Ranking the 2020–21 Best Picture Nominees
Some lesser films got chance to shine during pandemic Oscars
By Todd Hill
Every year of my not-so-short-anymore life, I have watched the Oscars, and I have almost never enjoyed the experience.
That’s not as masochistic as it sounds, since I have enjoyed the films the Academy Awards honor every year — well, at least some of them. But the actual awards show, like all awards shows, is usually a fairly dismal affair. Never before, however, until the Oscars ceremony of 2020-21 foisted itself upon the world, did I actually feel sorry for this spectacle.
The 2020-21 Oscars were without a doubt the worst that certainly I’ve ever seen — and as I said, I’ve seen them all going back more years than I care to count. But honestly, could it have gone any other way?
Hollywood’s long history is in part one of threats, both real and perceived, to the business of making movies, and it can be argued strongly that the increasing popularity of streaming represents the biggest threat yet (or opportunity). The coronavirus pandemic only accelerated streaming’s momentum.
People clearly saw the eight films nominated for Best Picture in 2021, sitting comfortably at home, but this certainly didn’t help the Oscars show, which saw its television ratings drop by more than 50 percent from the previous year’s ceremony, which at that time were the lowest on record. They didn’t miss much.
Either because watching a movie at home doesn’t engender the same level of engagement as going to the theater, or because the pandemic remained a distraction, or because awards shows just aren’t anything anyone cares about anymore, the 2020-21 Oscars bombed. And they deserved to.
Produced by the talented and accomplished filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, the virtually humorless ceremony looked and felt very different from a normal Oscars, with essentially every change made a change for the worse.
Happily, however, the Academy voters’ clear choice to receive the Best Picture Oscar was also my clear choice, which rarely happens. It’s a small film, like many of the year’s nominees, which was a byproduct of several high-profile award contenders being delayed until theaters were reopened. And consequently, the 2020-21 slate of Best Picture contenders was weaker than usual. But let’s celebrate their unexpected moment in the sun.
Below is my personal ranking of the 2020-21 Best Picture nominees, followed by a mention of other films that were arguably snubbed. Alas, I could only come up with one overlooked title. It was that kind of a year.
Chloe Zhao’s film, about a middle-aged American woman (Frances McDormand) living on the edges of society, perhaps deliberately, may be a quiet, contemplative picture at first glance, but it provides audiences with a lot to unpack, if they’re willing to go to the trouble. I don’t know that we’re meant to admire this woman, but we certainly acquire empathy for her. This is the most empathic film I’ve seen in years. The life she has led, the time spent dedicated to a husband and a job that are both now gone, continue to direct her course into the future. There’s something almost unspeakably sad about such a trajectory, although she might be the last person to see it that way. “I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering,” she does admit. Zhao has crafted a gentle motion picture that prods us to ponder our own lives and choices, while encouraging us to draw our own conclusions. There’s no greater accomplishment in storytelling.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Director (Chloe Zhao), Actress (Frances McDormand), Adapted Screenplay (Zhao), Film Editing, Cinematography. Oscar wins, 3 — Best Picture, Director, Actress.
Several critics have tagged this film as “tender,” which may be accurate, but that isn’t necessarily a compliment, even if that’s the intent. “Tender” films often get labeled as quiet or small pictures in which not a lot happens. Well, not a lot happens in “Minari,” if we’re just focused on incident. The Yi family, originally from South Korea, move with their two children to a remote plot of Arkansas land to farm for a living. At no point does the film show them being confronted with anti-immigrant sentiment, which I found refreshing, particularly now. It’s as if the movie is reminding us — gently, tenderly — that America as a whole has always welcomed immigrants. “Minari” is bound to resonate more strongly with those who have lived through just such an immigrant experience, or who are perhaps one generation removed, than with those who haven’t. But it has a message that anyone with an open mind should be able to appreciate.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Director (Lee Isaac Chung), Actor (Steven Yeun), Supporting Actress (Youn Yuh-jung), Original Screenplay (Chung), Original Score. Oscar wins, 1 — Supporting Actress.
3.) The Father
For some two decades now, we’ve been treated to several superlative films about dementia. This may be the best of the bunch. Based on the director’s play, it has loftier ambitions than abject, end-of-life despair. Anthony Hopkins’ character is too proud to let dementia destroy his life. Of course, everyone has a breaking point, and when Hopkins’ character reaches his the spectacle is as heartbreaking as you might expect. It’s an acceptance of nothing less, in a sense, than a living death. Roughly half the film is told from the point of view of the man’s daughter, but crucially, the other half is brought to us from the perspective of the father, in all its confusion and befuddlement. Time plays tricks on us, the viewers, just as it does in the world the father inhabits. We’re never quite sure of what we’re seeing, or even who. And it’s this very clever screenwriting that allows us to see just how cruel dementia can be to everyone affected by it.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Supporting Actress (Olivia Colman), Adapted Screenplay (Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton), Film Editing, Production Design. Oscar wins, 2 — Actor, Adapted Screenplay.
4.) Sound of Metal
We’ve all seen movies about an addict’s journey. They’ve become a cheap film subgenre over the years and most of the efforts are essentially a dime a dozen. Initially, that’s where “Sound of Metal” appeared headed for me. But while there are undeniable similarities between coming to grips with addiction and a profound disability like complete hearing loss, nobody beats deafness. The saddest moment in the film is when we’re allowed to hear alongside Riz Ahmed’s character, Ruben, what his new world sounds like. Inevitably, “Sound of Metal” details a journey of acceptance, but it also emphasizes the importance of found communities for all of us as individuals. It takes Ruben a while to come to terms with the fact that his entire life has been transformed by his deafness, and that he and it will never be the same. When that awareness finally hits home, it does so like a quiet (no pun intended) revelation, for us as well as Ruben.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Actor (Riz Ahmed), Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Original Screenplay (Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance), Film Editing, Sound. Oscar wins, 2 — Film Editing, Sound.
5.) Judas and the Black Messiah
This film reminds us that the FBI considered the Black Panthers a domestic terrorist organization, completely understandable given that the BPP didn’t just talk about killing “pigs.” But the FBI’s methods were a touch heavy-handed to say the least. Will today’s FBI be as diligent in breaking up, say, the Proud Boys? I think we all know the answer to that. The timeliness of this film coming out in tandem with the ascendancy of the Black Lives Matter movement is worth noting, of course, but the issues brought to the fore by both that movement and this motion picture are so much more than just timely. We would all do well to recognize that just a few short years ago a movie about a controversial, militant group like the Black Panthers, brought to us by filmmakers who are best suited for telling such a story, would never be allowed to achieve a profile as broad as “Judas and the Black Messiah” has been given. It fully merits such a platform.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield), Original Screenplay (Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas), Cinematography, Original Song. Oscar wins, 1 — Supporting Actor (Kaluuya).
6.) The Trial of the Chicago 7
If Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting makes us feel smart as we watch it being acted out, imagine how it must make the actors feel. Actors sound great reading a Sorkin screenplay, and some of the best working today, not surprisingly, flocked to this film. Their performances are really the only reason to see — or laud — this motion picture. Sacha Baron Cohen, a talented actor with a sharp eye for what’s going on in America today, is at the center of the movie, playing the yippie Abbie Hoffman. The real star of this show, however, is Frank Langella, as the contemptible judge Julius Hoffman. Sorkin, who also directed the film, makes some unfortunate choices. He’s to be applauded for drawing attention to the trial over whether a riot was incited at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and for finding some timely elements in the story, but he didn’t need to lecture to us about how we should feel about them.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen), Original Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin), Film Editing, Cinematography, Original Song. Oscar wins, 0.
7.) Promising Young Woman
This is a film about rape, and tangentially the #MeToo movement, but if you dropped in on the right 15 minutes and then back out again you might come away thinking it’s a romantic comedy. I’m not entirely sure what the movie is trying to accomplish or even say, which is another way of stating that it seems to have failed in the attempt. It’s perhaps easiest to label the film a satire, even if it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what it’s trying to satirize. But film satire is as much a mood or feeling as a target, so perhaps that’s OK to some extent. At least the movie has Carey Mulligan in the starring role of Cassie Thomas, a 30-year-old med school dropout with vengeance in her soul. Had this awards season not come on the heels of the strangest year in movie history, I doubt this undertaking would have gotten anywhere near a Best Picture nomination. It’s a promising effort by a first-time filmmaker (Emerald Fennell), but I’ll stop there.
Oscar nominations, 5 — Best Picture, Director (Emerald Fennell), Actress (Carey Mulligan), Original Screenplay (Fennell), Film Editing. Oscar wins, 1 — Original Screenplay.
It’s a love letter of sorts from director David Fincher to his late father, who wrote the screenplay for this film back in the 1990s. Its technical achievements are most impressive. Much of the acting, especially from Gary Oldman, is superlative as well. But gosh, is this movie dull. It relates the writing, by screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, of 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” considered by most film scholars the greatest movie of all time. It’s not imperative that you first see “Citizen Kane” and understand its aesthetic and historical worth to get the most out of “Mank,” but if you haven’t then the experience of watching this movie probably won’t be terribly rewarding. As someone who completed that homework a long time ago, I still found this film a consistent slog. Maybe it could have made a good book, but a movie by a name director casts a wider net, and the lack of enthusiasm for this title was widespread, and understandable.
Oscar nominations, 10 — Best Picture, Director (David Fincher), Actor (Gary Oldman), Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried), Cinematography, Production Design, Original Score, Sound, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling. Oscar wins, 2 — Cinematography, Production Design.
For further consideration
We’re fortunate to have now several cinematic adaptations of the plays of August Wilson. Some feel stagier than others, with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” being one of the stagiest, to the point where it’s claustrophobic. Its characters — limited by circumstance and of course race — are jammed into tiny brick rooms in basements and the like. The entirety of this film is contained within a one-day studio recording session, and frankly, nothing happens except for a smattering of incendiary personality conflicts. But it’s the performances — particularly those of Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman — that are the stars here. Watching this movie, although it feels like a lesser effort in the August Wilson stage-to-screen effort, one can get a real sense of where the blues come from.
About this project
Some people vow to visit every continent on the planet, others to read everything Shakespeare (allegedly) wrote. I’ve never had much interest in doing either, but I am committed to seeing every motion picture ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, back to the very first ones in 1927–28 (specifically, I’m talking about films nominated for Outstanding Picture, Outstanding Production, Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture and Best Picture; I’m not sure why the Academy has seen fit to change the name of the award so frequently).
I don’t for one moment presume to operate under the assumption that the Best Picture nominees over time consistently represent the best American filmmakers have had to offer, which is why with each slate of nominees I also briefly consider some other consensus critical picks for the best movies of that year(s). Yes, there’s a lot of overlap, but not as much as there should be.
So, why am I taking the time to watch and then write about so many often sub-par movies (571 following the 2020–21 Academy Awards)? As anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Oscars knows, the voters often get it wrong, which isn’t so much fascinating as it is frustrating. The Oscars, however, have always mattered to the film industry, and matter still (the annual awards telecast, not so much). Each year’s Best Picture nominees help to paint a picture of how Hollywood saw itself at that time, and provide us with glimpses at trends in movie history that could be gone for good.
Most of all, they supply context. Think this year’s slate of nominees was the best ever? The worst? I can virtually guarantee you that’s not the case. No, really. You’d be surprised.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.