Ranking the Best Pictures, 2021 Style!

8. Sad Green Acres

Way way back in the 1980s, secret government employees Korean immigrant Jacob Yi moves his wife and two children from California to Arkansas, with the dream of farming Korean vegetables instead of spending his life sorting baby chickens by gender for meat packing plants. His wife, Monica, is less thrilled with the idea, but makes one demand: that they bring her mother out to live with them. Which causes a clash both cultural and generational with the two kids, who are meeting their grandmother for the first time. (Also the son has a heart defect and a problem with bed-wetting, nobody in this movie has a good time.) And Jacob takes on a heavily Christian Vietnam vet as a farmhand who I am stunned didn’t try to murder/suicide anyone. He gave such strong “And then turned the gun on himself” vibes.

It’s a story of a dream, and what happens to a couple when only one of them wants that dream. A man’s desperate urge to build something for himself and his family, and his wife’s desperate need to escape it. So, as I said, Green Acres but not funny. Save for some scenes of the grandmother and her grandson planting the titular herb minari by a creek, Minari is oppressively grim. If something good happens to this family, brace yourself, ’cause the other shoe is already dropping.

It’s like how in Spider-Man: Homecoming (a movie I’m sure it gets compared to all the time), the question of whether Peter would abandon Liz at the homecoming dance to go stop Vulture had no stakes or weight to it whatsoever, because there wasn’t a single moment in the whole movie where he didn’t pick Spider-Manning over Liz. Likewise here, the constant failures and setbacks the Yi family face eventually lose impact because there’s nothing to compare it to. There are maybe two minutes in the whole movie where things are going Jacob’s way.

Well in terms of the farm, anyway, the family as a whole gets a win along the way.

I don’t have anything bad to say about it. It is quite good, the cast is very strong, the themes work… but it just really wasn’t something I was looking for.

Trash Oscar Alternate: How about a story of a dream failed that ends not in sadness but in a moment utterly uplifting, where two men realize their greatest gift to world is actually their daughters? That movie is Bill and Ted Face the Music and it was everything I needed from the decades-later return of the Wyld Stallyns. Best Picure, Best Supporting Actor to the always incredible Anthony Carrigan, and Best Supporting Actress to Brigette Lundy-Paine as Ted’s daughter Billie Logan, playing Ted better than Keanu Reeves was.

Where Would It Rank? If it pulled the upset win some have muttered it might, Minari would fall at #57, under the more engaging A Beautiful Mind but over the problematic American Beauty.

7. Mortality is a Rollercoaster

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is an aging man determined to keep his independence despite increasing struggles with dementia. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) moves heaven and Earth to take care of him, needing him to still be her father, unwilling to ship him off to a home (not that he’s eager to go to one). But Anthony’s situation worsens, he gets increasingly lost between past and present, unsure of where he is or who he’s talking to. And we’re pulled right along with him, never certain where or when we find ourselves as we bounce through five years (?) to finally see what might be the objective truth.

It’s a deeply unsettling look at how dementia works, what a heartbreaking consequence it can be of successfully prolonging the human lifespan, and Hopkins and Colman act the hell out of it… but then let’s be real, that’s what got it nominated. The largest bloc of voters in the Academy are actors, and as susceptible as they are to Holocaust movies and Message Movies that don’t make them feel bad about themselves, what they really dig are character studies that allow for big impressive performances, and this is that. Might be Anthony Hopkins’ last shot at such a role, and they really like that.

I did have one issue… sometimes we are going along with Anthony as his mind bounces through time, sometimes we are in the past watching incidents he isn’t present for, or even Anne’s fantasies, and that would be fine, but… there’s this running bit about Anne moving to France, meaning she won’t be able to look after him herself (something that’s been an anchor around her neck for over half a decade), and in several past sequences, he mentions it only for those around him to assure him it isn’t happening, and… if these are his memories, how are they responding when he brings up knowledge from the future? What’s the exact mechanic at work there? Sometimes we are in the past, but when? Does the script know exactly when we or Anthony are in reality at any given time? Every time it seems like we’re all in the past together and he brings up France, I found myself wondering, does he have Alzheimer’s, or is he Dr. Manhattan?

You probably wouldn’t think that. Your brain isn’t broken the way mine is. Few people’s are.

Anyway if you’re looking for a movie to make you dread your birthday and consider writing a living will, here’s your movie. If you want something uplifting…

Trash Oscar Alternate: Want a movie whose protagonist grapples with learning that their reality isn’t what they think it was, but instead of being sad and old fights a generic-brand Dr. Octopus in an elevator shaft? That’s Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot, and it’s not a better movie by most metrics but I certainly enjoyed watching it more, and its lead never said “Hm?” exactly the way my grandfather used to, giving me sad dreams that night.

Where Would It Rank? Slightly higher than Minari at 56, over A Beautiful Mind due to a more effective unreliable narrator, but under Million Dollar Baby. Equally bleak ending, more uplifting journey to get there.

6. Oscar Winning Actress Poops in a Bucket, If You’re Into That

Fern (Frances McDormand) has lost her husband, and the sheetrock plant that employed her whole town shut down and took the town with it, so Fern has abandoned her home, started living in her van and cruising around looking for short-term jobs across America. She finds a community of fellow nomads, but gradually they’re whittled down by tempting offers to settle or, well, cancer. Every stop she makes, she’ll make a new friend. Can’t stay for long, just turn around and she’s gone again. Maybe tomorrow, she’ll want to settle down, until tomorrow– no wait that’s something else.

In order to, I guess, properly examine this real-life community of van-life people, moving from seasonal gig to seasonal gig and enjoying the freedom of the road, writer/director Chloé Zhao mostly eschewed name actors (save for McDormand and David Strathairn as the closest thing she has to a love interest) and filled the cast with actual members of the nomad community, each playing, essentially, a version of themselves.

Which has this weird effect. The first half hour or so is just Fern working at Amazon, meeting people, learning the tips and tricks of life on the road, such as what’s a good size of poop bucket to own (they cannot possibly be filling a five gallon bucket, who wouldn’t dump it before it gets there). And any sort of backstory or character arc for Fern kind of gets put on hold while other nomads tell their stories, and what combination of grief or trauma made them give up fixed addresses (usually at least one of those at work, I don’t think anyone said they’d get an apartment if that were an option) , so it ends up feeling less like a narrative movie and more like a documentary that Fargo star Frances McDormand is also in for some reason. It’s like Frances is a tourist in these people’s lives rather than the central character.

(Apparently she blended in so well that most didn’t realize she was a famous actress; towards the end she tells road life guru Bob Wells about her husband, and after they got the shot he thanked her for sharing and assured her things would get better, at which point she had to clarify that her actual husband is Joel Coen and very much alive.)

It’s a quiet meditation more than anything. Fern working away at menial jobs or wandering in wildernesses or the occasional ghost towns. Things you do when there’s something inside of you that won’t let you be around people to the point where you live in a van somewhere in the wilderness, no matter how tempting the settlement offer, no matter what friend or family member is saying “stop pooping in a bucket and live here.” It feels like maybe in the end, after a year and change on the road and after her closest friends have either given up the life for family or died, she seems to find some degree of peace? Like… road life seems more like choosing her path to happiness than fleeing grief. But one sequence doesn’t make a character arc, especially given how long it took for hers to get started.

Also it is absolutely, definitely, slightly uncomfortably nice to Amazon. A seasonal job at Amazon is portrayed as a popular gig for nomads, to the point where they have a company-sponsored group booking and discount at an RV park. Fern says it’s good money, doesn’t seem stressed, and bonds with other nomads over a meal break which we’re pretty sure wouldn’t exist. No mention of unpleasant working conditions at all. Honestly feels irresponsible, since each of them could be roaming the country in a luxury RV the rest of the year if Bezos wasn’t determined to hoard wealth like a dragon.

It’s okay, and it’s apparently the frontrunner, so it’ll probably win, but I just found it a little uninspiring. I definitely checked the time at one point and was disappointed to see it had only been an hour.

I remember a time when my actual favourites were the frontrunner. Those were the days.

Trash Oscar Alternate: Tenet also spent more time on its concept than story or character, but there’s some cool action beats and Robert Pattison is fun. It didn’t deserve a nomination over these ones but it could have been the Trash Oscars Prestige Pic.

Where Would It Rank? Down at #54, under another little film more concerned with atmosphere and emotion than story, but with more ambitious visuals, a flick called Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. And over Gladiator.

5. “Hooray” For Hollywood?

In peak Golden Age Hollywood, aka the 1930s, frequently uncredited studio screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) becomes discontent with the anti-union, anti-worker, hardline conservative politics of wealthy studio heads Louis B. Mayer, his number two Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick (Daredevil’s Toby Leonard Moore), and their even richer patron William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank becomes so angry at what his former pal Hearst is doing to Hollywood, that in the film’s flash-forward framing device, he uses a writing gig to craft a takedown of Hearst: a script for up-and-coming director Orson Welles called Citizen Kane. A script everyone from his wife Sara (my favourite Sense8, Tuppence Middleton) to his friend and Hearst’s paramour Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) tries to warn him away from, knowing Hearst will do whatever he can to destroy it (as he did, forcing me to watch and review How Green Was My Valley).

Now here we have the dream Oscar Bait of the whole year: a character-driven acting showcase about Old Timey Hollywood, which in ways I can’t fully explain David Fincher shoots exactly like a big 30s epic. The way the landscapes pop even in black and white, the camera work, the look of it beyond being in black and white, it evoked the look and feel of a 30s/40s prestige piece, and it came to me at the one moment in my life I was most primed to appreciate that, right after I’d mired myself in a marathon of Golden Ages movies, including many from David O. Selznick, so it was extra neat seeing him as a character in the movie. And also neat I wasn’t asked to think kindly of Louis B. Mayer, the Harvey Weinstein of the early 20th century.

Oldman’s very good. Yes he’s a solid three decades older than Mank was at the time, and it does show, he feels dramatically older than most of his co-stars, in fact he’s older now than Mank ever was because alcoholism is a sonofabitch… but I kind of buy that an alcoholic 30-something in the Great Depression would look about the same as a 60-something rich movie star now. So I managed to roll with it.

Yes it’s almost laser-focused on appealing to Hollywood insiders, but there’s something to this one: the way it examines how the wealthy try to steer politics to their own end, and the way filmmakers specifically can use narrative tricks to steer voters… in this case using racism to point people towards their preferred candidate (who is not Mank’s preferred candidate). So this one gets nudged up over some more contemporary entries because it does have something to say beyond “their life was hard and then eventually they’ll die.” Also kudos for making an Oscar Bait old-time-Hollywood movie, a movie about the making of Citizen Kane, that says “Actually the Golden Age was bad, workers got shafted, writers didn’t get credit, and the studio heads got up to some dark shit.

Fincher has style, and there’s a slight chance he gets a win because people feel he’s due (the DGA didn’t, so don’t bet on that). And maybe I’m overvaluing it because it came to me at the exact right time in my life, but I dug Mank’s style a lot and the thought of pooping in a bucket and sleeping in a van in the dead of winter like Fern in Nomadland was horrifying so I’ll take “Mank was neat!” over “Living in a van is great!” right now. Maybe someday I’ll revisit it, think “Actually no Gary Oldman was absolutely too old for this role” and change my mind, who knows.

Trash Oscars Alternate: I mean… if we’re talking “shit the entertainment industry used to pull,” maybe we could have kicked the tires on One Night in Miami a couple more times, just a thought. It’s not Trash Oscars, exactly, but it sure didn’t make the list. Did the Academy decide they already had a black movie on the list and didn’t need more?

Where Would It Rank? Mank’s rank is dank to be frank but don’t stank, I’m very sorry. If Hollywood goes Full Hollywood this year and Mank‘s thanks aren’t pranks (sorry), it would fall at #44 under different “Hey wasn’t the golden age a thing” flick The Artist.

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