a film about the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of 2018. Despite the critical acclaim heaped upon this film, it barely saw the light of day for wider audiences—I concur with the filmmaker in believing this was due to political reasons associated with Saudi Arabia. Second, All In: The Fight for Democracy was a resilient tale of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and the topic of voter suppression in the United States. It is a thorough, well-crafted documentary, and it couldn’t be timelier in light of Georgia’s latest attempt to quash civic participation by black and brown communities. Additionally, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s intimate, imaginative, and darkly comedic documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead is a film I won’t soon forget—the documentary deftly portrays a daughter’s coming to grips with her father’s dementia by choregraphing and filming a number of possible ways Dick Johnson might die, with her father participating in the staged deaths.
But for me, the singular snub in this category was the Apple TV+ release Boys State, which previously won U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Boys State follows the 2018 American Legion Boys State, an annual summer program for high school boys (there is also a Girls State for high school girls) where, according to the Texas Boys State website, “each student becomes a part of the operation of his local, county, and state government” and is “exposed to the rights and privileges, the duties and the responsibilities, of a franchised citizen.” Boys State follows some very memorable characters, including wise-beyond-his-years lead Steven Garza, and the film is utterly compelling in its examination of the fascinating (and yet at times incredibly upsetting) political differences and ideologies shaping the lives of Gen Z high school boys in this country. The filmmakers definitely struck gold with this story, and it without a doubt deserved an Oscar nod this year.
Ever since nominations were first announced, this category has felt like a two-horse race, and that initial reaction has been corroborated by the betting odds. If the favorite doesn’t take home the Oscar for Best Documentary, expect the “upset” to come from Time, which is currently getting +250 odds.
Who Should Win: My Octopus Teacher
When I first turned on My Octopus Teacher, I really didn’t know what to expect. And yet, it captivated me in a way few documentaries have before. If I had a vote this year, it would most definitely be cast for My Octopus Teacher.
Who Will Win: My Octopus Teacher
Out of all the nominees, Time currently has the most wins in a Best Documentary (or equivalent) category, picking up victories from the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and National Society of Film Critics. However, in terms of vital wins this season, My Octopus Teacher has gotten the nod, winning at the Producers Guild of America Awards and British Academy Film Awards. This category is a close one, but with -335 betting odds, I think the Oscar goes to My Octopus Teacher this year.
Due in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic, this past year was one of the wildest in movie history (and honestly, probably the most bizarre year of my life, period). Theaters closed down (both temporarily and, unfortunately in some cases, permanently), nearly every major film set to debut in 2020 was either delayed until 2021/2022 or released exclusively on streaming platforms, and the entire landscape of cinema was likely changed forever. During the eligibility period for this year’s Oscars (which usually spans one calendar year but this year includes movies released in 2020 all the way up until February 28, 2021), I saw over 100 movies, which is more than I’ve ever seen before in a single Oscars eligibility year. And yet, I only saw two movies physically in a theater (The Invisible Man literally right before the COVID lockdown and Tenet while masked up in my local limited-capacity, socially distanced AMC). Obviously, this past year was incredibly unusual in all facets of life, including movies, but there’s plenty of positive things to be excited about for 2021—I am fully vaccinated (Pfizer for the win!) and movies are rapidly returning to theaters around the country. I cannot wait to be back in front of that giant silver screen all year long.
Despite the unique circumstances from the past year, the current Oscars eligibility period was a wonderful year for movies, and I am extremely pleased to now return for another annual installment of my “Countdown to the Oscars” blog. Over the next two weeks, I cannot wait to share with you my thoughts on the best movies released this past year as we approach the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, which is set to take place live on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at both its traditional home (the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood) and a second location (Los Angeles Union Station) due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (The Academy also announced since it would not permit guests to participate virtually this year, it plans to establish additional physical sites in both London and Paris to ease travel for those based elsewhere around the globe.)
Here’s a recap of the structure of posts you can expect to see on The Reel Countdown the next two weeks: (1) my “Top 10 Films of the Year” (including an “Honorable Mentions” post, which will break down the five films that just missed out on cracking my list this year), (2) my own personal Oscars ballot (i.e., how I would vote if I had a ballot) for some of the year’s major categories, based on this year’s nominees, and (3) a recap of the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, which will highlight the most noteworthy moments from the broadcast.
With only a single day left to go before the Academy Awards ceremony (which marks the official close of awards season for the previous year’s movies), the time is ripe to reveal my Top 10 Films of 2019. Enjoy!
My Top 10 Films of 2019
No. 10 – Ready or Not
Ready or Not is a comedic horror film directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, with a script from Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy. The film focuses on Grace (Samara Weaving) as she marries Alex (Mark O’Brien), a member of the wealthy Le Domas family who made its fortune in the board game business. On their wedding night, Grace must take part in a Le Domas family ritual: To welcome her to the family, everyone gathers around a table and lets a mysterious antique box choose a game for the family to play. The box chooses the one game Alex did not want to play—hide and seek. Grace thinks nothing of it, but soon she realizes that “hide and seek” is an affair akin to The Most Dangerous Game, wherein the Le Domas family must find Grace and kill her before sunrise or perish themselves. Aside from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this was by far the most fun I had watching any movie this year. The premise is unique and its execution is excellent, packed with plenty of jump scares, smart laughs, and amusing gore. The film deftly blends comedy, drama, horror, and satire, and its frenetic pace and high energy make for one of 2019’s most underrated film experiences. (Not to mention, Samara Weaving is sensational as the film’s breakout star.) Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtYTwUxhAoI.
No. 9 – The Irishman
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, an epic 209-minute film, tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who became a hitman for the Bufalino crime family (led by crime boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci) and a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the leader of the Teamsters. Martin Scorsese may not have invented the mob movie, but he’s sure responsible for perfecting it. (The gold standard for the genre is his 1990 film Goodfellas.) Part of Scorsese’s mob success is the effortless connection between him and his frequent collaborators, including Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. All three actors return for The Irishman (De Niro and Pesci in central roles, Keitel in more of a cameo appearance), which serves as a wonderful final chapter in Scorsese’s storied saga of mob crime films with these actors. With respect to acting, it is one of The Irishman’s central strengths, which makes sense in light of the fact that its principal performers are three Oscar-winning legends: De Niro, Pesci, and Al Pacino. As I mentioned in my Best Supporting Actor post, Pesci and Pacino are incredible—Pesci flips the script on his usual characters to play a much quieter and reserved role, while Pacino thrives as Jimmy Hoffa in his trademark bravado. This was also the first Pacino-Scorsese collaboration, and it was well worth the wait. One aspect of the film that has gotten the most attention is Scorsese’s use of expensive de-aging effects to make the three main actors look younger. At first, it is a real shock to see the actors look like young guys. But for me, after a short while, I stopped noticing, so the effect didn’t become a distraction for my viewing experience. Although Scorsese has already made the perfect mob film in Goodfellas, his work here (with the assistance of a solid screenplay from Gangs of New York co-writer Steven Zaillian) is still marvelous and goes to show that when it comes to this genre, Scorsese will always reign supreme. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS3aHkkfuEI.
No. 8 – Ford v Ferrari
Based on a true story, Ford v Ferrari tells the story of Ford Motor Company’s journey building a racecar to defeat the dominant Ferrari racing team in 1966 at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, a prestigious staple of endurance racing held each year outside of Le Mans, France. In order to defy expectations and truly challenge Ferrari for the crown, Ford enlists American racing legend and sports car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and the brash British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to turn its dream into a reality. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought it looked cheesy. Even though it isn’t a Disney movie, I was worried it might fall victim to tired tropes as seen in many Disney sports biopics, such as Miracle or Invincible. But I was wrong. Against a long list of great narrative features about racing (such as Rush, Le Mans, and Grand Prix), James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari takes the checkered flag. Part of the movie’s appeal is its intricate balance of racing and humanism. Yes, the actual story of Ford’s racing team taking on Ferrari at the ’66 Le Mans is compelling, and in that respect, the film’s thunderous sights and sounds (perfected via first-rate sound editing/mixing and film editing) can’t be beat by any other racing movie. But the film’s focus on its characters is equally as impressive. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles are interesting characters, and the exquisite acting from Matt Damon and Christian Bale, respectively, makes you care about their story, both on and off the track. Streaming available for purchase on most major platforms (not yet available for rent). Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3h9Z89U9ZA.
No. 7 – Midsommar
Ari Aster’s follow up to his acclaimed 2018 film Hereditary, Midsommar tells the story of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a young couple whose relationship is on the rocks. When Dani’s family tragically dies, Christian begrudgingly lets her join him and his friends for a summer trip to a small village in Sweden to take part in the community’s midsummer festival. What starts out as a fun, cheerful experience soon turns ominous and terrifying as the village’s rituals grow more unsettling. Although Hereditary laid the foundation for Ari Aster’s twisted filmmaking prowess, Midsommar perfected it. There is nothing conventional about this movie—some scenes left me absolutely gobsmacked, but I couldn’t look away. The sights and sounds of Midsommar absolutely sink their teeth into you. In addition to the vibrant colors and magnificent set design, the film’s main strength is Florence Pugh, who turned in one of the best acting performances of the entire year. Pugh is definitely one of my favorite rising stars in cinema, and Midsommar features her best performance yet. Dani is an emotional wreck throughout the film for a variety of reasons, and Pugh plays it seamlessly. Do yourself a favor and give this film a chance! Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Vnghdsjmd0.
No. 6 – Jojo Rabbit
Writer/director Taika Waititi’s film Jojo Rabbit is a satirical black comedy set during the height of World War II in Nazi Germany. The titular character (Roman Griffin Davis) is an aspiring member of the Hitler Youth who idolizes the ideological views of the Third Reich—these prejudices are then encouraged by his imaginary friend, Hitler himself, played hilariously by Waititi. However, Jojo is forced to confront his intolerance when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. In Jojo Rabbit, filmmaker Taika Waititi is as brazen as could be. Tackling a serious subject matter like this via satire is always daring, and Waititi certainly takes risks with an irreverent sense of humor. But the result is a beautiful cinematic experience. Waititi’s dialogue is sharp and witty, both in its humor and its solemnity, and he deftly juxtaposes the laughs with more serious tones and themes that make you think. I was particularly impressed with the performances of the film’s younger actors, namely Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie—the evolution of their relationship throughout the movie was touching, and the chemistry between the actors was palpable. And although I already discussed it thoroughly on my Best Supporting Actress post, it is worth mentioning again that Johansson is a vision as Rosie Betzler, Jojo’s mom. She serves as the moral core and emotional hook of the film, and Johansson definitely nails it. Streaming available for purchase on most major platforms (not yet available for rent). Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL4McUzXfFI.
No. 5 – The Farewell
In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese family’s cherished grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, Nai Nai has no clue of the diagnosis. The entire family decides to shield Nai Nai from the news and convene in China to spend time with her before she dies under the premise of a spontaneous wedding involving one of the cousins. Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in New York City but still maintains an incredibly close relationship with her grandmother, cherishes her time back in China with Nai Nai but struggles considerably with her family’s decision to keep up the ruse. The Farewell was one of the darlings of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and justifiably so. It is a touching examination of family and culture, with an impeccable balance of laughs and tears. On this blog, I previously discussed why Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina were the two biggest snubs in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Leading Actress categories, respectively. Their performances are tender and beautiful, and although the underlying story and themes are compelling enough, their acting packs an inspirational punch, bringing it all home in such a relatable way. If you’re looking for a film to give you all the feels, look no further than The Farewell. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RofpAjqwMa8.
No. 4 – 1917
Sam Mendes’s 1917, set during World War I, tells the story of two British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who must relay a message across enemy lines to another battalion in order to call off a scheduled attack that will surely result in the casualties of 1,600 soldiers. For me, 1917 is one of the greatest technical film achievements of all time. The main unique storytelling device Mendes uses to tell this story is a single long take. Casual film audiences may find the use of the single tracking shot to be a bit gimmicky, but knowing everything that must go into flawlessly executing such a feat (including elaborate production design, careful character blocking, and precise cinematography), I was wildly impressed. (Check out this featurette detailing just how much work went into crafting this film.) The meticulous art of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’s photography is breathtaking, and honestly, his long take creates an incredible sense of suspense and anxiety—it really is a masterful piece of cinema. If the movie stood only on the shoulders of its technical proficiency, it would probably still be on this list but wouldn’t be as high. 1917’s extra boost comes from the story’s incredible themes of humanism and resolve. Based on the war stories told to Mendes from his grandfather’s first-hand accounts, 1917 is an amazing war epic. Streaming not yet available for purchase or rent. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZjQROMAh_s.
No. 3 – Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is a one-of-a-kind movie. The film follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York City jeweler who imports a rare Ethiopian opal (under clearly unethical circumstances) and looks to sell it to land a big payday. However, Howard has a debilitating gambling addiction (probably not in his own eyes, though) and owes money all over town. Thus, while trying to secure a profit from the opal, Howard’s poor decisions and rather sleazy personality land him in the stickiest of wickets, which serve as the driving force for the film’s conflict. In 2017, my No. 6 movie of the year was Good Time, the previous film from the Safdie brothers. And while Good Time has the same general frenetic style of Uncut Gems, it was a bit more disjointed. I obviously still enjoyed it, but here, the Safdie brothers deliver a much more coherent purpose for the plot. The Safdie brothers’ chaotic filmmaking style is raw and anxiety-inducing, but it fits the story like a glove. The most impressive feat from the young filmmakers, though, is their collaboration here with Adam Sandler. Howard Ratner is deranged and delusional, and above all, he is arrogantly unfazed by the consequences of his many disastrous choices. Adam Sandler embodies the role marvelously, turning in a career-best performance. I enjoyed the supporting performances from Lakeith Stanfield (one of this generation’s most talented actors) and Julia Fox, but I was also thoroughly captivated by Kevin Garnett’s acting debut. (The movie is set in 2012 during the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and 76ers, and the future hall of famer plays a fictionalized version of himself who is obsessed with Howard’s opal, believing it to be his good luck charm on the court.) Uncut Gems is 2019’s most exhilarating thrill ride—you’ll never forget it! Streaming not yet available for purchase or rent. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTfJp2Ts9X8.
No. 2 – Parasite
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite follows the Kim family as they work to infiltrate the home of the Park family in order to attain financial stability. The Kims occupy a place near the bottom of the South Korean class system, living in a shabby semi-basement and attempting various hustles for income (like folding pizza boxes for a local business). Conversely, the Park family is incredibly wealthy and live in a luxurious home. The Kim children, Ki-woo and Ki-jeong, eventually hatch a plan to serve as tutor and “art therapist,” respectively, for the Park family’s children. Once they’ve successfully done so, the family devises additional plots to secure employment for their parents—their mother, Chung-sook, eventually lands a coveted spot as the Parks’ housekeeper, and their father, Ki-taek, takes up the role of the Parks’ valet. Bong’s film, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, is amazing. Absolutely brilliant. Not only is it my second favorite film of 2019, but I recently ranked it as my fifth favorite movie from the 2010s. The production design is outstanding, the cinematography is beautifully captivating, and the darkly comedic script is flawless. And then there is the film’s title. Merriam-Webster defines “parasite” both as “a person who exploits the hospitality of the rich and earns welcome by flattery” and “an organism living in, with, or on another organism.” Bong shrewdly explores the full extent of the “parasite” theme throughout this film, which pairs seamlessly with his broader examination of the inequities of the social class system. In addition to Bong’s filmmaking, Parasite is a shining example of superlative acting. The entire cast is great (in fact, the group won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture), but the standout performers are Song Kang-ho as Ki-taek Kim and Cho Yeo-jeong as Yeon-gyo Park. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xH0HfJHsaY.
No. 1 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the ninth feature film by Quentin Tarantino, is set in Los Angeles in 1969 and tells the story of aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they work to find their place in the industry during the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’ll get this out of the way at the outset: I am an unabashed fan of Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker. (Inglourious Basterds is my favorite movie of all time.) I think he is one of the most influential cinematic craftsmen of all time, and his unparalleled brand of storytelling (which features a distinct sense of humor) always connects well with me. With Once Upon a Time, Tarantino is at his very best concerning a subject matter he’s incredibly passionate about—Hollywood. This film truly immerses you in the times. Although I obviously wasn’t around in 1969, I left the theater feeling as if I’d actually experienced the real-life Hollywood from that era—the production design and set decoration from Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh, respectively, was masterful. At its core, this movie is about friendship, and in that respect, DiCaprio and Pitt make it all the more authentic. The chemistry between the two veteran performers is unmistakable, and you’d be hard-pressed to find too many acting duos in film history that did it as well as Leo and Brad did here. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth couldn’t be more different, but therein lies the charm of their loyal companionship. Dalton is unsure of himself, while Booth is fearlessly confident and cool. (For instance, Dalton gets into an all-out screaming match with himself in his trailer when he botches some lines on the set of Lancer, while Booth comfortably, without hesitation, beats the living daylights out of a hippie at Spawn Ranch for slashing his tires.) These were truly two of the most memorable performances of the year, and Pitt is more than likely going to take home an Oscar for his part. The last thing worth mentioning is Tarantino’s decision to use Charles Manson and Sharon Tate (played wonderfully by Margot Robbie) as an underpinning to the film’s plot. I was not sure where Tarantino was going to take that subplot, as we all know how the real thing ended on that fateful night at 10050 Cielo Drive. In the end, I was a bit surprised and thoroughly satisfied—it all came together in a manner that only could have come from the twisted mind of Quentin Tarantino. This movie is provocative and without restraint, and all I want to do right now is watch it again! Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELeMaP8EPAA.
Soon I will finally reveal the list of my ten favorite films from 2019. But before I do, it’s worth mentioning a handful of others that just missed out on cracking that list.
No. 15 – High Flying Bird
High Flying Bird, director Steven Soderbergh’s second consecutive film shot on an iPhone, is a small movie with big ideas. The film, which stars Moonlight’s André Holland as professional basketball agent Ray Burke, takes place during the middle of an NBA lockout and focuses on Burke’s unique business plans to benefit his firm and his prized client Erick Scott during this tumultuous time. High Flying Bird is a scant 91 minutes in duration, but I assure you, that entire hour and a half is packed full of snappy dialogue that will suck you into the story. The movie is beautifully shot and depicts the incredibly important intersection of sports/entertainment and race/politics. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iL1K_l8Jyo.
No. 14 – Avengers: Endgame
Avengers: Endgame is the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga” and serves as the closing chapter of this particular story of the Avengers. This particular saga is the most commercially and critically successful superhero movie franchise of all time, and thus, Endgame had a massive challenge to wrap up this story in a way that satisfied fans. It went above and beyond that challenge and succeeded spectacularly. The film was complex at times and the story was intricate, but Endgame stayed true to the essence of its Marvel predecessors and provided the perfect cocktail of laughs, tears, action, and entertainment to make this final ride worth it for the audience. (In fact, the 182-minute runtime never felt like a chore for a single second.) Streaming for free for subscribers to Disney+. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcMBFSGVi1c.
No. 13 – Dolemite Is My Name
In Dolemite Is My Name, Eddie Murphy returns to his raunchy comedy sweet spot (his first Rated-R film since Life in 1999) in his portrayal of the real-life comedian and legendary blaxploitation filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. Eddie Murphy is one of the greatest comedians of all time, but from the perspective of cinema, his career has been off track since his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls. In Dolemite, Murphy has absolutely gotten his swagger back. I also loved the supporting performance by Wesley Snipes as the real-life blaxploitation star D’Urville Martin—Snipes’s hysterical depiction of Martin completed a noteworthy comeback of his own. This film is equal parts hilarious and charming, and I reveled in the core themes of hope and perseverance. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws1YIKsuTjQ.
No. 12 – Joker
Joker serves as an origin story for the infamous Joker villain from the DC Comics. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian with severe emotional instability who, over the course of the story, spirals down into a dangerous and violent state of madness. This film has obviously been fodder for people wanting to debate the ethics of depicting gun violence and mental illness. But although I felt a bit uncomfortable during some of Arthur’s emotional outbursts and episodes, I can’t imagine watching a movie about someone struggling with mental illness and feeling anything other than a sense of uncomfortableness. Todd Phillips’s story is raw and unrestricted, and I appreciated the social and political commentary on society’s consistent rejection of those that are different, especially in light of the present times. The film is beautiful in terms of costumes, production design, musical score, and cinematography, but the single greatest strength of Joker is Phoenix’s acting performance—a true tour de force. The storyline is eerily reminiscent of two Martin Scorsese films, The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, and Phoenix channels those brilliant Robert De Niro performances in crafting his one-of-a-kind character. (The fact that De Niro plays a role in Jokeris almost poetic.) Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t433PEQGErc.
No. 11 – Apollo 11
In a year filled with many great documentaries, my favorite was Apollo 11. The film documents the famous Apollo 11 space mission in 1969 that resulted in the first spacewalk. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory (such as Senna and Amy) create gripping narratives utilizing only archival footage. Apollo 11 does the same here, but it goes a step further, refusing to use even interviews—the entire story is told through glorious archival footage, much of which was previously unreleased. The whole world knows this story and how it ends, and yet, the breathtaking footage and unique storytelling devices create a mesmerizing sense of adventure and suspense. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Co8Z8BQgWc.