The best picture race heading into the 93rd Academy Awards has kept the focus on writer-director Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland," which has plundered the best picture prize in almost every preceding awards show.
But in this topsy-turvy pandemic movie year, anything can happen with the eight films nominated for best picture for Sunday's Oscars (ABC, 8 EDT/5 PDT).
This year's best picture category offers wide-ranging genres and filmmaking: two historical dramas centered on differing 1960s revolutionaries, an old-school Hollywood tale, a descent into dementia, acceptance of deafness, a woman's quest for vengeance and an immigrant family's pursuit of the American dream.
The case could be made for any of the eight best picture nominees to win, and that's what we're going to do. USA TODAY's movie experts deliver their passionate defenses for why each film deserves to be celebrating at the end of Oscar night:
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Movies have been our sanity-saving pandemic escape, but “The Father” travels a labyrinth none of us ever want to take – into the disoriented mind of an elderly man (Anthony Hopkins) grappling with dementia. It's a heartbreaking, career-defining performance that’s arguably Hopkins' greatest, even better than his Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
In an unintended COVID-19 metaphor, Florian Zeller’s debut film parallels our own headspace, occupying a scary world that shrinks down to the title patriarch’s beautiful but increasingly unfamiliar London flat, occupied by a confusing cast of characters that include his caregivers (Imogen Poots and Olivia Williams), his concerned daughter (Olivia Colman), two men claiming to be her husband (Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell) and many unreliable memories.
As the movie unfolds, the realization dawns that we’re not watching Anthony’s devastating reality, we’re living it – and what could possibly be more 2021 than that? – Kim Willis
'Judas and the Black Messiah'
Director Shaka King's film revisits the tumultuous late 1960s and delves into how the FBI went hard after Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) when the feds saw how influential he was in creating a rainbow coalition of oppressed people.
Kaluuya has run the table this Oscar season because of his stirring portrayal of a historical figure: His Hampton projects undeniable public charisma while behind the scenes, the gravity of his work weighs heavily on the Black Panther chairman. Also top notch is fellow Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield, who plays the small-time Chicago criminal recruited by the FBI to infiltrate Hampton's inner circle.
"Judas" is one of the standouts during a year chock full of strong Black stories and a film that rings more true than it should in our modern times. – Brian Truitt
Oscar loves films about the movies, and "Mank" is that in spades. Director David Fincher's gloriously retro Netflix film takes audiences back to the golden age of Hollywood with an origin story about the creation of Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece "Citizen Kane."
As "Kane" writer Herman Mankiewicz, Gary Oldman deftly takes on a complex, thoughtful underdog whose sardonic personality can't hide his internal insecurities and outward struggles with self-destructive vices. The film scoots back and forth between parallel stories of Mank struggling to craft "Kane" and his dealings with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), a key inspiration for Welles' movie.
Oldman's co-star – and fellow Oscar nominee – Amanda Seyfried also impresses as Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress and an actress seeking respect for her talent, in a movie that goes deep on the politics of Hollywood without being just for the Turner Classic Movies crowd. – Truitt
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On the surface, Lee Isaac Chung’s movie appears to be your typical American Dream story, following an immigrant couple pursuing a future in rural Arkansas. But what makes "Minari" stand out from its fellow contenders is its emotional range achieved with such a minimalist plot.
Chung does a beautiful job of humanizing each member of the Yi family and honing in on their complexities, from the Yi matriarch Soonja’s eccentricity to protagonist Jacob’s hubris. Almost anyone can relate to the hardships of assimilating as well as the importance of family, even if you're not an immigrant.
"Minari" deserves to win because it did something for me that many movies have failed to do: It changed my mind. Specifically, it changed my mindset about what it means to be American, which shouldn't be defined by the language we speak or the financial gains we amass, but rather the humanity, passion and resilience that we collectively share as human beings. – Jenna Ryu
Early in Chloé Zhao's elegiac "Nomadland," wandering widow Fern (Frances McDormand) gathers around a bonfire in the Arizona desert with a group of fellow vagrants, as they all share their reasons for hitting the road. Merle Redwing, one of several real-life nomads featured in the film, recalls an old co-worker who died from liver failure just as he was set to retire, having never gotten to use his new sailboat.
"I retired as soon as I could," Redwing says. "I didn’t want my sailboat to be in the driveway when I died. And it’s not – my sailboat’s out here in the desert."
Even after a half dozen viewings, "Nomadland" continues to floor me with its understated emotion and profound reminder to embrace the time we have. Through breathtaking cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi's achingly gorgeous music, Zhao creates a loving snapshot of people on the margins, with the impish McDormand as their respectful conduit. The film is equally about Fern's spiritual journey of grief, learning that moving on doesn't mean forgetting her late husband, Bo.
"You’ll see Bo again," nomad Bob Wells consoles her. "And you can remember your lives together then." – Patrick Ryan
'Promising Young Woman'
“Promising Young Woman” has had me in its thrall since it took the unholy honor of becoming the last movie I saw in a theater. What Carey Mulligan and director Emerald Fennell accomplished is arresting: They took a #MeToo tale and flipped it on its head, delivering a revenge thriller in which its steely protagonist spills zero blood in her quest to decimate the man who stole the soul of her best friend in a public rape. How could a movie like that be entertaining, wry and righteous, played against the backdrop of Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind”?
What worked for me most was that Cassie, played by an always deft Mulligan, depicts grief in a way we so rarely see on film. She’s not sunken or weepy, withering away inside a wardrobe of gray sweaters. Cassie costumes her unmooring in girlish clothes; she cracks dry jokes and spits into a flirtatious former classmate's coffee while looking him dead in the eye.
The ending – don't spoil it for yourself – is also one of the most audacious choices I’ve seen in years. “Promising Young Woman” should win because it dared to put a venomous, candy-colored spin on a world in which women so often do not. – Andrea Mandell
'Sound of Metal'
From the discordant, drum-thrashing opening, writer-director Darius Marder doesn't just depict a heavy metal drummer's journey into deafness in "Sound of Metal"– he thrusts the viewer palpably into Ruben's (Riz Ahmed) chaotic upheaval. The trip is unforgettably visceral with intricate sound design, seemingly bringing viewers directly into the musician's head, from experiencing the sudden loss of hearing to the static buzzing of voices after Ruben takes the momentous, controversial step of undergoing cochlear implant surgery.
Ruben's desperate journey makes "Sound of Metal" soar, buoyed by a cast that includes best supporting actor nominee Paul Raci, as the guru-like leader of a sober living home for the deaf, and Olivia Cooke as girlfriend Lou, whose love kept the recovering addict's life on the rails before the traumatic life change. Amid the turbulence, Oscar-nominated Ahmed unforgettably conveys Ruben's full emotional trek through soulful eyes. – Bryan Alexander
'The Trial of the Chicago 7'
You can handle this truth: No one does a courtroom drama like Aaron Sorkin. Imagine the electricity of “A Few Good Men” with a heavy dose of timely civil-rights relevance and that’s “Chicago 7,” an exquisitely crafted exploration of the violent clash between Chicago police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the high-profile federal trial that started in '69.
Interspersing actual footage of the riots, Sorkin masterfully mirrors recent social unrest with that of a bygone era and also throws in his signature snappy repartee and witty zingers throughout, especially the legal-eagle stuff.
Sorkin's all-star SAG-winning cast is game for it all, and there's no better acting ensemble in this crop of best picture nominees. Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Michael Keaton and more take us back on a trip to the past that's sufficiently thought-provoking and undeniably entertaining. – Truitt
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscars: Which film deserves best picture? We defend the nominees