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Nominations: best picture; best director: Kenneth Branagh; actress in a supporting role: Judi Dench; actor in a supporting role: Ciarán Hinds; writing–original screenplay; music–original score; sound.

Director Kenneth Branagh’s decision to film this semi-autobiographical movie of his childhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in black and white didn’t make sense to me until I saw it. Then, caught up in the wonder and love of a grown man looking back on his parents, grandparents, and childhood home, it was clear: Belfast is a series of black-and-white photos merged into a video album of memories. And it’s achingly lovely.

Set during the Protestant-Catholic conflicts in Ireland in the late 1960s, Belfast tells the story of Buddy (Luke Hill), a winsome boy whose basically happy life is upended by violence as a brutish gang of Protestants try to rout out the Catholics in the neighborhood. Buddy and his family, including Ma and Pa (Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, who look way too gorgeous to be anyone’s parents) are Protestant, but they have Catholic neighbors and for Buddy, classmates, and don’t really understand the conflict, period. Nonetheless, they are caught up in it several times. 

Every time violence reaches them, Buddy’s parents reignite the years-long debate about leaving their home in Belfast for London, where there are jobs for “joiners” such as Pa. Besides the danger, Buddy’s parents have terrible debt and are barely making it in Belfast. The family would also have to leave behind beloved Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), who are stalwart, warm, and nurturing to Buddy and part of his everyday life. Both Dench and Hinds are nominated for Oscars for their supporting roles, and they nearly run off with the movie a few times.

Despite the setting of The Troubles, Belfast is luminous and joyful. Just as memory is selective (some experts say we get up to 60% of our memories wrong), Branagh picks scenes that underscore what must have been a beautiful childhood, violence in the streets notwithstanding. Scenes such as the one where Ma and Pa are dancing happily to songs by Van Morrison (who wrote the score) seem out of place and sentimental until you consider what this is: Branagh’s loving memories of family and birthplace, brought to cinematic life. (Rated PG-13, Apple TV +, Amazon Prime) 



Nominations: best picture; actor in a supporting role: Troy Kotsur; writing–adapted screenplay.

Grab your box of tissues for this exceptional coming-of-age tale about a fisherman’s daughter who is a CODA (child of deaf adults). Ruby (Emilia Jones) endears as the only hearing person in her family, which includes her dad (Oscar-nominated Troy Kotsur), her mom (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin), and her older brother, played with vulnerability by Daniel Durant. 

Every morning before school, Ruby hops aboard her family’s fishing boat and helps them reel in the catch of the day. Of course, the mean girls at school have a field day with that fishy smell, as well as Ruby’s deaf family and the way she talked “funny” when she first came to school. On the fishing boat, Ruby sings her heart out (you will want to vote for her on any singing reality show). However, to her family members, there is simply silence. It’s sad that they can’t experience their daughter’s grand gift. 

Ruby’s family fishes in gritty Gloucester, Mass., and they, like many fishermen, are struggling mightily to make a go of it. Her ability to translate for them in community meetings and with those who buy their fish is becoming more crucial than ever. (In one heart-stabbing scene, Ruby’s brother tries valiantly to handle a transaction himself but can’t hear how he is being duped by a fish buyer. Durant is so good in this film; his frustration and sadness is palpable.)

At the same time, Ruby’s desire to sing begins to rise, along with the encouragement of her new choir instructor (Eugenio Dubez). Matlin, who won an Oscar in 1989 for Children of the Lesser God, is fantastic here. The viewer understands that it is her fear of losing Ruby that is at the heart of her inability to accept or encourage Ruby’s singing. Kotsur earns his Oscar nod as the tender father who is torn between wanting his daughter to fly toward her singing dreams and his very real need for her to help him make his way in a hearing world that can be cruel.

I don’t understand why the entire family was not nominated for an Oscar, but Jones as Ruby was well and truly robbed. The British newcomer (who flawlessly acts in an American accent) must portray someone who straddles two worlds, the world of her deaf family, who speak in ASL (American Sign Language), and the outside world. The scene where she sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” for the possibility of a scholarship—nervously at first and then boldly and in ASL, too, as she spots her family—is astonishing. 

The movie features “open subtitles,” burned into the picture, removing the need for special glasses. This is a first for a major American, English-language theatrical release. (Rated PG-13 for sexual talk and pot use, Apple TV+)

King Richard

Nominations: best picture; actor: Will Smith; actress in a supporting role: Aunjenue Ellis; film editing; writing (original screenplay)

From Darrell Delaney’s review of King Richard: 

“King Richard is a movie about the famous tennis players Venus and Serena Williams and their family, especially their father, “King Richard” (Will Smith). Smith’s performance is Oscar-nominated and Oscar worthy, because he literally becomes the character in his mannerisms, speech, heart, attitude, and conviction. Smith’s acting alone makes this movie top notch. I highly recommend it to watch with family, because it raises the legacy of the Williams sisters even more.” 

Drive My Car

Nominations: best picture; writing (adapted screenplay)

From Daniel Jung’s review of Drive My Car: 

“If there was ever a film that was better suited for online streaming than the big screen, it’s Drive My Car, and I mean that as a compliment. Drive My Car, now streaming on HBOMax, is a glorious deluge of language and culture. Without the liberty to pause and rewind, the inattentive viewer will not only miss huge amounts of communication but quite possibly the entire narrative thrust of the film.  

“Drive My Car stars Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yûsuke Kafuku, a renowned Japanese director who is learning how to cope with tremendous betrayal and loss. Kafuku embraces the idea that ‘silence is golden’ and buries his grief deep into his work. He accepts an assignment to direct, cast, and star in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Kafuku’s spin on the play is that the entire performance will be done in multiple languages; Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, German, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, and Korean Sign Language. The performers in the play must undergo a tremendous shift in their rehearsal process as they can no longer rely on a shared language. Instead, Kafuku instructs them to focus on the acting itself, drawing from each other’s emotions and nonverbal communication cues.”

Other Banner reviews of Oscar-nominated films: 

Tick, Tick...BOOM! (Nominations: best actor: Andrew Garfield, film editing; )

Encanto (Nominations: animated feature film, music-original score)

The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Nominations: animated feature film)

Nightmare Alley (Nominations: best picture; cinematography; costume design)

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