Can we compile a list of 10 credible Best Picture nominees above those competing for the Oscar on Sunday night? The most committed cinephiles will have no trouble putting together a list whose – excuse us for being all mathematical – the median quality is, in their eyes, superior to that of the short list of the academy. But be honest, fans of Venom, Let There Be Carnage, the latest in the villainous Spider-Man franchise, were never going to register with Oscar voters. We might just point you to the Irish Times’ curated list of the best movies of 2021. Yes, The Power of the Dog, co-favorite to triumph on Sunday, is number four, but the Academy would never have opted for Azor (number one) by Andreas Fontana, an Argentinian conspiracy thriller; Dear comrades of Andrei Konchalovsky! (number 10), dark account of a Soviet massacre, or Gunda of Viktor Kossakovsky, documentary on a Norwegian pig.
The challenge is to compile a best set of 10, each of which presumably could end up on the real list. US titles will always dominate. We cannot ignore the rooting factor. We paid some attention to the buzz around the awards that may or may not have gathered around our non-nominees. We decided that more than one non-English film would be, despite Parasite’s recent triumph, a bit of a stretch.
With apologies to The Power of the Dog and Drive My Car, who deserve their place at the top of any 2021 grid, the nominees are not…
THE CARD COUNTER (Paul Schrader)
Amazingly, Paul Schrader has only received one Oscar nomination – as the writer of First Reformed in 2017 – but his status as Hollywood royalty is undisputed. Cold, gray and disciplined, The Card Counter stars Oscar Isaac as a former US Army torturer who makes a new life as an existentialist card shark. A grim gutting of American moral decline with top-notch performances.
What were his chances really? He felt worthy of a punt after his well-reviewed first in Venice. No more absurd than the idea of First Reformed entering the race (which it surely almost did).
SPENCER (Pablo Laraine)
Do you know what this is. Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in a film that veers from ghost story to absurd comedy en route to a delightfully improbable conclusion. More controversial than Jackie de Larraíne, but those who really loved him really loved him (to paraphrase Sally Field’s notorious Oscar moment). Some scenes have become popular memes. It apparently means something in today’s culture.
What were his chances really? Stewart was nominated for Best Actress. So it was clearly in the conversation. But naysayers dropped him from the race shortly after his Venice debut.
PIG (Michael Sarnoski)
Sarnoski’s film reads on paper like another of Nicolas Cage’s mad worship exercises in punitive violence: a truffle hunter searches for his stolen pig. But the film is considerably more tender and nuanced than this scenario suggests. Cage should have been competing for his second Oscar. The hosts should have been working on some terrible pork sausage jokes.
What were his chances really? He was probably always going to be a bit out there for the best image consideration. But Cage seemed viable for a spell.
PARALLEL MOTHERS (Pedro Almodóvar)
Few directors have been as consistent for as long as Pedro Almodóvar. The great Spanish director brought it out of el parque with this twisty drama about two women – one teenager, the other middle-aged – who give birth at the same time in the same hospital. As always, the film is filled with color and energy, but as the director ages, darker tones creep in. His former friend Penélope Cruz is quite transcendent.
What were his chances really? Not bad at all. Cruz is up for Best Actress. In recent years, the Academy has honored non-English films here. A serious competitor.
ZOLA (Janicza Bravo)
Rather than the ridiculous #OscarFanFavorite and #OscarCheerMoment gimmicks tested on Sunday, the Academy could have connected better to the age of social media by honoring Bravo’s frenzied adaptation of a Twitter thread following a stripper and her new pal as they travel disastrously to Florida. A bustling new film school that reflects the rhythms of modern life. Taylor Paige and Riley Keough are great as shaken pals.
What were his chances really? This is not an entirely absurd suggestion. Bravo won a Grand Jury Award at Sundance and Taylour Paige won Best Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards.
SUMMER OF SOUL (Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson)
It took more than 50 years for a proper recording of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to make its way to cinemas. Despite a jaw-dropping star line-up, the event never had the resonance of the muddier, more contemporary Woodstock Festival a hundred miles north. Over the past year, moviegoers and Disney+ users have enjoyed vintage performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and more. It will likely win Best Documentary Feature this weekend.
What were his chances really? Now there is the question. The Academy has, surprisingly, never nominated a documentary for best picture in its 93-year history. It has to happen eventually.
RED ROCKET (Sean Baker)
Sean Baker has, in recent years, with films such as Tangerine and The Florida Project, established himself as one of America’s keenest observers of outdoor life. His latest film features the surprising Simon Rex as a former porn actor chaotically returning to his rugged, industrial home in Southeast Texas. Delighted with its Cannes premiere, the image plays tricky games with the viewer’s urge to empathize with any protagonist, no matter how gruesome. Disturbing, but also hilarious.
What were his chances really? Zola and Red Rocket in the same race may be a bit too spotty and amoral reality for the academy to handle. But Rex could have made it through.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Joel Coen)
Old Will Shakespeare has had a mixed record with the Academy. They’re happy to offer adaptations and performances, but wins have been much harder to come by. Unless you count West Side Story, 1948’s Olivier’s Hamlet is Shakey’s last best-pictured film. Slimmed down to digestible length, shot in a lovely close-ratio monochrome, Joel Coen’s first film as a director without his brother Ethan had the style to squeeze in, but fell at the final hurdle.
What were his chances really? Excellent. The film received three nominations, including one for Denzel Washington’s lead performance. Closest to an actual nomination on this list.
THE LAST DUEL (Ridley Scott)
The kind of movie that dominated Oscar ceremonies, Scott’s medieval epic tells the story of a rape from three angles – ending with the truth of Jodie Comer’s abused wife. Filmed largely in Ireland, the image is full of violence, filth and bawdy humor. But the clever script, the final section of which is written by Nicole Holofcener, also teases contemporary concerns about sexual violence with surprising subtlety. They rarely make them like that. They may never do it again.
What were his chances really? Respectable until it opened to abysmal box office returns. Scott’s more financially successful, though lower rated, House of Gucci then took over awards duties.
MASS (Fran Kranz)
Kranz’s feature debut stars Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton in a drama about an encounter between a school shooting victim and the perpetrator’s parents. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s deeply rewarding to see such fine actors stretching their muscles around beautifully constructed and often lengthy speeches. The screenplay manages to dredge up the emotional depths without falling into sentimentality.
What were his chances really? Decent. The film won warm reviews at Sundance. Dowd earned a Bafta nomination and was definitely up for an Oscar nod. Unlucky not to have registered.