Awards season — like everything else in the era of COVID-19 — will look very different this year.
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will air Sunday, April 25 and will be entirely in person according to the Oscars website, but will be split in location between venues about eight miles apart in Los Angeles.
The physical event is not the only difference from previous years. There are only eight Best Picture nominees instead of 10, and several films that are up for awards wouldn’t have qualified for nominations if the full film calendar of 2020 had remained. “Dune,” “No Time to Die” and Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” could have been among the 2020 nominated titles in the absence of COVID-19.
So, what are the “best” films to watch before the famous award show airs? I’ve seen all of the Best Picture nominees and a handful of other titles, and these are my recommendations.
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
2020 brought a lot of heartache, both in terms of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, which filled our screens and streets throughout the summer. A lot of white people, myself included, made it a goal to educate themselves on America’s Black History. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is an example of media that may not be 100 percent accurate in terms of history but is deeply compelling to uninformed audiences.
I had never heard the story of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the chapter of the Illinois Black Panther Party, but after having seen the film, it is a story I will never forget. The cleverly titled “Judas and the Black Messiah” gives us exactly that — a frequently seen story of betrayal (by the young Bill O’Neal) against a benevolent and well-intentioned leader.
Where the film succeeds is in characterization, momentum and ambience — the score is foreboding and tense. The pacing makes two hours and six minutes feel fast in the face of the intense, palpitating plot. The cinematography mimics popular films of the era — 1960s suspense thrillers and crime dramas — casting a neo-noir veil over the all-too-relevant story. But it’s the performances by Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, Lakeith Stanfield as O’Neal and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson that lock the viewer’s eyes to the screen until the credits roll.
I cannot comment too much on the historical accuracy of the film or the quality of the script other than the fact that it relies on a tired, well-meaning cop cliché that falls apart by the end of the film. For deeper criticism, read or watch Black reviewers’ thoughts on the film.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is my pick for Best Picture and Best Cinematography. Daniel Kaluuya is my pick for Best Supporting Actor.
“Sound of Metal”
“Sound of Metal” represents a fresh example of the Academy recognizing diversity in ability within the Deaf community — a step forward that is long overdue.
I watched “Sound of Metal” with someone more familiar with the Deaf community than I was, and it was an incredibly eye-opening and fun experience. The film celebrates the unique connections that can be made within Deaf culture and the ways people can live their lives in a world where they cannot hear anybody and nobody can hear them.
“Sound of Metal” follows Ruben, played by Riz Ahmed, a heavy metal drummer who is losing his hearing. He cannot afford a cochlear implant, so he must put his life on hold while he learns what it means to listen without hearing. Over the course of the film, Rubin learns the importance of silence after a life focused on sound.
The film is gorgeous and full of melancholy moments that will impact those outside of the Deaf community just as much as those within it. It is one of few films to make me tear up in 2020, largely due to Ahmed and Paul Raci’s performances. Please, do yourself a favor and watch this movie.
“Sound of Metal” is my pick for Best Sound and is a serious candidate for Best Picture and Best Actor (though the latter will almost assuredly be awarded to the late Chadwick Boseman, and deservedly so).
Oklahomans, rejoice! “Minari” is a Best Picture candidate that not only portrays the American dream through Asian American immigrants’ experiences, but also had a majority of the film shot at Meadowlake Ranch in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, with Oklahoman crew members, though the story predominantly takes place in Arkansas.
The film stars Steven Yeun — most notably seen on “The Walking Dead” — as Jacob, the patriarch of his family who relocates from California to Arkansas in the 1980s in hopes of having some farmland of his own.
The ensemble cast of the family is one of the most well-rounded lineups of 2020 (except, maybe, the aforementioned “Judas and the Black Messiah”) and nearly the entire film is focused on the family’s interpersonal communication as farm life wears them down.
Though the majority of the dialogue is in Korean, the film is inherently about the American experience, made for and by those who have a distinct understanding of just how desperate that experience can be.
The supporting cast of townsfolk are largely unremarkable, save for Paul (Will Patton, “Remember the Titans”), who adds some comedic relief and southern charm to the film’s more harsh reality.
Ultimately, “Minari” is not a new story, but much like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” it is the voices and the implications of the film’s story that ring out rather than the plot itself.
“Minari” is my pick for Best Directing, but I would not be upset if it won Best Picture.
“Nomadland,” while not a life-altering film, is still a stunning slice-of-life work with a focus on the struggle of the working poor. Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) once again knocks it out of the park as leading actress.
The heart of the film is in its litany of one-off characters who add texture and heart to the film. The story is about other people’s stories, and some of them feel incredibly real. Though McDormand is the focus, the film shares the effect people have on one another’s lives and how those effects change a person at their core.
“Nomadland,” based on Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name about the real-life “nomad” movement, pulls a few punches when talking about class disparity in America, and that is what keeps it from being a truly great contender in my mind. That said, it’s a movie that is apt for the Academy Awards and could bring home a lot of gold statues, especially for Best Directing.
“Promising Young Woman” is one of 2020’s pictures that I think about the most. It’s clearly a passion project of post-#MeToo Movement emotions. The story follows Carey Mulligan (“Shame,” “Drive”) as Cassandra, a woman who moonlights as a vigilante who confronts sexually aggressive or manipulative men.
The film is incredibly acted, colorful, dark and intriguing, but it has been received as a polarizing film, either for doing too much or not enough. I think the nature of the film makes it unlikely to do well at the Oscars — though it has won several awards at indie festivals and award shows.
If anything, the film stands a better chance of winning Best Original Screenplay or Best Actress in a Leading Role, though both of those categories are fairly stacked. Ultimately, this will be a film I remember fondly from 2020 but that may not go down in awards history.
Neither “Another Round” nor “Soul” are nominated for Best Picture, but I would be remiss to leave them off an Oscars suggestion list. Both films are heartwarming titles that have a dark subject matter.
Both films will likely win in their respective categories — Foreign Language Film and Animated Feature — but they are incredible pieces of work that will remain personal favorites for years to come.
Ultimately, 2020 became “the year that could have been” for films that may not have had a chance otherwise. If you’re curious about my thoughts on other 2020 films, I have a Letterboxd list with a rough ranking of the titles I watched last year.
The Academy Awards will air from 7-10 p.m. on Sunday, April 25. A livestream of the ceremony can be found on either the ABC channel or app, as well as YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV and more.