Watching the Oscar contenders, part 3

The 93rd Academy Awards will take place on April 25th, closing out a most unusual year for the film industry. With this series, I watched each of the nominees for Best Picture to make my own determination of where the “best of the year” land.

In Part 1 I watched Nomadland, Minari, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, and in Part 2 I watched Promising Young Woman, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Sound of Metal. Finally, today I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the final two Best Picture nominees, The Father and Mank.

The Father

Directed by Florian Zeller

This year, three major films were released that were each an adaptation of a stage play: One Night in Miami…, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Father. While both One Night in Miami… and Ma Rainey received multiple Oscar nominations, both failed to score a nomination for Best Picture, with The Father being the only one of the trio to do so, and leading the three in overall nominations with six.

One Night in Miami…‘s and Ma Rainey‘s exclusions make sense in some ways, with the Academy’s long-standing resistance to the “filmed play” aesthetic many stage-to-screen adaptations bring. The Father‘s inclusion in that final Best Picture category is slightly puzzling though. One Night in Miami… was released by Amazon Studios and has been widely available to stream on Amazon Prime for months, as has Ma Rainey on Netflix. Meanwhile, The Father resisted streaming and VOD availability in favor of the more traditional theatrical release, and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that many people were even able to see it, after the nominations were already announced.

Directed by Florian Zeller and adapted from his play, The Father is a performance showcase for previous Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman, telling the story of an aging man dealing with his rapidly progressing memory loss, and his daughter’s attempts to care for him. The film wears its stage origins on its sleeve, taking place largely in the father’s apartment, as the daughter stops by daily to visit and to help her father adjust to his new nurse.

“Families dealing with dementia” is a storyline that many films have mined for high melodrama, which is where The Father gets points for uniqueness. Less Still Alice and more Mulholland Drive, Zeller’s film is structured like a psychological thriller, with shifting timelines, the apartment’s changing appearance, actors switching roles, and muddied background details keeping the audience on their toes and helping the audience experience the father’s memory loss in a visceral way. It’s a unique and effective structure that makes for a stressful, bu t rewarding, filmgoing experience.

The performances are the heart of the film, with Hopkins giving a career-best performance, one that would be the favorite in Best Actor if not for Chadwick Boseman. The film’s final scene is just an absolute masterclass in acting, a heartbreaking culmination of the film’s journey that grounds everything firmly in a somber reality. Coleman is working with a quieter role, but tasked with carrying the emotional weight of the film. Coleman is able to portray the emotional toll her father’s illness has on her in small moments, doing so much without the big, emotional scene that many supporting performances rely on to get Oscar’s attention.

The Father is absolutely a challenging watch, especially for those who have dealt with loved ones suffering from dementia, but it ends up being one of the best cinematic explorations of the disease. Had more people been able to see the film earlier, it may have had more passionate support heading into the Oscar ceremony.

Mank

Directed by David Fincher

I am writing this piece just hours before the Oscar ceremony starts, and Mank is the reason why. Even though is has been available to stream on Netflix since early October, I could not drum up enough interest inside of me to sit down and watch it until today. Sadly, I wasn’t missing much, but let’s start from the beginning.

Director David Fincher had a string of hit films in the first half of the 2010’s, beginning in 2010 with the multiple Oscar-winning The Social Network (one of my favorite films ever, one of the best films of the 2000s, and widely accepted to have been snubbed for Best Picture), followed by 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (another multiple Oscar-nominee), and culminating with 2014’s Gone Girl, an acclaimed box office hit that scored its lead actress Rosamund Pike a Best Actress nomination. Fincher would be quiet for six years while he dabbled in television, before Netflix announced his new film would be released on their service and telling the story of the writing of Citizen Kane. Mank, released this past fall, stars Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz during the years before and during the development of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, including his involvement with William Randolph Hearst, who would serve as the thinly-veiled inspiration for Charles Foster Kane.

The film was a passion project of Fincher’s, working off a screenplay written by his late father and originally planned to be filmed in the late-90s. Fincher’s refusal to make creative concessions sidelined the project until 2019 when Netflix announced they would be releasing the film. Shot in black and white and utilizing camera and sound techniques to reflect the style of films from the 1930’s, Mank is first and foremost a marvelous technical achievement, and scored ten Oscar nominations this year, the most of any film. Along with nominations in numerous technical categories, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Directing, Supporting Actress for Amanda Seyfried, and Actor for Gary Oldman, though in a twist was left off the final five for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film’s screenplay snub is probably fitting, as I think that’s the root of my problem with the film as a whole: it’s just kind of a bore. Aside from the story just not being all that exciting, the screenplay employs a non-linear structure that didn’t work for me, undercutting the few thrilling moments by immediately dragging us back to the interminable “present” where Mankiewicz is recovering from a car accident while writing Citizen Kane.

My issues with the film don’t all land on the screenplay, as the performances are hit and miss throughout. Oldman securing an Oscar nomination is inexplicable, as he is actively bad in this film, overacting to the point of parody. That the Academy decided to include this over Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods has already been met with universal outrage, understandably. Amanda Seyfried, on the other hand, lights up the screen each time she’s on it, giving a career best performance as Marion Davies, Hearst’s much younger partner. The film needed a lot more of her, but she commands the handful of scenes she appears in.

In the end, I don’t know what to make of Mank. It’s marvelous to look at, with the costuming, production design, and cinematography working to transport you back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, but I found the film to be superficial and a challenge to get through. It’s clearly a better film than The Trial of the Chicago 7, but I absolutely enjoyed watching that film more than this. My hope is that Fincher doesn’t wait another six years before his next film, because I am already forgetting this one.

Final Ranking


Now that I’ve seen each of the Best Picture nominees, here is my final ranking. Note: this is not a measure of who I think will win Best Picture (Nomadland, almost certainly), only my own personal ranking of quality.

  1. Minari
  2. Sound of Metal
  3. The Father
  4. Promising Young Woman
  5. Nomadland
  6. Judas and the Black Messiah
  7. Mank
  8. The Trial of the Chicago 7