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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Ten Must-See 2021 Oscar-Winning Films You Should Watch Immediately

Catch up on the best films of the last year — from historic winner 'Nomadland' to four movies you can stream right now.
By Sarah Ward
April 26, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
April 26, 2021
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History was made. For once, the vibe was casual and relaxed rather than tense and overdone. And it seems that even the Academy itself was surprised by the very last winner of the night. Yes, the Oscars have now been and gone for 2021, albeit a couple of months later than usual — one of the many changes implemented in response to the pandemic.

First, the exceptional news: after nominating two female directors for the first time ever — yes, the first time in the awards' 93-year history — the Academy also gave one of these talented ladies the nod. Only The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow has ever won the coveted field before, so Chloé Zhao's win for Nomadland is the hugest kind of deal there is when it comes to finally recognising that women helm movies, too. Zhao is also the first woman of colour to ever win the Best Director prize.

Also phenomenal: the wins that went Daniel Kaluuya and Yuh-Jung Youn's ways, for their supporting roles in Judas and the Black Messiah and Minari respectively. Their individual speeches were something special as well. When you're thanking your parents for having sex and therefore bringing you into this world, and trying to cosy up to Brad Pitt, you're going to grab attention.

But, in a year filled with worthy winners and just-as-deserving nominees, the thing that everyone will be talking about for the next 12 months is the Best Actor field. It seems that the folks behind the Oscars thought that Chadwick Boseman would win posthumously for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, with the category moved to the last slot of the evening — breaking with tradition. But, then Anthony Hopkins emerged victorious for The Father, wasn't in attendance or available via video, and the show came to a close without a big speech.

Perhaps that kind of chaos is apt, given that nothing about the past year has been normal — in cinema, or in life in general. It's also worth remembering that this year's Oscars ceremony was partly brought to the world by Steven Soderbergh, with the prolific filmmaker producing the awards broadcast. Yes, that means that the man who made the most prophetic movie of the past decade, aka Contagion, had a hand in the making Hollywood's night of nights happen in the pandemic era.

Now that the longest Oscars season in memory is done and dusted for the year, more fun awaits. Whether you're watching them for the first time or the tenth, a list of stellar winning films is there to be seen by your movie-loving eyeballs. Some you can stream at home right now. Others, you'll need to head to the biggest screen near you. Either way, we've rounded up ten of 2021's Academy Award-winning must-sees.

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NOMADLAND

Frances McDormand is a gift of an actor. Point a camera her way, and a performance so rich that it feels not just believable but tangible floats across the screen. That's the case in Nomadland, which has earned McDormand her third shiny Oscars statuette just three years after she nabbed her second for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here, leading a cast that also includes real people experiencing the existence that's fictionalised within the narrative, she plays the widowed, van-dwelling Fern — a woman who takes to the road, and to the nomad life, after the small middle-America spot she spent her married life in turns into a ghost town when the local mine is shuttered due to the global financial crisis. Following her travels over the course of more than a year, this humanist drama serves up an observational portrait of those that society happily overlooks. It's both deeply intimate and almost disarmingly empathetic in the process, as every movie made by Chloé Zhao is. This is only the writer/director's third, slotting in after 2015's Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017's The Rider but before 2021's Marvel flick Eternals, but it's a feature of contemplative and authentic insights into the concepts of home, identity and community. Meticulously crafted, shot and performed, it's also Zhao's best work yet, and the best film of 2020 as well.

Won: Best Picture, Best Director (Chloé Zhao), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Frances McDormand).

Where to watch it: In cinemas, still — and it'll be available to stream via Star on Disney+ from Friday, April 30.

Read our full review.

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THE FATHER

Forgetting, fixating, flailing, fraying: that's Florian Zeller's The Father, as brought to the screen in a stunning fashion from Le Père, the filmmaker's own play. Anthony's (Anthony Hopkins, Westworld) life is unravelling, with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, The Crown) springing the sudden news that she's about to move to Paris, and now insistent that he needs a new carer to replace the last home helper he's just scared off. He also can't find his watch, and time seems to jump suddenly. On some days, he has just trundled out of bed to greet the morning when Anne advises that dinner, not breakfast, is being served. When he brings up her French relocation again, she frostily and dismissively denies any knowledge. Sometimes another man (Mark Gatiss, Dracula) stalks around Anthony's London apartment, calling himself Anne's husband. Sometimes the flat isn't his own at all and, on occasion, both Anne (Olivia Williams, Victoria and Abdul) and her partner (Rufus Sewell, Judy) look completely different. Intermittently, Anthony either charms or spits cruel words at Laura (Imogen Poots, Black Christmas), the latest aide hired to oversee his days. So goes this largely housebound film, which is also a chaotic film. Despite its visual polish, and that mess, confusion and upheaval is entirely by design. All the shifting and changing — big and small details alike, and faces and places, too — speak to the reason Anne keeps telling Anthony they need another set of hands around the house. And, diving into it all is simply heartbreaking.

Won: Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller).

Where to watch it: In cinemas.

Read our full review.

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MINARI

Although they can frequently seem straightforward, films about the American dream aren't simply about chasing success. The circumstances and details change, but they're often movies about finding a place to call home as well. Such a quest isn't always as literal as it sounds, of course. While houses can signify achievement, feeling like you truly belong somewhere — and that you're comfortable enough to set your sights on lofty goals and ambitions that require considerable risks and sacrifices — transcends even the flashiest or cosiest combination of bricks and mortar. Partly drawn from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's (Abigail Harm) own childhood, Minari understands this. It knows that seeking a space to make one's own is crucial, and that it motivates many big moves to and within the US. So, following a Korean American couple (Steven Yeun, Burning and Yeri Han, My Unfamiliar Family) who relocate to rural Arkansas in the 80s with hopes of securing a brighter future for their children (first-timer Noel Cho and fellow newcomer Alan S Kim), this delicately observed and deeply felt feature doesn't separate the Yi family's attempts to set up a farm from their efforts to feel like they're exactly where they should be. Complete with a film-stealing performance from Youn Yuh-jung (Sense8) as Monica's mother, the result is a precise, vivid, moving, and beautifully performed and observed film told with honest and tender emotion — so much so that it was always bound to be equally universal and unique.

Won: Best Actress in Supporting Role (Yuh-Jung Youn).

Where to watch it: In cinemas.

Read our full review.

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JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

The last time that Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield appeared in the same film, Get Out was the end result. Their shared scene in Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror movie isn't easily forgotten (if you've seen the feature, it will have instantly popped into your head while you're reading this), and neither is Judas and the Black Messiah, their next exceptional collaboration. With Kaluuya starring as the Black Panther Party's Illinois Chairman Fred Hampton and Stanfield playing William O'Neal, the man who infiltrated his inner circle as an informant for the FBI, the pair is still tackling race relations. Here, though, the duo does so in a ferocious historical drama set in the late 60s. The fact that O'Neal betrays Hampton isn't a spoiler; it's a matter of fact, and the lens through which writer/director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) and his co-scribes Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas (actors on Lady Dynamite) and Will Berson (Scrubs) view the last period of Hampton's life. The magnetic Kaluuya has already won a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for his performance, and now he has an Oscar as well — and if he wants to keep acting opposite his fellow Academy Award nominee Stanfield in movies this invigorating, ardent, resonant and essential, audiences won't complain.

Won: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Original Song ('Fight For You' by HER, Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas).

Where to watch it: In cinemas.

Read our full review.

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MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

Chadwick Boseman didn't end up winning an Oscar for his last screen role, but the late, great actor really should've. Boseman is just that phenomenal in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. He has earned that term before in Get on Up, Black Panther and Da 5 Bloods, but his performance in this stage-to-screen production is such a powerhouse effort that it's like watching a cascading waterfall drown out almost everything around it. He plays trumpeter Levee Green, who is part of the eponymous Ma Rainey's (Viola Davis, Widows) band. On a 1920s day, the always-nattering, big-dreaming musician joins Ma — who isn't just a fictional character, and was known as the Mother of Blues — and the rest of his colleagues for a recording session. Temperatures and tempers rise in tandem in the Chicago studio, with Levee and Ma rarely seeing eye to eye on any topic. Davis is in thundering, hot-blooded form, while Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Glynn Turman (Fargo) also leave a firm impression. It's impossible take your eyes off of the slinkily magnetic Boseman though, as would prove the case even if he was still alive to see the film's release. Adapting the play of the same name by August Wilson (Fences), director George C Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) lets Boseman farewell the screen with one helluva bang.

Won: Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson), Best Costume Design (Ann Roth).

Where to watch it: On Netflix.

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SOUL

Released early in 2020, Onward definitely wasn't Pixar's best film — but Soul, its straight-to-streaming latest movie that capped off the past year, instantly contends for the title. The beloved animation studio has always excelled when it takes big leaps. Especially now, a quarter-century into its filmmaking tenure, its features prove particularly enchanting when they're filled with surprises (viewers have become accustomed to seeing toys, fish, rats and robots have feelings, after all). On paper, Soul initially seems similar to Inside Out, but switching in souls for emotions. It swaps in voice work by Tina Fey for Amy Poehler, too, and both movies are helmed by director Peter Docter, so there's more than one reason for the comparison. But to the delight of viewers of all ages, Soul is a smart, tender and contemplative piece of stunning filmmaking all on its own terms. It's Pixar at its most existential, and with a strikingly percussive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to further help it stand out. At its centre sits aspiring jazz musician-turned-music teacher Joe (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy). Just as he's about to get his big break, he falls down a manhole, his soul leaves his body, and he's desperate to get back to chase his dreams. Alas, that's not how things work, and he's saddled with mentoring apathetic and cynical soul 22 (the always hilarious Fey) in his quest to reclaim his life.

Won: Best Animated Feature, Best Original Score (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste).

Where to watch it: On Disney+.

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PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Promising Young Woman would've made an excellent episode or season of Veronica Mars. That's meant as the highest compliment to both the bubblegum-hued take on the rape-revenge genre and the cult-status private detective series. Writer/director Emerald Fennell clearly isn't blind to the parallels between the two, even casting Veronica Mars stars Max Greenfield (New Girl) and Chris Lowell (GLOW) in her feature debut. Don't go thinking the Killing Eve season two showrunner and The Crown actor is simply following in other footsteps, though. At every moment, the brilliant and blistering Promising Young Woman vibrates with too much anger, energy and insight to merely be a copycat of something else. It's a film made with the savviest of choices, and provocative and downright fearless ones as well, in everything from its soundtrack to its weaponised pastel, peppy and popping Instagram-friendly imagery. You don't include Italian quartet Archimia's orchestral version of Britney Spears' 'Toxic', Paris Hilton's 'Stars Are Blind' and an abundance of vibrant surface sheen in a movie about a woman waging war on the culture of sexual assault without trying to make a statement — and Fennell succeeds again and again. She has also made the smart decision to cast Carey Mulligan (The Dig), and to draw upon the acclaimed actor's near-peerless ability to express complex internalised turmoil. Mulligan's fierce lead performance scorches, sears and resounds with such burning truth, and so does the feature she's in as a result.

Won: Best Original Screenplay (Emerald Fennell).

Where to watch it: It's available to rent or buy via Google Play, YouTube Movies, iTunes and Amazon Video.

Read our full review.

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SOUND OF METAL

When feature filmmaking debutant Darius Marder begins Sound of Metal just as its title intimates, he does so with the banging and clashing of drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed, Venom) as his arms flail above his chosen instrument. He's playing a gig with his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One), and he's caught up in the rattling and clattering as her guttural voice and thrashing guitar offers the pitch-perfect accompaniment. But for viewers listening along, it doesn't quite echo the way it should. For the bleached-blonde, tattooed, shirtless and sweaty Ruben, that's the case, too. Sound of Metal's expert and exacting sound design mimics his experience, as his hearing fades rapidly and traumatically over the course of a few short days — a scenario that no one wants, let alone a musician with more that a few magazine covers to his band's name, who motors between shows in the cosy Airstream he lives in with his other half and is about to embark upon a new tour. That's not all the film is about, though. Ruben's ability to listen to the world around him begins to dip out quickly and early, leaving him struggling; however, it's how he grapples with the abrupt change, and with being forced to sit with his own company without a constant onslaught of aural interruptions distracting him from his thoughts, that the movie is most interested in.

Won: Best Sound (Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés and Phillip Bladh), Best Film Editing (Mikkel EG Nielsen).

Where to watch it: In cinemas and on Amazon Prime Video.

Read our full review

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ANOTHER ROUND

Even the most joyous days and nights spent sipping your favourite drink can have their memory tainted by a hangover. Imbibe too much, and there's a kicker just waiting to pulsate through your brain and punish your body when all that alcohol inevitably starts to wear off. For much of Another Round, four Copenhagen school teachers try to avoid this feeling. The film they're in doesn't, though. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg (Kursk)) and his co-scribe Tobias Lindholm (A War) lay bare the ups and downs of knocking back boozy beverages, and it also serves up a finale that's a sight to behold. Without sashaying into spoiler territory, the feature's last moments are a thing of sublime beauty. Some movies end in a WTF, "what were they thinking?" kind of way, but this Oscar-shortlisted Danish film comes to a conclusion with a big and bold showstopper that's also a piece of bittersweet perfection. The picture's highest-profile star, Mads Mikkelsen (Arctic), is involved. His pre-acting background as an acrobat and dancer comes in handy, too. Unsurprisingly, the substances that flow freely throughout the feature remain prominent. And, so does the canny and candid awareness that life's highs and lows just keep spilling, plus the just-as-shrewd understanding that the line between self-sabotage and self-release is as thin as a slice of lemon garnishing a cocktail.

Won: Best International Feature.

Where to watch it: In cinemas.

Read our full review.

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MANK

In 2010's The Social Network, David Fincher surveyed the story of an outsider and upstart who would become a business magnate, wield significant influence and have an immense impact upon the world. The applauded and astute film tells the tale of Mark Zuckerberg and of Facebook's development — but it's also the perfect precursor to Fincher's latest movie, Mank. This time around, the filmmaker focuses on a man who once spun a similar narrative. A drama critic turned screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz scored the gig of his lifetime when he was hired to pen Orson Welles' first feature, and he drew upon someone from his own life to do so. Citizen Kane is famous for many things, but its central character of Charles Foster Kane is also famously partially based on US media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who Mankiewicz knew personally. Accordingly, Mank sees Fincher step behind the scenes of an iconic movie that his own work has already paralleled — to ponder how fact influences fiction, how stories that blaze across screens silver and small respond to the world around them, and how one man's best-known achievement speaks volumes about both in a plethora of ways. Mank is a slice-of-life biopic about Mankiewicz's (Gary Oldman, Crisis) time writing Citizen Kane's screenplay, as well as his career around it. It's catnip for the iconic feature's multitudes of fans, in fact. But it also peers at a bigger picture, because that's classic Fincher.

Won: Best Cinematography (Erik Messerschmidt), Best Production Design (Donald Graham Burt and Jan Pascale).

Where to watch it: In cinemas and on Netflix.

Read our full review.

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Top image: Nomadland. Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020, 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

Published on April 26, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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