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  • Ben Nadeau

2021 in Review: The Emotional Suckerpunch

The Mitchells vs. The Machines - Sony Pictures Animates/Columbia Pictures/Netflix

*Spoilers below, possibly. Maybe, maybe not. I just don't want to be yelled at*

Given the external circumstances of Everything – ahem, climate change, NFTs, student debt, a lack of future homeownership, etcetera into the abyss and beyond – any trip to the theater over the past year has become a search for genuine emotion.

In the group chat, the Rough Cut team has recently debated the merits of up-rating a movie based on the emotional reaction it induces. While there are plenty of ‘masterpieces’ that crushed the cinematography (The Power of the Dog), boast big-time Hollywood blockbuster energy (Dune), or bring Oscar-worthy performances (The Tragedy of Macbeth), quite simply, nothing beats a good cry.

On the near eve of the 2022 Oscar nominations, guilds, critics, and sites like ours have begun the process of culling shortlists and picking winners. Late season releases like The Lost Daughter, West Side Story, and Licorice Pizza have all attempted to capture the zeitgeist's attention ahead of this crucial selection period – and, generally, those are the names populating current countdowns. But as these lists fill up with odds-on favorites or category locks, three conspicuously-missing films have given me heartburn.

Considering the obvious context – foreign, animated, theatrical timing, among others – it’s no surprise that they’ve faded into the background of this awards gauntlet. But in terms of movies that made me feel like I got run over by a speeding 18-wheeler (and then backed over slowly), Drive My Car, The Green Knight, and The Mitchells vs. The Machines deserve far more critical press than they’ve gotten.

If tears are my votes, consider them cast in spades.

To be fair, Drive My Car has reeled in a fair amount of attention already – but needless to say, Parasite had much more going for it at this time in 2019. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour joyride across Japan is a patient slow burn that eats away at the viewer up until those final few scenes. Treated to the quiet friendship between strangers that form a bond over grief, there’s no right or wrong answer, climactic moment, or big betrayal, just their attempts to be a little bit better than they were yesterday.

Equally punishing, it’s a film that benefits from being seen in a theater – and Drive My Car hasn’t, and likely will not, expand beyond the indie chain circuit at this point. In a pandemic-driven world in which the local AMC puts on 17 daily showings of Spider-Man: No Way Home while Nightmare Alley is left to bomb, it leaves no room for the speculative Drive My Car to leave the cultural impact that the other recent foreign film winners have. Blame it on COVID, blame it on Hollywood – the result is a bummer either way.

Pointed out by Tim Grierson of Screen Daily, the only films to win Best Picture from the Los Angeles, New York, and National Society of Film Critics since 1990 are Goodfellas, Schindler’s List, L.A. Confidential, The Hurt Locker, The Social Network… and now Drive My Car. Yet with a stacked field, a year full of delays, and lower visibility, Drive My Car may have to settle for Best International Feature at the Oscars, an undeniable disappointment.

It’s easy to get caught up in Arrakis ambushes, Will Smith’s deserved Best Actor campaign, and another romp through Steven Speilberg’s beautiful mind, but the hushed meditation on display in Hamaguchi’s stunner is enough to send a writer over the edge just thinking about it. So, in anticipation of the incoming Best Picture snub, remember this: Drive My Car is an emotional powerhouse and whatever awards it wins (or nominations they miss), it’s a film worth seeing on the biggest screen possible and in the darkest of rooms.

Speaking of dark rooms (and impossibly deep ponds), The Green Knight makes quite the meal out of old legends. Dev Patel, who deserves a shout in the Best Actor category, but will likely be denied, journeys across the land in search of some courage. Director David Lowery spins off the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with trippy style, and the late July release stole the summer at a time when a trip to the theaters still came with plenty of question marks.

Strange kisses from Joel Edgerton aside, Gawain is a total weenie – wimping out on a promise, only doing favors if he gets something in return, and a lack of charity all get him in trouble on his trek. As he fumbles toward his death, Gawain is afforded the luxury to see the future, one in which he is momentarily rewarded for his selfishness, but on a path that ultimately leads to an unhappy ending. At the last possible moment, he decides to stop running from his fate and accept the punishment he deserves.

Much of The Green Knight thrives on spectacular cinematography (and if it is not nominated in that category next week, even more heads will roll), but the movie is at its best when Gawain is vulnerable. Feeling like a failure for his lack of nobility, Gawain takes on a challenge he never intends to fulfill, dealing with self-doubt and helplessness around every corner. Patel is a star and he carries the weight of a damaged knight – but that final montage is among the year’s finest scenes.

For all the screw-ups and egotistical decisions throughout, Gawain’s frantic, terrified retreat into royal victory first brings only anger. By the end, it’s nothing but pity. When that rug is pulled out from under the viewer, indicating that he’s got a second chance for righteousness (and that he makes the correct, honorable choice this time), it is worth the applause. Sadly, given its mid-summer release, it appears as if The Green Knight has all but faded from the media eye as award season rumbles on.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the wonderful animated flick from the minds behind Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, a critical darling and previous fan-favorite. With stout duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller serving as primary producers, first-time director Mike Rianda delivers a stunner. Sure, the movie is not without doses of family-friendly cheesiness dialed to 11 – but so much of the emotional punch lands.

In a tears-per-minute breakdown, The Mitchells was a landslide winner for 2021. Crucially, during a second viewing of it over the holidays, surrounded by family, I found out that those moments still resonate – perhaps even harder that time. It goes without saying, but animated movies aren’t nominated for Best Picture often – in fact, only Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 have bucked that trend. Unfortunately, in a particularly crowded animated field that includes Luca, Flee, and Encanto, The Mitchells almost certainly won’t be adding to that list.

Beyond that, they’ll also be playing from behind in the Best Animated Feature, going against the two aforementioned giants in Disney and Pixar, while Flee is projected to be a strong competitor against Drive My Car in the Best International Feature category.

Steadied by career-best voice performances from Danny McBride and Abbi Jacobson, a father-daughter combination that just can’t get on the same page before the latter heads off to college, The Mitchells consistently finds new ways to soar. Although a few of the jokes might wear thin as they become less topical, the core message will always coax a strong reaction out of me.

From that devastating home movie scene pre-road trip to the cathartic climax, tugging at the heartstrings comes naturally for Rianda and company, and I’m the highest bidder. At its simplest, The Mitchells vs. The Machines stands as a reminder to love your family, warts and all – now, excuse me, I need to go call my dad.

1. The Green Knight

2. Drive My Car

3. Dune

4. The Power of the Dog

5. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

6. The Tragedy of Macbeth

7. The Card Counter

8. Pig

9. Nightmare Alley

10. The French Dispatch

Honorable Mentions: Licorice Pizza, West Side Story, Luca, King Richard, Benedetta, CODA, Tick… Tick… Boom!, The Night House, Psycho Goreman, The Lost Daughter, Bergman Island, The Harder They Fall


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