Awards Season

CultureMap film critic's guide to the 8 Best Picture Oscar nominees of 2021

CultureMap film critic's guide to the 2021 Best Picture Oscar nominees

Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried in Mank
David Fincher's Mank was nominated for 10 awards, the most of any film at the 2021 Academy Awards, although six Best Picture nominees earned six nominations each. Photo courtesy of Netflix

At long last in this extended 2020/2021 movie awards season, the nominations for 2021 Academy Awards have been announced, with eight films garnering nominations for Best Picture. But are all of them deserving?

Take a look back at what CultureMap's film critic, Alex Bentley, had to say about each of the nominees when they were originally released. Unfortunately, we still have a while before we find out the winners, as the Oscars won't be handed out until April 25.

The Father
This film about an aging man with dementia, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, earned six overall nominations, including nods for both actors. The film, which was nominated for best screenplay by writers Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton, impressed with its storytelling by showing events through the lead character's addled state of mind, as scenes seem to move in one direction before veering off in entirely unexpected ways. Combined with the two strong performances, the film's power is easy to understand.

Judas and the Black Messiah
Also nabbing six nominations, including surprise competing Best Supporting Actor nominations for Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, this film was a mixed bag that felt like it was stuck between two missions. Writer/director Shaka King, who was nominated for Best Screenplay with co-writer Will Berson, clearly wanted to put a spotlight on Fred Hampton and the Chicago Black Panther Party and what they were trying to accomplish. But the main character of the film is informant Bill O’Neal, and that imbalance leaves the story of Hampton and his journey without much heft to it.  Both Kaluuya and Stanfield are as compelling as they’ve been in their previous roles, but they can't save the movie overall.

Leading the way with 10 nominations is usually a strong indicator that a film is a favorite at the Oscars, but that might not be the case for Mank. The detail David Fincher, who was nominated for Best Director, and his team put into the film is fantastic, from the sets to the costumes to the overall style, and the film is appropriately nominated for Production Design, Costume Design, and Cinematography. The film does drag in certain sections, but the intrigue of the story, Fincher’s talent, and great performances by Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, who were both nominated, always gets things back on track.

Another film with six nominations, Minari is a small film with big dreams, specifically the American Dream. Following a Korean family trying to make it as farmers in 1980s Arkansas, the film derives most of its drama from the family’s changing dynamics. Although not all that much happens plot-wise, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung (who earned nominations for both skills) keeps things moving by focusing on the characters. Nominated actors Steven Yeun and Yuh-Jung Youn lead the way in telling a story that is universal despite the film mostly being in Korean with subtitles.

The favorite to win despite getting "only" six nominations, Nomadland is a desolate and beautiful journey into a world with which many people may be unfamiliar. Led by two-time Oscar winner and now six-time nominee Frances McDormand, who utterly inhabits her role, the film is free-flowing, with little structure as it follows lead character Fern along her ever-winding path. Writer/director Chloé Zhao, nominated in both categories, lets many modern-day real-life nomads tell their own stories, and each one is both unique and relatable. 

Promising Young Woman
My personal No. 1 movie of the yearPromising Young Woman earned five nominations, including one for star Carey Mulligan and two for Emerald Fennell for both writing and directing. The film, which is about a woman going on a personal mission against would-be rapists, has so many layers to it that every scene makes an impact. Fennell’s dialogue includes numerous lines that hit hard, going right at the culture that permits bad behavior by men. And Mulligan is, quite simply, astonishing in her role, controlling every moment with a low and intimidating voice, as well as a demeanor that shows you do not want to mess with her.

Sound of Metal
This innovative film, which earned six nominations, lets audiences take a deep dive into the experience of going deaf. The film is a major achievement in sound design, for which it is rightly nominated, as the sound fades out, distorts, or disappears completely depending on the state of the lead character at different points in the film, giving true insight into what he is going through. Both star Riz Ahmed and Deaf actor Paul Raci, each of whom is nominated, give standout performances, doing much to try to destigmatize deafness as the story gently but firmly pushes the belief that being deaf is not a disability.

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Six must be a lucky number at this year's Oscars, as this film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin also got that exact number of nominations. The film is an actors' showcase, with Sacha Baron Cohen, previously best known for Borat, earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his magnetic performance as Abbie Hoffman. Sorkin, who's nominated for Best Original Screenplay, masterfully lays out the film so that even if all of the particulars are not immediately understandable, the feelings of injustice and anger come through loud and clear.