Saluting some of the other 2021 titles that didn’t make it to Oscar night.
I know I’m not alone in saying that I’m ready to see this awards season come to its rightful end. The quality of the work has been amazing this year. Coda has inspired, The Power of the Dog has mesmerized and West Side Story has uplifted. With the work, however, has also come a slew of unwanted film Twitter discourse that (as most film Twitter discourse does) takes a surface-level look at films for motivations I suspect lean more towards retweets than actual engagement. But, I digress.
I certainly have fewer complaints than usual. This year was the first time over half of the Best Picture nominees mirrored my own personal top 10, while films I didn’t think had a prayer of being included in certain categories found their way into the final five. Even though I’m hopeful some of my projected favorites will indeed take home some prizes (Kristen Stewart for the win), I must admit that I wouldn’t mind an upset or two (let’s go, Diane Warren!)
But as usual, I will not be watching the actual ceremony due to feeling completely burned out from awards season once again. Instead, my time and my mind will be spent with some of the other titles which were primed for Oscar glory, but sadly didn’t make it. Please enjoy a collection of my alternate options for some of the top categories that the Academy simply failed to notice.
Best Cinematography- Annette
Except for the opening number, Annette was a trifle. The approach to its themes was toothless, the plot left little surprises, none of the characters felt like real people and as a musical it left a lot to be desired. But the one area where I must give the film its proper due is in its cinematography. Caroline Champetier’s lensing gave what was a largely lifeless film a vitality that hinted at what it could have been. Some scenes may seem simply pretty, but Champetier quickly switches gears at the drop of a hat and gives Annette an otherworldly look that matches the film’s concept. The result feels like a fever dream wrapped in a rock opera. Even if the film felt like more or less a failure, Champetier ensured Annette was at least a visually stunning piece of work to behold.
Best Visual Effects- Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Sure, Ghostbusters: Afterlife was been fan service of the highest order. Much to some people’s chagrin, however, the movie was also a hilarious and heartfelt story of family and, of course, ghosts. The long-awaited sequel saw the family of deceased Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) return to his run-down farmhouse in the outskirts of a small town where strange occurrences start to appear. The film works on virtually every level but especially succeeds in the effects arena. Old favorites like Stay Puft and Slimer were given new and inventive spins, while the movie’s team was able to go to town with the bigger ghostly threats. In true Ghostbusters fashion, however, the effects work side by side with the characters and story, capturing that special kind of magic every Ghostbusters fan had been so patiently waiting for.
Best Score- Zola
Zola may seem like an odd choice for this category, but I can’t think of another score that commented on its movie’s subject matter quite like this one did. This story of a stripper (Taylour Paige) who accompanies another stripper (Riley Keough) on a wild weekend to Florida took the indie world by surprise with its dark comedy and take on the all-powerful social media culture. Nowhere is the latter theme at its most potent than in the score. Although some familiar tunes can be heard within the movie, so much of Zola’s original music is composed of ringtones, phone alerts and even buzzing alarms, giving off something of a disorienting feeling. While it may seem on the nose for some, it’s also a brilliant way to show just how much the phone culture has consumed us.
Best Original Song- “The Anonymous Ones” (Dear, Evan Hansen)
Before I say anything else, no, I didn’t care for the deeply misguided film version of what I’m sure was a better stage musical. The one thing I did think worked about Dear, Evan Hansen, however, was the song “The Anonymous Ones.” Written specifically for the film version and wonderfully performed by Amandla Stenberg, the song beautifully touches on the fact that so many of the people we encounter are struggling with the same anxieties and insecurities that make us feel so alone. Striking the right tempo of an upbeat ballad and featuring lyrics such as “The parts we can’t tell, we carry them well
But that doesn’t mean they’re not heavy.” “The Anonymous Ones” deserves a far better reputation than the horrible film it comes from.
Best Documentary- On Broadway
The history of the Great White Way is examined in this documentary, which features commentary from Christine Baranski, Helen Mirren, Hugh Jackman and Tommy Tune, among others. Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby briefly touches on Broadway’s golden era before honing on the days when the city was a hell hole and the industry was barely surviving. From there, On Broadway looks at the different productions that would go on to become milestones, the creative minds behind them and how they each helped revitalize the theater experience. All in all, an interesting chronicle of the Broadway stage’s long journey from near extinction to one of New York City’s most important and valuable symbols.
Best International Film- Who You Think I Am
Lazily referred to as Catfish meets Fatal Attraction, Saffy Nebou’s film was about a woman (Juliette Binoche) who gets in over her head when she becomes involved in an online relationship with a much younger man. Who You Think I Am gives its audience enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, some of which it’s safe to say no one sees coming. But it’s the willingness to exist only through sheer fantasy and how that plays into a person’s own identity, for better or (usually) worse, that makes the film such a compelling watch. While the character makes several mistakes, there’s something so human about her need to be seen and feel alive in a way she hadn’t before even if it leads her right back to the realization that none of it was ever true.
Best Animated Film- Vivo
Lin-Manuel Miranda may be riding the Encanto wave all the way to the Oscar stage this year, but one shouldn’t dismiss his other animated effort, Vivo. Miranda stars as the title character, a brightly colored furry little creature who travels from Cuba to Miami to deliver a song to a legendary songstress (Gloria Estefan) with the help of a high-spirited tween (Ynairaly Simo). Everything about Vivo works; it’s a musical extravaganza, a love story, a buddy comedy, an appreciation of one’s heritage and a great melding of old school drawings with modern-day animation. But Vivo also makes a point to address the importance of the familial bond, and how family itself can be found in unlikely places.
Best Adapted Screenplay- Nightmare Alley
I’m fully aware that Nightmare Alley isn’t short on Oscar nominations by any means. However, this is one category where I cannot help but mourn its absence. Guillermo Del Toro and Kim Morgan had the interesting challenge of translating William Lindsay Gresham’s dark novel to the screen complete with its themes of fate, chance and destiny intact. Choices such as keeping the lead as an anti-hero who borders on heavy and sticking to the decidedly grim (but just) ending were risks. Yet Del Toro and Morgan pulled it off, bringing Gresham’s dark take to the screen in a way not even the author himself could have imagined. A handful of critics groups bestowed nominations on the pair for their efforts, but no applause is enough for an adaptation of this level.
Best Original Screenplay- In the Earth
No one can ever accuse Ben Wheatley of resting on his laurels, especially after seeing the absolutely insane In the Earth. The horror film is about a team of scientists who, while trying to find the cure to a deadly virus, start to experience horrific visions in the woods nearby while out for a supply run. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better screenplay that mirrored the dark days of 2020 with its characters experiencing the kind of paranoia that was plaguing the world during that time. Wheatley’s script manages some great bits of black comedy, but In the Earth is at its finest when it functions as a battle between the monsters in the woods and the monsters inside the characters’ haunted minds.
Best Supporting Actress- Olga Merediz- In the Heights
It’s as if everyone forgot about In the Heights this year. Despite getting rave reviews, this street musical came and went. If there’s one aspect that should have stayed in everyone’s minds, it was Merediz’s supporting turn as Abuela. As the wise grandmother figure in the working-class community of Washington Heights, the actress gave off a presence that was equal parts warm, strong and ethereal, echoing the many people who came to America hoping to make their dreams come true. Nowhere does this hit home more than in the character’s musical number, “Paciencia y Fe,” where she takes us through her story as a young immigrant child for what is quite possibly the most beautiful sequence in an already beautiful movie.
Best Supporting Actor- Luke Kirby- No Man of God
Kirby has always been an incredibly dependable actor who has always been able to stand out in whatever project he’s in. Nothing he’s done so far has compared to his performance as Ted Bundy in No Man of God, however. The acting world has given us a collection of Bundys over the years, from Mark Harmon to Zac Efron. But there’s something so singular about what Kirby does with bringing the most prolific of serial killers back to life. Where past incarnations have chosen to focus on the charisma and menace many felt were emblematic about Bundy, Kirby focuses on the intensity and hypnotic qualities of his personality. The actor also wisely throws in a dash of humanity into his interpretation, which in the end helps make No Man of God a chilling and emotional experience.
Best Actress- Rebecca Hall- The Night House
It’s hard to go through an entire film playing both fear and loneliness and be your own scene partner for the majority of it all. That didn’t stop Rebecca Hall from accomplishing such a challenge starring in this horror film about a recently-widowed woman who begins experiencing strange disturbances in her home in the weeks following her husband’s suicide. Hall is tremendous as a woman trying to wonder what her life is now that she’s alone before realizing that the life she had before was actually a false one. The scares in The Night House are effective, the script turns are smart and the score is especially unnerving. But none of it would have worked as well as it did without Hall’s committed performance and the level of empathy she gives her broken character.
Best Actor- Clifton Collins Jr- Jockey
Like Kirby, Collins has spent years doing amazing work in a collection of colorful supporting roles. With Jockey, the actor is finally gifted with the kind of lead turn his talents deserve. The role of an aging jockey whose facing his mortality and legacy required a specific form of depth and nuance, which the actor was able to provide in spades. There are no huge awards-ready sequences with long wraps of dialogue and sharp character turns to be found here. Instead, Jockey requires Collins to take his character on a quiet poetic journey of reflection and atonement with the actor exhibiting all those emotions for one of the most soulful and moving performances of the year.
Best Director- Will Sharpe- The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Had The Power of the Dog not come out this year, Benedict Cumberbatch’s other 2021 release, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain might have had more of a chance to wow audiences. Not only does the actor give an incredibly moving performance (as does lead actress Claire Foy), but director David Sharpe ends up being one of the most subtly imaginative and visually stunning offerings of the year. Based on the true story of artist Louis Wain (Cumberbatch), the film details his obligations to his sisters, his love for the governess (Foy) hired to look after them, the surrealist art of cat paintings he’s drawn to create and his own sanity, which is greatly challenged. Any one of these plot lines would be enough for a single film, but Sharpe balances them all with the kind of delicate hand that only the most gifted of cinematic storytellers can possess.
Best Picture- Nine Days
I’ve said it before- there’s no reason that this awards season should have passed without Nine Days being lauded as one of the best films of the year. The film focuses on a man (a fantastic Winston Duke) living in a secluded home in another realm where he’s tasked with interviewing potential souls for the chance to be born into a human life. Admittedly, the film asks a lot of its audience. Its plot is more abstract than most and the script leans heavily into the philosophical side of things. But Nine Days also dares those watching to look at their humanity and their overall existence in the world they inhabit. Beautifully made from every aspect, Nine Days is the kind of rich cinema experience that can’t help but feed the soul.