What’s going to win best picture? Our critics rate the Oscar contenders

With the Academy Awards just days away, movie fans usually have a sense of what they think deserves to win best picture.

Last year, for example, the nominees were such widely-watched movies as 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Joker, The Irishman, Ford v Ferrari, Marriage Story, Little Women, Jojo Rabbit and Parasite, which created history when it became the first foreign-language winner.

But, as we all know, COVID-19 has made this a very different Oscars. With a slew of major movies delayed while cinemas were shut, the eight best picture nominees are not exactly household names – largely released either in just a limited number of cinemas or on a streaming service.

The good news is they deserve the accolades they are getting. All eight feature at least one Oscar-nominated performance. Seven have screenplays strong enough to be nominated as well.

And if you like movies that speak to the times, they tackle some of the major issues of recent months – racial conflict, economic and social collapse in the US, the struggles of immigrants, toxic male behaviour – with a creative boldness.

The favourite to win is Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland but, after a year in which nothing seemed to go as planned, an upset is definitely possible.

Ahead of the Oscars on Monday, here’s how The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age critics Paul Byrnes, Sandra Hall and Jake Wilson have reviewed the best picture nominees. GM

The Father ★★★★

(M) 97 minutes

Anthony Hopkins occupies the screen like King Lear in a cardigan in The Father. It’s a kind of horror film, if horror be also tragedy. It’s not scary-horror, but it should scare the stuffing out of anybody who has contemplated their own failing memory. That prospect is far scarier than anything Freddy Krueger ever threw at us.

It’s based on a French play, Le Pere, by 41-year-old Florian Zeller, who also directs the film, his first. Part of the originality is that the text is infinitely adaptable rather than defiantly French: the problems of ageing apply to all cultures.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins both earned Oscar nominations for their performances in The Father.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins both earned Oscar nominations for their performances in The Father.Credit:Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics

In the film, the widower Anthony (Hopkins) occupies a large and well-appointed flat in some leafy part of London. In the first scene, his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) arrives unannounced as he is listening to classical music. Why are you here, he asks, bewildered. She has come to ask why he chased off his latest carer. He plays dumb.

We learn nothing about Anthony’s background, save that he was once an engineer. Anne is going mad in her own way, trying to find someone who can put up with his tirades and his increasingly nasty suspicions that people are stealing his things.

Zeller’s clever idea is to put us inside his head, shifting the idea of what is real. In one difficult scene, Anne, long divorced, tells her father she has fallen in love again and wants to move to Paris. The next time he sees Anne, she denies all knowledge of the plan. Later, Anthony encounters a stranger (Mark Gatiss) in his living room, who claims to be Anne’s husband.

As these reality shifts take hold, the depth of his tragedy begins to bite. Olivia Williams arrives, calling him dad, but he doesn’t recognise her. By this stage, we’re not sure who or what is real either. We’re inside the terrifying maze of his dementia, where even the walls seem to shift.

Hopkins rages against the knowledge of what is happening. His isolation increases with each scene, making him by turns meek, then mean. When he turns on Imogen Poots as the unlucky carer, he becomes like Hannibal Lecter, animated by rage and cruelty.

He fights like a cornered dog for his independence. He knows that his world is not just slipping away, but taunting him with its disappearance. It’s hard to watch, so intimate is the viewpoint. Hopkins makes it look easy – and as hard as anything any of us will ever have to face. PB

The Father is now in cinemas.

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

(MA) 125 minutes

Everything is about sex, the adage goes, except for sex. Similarly, you could say that in movies everything is political except for politics, which is typically a shortcut to generating drama.

Shaka King’s fact-based Judas and the Black Messiah is a partial exception to the rule. In portraying the late 1960s struggle between the radical Black Panther party and the FBI, he takes the highly defensible stance that of the two groups, the FBI was the more truly criminal.

LaKeith Stanfield, foreground center, and Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.

LaKeith Stanfield, foreground center, and Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.Credit:Warner Bros. Pictures

Still, in centring the drama on the “Judas” figure of Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) – an undercover informant who helped bring about the downfall of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Panther’s Chicago branch – he winds up with something quite different from straightforward agitprop. Among other things, this is a film about performance, in a variety of ways.

Who is Bill – the character played by Stanfield, not his real-life model? When we first meet him he’s already playing a role, as a small-time con artist who masquerades as an FBI agent complete with badge.

When he pulls this stunt once too often, the only way for him to avoid a lengthy stint in prison is to start working for the FBI for real. Once the deception gets under way, the film takes on some of the qualities of a thriller, the more so since Bill has no-one to confide in: neither with his handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) nor his Panther comrades can he relax and be “himself,” whatever that might entail.

While Stanfield’s performance is the film’s most arresting aspect, we spend almost as much time with Kaluuya’s Hampton, who turns out to be Bill’s opposite number. He too is a performer, of a completely different kind: a born leader whose gift for oratory lets him mesmerise his audience in the manner of a preacher.

Where Bill is wracked with uncertainty, Fred’s secret weapon is his lack of self-doubt. But does he mean everything he says, at least in the literal sense?

King is a promising and effective filmmaker on several fronts. He can stage an effective action sequence, for example, but his greatest strength may be his skill with actors. The action spreads out in the manner of a Shakespeare history play, allowing many players a strong scene or two.

The big-picture question of the Panthers’ political aims, and what relevance they might have for today, is not so fully explored. But taken both literally and as a parable, the film says a good deal about how society forces people into roles – which perhaps is sufficiently political, after all. JW

Judas and the Black Messiah is now in cinemas.

Mank ★★★

(M) 132 minutes

It takes a bold filmmaker to court comparison with Citizen Kane, let alone to do so via a behind-the-scenes story that marginalises Orson Welles, Kane’s celebrated director and star. But David Fincher, the provocateur behind Fight Club and The Social Network, has never suffered from lack of nerve.

Directed by Fincher from a screenplay credited to his late father Jack, Mank feels like a project undertaken for obscure personal reasons, which perhaps never had much chance of artistic success. At the least, though, it’s an unusually ambitious and interesting failure.

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in a scene from Mank.

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in a scene from Mank.Credit:Nikolai Loveikis/Netflix

The title refers to Welles’ co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose onetime friendship with the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst supplied a direct model for Kane’s anti-hero. A typically virtuoso performance by Gary Oldman turns the film’s “Mank” into a hero in his own right.

In the years before his death in 1953, Mankiewicz boasted he was solely responsible for the Kane screenplay, a claim few film historians now defend. Still, it’s true that he wrote the first draft alone, in roughly the manner depicted here: holed up with a broken leg in a ranch in the Mojave Desert.

These facts provide the basis for the convoluted fictional design. Dosed up on barbiturates, Mank regularly breaks off from work to relive memories stretching back a decade, letting the narrative jump around in the manner of Kane itself.

Welles, in all this, occupies a position somehow marginal and central at once. As feebly played by Tom Burke from The Souvenir – the one weak link in an impressive ensemble – he’s a nebulous figure glimpsed only occasionally, and mocked behind his back as a “boy genius” all too ready to leave the heavy lifting to others.

At the same time, Mank in its entirety pays tribute to the dramatic deep-focus visual style which Welles famously pioneered in Kane. Some shots are quoted directly, and the entire film is in shadowy black and white.

Ultimately the story of the writing of Kane becomes an excuse to tell another story entirely, involving various real-world personalities including Hearst (Charles Dance), his much younger mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard).

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In a review written when Kane was first released, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges described it as a “labyrinth with no centre”, in which “the fragments are not governed by any secret unity”. This was meant as praise, however equivocal – but it was also not quite accurate. Perhaps it is Fincher, all these years later, who has managed to realise the idea. JW

Mank is now streaming on Netflix.

Minari ★★★★

(PG) 115 minutes

The knowledge that he may well be the fastest chicken sexer in the West is scant consolation to Jacob, a Korean immigrant living in California with his young family. Pushed to his limits by boredom, he decides to leave the poor chicks and the factory farm where he works and head for the Ozarks hill country in Arkansas.

He’s bought a plot of land there and he plans to grow Korean vegetables, which he’ll sell at market. But his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), is not nearly as happy about the move – especially when she sees the kit home where they’ll be living. Set on wheels in the centre of a grassy field, it confirms her impression she’s landed in the middle of nowhere and prospects are bleak.

Yeri Han and Steven Yeun in Minari.

Yeri Han and Steven Yeun in Minari.Credit:Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

Named for a remarkably hardy Korean herb, Minari is a lightly fictionalised autobiographical film by Korean-American writer and director Lee Isaac Chung. It’s his childhood seen through the eyes of Jacob and Monica’s seven-year-old son, David (Alan S. Kim), an opinionated, curious child who’s doing fine in his strangely fascinating new home until he learns he’ll be sharing his bedroom with his grandmother, Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn).

She’s just arrived from Korea and, fortunately, she’s been blessed with a great sense of humour that rapidly becomes indispensable. She also has a salty way with the language and a ruthless attitude to board games. While she knows little English she does like the word “Bastard!” which she bawls out whenever she wins a point.

It’s an anecdotal film with a rhythm dictated by the highs and lows of the farming life, which means the remorseless vagaries of nature take care of the plot’s shape and ensure the suspense points. A small mistake can quickly mushroom into a major setback and disaster is always waiting in the wings ready to consume everything and everybody.

But the film’s stars are the family. Monica remains on the brink of returning to California and taking David and his sister with her. But Jacob (Steven Yeun) is determined to make a go of the farm because he can’t deal with the horror of having to face the rear end of yet another chicken. At the same time, the fractious relationship between David and Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn) begins to lose its edge as they realise their shared stubbornness and strength of will make them natural allies.

Chung views them all with a clear, fond eye free of any hint of sentimentality. He knows their imperfections too well for that. He’s also wise enough to be aware that their imperfections are what make them so endearing. SH

Minari is now in cinemas.

Nomadland ★★★★

(M) 108 minutes

It’s winter in Nevada, and 61-year-old Fern (Frances McDormand) is leaving home. Her husband is dead and the company town which has been their home for decades no longer exists.

Its postcode has been expunged and the gypsum plant which sustained it sits empty and shrouded in snow, looming at the top of the hill like some oversized haunted house.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland.Credit:Searchlight Pictures

Fern is going on the road. She has her van, on which she’s bestowed the optimistic name Vanguard, and she has a seasonal packing job at the nearby Amazon warehouse. It all looks and sounds pretty bleak, as if we’re about to embark on a dramatised analysis of the making of a Trump voter, but Nomadland is not about alienation.

Based on a book by Jessica Bruder, a journalist who spent three years exploring the routes and routines of America’s grey nomads, it turns out to be a politics-free zone. Fern and her fellow travellers don’t dwell on their grievances. Most have chosen a life of mobility because it suits them. To them, houseless doesn’t mean homeless.

Directed by Chloe Zhao, a Californian-based Chinese, who impressed McDormand with her last film, The Rider, a contemporary Western, the film could have been a disaster. McDormand and David Strathairn are the only two professional actors in the cast. Everybody else is a genuine nomad and the interaction between them could have resulted in a discordant hybrid of the real and the made-up, but the integration is seamless.

The least actressy of actresses, McDormand merges completely with the landscape and everybody in it. The friendships that Fern makes spring from a collective store of commonsense gained from experience and coloured with playful good humour. SH

Nomadland is now in cinemas.

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

(MA) 108 minutes

The key to the appeal of Promising Young Woman does not stem from the fact that the writer-director, Emerald Fennell, played the young Camilla Bowles in The Crown.

The main clue lies in Fennell’s experience as head writer on the second season of the incendiary series Killing Eve. It makes her an expert in forging unholy unions between lacerating humour and violence.

Carey Mulligan in a scene from Promising Young Woman.

Carey Mulligan in a scene from Promising Young Woman.Credit:Focus Features

The film opens with a scene in a bar where an all-male group of youngish business types are eyeing a pretty girl slumped on a banquette. One of the group announces that he’s going across to make sure that she’s all right. Only when he and the girl end up in his apartment do we realise that he isn’t being sincere. But so does she. Far from being as drunk as she seemed, she snaps to attention, looking extremely eager to administer a caustic verbal lesson in sexual morality.

Fennell’s script takes its time in revealing the full reason for the crusade which has hijacked the life of Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra Thomas, sending her out each week to humiliate any man unwise enough to take advantage of her seemingly intoxicated state.

Cassandra is obsessed but her anger is thoroughly camouflaged by the mischievous gleam in her eye and the air of self-possession with which she goes about her campaign of subterfuge. She’s a nocturnal avenger with a disguise to fit every venue.

Fennell’s taste for the sardonic is also reflected in the film’s insistently upbeat score and in the ebullience of the production design. The coffee shop where Cassandra works as a waitress has a frothy pink and white palette. Her parents’ house is a time capsule, a visual iteration of the fact that her life has stalled since the trauma that inspired her urge for revenge.

But partway through the film, it looks as if she’s going to be diverted from the hunt by a more wholesome preoccupation. Coincidence puts her back in touch with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate from medical school. All is going well until Fennell delivers the kind of happiness montage that directors use when they’re stuck for a fresh way of demonstrating the excitements of falling in love.

It’s clear that the troubles that invariably follow such bliss are going to come with a twist. And while it’s not much of a surprise, it heralds a climax and an ending which are anything but predictable.

It’s a film that neatly avoids any trace of didacticism. Produced by the Los Angeles-based company run by Margot Robbie and her partners, it takes an acutely satirical tilt at its targets with a deadpan tone that invokes comparisons with I, Tonya. It’s this unsettling juxtaposition of light and shade that accounts for its power. SH

Promising Young Woman is now available to rent or buy from Apple iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Microsoft Store, YouTube, Telstra and Fetch.

Sound of Metal ★★★★

(M) 120 minutes

Have you heard all those jokes about heavy metal drummers? Neither have they. Hearing loss is a serious issue for drummers, which is why most professionals wear protective earplugs – alas, often too late. Still, I never expected it to be the subject of a movie; loss of hearing is hard to dramatise, while the story of a heavy metal drummer losing his hearing carries little surprise. Any movie in this territory has to overcome a degree of cynicism from the non-metal fraternity.

Riz Ahmed as drummer Ruben in Sound of Metal.

Riz Ahmed as drummer Ruben in Sound of Metal.Credit:Amazon Studios

Let me share the good news: Darius Marder’s film overcomes most of these difficulties with bells on. The soundscape is brilliantly evocative, moving through different stages of audio loss approximate to what the drummer, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), is suffering. One night he is banging away on stage as his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) howls like a banshee on lead vocals. The next day, he has lost 80 per cent of his hearing and we’re inside his anger and fear.

A doctor tells him he must stop performing immediately to protect what hearing he has left. Not only does he not want to stop, he doesn’t want to tell Lou that he has a problem. He fixates on getting expensive implants that will keep him in the game.

Ruben has been drug-free for four years. His sponsor finds a deaf-community living on a farm, where he can adjust to his new reality. The boss man Joe (Paul Raci) offers a tough road: learn to ‘be deaf’ or leave. Ruben can’t have contact with the outside world. It’s part rehab, part learning centre.

Ahmed and Raci have received Oscar nominations for their performances and both are terrific. Ten years ago, an audacious film like this would never have been made, least not at a major or even a minor Hollywood studio. The mega-flicks featuring characters in capes pushed out the small, high-quality, serious-minded pictures. It seemed they had gone forever. How the landscape has changed.

We are now in a kind of paradise of choice, in which most of the good movies are being made for the streaming services, not the studios. Look at the best picture category this year: only one of the nominees (Judas and the Black Messiah) is from a major studio.

Sure, Sound of Metal was made cheap and fast, but the joyous fact is that it got made at all. It’s a weird, spiky movie that takes plenty of risks. They don’t all work, but that’s not the point. Just being here is a remarkable achievement. PB

Sound of Metal is now streaming on Amazon Prime and is available to rent or buy from Apple iTunes, Google Play, Microsoft Store, YouTube and Fetch.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 ★★

(MA) 129 minutes

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 may not be the squarest film ever made about 1960s radicalism. Still, this loose “true story” is exactly what you would expect from Sorkin.

Chicago 7 is only the second feature Sorkin has directed. He is known above all as a TV showrunner, especially on the high-minded political soap opera The West Wing.

Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin of the Yippies in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin of the Yippies in The Trial of the Chicago 7.Credit:Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Some historical facts are in order – and boy, does Sorkin love exposition, almost as much as he loves grandstanding. The Chicago Seven were a group of radicals charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot following the protests that disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The trial defendants did not all know each other beforehand, nor were they all on the same page politically. This gives ample scope for Sorkin’s brand of ping-pong dialogue, especially when he ventures beyond the trial itself.

The earnestness of Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, is set against the seeming frivolity of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) of the Youth International Party or Yippies, whose way-out publicity stunts included a bid to elevate the Pentagon via meditation.

The other defendant featured prominently is Black Panther leader Bobby Searle (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). In the film as in life, he objects strongly to being bundled in with the others, disrupting proceedings to the point where the presiding Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella, the film’s villain) orders him bound and gagged.

This was an extraordinary development by any measure, although Sorkin tones down what really occurred – and, all too characteristically, treats the situation as an opportunity for prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to show a compassionate side.

That’s just one example of the pervading unreality of the film. The all-star cast is a liability in itself. Redmayne is simply not credible as any kind of 1960s radical, even one who serves as the designated wet blanket.

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Cohen’s performance is the film’s most interesting, though the danger he might have brought to proceedings is muffled by the conception of Hoffman as a wryly detached clown – and the mythical association between the Yippies and the slogan “Never trust anyone over thirty” (not cited here) feels a little ironic given that Cohen is pushing fifty and looks no younger.

Fantasy takes over entirely at the grotesque cornball climax: “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people,” Hoffman winds up saying on the stand, sounding far less like his real-life counterpart than like Sorkin himself in the present.

The shame of it is that Hoffman’s actual testimony was far more dramatically compelling than anything that has sprung from Sorkin’s tepid imagination. JW

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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