19. King Richard (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song)
I went into King Richard expecting a good appearance from Will Smith, surrounded by standard-issue sports biopic tropes that don’t live up to his performance. But I was pleasantly surprised that the end result was an engaging, funny, heart-warming film. Smith is simply undeniable as Richard Williams, the demanding father of Venus and Serena, but is supported by worthy nominee Aunjanue Ellis, plus solid turns from Saniyya Sidney and Jon Bernthal. We’ll likely never know how accurate the film is, or if it treats Richard with kid gloves because Serena and Venus serve as executive producers, but it remains a crowd-pleasing film that doesn’t feel out of place in any of its six nominations.
18. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Best Actress, Best Makeup & Hairstyling)
It feels like Jessica Chastain managed to get a Best Actress nomination through sheer force of will, which wouldn’t be out of line with her fiercely committed portrayal of the titular televangelist. The film came and went from theaters in September, but Chastain endured as a magnetic performance that was more than an act of mimicry, or one that let the heavy prosthetics do all the work. The film may have suffered in its stance on Tammy Faye Bakker – just how much did she know and participate in her husband’s swindling? – but it remains a funny, engaging biopic for an unfairly maligned public figure.
17. CODA (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay)
Lost in all of the well-deserved praise for CODA is the star-making performance of Emilia Jones, who anchors the film as its protagonist. In a different year, Jones could have competed for a Best Actress slot. But Siân Heder’s adaptation still received plenty of love, including a Supporting Actor nomination for Troy Kotsur. A coming-of-age story for an under-represented subset of people, CODA is full of great performances that endured long past its Sundance premiere in January 2021.
16. Three Songs for Benazir (Best Live-Action Short)
It’s not just that Three Songs for Benazir is about a prescient subject. It’s not just that it’s well-written, directed, and performed. It’s all of those things, and it contains an emotionally resonant story that uses its time extremely well without feeling like something is left on the table. A film about national and familial pride, Three Songs for Benazir could have wallowed in misery, as too many films in this category tend to do, but ends on a hopeful note.
15. Flee (Best International Film, Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature)
Jonas Puher Rasmussen’s genre-defying film made Oscar history by being the first documentary nominated for International, Animated, and Documentary categories. Detailing a family’s harrowing journey of exile from one country to another, Flee succeeds because it utilizes each of its elements effectively. On top of all of this is the main subject’s acceptance of himself as a gay man and his fears of coming out to his family, which leads to one of the best scenes of the year. While the animation quality may be the weakest aspect of the film, it’s a style that suits the themes at play, changing style and clarity when his memories get darker and scarier in tone.
14. Attica (Best Documentary Feature)
Surely most film lovers’ familiarity with the Attica prison riot stems from Al Pacino’s famously ad-libbed exclamation from Dog Day Afternoon. But director Stanley Nelson dives deep into everything that led to the situation and its aftermath with the thoughtful examination it deserves. Focusing on the inhumane living conditions and the inherent structural inequality at the titular prison, and featuring interviews with former prisoners that took part in the riot, Attica is a social justice documentary that has flown under the radar since its quiet release on Showtime last year. Were it not for the genre-defying Flee, Attica would be a solid choice to win the Documentary Feature award.
13. tick, tick… BOOM! (Best Actor, Best Film Editing)
I would have loved to see more nominations for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut – including Adapted Screenplay – but its recognition for Andrew Garfield and in the editing category are more than well deserved. Garfield carries the film on his shoulders with his energetic performance, and Miranda finds a lively way to adapt the stage play without turning the film into another standard biopic. Not many actors or actresses had a better 2021 than Garfield, and his greatest achievement is on full display in tick, tick… BOOM!
12. Audible (Best Documentary Short)
Audible is my favorite of all of the shorts because it presents a likeable, engaging group of people who refuse to be defined by their disabilities. The film follows a football team in Maryland at a school for deaf students who also happens to be one of the best in the country. Audible‘s main “character” is Amaree, whose re-connection with his absent father is contrasted with his final year playing football, and all the drama that entails. The future is uncertain for all young deaf people, as evident from a heartbreaking story of one of Amaree’s peers, but that doesn’t stop Audible‘s subjects from living in the moment to the fullest.
11. The Mitchells vs. The Machines (Best Animated Feature)
2021 was sorely lacking in memorable big studio comedies, but The Mitchells vs. the Machines made me laugh more than any of them. Satirical takes on how the overabundance of smart technology will lead to the robot apocalypse may be overdone by now, but director Michael Rianda grounds it in a family story with heart at its center. The film also looks fantastic, a kind of cel-shaded aesthetic akin to Sony’s previous award winner, Into the Spider-Verse. It’s not often that an animated film feels like it was borne from a singular voice, and it’s what sets Mitchells vs. the Machines apart from its competition for me.
10. Spencer (Best Actress)
One of the greatest mysteries of this year’s Oscar season is the cliff-dive that Spencer has faced in its awards prospects. At one point in the conversation for a potential Best Picture nomination, the film had to settle for its lone Best Actress nomination for Kristen Stewart – and even that was in doubt on nomination morning. From costumes to production design to original score, Spencer had all the components to make a hefty nomination haul but was shot down like a pheasant by voters. Granted, a biopic as experimental as what director Pablo Larrain gave us probably grated Academy members who simply wanted to see a by-the-numbers re-telling of Princess Diana’s life, but what made Spencer prickly is what made it special.