There were some extraordinary films released in 2021: Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, an electric neon romp through the porn world, Ildikó Enyedi’s period epic, The Story of My Wife, Paul Verhoeven’s nun-film, Benedetta.
It should come as no surprise that this is not reflected in the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.
Dune: Best Picture?
A pulpy science-fiction narrative, not that far removed from an L. Ron Hubbard work, it seems strange to suggest that Dune is 2021’s “Best Picture”. It isn’t – but it is my choice for the Oscar, out of a ho-hum bunch of nominees.
Denis Villeneuve’s latest film is certainly the most cinematic of the selection, and it works exceptionally well at a formal level. It’s a striking, hypnotic work – and totally coherent (unlike the previous Lynch/Smithee version!) – a realisation of Herbert’s world both surreal and appropriately full of dread.
The whole thing is anchored by the excellent production design of Patrice Vermette: desert planet Arakis seems ominously sparse, its weathered concrete monoliths straight from a deranged modernist’s dream. The sound design is also first rate (as is Hans Zimmer’s score, perfect as usual), and the combination of the surreal images and intense sounds creates a wholly immersive cinematic experience.
Villeneuve effectively converts Herbert’s convoluted narrative of the power machinations of the Atreides, Harkonnen, etc. into a staggeringly clear – and relatively short, these days, for this kind of thing – genre film.
Angsty heartthrob Timothée Chalamet, as main character Paul Atreides, has neither the presence or chops to carry an epic fantasy film like this, and, thankfully, he doesn’t have to – Josh Brolin and Jason Mamoa are suitably brutal, Oscar Isaac brings an air of stately gravity to the role of Duke Leto Atreides, father of Paul (though they look pretty close in age!), and Rebecca Ferguson, as Lady Jessica Atreides, does the mother-witch thing with a humane and slightly off-kilter bent, reminding one of a more benevolent Lady Macbeth.
Villeneuve is a powerhouse director, one of the more interesting working in mainstream film today, and Dune plays well as a trashy fantasy film. That being said, it is only Part I of two, so we’ll see how the second part holds up now most of the compelling characters have been killed.
The Power of the Dog: Worst Picture?
At the opposite end of the list is another genre film, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Made for Netflix, Campion’s Western has received wide acclaim and has been film of the year on multiple lists. It’s hard to see why.
Campion has made some good films in the past – The Piano is a deliciously silly bodice ripper in the clothing of a serious film, and deserved its accolades (naked Harvey Keitel alone would warrant the acclaim!). The Power of the Dog, in contrast, is strained and tiresome, a long epic without an interesting story, meaningful panoramic cinematography (though I watched it on a TV screen, maybe it would have appeared spectacular in the cinema) or anything significant and original to say about its topic of interest: the American West and the Western genre.
Its one point – revealing the homoerotic impulses often underpinning the masculine bravado of Western cowboy narratives – has been made numerous times before, with Westerns, American and otherwise, frequently making a similar statement since at least the 1940s, in films that are more dynamic, look better, and don’t suffer from the air of self-importance surrounding this one.
Jesse Plemons is a good actor, but he’s wasted in a fairly thankless part; Kirsten Dunst seems lost, struggling to convince us as a hapless alcoholic woman trapped in a thankless man’s world; and Benedict Cumberbatch, in the lead part, gives a typically commanding but unnuanced performance, playing Phil Burbank with stagy gusto.
While Australian Kody Smit-McPhee is fine as Peter Gordon, the point is that all of the characters are caricatures – unoriginal inversions of genre archetypes – and, in a serious film in which not much happens – that is, in a film that is supposed to be buoyed by emotional authenticity and emotional realism – this is fatal.
That being said, it will not surprise me if this wins the Oscar for Best Picture.
And… the rest
Campion’s film is the weakest of the nominees; there are some others that are quite good.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a madcap LA teen romp, a 1970’s picaresque nostalgia film featuring stellar newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in the lead roles.
It’s long and unwieldy, and would not be to everyone’s taste, but has the advantage of actually capturing an original, albeit fractured and fractious, vision of the world. Unlike some of P.T. Anderson’s other recent films, it is surprisingly good-natured.
Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro, also offers solid genre fare. It’s a remake of Edmund Goulding’s (considerably better) film-noir of the same name from 1947, and follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a mentalist who begins his trade in the circus before becoming a popular nightclub act. Like most of del Toro’s films, it is dripping in period and genre nostalgia, but this adds to, rather than detracts from, the colour, here.
It comes across as irritatingly pontificating in places, with Jonah Hill’s characterisation as a Presidential son (a la Trump’s family) heavy-handedly hammering home its point. But – like all of Adam Mackay’s films – it’s well made and funny, a media-literate romp satirising (or maybe just demonstrating) life in the social media age.
The rest of the nominees are watchable if unspectacular films, including the Irish nostalgia film Belfast, the coming of age drama CODA, King Richard a biopic about the struggle of the Williams family to make it in the tennis world, Drive My Car a beautifully shot version of the eponymous Murakami story, and Spielberg’s latest, an un-engaging remake of West Side Story.
Which movie will win? Dune? The Power of the Dog? King Richard? In any case, I can guarantee it won’t be the best picture of 2021.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence