Eternals, the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is proving to be one of the most divisive in the series. Much of the divide amongst both critics and audience alike can be attributable to Academy Award Winning director Chloé Zhao’s quieter sensibilities. Her penchant for tone poems may have made her a peculiar choice for the action heavy genre, but her more subdued style is a welcome breath of air for a genre that can be frantic at times.
While the film is inherently plot driven, with countless action scenes as Marvel requires in all their films, Chloé Zhao keeps an emotional arch at the center of her film. By the start of the movie, Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden) and the rest of the Eternals have lived for millennia. In that time, they have experienced countless lifetimes of emotion; they’ve experienced both endless joy and heartbreak. Sersi and Ikaris have spent eons in a loving relationship, and just as much time hurtfully apart. This baggage weighs heavily on Sersi as she begins a new emotional journey with a mortal, Dane (Kit Harington). When the deviants, the creatures the Eternals were sent on Earth to destroy, return, Ikaris and Sersi are thrust back together forcing Sersi to process her emotional baggage so she can fully commit to a relationship with Dane. This is the emotional core that Zhao relies upon to bring something personal and relatable to the loud franchise.
The strongest parts of the film for building these characters are the extensive flashbacks. In these, each of the Eternals in turn experiences a defining moment of their long lives. These often don’t come in battle, but in helping the humans progress and live fuller lives. For example, sitting down with a mortal cooking a simple dinner imbues Sirsi with empathy that guides her life for the centuries to come. These moments are where Zhao’s voice comes through the loudest. She enables her characters to evolve on their own without plot dictating what they should become. While it is still much more restrained version of Zhao’s other work, her auteurial signature pushes through, nonetheless.
Where Zhao’s influence is felt the least is unfortunately in the entire third act during which all character nuance is disregarded so that an overblown fight can take place. This fight sequence could fit in just fine with any other film in the Marvel library, but Zhao was building to something more. Her film deserved a more emotionally driven climax as part of the action. Instead, the film falls prey to the same soulless fight sequences that fans of Marvel fans have seen dozens of times before.
Eternals more than any other Marvel film allowed the distinct voice of its director to shine through the standard formula. Her use of flashbacks allowed her the slower pacing she uses so well to ensure that her characters develop organically. However, a completely disconnected third act leaves the film feeling like two separate entities. Zhao’s influence comes back for the film’s resolution and is strong enough throughout to warrant a recommendation. It would just be nice to see Marvel trust their directors with complete control of a film rather than micromanage all the action sequences.
Perennial festival darling Mia Hansen-Løve returns for another film that is destined to receive plenty of critical acclaim if not much commercia success. Bergman Island like all Hansen-Løve films focuses on mastering the intimate to tell a story that is both incredibly specific and eminently relatable at the same time.
Bergman Island tells the story of Chris (Vicky Krieps) who follows her husband Tony (Tim Roth) to the titular Bergman Island to work on her next film while her husband teaches a series of masterclasses. After a prolonged bout with writer’s block, she takes inspiration from her surroundings and writes most of her next project. The second half of the movie cuts between the movie’s reality and the Chris’s eventual film within the film starring Mia Wasikowska as Amy and Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph.
Set on the isle of Fårö, Bergman Island leans heavily on the rich cinematic history of its setting. Hansen-Løve fills her camera with iconic imagery whenever possible but does not let the film turn into a simple travel brochure. Everything is in subservience of her characters. Chris, Tony, and Amy are all filmmakers, so their connection to the island and its famous locations provides a reason for the shots of Bergman’s legacy. The balance of utilizing her setting and but not letting the setting use her is a real strength Hansen-Løve shows throughout the film.
The film’s genius shines through the most in the second half when telling of Chris’s in progress movie leads to a blend of reality. Amy and Joseph while creations of Chris’s work also serve as proxies for the married couple. Hansen-Løve is a master of character work, and these doppelgangers allow her to flex those muscles. Chris and Tony’s relationship and life circumstances are dissimilar from that of Amy and Joseph and yet Hansen-Løve finds the through lines and creates a rich tapestry of human emotions and relations for the viewer to sample.
In her latest outing, director Mia Hansen-Løve delivers another superb picture featuring her strength of capturing interpersonal relationships. Her lead characters that the complexities of their emotions are front and center to the story. The stunt location decision feeds into her story seamlessly without becoming a distraction, and the decision to utilize a film within a film builds wonderful character depth. Bergman Island is a wonderful specimen of quiet yet deeply personal storytelling.
Fresh off the success of his four-hour cut of Justice League (2021), Zack Snyder takes his screenplay that had been stuck in development hell for years and uses his current goodwill to jump behind the camera and make the film himself.
Army of the Dead sells itself as a George Romero zombie film mixed with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Dave Bautista plays Scott Ward a mercenary for hire who assembles a crew to infiltrate the walled-off, zombie-infested Las Vegas. The goal is to steal the $200 million from an underground vault before the government nukes the city in hopes of containing the outbreak.
The script for Army of the Dead is a mess. It has very awkward pacing – highlighted by a far too long prologue – and is filled with numerous things for YouTube cynics to nitpick. The script’s largest issue comes from the film’s supposed emotional center. Scott uses the heist as an excuse to reunite with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who works as a volunteer in a camp adjacent to the walled off Vegas. She is clearly meant to be who the audience resonates with as Scott is a cold protagonist. Before the reunion with her father, Kate makes a pact with her friend who is being forcefully held in the camp that if she attempts to escape – which must be done through the infested city – Kate will watch her friend’s children until they can be reunited. As Scott and the others are preparing to enter the city, Kate realizes that her friend did in fact enter Vegas but has not emerged leaving the children abandoned. This sets up a powerful dilemma for Kate, but instead of exploring that Snyder simply uses it as an excuse to force Kate into the city with her father and completely forgets about the abandoned children. In a script filled with head scratching moments, denying the film its natural heart is the most damaging to the film.
While Snyder may have looked to Romero and Soderbergh for inspiration, the only director whose influence Snyder truly takes to heart is his own. Romero’s Living Dead films were filled with social commentary from a man with a lot to say on the subject. Snyder on the other hand is extremely misanthropic, and this deprives the film of any meaningful commentary. While the film sets up for the potential of an immigration story, the open-air detention facility is purely used as a plot contrivance and then promptly ignored for more action. Zack Snyder does not care to use his platform to create an allegory. This same misanthropy is also at the heart of why Snyder struggles to capture the wit in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films. While the film is filled with jokes, each of them is mean spirited and come at the expense of someone. This provides none of the levity that drives the Soderbergh’s films and instead creates an unpleasantness which causes the film to feel a slog.
If the film fails to capture the essence of the narrative’s inspirations, Snyder does at least perfectly replicate his own style. Every shot is stylized to the point at which it ceases to have any connection to reality. For the first time, Snyder chose to sit directly behind the camera and shoot his own film, and his personal vision does not work well as a cinematography. In service of making every shot interesting, he kept the depth of field extremely shallow often putting important characters behind a soft focus for no discernible reason. Just as a film should not use exclusively flat shots, one also should not always employ extreme composition techniques. This flawed decision is further amplified by Snyder’s signature desaturated color pallet – a decision which completely wastes using the gaudy Vegas Strip as a setting. The result is a film that is actively straining on the eyes to watch.
Snyder’s other stylistic signatures are present as well. The film makes liberal use of bullet time imagery and dramatic rewinds to create entertaining set pieces. This is where the film is most comfortable, creating graphic violence by and against the zombies. Unfortunately, this positive aspect of the film becomes gratuitous at times, and the interesting visual flare does little to counteract the numerous other flaws.
Zack Snyder was intimately involved in nearly every part of Army of the Dead and his presence comes across clearly on the screen. The film is not without vision, but vision alone does not create a good film. Between a nonexistent theme, the misanthropic souring of narrative tropes, and a headache inducing visual style, Army of the Dead is the most Zach Snyder film in the worst way. Snyder is best when subject to some restraint, and it is clear that no one felt comfortable telling him “no” for this endeavor.
This is the latest that I’ve released my year end list in a long while, but 2020 was a weird year so it is what it is. Even taking an extra 2 (closer to 3 now that I’m actually finishing) weeks to put together my list, between the closure of theaters and rampant depression I still watched fewer new releases than I normally do by the end of the year. That said, while I may be pulling from a smaller pool, I stand by every film on this list. Maybe they wouldn’t all make this list it on a more normal year, but I full heartedly recommend each and every one of them.
25. Emma (Autumn de Wilde)
To be clear, Clueless (1995, Dir. Amy Heckerling) is still the all-time best rendition of the Jane Austen classic, but Autumn de Wilde’s more direct telling is excellent in its own way. Anya Taylor-Joy had an impressive year, and that started with her wonderful depiction of the titular character. Taylor-Joy manages to perfectly balance the character’s manipulative nature with her naivety. Her lovely performance combines with the colorful set design and costuming to create a memorable first entry to my list.
24. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart)
The best animated feature that I saw in 2020 wasn’t either of Pixar’s offerings, but instead Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers. Like their previous two pictures, The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), the film evokes more of the classical Disney style than the mega-studio has had in its own films for years. They manage to create wonderfully kid-first animation that still appeals to adults without forcing the voice of comedians or awkwardly inserting adult jokes. Instead Wolfwalkers appeals to adults the same way it appeals to children, with drop dead gorgeous animation and a lovely story.
23. The Lodge (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)
Normally when a film has its release date pushed from November to February that is a sign of a train wreck. This is especially concerning when the film debuted at Sundance the January prior, so the delay wasn’t a matter of an unfinished film. And yet, The Lodge is a wonderfully executed, twisted horror film. The heavy usage of religious imagery works well as the film toys with the difference between culturally acceptable piousness and cult fanaticism. Even the blinding white snow which the film uses to create a completely isolated location acts as a religious purity symbol. The Lodge was a film that should not be forgotten from the pre-lockdown era of 2020.
22. Driveways (Andrew Ahn)
While I don’t personally subscribe to the notion that melodrama is inherently a negative in filmmaking, there is a lot to be said for a film that can tackle heavy topics while remaining grounded. Andrew Ahn’s Driveways accomplishes this well in its telling of a single mom and her son’s ability to cope with hardships. The scenario the two are put in is more than should be asked of people in their situation, but not more than frequently is put upon people. By keeping the film so realistic, the overall message is elevated. We could see ourselves in Kathy’s (Hong Chau) predicament, and the way that she and her son Cody (Lucas Jaye) thrive through everything inspires us to believe we could do the same. The limited movie magic makes the impact all the stronger.
21. Saint Frances (Alex Thompson)
In contrast to the subtle Driveways, Saint Frances is more brash with its message, and at times it almost comes across as a bit manipulative, but I love it all the same. Much of my love for the film stems from how connected I feel to Kelly O’Sullivan’s character Bridget. Years after the spike in movies about young 20 somethings many of us who resonated with those characters still feel as lost now in our 30s left behind by the capitalist system that served our parents. Saint Frances perfectly delivers on that still present niche, and the young Ramona Edith Williams as Frances is wonderful as the unexpected directional beacon for Bridget. Is this film one that I think is destined to be taught in film school for years to come? No, but I love it just all same.
20. Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
I wrote a lot about this one in one of my daily posts, and in that I talked a on end about how it is a representation of repressive patriarchal hierarchies. What I don’t think I delved into nearly enough then was how perfect Haley Bennett is as Hunter. She puts on a timid front when interacting with her husband’s affluent family, clearly uncomfortable with the position she has been thrust into. However, when she decides to take her first “selfish” action her eyes light up and the timid exterior becomes one of self-fulfillment. As an actress she manages to ever so slightly change her performance to allow the audience in on her joy while still being convincing that those around her wouldn’t notice.
19. Undine (Christian Petzold)
I missed the film Christian Petzold made between Phoenix (2015) and Undine; I don’t know if Transit (2019) would have prepared me for the tonal shift between the films, but I was not expecting the twists Undine took me down. Paula Beer is wonderful as the unhinged title character who is driven by love and vengeful to any man who dare scorn her. Her elevated performance combined with the oversaturated colors helps to create the fairytale imagery which allow the film to transition from love triangle melodrama to a unique twist on a Hans Christian Andersen classic.
18. The Nest (Sean Durkin)
Sean Durkin may have only made two films to date, but both Marth Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Nest prove that he is a director who can build extreme tension through the banal. On its surface, The Nest is a drama about marital struggles: tragic but not thrilling. Jude Law aptly captures Rory a man increasingly detached from reality, but it’s Carrie Coon as his wife Allison who really shines. As the desperation of their predicament becomes apparent to her, she refuses to put on airs like her husband. A brilliant depiction of upper-class desperation.
17. Run (Aneesh Chaganty)
It almost saddens me that Aneesh Chaganty would follow up his groundbreaking feature debut Searching (2018) with a film as conventional as Run, but while it may lack the technical gimmick of his first film, Run lacks none of the impact. First time actress Kiera Allen is the standout performance in the horror film. She allows Chloe to be a teenage first, horror film participant second. This means balancing the naivety of one who doesn’t know much about the outside world (especially given her mom’s homeschooling and overprotection) with the craftiness of teens who have little respect for anyone older than them. Her performance is perfectly complimented by Sarah Paulson’s descent into madness as her mother Diane. I look forward to what Chaganty does next now that he has proven his versatility.
16. World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Don Hertzfeldt)
I was very specific when talking about Wolfwalkers above to call it the best animated FEATURE of the year, because for the third time straight time, Don Hertzfeldt has struck gold with his World of Tomorrow shorts. Missing from this entry is the delightful ramblings of Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae, but as she would now be 9 years old it’s understandable. Instead, the film focuses on the later clones of Emily and the search for her love from the man she first met as a clone in an art exhibit. Each of the shorts have gotten longer, and denser, but Don Hertzfeldt still manages to touch on the deeply personal with each entry.
15. Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
Kajillionaire is a movie that feels both like a natural fit with Miranda July’s prior work and like a movie completely separate from her first two outings. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011) are my go to examples for what the term twee means in popular media. Kajillionaire trades that saccharine demeanor for a relatively darker pessimistic one. The way that Kajillionaire feels in kind with the other films is that they all exist in a world parallel to ours. Excluding the talking cat in The Future, all her films theoretically could take place in our universe, there’s no explicitly fantastical elements to them, but the people in her films don’t act like people do in reality. The three family members Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) are parodies of scammers, but that doesn’t make the commentary any less prescient. I think I’ve always wanted this film from July, something with her quirky outlook, but one that doesn’t rot your teeth out.
14. Small Axe: Mangrove (Steve McQueen)
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology was one of the more intriguing items to come out in 2020. All in all, I’ve been on the record of being a little mixed on the project. By essentially putting out 5 feature films in 1 year, he ended up spreading himself a little thin. Not all of the entries hold up to what I expect from a Steve McQueen film. Still, in the best of the entries, McQueen continues to be one of the best filmmakers working today. Mangrove is McQueen’s take on the courtroom drama, and it delivers on every aspect of the genre. The righteous Mangrove Nine, headlined by a standout performance from Letitia Wright, fight against the injustice of the inherently racist London police department. Every argument resonates as the Nine fight for their freedom.
13. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
When casing child actors, unobtrusive is normally a best-case scenario, yet Alan S. Kim in Minari gives one of those rare child performances that holds an entire film together. Kim plays David a young Korean boy with a heart condition caught in the middle of his dad blindly following the American dream and his mother holding onto as much of Korea as she can. David doesn’t really understand what’s going on but knows that he’s been forced into a position where he’s different and he resents it. Kim balances the joy he receives pranking his character’s grandma (played marvelously by Youn Yuh-jung) with the genuine terror when she is sick. A great film that is elevated by the performance of a child.
12. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
Is this really a movie? Does it matter? Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Jon Olb) was on my list in 2018 and Lemonade (Beyoncé Knowles) was on 2016’s, so if those counted for me then, I see no reason why David Byrne’s American Utopia can’t make it onto my list this year. Musical documentaries are undeniably more difficult to distinguish from their music than other films are from performances. I’m perfectly capable of liking a movie starring an actor I don’t like, but I don’t think I could say the same about a concert film. Even still, my love for David Byrne’s and the Talking Heads’s music is not what stands out in this film; It’s the performance. Filled to the brim with rudimentary yet striking choreography and use of camera angles that offer a completely unique view of the show, Spike Lee helps deliver the second masterpiece of a concert film to David Byrne’s credit.
11. Time (Garrett Bradley)
Created primarily from home video footage, Time feels like the most pertinent documentary for the age we live in. While not explicitly a Black Lives Matter film, the movement has everything to do with the film’s premise. Rob Rich may be in jail for a valid reason, few people would consider armed robbery acceptable, but he would not have had to make that decision if society didn’t constantly push Black people down and leave the family desperate. Time focuses on Fox’s, the wife of Rob, attempts to get him out of jail while juggling the raising of their six boys. The composition from Fox’s own hand camera creates a familiarity with the subject matter and induce empathy from the viewer. Eras in the film pass in a blur on screen much how it must feel for the Rich family living without their patriarch. No film captured the Black struggle as eloquently this year.
10. Shirley (Josephine Decker)
I said the same thing last year with respect to her performance in Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry), but Elisabeth Moss is a genuine movie star and really needs to be recognized for more than just her television work. In her most recent film, she plays the acclaimed horror writer, the titular Shirley Jackson who is at an apparent low point in her life. Co-star Odessa Young plays Rose, Shirley’s temporary caretaker and is also outstanding in the film. The two play off each other exploring the power dynamics between the haves and have nots. Even when Shirley is bedridden and Rose should be in complete control, Moss’s acting clearly identifies that this is never the case. No matter how mentally unstable Shirley is, she is always manipulating the situation until she has complete control over Rose’s mind.
9. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
Mads Mikkelsen drunkenly dancing at the end of this film is the most fun 3 minutes I had in 2020 movies and succinctly encapsulates the themes of Another Round. Mikkelsen’s Martin and his friends have been playing a dangerous game where they attempted to live life at constant state of inebriation. As one would expect, this has some negative consequences for the group, but it also leads them to some of the highest highs they’ve had in their middle life. Mikkelsen’s jubilant dancing at the end reflects the urge to return to the bottle and chase those highs once more. Vinterberg refuses to deny the enjoyment his characters receive through their self-destructive habit.
8. The Assistant (Kitty Green)
The Assistant was the last film that I saw in theaters before the lockdown, and it was also the first great film I saw this year. Kitty Green managed to create an impressively tense drama for those with the patience to watch it. Rocking the impressive 92% to 25% critic to audience score on Rotten tomatoes, The Assistant is a perfect encapsulation of where my tastes differ from the average movie going public. I’m not looking for spectacle (not that there is anything wrong with looking for it in your entertainment); instead, I’m looking for subtle nuances that provoke a more genuine emotional response from me. Actor Julia Garner as Jane portrays the helplessness of a young woman attempting to navigate a workplace predisposed to cover for her boss’s indiscretions. Every moment of the film is poignant in its ability to express awfulness without explicitly showing anything.
7. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
More than the story or the acting performance, what stands out to me the most about Beanpole is how the visuals blend the grotesque with the beautiful. Taking place in post war Leningrad the surroundings for Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) are bleak. They are stuck sharing a bed in a communal building with dilapidated walls. Their clothing is mostly in tatters, and the only new dress they are ever able to wear is merely on loan and even that they stain. Yet through all the grime the two live though, the colors absolutely pop. Almost everything in the film is a shade of green or red, and the color tinting of the film make them all painfully vibrant. This dichotomy of the visuals mirror that of the film. Everything is awful, but there remains enough vibrance to get the two women through.
6. Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
Dick Johnson is Dead does something that many of my favorite documentaries of the past 10 years have done: use fiction as a mechanism to process fact. Spoiler warning, but Dick Johnson is not in fact dead, but like all of us he will be some day. Kirsten Johnson the director and daughter of Dick understands that one day he will be no more and prepares for that eventuality by filming increasingly extravagant ways for her father to die. These staged performances are really just excuses for she and her father to spend quality time together, time that has been hard to come by while she’s spent the better part of two decades traveling the globe making films. By allowing her and her father’s intimate conversations to be captured on camera through the making of the film, we as viewers learn not just a lot about their relationship, but also on how one prepares for the inevitability of when the ones we love pass away.
5. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)
Promising Young Woman is not a subtle film, but it’s not trying to be. Emerald Fennell had a vision for a brash, angry film about the injustices young women are forced to endure so as not to inconvenience young men, and with the help of her star and executive producer Carey Mulligan she delivered a film which will likely be remembered for years. Mulligan plays Cassandra, a woman whose life was permanently changed by the actions of young men. Mulligan is what makes this film as great as it is. She manages to perfectly capture the trauma of her character allowing the audience to sympathize with her, even as she does some unsavory things. She understands that everything her character does is a coping mechanism for the trauma she may never get over, and never revels in the revenge she exacts. There is no joy to be had, but each conquest at least dulls the pain for a little bit.
4. Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
The other of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series to make my list, and while Mangrove was a great courtroom drama, Lovers Rock is a great Steve McQueen film. When I think about McQueen’s film, I instinctively think of long scenes. I think of the 17-minute scene of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) talking to the priest (Rory Mullen) in Hunger (2008) and of Chiwetel Ejiofor tiptoeing to avoid asphyxiation in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Rather than those two though, Lovers Rock long scene instead harkens back to a scene from my personal favorite McQueen film Shame (2012) where Carey Mulligan extends the 3-minute Frank Sinatra Classic to nearly 5. This extended cut of the song is almost painful in it’s beauty, and the same can be said with the Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ scene in Lovers Rock. The 3 ½-minute song is looped and extended to 10 full minutes which is likely not something that would have ever happened in the reggae party depicted. It’s in that fantasy space, however, that the film transports us into the room. We feel the sublime joy of the party goers as they find a momentary escape from the prejudiced world on the other side of the sweltering walls housing the party.
3. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
First Cow is actually one of my least favorite Kelly Reichardt films, but even a middling Reichardt film is easily one of the best films of the year. Cookie played wonderfully by John Magaro is one of the most sympathetic characters to ever be brought to screen. He’s just a young man with domestic sensibilities trapped on the frontier. Magaro captures the kindhearted Cookie by portraying him as extremely soft-spoken and caring. Even when he and his friend King-Lu (Orion Lee) start stealing milk to bake cakes for profit, it’s clear that King-Lu is doing so for the freedom the capital will bring the pair while Cookie just loves cooking for his fellow man. He wants nothing more than to be in the service industry. Even if the two men have slightly different goals, Reichardt manages to recapture the spark from one of her first films Old Joy (2006) by delivering a tranquil tale of male friendship devoid of machismo posturing.
2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
A trick to making it near the top of one of my year end list is to make me sob uncontrollably, yet not feel exploitative when doing so. Never Rarely Sometimes Always accomplished that multiple times in its runtime. The most obvious instance of this happening is during the scene from which the film takes its name. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is sitting in a planned parenthood office to get an abortion. We know that she is pregnant, but we don’t know much in the way of the details about how it happened. When the nurse asks the standard questionnaire for which Autumn is to answer with one of the words in the film’s title, we learn that the circumstances of the teenager’s sex life are more insidious than careless. As the questions become more personal and cut deeper Flanigan’s performance turns tragic. Instead of answering all she can do is cry, all the viewer can do is cry, all I can do simply remembering this scene is cry.
1. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
Sometimes picking my number one film of the year is difficult. There have even been years where I’ve changed my order while writing the list as some film touches me in a certain way. This year was not one of those years. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was number one with a bullet this year. Her 2018 film The Rider would have been extremely high on my list that year had I seen it before writing, and Nomadland matches Zhao’s perfect direction with a stellar performance from Frances McDormand. McDormand’s Fern is a fully actualized character. She lives her nomad life partially because of trauma but also partially out of love for the lifestyle. The movie passes no judgment on the nomads she encounters, many of whom are non-actors essentially playing themselves. Instead Nomadland does what most great films do, explore an aspect of the human condition.
The Oscars are my version of the Superbowl, and after frantically filling in my blind spots this past month, I’ve, for the 3rd year in a row, been better than most actual voting members of the Academy and watched every nominated film. In preparation for tonight’s show, allow me to share what I’d vote for in all 24 categories.
Visual Effects – The Lion King
While I did not especially care for the impact the visuals had on the recreation of The Lion King, I can’t deny that they were impressive. The animated photo-realism is a technical marvel even if the film falls flat.
Costume – Little Women
The costume design in Little Women is both gorgeous and serves as a detail to explain the class differential between the characters.
Makeup and Hairstyling – Bombshell
The three leads in Bombshell go through great transformations through their hair and makeup. Charlize Theron’s transformation into Megyn Kelly is particularly eerie in it’s accuracy.
Production Design – Parasite
Both houses in Parasite are wonders of production design. The contrast between the dirty basement dwelling and the modern million dollar household plays well to the themes of the film.
Sound Editing – 1917
The war sounds in 1917 are immersive in their accuracy. Each bullet and explosion fell real.
Sound Mixing – 1917
Similarly, the mixing in 1917 is excellent. The blending of quiet stealth moments with loud action scenes create great contrast. Where the mixing stands out the most is late in the film when a song slowly crescendos as Lance Corporal Schofield staggers through a forest.
Original Song – (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again (Rocketman)
I feel somewhat weird voting on the music categories, because I don’t have the objective knowledge to judge them like I do with film, but of the songs nominated, I liked “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” the best so it get’s my vote.
Original Score – Joke
I did not like Joker, and I do not think it’s a very good movie. That said, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is magnificent. Eerie and foreboding while still being extremely melodic and captivating, her score is the highlight of the film and in a perfect world would be the only Oscar it received.
Editing – Parasite
By cutting back and forth from planning to scheme, Parasite‘s tension is amplified cementing it in the thriller genre.
Cinematography – 1917
The most obvious of the categories, Roger Deakins “one-take” 1917 is impressively beautiful. The night scene in particular is some of the best photography I’ve seen.
Short Film, Live Action – A Sister
This was probably the weakest category this year, but A Sister was a worthy winner. A really tense portrayal of a car ride gone wrong, and the lengths women need to go to be safe.
Short Film, Animated – Kitbull
Was I won over by a cute cat video? Yes, yes I was.
Short Film, Documentary – Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
A strong category this year, but the joy of watching the Afghan girls learn to skateboard and find confidence made this my pick.
Documentary Feature – For Sama
My favorite film nominated for any Oscar this year, For Sama‘s framing of the film as a gift for the director’s baby Sama brought a personal flare that left me shaken by it’s power.
Animated Feature – I Lost My Body
A young man trying to find meaning in life and a severed hand searching for it’s body all backed by great animation and a stellar score make it the best animated feature of the year.
International Film – Pain and Glory
Yes Parasite is amazing and will undoubtedly win, but Pain and Glory is the best movie Almodóvar has ever made and it’s extremely personal story is in my opinion the best international film of the year.
Adapted Screenplay – Little Women
Previous adaptations of Little Women have always struggled with the condensing of two books into one movie resulting in subsequent three act structures. By telling the story non-linearly, Gerwig managed to be freed of that issue in a beautiful way.
Original Screenplay – Marriage Story
Marriage Story is getting the most recognition for it’s acting, and while all the nominated performances are amazing, the underlying screenplay gave them a superb starting place.
Supporting Actor – Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)
When watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Brad Pitt stands out as just having a lot of fun. Be it cruising through the streets of late 60’s LA, brawling with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), or beating up members of the Manson family while high on acid, Pitt’s presence is always enjoyable.
Supporting Actress – Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Dern as the cutthroat Lawyer with a sugar coated exterior is the best performance in a film filled with best performances. Her sympathy for Johansson’s Nicole is endearing, but her shrewdness sneaks through when she goes on the offensive in court. All together, an intricately balanced performance.
Lead Actor – Antonio Banderes (Pain and Glory)
Banderes’s performance as the aging and pain ridden Salvador Mallo, a not so subtle Almodóvar stand-in, is subtle in it’s brilliance. He’s tortured by the demons in his past, but he internalizes them letting them destroy his life. The Oscar will undoubtedly go to the flashy Joaquin Phoenix performance, but if you’re looking for the best acting and not the most acting, it should be Banderes.
Lead Actress – Renée Zellweger (Judy)
Renée Zellweger was so good as Judy Garland that I find myself singing the movie’s praises when really she’s the only reason to see it. That said it is worth seeing just for her performance.
Director – Bon Joon Ho (Parasite)
Parasite is the most meticulously put together film of the year. It has the strongest auteurial voice. The tension and intensity stem directly through Bon Joon Ho’s decision at the head of the film.
Picture – Marriage Story
Not the best movie of the year (though I did have it at number three), but between an immaculate screenplay, and strong performances through out, Marriage Story is the movie I recommend to people over almost anything else released this year. It’s personal and emotional and would be a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar.