The 2021 EMOs

They’re back. After a concerted effort to “catch up” with 2021 movies by the time the Oscars rolled around, I didn’t quite make it – there’s still about eight left on my list, including a handful that got caught in the nether-zone of “too late to catch them in post-omicron theaters, still too early to be streaming”. But, all told, getting to 29 new (“new”) releases by Oscar night is actually probably a better rate than I was even managing in the year or two before the pandemic.

So, it seemed time to bring back the EMOs (Ethan’s Makeshift Oscars, for those of you just joining us; welcome to a long and storied tradition, dating back to my high-school days, of being a doofus and making fun of some movies somewhere in the approximate range of “awards season”). Given the four or five-year gap since the last edition, however, it also seemed time to re-evaluate the length and depth of this thing.

While I will never scratch “part two” of the EMOs – in which every single movie is a winner, potentially to their chagrin – I have scaled back and consolidated on the more traditional “part one”. Below you’ll find acting performances piled into either Lead or Supporting categories, eliminating the widespread male/female division that I can no longer really justify to myself; and no general silliness or attempt to find patterns or categories beyond the most bah-sic film bro shout-outs. I actually rather enjoy the chaos this has caused, particularly in the Supporting Performance area: the point of the EMOs from the start, rather than enforce an arbitrary competition for a non-existent award, was to highlight movies, people and work that I particularly liked in the past year. If the ensuing list is rather long, so much the better.

Enjoy (or fight me!)

Top 10 of 2021

  1. The Power of the Dog
  2. Drive My Car
  3. The Green Knight
  4. West Side Story
  5. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  6. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  7. The Hand of God
  8. Dune
  9. The Harder They Fall
  10. The Lost Daughter

Best Director:

  • Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Joel Coen, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
  • David Lowery, The Green Knight
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick, Tick…Boom!
  • Paolo Sorrentino, The Hand of God
  • Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
  • Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul
  • Denis Villeneuve, Dune

Best Acting Ensemble:

  • Belfast
  • Drive My Car
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Hand of God
  • The Lost Daughter
  • No Sudden Move
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • West Side Story

Best Lead Performance:

  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Don Cheadle, No Sudden Move
  • Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick…Boom!
  • Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Hidetoshi Nishijima, Drive My Car
  • Toko Miura, Drive My Car
  • Dev Patel, The Green Knight
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
  • LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Supporting Performance(s):

  • David Alvarez, West Side Story
  • Ana de Armas, No Time to Die
  • Ben Affleck, The Last Duel
  • Caitriona Balfe, Belfast
  • Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
  • Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  • Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
  • Ed Harris, The Lost Daughter
  • Alex Hassell, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Ralph Ineson, The Green Knight
  • Rita Moreno, West Side Story
  • Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix: Resurrections
  • Park Yu-rim, Drive My Car
  • Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
  • Diana Rigg, Last Night in Soho
  • LaKeith Stanfield, The Harder They Fall
  • Jeffrey Wright, The French Dispatch

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Ed Solomon, No Sudden Move
  • Paolo Sorrentino, The Hand of God
  • Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksander Hemon, The Matrix: Resurrections
  • Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Joel Coen, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Tamakasa Oe, Drive My Car
  • David Lowery, The Green Knight
  • Tony Kushner, West Side Story

Best Cinematography:

  • Alice Brooks, Tick, Tick…Boom!
  • Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Greig Fraser, Dune
  • Dan Lausten, Nightmare Alley
  • Janusz Kaminski, West Side Story
  • Andrew Droz Palermo, The Green Knight
  • Tetsunosuke Sasaki, Wife of a Spy
  • Hidetoshi Shinomiya, Drive My Car
  • Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog

Best Score:

  • Carter Burwell, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Daniel Hart, The Green Knight
  • David Holmes, No Sudden Move
  • Nathan Johnson, Nightmare Alley
  • Hans Zimmer, Dune
  • Hans Zimmer, No Time to Die

Best Editing:

  • Tom Eagles, The Harder They Fall
  • Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar, West Side Story
  • David Lowery, The Green Knight
  • Joshua L. Pearson, Summer of Soul
  • Peter Sciberras, The Power of the Dog
  • Azusa Yamazaki, Drive My Car

Best Scene:

  • Dueling banjo redux, The Power of the Dog
  • Edgar’s Prayer, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  • Sly and the Family Stone, Summer of Soul
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • Visions? of the future, The Green Knight
  • Crashing Blofeld’s birthday party, No Time to Die
  • Meeting the witches (either/or), The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Lunch alfresco, The Hand of God
  • Sonya’s monologue, Drive My Car
  • Mambo, West Side Story
  • “Why do you write about food”, The French Dispatch
  • First entrance to the night club, Last Night in Soho
  • First sand worm attack, Dune

Most Straining Credulity – Not Because It Involves a Giant Ape, But Because It Expects Me to Believe That Godzilla Would Not Rinse Said Giant Ape in Two Minutes:
Godzilla vs. Kong

Worst Gig Economy Propaganda:
Single All the Way

Most Ray Liottas:
The Many Saints of Newark

Most Incompetent Cops, Though Note That’s Not ‘Most Straining Credulity’:
The Woman in the Window

#YesAllMen, Including the Director:
The Last Duel

Least Batshit Movie About Most Batshit People:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Goofiest Nonsense in a Movie This Year, and This Year That Includes a Fast & Furious Installment So You Know This Is Saying Something:
Bionic eyes in No Time to Die

Simply the Best Documentary Subject:

How Dare You Waste Terence Stamp Like This:
Last Night in Soho

Longest Zipline:

Special Demerit in Title Selection:
Wife of a Spy

Worst Ratio of Good Acting To Me Giving a Shit:
Nightmare Alley

Most Post-Movie:
The Matrix: Resurrections

Best Enjoyed in One of 18 States:
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Least Worth “The Discourse”:
The French Dispatch

Fishiest Lens:
No Sudden Move

Most Likely For Your Reaction to Vary Depending on 1) You Had That One “Rent”-Obsessed Friend in High School, and 2) Whether You Were Fond of That Person Or Not
Tick, Tick…Boom!

Most Exceptionally, Unnaturally, Unfairly Beautiful Family:

Wait This Movie Came Out in What Year?
Judas and the Black Messiah

No, I Can’t Believe This Is the Award Either, But the EMO for Too Much Olivia Colman Goes To:
The Lost Daughter

Absolutely Would Be the Best Movie of the Year If It Could Have Been Seen As Intended, at the UA Court Street Theater, RIP
The Harder They Fall

Worst Thing To Watch On a Mis-calibrated TV During the Daytime Since ‘The Battle of Winterfell’:

Most Italian:
The Hand of God

Something Artsy This Way Comes:
The Tragedy of Macbeth

Most Likely To Satisfy Both Video Archivists and Other People Too, Probably:
Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Best Attempt At Alllllmost Making Me Forget That You Cast Ansel Elgort In This Movie:
West Side Story

Special Achievement in Punning:
The Green Knight

Most Subtitles:
Drive My Car

Noblest Attempt to Make New Zealand Look Like Montana When We All Know Montana Doesn’t Look Like That:
The Power of the Dog

The Never-To-Be-Discussed 2020 EMOs

Look, I don’t have to get into it, but I didn’t exactly “keep up” with movies in 2020. You know why.

But! I got there eventually, catching up with the weird and aborted list of festival and streaming titles that filled up “best of 2020” lists. Over a year after the fact, and with none of us particularly wanting to revisit that year for any reason, I am not going to advertise this post. But in bringing the EMOs back from the dead for 2021, I weirdly felt the need to document what I would have said or done in 2020 – if anyone asked. This is also now my chance to give a dry-run to a new, slimmer EMOs, and figure out how to do it in WordPress’ godforsaken new editor. Here you go, whoever you are.

Top 10 of 2020

  1. Da 5 Bloods
  2. First Cow
  3. One Night in Miami…
  4. The Personal History of David Copperfield
  5. Wolfwalkers
  6. Nomadland
  7. Sound of Metal
  8. The Old Guard
  9. David Byrne’s American Utopia
  10. Tenet

Best Director

  • Armando Iannucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield
  • Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Old Guard
  • Regina King, One Night in Miami…
  • Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods / David Byrne’s American Utopia
  • Darius Marder, Sound of Metal
  • Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, Wolfwalkers
  • Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
  • Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

Best Acting Ensemble

  • Da 5 Bloods
  • Emma
  • First Cow
  • Minari
  • One Night in Miami…
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield

Best Lead Performance

  • Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
  • Kingsley Ben-Adir & Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami…
  • Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version
  • Han Ye-ri & Steven Yeun, Minari
  • Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
  • John Magaro & Orion Lee, First Cow
  • Frances McDormand, Nomadland
  • Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs
  • Elisabeth Moss, Shirley
  • Gary Oldman, Mank
  • Dev Patel, The Personal History of David Copperfield

Best Supporting Performance

  • Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods
  • Kenneth Branagh, Tenet
  • Colman Domingo, Michael Potts & Glynn Turman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Hugh Laurie, The Personal History of David Copperfield
  • Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
  • Mark Rylance, The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Amanda Seyfried, Mank
  • Youn Yu-jung, MinariThe Forty-Year-Old Version

Best Original Screenplay

  • Jeff Barnaby, Blood Quantum
  • Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods
  • Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version
  • Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
  • Will Collins, Wolfwalkers
  • Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Sound of Metal

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield
  • Eleanor Catton, Emma
  • Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…
  • Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
  • Greg Rucka, The Old Guard

Best Cinematography

  • Christopher Blauvert, First Cow
  • Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Shirley
  • Hoyte van Hoytema, Tenet
  • Erik Messerschmidt, Mank
  • Tami Reiker, Barry Ackroyd, The Old Guard
  • Joshua James Richards, Nomadland
  • Newton Thomas Sigel, Da 5 Bloods

Best Score

  • Tamar-kali, Shirley
  • William Tyler, First Cow
  • Ludwig Göransson, Tenet
  • Christopher Willis, The Personal History of David Copperfield

How Does An HBO Miniseries Explode?

It *would* be HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl that drags me back to film blogging. I’m struggling to organize my thoughts in the way I used to when writing reviews regularly back in college, so I don’t know that this will be my best work, but perhaps a small host of digital archivists will finally understand my Twitter handle and the “occasional Soviet cinema enthusiast” section of my bio.

But, yes, the conclusion of Chernobyl this past Monday awoke something in me, as it hit squarely at an intersection of cultural craft that I’ve continued mulling over quite a lot the past few years even as I’ve drifted further and further away from traditional “film studies”: the collision of political, media, and social narrative that makes the entire idea of movies “based on a true story” an utter paradox. That it happens to use a story from the history of the Soviet Union, the 20th century’s wildest and arguably furthest-reaching experiment in nation-as-narrative, as the grounds to explore the boundaries of “historical fiction” and “docudrama” – the more the better (for me and my ever-shrinking attention span, at least).

I’ll say right off the bat that one of the things I most admire about Chernobyl is that its creator/writer, Craig Mazin, has been not just upfront but quite adamant that his series is not the truth. For the sake of marketing and media coverage it is understandable that the log line for the miniseries is boiled down to “the story of what happened at Chernobyl”, but in all of the interviews and pieces I’ve seen where Mazin is directly involved, he’s rather insistent that it is just a story, that there are many others (including the extensive materials he used for research), and, most importantly, that it is critical and appropriate to discuss what he changed in the name of artistic license. You can see this in glimpses in the supplemental “Inside the Episode” segments at the end of each episode of Chernobyl (they’re actually informative! come back, Game of Thrones viewers!). There is even the 5-episode companion podcast, featuring Mazin and, of all people, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me host Peter Sagal, released and well-promoted by HBO, entirely dedicated to Mazin explaining what he manipulated, left out, exaggerated or outright falsified, and why.

(Well, it’s not entirely dedicated to that, because there is also plenty of Sagal genuflecting over how good this-or-that scene is, or recalling unhelpful anecdotes from his own memories of the era, but, the parts where they dig in on some of the thornier questions of remaining “true” versus telling a story are quite compelling)

The point is, I can not recall another recent instance of historical fiction, at least in film or TV, where the “fiction” part was seen as permissible. Think of all the click-bait pieces and headlines you’ve seen in recent years: “10 Things Selma Got Wrong About Lyndon Johnson”; “The Truth About Gwen Verdon and Fosse/Verdon“; “5 Things You Didn’t Know About First Man‘s Janet Shearon”. There is always an implication of betrayal behind these pieces: an unspoken rage that this movie made up or ignored facts in order to manipulate you, as if that wasn’t entirely the point of creative expression. Chernobyl has hardly been immune to this phenomenon: among those that are at least better-written, see this Forbes piece (which starts making a fair critique of the series’ fear-mongering around nuclear power, but then goes so far in the other direction that it makes the argument that thyroid cancer….isn’t that bad?), or the New York Times piece that concludes with the thought of “too bad this wasn’t a documentary!” as if, again, the entire enterprise of historical fiction is illegitimate. (I would dearly love and actually respect it more to see someone stop dancing around it and just write this take explicitly)

The show, I thought, tried to get ahead of all that. Instead of sitting back and letting his docudrama be shred down to bullet points in a “Controversy” section on Wikipedia, Mazin and the production team at HBO, to the best of their ability, invited viewers to make picking apart the story a part of the story. That is, it appears, to be the very point of Chernobyl: if “the cost of lies” is, potentially, impending destruction for the human race (Mazin has also not been shy about Chernobyl‘s obvious parallels to the current global political discourse around climate change), then it’s in everyone’s interest to be able to discern when we’re being sold one.

BUT this is kind of where it all breaks down, and where I really felt compelled to write out some thoughts in the face of what appears to be a truly overwhelming positive response – Chernobyl now has a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score and the highest rating for any TV show ever on IMDb (both numbers that of course that don’t *really* mean anything at all, but in my impression do accurately reflect the bland same-ness of the praise around the series) – is the conclusion that because it is extremely well made, well thought out and well-intentioned, Chernobyl ergo is ultimately successful at what it’s trying to do creatively. Unfortunately, it’s not, and it has nothing to do with how factual or not it is.

For its first four episodes, Chernobyl deftly mixes exacting recreations and superb cinematic craft to create an indelible impression of crisis – smacking viewers with the awful results of the explosion at reactor 4, the scrambled, messy, inarticulate response of the Soviet political leadership, and the dire fears of doomsday conjured in the aftermath. This, you can’t help but think, is indeed what it would look and feel like to live through something like this.

I think here of scenes like the hospital workers casually piling the fatally irradiated suits of dying firefighters in a corner of the basement, where they still sit today; or the entirety of the masterful Episode Four, “The Happiness of All Mankind”, with its real-time re-enactment of the “biorobots” (what a staggeringly horrific and truly Soviet word) given 90 second each to clean the plant roof, and the transcendent miniseries-within-the-miniseries of Barry Keoghan and Fares Fares as liquidators sent to clear the Exclusion Zone of all visible animal life.

I cannot emphasize enough that these are some staggering and unforgettable images, and well worth the time of watching Chernobyl no matter what. It is certainly enough to forgive obvious pitfalls like Emily Watson’s “character”, Ulana Khomyuk – a composite standing for, in Mazin’s own words, “dozens” of Soviet scientists, a narrative shortcut SO obvious and outrageous that it breaks the show’s spell pretty much every time she’s on screen.

(At the risk of sounding like the nit-picking pieces I said I was trying to avoid, I just have to mention how *insane* the sequence is where Khomyuk, supposedly a physicist from a completely unrelated plant in Minsk, travels to Chernobyl, directly confronts Legasov and Scherbina, who are currently in charge of putting out a still-burning reactor fire – and they patiently listen to her, have her join(?) the team, and in her next scene is seated at a committee meeting with Gorbachev. It would make more narrative sense to me if Khomyuk was an honest-to-god Jiminy Cricket-esque hallucination of Legasov’s conscience.)

But then comes the grand finale, and it is already a mistake that the show is treating the last episode as such. Nothing about Chernobyl has felt like it was building toward cathartic resolution. Nothing has suggested we needed a redemption arc for Jared Harris’ lead, Valery Legasov – we are already aware of his actual arc towards futility, despair, and ultimately suicide regardless of his testimony at the trial. There *is* a mild “whodunnit” structure that still needs to be resolved (the lingering question, present since the first episode, of “how does an RBMK reactor explode?”), and the flashbacks in “Vichnaya Pamyat” to the moments just before what we’ve already seen of the night of the explosion, are structurally effective and undoubtedly the best moments of the episode, for the same reasons that the premiere was so vivid, but their context is now wrong. Chernobyl pretty much just had to stick its landing by sticking to the same tone and indictment that it seemed to be making all along: states are narratives (lies, even), and they do not give a shit for the individuals contained and affected by them, but individuals are complicit in recounting and enforcing them.

And yet, suddenly here we are, swerving from Come and See to Witness for the Prosecution faster than a first-year film student. I can’t really put it any better than Masha Gessen did in The New Yorker, the one piece I have read that bothers to engage and attribute Chernobyl‘s failure to a problem of inconsistent messaging and power dynamics rather than a fact-check of statistics elided or embellished. Legasov’s last-minute attempt to put the onus for Chernobyl on the Soviet state pales to the extended sequence blasting the personal failing of the engineer Dyatlov, resulting in a severe muddling. It is impossible to watch the flashbacks at the trial and not think, “if only those junior engineers had stood their ground against Dyatlov” – but thinking that is completely at odds with the culpability of the state. Would the reactor at Chernobyl have exploded if Dyatlov wasn’t present? If you are blaming the system, that answer should be ambiguous, but Chernobyl goes out of its way to say “no”.

We even have the evidence here to specifically blame Mazin’s creative and writing decisions in this moment: in the podcast, Mazin relates how at the real trial, Dyatlov forcefully denied the charges that he was to blame for the explosion (as he does in the show), but also completed his statement by saying, “With so many deaths, I can’t say that I’m completely innocent.” This is an exceptional bit of Soviet double-talk, perfectly in keeping with the thematic trajectory of the show towards a broad and banal sense of culpability, and it’s absolutely baffling that Mazin chose specifically not to include it. Instead, we get Dyatlov’s (also real) declaration that he was “in the bathroom” at a critical juncture – a statement the flashbacks present as a total lie, and so where there could and should have been shades of gray there is a bitter, unsympathetic, black-and-white Hollywood villain.

Bryukhanov, Dyatlov, and Fomin at their real-life trial

Legasov’s testimony and his last scene with the hovering KGB official are similarly clunky devices that confuse more than clarify. They’re incredible acting showcases for Harris, to be sure, and probably secured him an Emmy, but it is completely unclear what Legasov the character intends to achieve in these moments.

Tell the world the truth? The moment for that would have been the international panel at Vienna, at which Legasov did in fact, within his bounds, implicate blame for the Soviet state – but in the show this event occurs for some reason off-screen, and it’s implied he completely stuck to his script of blaming operator error.

Spark internal outrage and action within the Soviet Union, with a handful of his fellow scientists present? It is well established at this point that the trial is completely insular and controlled by the Party and the KGB (and all this just within the bounds of the show itself, never mind Gessen’s point that the real Legasov, as a high-up scientific administrator, would never not have known this).

Clear his own conscience in his downward spiral into suicide? This is the closest to a justifiable motivation, but within the show it’s redundant: Legasov’s recorded voice recordings, which we’ve already seen (they open the show and will bookend it), distributed via samizdat (a phenomenon Mazin seems troublingly unaware of in the companion podcast), serve the same purpose, in a far more grounded and realistic gesture.

The explanation is that this utter fantasy of a trial happens because it must happen, according to the conventions of a certain traditional, Robert-McKee-type of storytelling. We must tie a bow on the characters and events we have been shown, get away with a clean ending, even when the story and message presented have been extremely messy. (The interlude in the trial where Legasov tells Scherbina he was “the most important of all” is another baffling example of this choice – there is absolutely no reason for it to exist except to say “goodbye” to the character of Scherbina, even though the entire point of the show up to this point has been to emphasize that there were literally hundreds of thousands of nameless citizens who served critical, incomprehensibly heroic roles in the cleanup effort). The result, where there should actually be a splintering and divide of opinion and interpretation, is a monolith. This series was “great”, because it gave us exactly what we wanted: satisfying lies, lies that “make sense” given our preconceptions rather than challenging them.

It is genuinely disappointing to have to write this focusing so much on the failings of “Vichnaya Pamyat”. If I had been blogging the entire series, there would be far more space to discuss the extraordinary craft on display in the rest of the series, including Mazin’s writing! (The final episode seems to reveal limitations perhaps related to Mazin’s “day job” of scripting comedies like The Hangover sequels, but it’s unfair not to note that the other four episodes suggest heretofore little-known and largely untapped talent). But as with the stumblings of latter-day Game of Thrones (sorry, I know, we don’t need to go over that any more), it feels critical to examine why we are disappointed (or satisfied!) by certain types of filmmaking and storytelling, to question exactly what we are being told and examine the effect it has on us. I think (hope) that the makers of Chernobyl would agree with me on that.