For the first time in over a decade, this year’s Best Picture nominees were fixed at 10 slots in advance, rather than ranging between five and 10 depending on the breadth of Academy voters’ enthusiasm. That means a whole lot of movies to catch up on, especially if you’ve been spending more time wolfing down Netflix shows than checking out Oscar candidates. So if you’re looking to shorten your shortlist, here’s a guide to the ones you need to watch, either because they’re great or so you can get properly mad when they win, and the ones you might love even if they don’t snag a statue on March 28.
Must Watch (Yay!)
The Power of the Dog. With a pack-leading 12 nominations, Jane Campion’s movie is the hand-down favorite for Best Picture and Best Director, and it’s also one of the best movies of 2021, according to Slate’s movie critic, Dana Stevens. It’s also arthouse icon Campion’s first film in 12 years, and her first nomination since she won in 1994 for the screenplay of The Piano. The story of two Montana ranchers (Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s performance earned a nomination for Best Actor, and Jesse Plemons, who’s similarly up for Best Supporting Actor) whose fragile bond turns to animosity when one marries a local widow (Kirsten Dunst, who’s up for Best Supporting Actress), it’s a lyrical Western and a slow-burn psychodrama with an ending that will make you want to watch the whole thing again. Stream it on Netflix.
Drive My Car. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s movie blew past all expectations by landing nominations for best international feature, director, screenplay, and picture. That’s two short of Parasite’s six, but still awfully impressive for a three-hour Japanese movie about a theater director processing the grief of his wife’s death through a production of Uncle Vanya. Don’t let the length, or even the fact that you can only see it in movie theaters, scare you: The movie, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, coasts by with the lulling rhythm of a long road trip, one you don’t ever want to end. See it in movie theaters.
Flee. Speaking of surpassing expectations, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary made history by landing nominations in the documentary, animated feature, and international film categories. It’s a hybrid several times over, a documentary memoir narrated by a gay Afghan man about living in exile, not just from his homeland, but his family and even himself, and while it might not be the favorite in any of its categories, it’s one of the best movies in all of them. Stream it on Hulu, or buy/rent it at digital retailers like Amazon Prime Video.
Dune. Although the Oscars doubled the number of Best Picture nominees in response to The Dark Knight getting left off the list, the Academy has tended to fill out the roster with delicate character studies and not speaker-rattling blockbusters. Fortunately, Dune is both. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic was a major gamble, telling half the story with no guarantee of a second film to finish it, but the bet paid off handsomely, racking up formidable box office in the middle of the pandemic despite being simultaneously available on HBO Max. Despite the movie’s whopping ten nominations, that accomplishment isn’t likely to be rewarded in most major categories (getting blanked in directing and acting is a bad sign), but Dune is expected to clean up in the smaller ones, including sound and visual effects, a recognition that as much as we’ve enjoyed streaming intimate dramas in our living rooms, there’s an important place for seeing movies as big and as loud as possible. Available for digital rental or purchase.
Summer of Soul. Did someone say “loud”? Not even the rumble of an approaching Shai-Hulud merits cranking up the volume as much as this thrilling documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a summerlong concert series which featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, the Staple Singers, and many, many others. The directorial debut of Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the Best Documentary favorite is a rip-roaring concert movie that also captures a critical moment in Black history, the un-televised “revolution” of the movie’s subtitle. Stream it on Hulu, or rent/purchase at digital retailers.
West Side Story. Tied for third place with seven overall nominations, Steven Spielberg’s update of the midcentury musical classic made major adjustments to align with 21st century values, some more successful than others. But it’s a masterclass in the realm of showbiz spectacle, especially when Best Supporting Actress favorite Ariana DeBose is on screen. Taking over the role for which Rita Moreno won an Oscar in 1962, DeBose had the biggest shoes to fill of anyone in the new movie’s cast, and yet she’s also the standout, a forceful stunner who leaves no doubt she could lay out her boxer boyfriend with a stern look. Not even Tony Kushner can save the show’s original book from its clunkiness, but when the dancing starts, the movie’s fluid confidence is simply jaw-dropping. See it in movie theaters.
Belfast. Kenneth Branagh’s lovely, lowkey reminiscence of his Irish childhood at the onset of the Troubles would have been a Best Picture shoo-in in the days when the Academy’s membership was a little more traditional and a lot more white. As it is, it stands a decent chance of going from seven nominations to seven losses, although an original screenplay win is not out of the question. Fortunately the movie is still endlessly charming, as long as you don’t think about its politics, or lack thereof, very hard, with winning performances from Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe as the young protagonist’s impossibly gorgeous parents, and Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench (who both earned nominations in the supporting categories) as the older generation. Buy it for $19.99 at digital retailers.
The Lost Daughter. The final images of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut have sparked a prolonged debate about whether the movie’s heroine lives or dies. What’s less ambiguous is that Olivia Colman seems to be in line for her second Best Actress win in four years for her turn as a middle-aged academic coming to terms with how her ambitions and motherhood have collided in ways that are sometimes destructive, sometimes liberating, and sometimes both. It’s a phenomenally layered performance, poignant but unsentimental and bracingly honest. Whether or not Colman wins, it’s one of the best movies in the race. Stream it on Netflix.
Licorice Pizza. Quick, how many Oscars does Paul Thomas Anderson have? If you answered “None,” you are both correct and possibly now feeling a little sad. The eight-time loser might see his fortunes shift this year, but either way it’s worth venturing to a theater—remember them?—to see his latest, a ’70s coming-of-age movie with a breezy gait and a spiky core. In her first film role, Alana Haim is “a movie star in the making,” according to Dana Stevens, and Anderson fills out his cast with several stars already made, including Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and, in a two-scene performance so electric it could power the San Fernando Valley, Bradley Cooper as coked-up movie producer Jon Peters. See it in movie theaters.
The Worst Person in the World. This Danish movie’s two nominations, in international feature and original screenplay, are a little overshadowed by Drive My Car’s four-bagger, but Joachim Trier’s film about a thirtysomething woman trying to find her place in life is a sharp and moving account of what it’s like to live in a world that seems to offer endless possibilities but no place to rest. Renate Reinsve is positively luminous in the central role, although whether or not she’s the title character is for you to decide. See it in movie theaters.
Must Watch (Sigh)
King Richard. This character study of Richard Williams, aka Venus and Serena’s dad, isn’t terrible, even if its focus might seem misplaced. But Will Smith’s performance in the leading role, which seems likely to win him his first Oscar, indulges some of the Academy’s worst tendencies, rewarding a showy transformation that never goes more than skin-deep. A single glimpse of the real Richard over the closing credits reveals how Smith turned him from a smack-talking provocateur into a man whose dominant trait is his ability to endure. It’s a noble performance, but not a perceptive one. At least he got the accent right. Purchase it at digital retailers.
Being the Ricardos. If you to feel better about Smith’s nomination, all you need to do is watch a few minutes of Aaron Sorkin’s woefully misguided biopic, which turns the life of one of comedy’s greatest legends into an opportunity for movie-star mugging. As Desi Arnaz, Best Actor nominee Javier Bardem simply seems a little lost, but Best Actress nominee Nicole Kidman is flat-out awful, in this writer’s opinion, as a perpetually spooked Lucille Ball, and Sorkin’s humorless, preposterous screenplay sure doesn’t help. Stream it on Prime Video.
Don’t Look Up. The good news is that Adam McKay’s misguided climate-change allegory seems a lot less likely to win Best Picture than it did yesterday. The bad news is you can’t just count it out. Given that it’s one of the most popular movies in Netflix’s history, you’re statistically more likely to have already see it than anything else on this list. But if you’ve put it off this long, maybe watch some of the better nominees first? Stream it on Netflix.
Really, Really Should Watch
CODA. It’s unlikely to win anything at all, but the story of a young woman who’s the only hearing member of her otherwise deaf family is an immense charmer, with a justly nominated performance by the deaf actor Troy Kotsur that’s more complicated—and filthier—than audiences who aren’t fluent in ASL might understand. Stream it on Apple TV+
Tick, Tick, Boom. The best Lin-Manuel Miranda movie musical of 2021 is the one whose songs he didn’t write. Best Actor nominee Andrew Garfield stands little chance of winning for his performance as the struggling musical theater creator Jonathan Larson—who the world would come to know only after his death, the night before the first public performance of Rent—but it’s positively electric and fully committed, with so much theater kid energy you half expect Garfield to start handing out flyers for his show. Stream it on Netflix.
Ascension. Jessica Kingdon’s poetic portrait of a rapidly industrializing China would be worth watching if only as a counterpoint to the Beijing Olympics’ nationalistic pageantry, but it’s also gorgeous semi-abstract art about the mechanization of life everywhere, and how dehumanization is not only one of capitalism’s costs but also part of its appeal. Stream it on Paramount+.