The 2021 Oscar nominations made history, but how are the films themselves?
While this movie made me feel something, it’s difficult to say exactly what emotion. It is melancholic but also very peaceful. Nomadland makes you feel like you’re wandering alongside the main character, Fern, as she roams across the country in her van. The film begins with silence, just Fern packing her van. She’s lost everything: her husband, her job and her entire community. As she wanders and meets fellow nomads, she finds a community of kindhearted strangers who wander in order to escape nine to five capitalistic nightmares. Nomadland’s director, Chloé Zhao, has made history for her work as both the screenwriter and director of this film. She is the first Asian woman and the second woman in history to win Best Director at the Golden Globes, and is the first Chinese woman to be nominated for a best director Oscar. Zhao directs this film beautifully, taking you to deserts, forests and oceans all while taking you on a more subtle emotional journey of grief and acceptance. Fern, played by a subdued Frances McDormand, develops heartwarming relationships with strangers as she begins and continues her journey as a wanderer. Nomadland is a gorgeous film about grief, finding peace and living your life to the fullest. Your heart will break a little at the end, but that’s okay, it’s supposed to.
As someone who has visited the legendary Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, I have been fascinated by the man who inspired and the men who created the groundbreaking 1941 film Citizen Kane. The film, at its core, is a fictionalized account of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s successes and failures. David Fincher’s newest film, Mank, instead focuses on one of the men behind Citizen Kane, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, and his process of writing the script while struggling with alcoholism and broken relationships. For the most part, this film fails to deliver. It is poorly paced, taking us on a wandering and confusing trip through Mankiewicz’s time in Hollywood. The film also fails to properly introduce characters and situations, as I had to pause the movie many times and try to rack my brain for what exactly was happening and who was talking. Even though I often had no idea which character was talking, the acting was excellent. Gary Oldman, who portrays Mankiewicz, is superb, and his interactions with the characters of Mankiewicz’s wife and brother feel honest but loving. His platonic relationship with Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies (played by a charming Amanda Seyfried), is both genuine and heartbreaking. However, if you want to watch a better film about the making of Citizen Kane, watch HBO’s 1999 film RKO 281, named after the technical name for Citizen Kane during filming. Currently streaming on HBO Max, RKO 281 is much better paced and focuses more on the film’s director, co-writer, and star, Orson Welles, instead of Mankiewicz. The film features Mankiewitcz in a supporting role instead, this time portrayed by one of my favorite actors, John Malkovich. RKO 281 is both more entertaining and a much better character study into Hearst, Welles and Mankiewicz.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Fred Hampton was a revolutionary socialist, an activist, a man of honor and action. Unfortunately, this film is not about him, it’s about the man who betrayed him and led him to his death. Hampton was chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and the deputy chair of the national party. He created a coalition between the Panthers, other Chicago revolutionary groups and major Chicago street gangs. He brokered agreements of peace between these gangs, worked with the Panther’s local People’s Clinic, taught political education and was crucial to the Panther’s Free Breakfast Program. The man who betrayed him, William O’Neal, is the focus of the film. In exchange for having felony charges dropped, O’Neal became an FBI informant within the Illinois Black Panther Party. He gave the FBI the layout of Hampton’s apartment and drugged Hampton prior to the police raid that would end in his assassination. In the film, Lakeith Stanfield plays O’Neal with quiet, painful regret as he helps murder a man who genuinely trusts him. Daniel Kaluuya, playing Hampton, and Dominique Fishback, playing his girlfriend and fellow Panther, are simply brilliant. Unlike Stanfield, they are allowed to show love, sorrow and dedication. They, along with Stanfield, are the film’s pride and joy while the rest of the film is mediocre, which is unfortunate considering how inspiring and tragic the source material is. In a real-life speech, Hampton said, “Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?” The film has its own version of this powerful quote, “I live for the people ‘cause I love the people.” He lived for the people, and he died for the people. Hampton himself put it best: “You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Straight from the outset, Ma Rainey is visually and emotionally so much more than can be fully experienced in one viewing. Directed by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom draws its greatest strength from its powerful dialogue and standout performances. Depicting Ma Rainey’s (Viola Davis) recording process, the film centers its thematic emphasis on the struggle that the Black band members and artists endure and navigate in order to survive in a world where so much of society’s power is held at the whim of white men Confronting the relationship between Black artists and the control the recording industry takes over their talents and success, Ma Rainey explores the division between the Black band members due to their collective desire to succeed against what often feels like a stacked deck. With the release of this film, we have seen the last finished work of the late Chadwick Boseman. Released months after his passing in August, his role as eccentric and talented musician Levee Green is potentially Boseman’s strongest role, drawing on vocally powerful monologues and rapid changes in emotion. In my eyes, though, he will likely be most remembered for his role as Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Boseman’s legacy is not fully complete without recognition of his range and immersion in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. As an 86-minute love letter to the daily struggle for equality in America, Ma Rainey herself delivers the importance of this film eloquently: “They gonna treat me how I wanna be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em.”