I watched 56 films in 41 days. Let me tell you, even in the middle of lockdown with nothing else to do, it was no small feat.
When the Academy Award nominations were announced on March 15th I decided that because my social life is more-or-less non-existent right now, I would watch all of them. I’ve attempted this for the last few years because I’ve stayed up overnight to report on the Oscars for work. Last year I managed five.
This year, I was pleasantly surprised. In terms of diversity – though there’s a long way to go and the bar for the Oscars is on the floor at this point – there were a decent amount of films that explored sexuality, starred Black and Asian actors, and for the first time two women have been nominated in the Best Director category (took them bloody long enough).
In all seriousness, I was happy to see that since the launch of the #OscarsSoWhite protest in 2015, the awards’ diversity actually is improving. Seeing Billie Holiday’s story told by the incredible Andra Day, as well as learning more about Fred Hampton’s murder and the work of the Black Panther Party, and seeing Disney’s minute nod towards a lesbian character in Onward was actually great. Though there’s a lot more work to be done, I was glad to have undertaken this 56-movie challenge in 2021.
The other good news is that I didn’t go to the cinema for any of these films, which means this year’s Oscars is inadvertently accessible – I already had Netflix, a good amount of the shorts are available free on YouTube and Vimeo, and the rest of the films were sourced by attending online film festivals, and asking around for Disney+ and Amazon Prime passwords. Cinema tickets are expensive, and subtitled and audio description screenings sometimes aren’t offered, so the fact that all of these films could be found online is something that I really hope the industry keeps going in future.
Anyway, ahead of mainlining coffee and staying up until 5am covering the actual awards, here are my own winners and losers of 2021.
Here are my winners
Best Picture: While last awards I watched Parasite and felt that it stood way out ahead of the other nominees, this year it was particularly difficult to choose a favourite.
I narrowed it down to four: Sound of Metal, Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, and The Father.
Each of these films I feel like I could write a full essay on. The Father’s direction and use of different actors to distort your perception of time; the relationship between Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) and David (Alan Kim) in Minari that tore my heart to shreds; Daniel Kaluuya’s stunning portrayal of Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Ultimately, my favourite of the year is Sound of Metal. At this point it comes down to personal taste because the standard was pretty incredible, but Sound of Metal really fitted my own style in terms of music, costume design and tone. I loved the use of sound throughout the movie to bring you in and out of Ruben’s world as he comes to terms with being Deaf. Riz Ahmed absolutely knocked it out of the park with a realistic depiction of trauma with waves of acceptance and outbursts of frustration and anger, while Olivia Cooke does a fantastic job of contrasting a gritty and visceral first act with the soft put-togetherness of her world in Paris.
I find it hard to concentrate on films that are over two hours long, but Sound of Metal is so intense and original that I barely felt time passing while watching it, and in that way I can see myself coming back to see it several more times.
I’m hoping for the Best Actor award for Riz Ahmed. If you want to see him elsewhere, Mogul Mowgli came out in 2020 and is truly fantastic.
Worst Picture: Tenet. I hated it. Maybe it’s on me for watching it three wines deep, but the beginning was so complicated that by the time anything interesting happened I had no emotional connection with the characters and was totally uninvested. By the end even with explosions going on I couldn’t force myself to care about anything other than the fact that Kenneth Branagh had popped in with a Russian accent.
The visual effects it’s nominated for are amazing, and would be even better in a cinema setting, but several people have said that they would only really enjoy it on a second or third viewing, which honestly to me is a failure of storytelling.
Author @priya_ebooks described it best as a “smooth brain” movie. “No plot, just vibes”.
Biggest Tear-Jerker: If Anything Happens I Love You, an animated short on a family bereaved by a school shooting. I’m not American, so for those who have a deeper fear of guns this will hit you even harder. I cried so hard it was actually audible – like not a sexy little tear down my cheek, but a racking, loud, ugly sob. If you’re looking for a cathartic cry then this animated short will get it done in just 12 minutes.
If You Only Have 30 Minutes: Two Distant Strangers. It’s a 32-minute short on Netflix depicting police violence against Black men in America in a cyclical time-travel style. For Black viewers, the film will probably tell you what you already know, but for white viewers like me and my mum, who I watched it with, it was an unflinching look into the hyper vigilance that Black people in America have to live with when navigating the police.
At the moment, with Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and countless others just this year murdered by the police, this subject is all over the news, however Two Distant Strangers is one viewpoint with really original direction and the fantastic casting of Joey Bada$$ that’s well worth a watch if you have half an hour and a Netlix account.
The One I Told My Friends About Most: Promising Young Woman. It goes without saying as most people know what this film is about by now, but trigger warning for sexual abuse, violence and rape.
I have a few problems with this film – the ending was too Hollywood, neatly tied up with police intervention despite the police barely prosecuting violence against women in real life – however it did prompt several angry conversations with friends about men taking advantage of drunkenness, the “nice guy” trope, and the film’s timing in relation to Sarah Everard’s murder in London. The film was punchy and clever, and although it wasn’t my favourite movie of the year, it is an important voice within the #MeToo movement and a cathartic portrayal of trauma.
To go along with Promising Young Woman, a brilliant exploration of recovery after sexual assault is the TV show I May Destroy You, which was wrongfully snubbed from a lot of awards this year but is totally worth watching.
Best Film On Netflix: Given that a lot of young people already have Netflix – or access to a Netflix password – it’s probably the cheapest way to binge Oscar films without having to subscribe to yet another streaming platform. I really thought hard about this because there’s a lot of great competition, but I had to choose Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The film was originally a play, and to be honest, that does come through. The film isn’t very dynamic in terms of the way it uses space, and it is quite monologue-heavy, however its strength is in its actors. Chadwick Boseman’s last performance before his death was intense and charged, his emotion adding fire to the film, while Viola Davis’ voice and confidence does Ma Rainey justice.
There’s amazing competition on Netflix this year – Pieces of a Woman and The Trial of the Chicago 7 were up there for me – but Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is really a must-watch for Boseman’s performance alone.
Best Film On YouTube: For absolutely no cost, Feeling Through (and a mini-documentary about how the film was made) is on YouTube. The film stars the first ever DeafBlind actor to appear in a film (Robert Tarango), and worked extensively with the DeafBlind community to ensure that the film was accurate, and accessible for its disabled cast member.
The short explores one night between a homeless teen and a DeafBlind man, who he helps to the shop and the bus stop. Before this year I hadn’t seen many short films, and I was really surprised by how emotional this film made me so quickly, and how deep the relationships and atmosphere becomes when limited to 20 minutes. The film really touched me and opened my eyes to the little interactions that can change people’s life, and is so worth watching considering that it’s free on YouTube.
My Overall Top Fifteen
I narrowed my favourites down to fifteen.
Unfortunately some of these are still only available at film festivals or are a little expensive to rent, so I’ve highlighted some easy options for renting and watching cheaply.
- Sound of Metal – Amazon Prime, free to watch
- Judas and the Black Messiah
- The Father
- The United States vs. Billie Holiday – Hulu
- Promising Young Woman
- Another Round
- Nomadland – Disney+
- Feeling Through (short) – YouTube, free
- Two Distant Strangers (short) – Netflix
- The Man Who Sold His Skin
- A Love Song For Latasha (documentary short) – Netflix
- Genius Loci (short)
- Better Days
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast on Sunday 25 April at 6.30pm ET / 10.30pm GMT.