In the lead-up to this year’s Oscars, I’m dropping another round of mini reviews to cover a number of nominated films I missed seeing over the last year. Almost all of these films are nominated for Best Picture, with the exception being Spencer, which instead has Kristen Stewart nominated for Best Actress. Organised in ascending order of my review score, let’s into the phenomenal, the good, and the not so good of what’s nominated this year!
THE POWER OF THE DOG
Written and directed by Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog follows two brothers living on a farm in Montana – when George (Jesse Plemons) brings home a new wife and son, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is reluctant to show any signs of vulnerability or lower his hardened exterior… that is until he embraces the possibility of love. It’s very easy to see why this film is nominated for so many awards – there’s a lot of attention to detail in its narrative, it’s well crafted in all technical areas, and the performances are pretty solid. Unfortunately, I found this film hard to get through and really didn’t enjoy it – but that doesn’t discredit anything it’s nominated for. I knew before going into it that I wouldn’t enjoy this specific type of film, and I was right – it’s not for me, and I understand that I’m most likely in the minority.
The narrative didn’t resonate with me at all – it runs at a very deliberate slow pace in order to tell the story it needed to tell, but managed to bore the life out of me in the process. I can see that Jane Campion’s narrative is well crafted, paced and thought out – and there are sections of the story I did like – but overall I just didn’t love following any of the characters or their respective journeys. As I mentioned, the biggest pluses are that it’s a very beautiful-looking film – with great cinematography and lighting across the board – and the performances are mostly all hits. Benedict Cumberbatch stands out amongst the crowd with a very layered performance giving him a good shot at competing with Will Smith for the Oscar.
In the end, this is not my type of film, nor my type of story, and as a result I just didn’t enjoy it. That being said – it’s probably going to take home the award for Best Picture at the end of the big night. It obviously wouldn’t be my pick, but I can see where it’s really hit with the majority of audiences. It’s shot incredibly well and there’s a few big performances that lead to some impactful scenes throughout.
Kenneth Branagh presents his most personal project yet, Belfast – a semi-autobiographical film about a young boy and his working class family trying to get by in the 1960s.
Belfast excels in its performances and technical achievements, where it ultimately falters in its narrative. It’s a fine story with nice little charming moments of joy, but overall there’s nothing particularly compelling or engaging about it. There’s little pockets of adorable family-centric moments – especially when Buddy (Jude Hill) interacts with Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench) – that do put a smile on your face. But aside from those few moments spread throughout the film, I couldn’t get emotionally invested in the overall journey of this tight-knit family. Some people may be able to connect to the material a little more, but it just wasn’t hooking me.
Kenneth Branagh directs this film superbly, honing in all the technical elements to create something that crafted to the finest detail. It’s beautifully shot, and the use of a black-and-white filter really does enhance the film. Being an autobiographical story, the black-and-white technique really amplifies the real-life memory quality that the film has. Lastly, the performances are another really solid element, with the young Jude Hill doing a stellar job as the lead. Alongside him, Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench and Jamie Dornan are all great – displaying the effectiveness of a strong ensemble in improving a film.
In the end, Belfast is something I feel a very niche audience will enjoy, whilst most people will think the film is borderline good, at best.
Spencer is a deep character study, following Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) over a 3-day period as she celebrates Christmas at the Queen’s Sandringham estate, along with her husband Charles and children.
Those looking for an expansive biopic exploring the life of the people’s princess may be disappointed – this is a very focused narrative, and one that is rooted more in the genre of historical fiction influenced by true events, rather than an actual biopic. The story itself is quite loose, and moves along very slowly (albeit intentionally) to let you take in the impact of every key moment. It’s focused entirely on the character of Diana, delving deep into the emotions she’s feeling and the effect her marriage to Charles is having on her overall mental health. That element of the film is very effective – it brilliantly depicts the pressure and rapidly-building stress that Diana is experiencing, hammering home this very claustrophobic feeling that looms over the entire film. It’s almost a psychological thriller in a couple of key scenes where the pressure on Diana to conform to the ways of royal life at at their most intense – which I loved. There’s a couple of scenes where the story drags, but they’re relatively short-lived in the grand scheme of things.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the film is Kristen Stewart’s Oscar-nominated performance. She’s absolutely spectacular in every moment, and the reason to go and see this movie. Gone are the lingering memories of her previous roles – she completely embodies the persona of Diana and doesn’t break character for a single moment. Every line of dialogue is delivered in a way that shows her vulnerability, but also her strength and determination to be exactly who she wants to be.
In the end, Spencer is not for everyone – it presents a very focused (and somewhat hypothetical) look into the character of Princess Diana, and is captivating in that respect. The slow pace and otherwise loose narrative may turn some people away, but Kristen’s performance alone makes the watch worth it.
Guillermo Del Toro’s star-studded neo-noir crime thriller, Nightmare Alley, follows a down-on-his-luck grifter (Bradley Cooper) who works his way up the ranks from your average carnival worker to a renowned psychic medium. The question is… how long can he keep up the act without being exposed?
The entire first act of Nightmare Alley is absolutely brilliant. It feels entirely contained from the rest of the film, focused on introducing the drives and desires of our main characters before thrusting them into the wider, more expansive narrative. It’s a very dark and shady opening, with some great early crime elements and fascinating character interactions within every scene. From there, once the main narrative really kicks into gear, the narrative gets more and more psychological – especially once Cate Blanchett’s role comes into play. The way Guillermo Del Toro builds tension across each and every scene is fantastic – you can really feel the narrative intensifying with each passing moment, leading towards a climax that pays off everything that came before it. I will say there is a decent amount of predictability in the story, but that didn’t take me out of it at all – it’s all about the journey, and that journey is a blast.
Aesthetically, the movie is breathtaking to look at. The costuming and set design is all crafted to heighten the gothic/neo-noir vibe that Del Toro is known for. Even in the few scenes where I wasn’t captivated by the narrative, I was drawn to the beauty of the visuals and everything going on within this world. The ensemble performances in here are great – Bradley Cooper is exceptional in the lead role, really selling the greedy con-artist nature of his character in a way only he could. Cate Blanchett almost steals the show when she’s on screen, and Rooney Mara is always great when playing against Bradley. Special shoutout to Toni Collette and Willem Dafoe who both make a memorable impact on the film despite limited screen time.
In the end, the star of the show is Guillermo Del Toro. His masterful directing is on full show here, and his ability to bring every element together so seamlessly is truly astounding. As much as I enjoyed Nightmare Alley, it’s got no shot at winning Best Picture – it’s incredibly well crafted, but just doesn’t have an edge to really make it stand out.
An all-round incredible biopic – King Richard follows the upbringing of tennis superstars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton), and how they reached superstardom under the full-on training regime of their father Richard Williams (Will Smith).
King Richard is an absolute joy to watch from beginning to end, packing tonnes of heart and feel-good moments, with some very strong emotional beats to go along with it. It sets out to tell an inspirational story and it accomplishes that flawlessly – detailing how dedication (to a sport and to your family) can really go a long way in achieving your dreams. The writers really picked a great point in the Williams sisters’ life to begin the story and an even better point to bring it to a close – the signs of a great biopic that’s not too ambitious in what it’s trying to do with its narrative. The emotional storytelling has you rooting for the sisters, and their father, from the very beginning – caring about their wellbeing and success even if you know the outcome.
As fantastic as the writing is, every single moment is elevated tenfold by Will Smith’s phenomenal performance. He is an absolute masterclass in this film, completely disappearing into the role and delivering every single line with an emotional punch. You can gather exactly what he’s feeling and what is going on in the character’s head purely from the tiniest of mannerisms and inflections in his delivery. I’ve not seen many recent performances stronger than this one, so he’s a lock for the Oscar 100%. Alongside Will, Aunjanue Ellis has a couple of notably brilliant scenes as the Williams’ mother. When she switches on her acting guns, she’s ON. One scene in particular is so powerful I almost handed her the Oscar in that moment. On top of that, the young Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are awesome too – playing off one another really well, leading to plenty of fun, charming and lighthearted moments.
In the end, King Richard is a phenomenal film packed with charm, lighthearted humour and deep emotional moments. Everyone knows just how inspirational Venus and Serena are to so many people, and this film emphasises that. Backed by an engaging narrative and fantastic ensemble of performances, this is a must-watch for any tennis fan!
I don’t think I can fittingly explain just how much I adored this movie this movie no matter how many words I give myself. To put it simply, this is a coming-of-age masterpiece and one of the best films of the year… if not THE best. As a CODA (child of deaf adults), Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her family, and an important part of their life. A lover of music, she’s torn between pursue her singing dreams at college or staying in her town to help the family fishing business.
From beginning to end, I loved every single second of this film. It’s a beautiful, heartwarming story that brings the laughs just as much as it brings the tears. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions, but one you’ll never want to get off – in fact, I’d love to give it a rewatch… and I just watched it. It’s packed to the brim with touching themes, powerfully emotional scenes and great moments of levity. It’s this balance of highs and lows that make it such an enjoyable ride. It would have me laughing out loud at a brilliant joke in one scene, then tearing up in the next, and then manage to put a big smile on my face in the scene after that. Phenomenally well-written, it manages to give every single main character a genuine arc that is well fleshed out and has a moment of fulfilling payoff in the end. There is nothing I’d change about this movie – it’s as close to perfect as you can get.
Emilia Jones, who I’ve enjoyed on Netflix’s Locke & Key, is incredible in the lead role. She delivers a very nuanced performance – never overdoing it and just portraying the character very naturally and authentically. Authentic is exactly how I’d describe this film – it all felt very real, allowing you to empathise with the characters immediately. I was surprised to see Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in here, whom I loved in the incredible film Sing Street (2016). He’s also great, and does a lot with very few scenes – especially in his singing performances. Undeniably, the standout is Troy Kotsur, who delivers an Oscar-worthy performance across every one of his scenes. The way he amplifies the story and the emotional weight of every moment without verbally speaking a single word is remarkable. Having won honours at many award ceremonies so far, he’s making history as the first deaf actor to win these awards and it’s very well deserved.
In the end, I cannot stress enough how essential it is to see CODA. It’s a masterpiece in storytelling and explores some brilliant themes that are sure to touch the hearts of any who watch. The music is beautiful, performances are fantastic, and the way it jumps between moments of levity and more sombre beats is truly remarkable. If this film takes home Best Picture, which it’s looking increasingly likely it will do, it will be very well deserved. Get ready to laugh and prepare to cry in what is hands-down one of 2021’s best films, and one of the greats in the coming-of-age genre.