The Academy Awards summed up the best of cinema in 2021 with ten ‘prestigious’ nominees, each defining the emotional trauma, intensity and optimism of a tough year past. Though, just like every Oscar’s ceremony, the 94th version of the annual awards contains several snubs in the Best Picture category, along with a good handful of films that arguably don’t deserve their place at all.
With notable omissions from the category, including Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, Petite Maman from French filmmaker Céline Sciamma and the low-key drama After Love by British director Aleem Khan, the likes of Don’t Look Up and Belfast are stealing appreciation in their place.
In fairness, this year’s selection is fairly well-rounded and represents a large demographic of filmmakers and genres, standing out as one of the most balanced line-ups of the past decade or so, even if several key films were omitted. However, who will take the crown may not necessarily be the film we love best. After all, the Oscars have a habit of letting us down.
No matter which film takes home the treasured award for Best Picture, most of these films can go home knowing they put up a good fight, well…apart from Adam McKay’s Netflix disaster Don’t Look Up.
Ranking Best Picture nominees from worst to best:
10. Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay)
Becoming something of an industry darling in the past decade or so, there’s really no surprise that Adam McKay’s latest film is included in the Best Picture line-up, though what is surprising is just how bad Don’t Look Up really is. Telling the satirical tale of a meteorite hurtling towards earth and the pathetic attempts of humanity to stop it from destroying the earth, McKay’s tale isn’t particularly perceptive as it limps through its staggeringly long runtime.
More like a showcase for the most pertinent industry stars, including Ariana Grande, Timothée Chalamet and Leonardo DiCaprio, Don’t Look Up pales in comparison to each and every one of its fellow nominees.
9. Belfast (Kenneth Branagh)
Speaking of industry darlings, the British director Kenneth Branagh keeps getting given vast amounts of money for his latest films, despite few of them being any good. However, his autobiographical film, Belfast, is his best in several years, with Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan and Judi Dench telling a loving story of a young boy’s growth during the Irish troubles of the late 1980s.
A little too saccharine at times, Branagh still puts together a competent drama, saved by the charm and acting capabilities of his leading cast.
8. CODA (Sian Heder)
It seems like every year a plucky indie drama is nominated for Best Picture, and this year it’s CODA by Sian Heder, though this shouldn’t devalue an altogether charming film. Held together by its excellent ensemble cast, Heder creates a human drama that follows the coming of age tale of a young girl as she tries to support her deaf family and lead her own life at the very same time.
Yanking at the emotional heartstrings when it pleases, there’s not a ton of originality in this sweet American drama, though it’s compelling enough that it provides a tidy 90-minute drama.
7. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
Though possibly sacrilegious, Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story may be even better than the coveted original film, approaching the story with a zip, vim and vigour that the 1961 film could merely dream of. With a rousing cast that includes Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose, Spielberg puts together a musical masterclass, updating the energy, cinematography and narrative structure.
It’s a competent retelling of the classic tale that doesn’t shy away from altering key moments and adding several new details, whilst not mind-blowing; it’s a great throwback to classic Hollywood cinema.
6. King Richard (Reinaldo Marcus Green)
Hollywood loves a success story, and there’s no better in the world of tennis than Serena and Venus Williams, who have become two of the most successful and iconic sportspeople of all time. Fuelled by the passion and commitment of their father, Richard Williams, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film tells a balanced, gripping story about the tennis players’ rise to fame through the lens of the titular ‘King’.
Empowered by Will Smith in the lead role, Green tells a powerful story well-realised in the original screenplay of Zach Baylin that gives a balanced recount of their rise to stardom.
5. Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro)
Dumping wild beasts and fantasy concepts, for the time being, Guillermo del Toro infuses his new film with magical gothic romance, telling the story of a carnival manipulator who teams up with a dangerous female psychologist. With an all-star cast including the likes of Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Willem Dafoe, del Toro crafts a compelling tale with thrilling bells and whistles of its own.
Colourful, intricate and utterly absorbing, it might be one of del Toro’s most understated films in years, but it is also one of his very best.
4. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Like many of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza gives audiences an objective, atmospheric impression of a certain place and time. His latest film is no different, following two young individuals as they navigate their lives under the glitz, sun and eccentricity of the San Fernando Valley in LA. Infused with a passion for the 1970s, Anderson’s nostalgic tale is a joy to behold.
Held together by a tight script and some stunning cinematography, it is the lead actors Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman who are the real stars of the show, promising further greatness in the near future.
3. Dune (Denis Villeneuve)
Widely recognised as one of the greatest blockbusters of modern cinema, Denis Villeneuve did the impossible with his interpretation of Frank Herbert’s novel and adapted the supposedly ‘unadaptable’ book for the big screen. A technical marvel, Villeneuve transports his audience into an entirely fantastical space, mastering cinematography, sound design, costumes, makeup and much more in his science fiction epic.
Certainly worthy of winning the award for Best Picture, Dune is a pertinent reminder of Hollywood’s cinematic dominance, starring such contemporary stars as Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet and Jason Momoa. Don’t be too surprised if this picks up the night’s top award.
2. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
The favourite to take home the Best Picture statuette, Jane Campion’s compelling revisionist western, asks several questions about one of the oldest film genres of all time and assesses a profound truth. Telling the story of an oppressive cattle rancher who takes charge of his business with an iron grip, Campion deconstructs themes of gender, power and social order with masterful precision.
With Benedict Cumberbatch also in pole position to take home the Oscar for Best Leading Actor, the 94th Academy Awards could be a special night for Jane Campion’s modern classic.
1. Drive my Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Doing well to better represent a more diverse range of nominees in recent years, the Japanese film Drive my Car by Ryusuke Hamaguchi stands as the very best film of this year’s Best Picture picks. Telling the story of a stage actor and director who is forced to deal with his wife’s unexpected death, the film tracks his journey across the country with a reserved young female chauffeur.
Emotionally wrought, Hamaguchi’s film is a powerful visceral journey that explores the life of a troubled man with intricate precision over the course of three compelling hours. It’s a fascinating voyage.