Following in the footsteps of 2020 Best Picture winner Parasite, Minari is 2021’s Korean language entry into the Oscars Best Picture race, American Lee Isaac Chung constructing a much less pointed and critical picture than Bong Joon-ho did, instead offering a soft, moving and beautifully performed family drama about Korean immigrants buying into the American Dream in the US Deep South.
The true triumph of Minari is in its characterisation. Each member of the five-person family is layered, nuanced and utterly believable, each person never acting outside the realms of expectation, their collective journey being one that you can buy into evermore easily because of it. The subdued performances of the central cast bring these intelligently constructed characters to life, child actors Alan S. Kim and Noel Cho being as exceptional and vital as their adult counterparts, led by a trio of awards worthy performances by Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri and Youn Yuh-jung.
The dynamics of the characters, and the tensions their personalities and conflicting goals/dreams create, are the backbone of an otherwise well shot slice of Americana. Minari doesn’t excel in audio or visual terms, and narratively it offers nothing fresh to the thematic explorations of much of mainstream American cinema, holding a Spielbergian quality as it turns to symbolic acts of God to further its ideas and becomes reliant upon a restoration of the father figure as its key narrative thread. As such, the actions of Minari’s central protagonist prove harmful to nobody more than himself, and even he is absconded from any punishment in terms of his relationships.
Minari is very much the typical Hollywood movie formula applied to a Korean family attempting to live from the land, complete with American dream, an imposing religious presence (thematically and within the text), and yet more of the character arcs we’ve seen for decades by this point. It isn’t fresh, but it’s warm, feeling and identifiable, a film that proves much stronger than the sum of its parts.
Mank is a Best Picture nominee brimming with all the elements of a top class awards season film. It is remarkable to look at, its black and white frames glowing with the nostalgia of classic Hollywood; it has something to say about our glorification of Hollywood’s Golden Era and some of its icons, in this case most emphatically about the early studio heads and Citizen Kane director Orson Welles; and it incorporates such a rich variety of classic and modern filmmaking techniques to tell its story that it acts as something of a history lesson in filmmaking as a medium in of itself.
It’s a film that is immaculately performed by its major players who each ensure that there is as little by way of cartoonish characterisation as possible – a trap easy to fall into with period pieces about Hollywood in particular – and the score is of the very highest quality. Mank is, in each of its major elements, incredibly strong, admirable even, and yet it has one major problem that has seen it become the villain to many interested in 2021’s Oscars Best Picture race.
Mank is a story about a historical male figure released during an era in which many have become disinterested or frustrated with the continued dominance of such releases (at the box office, in the eyes of critics, at awards shows). As such, Mank is seen as a stark reminder of what so many of the other Best Picture nominees are signifying a step away from. Combine this with ill-feeling towards historical issues with the Hollywood system and the modern day conglomeration of the whole filmmaking process, and support for a film that seems on the surface to be glorifying an important period in Hollywood’s development is less than palatable for many. In the text itself, the screenplay by David Fincher’s deceased father Jack Fincher is at times enthralling and at others reductive, the characterisations for some layered and interesting and for others unlikeable and off-putting.
Mank would in most other years be a front-runner and public favourite owing to Fincher’s personal triumph in realising his father’s own work and the plethora of rich and unique filmmaking qualities it possesses, and as such it may be remembered with more fondness in the years and decades to come than it is as a part of the current race, but as things stand Mank is the kind of filmmaking achievement you’d expect of a filmmaker with a reputation like Fincher’s and not the surprise, form-shaking release that many have trended towards in the past few years.
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4. Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is sumptuous cinema with something to say, and if that isn’t the definition of what the Best Picture Oscar is supposed to represent, then what is?
Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt shoots with abnormally wide lenses, inviting light into the lens and offering a broader perspective to those of us watching. The night time scenes are particularly delectable, and there are a number of memorable sequences that his camera work and lighting elevate to the point of high art, his impact being one of the most instantly obvious positives of a film that is strong across the board.
Both Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are nominated for their layered and driven performances at the head of a cast that excels in all areas. Portraying real men caught up in a race war obvious to many but never spoken aloud by the prominent political figures of the day, the pair go beyond their usual lofty heights to establish themselves as leading men for the coming generation. In watching Judas and the Black Messiah, you not only feel like you’re watching US political history unfold within the text, but that you’re watching cinema history unfold in terms of the two nominated actors cementing their reputations.
Director and co-writer Shaka King subverts expectations of the politically fused true story on the big screen by instead presenting Judas and the Black Messiah like a gangster film. You can almost hear “All my life I wanted to be a gangster” as the car-jacking turns into security detail and subsequently into ordered hits and circumstantial gunfights, Scorsese and De Palma never far from the front of your mind.
Judas and the Black Messiah is cinema that not only feels important, but feels like that mythical idea we each have of what cinema is. So, while it may sag a little in the middle and fail to offer anything totally fresh as is the case with the films to come, it is nonetheless a film that is not to be missed.