PA film critic Damon Smith reviews the eight contenders for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.
The mind plays tricks on us and the discombobulated title character in Florian Zeller’s classy adaptation of his award-winning stage play, co-written for the screen by Christopher Hampton.
Set in the handsomely furnished London apartment of an octogenarian patriarch (Sir Anthony Hopkins), The Father slowly picks at the seams of his supposed reality and questions the reliability of his muddied memory as Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams both claim to be his concerned daughter.
Ingenious production design ramps up the unease as Sir Anthony delivers an acting masterclass and poses the most serious threat – as the Baftas confirmed – to Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous coronation.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Anchored by scintillating Oscar-nominated performances from Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, Judas And The Black Messiah is a gripping dramatisation of an FBI counter-intelligence operation to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in 1960s Chicago.
Themes of racial injustice, betrayal and collusion, which run deep in a muscular script co-written by director Shaka King and Will Berson, strike discomfiting chords in the current climate and underline the short distance travelled since the shooting of 21-year-old party chairman Fred Hampton during a pre-dawn raid.
Stock footage of clashes between white police officers and black citizens lights a fuse on tension between the two communities, which detonates with full force in the film’s suspenseful second act.
Shot in lustrous black and white, Mank is a rhapsodic valentine to a bygone age of Hollywood based on an exquisite script by director David Fincher’s late father Jack.
We are awestruck witnesses to the battle of wits between wunderkind director Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and booze-sodden playwright Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to produce a mammoth first draft of Citizen Kane.
Snappy, rat-a-tat dialogue sings and the cast visibly savour every polished word such as when Mank succinctly relates his feelings about studio titan Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard): “If I ever go to the electric chair, I’d like him to be sitting in my lap.”
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung plunders memories of his childhood in the shadow of the Ozark Mountains in an autobiographical love letter to family ties and intergenerational conflict, glimpsed through the eyes of a Korean American couple (Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri), who relocate their brood to 1980s Arkansas.
Supporting actress nominee Youn Yuh-jung is a lip-smacking delight as the potty-mouthed grandmother with scant regard for social niceties, who shatters the peace with the cool disregard of a wrecking ball.
In the rubble, Minari unearths moments of life-affirming joy and despair from a gifted filmmaker’s heart.
Chloe Zhao’s four nominations (as director, producer, screenwriter and editor) whet appetites for Academy Awards history in the making. Her achingly beautiful and poetic paean to solitude is inspired by Jessica Bruder‘s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century.
Nominee Frances McDormand’s unself-conscious lead performance as a free-spirited vagabond on the tattered fringes of American society is enriched by a non-professional supporting cast of real-life nomads.
Joshua James Richards’s exquisite cinematography captures tightly wound emotions in the majestic wilderness set to the haunting lament of composer Ludovico Einaudi’s score.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Double nominee Emerald Fennell sharpens her claws with a provocative and coruscating thriller that draws copious blood from the efforts of an avenging angel (Carey Mulligan) to dole out the justice denied to her best friend in the aftermath of a sexual assault.
Her blackly humorous directorial debut strikes a sickening chord, culminating in arguably the most harrowing scene of the year at a boozy bachelor party unscored by a deliciously discordant orchestral arrangement of Britney Spears’s Toxic.
Nominee Mulligan issues her character’s ferocious, primal screams with unwavering commitment.
SOUND OF METAL
An uncompromising lead performance from London-born actor Riz Ahmed, nominated alongside co-star Paul Raci, invigorates writer-director Darius Marder’s hard-hitting drama co-written by his brother Abraham.
Impeccable, immersive sound design conveys the inner turmoil of heavy metal drummer Ruben (Ahmed), who is diagnosed with rapidly deteriorating hearing and can’t afford expensive cochlear implants that may allow him to continue his journey in the band.
Sound Of Metal illuminates Ruben’s anguished odyssey from denial to acceptance in the warming embrace of the deaf community. Melodramatic riffs creep into the second half but Ahmed doesn’t strike a single false note.
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Justice isn’t simply blind in The Trial Of The Chicago 7, it’s also deaf, mute and untouched by common decency. Aaron Sorkin, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Social Network, ventures behind the camera to stylishly dramatise the aftermath of the anti-Vietnam War demonstration against President Lyndon B Johnson outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
He splices black-and-white news footage of clashes between protesters and police, armed with tear gas and batons, with his own blood-soaked recreation of events in Lincoln Park.
A starry ensemble cast including Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance and nominee Sacha Baron Cohen savour meaty, tub-thumping speeches that prick consciences and bruise over-inflated egos.