Over the last year, Canberra Weekly’s resident film critic Luke McWilliams and arts editor Denholm Samaras have reviewed a host of the movies that ended up taking out Oscar gongs at the 2021 Academy Awards.
Nomadland (won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress)
The most decorated film of the 2021 Academy Award class, Nomadland was always destined for critical acclaim.
A spectacular showpiece of Americana, the slice-of-life film offers a warts-and-all look at the van-nomad lifestyle.
Rather than running to a more conventional narrative structure, screenwriter and director Chloe Zhang instead tells her story through a series of unassuming encounters and moments of quiet self-reflection with our protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand).
Gritty portrayals of the highlights and hardships of the lifestyle make it an engrossing, immersive viewing experience.
Whether seeing her difficulties waking up at the crack of dawn in the freezing cold, clocking in at a huge Amazon fulfilment warehouse to earn a buck, the humility of using her portable bucket toilet or, on a more positive note, kicking back in a deckchair amidst one of the USA’s most spectacular natural wonders, the scenes of the fiercely independent Fern are riveting.
The appeal and reality of the van nomad lifestyle are heightened by the backdrop of amazing locations that showcase both the rugged natural beauty of continental USA, and the country’s economic decline.
South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, the abandoned town of Empire, Nevada, and the coastline of the Pacific North West all feature.
To add to the authenticity, a few real-life nomads appear in featured roles, with more popping up as background extras.
Verdict: A feat in directing, performing and location scouting, Nomadland is an immersive look at a fascinating subculture set across the natural beauty and economic decay of the USA.
By Denholm Samaras
The Father (won Best Actor)
Anne (Olivia Colman) visits her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) at his apartment after he became belligerent with his last caretaker. Anne tells Anthony that she is leaving London for Paris to live with her new boyfriend Paul (Rufus Sewell). This confuses Anthony since he thought she was married to James, however, they divorced years ago …
Co-written and directed by Florian Zeller, based on his 2012 play Le Père, The Father has been well received. Anthony is a very proud man, battling for his independence while he is conscious of his reality crumbling around him. Suspicious that his daughter and her boyfriend are plotting to put him into a home, Anthony rebels against them and the caretakers Anne hires to ease her burden.
Anne is pulled between the needs of her father and the want of her own life. Weighed down physically, emotionally and psychologically by caring for her father, Anne must also compete with the ghost of her sister, whom Anthony idolises.
True to its stage origins, the movie is set primarily in an apartment. The performances and weaving story ensnare the audience, painting fully dimensional characters who, while flawed, are tragically easy to empathise with.
Verdict: Like Still Alice, the movie presents the devastating effects of dementia on the individual and those around them. The Father, however, puts us uncomfortably into centre stage. 5 stars.
By Luke McWilliams
Minari (won Best Supporting Actress)
In the 1980s, the Korean-American Yi family arrive at their new 50-acre plot in rural Arkansas. Away from their mundane chicken-sexing jobs in California, patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) passionately plans to grow Korean fruit and vegetables to sell to vendors in Dallas. Jacob’s wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) however does not share her husband’s joy and worries about their young son David’s (Alan Kim) heart condition. Soon the duo arranges for Monica’s mother Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to move in for the benefit of the family.
Based on the writer-director’s real-life experiences, Minari is multifaceted; it is as simple or as complex as one wants it to be. Following the Yi family as they journey even further into the heart of America, Jacob searches for the American dream, determined to provide for his family whilst also paying homage to his roots to pass his legacy to David. Monica, however, feels the pull back to the relative safety, albeit restrictiveness, of California.
Through David’s eyes, the gambling and potty-mouthed Soon-Ja is representative of Korea. Having never met her before or seen Korea, the cherub-faced David is a product of two worlds, finding difficulty reconciling the fact Soon-Ja does not measure up to the preconceived notions of a stereotypical Western grandmother.
Verdict: A beautiful story about strong characters told simply illustrating the immigrant experience. Like the minari plant, the family is humble, useful, resilient, and thrives on very little. 4.5 stars.
By Luke McWilliams
Soul (won Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score)
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a pianist and middle school music teacher living in New York City who dreams of playing jazz professionally. Just after nailing an audition to play in the band of a jazz legend and getting his break, Joe, while leaving the venue walking on air, falls down a manhole to his untimely demise, or so it seems …
Coming to as a soul on his way toward the “Great Beyond”, Joe’s resistance to his untimely passing sees him escape to the “Great Before”, where counsellors – all named Jerry – prepare unborn souls for life. It is here Joe is tasked with mentoring problem soul, 22 (Tina Fey).
Whisking along at a steady pace, Soul hits on a winning formula with a lead well-crafted enough to elicit empathy and investment; and enough twists, turns and high stakes to keep you engaged.
It’s a fun, exciting ride that simultaneously asks extraordinarily deep questions of its audience.
A question that comes out of viewing Soul is whether it is a film geared more toward children or their parents.
Viewing this as an adult, the key themes – death, personal values, unfulfilled potential and life’s purpose – hit as rather heavy and existential and not particularly accessible for children.
Lighter moments and the occasional silly gag will carry children through the 100-minute run time, however the bulk of Soul’s themes and subtext will be completely lost on pre-adolescent children.
The gorgeous rendering of autumnal NYC is a testament to how sophisticated and advanced the animation of industry leaders Pixar is. The lighting and camera work in particular makes New York’s natural and built environments almost take on a real-world quality.
However, while it has its moments of beauty and awe, the appearance of the “Great Before” and the souls that inhabit it fail to meet the lofty heights of New York. It certainly is ambitious, and scenes throughout give a glimpse at their vision, but much of it feels bland, cold and generic with a bit too much blue.
Verdict: The story is engaging and inspiring, the music spectacular, and feats of animation in rendering New York City are extremely impressive. 4.5 stars.
By Denholm Samaras
Judas and the Black Messiah (won Best Supporting Actor)
In Chicago during the late 1960s, 17-year-old petty criminal William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) impersonates an FBI agent to steal a car. Once he is arrested, he is approached by real FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who offers O’Neal a choice: he can be imprisoned for his crimes or go undercover for the Bureau by infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and work to dethrone its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
In his second feature, Shaka King focuses on a story of racism and manipulation from the government to destabilise a political organisation under the pretence of protecting its country. While Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 shares similar subject matter and the Hampton character, Black Messiah is more of a thriller. Like The Departed, O’Neal suffers psychologically under the weight of his role in directly destabilising the Black Panther Party not only for his freedom, but financial gain.
Hampton is a charismatic new leader with flourishes of extremism in his poetry-like speeches that is enough for the FBI, led by John Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), to plan the upcoming messiah’s downfall. Mitchell is initially adamant that he is putting a stop to a group with the destructive potential of the Klu Klux Klan, until Hoover’s ulterior motive is revealed.
Verdict: A disturbing real-life story that is unfortunately still relevant today. 3 stars.
By Luke McWilliams
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