No one would call 2020 a banner year for movies, with many major releases being pushed to 2021 with the hope of a theatrical release post-pandemic. Despite this, awards season is barreling ahead, with a strong crop of films to boot. In the lead up to this year’s Oscars, I will be watching as many of the contenders as I can, and giving my thoughts on the films.
Ahead of Monday’s nominations announcement, I watched a trio of films that are each locks to appear up and down the nominations in numerous categories, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Nomadland, and Minari.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
The Trial of the Chicago 7, directed by Aaron Sorkin, is positioned as Netflix’s major awards play this year, and it’s easy to see why. Historical drama with topical subjects explored, A-list writer/director, and a sprawling ensemble cast, the movie has all the ingredients of classic Oscar bait. The film dramatizes the events of the trial of the Chicago 7, a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, starring Sacha-Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen III, Mark Rylance, and many others.
Distributed by Netflix (who acquired the film from Paramount for release during the COVID-19 pandemic), Chicago 7 had a long journey to get to the big (small) screen. Originally written by Sorkin in 2007, the film was slated to be directed by Steven Spielberg, then Paul Greengrass, before Sorkin took the reigns of the production.
To be clear, Aaron Sorkin has written one of my favorite movies ever (The Social Network) and created one of my favorite television series (The West Wing), and despite that I am the first to admit that he has a tendency to jump onto his soapbox and overwrite a damn monologue or seven. Sorkin loves to give his characters soliloquies about civility, justice, and standing up for what is right, which is something that good directors have needed to tone down when they bring his scripts to screen. When that measuring force is missing, his scripts can feel like a preachy drag, and unfortunately, that is what I was left with here with Chicago 7.
Most of the problems I had with this movie can be chalked up to the choices, or lack-thereof, made by Sorkin-as-director. The tone of this film is, excuse my language, fucking bananas. There are extended sequences in this film about police brutality that are played for comedy. Each and every actor in this movie is doing some dumb little voice, none of which work, few of which are consistent, and some of which are so confusing that I had to rewind to watch scenes again to figure out what accent that character was supposed to possess. There was a sequence involving a son’s visible disappointment in his father that elicited an eye roll so strong I nearly seized, only for that image of the boy standing up in the courtroom to become a recurring motif in the latter-half of the film.
Many have also criticized Sorkin’s fictionalization of this trial, one that doesn’t need any liberties taken to make it entertaining. Sorkin also takes a curious point of view on the trial, representing it as purely about the protestors opposition to the Vietnam War, when the trial is a landmark for being the first time in modern American history where the police state challenged the right to peaceful assembly. It’s a strange take, but it does fit squarely within Sorkin’s worldview, making it a disorienting and out-of-touch film to watch after the events of the past year.
Going in on a film this hard can be fun, but not when that film is most likely going to win at least a handful of awards by the time the Oscars are finished. This was just a resounding failure in my eyes, the conversion of a script that borders on tone-deaf and needed a few more passes with a director that seemingly refused to provide direction to his actors, failing to create cohesive performances from his ensemble.
This, simply, wasn’t it.
Directed by Chloe Zhao
Director Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland opens with our main character Fern, played by Frances McDormand, packing most of her belongings into storage as she prepares to take to the road in a van, seeking itinerant work after the factory she’s spent most of her adult life employed has closed following the 2008 recession. Fern traverses the Western United States, taking short term work and forming friendships with others she meets on the road, while still reeling from the death of her husband.
Nomadland is a sublime character study, a look into Fern’s grief following that death and the loss of the life they created for each other. The nomadic lifestyle is presented as less of a necessity (the film glosses over the fact that Fern lived in a factory town, and after the plant closed she was forced from her home) and more of a way for Fern to avoid processing her loss, something she begins to do as she moves from state to state, job to job, before returning to her former home to finally say goodbye.
Up until three weeks ago, the Best Picture race was a three-way battle between the three films I’m writing about here, but Nomadland‘s wide release on Hulu has made it into an awards season juggernaut, securing crucial wins and nominations from precursor awards bodies, such as the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and the BAFTAS. The film has also been heralded as a portrait of our country as it is now, telling a prescient story about loss and connection.
For the most part, the film works for me. I am tuned into its contemplative pacing and cinematography, reminiscent of the films of Terrance Malick and Kelly Reichardt. Where the film loses me is in its adaptation. I’d read the book the film was based on just before watching the film, and the book is a bleak and angry piece of journalism, not only chronicling the experiences of senior citizens forgoing retirement (some of whom play themselves in this film) after the economic crash in 2008 left them with no savings and foreclosed homes. The book also illuminates a gig economy that sprung up to exploit these workers, hiring them for seasonal work with no benefits and low wages, with the biggest offender being Amazon. It’s a depressing story about the victims of American capitalism, and how even after giving up your possessions and address you are still beholden to this rotted system.
Zhao brings very little of that to the screen, only hinting at the exploitation in small moments, instead focusing on Fern’s lingering grief over her husband’s death as the framing device for the story. There were obvious filmmaking benefits to this, as the film’s neutering of Amazon’s exploitative practices allowed them to film in an actual Amazon distribution facility, but at times the film comes off as romanticizing and endorsing the nomadic lifestyle, propping these people up as some kind of 21st century pioneers instead of victims of late-capitalism. For a deeper dive into what the film gets wrong about these nomads, read Wilfred Chan’s great piece of criticism from Vulture.
Where I’m left is a challenging place. It’s a film that I found engrossing, filled with good performances, but by the end I couldn’t help but feel grossed out by Zhao’s refusal to wade into the politics of the subject matter. It’s a film I’ll be wrestling with for a long time, and as the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, it’s one that will be with us for even longer.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
The Golden Globes caused an uproar in January when Minari, one of this season’s Oscar frontrunners, was nominated only for Best Foreign Language Film, deemed ineligible for the main Best Picture categories because over 50% of its dialogue is not in English. Minari is an American film, written and directed by an American filmmaker, telling a story about an American family and their pursuit of the “American Dream” that just happens to have most of its dialogue in Korean.
It’s a simple story about a Korean-American family moving to Arkansas to start a farm and carve out their dream in America’s heartland. As they struggle to get their footing, the wife’s mother comes to live with them, forming a connection with their young son and helping him learn about his Korean roots while also teaching him to meet the challenge of growing up in America as the son of immigrants. The film aptly takes its title from a resilient Korean herb that can grow just about anywhere it’s planted, a beautiful metaphor for assimilation in challenging circumstances.
Minari debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Awards at the festival, cementing it as a true crowd-pleaser and a strong contender for Best Picture. Its initial release was delayed due to the ongoing pandemic, but it finally became widely available in late-February to universal acclaim, particularly lauding the film’s performances and authenticity.
Seeing this movie after Nomadland, I could not help but compare the two in my mind, however reductive that may be. The pieces of Nomadland that I found hollow, specifically surrounding the story’s importance to our current moment, I found even more lacking when compared to Minari. Where Nomadland‘s Fern is presented as reclaiming her independence through work, Minari‘s patriarch Jacob is learning to be a part of his own family, changing his dreams to fit the needs of his family and himself. There’s a genuine, lived-in quality to Minari, and its tale of immigrant assimilation in rural America during the 1980s resonates even today.
I have minor critiques with certain aspects of the storyline (particularly in the sidelining of the poor daughter) but Minari rises above all of that by connecting with the audience in a real way. It’s a beautiful, tender tale, one I recommend wholeheartedly.