Ranking the Best Pictures, 2021 Style!

4. Sometimes White Protestors Got Over-Policed Too

In a year when Black Lives Matter protestors were treated like enemy combatants and anti-mask protestors storming capitol buildings got treated like special snowflakes, is this the “protestors on trial” movie we needed? No, but maybe, maybe someone will see legal authority abused against white actors they like and connect the dots? I don’t know, the fact that non-violent black suspects get murdered by cops and white domestic terrorists get taken to Burger King on the way to jail, not to mention the whole January 6th insurrection having way fewer consequences than it should, makes the whole situation feel unsolvable without burning the US justice system to ash and starting over…

…But this is the movie on the topic that Aaron Sorkin was able to make, so here it is, and you know what it’s decent.

Sorkin unites a very strong cast playing both defendants and accusers in the trial of six leaders of the protests against the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and one prominent Black Panther that Nixon’s Attorney General was hoping to drag down with them. I’m not surprised it landed Best Cast at the SAG Awards, because this has to be the most stacked ensemble in the running this year. And it gets into the dangers of using the legal system not to serve and protect, but to target and punish.

Yes the protests are treated unfairly, yes the police are unnecessarily aggressive in their responses, sure Nixon’s AG was acting shady pursuing this case at all, but it’s one bad judge (Frank Langella) who ends up the film’s main villain. One bad judge so staunchly refusing to give Bobby Seale (Aquaman and Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) a fair trial through refusing to acknowledge he isn’t with the other six and thus has no lawyer, that the prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has to all but demand a mistrial to avoid being part of something terrible. More terrible. History agrees that judge shouldn’t have been on the bench… like, probably, a lot of recent Republican appointments… but at the time there was little to be done to keep a bad judge from making a mockery of the trial.

It’s a good script and a solid cast, and almost has something worthwhile to say if you’re listening for it. As this year’s nominees go, it’s still mostly joyless but less actively bleak.

Trash Oscars Alternate: The Chicago Seven get stuck in a place they wish they weren’t, with almost nothing they can do the affect the outcome. Not unlike a Groundhog’s Day infinite time loop scenario, which Palm Springs had a fun, fresh new take on.

Where Would It Rank? Some think preferential ballot voting, which in close races can sometimes result in everyone’s third choice winning because their first choices are too split, might give Chicago 7 the win. I say poppycock. If Aaron Sorkin can’t win at the Writers’ Guild, he can’t win here. Anyhoo it would slot in at 37th, with its extremely clever script that doesn’t quite manage to say much falling just behind a truly bonkers script that tried to say everything, that’s right I’m talking Cimarron. Yancey Cravat would have gotten the entire Chicago Seven acquitted after convincing the judge to resign in deep shame.

3. No Sound and the Fury

Rueben Stone (Rogue One’s Riz Ahmed) plays drums in a heavy metal band with his girlfriend/front woman Lou (Olivia Cooke), until he starts suffering massive hearing loss. Which is a problem, because the opening scenes make it pretty clear music is the one thing Rueben and Lou have going for them. Music and trying not to relapse into drugs (Rueben) or self-harm (Lou). As his hearing fades, Lou gets concerned his addiction issues will resurface, but his usual sponsor isn’t equipped for this situation, and recommends a shelter in the countryside, a rehab community specifically for the deaf. Joe, who runs the shelter (and whose actor’s life syncs up with the character in many ways, but not actual deafness), tries to help Rueben adjust to his new reality, but Rueben remains fixated on getting cochlear implants in an attempt to go back to his old life, which might be less possible than he thinks.

The central question in this movie is what gives your life meaning? Rueben believes it’s being a drummer. If he can’t get his hearing back, he can’t be Lou’s drummer anymore, and then what is he? And what if, much as they love each other and pulled each other back from the abyss… what if Lou’s doing better not living that RV heavy metal life? (At least their RV likely had a toilet and nobody had to poop in a bucket, sorry Nomadland I’ll try to lay off.) Can Rueben find the version of himself worth being without music or hearing? Maybe!

Riz is great, Olivia sells her character’s journey with much less screentime, and it does build a warm community of hearing-impaired people who won’t be told their lives are lacking for being deaf. Many of the deaf characters are played by deaf actors (just not the main two), which I find a better choice than “Most of these people are real nomads,” because with deaf actors we enter “They can’t get other roles so yeah give them these roles” territory, and making a conscious choice not to have a fixed address is not a protected class. Nomadland could have have a cast filled with slightly familiar character actors and lost nothing, Sound of Metal feels authentic in a more important way. It feels authentic in a way that doesn’t pull me out of the story.

And it’s just a little more uplifting. Whatever happens to him, it’s always distinctly possible that Rueben isn’t doomed, that he has a way forward. Can’t say that about The Father, and any time I thought the Minari family might be okay, Minari punished me for it.

The sound design does amazing work bringing us into Rueben’s condition. In key scenes, we hear what Rueben hears, which drives home his turmoil, especially in the third act. Sure, Joe is trying to convince him to accept and embrace his circumstances, but we can understand why that’s hard for him to do. We see both why Rueben feels this surgery is all that will give him his life back, and why Joe thinks that sounds like addict talk.

Trash Oscars Alternate: I already said Bill and Ted Face the Music, huh. Oh, here’s one… Underwater is a tense survival story in which Kristen Stewart battles sea monsters, that was worth a watch. It has zero thematic similarity to Sound of Metal but you know what we’re running out.

Where Would It Rank? I’d put this one right between two “Normal people adapt to changing life circumstance in powerful ways” movies at #32, between Ordinary People and Moonlight.

2. ACAB The Biopic

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, giving the man not one ounce of humanity, good) fears that the Black Panthers may find a “Black Messiah,” a leadership figure to galvanize their crusade for… let’s see here… equality, justice, and not being murdered by cops and other racists Jesus Christ the wounds of slavery never even started to heal… and that Chicago chapter chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) might be that Black Messiah. So car thief Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is is pressured by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) into infiltrating the Panthers and getting close to Hampton so that the FBI can find cause to lock him in jail. At least… at least that’s what O’Neal and his handler think is the goal. Turns out Hoover is interested in a more permanent solution.

So wow we are just done pretending Hoover was anything but a cruel, corrupt monster running a secret gestapo to shut down such dangerous elements as feminists, anti-war protestors, and black people, huh. Probably decades past due. This movie really killed any desire I might have had to watch that biopic DiCaprio did back when. Who directed that… Clint Eastwood. Yeah. That’s gonna be trash, absolute revisionist trash.

The movie does a great job profiling Hampton as a man, the impossible position O’Neal was wedged into, and the horrifying corruption in the police and FBI. The only FBI agent we see who isn’t an active white supremacist is Plemons’ Roy Mitchell, but even when Hoover and the other agents show him what’s really happening, how their tactics have nothing to do with law and everything to do with a racist agenda, he doesn’t exactly step up, does he, no, he plays right along.

It’s a very strong movie with very strong performances about how entrenched white supremacy has long been in American law enforcement, and the horrors that let them get away with. It’s not a happy story in any way, but an important and engaging one.

Trash Oscars Alternate: You know what there’s no happy version of this story, maybe just watch Blumhouse turn Freaky Friday into a horror movie with Freaky, I hear that’s fun.

Where Would It Rank? This one makes it into the 20s at #23, under The Hurt Locker but over Platoon.

1. The “Nice Guy” Equalizer

Hoo boy this one’s a ride.

Years earlier, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) was a promising med student, but dropped out after her best friend was raped at a party, leading to severe depression and suicide. Now Cassie roams the bars and clubs, feigning drunkenness until some “nice guy” comes to take her home, at which point… well, writer/director Emerald Fennell keeps that ambiguous. Maybe she just puts the fear of god in them, maybe there’s a trail of bodies, I don’t know, it’s deliberately unclear. But a chance run-in with a former classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), sparks two possibilities: 1) the chance to finally get even with the man who hurt her friend and all those who ensured he got away with it, or 2) a chance to leave revenge behind in exchange for an actually happy life. Can she walk away?

It’s a riveting story of rage and revenge, that doesn’t skimp on diving deep into rape culture. Cassie’s revenge plan isn’t limited to the rapist, she also targets the friend who didn’t believe the victim (Alison Brie), the dean who wouldn’t take action (Connie Nielson), the lawyer who ensured no charges would stick (Alfred Molina)… her plans are clever, straddle the line between satisfying and disturbing, and it’s a surprise which one makes her start to rethink the plan.

There are probably a dozen little touches in this movie, subtle little pieces of colour and sound and framing that helped push the story along. Clever touches like a shift in lip colour hinting who’s been hitting the red wine harder. Even the casting helps sell it all: Cassie’s targets are mostly familiar faces, but not the ones you go to for creeps and douchebags. Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, these are your Nice Guy Actors, and that’s the point: abusers and predators don’t all look like finance bro frat boys, they could be anyone. I mean yes Schmidt from New Girl is in there too but we’re allowed to know his character is a douche from moment one.

And Carey Mulligan is riveting in the lead role. Cold, calculating, hard to look away from. She’s been past due to enter the A-list since An Education and hopefully this does it for her, even if indications are Viola Davis is gonna win the trophy.

This was the one I was looking forward to, and it may have surprised but didn’t disappoint.

Trash Oscars Alternate: Want a less grim but more visceral tale of women taking their lives back? Well look no further than Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Less challenging, less real, more gratifying.

Where Would It Rank? Sheer skill in visual storytelling combined with a gripping script and great performances would get it pretty high, all the way to #20, nudging The Sting down to #21 but not quite passing Return of the King.

And that’s the Best Pictures of 2021. Eight movies that are all a good watch on their own, but lump them all together and you just want to shout “Jesus, Academy, read the room.A writer I respect tried to claim that the nominees aren’t as bleak as we think, breaking them into “Not a bummer,” “Slight bummer but the HUMAN SPIRIT?” “Bummer but not shot like one,” and “Sad but MOVING?” which maybe I could agree with but the only one she put under “Not a bummer” was Minari and no, sorry Emily, I’m not sure we saw the same movie because Minari was a stone cold bummer.

Maybe next year they’ll lighten up and throw in something fun. Something people watched. I mean I wouldn’t count on it, this year is going to be mostly the 2020 blockbusters the studios didn’t want to dump on streaming and then a few tiny movies for festivals/awards season, but maybe?

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