Try as I might, some films slip by me as they make their way to a general release, and if I haven’t been able to screen a movie in advance, I find it challenging to make a special point to go back and do a write-up. The pandemic has changed the way studios make their films available for critics, and 2021 proved to be slightly more difficult than 2020 on securing a few key titles that will play a significant role when nominations are announced tomorrow. This year, I’m making a slight exception to my no screener/no review policy because there were an equal number of movies I did see but failed to review in time for their release. That’s on me, and I had to correct that.
Below are eight mini-reviews of titles I believe we’ll hear mentioned at least once during Oscar nomination morning, if not more. All are available now via streaming platforms. If you click the titles, you will be taken to the Just Watch platform and see which service works best for you.
Synopsis: Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Frances Conroy
Director: Jane Campion
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: If you’re going to watch just one movie before the Oscars and want me to suggest one that will make you feel like you are part of the event, look no further than The Power of the Dog. I don’t even need to hear the nominations announced to know that this will likely get the most significant number of prestigious nominations. Look for Dune to get the most nominations overall, including technical nods, but if you want to cover all your bases, The Power of the Dog is the one to see. Let’s be clear; it’s also an excellent movie too! I’m not sure I would put it anywhere near the top of my list as Best Picture of the year, but it’s not a stretch of the thinking process to understand why director Jane Campion’s moody Western has been so triumphant in the early awards voting.
Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage with the breathtaking views of rural New Zealand standing in for Montana of the mid-1920s, Campion’s psychological drama takes a while to stand upright and reveal its actual intentions. When it does, it makes you want to stop and start from the beginning, piecing together the puzzle you’d been putting together from the outside in after realizing Campion’s screenplay assembled it from the inside out and backward. It’s a film that burns on your mind the longer it sits with you.
While the performances are uniquely strong across the board, it’s not the actors that make the movie so haunting in the end. What gives the film its lasting sting is the mental trickery being played on certain characters and, by proxy, the viewer. Pushed as a leading actor, I’d argue that Benedict Cumberbatch (The Courier) is just as much a supporting player as Kodi Smit-McPhee, a leading candidate to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. For his work as the sensitive son of Kirsten Dunst’s character, Smit-McPhee (2067) would be an exciting win considering how the role develops (no spoilers!) to Cumberbatch’s rough and masculine cowboy. I hope Dunst (Midnight Special) gets in there too, not just as a reward for her years in Hollywood but for a fine showing alongside her real-life husband Jesse Plemons (Game Night), who also might find himself a nominee.
Sure to also land nominations for Campion’s direction (making her only the third woman to win Best Director and the second in a row!) and screenplay, not to mention cinematography, editing, score, costumes, and production design, the Oscars are going to the Dog…count on it.
Synopsis: Covers a critical weekend in the early ’90s, when Princess Diana decided her marriage to Prince Charles wasn’t working and that she needed to veer from a path that put her in line to one day be queen.
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris
Director: Pablo Larraín
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: The sinking feeling in my stomach that Kristen Stewart won’t land a Best Actress nomination for playing Princess Diana in Spencer is only growing in the hours before the announcement. Which is crazy because who would have ever thought it would be a question that the performance wouldn’t be easily recognized by the Acting Branch of The Academy, one that often falls over itself to reward actors who play real people? Let’s also not forget the enthusiasm by which Stewart (Happiest Season) was received when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, with many thinking it was all but a conclusion she would land her first nod from the Oscars, to say nothing of winning. Yet, Stewart was routinely left off the list, with each society and guild announcing their nominees.
In some ways, you can understand why and unfortunately, little of it has to do with Stewart herself or even her performance. Spencer, the movie has people puzzled, and that alienation has swept up Stewart in its collateral damage wake. Yes, the film is hard to decipher and cool to the touch. Like director Pablo Larraín’s previous film Jackie, it tells the story of a famous woman in the public eye’s scrutiny for a limited window of time. Here, it’s a Christmas holiday weekend in Norfolk at the Queen’s Sandringham estate, where Diana realizes her marriage to Charles is officially over. Her eating disorder gives way to visions of past royalty and other ghosts and household staff that may or may not be there. Viewers are never quite sure what is real, and screenwriter Steven Knight (Serenity) prefers to keep us just as turned around as the doomed Princess.
Jackie overcame its critical naysayers and still landed star Natalie Portman an Oscar nom (I still think she should have won), but Stewart might not be as lucky. Again, this is so odd because in the very same year, we have Olivia Colman most definitely getting nominated for a similarly prickly film, The Lost Daughter, and equally hard to warm to performance. Yet Colman and her movie are embraced on a broader level…why? I’d much rather see the work Stewart is doing rewarded, which I did find enthralling, than the aloof one sailing through to the next level. I’m hoping all those early misses have led Academy voters to want to right that wrong, and they put Stewart high on their ballots, and she at least gets the nomination for Spencer she deserves.
Synopsis: Richard Williams serves as a coach to his daughters Venus and Serena, who will soon become two of the most legendary tennis players in history.
Stars: Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Aunjanue Ellis, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Running Length: 145 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: For as much as I am into documentary films, I would watch a 145-minute doc about the life of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams any day of the week. I feel it would be an accurate depiction of the sisters growing up in Compton, raised by their driven and resourceful father Richard and tireless mother Oracene “Brandy.” Their story of rising from humble beginnings to superstardom is remarkable and demonstrative of the hard work, humility, and talent both given and taught. For me, the trouble with King Richard is that Zach Baylin’s script tells that same story but from the perspective of Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena.
I have nothing against changing the narrative vantage point; that’s not the issue. Richard long had a plan for his daughters to succeed, so where the girls wound up is a testament to his big picture goals in action. Baylin wrote his script without it being authorized by the family, and getting their eventual involvement is a solid stamp of approval. Still, it’s easy to see why they would sign off on it because aside from a few moments that could be classified as tough love and family issues well known to the public, it’s a sanitized version of actual events. What Baylin’s script does is leave out a lot of information at the outset to lay the groundwork for who these real people were as a family before the tennis, during, and now. Reading up after the film, I was honestly surprised at how many critical life events were left unmentioned, casting a bit of a pall on the whole thing.
That leaves presumed nominee and, strangely, assumed winner Will Smith (Winter’s Tale) with the unenviable task of potentially winning his Oscar for a movie and role that doesn’t feel like it’s been completely honest with the audience. Film fans that follow these award season trajectories are already hard enough on biographical films. The tendency for awards bodies to reward actors playing real people more than those creating their characters, and with Smith possibly winning the statue for this role would seem like a letdown. Also, he’s turning in the least memorable performance of the nominees being mentioned. I hope the award doesn’t go to Smith as a congratulatory prize for all the years he was nominated but didn’t win.
On the plus side, a nomination for the long underrecognized Aunjanue Ellis (If Beale Street Could Talk) would be outstanding, and the two young actresses playing the sisters growing up (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) are also fairly fantastic in their own right. All the buzz swirling around Smith made me want to like King Richard so much more than I did. Instead, it just made me want to seek out a sports doc that would be more forthcoming, warts and all.
Synopsis: Shang-Chi must confront the past he thought he left behind when he is drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization.
Stars: Simu Liu, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ronny Chieng, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Outside of visual effects and some other below-the-line technical categories, I’m not sure if The Academy will make much room for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. However, having watched it again when it debuted on Disney+, I had to put in another plug for this extremely enjoyable effort from Marvel Studios. Every time I think I’ve reached my overload on the MCU, they release one of these refreshing palate cleansers and introduce a new character that pulls me right back into the fray. Yes, it’s an origin story, but what a fun ride this is, and it’s exceptionally well cast with Simu Lu’s titular character confidently leading a fresh-faced group of players.
It’s nearly impossible to get a performance nominated from these movies. If Robert Downey Jr. couldn’t get nominated for his final round as Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame back in 2019, then I don’t think we can hope Tony Leung’s (The Grandmaster) excellent turn as pseudo-villain Xu Wenwu stands much of a chance here. Leung’s role walks that tricky line of being both the antagonist and the tortured soul with a fleshed-out backstory you must understand and appreciate. Also providing good support is Awkwafina (in her second Disney movie of the year, after Raya and the Last Dragon, another potential Oscar nominee) as Shang-Chi’s best friend with her own issues to sort out. Great chemistry keeps the action sequences tense, and the fast-paced choreography hurtles this one forward like a locomotive.
As Black Panther did with Black culture, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings furthered the MCU’s discovery and positive depiction of Asian culture, but it was more than just a gap filler. The movie is a rip-roaring good time that writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton keeps moving with a kinetic speed while at the same time pausing to reflect on emotional beats. Critics downgraded the movie based on a special-effects heavy third act, but that’s the MCU’s bread and butter, and that the entire film feels so self-contained makes it more exciting.
Synopsis: Years after an unspeakable tragedy tore their lives apart, two sets of parents agree to talk privately in an attempt to move forward.
Stars: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, Ann Dowd
Director: Fran Kranz
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Two movies came out of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival setting Twitter a-Tweetin’ and Mass is the other one. If CODA (discussed below) was the film that has wound up feeling most of the awards season fever, it doesn’t discount that Mass is a devastatingly good film that succeeds on its own merits. It’s just so hard to watch, and it almost relegates itself into the One Watch Club through the severity of its central topic. I think that’s what has ultimately hurt its chances at all four actors receiving the recognition they deserve for their work and the filmmakers not being singled out for tackling a hot button subject with such intentional grace.
Many plays go on to be movies but rarely does a movie become a play. I predict that director Fran Kranz (also an actor, appearing memorably in 2011’s The Cabin in the Woods) will turn his screenplay into a piece for the stage and wouldn’t be shocked to see Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney, & Ann Dowd in the opening night cast. Calling a movie stage-y can be a put-down, but surprisingly Kranz makes this claustrophobic feel work to his advantage, allowing the actors to use the limited space to drive their performances with more immediacy. The air is sucked out of the room at a rapid rate, increasing the tension, eliciting an award-worthy performance from all but especially Dowd (Rebecca) and Plimpton (Parenthood) as mothers of sons who crossed paths.
You likely know or can guess what has happened to bring these two sets of parents together, but if you haven’t, I won’t reveal what it is. Developing nearly in real-time, the conversation in a church basement between the families is raw, awkward, and honest. The dialogue Kranz uses doesn’t feel like movie speak, but the natural language people would use in this situation. Difficult to watch and haunting to think on after, Mass could get a Best Original Screenplay nom in addition to a much-hoped-for Supporting Actress nomination for Dowd. Have enough Academy members seen it to place it on their ballot?
Synopsis: In the 1970s and ’80s, Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker rose from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and a theme park, and were revered for their message of love, acceptance, and prosperity.
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio
Director: Michael Showalter
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Shortly before I saw this biopic of famous television personality Tammy Faye Bakker, I was at a gathering, and someone said to me, “Now you know, this was inspired by a documentary also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” I nodded my head and smiled in acknowledgment, but in my mind, the library was open, and I was staring my competitor down with a firm: “I am a gay man that grew up in the late ’90s and 2000s. If you think I don’t OWN that movie, you are mistaken. Now you know.” There are specific icons my community holds up with a measure of reverence, and Tammy Faye is one of them. Not just for the strength of spirit she showed as she dealt with a tremendously tragic life, but for the support she showed and the kindness she bestowed to a community that needed someone like her.
All that being said, I have to admit going into this feature film willed into existence by star Jessica Chastain (The 355), I wasn’t sold that this was going to come off as well as it did. The make-up on Chastain and Andrew Garfield (himself a likely Oscar nominee for tick, tick…BOOM!) as her husband Jim didn’t seem right, and it felt like this was going to be more camp than courteous. Wrong on all counts. Though disappointing at the box office when released this fall, the movie has picked up steam in the last few months as Chastain has been on the campaign trail for a Best Actress nomination. She might get it, too.
Yes, the make-up and prosthetics are extreme, but oh boy, is her work terrific. You can tell she has great respect for the real person she’s playing and understands what this biopic could do to further the mud-slinging if pitched the wrong way. She’s able to steer the ship in the right direction and make it all mainly about the human Tammy Faye was, and while it carefully sidesteps specific issues, it goes headfirst into the most well-known periods of her life. Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) gets points for mostly letting Chastain run the show because she’s the force of nature that makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye a treat to gobble up.
Synopsis: As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), Ruby is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents.
Stars: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin
Director: Sian Heder
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, I vividly remember the day this impressively moving family drama had its first screening because my Twitter feed blew up from audience members losing their minds over it. It clogged up my feed so much that I had to mute the title to read what else was going on in the world. Bought by Apple for a record-breaking $25 million, director Sian Heder’s CODA showed up on Apple TV+ in mid-August and created another blitz for the rest of the world that didn’t attend the Utah film fest eight months prior. It was then we finally understood why everyone had reacted so strongly. It’s because CODA was as good as we were told it was.
Set in the North Shore of Massachusetts in the heart of a fishing town struggling through a challenging economy, Emilia Jones is the lone hearing child of Deaf parents Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur. Her Deaf brother (Daniel Durant) works alongside her father on their fishing boat, and she balances school, prep for college, and being a bridge between the Deaf and hearing community for her family. When an opportunity arises that will allow her to follow her passion, it means extricating herself from a family that’s more dependent on her than any one of them realizes.
Heder’s film is astute in its observances of simple human needs and issues. The subtleties in communication go far in keeping the movie honest above all else, including the performances. It’s no wonder Kotsur is a favorite to be nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category, and he is going to give The Power of the Dog’s Kodi Smit-McPhee a solid run for his money. Oscar-winner Matlin’s role is surprisingly not what you’d expect, which makes it more intriguing to watch, primarily as she interacts with the stunning performance of Jones. If you aren’t grabbing for your hankie at some point in the last half hour of CODA, you’re a strong person than I am.
Synopsis: Two young boys experience an unforgettable Italian summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides. But all the fun is threatened by a deeply-held secret: they are sea monsters from another world just below the water’s surface.
Stars: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Growing up, I recall reading reviews where critics mentioned the division between what they felt about a movie and their “young companion” thought. I now know this was a gentle way of acknowledging the simple truth that even though they weren’t the target audience for a particular kind of film, they were still interested in the viewers’ opinion that would be watching it. A longtime fan of Disney animated films and the gentle heart of Pixar, I’ve appreciated the tender pictures that the blended studios have made together. Yet I am getting to the point in my life where I have to start judging these animated films by what my “young companion” thinks.
Watching Luca this summer before it debuted on Disney+, I made sure to invite my young nephews over to get their instant reaction. Taking their word for it, Luca was the best movie they’d seen up until that point, and it was because it showed “why you should be nice to each other, no matter where you come from,” and I don’t think it can be said better than that. The story of a junior sea monster living near a town on the Italian coast who can turn into a human when dried off is a travelogue of lush colors and hypnotic ocean waves for adults and contains the requisite foibles for kids to keep them busy. It’s somewhat equitable on the gender side of things, too. It may be called Luca, but there is space made for Giulia, an intelligent and resourceful whipper snapper that shows the boys a thing or two about achieving your dream goals.
Likely finding its way into the five nominees for Best Animated Feature, Luca might be on the minor end of the Pixar scale. Still, it was the most-streamed movie of 2021, though I can imagine Encanto would have caught up with it quickly had it come out a month earlier. It’s not hard to see why with its escapist feel and adventurous spirit. Could it possibly beat the other potential nominees? I think it has some definite challengers if the five stack up like I think it will, but this is a relatively weak lineup in general, so it’s a fairly open field.