The Best-Best Picture Breakdown

An Analysis of Oscar-Worthy Movies

Many of this year’s nominees are inspired by true events.
Illustration: Owen Swallow · The Sentry

On April 25, a movie-going year characterized by disruption will be capped by an industry mainstay: the Oscars. While there is sure to be social distancing, masking, and Zoom calls, the ceremony itself is yet another wonderful step toward normalcy. Those measures are sure to be in place, but they’ll feature alongside other Oscar mainstays, like a bloated runtime, a slew of self-important speeches, and a surprise snub. Maybe they’ll even announce the wrong movie for best picture again on purpose, as a sort of warm dose of familiarity.

This year, eight movies were nominated for best picture. The choices range from small-scale dramas to large-scale dramas, with even little doses of dramedy sprinkled amongst it. Trying to decide which films to watch can be difficult though with such wide, varied selection. Does one want to watch two slice of life dramas about the American Dream?

In the spirit of saving the Sentry reader time and money, here’s a breakdown of every Best Picture Nominee, accompanied by a short review. Enjoy.

Judas and The Black Messiah

This true story (a trend that is alive and well this year) follows the story of William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield). O’Neal, a Black Panther, becomes arrested in Chicago while impersonating a federal officer. Rather than send him to jail, however, an FBI Agent (Jesse Plemons), has a better idea. He offers O’Neal the choice to turn informant on the Chicago Black Panthers. As he grows closer to the head of the chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), his loyalty to the cause butts up against his compelled service to the FBI.

This movie slaps. Each of the leads deliver a killer performance, creating rich characters that feel like real people. The action is gripping, the script tight, and the actual events as fascinating as the film that tells them. In the end, it’s a solid historical drama.

The Father

This film is a bummer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a well-told bummer. The movie follows Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins), mostly in his flat, as dementia starts to take root in his mind. Rather than tell the story as has been done before, from the perspective of those around watching the decline, The Father instead puts the viewer inside of Anthony’s head. Just like Anthony, the audience doesn’t recognize all these different people who are coming in; they’re suspicious of the new helper he’s never seen before.

The result of this approach is an incredibly effective, heart-wrenching experience. Sections play out almost like a mystery, with Anthony trying to piece together different aspects of his life into a cohesive whole. The acting is as good as a project like this requires, with Anthony Hopkins specifically delivering an amazing performance, but with very good work from Olivia Coleman and Imogen Poots.

The Father delivers on its promise, but it promises sadness and perhaps even despair. Viewer discretion advised.

Sound Of Metal

Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict. He lives in a motor home with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), who also is the singer of their band. One day, however, Ruben’s hearing begins to disappear rapidly, to the point where he’s unable to hear at all. He embarks on a journey to try and figure out how to get it back and play the drums again, but as corny as it sounds, along the way he might just find himself.

Like The Father, Sound of Metal can elicit tears, just a different type. The film does a masterful job of placing the audience in Ruben’s shoes, including some of the most dynamic and interesting sound design decisions made in years. The audience experiences the hearing loss with him, the frustration, and the devastating loss. When he succeeds, the audience cheers with him, and when he hits a roadblock, they feel as broken as he does. As far as pure drama, this is the best film of the year, and an experience the audience will not soon forget.


This film, starring Frances McDormand, follows Fern after she loses her industrial job. Untethered to anything in her hometown, Fern sells all of her things and buys a van in which to travel the country in, looking for seasonal jobs. Along the way she meets other nomads doing the same thing, and eventually, finds a community.

Based off of the 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland is the sort of movie where nothing really happens, but that’s kind of the point. Written and directed by Chloé Zhao (along with a host of other jobs on the production), the film takes time to show the beauty and heartbreak in the moment. This movie isn’t about grand plans or designs, it’s about broken people trying to find ways to be a little less broken in an unforgiving environment.

The cinematography is gorgeous and McDormand knocks it out of the park. The supporting cast, often made up of real life Nomads that were discussed in the underlying book, also deliver the sort of acting this type of movie requires. Nomadland is a good version of what it wants to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for the casual viewer.


Following Nomadland, here’s another film in which very little happens. Minari follows a Korean immigrant family that moves to rural Kansas with aims of becoming farmers. Based on the real-life experience of its writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, the film chronicles the victories and setbacks as the Yi family become settled in their new life.

This film sounds appealing to a certain group of people, first and foremost critics. It’s tender and sweet in all the ways it needs to be, but the lack of real plot is a big hindrance. For example, in Nomadland, the wandering is the point and feeds into its large point about the American Dream. Minari, by comparison, feels lacking in some parts. But, as stated, critics love this one more than anything, so take that with a grain of salt.

The Trial of the Chicago Seven

Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin and featuring an all-star cast, this film chronicles a real-life kangaroo court. At the behest of President Nixon’s DOJ, prosecutors were instructed to try and convict eight people of inciting a riot in Chicago before the 1968 democratic convention. The trial soon turns into a drawn-out farce, with a senile judge and unruly defendants.

This is Aaron Sorkin’s least interesting movie. His signature dialogue almost seems neutered here, and the story itself strains under the gravitas the film seems to want to put on it. Unless a completist Sorkin fan or a courtroom drama junkie, this one is the easiest skip of the lot.


Directed by David Fincher, this follows the story of the writing of Citizen Kane by Herbert Mankowitz (Mank), and how it was a war cry against news mogul William Randolph Hurtz.

That’s about all there is to say about the plot. Fans of Citizen Kane and Fincher will love this, a film steeped in era-appropriate cinematography and blocking. The acting is arch, but also good, and fits well within the old-timey style of the piece. However, this is not for the general movie-going public. Those people will probably find little interest in this.

Promising Young Woman.

This film is difficult to characterize. It follows Nina (Carey Mulligan), a med-school dropout and barista with a peculiar habit. On weekends, she dresses up, goes to a club, and pretends to be blackout drunk until a “nice guy” takes her home. Once there, he learns how sober she is, and what a mistake he just made.

The film progresses from there, but at its core, Promising Young Woman is the #MeToo movie the world has been waiting for. It’s a brilliant take down of toxic masculinity; a movie that’s both subtle and unsubtle at the same time (the film revolves around rape without ever uttering the word).

Don’t think this is just a social message though, because more so than that, the movie is engaging. Sometimes it plays as a thriller, sometimes a drama, sometimes a genuinely funny romantic comedy; it’s chock-full of twists and turns the audience couldn’t see coming if they tried. Every element of this movie delivers, from Emerald Fennel’s writing and directing to the acting to the production design.

This is the best movie of the year. But, unfortunately, it’s also the sharpest and most contemporary one, making a win doubtful with the Academy’s famously geriatric voting base. Still, an award isn’t needed for a film to have value. If one values good, entertaining movies, Promising Young Woman is a must see.

This is a selection of the April 14 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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