By James Ernst
The time has finally come. The Oscars are back on Sunday, March 27, and I for one couldn’t be any more excited. The nominations have been out for a while, giving me some time to watch all 10 of this year’s fantastic Best Picture nominees and present to you a complete ranking and review of who should go home with the big prize.
10. Don’t Look Up | Rating: 6/10
Coming in last is Don’t Look Up. It takes the behaviors of modern political leaders and governments to give a comedic look at how the end of the world would play out. Unfortunately, it’s not that great. The strongest aspect of the film is its cast. Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio headline the film, along with Meryl Streep, Tyler Perry, and Cate Blanchett. Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi also make appearances, but, despite being a big draw for a lot of younger viewers, they are presented as barely more than cameos. This brings me to my main issue with the film: everything is presented in small doses. The satire aspect is wonderful at times, but it ends up being more misses than hits with many scenes being more cringe-worthy than genuinely funny. The performances are great, but only at certain points does the cast really get to show off why they are the best in the business. These are the greatest actors working in the industry right now, and they somehow all feel wasted. There are some great shots, but still there is a lot of generic framing and average lighting. The editing is truly horrendous and it is honestly a disgrace for it to be nominated for Best Editing. All in all, there are some great moments where director Adam McKay is able to efficiently utilize the arsenal of talented actors, but we shouldn’t settle for just a few great scenes. Unfortunately, the only thing about this movie I’ll remember in the future is Leo’s outstanding rage scene.
9. King Richard | Rating: 7/10
King Richard feels like a movie you’d watch at the end of the year when you have nothing else to do in class. It’s a good movie and I very much enjoyed it, but I couldn’t shake this feeling the entire time I watched it. It is the story of Venus and Serena Williams’ father and how he and his wife raised them to be some of the best and most influential athletes in the world. Will Smith is the star of this movie, with his current awards run being a clear path to winning the Best Actor Oscar. Personally, I think there were better performances this year, but I will not be shocked or disappointed if he takes it home. The supporting cast is also very good, including Aunjanue Ellis and Jon Bernthal. Overall, I’d say that King Richard is a great watch despite feeling like a standard outing in the biopic genre.
8. West Side Story | Rating: 8/10
Steven Spielberg returns with his first legitimately good movie in nearly a decade. After around seven years of releasing pretty average movies, West Side Story marks the return of the king. An adaptation of the play and a remake of the original 1961 classic, it outshines the original in every imaginable way. The production design, costumes, hair and makeup, cinematography is all outstanding. Steven Spielberg has once again proved why he is the renowned director he is with this movie. I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, but this movie was gripping and emotional and I loved it. Also cool to note that Rachel Zegler, who was fantastic as Maria in this version, is from Hackensack.
7. Belfast | Rating: 8/10
Kenneth Branagh, most famous for playing Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed this movie, a love letter to his home of Belfast, Ireland. It is a semi-autobiographical account of his life during the beginning of The Troubles in the late 1960s, a war between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland that lasted about 30 years. The main character, Buddy, is a young boy whose father is involved with the conflict. They are forced to leave Belfast to seek refuge in England and the movie gives us a look inside Buddy’s head as he starts to realize he will have to leave his life in Belfast behind. The performances were all great, in particular Caitríona Balfe as Buddy’s mother. She was the standout performance to me and I’m shocked she didn’t receive a nomination for Best Actress. Jude Hill, the actor who plays Buddy, also had an emotional performance considering how young and inexperienced he is. Kenneth Branagh’s screenplay is great but a little on the nose about certain scenarios in which he fails to show not tell. This movie was also well-shot and it really felt like a great tribute to Belfast.
6. Nightmare Alley | Rating: 9/10
Guillermo del Toro is one of my personal favorite directors, so I’m a little biased when it comes to reviewing Nightmare Alley. It is about a man living in the 1930s and 40s who starts out working at a cheap carnival and eventually becomes a lavish magician who scams rich people for their fortunes. That is all I’d like to reveal without ruining the many twists and turns this movie has. This was an awesome movie and I hope more people watch it because of its well-deserved nomination. The performances from every single cast member, including Bradley Cooper, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett were all excellent. This feels like a movie that’s airtight and running on all cylinders. It does have a few flaws when it comes to plot holes, but those are all admissible given how near-perfect the rest of the film is.
5. Dune | Rating: 9/10
Dune is my favorite movie of 2021. I saw it three times in IMAX even though it was released on HBO Max at the same time. Having read the book and being a huge fan of the source material for years, I have absolutely no complaints about this movie at all. As an adaptation of the book, it is flawless. A lot of people do not understand just how incredible it is to adapt the book this well. Keep in mind that this only adapts the first half of the book, so it ends somewhat abruptly. Many people’s complaints about this movie are about the ending, given that it ends in what feels like the middle of a scene. Having read the book, this was the best place to end the first movie because if it were to continue any longer, people would then complain about the runtime being too long and the ending would feel even worse. I can’t stress enough how incredible it is that this movie was such a faithful adaptation of the book given that it was previously thought to be impossible to make. With the special place it has in my heart now, I would wholeheartedly recommend this movie to everyone.
4. Drive My Car | Rating: 9/10
The only foreign film on this list, Drive My Car is a Japanese film about a theater director and actor performing a rendition of Uncle Vanya after his wife’s death. He is assigned a personal driver whom he gets to know and understand their deep connection and relatability. The interesting aspect of his rendition of Uncle Vanya is that it is a multilingual production, with every actor speaking a different language ranging from English to Korean Sign Language. I think the main three actors in this movie, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, and Masaki Okada were what made me love it so much. The emotions they convey are incredible and really keep you interested in what would seem like an uninteresting movie. It has a full three-hour long runtime, which may seem like too much to handle. The title card and credits don’t even start until 40 minutes into the movie after the long prologue. It sounds long and boring, like most Oscar-nominated do, but the writing, acting, directing, and cinematography somehow keep you engaged for the entire time. The movie feels like a compilation of outstanding monologues rather than feeling sluggish or drawn out. Every scene feels meaningful and is excellently shot and edited to communicate the tone of the scenes, ranging from moody and depressing to suspenseful and tense. I’d recommend this movie to anyone in the mood for a deep, thought-provoking movie about two people from completely different backgrounds learning that they are truly very similar and have a connection stronger than they ever expected.
3. CODA | Rating: 9/10
This was certainly the most unexpected movie of the year for me. What I initially thought was going to be a standard story of family and love was way more complex and emotional than I ever expected. I haven’t cried during a movie since I was 2 years old and cried at everything, and this was the closest I’ve come to crying my eyes out. CODA is a story about a child of deaf adults (CODA) who has a beautiful singing voice and wants to attend Berklee College of Music for it. Her music teacher encourages her to pursue this while her family wants her to stay in town to take up the family fishing business. The sad thing about this is that her mother, father, and brother can’t hear her sing. The cinematography is a bit bland, but is still better than most movies. Also, it would be a crime not to mention Troy Kotsur’s performance as the father character. He’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor this year and he did a fantastic job. As silly as it sounds, I forgot to turn the subtitles on for nearly the entire movie and I was still able to understand and interpret what the deaf characters were saying through sign language even though I had no idea what they were actually saying. The actors were so good at conveying their emotions through body language that I thought it was purposely made without subtitles so the viewer could interpret it this way. Personally, I think I was able to enjoy and engage with it more because of this. I’d say that everyone should watch this movie purely for the emotional impact it has on the viewer.
2. Licorice Pizza | Rating: 10/10
Besides Dune, this is probably my favorite movie of the year. It’s also probably the most controversial. Licorice Pizza is a period piece of 1970s California and the relationship between a boy and a girl. The controversy surrounding this movie is about two things in it: the age gap between the two leads and a disgustingly racist “joke” that appears multiple times throughout. The age gap concern is that the girl is in her mid-to-late twenties and the boy is fifteen. While this is weird and a confusing choice by Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s important to remember that it isn’t a true story. This love affair never really happened, it is just a commentary on the relationships of the era. This is also important to remember when considering the racist joke. The joke is that a white man is married to Japanese women and speaks to them in a crude and offensive accent. It isn’t funny and isn’t meant to be, as Paul Thomas Anderson has stated. However, audiences have watched this movie without realizing that it is meant to be social commentary. When I saw it, many people in my theater laughed at the man’s racist accent and it was pretty uncomfortable to be seeing it with people that thought it was an actual joke meant to be funny. While I understand that Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to give a realistic look into the treatment of Asian-Americans during this time period, I think it would have been a better choice to cut these scenes considering how average moviegoing audiences have responded to it. Looking past these uncomfortable aspects of the movie, it is a near-perfect movie in my mind. I absolutely loved it from start to finish. While the age gap is certainly noticeable, and the characters mention how strange it is, it is still a beautiful story of two people falling in love in an unconventional way. The characters find themselves in bizarre situations that reflect the time period and show that it wasn’t a perfect time like many thought it to be. Bradley Cooper, among others, had a fantastic cameo and he stole the show for the short time he was in it. I love this movie and I hope others will give it a chance, despite the glaring issues with the age gap between the two main characters and the period-accurate racist jokes.
1. The Power of the Dog | Rating: 10/10
While this isn’t my absolute favorite movie of the year, it is undoubtedly the best. The Power of the Dog is stunningly good and probably my favorite Netflix movie besides Icarus. It is outstanding in every way possible. The acting, the cinematography, and the music are all next-level. My favorite part of this movie is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. He plays Phil, a hardened, controlling rancher that is struggling to understand himself. He plays himself up to be an evil man that hates nearly everything, including his nephew-in-law, Peter. Peter’s mother has recently married Phil’s brother George, and Phil suspects she is scamming George for his money. Because of this he develops a hatred for Peter and tries to make him as uncomfortable as possible while he is on the ranch. The movie explores complex themes of toxic masculinity, closeted homosexuality, and the dangers of crossing insane people. Without spoiling, it also has one of the best twists I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine that anyone would dislike this movie, so go watch it because it is incredibly good and hands down the best film of the year.
Featured Image credit: Encylopedia Britannica