Oscars Quest 2021: All the Other Viewing I Could Fit In Before the Big Event

Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan

Do you…like to watch?

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1988 to the present, many of which were worth the hunt. The eight nominees for Best Picture of the Pandemic Year may pose more of a viewing challenge…

Whenever I’ve been away from here over the past six weeks, I was either hiding out in Skyrim again, getting a good night’s sleep because I’m needing those more than ever, or seeing how many of this year’s Oscar nominees I could watch. Many were on streaming services to which I already subscribe. Two were released on Redbox for us old folks who like physical media. Some were available for rental on Vudu or YouTube, though those were lowest priority. Five nominees were sadly, annoyingly beyond my grasp on services not in our household (three were exclusive to Amazon Prime, two to Apple TV). Otherwise, I was willing to let myself get carried away. I arguably did.

Nominees we’ve covered in previous entries:

And now, on with the rest — not ranked for quality, just vaguely and inconsistently assembled in order by importance of their categories:

* Promising Young Woman (Redbox – Picture, Actress, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing): I usually like to devote entire entries to Best Picture nominees, but time is short and I’m unsure how useful it is for some dude to deep-dive into such a satisfyingly messy satire that’s absolutely feminist and yet skeptically self-aware of when intense devotion to a cause can cross a line and send someone with well-meant intentions over a cliff. I’ve yet to watch Carey Mulligan in anything lousy and that streak continues here as she rhetorically flenses a lineup of actors who’ve played “nice guys” in other films and shows (including two Veronica Mars veterans) while being completely oblivious to the flaws in her vendetta. Soon it begins to dawn that she’s an unreliable antihero whose targets are inarguably guilty of crimes for which they’ve never paid a price, and yet she’s so far gone after years of obsessive grieving that she sees the inexorable path ahead of her but confuses noble sacrifice with self-destruction.

* Pieces of a Woman (Netflix – Actress): The first 20+ minutes ensnare your heart and then smash it to bits as The Crown‘s Vanessa Kirby attempts to give birth at home with the assistance of a substitute midwife and her husband Shia LaBeouf only to have everything go wrong at the last minute. Then the film crosses the abyss of devastation into two separate films, depending on whether grief’s best antidote is soldiering on with deafening silence or with flagrant public tributes. An appreciated attempt to avoid cliched melodrama betrays itself with, among other head-shaking disappointments, one family holiday gathering in which the viewer can take bets on which relative says something stupid to ignite powder-keg tempers first. Then that tired sketch leads to courtroom proceedings that grind to a halt so Kirby can deliver her For Your Oscar Consideration speech in violation of basic courtroom procedures, even prefaced with a judge’s ruling of “this is super unorthodox and out of order but I’ll allow it” that would have Perry Mason chortling at his table. I think highly of Kirby; the film, not so much.

* The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu – Actress): Not every biopic needs to cover its subject’s life from birth to death, but it’s a shame we don’t meet the stupendous Ms. Holiday until her life’s already past her prime. By the late ’40s drug addiction is already messing with her performances and giving evil control freaks in the American government all the excuses they need to prevent her from singing their least favorite scathing anti-racist anthem, “Strange Fruit”. Audra Day captures the damaged spirit of a beleaguered woman who just wants to do her thing and maybe have a little fun between gigs, but who’s tired of the baggage, the nonsense, the judgments, and the hangers-on who want to use her for their own pleasures. Too often, though, the film with her name in the title shoves her backstage — like it’s as much a brute as some of her users — and hands the keys to Trevante Rhodes as a Holliday superfan who’s actually an undercover Fed, but who then has a change of heart and somehow grows into the only man who can show her Real Love, all of which culminates in the year’s most torrid Oscar-nominated sex scene that Rhodes’ agent probably keeps handy to show casting agents and ensure they’ll never, ever let him get typecast for Moonlight. If only Viola Davis could’ve dropped by as Ma Rainey to show Holliday how to stand up for herself in the music biz.

* Hillbilly Elegy (Supporting Actress, Makeup and Hairstyling): I recognize some of my own relatives’ patterns, tics, possessions, and ill fates in this exploitation of backwoods hardships. I’ve known a couple of cranky yet loving grandmas like Glenn Close’s. I’ve been adjacent to family implosions and grandparents tasked with raising grandchildren when circumstances and poor choices turned the middlemen and middlewomen into wretched moral failures. I try not to roll my eyes too hard whenever Hollywood tries its darnedest to capture American environs it looks down upon, rife with accents cribbed from other imitation-Southern drams and comedies. Ron Howard seems to be rebooting The Andy Griffith Show as a gritty drama, but it doesn’t quite work when you say you’re making country-fried steak but obviously using fancy panko instead of homemade breadcrumbs. It’s even more of a shame once you look up who main character J.D. Vance is in real life and realize the film’s entire point, through all of this torturous lower-class struggle, is authorized, possibly even commissioned hagiography leading to the punchline, “…and that’s the story of how I grew up to become a greedy venture capitalist!”

Mads Mikkelsen in "Another Round"

Alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!

* Another Round (Hulu – Director, International Feature): Mads Mikkelsen is BORING. That’s the outlandish initial status quo of director Thomas Vinterberg’s seriocomic jaunt through midlife crises and its dubious cures. Mikkelsen and three friends have become the dullest schoolteachers in Denmark and watch their family lives descend into mediocrity and monotony. So they decide a change is in order when one of them latches on to a joke theory that all humans are born with alcohol deficiency. Our Heroes thus embark on a quote-unquote “scientific experiment” to chart the effects of maintaining a .05% blood alcohol level all day long, even on the job. It goes without saying they don’t stay boring for long, but things get tricky when they tempt fate by prolonging the “experiment” and upping the stakes, as males are wont to do. I can’t stand alcohol myself, but I found a certain affirmation in watching the highs and lows of America’s favorite legal drug that’s both destroyed countless lives and is one of its strongest, most effective enablers of social bonds and emotional connections. Both sides of that divide can unite at the enrapturing sight of Hannibal Lecter knocking himself out for not one but two hyperkinetic dance numbers.

* Quo Vadis, Aida? (Hulu – International Feature): In July 1995 a Bosnian teacher turned UN translator is among the entire population of the village of Sreblenika who are chased out by an invading Serbian horde and forced to flee to a UN camp. Thousands flood inside and thousands more and left stranded outside the perimeter, wishing for a chance to come in, including the teacher’s own husband and adult sons. Tensions are fraught and violence is nigh as the invaders begin making demands and the Dutch soldiers running the base are spineless appeasement managers. Halfway through the film I lost track of the two sides because I’m lousy at post-1990 geography and decided to look up Sreblenika. Partway through typing, my eyes popped out when Google’s first auto-filled suggestion was “Sreblenika massacre” and then I realized what the film was about and why Hulu’s plot summary had been so cagey and bland. At that moment the film took on a whole new air of urgent creeping doom. As the teachers tries pulling every possible string she can to save her family, it isn’t hard to see where that’s going as the Serbians begin employing every tactic in the Fascist Army Playbook. That inevitability doesn’t make it any less riveting, especially after the deeds are done and we end with a glimpse of postwar life where old furies must be bottled in mental steel jars and survivors scream through their compliant eyes that silently beg to know exactly what in the world was the point of all that disgusting inhumanity.

* The White Tiger (Netflix – Adapted Screenplay): In his 2011 memoir and the posthumous, identically titled documentary Life Itself, film critic Roger Ebert took time away from describing his own story to heap praise on two young filmmakers from whom he expected to see great things someday, of whom I made mental notes. One was future Oscar nominee Ava DuVernay; the other was Ramin Bahrani, whose next film 99 Homes was a stinging indictment of the foreclosure biz when the 2009 recession was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Fast-forward to his latest, a rags-to-riches story set in India, where an ambitious kid dreams of rising above his lowly caste, and not necessarily by righteous methods. He finagles his way into a gig as assistant car-washer for the local fatcat, then scrapes his way ever higher up the ladder, sometimes watching other people fall off its rungs as he reaches and passes them. His upward climb is the cutthroat flip-side of Slumdog Millionaire (he even stops to throw shade at that particular fairy tale) and a proud proclamation that Americans don’t have a monopoly on trading one’s soul for career success.

* Over the Moon (Netflix – Animated Feature): The former Shanghai division of DreamWorks Animated separated from its progenitors and collaborated with Glen Keane, a renowned former Disney animator and Oscar-winning director (the Kobe Bryant-narrated short “Dear Basketball”), on this frequently pretty fantasy about a girl who builds a rocket and flies to the moon so she can prove that the Chinese goddess Chang’e, whom her dead mom used to tell stories about, is totally real and living there. You’d think she could find happiness in a household where John Cho is the surviving parent, but when he introduces Sandra Oh as her potential new stepmom, nah, she’d rather go chase a goddess. Nothing about the basic structure feels groundbreaking, but kids can learn some restorative lessons about the grieving process if they didn’t learn them from the last six Disney/Pixar films they watched, and they can realize for themselves Ken Jeong is a perfect choice to voice an annoying merchandisable moon critter. Adults and kids alike can also bop along to Hamilton‘s own Tony-nominated Phillippa Soo belting out a pop ditty called “Ultraluminary” that could’ve made the Best Original Song shortlist if that category were run by the same voters who nominate all the Best Visual Effects crowd-pleasers.

* A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Netflix – Animated Feature): I never saw the first one, but no recap was needed. He’s a farm sheep. The farm’s mean watchdog is very mean. No one in the film talks. Then aliens come. One becomes Shaun’s friend. Alien-mania sweeps the nation and inspires the farmer to build a skyscraper-sized alien roadside attraction. Mean government alien hunters arrive and are also mean. Much valiant slapstick ensues courtesy of masters in the subgenre, Aardman, the same brain trust behind Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. I forgot what a delight their works can be and I’m sorry I skipped the first one, and I’m not just saying that because of the nicely set-up Doctor Who gag. And yes, FYI, there is a scene after the Farmageddon end credits.

Tom Hanks in "News of the World".

They’ll rue the day they tried to mess with ol’ Jebediah Bourne.

* News of the World (Redbox – Cinematography, Production Design, Score, Sound): Tom Hanks reunites with Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass for an upbeat Western about a postbellum Confederate soldier who makes a living traveling around Texas and reading newspaper articles to audiences of busy and/or illiterate townspeople. His tour schedule is interrupted when he comes across a white teen who was kidnapped and raised by Kiowa tribesmen, only to end up alone in the woods when her forced-family caretakers are killed. Our man decides to escort the doubly orphaned girl to her last known kin some hundreds of miles away, across beautiful panoramas and past daunting challenges such as CG dust storms, stunning wagon crashes, and Creepy Pedophiles of the Old West. As with Greengrass’ Bourne escapades, the action sequences number few but stand out from their surroundings. On paper it all sounds like a reboot of John Ford’s much darker tragedy The Searchers, but this one’s less about racism and more about bridging communication gaps and the plaintive advice that we all really need to just get along. It’s surprisingly sanitized and nearly appropriate viewing for your elderly relatives. Modern fans of journalism can also read volumes into one sequence regarding a self-appointed figurehead who only approves public dissemination of headlines that glorify him.

* Emma (Redbox – Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling): I’ve never read the book or watched the Gwyneth Paltrow version, but it’s this year’s mandatory British costume drama, so it simply had to be watched. Anja Taylor-Joy’s selfish snob strides through her surroundings in increasingly intricate dresses and otherworldly collars while those beneath her trade snappy banter and cope with their slowly dawning revulsion toward her, all captured within prim, Wes Anderson-esque perfectionist framing. Photographer Autumn de Wilde’s directorial debut fits my bourgeois theory that every literary work published before 1900 is improved at least 90% when scissored up and rendered in rapid yet coherent editing speeds (see also: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women), but I’m at a loss to explain why I liked this more than my wife did. Maybe because Emma is basically Regency-era Nellie Oleson and could’ve used more comeuppances — like, say, a good dunking in a muddy pond. And Nellie Oleson should never, ever get the cute guy in the end.

* The Midnight Sky (Netflix — Visual Effects): Along with Tenet, our final four films round out the list for Best Visual Effects. I actually watched actor/director George Clooney’s near-apocalyptic sci-fi drama the week of its Netflix debut last year, but was apparently so unaffected by it that I completely forgot to include it in my 2020 year-in-review list. The sci-fi effects themselves accomplished their modest goals, but Clooney’s half of the film completes its journey well ahead of schedule, leaving him with literally nothing else to do but sit around waiting for the other half to finish. Meanwhile out in space, astronauts Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo ponder hard choices, and then they make some, and then they get back to work while the film keeps watching them in vain hopes that they’ll do anything cool or interesting. After several minutes of silent busywork it shuts off its own bored cameras.

* Mulan (Disney+ — Costume Design, Visual Effects): My strongest memory of the animated original is that when it opened in 1998, I was working at McDonald’s and I couldn’t believe how many cast members were turned into Happy Meal toys. Also, that amazing avalanche sequence. I’ve been avoiding Disney’s live-action remakes, and the Oscar nomination is the only reason I gave this one a chance. Some of director Niki Caro’s fight sequences are grade-A (though they lean heavily on Leigh Whannell snap-pivots), but I rolled my eyes more than once at Mulan’s super-projectile-kicking power, I grumbled as I watched them squander Donnie Yen’s presence, I can’t believe Jet Li is now old enough to play an elderly emperor, and I’m miffed that 22 years and millions of extra dollars were spent crafting an inferior avalanche. Not even Disney’s Chinese target audience were pleased. Who was this even for?

The One and Only Ivan! movie

The esteemed painter working through his Blue Period.

* The One and Only Ivan (Disney+ — Visual Effects): As if to make amends for Mulan, Disney presents Sam Rockwell as a talking gorilla. I’m not sure what more compelling argument you need to check this out. A grouchy Bryan Cranston runs a crappy circus inside a strip mall where the headliner is Sam Rockwell as a talking gorilla. The humans can’t hear him, but we can, so it’s their loss that they don’t get to experience the joy of Sam Rockwell as a talking gorilla. Then a kindly girl lends her crayons through the bars and suddenly we’re treated to Sam Rockwell as a talking, drawing gorilla. At the same time, Cranston buys a new baby elephant that is thankfully not Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which I haven’t seen, and somehow the job of emotional caregiver for said youngster falls to Sam Rockwell as a talking gorilla. And not just a lamentable Lion King remake talking gorilla, but like a Planet of the Apes trilogy talking gorilla, a quality talking gorilla setting new standards for achievement in simian emotional depth. Best of all? This is all based on a true story. Maybe not the chatty-animal part. If you can forgive the obligatory fart joke in the first twenty minutes, won’t you please give due consideration to Sam Rockwell As A Talking Gorilla: The Motion Picture? Thank you.

* Love and Monsters (Vudu – Visual Effects): By now we’re chest-deep into anti-Oscar territory here, and a field of off-the-wall nominees that could only happen in a year when every single blockbuster that cost hundreds of millions in special effects was yanked off the calendar, leaving a bizarre field of scrappy contenders. Sneaking through that wide gap between the velvet ropes is this modestly budgeted B-movie with the kind of generic name you’d give to your lousy original screenplay before a studio exec replaces it with an even dumber one. In a post-apocalyptic Earth where all cold-blooded creatures have been transformed into giant deformed monsters, Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf, The Maze Runner) is a feeble, cowardly chef who’s hidden underground for seven years but one day decides it’s past time to go visit his high school girlfriend Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist), who’s in a refuge 85 miles away. How hard can it be to wander through seven years of California overgrowth filled with predators when you don’t know how to use a single weapon? Unless maybe special guest Michael Rooker has some ideas? It’s a brisk, charming, unabashed popcorn flick that serves up its own sort of Monster Manual mythology and yet giddily amuses itself with such sights as a Final Boss Battle involving a shambling leviathan that’s like if Sebastian the crab had warped through the looking-glass of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. If you hate the Oscars, this is exactly the kind of film you’d rather watch instead. And hey, bonus: it’s not bad!

Special shout-out to the following nominees that are all available for streaming rental, but which I couldn’t fit in before my personal deadline for this entry. Maybe I can catch some of them at a later date when the Oscars go back to not mattering:

  • Better Days (International Feature)
  • The Man Who Sold His Skin (International Feature)
  • Eurovision Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Original Song)
  • The Life Ahead (Original Song)
  • Yet another Italian version of Pinocchio (Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling)

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