The Best Picture nominees at the 2021 Oscars are a reminder that even in our world’s darkest times great art can be made available to consume and be celebrated. Cinema may have been thrown into chaos and the theatrical experience almost completely absent, but The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has been spoilt for choice nonetheless, the world of cinema once again proving itself as being more than a simple money-printing factory of tentpole releases and IP-driven event films.
In 2021, no less than 4 of the 8 films nominated for the year’s biggest film award are directed by debut directors, indicating not only a shift within the industry, but hope that the artistry of prior years and decades can be maintained moving forward, and proving that filmmakers with strong ideas are always worth producers risking their money and reputations on.
The Academy’s selection of best feature films this year is an eclectic mix of the phenomenally written, movingly performed and surgically directed, and in this edition of Ranked we here at The Film Magazine are looking at each to judge the order in which these films excel, analysing each in terms of overall quality and cultural relevance.
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8. The Trial of the Chicago 7
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a timely and arguably powerful court room drama released during an era in which films of its type are few and far between, and those with high budget ensemble casts seem to have been absent from our screens for over 20 years.
It’s a film with tremendous upside, bringing attention to a historical US issue that can be applied to the nation’s struggles today, and it features effortless transitions from comedy to drama in easy to digest but moving sequences, the likes of which have become typical of writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s politically fused but Hollywood-leaning sensibilities.
Sorkin has long been considered a master of American drama, his work hugely respected and certainly recognisable. His characters quip, they talk over one another, tensions escalate through words alone, and then like the crescendo of his own orchestra they come to a boil, producing thought-provoking and often powerful moments. In The Trial of the Chicago 7 this is precisely what is offered, Sorkin making the real-life trials of the Chicago 7 (a group accused of conspiracy, riot and more for attending the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago) one of his most authorial works to date.
Like many of Sorkin’s previous pieces, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is filled with statements but equally palatable, it is political but wholly agreeable and very much reinforcing of American exceptionalism and faith in the nation’s guiding principles and the ways in which they are enforced through law. Unlike some of his award winning work of years past, his writing isn’t directed by an expressionistic filmmaker but by himself, The Trial of the Chicago 7 thus lacking the touches of perspective-shifting cinematography, set design and blocking that are present in many of the other 2021 Best Picture Oscar nominees.
7. Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal is being correctly lauded as a technical triumph. Its sound design takes you inside the head of its punk rock drummer protagonist who suddenly begins to lose his hearing, loud crashes of drums and cheers from crowds replaced with dead silence, the ringing of his eardrum, muffled thuds and indistinguishable speech. For 2 hours, you experience what you believe to be an actuality of deafness, and you grow attached to the protagonist suffering to accept it.
Riz Ahmed is magnetic as the addict who feels his life is being ripped away from him, his character design from the ripped t-shirts and heavy boots of his wardrobe to the antagonistic designs and slogans of his tattoos and stand out bleach blond hair, and further still to the nuances of Ahmed’s own soft boil anger and inherent insecurity, make for a wholly believable character, an interesting and identifiable protagonist.
Away from the technical triumphs of sound design, costume design, hair and performance, Sound of Metal follows the fairly basic narrative structure of the nomad reacquainting himself with the world, albeit in a way that is forced by a disconnection from it, Ahmed’s Ruben substituting living in isolation with his partner in an RV to living around others in a commune, his hair being shaved into its natural colour, Ruben literally selling the products of his dream (and deafness) to try and find a new normal in a space closer to the “real world”, and thus finding himself in the process. It’s a structure that has little time for tackling issues of finance, and as such glosses over some of the biggest hurdles newly deaf people face, specifically in the United States. Here, Ruben conveniently passes over the obstacles of finding emotional support, finding financial help to access that support, and finding tens of thousands of dollars for surgery, and as such there is little by way of wider contextualisation of Ruben’s journey as a newly deaf man, Sound of Metal squarely focused on the played out formula of the on-screen addict, its text concluding with the apropos yet emblematic message of self-acceptance healing all wounds, physical and otherwise.
Some of Sound of Metal’s parts are the best around, and there’s no doubt that as a feature drama debut for Darius Marder it excels beyond all expectations and proves the first glimpse of a potentially prominent screen artist, but it’s not the nuanced, different and/or surprising offering that some of 2021’s other Oscars Best Picture nominees are.