Can we come up with a list of 10 believable best picture nominees superior to those competing for the Oscar on Sunday night?
Most committed movie fans will not find it hard to assemble a list whose – excuse us getting all mathematical – median quality is, in their eyes, superior to that of the academy's short list. But be honest, Venom fans, Let There Be Carnage, the latest in the evil Spider-Man franchise, was never going to register with Oscar voters. We could just point you to The Irish Times's pointy-headed list of 2021's best films. Yes, The Power of the Dog, joint favourite to triumph on Sunday, is at number four, but the Academy would never have gone for Andreas Fontana's Azor (number one), Argentinean conspiracy thriller; Andrei Konchalovsky's Dear Comrades! (number 10), grim tale of a Soviet massacre, or Viktor Kossakovsky's Gunda, documentary about a Norwegian pig.
The challenge is to compile a better overall 10, each of which could plausibly have found itself on the real list. Titles from the United States are always going to dominate. We can't ignore rooting factor. We have paid some attention to awards buzz that may or may not have gathered around our non-nominees. We have decided that more than one film not in English would, notwithstanding Parasite's recent triumph, be a bit of a stretch.
With apologies to The Power of the Dog and Drive My Car, which deserve their place towards the front of any 2021 grid, the nominees are not…
THE CARD COUNTER (Paul Schrader)
Astonishingly, Paul Schrader has received only one Oscar nomination – as the writer of First Reformed in 2017 – but his status as Hollywood royalty is unchallenged. Cold, grey 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 evisceration of American moral decline featuring first-rate performances.
What were its chances really? It did feel worthy of a punt after its well-reviewed premiere at Venice. No more absurd a notion than First Reformed landing in the race (which surely it came close to doing). Read the review
SPENCER (Pablo Larraíne)
You know what this is. Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in a film that veers from ghost story to absurdist comedy on its way to a delightfully unlikely fist-pounding conclusion. More divisive than Larraíne's Jackie, but those who liked it really, really liked it (to paraphrase Sally Field's notorious Oscar moment). Certain scenes have become popular memes. That apparently means something in the current culture.
What were its chances really? Stewart was nominated for best actress. So it was clearly in the conversation. But the naysayers nudged it out of the running not long after its Venice debut. Read the review
PIG (Michael Sarnoski)
Sarnoski’s film reads on paper like another of Nicolas Cage’s mad cult exercises in retributive violence: a truffle hunter searches for his stolen pig. But the film is considerably more tender and nuanced than that scenario suggests. Cage should have been competing for his second Oscar. The hosts should have been working on terrible jokes about pork sausages.
What were its chances really? It was probably always going to be a little out there for best picture consideration. But Cage seemed viable for a spell. Read the review
PARALLEL MOTHERS (Pedro Almodóvar)
Few directors have been so consistent for so long as Pedro Almodóvar. The great Spanish director knocked it out of el parque with this twisty drama concerning two women – one a teenager, the other middle aged – who give birth at the same time in the same hospital. As ever the film is filled with colour and energy, but, as the director ages, more sombre tones are creeping in. His old chum Penélope Cruz is quite transcendent.
What were its chances really? Not at all bad. Cruz is up for best actress. In recent years, the Academy has honoured films not in English here. A serious contender. Read the review
ZOLA (Janicza Bravo)
Rather than the ridiculous #OscarFanFavorite and #OscarCheerMoment gimmicks being tried out on Sunday, the Academy could have better connected with the social media age by honouring Bravo's frantic adaptation of a Twitter thread following a stripper and her new pal as they travel disastrously to Florida. A new, hectic school of filmmaking that mirrors the rhythms of modern life. Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are excellent as the buffeted pals.
What were its chances really? It is not an utterly absurd suggestion. Bravo won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance and Taylour Paige took best female lead at the Independent Spirit Awards. Read the review
SUMMER OF SOUL (Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson)
It has taken over 50 years for a proper record of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to make its way into cinemas. Despite a stunning line up of stars, the event has never had the resonance of the muddier, contemporaneous Woodstock Festival a hundred miles to the north. Over the last year cinemagoers and Disney+ users have swayed appreciatively to vintage performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and others. It will probably win best documentary feature this weekend.
What were its chances really? Now there is the question. The Academy has, astonishingly, never nominated a documentary for best picture in its 93-year history. It has to happen eventually. Read the review
RED ROCKET (Sean Baker)
Sean Baker has, over the last few years, with films such as Tangerine and The Florida Project, emerged as one of America's most acute observers of outsider life. His latest features the startling Simon Rex as a former porn actor returning chaotically to his rough, industrial home in southeast Texas. Raved about on its Cannes premiere, the picture plays tricky games with the cinemagoer's urge to empathise with any protagonist, however awful. Disturbing, but also hilarious.
What were its chances really? Zola and Red Rocket in the same race may be a little too much blotchy, amoral reality for the academy to handle. But Rex could have slipped through. Read the review
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Joel Coen)
Old Will Shakespeare has had a mixed record with the Academy. They are happy to nominate adaptations and performances, but wins have been much harder to come by. Unless you count West Side Story, Olivier’s Hamlet from 1948 is the last Shakey flick to take best picture. Slimmed down to digestible length, shot in lovely narrow-ratio monochrome, Joel Coen’s first film as director without his brother Ethan had the style to sneak in, but fell at the last hurdle.
What were its chances really? Excellent. The film received three nominations, including one for Denzel Washington's lead performance. The closest to an actual nomination on this list. Read the review
THE LAST DUEL (Ridley Scott)
The sort of film that used to dominate Oscar ceremonies, Scott's medieval epic tells the story of a rape from three perspectives – ending with the truth from Jodie Comer's misused wife. Filmed largely in Ireland, the picture is big on violence, filth and bawdy humour. But the clever script, whose last section is written by Nicole Holofcener, also teases out contemporary concerns about sexual violence with surprising subtlety. They rarely make them like this anymore. They may never do so again.
What were its chances really? Respectable until it opened to appalling box office returns. Scott's more financially successful, if less well-reviewed, House of Gucci then took over awards duties. Read the review
MASS (Fran Kranz)
Kranz's feature debut stars Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton in a drama about a meeting between the victim of a school shooting and the perpetrator's parents. Not an easy watch, but it is deeply rewarding to see such fine actors stretch their muscles around beautifully constructed, often lengthy speeches. The screenplay manages to dredge the emotional depths without slipping into sentimentality.
What were its chances really? Decent. The film won warm reviews at Sundance. Dowd got a Bafta nomination and was certainly in contention for an Oscar nod. Unlucky not to register. Read the review