2021: The Ones

With the Oscars being presented tonight, I like to focus on the films and performances that I found most memorable. In keeping with the tradition of the late Siskel & Ebert’s “If We Picked the Winners,” here are my standouts for 2021 using the nominees in the main Academy Award categories. While others try to second-guess Oscar politics with who ‘should win’ or ‘will win,’ I like to keep it simple. In case you missed any of them, these are the films and performances I’ll remember- simply put, these are the ones:  

 Best original screenplay- Kenneth Branagh: “Belfast”

 Taking a cue from director John Boorman, (who, 20 years into his film career, made a movie about growing up outside of London during WWII with “Hope and Glory”), Branagh does the same with “Belfast” and gets similar results.

 As seen through a 9-year-old’s eyes, the script’s a love letter to those who remained in 1969 Belfast during the religious turmoil and a testament to where we find strength in times of trouble- the fortitude of family and friends. Trying to make sense of the chaos while coming-of-age and how the family unit is affected in shaping the people we become- it’s all there.

 Passion projects like these never get old. After 30 years of filmmaking, Branagh entertains and informs us of his life perspective without being preachy or pretentious.   

 Best supporting actor- Troy Kotsur: “CODA”

 If you’ve seen “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” pairing music and the hearing impaired automatically tug the heartstrings- “CODA” is no exception: a family of four struggling to make ends with their fishing boat in Massachusetts; the daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) can hear, her parents and brother are deaf. While Ruby helps with the family business, she discovers and is encouraged to sing. Will Ruby go to Berklee to pursue her dream and abandon her family who rely on her help?

 Ruby’s father Frank (Kotsur) feels the pressure of losing his daughter’s help over an art he cannot hear. While Kotsur’s role also serves as comic relief (noisily having sex while Ruby entertains a guest), it also contains the struggle of a handicap’s hindrance in work and in appreciating music. To understand Ruby’s passion, Frank asks her to sing and places his hands on her throat as she does so. As tears well up in Kotsar’s eyes, his emotion encapsulates everything.

 Does that make Kotsar’s performance the most memorable? Who cried when Old Yeller got shot? Exactly.   

 Best actress- Jessica Chastain: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

 For those who remember Tammy Faye Bakker, whose televangelist empire was rocked by a sex scandal, Chastain’s got the mimicry down- nailing the Midwest accent, mannerisms and physically looking like Tammy Faye. But Chastain gives more.

Highlighting Tammy Faye’s love of people, particularly her embrace of the LBGTQ community using TV to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic by interviewing an AIDS-stricken gay minister, Chastain convinces us that Tammy’s bubbly behavior was genuine, unwavering altruism. For Chastain to convince us of that, of Tammy Faye being a humanitarian and maverick in Jim Bakker’s ministry, speaks volumes for her performance- not one misstep to mistake Tammy Faye for the mascara-caked clown our memories recall.

 Best picture; Best director- Jane Campion; Best actor- Benedict Cumberbatch; Best supporting actress-Kirsten Dunst; Best adapted screenplay: “The Power of the Dog”

 Under the guise of a Western, director Jane Campion (“The Piano”) played to her strengths by writing a psychological thriller that surprised. Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are brothers earning a living as ranchers in 1925 Montana. When quiet and thoughtful George marries world-weary widow Rose (Dunst), curmudgeonly Phil becomes downright creepy. Jealous of George’s new marriage and feeling abandoned, Phil begins to manipulate Rose into feeling more unstable. Adding fuel to the fire, Phil offers a fatherly hand to Rose’s awkward teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Rose doesn’t trust Phil’s intentions and, after learning of Phil’s secluded baths and cache of bodybuilding magazines, neither do we. Structured like a taut downward spiral, it’s a script smart enough to keep us guessing until the very end. 

 As Rose, watching Dunst mentally unravel is mesmerizing. From the strong single mother we meet as the film opens, Dunst gradually shows Rose’s disintegration. When Rose’s confidence crumbles playing piano as Phil ‘gaslights’ her by plucking the same tune on his banjo from an upstairs bedroom, Dunst’s stillness and alternating looks of fear and uncertainty convey all of Rose’s internal conflict. Phil driving Rose to drink- well, that’s just the cherry on the cake.

 Needless to say, you can’t keep your eyes off of Cumberbatch. Not only does he anchor the movie, he steals every scene. As Phil Burbank, the most creepy and manipulative character since Hannibal Lecter, we find Phil’s curmudgeonly demeanor masks something meaner. Is it unrequited love blended with latent homosexuality? Is it repression turned to jealous obsession as he whistles sister-in-law Rose into insanity like Robert Mitchum hummed hymns in “The Night of The Hunter?” Or could it be Phil is a spectrum unto himself, castrating a bull barehanded before treating himself to a secluded mud bath? While Cumberbatch could have played Phil with wild mood swings or as an impetuous child, he did neither- Cumberbatch’s acting approach was cool as a cucumber. That makes Cumberbatch’s Phil all the more chilling.         

Enjoy this year’s Oscars and in discovering the future Oscar winners of 2022.

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