It often seems to me as if the majority of modern American films fall into one of two types: self-actualisation through sudden wealth acquisition or self-actualisation through superior firepower. That’s not necessarily a criticism – some of my favourite films could be considered as belonging to one or other of those two categories – but it speaks to a lack of ambition that drags everything back towards the mainstream. Although criticised in some quarters for no longer representing the tastes of the average cinema-goer, the modern Oscars at least shines a light on films which pull in a different direction.

Part of the reason for all of this expiation is that… well, I didn’t love Nomadland the way I was supposed to. Poor Nomadland. It’s such a delicate, heartfelt, intimate little film, that for me to watch (and thoroughly dislike) Mank and then have Chloé Zhao’s film presented as the Mank-killer which is going to deprive Fincher and co of their armfuls of little gold men is hardly fair or appropriate.

And I did really like this film. I just can’t see it changing my life. That said, I do admire it intensely. While Fincher plays silly games with true stories, Zhao takes a non-fiction book and incorporates some of the real Americans who are living this lifestyle into her scripted drama. One of the many accomplishments of the piece is the way that lead actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn so beautifully integrate themselves into the authentic “nomads” that it’s almost impossible to see the joins. And Zhao also creates some indelible images of the American landscape.

This is a story which needed telling and it’s thrilling that the most prestigious awards ceremony in the world is treating it so well. The US experiment in utterly unfettered capitalism is crushing huge swathes of the population under the oppressive weight of an American Dream which purports to create opportunity for all, and in fact does as little as possible to level the playing field. No wonder that some people just refuse to play the game at all.

So as a window into this lifestyle, this is fascinating stuff and McDormand’s Fern is an utterly winning protagonist. Nor does this fall into the trap of seeming like a series of self-contained short films which could have come in any order. Part of the interest lies in seeing how chance encounters pay off later down the (literal and metaphorical) road.

But – without ever wishing this to tip into melodrama – I couldn’t help wanting the stakes to feel a little higher, for me to be just a little more invested in the details of Fern’s life. I literally gasped out loud when David clumsily pulled a cardboard box out of Fern’s van, and I was happy that she was able to repair the damage with a handy tube of superglue, but the very fact that Fern was able to fix the problem so easily (barely an inconvenience!) made me just a bit less committed to wanting to know what happened next.

As noted – this is really a story of how not to watch a film rather than any real criticism of Nomadland as a piece of art. It’s clear that Zhao is a major talent and that she has made exactly the movie she set out to make. And I will be delighted if this film wins Best Picture on 25 April. But I fear I like the idea of this film winning Best Picture more than I actually enjoyed watching the film.

Of course, if it does win, I will have to watch it again for a future episode of Best Pick. And who knows – like both Moonlight and (to a lesser extent) Parasite, I might discover that what seemed to lack a bit of narrative punch on first viewing, turns out to have more rewarding depths second time around.

One thing you can’t accuse Promising Young Woman of is not having narrative punch. It’s a delirious, sweet-and-tart, fizzing cocktail of a movie, pulsing with energy, anger and black humour. The set up is wonderfully sick and yet horrifyingly just at the same time. Cassie feigns near-blackout drunkenness in bars and nightclubs, waiting for a “nice guy” to take her home. And then when he attempts to consummate the encounter, she terrifyingly reveals her sobriety and shames them for their horrible actions. While Cassie clearly has right on her side, these scenes are almost as scary putting yourself in her shoes as those of her victims. Any one of these “nice guys” could turn out to be more committed to adding another notch to the bedpost than she assumed and she could quickly find herself in very serious trouble. What could possibly drive someone to these extremes? Emerald Fennell has all the answers.

Not nominated for any Oscars is I Care A Lot which secured a Golden Globe for its promising young star Rosamund Pike. But whereas J Blakeson’s film is pure trash with an unremittingly morally bankrupt protagonist who ends up resembling the relentless Terminator in her ludicrous determination to succeed, Fennell’s is more nuanced, subtle and awkward. However, both films deliver final acts which are more interested in twisty thriller plotting than the moral questions they pose, and while this doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, it does make them both a little harder to take seriously.

I Care A Lot is best watched as a bonkers thriller with a satisfyingly sick concept as its premise. Promising Young Woman feels like it has considerably more to say and will live with me a lot longer, but the last twenty minutes or so have a straight-ahead quality that while not exactly betraying the complexity of the preceding hour and a half, doesn’t seem entirely in keeping with it either.

But these are minor criticisms really, when Fennell shoots everything so well, and assembles a remarkable supporting cast including GLOW alumni Chris Lowell and Alison Brie, Mclovin himself Chrisopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton (whose one scene is a total stand-out), Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge and Bo Burnham. But holding everything together is a radiant Carey Mulligan, who exudes resolve, vulnerability, loneliness, joy, desperation and clarity of purpose without ever turning Cassie into a chimera. It’s a stunning performance in a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable film.

I had already seen Promising Young Woman before the nominations were announced and the same is true of The Trial of the Chicago 7, but even longer ago, so forgive me if this review isn’t quite so detailed. If I had no idea what to expect of Promising Young Woman and was knocked out by the originality of the concept and the sureness of the execution, I had much clearer expectations of Aaron Sorkin’s latest, and while I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t thrilled in quite the same way.

Unlike Mank, Sorkin doesn’t appear to have taken quite so many liberties with the truth and – arguably more importantly – the story as presented does seem to make sense. Reality has furnished him with a number of extraordinary events and as screenwriter, he’s created a subtle but powerful structure which holds back some key information until very late in the day. As director, too, Sorkin continues to grow in confidence, and he brings a really authentic period feel to proceedings. He also parcels out exposition with his customary skill and knows when to play games, when to come in with the gags and when to slow down and make us take things seriously.

This is probably the most completely successful film of this batch so far – but also the least exciting. While it’s a powerful story that deserves to get a wider hearing, and while there’s another fantastic roster of American (and non-American) character actors having a blast with Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue, there’s nothing here I haven’t seen before. I’d put this on the same shelf as previous Best Picture winners like Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire or Shakespeare in Love – entertaining and well-made films which deserved their win but which probably wouldn’t have succeeded except in a relatively thin year.

And I’ve got a feeling this isn’t a thin year. I think this could be rather a special year.

Oscars 2021: Mank
The Oscars 2021: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari