The Midnight Sky
Nomination: best visual effects
George Clooney is a gifted actor and a serious filmmaker, but in The Midnight Sky, which he both stars in and directs, it’s as if he parked his personality—yea, his very essence—at the curb of the movie studio lot. In this ominous film, Clooney plays a space researcher left alone—or so he thinks—at an observatory in Antarctica. Alone and doomed, like most of the world’s inhabitants who have all mostly died for some unknown reason. There are few people left in the universe, including the astronauts of Aether, a gleaming spaceship on a mission. Clooney’s gloomy Augustine finds out that he is not exactly alone: a wordless little girl (Caoilinn Springall) has stowed away at the observatory, so instead of shriveling up and dying as he wants to do, he must contact Aether to come back to Earth and rescue her. The only problem is, Earth has been poisoned by a global threat, so they really shouldn’t stay, if in fact they are able to come back to Earth at all. It’s a big if. There are also daunting challenges facing the explorers, with a crew that includes Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, and Tiffany Boone. It’s a fairly depressing way to spend two hours, an hour and a half of which you will be checking the time yet to go. Hopefully, Clooney will take the poor critical reception to heart and make a different kind of movie next time, one that showcases his many strengths as an actor and director. The Midnight Sky never really gets off the ground. (Netflix)
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Nominations: best picture; best supporting actor: Sacha Baron Cohen; original screenplay; cinematography; editing
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is as fast and snappy as The Midnight Sky is slow and plodding. Director Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame injects the story of the 1969 trial of a group of protestors involved in the 1968 Democratic Convention riot in Chicago with his signature thrill ride pacing. Viewers know to buckle up, because it will be an exhilarating ride. The Chicago Seven were political activists from various groups who had protested the Vietnam War at the 1968 convention, including the quiet student Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the borderline anarchist Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and an eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panther Party who never even met his co-defendants before the trial. They were charged by the Nixon administration with conspiracy and incitement to riot. I was riveted. When I was a college student in Chicago, one of my professors had been there that summer of 1968 and witnessed the protests. He would regale our journalism class with stories, so it felt extra immediate and important. But anyone with a passing interest in news and current events will find this film to be shockingly, bracingly relevant to today. A famous protest that turns into a bloody police riot? A Department of Justice used to carry out a political vendetta? This film seems ripped from current headlines, and the character actors who deliver Sorkin’s zingy dialogue are astonishing. Mark Rylance as Defence Attorney William Kunstler was surely robbed of an Oscar nod, but this ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. The acting, the relevance, and Sorkin’s zesty storytelling all add up to an experience both exciting and sobering. Rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images, and drug use. (Netflix)
Nominations: best picture; best director: Chloe Zhao; best actress: Frances McDormand; adapted screenplay; cinematography; editing
“You can never go wrong with Frances McDormand,” I remarked to my son and husband as we were on our way to our first in-person movie in over a year: Nomadland. It was a thrill to sit in the theater with a bucket of popcorn, watching previews (one of my favorite things to do), but the best was yet to come. Nomadland is a movie that inspires, moves, and quietly enthralls the viewer. Even though not much happens, plotwise, many things happen emotionally in this elegant, thoughtful film about a grieving van dweller named Fern (McDormand).
Fern is a stoic soul who must leave the Nevada company town she shared with her late husband when the town’s main industry collapses. She packs her belongings in an older-model van and hits the road in search of work and purpose. At first, it seems romantic; indeed, the movie earned a cinematography nomination for its gorgeous footage of the American Southwest. But as Fern’s story unfolds, we see how hard it is for her to make it, to find work at the right time and to keep going when faced with numerous obstacles. Her true grit is inspiring; Fern is a heroine to admire. Mcdormand’s face tells a thousand tales of grief, disappointment, and also hope. She has earned a win for best actress, and hopefully she will get it.
Director Chloé Zhao deserves to win for best director, too. The way she balances the fictional Fern with her fellow nomads (most of whom are real-life van dwellers) feels like a magical blend of documentary and fable.
It’s moving to watch how Fern finds community among these rolling stones, meeting up with them at various RV parks and trading goods and tips to make the nomad life a bit easier. Their dependence on and need for each other flies in the face of our society’s obsession with independence and individualism. Yes, Fern is a woman who lives by herself in a van, yet she cannot survive alone. The nomads are God’s image bearers, bearing one another’s burdens, unencumbered with the clutter of too many possessions and entanglements. Their unvarnished humanity is a beautiful thing and deeply life-affirming. (Rated R for non-sexual nudity. In theaters and on Hulu.)
Other Banner reviews of Oscar-nominated films:
Minari (Nominations: best picture; best director: Lee Isaac Chung; best actor: Steven Yuen; best supporting actor: Yuh-Jung Youn; original screenplay; score)
Emma (Nominations: costume design, makeup and hairstyling)
Soul (Nominations: animated feature, sound, score)
Crip Camp: (Nominations: documentary feature)