John Shearer: A Review Of 4 Best Picture Nominees

Saturday, April 24, 2021 - by John Shearer

For the 11th year in a row, I have watched several of the movies nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Unlike many prolific movie watchers, I am more of a seasonal film watcher and primarily watch just a few of those nominated for an Oscar. But I once again enjoyed seeing some this year and was enriched and/or entertained in some way by all of them.

This year was different because most people have not seen the films at theaters due to the pandemic and the fact many megaplexes are just starting to reopen in recent weeks. Watching several of them online via streaming before they really come out in the theaters also costs close to $20 instead of the usual $5 or $6 that has been the cost after they have been at theaters.

Also different this year is that of the ones I saw, none really jumped out at me as being overly entertaining like several Best Picture winners in the recent past, such as “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Spotlight,” and “Twelve Years a Slave.”

“Nomadland,” which I did see, is considered the favorite to win Best Picture. Others nominated this year include “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Below are my brief reviews of four of the Best Picture-nominated movies I saw in ascending order and culminating with my favorite.

I hope to see some or all of the other four that were nominated and look forward to watching the Oscar ceremonies this Sunday night on ABC. It gives us all a chance to feel like we are part of the Hollywood glamor world – at least briefly. Or it simply lets us see internationally accomplished people and dream of such a life for ourselves.

* * * * *

“Judas and the Black Messiah” – Before I saw this movie but after watching the video promotion for it, I somehow thought it was a fictitious movie about a Black leader of some kind of kingdom or country that did not exist in the real world.

Only after I reached the end and looked up some information online did I realize how true the film was. It follows the story of the Illinois Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, and his hard-nosed efforts to bring about change and improvement for Black people in the late 1960s.

Those who love the stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis and others accomplishing such noble goals of equality and civil rights through non-violent means might flinch at this movie, as the good guys and bad guys do not seem to be as clearly defined to me.

That is because it involves dirty or mean-spirited tactics on all sides, including the Black Panthers, the FBI, Chicago police and even a Black man named Bill O’Neal, who infiltrates the Black Panthers as an informant for the FBI.

Mr. Hampton with his oratory skills is considered the “Black Messiah,” while Mr. O’Neal is considered the “Judas.” The latter is due to the fact he is paid by the FBI and drugs Mr. Hampton’s drink to make the leader sleep heavily and be easily shot and killed during a law enforcement raid.

Like Judas in the Bible, Mr. O’Neal’s character apparently has guilt or at least mixed emotions over his involvement in bringing about Mr. Hampton’s death. The movie says at the end that Mr. O’Neal gave his one and only public interview for the PBS documentary, “Eyes on the Prize,” 20 years later and died shortly after it aired. Some believe it was suicide.

While the movie gives some neat attention to the late 1960s with period automobiles and even fascinating old buildings used for Black Panther gatherings and meetings, the movie focuses too much on the dark side of America’s racial conflict.

I am just too much of an eternal optimist for this storyline or to rank it among my favorite Best Picture nominees for this year.

However, the movie overall is enlightening and makes one ponder all aspects of America’s history of race relations. And it has some good acting, as Mr. Hampton’s character, played by Daniel Kaluuya, and Lakeith Stanfield as Mr. O’Neal have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

* * * * *

“Minari” – This movie deals with a South Korean immigrant family who has decided to move to a farm in a rural community in Northwest Arkansas from California after the father dreams of finding a successful living as a farmer. And for the next two hours, viewers are shown the struggles and occasional triumphs of this family’s quest to capture the American dream.

They live in a modest and uninteresting trailer, but their farmland around them – which was actually filmed in Northeast Oklahoma -- is simply gorgeous. Despite the beauty of the land, it lurks of danger primarily due to drought issues and struggles to keep it irrigated.

There are plenty of other conflicts with which they must deal during the movie, too. These include tensions in the marriage over the father’s challenging dream, a boy with a genetic heart defect, and language and cultural barriers that resulted in subtitles being often used.

However, there is an eccentric man who was a veteran of, yes, the Korean War, who manages to help them with the farm, and so does the grandmother with the two children. She comes from South Korea and cusses like an American sailor. Unfortunately, they have to help her after she suffers a stroke.   

There are countless examples in which a viewer feels for their struggles. And I even got a little sentimental realizing that the little male chicks in the hatchery where they also have to work are soon put to death, since they don’t lay eggs.

And then there is the minari leafy plant used for Korean food and medicine that the grandmother plants along the creek, and it eventually comes out. I read that it usually takes minari awhile to start producing well, and that might have symbolized the family’s struggles, according to one story.

Toward the end, good news seems to come when the family learns their son’s heart is doing better and the father gets a contract to sell some of his produce in a big city. However, as they are returning, the disabled grandmother accidentally sets the barn where the picked produce is stored on fire.

But after that, they still decide to persevere and stay, a trait appreciated in any culture and a move that gives the film a somewhat happy ending.

* * * * *

“Promising Young Woman” – I actually read up a little on this movie before I watched it, but evidently not enough. I had assumed It was about a 30-year-old woman who had been greatly bothered by a now-deceased best friend’s rape several years earlier and eventually helps bring justice to the case.

That is basically what happens, but in a much darker and much more intense way than I initially thought. The woman, played in an outstanding manner by British actress Carey Mulligan, who displayed no British accent on her way to a well-deserved Best Actress Academy Award nomination, initially tries to act drunk to tease men who pick her up. This is to think they can take advantage of her before she tells them she is sober.

But she eventually tries to bring attention to her late friend’s gang rape, an event that was so traumatic that Ms. Mulligan’s character becomes obsessed over trying to solve it. This is the most creative aspect of the movie in that female director and writer Emerald Finnell tells the story of how she meets people familiar with the case – from old medical school classmates, to a dean, to a lawyer and finally to the suspect himself.

She also dates a former medical school classmate, and later discovers he was an observer to the incident.

The final act, in which she confronts the accused man at his bachelor party, is to me almost like a scene out of a horror movie, it is so intense and dark. And to my surprise, the woman actually died.

But in another creative twist, she had left behind enough evidence – including a tape of the incident a female former classmate gave her – that the man is arrested at his wedding. So, justice prevails over her deceased friend’s and her own death, which seems more important to Ms. Mulligan’s character than to saving her own life.

I made this my second favorite movie only because it was so intense that I could not stop watching it for nearly two hours. It was quite uncomfortable to watch, though, and I will likely not watch it again.

But maybe that is appropriate to bring attention to the issues of acquaintance rape and helps men especially understand fully the trauma of the crime, which college campuses and other places are now trying to spend more resources preventing or prosecuting.

And maybe that is the lasting legacy of this movie. If so, it will be a worthwhile one.

* * * * *

“Nomadland” – This movie is somewhat unique in that it is based on a non-fiction book about the culture of people living fulltime out of their vans or recreational vehicles either by financial necessity or a spirit of adventure or independence. A documentary could have easily been made instead of this first-class drama.

It is also unusual in that many of the characters were real vehicle dwellers, not actors. But the main character, played by Frances McDormand, is definitely an actress, and she portrayed her role well enough to be the frontrunner to receive the Best Actress Oscar.

The story follows her having to live in a van after a factory closes down in Nevada and her husband dies. She finds seasonal work at places like an Amazon Fulfillment Center and a national park, but she has to constantly travel around the West looking for work.

But it is not as lonely an experience as one thinks, as she meets and befriends other people in similar situations and learns of the subculture. She even meets a male acquaintance and briefly lives in a guest house with his extended family before deciding she prefers the road.

She also has to embarrassingly ask for money from her sister with whom she has not been particularly close in recent years after her van needs repairs. She realizes after briefly staying with them how different her sister’s and friends’ lifestyle is from hers. But she and her sister still connect positively.

Besides getting to see the pretty outdoor Western landscape, a viewer gets some insight into this not overly attractive vehicle-wandering subculture that I did not know really existed.

And a viewer is also left with an appreciation for the unconquerable human spirit evident in these people, who try to persevere through obstacles of life. And maybe that is why it is considered the leading contender to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture.


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