What a year it has been—certainly in every aspect of life, but for our purposes here, the film industry. When the pandemic hit and everything closed down, the 2020 Oscars had just taken place. Soon after, theaters closed and remained so through the fall, when most Oscar candidates are released.
So we all watched from home as online platforms had our full attention. Yet, in the midst of this, we also gained a better appreciation for the importance of art, and especially, film. Movies will go on, but how we watch them may be permanently changed. The Oscars this year reflect this, with two films each from Netflix and Amazon. On the positive side, this year’s group is one of the most diverse ever, including more nods for women and people of color than ever before. Let’s hope that trend continues as well. And the Oscar goes to…
Since its debut at film festivals last fall, this earnest and touching film, directed by Chloé Zhao, has been the Oscar favorite. It stars the wonderful Frances McDormand as a 60-something woman who wanders around the American west/southwest, living out of her van, and working jobs from town to town. She is part of an ever-growing community of nomads around the U.S., a group that eschews the modern conveniences to live a life on the road. They live mostly alone, but they also congregate at RV parks and intermittently work together. McDormand, fantastic as usual, is riveting and understated as the drama plays out on her worn and weathered face. The film reminds of Neorealism, the great Italian movement that was the opposite of Hollywood cinema. And it may take the biggest prize given out by Hollywood.
Sound of Metal (Amazon)
This is a touching and emotional film from relative newcomer Darius Marder. It tells the story of rock drummer Ruben (a wonderful & riveting Riz Ahmed) who suddenly loses his hearing. Frantic and obsessed with raising the money he needs for cochlear implants and getting back to his former life with girlfriend and lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke), he winds up at a home for the deaf run by the avuncular Joe (Paul Raci). Initially reticent, he soon learns sign language, teaches drums to deaf children, and befriends the other residents. Yet he still holds onto his dream, sells his motor home, and eventually has the surgery.
This use of film sound is simple and ingenious, and we connect to character through that underused aspect of the art form. Film is as much an auditory experience as it is visual. This film gives us that gift.
Hollywood loves a film about film, and this telling of the writing of Citizen Kane fits the bill. Shot in black and white and starring Gary Oldman as mercurial writer Herman J. Mankewicz, it is at once a love poem to Hollywood while shining a spotlight on the patriarchy therein. Mankewicz was a successful Hollywood writer when he was tapped by wunderkind Orson Welles to write what many considered the greatest film ever made. The film was almost destroyed before it was released, however, when the real-life subject of the film, William Randolph Hearst, offered to buy it and kill it. Luckily for us, RKO Pictures declined.
While the film is very much candy for cinephiles, I found it lacking in inspiration. The irony here is obvious—Citizen Kane was one of the most inspired films of all time, from script to directing to acting to costuming to editing. Yet for me, Mank falls a bit flat.
The Trial of the Chicago Seven (Netflix)
This sprawling and energetic film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) covers the trial of the infamous titular group. What could be just another courtroom drama is juiced by the snappy writing, the relentless pace of the editing, and a standout performance from Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. It also has a lot to say about democracy, and what has/has not transpired since that trial in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As usual, a film about the past tells us more about today than it does the time period it covers. I could see this film winning the big one.
Imagine the pitch for this screenplay: “A young Korean family moves to rural Arkansas because the father wishes to start a farm while the mother goes to work in a chicken sexing plant. And, oh yeah, a wacky grandmother moves into their trailer with them.” Somehow this film made it to the screen, and the finished product is heartfelt and emotional, even poetic at times. In a world where violence against Asian-Americans is omnipresent, this movie humanizes a group that has been demonized since the mid-1800s. It is based on a semi-autobiographical story from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, and the personal touches of the script and on the screen are evident. A great supporting performance from Youn Yuh-jung as the grandmother breathes life into the film at the midway point. She may be receiving an award on Oscar night.
One Night in Miami (Amazon)
See my 3/21 review online at the Indie Prof archives of The Front Porch: https://frontporchne.com/category/indie-prof/
Promising Young Woman (VOD)
See my review from 1/21 in the archives listed above.
The Father and Judas and the Black Messiah
Presently only in theaters, and I am not quite ready for that yet.
Dr. Vincent Piturro is a Professor of Film and Media Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can follow “Indie Prof” on Facebook and @VincentPiturro on Twitter.