Every year Hollywood Elsewhere subjects the leading Best Picture contenders to the Howard Hawks measuring stick. The legendary director is famed for having said that a good movie (or a formidable Oscar seeker) always has “three great scenes and no bad ones.”
Hawks also defined a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.” I wouldn’t want to sound unduly harsh or dismissive but I’m afraid that Kenneth Branagh‘s direction of certain portions of Belfast and particularly his decision to open with that vibrantly colorful prologue…’nuff said.
How do the leading 2021 Best Picture contender films (numbering nine) rate on the Hawks chart? Here we go…
Jane Campion‘s The Power of the Dog: I’m sorry but despite the fine performances, the feeling of 1920s open-range authenticity, handsome visual compositions and carefully-honed pacing, this 126-minute film has no great scenes. There are a few intriguing moments, but none I would even begin to call highly impactful, much less “great.” You keep waiting for a killer scene (or two or three) to arrive, but it never does. Dog is more about the overall than this or that peak moment.
Reinaldo Marcus Green, Will Smith and Zach Baylin‘s King Richard: I could go on and on, but this 2021 Warner Bros. sports drama has more than a trio of stick-to-your-ribs scenes. One, the persistent Richard (Smith) persuades elite tennis coach Paul Cohen (Tony Gpldwyn) to check out Venus and Serena’s exceptional skills, and within a couple of minutes Cohen gets it. (“You taught ’em this?”) Two, Richard takes offense when Andy Bean‘s Laird Stabler, a colleague of the cigar-smoking Will Hodges (Dylan McDermott), tells him he’s done “an amazing job” in training his daughters. Three, the kitchen argument scene between Richard and wife Orascene (Aunjanue Ellis). There are at least two or three others (the Oakland tennis match finale, Richard comes perilously close to shooting a Compton gangsta, refusing the initial endorsement deal, etc.).
Kenneth Branagh‘s Belfast. Again, a few diverting scenes but none that could be called outstanding or great. Branagh’s real-life dad may have been an appealing crooner who could dance fairly well, but Jamie Dornan‘s singing and dancing scene struck me as cloying and insincere and untrustworthy. It therefore qualifies, no offense, as a “bad” scene.
Steven Spielberg‘s West Side Story. One, the opening shot of tear-down rubble and ruination on San Juan Hill, and how that feeds into the brilliant “Jets Song” sequence. Two, Corey Stall‘s dismissive rant about how the Jets represent the “can’t make it and haven’t moved to Long Island” crowd, and that in a very short while high-rise luxury apartment buildings will be hiring Puerto Rican door men, etc. Three, the neighborhood Scherzo sequence as Maria tries to make it seem as if she’s slept all night in her bedroom. If these aren’t great scenes they’re certainly damn good ones.
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Licorice Pizza has one great scene — the finale in which Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman finally embrace like they mean it. Otherwise the film is a bit spotty and meandering, but I respect the courage that Anderson showed when he included those two scenes involving John Michael Higgins‘ Jerry Frick and his two (i.e., successive) Japanese wives. Anderson knows the climqte out there, and had to realize that wokesters would come after the film for engaging in what some regard as crude racial stereotyping. But Anderson kept it in, partly because he was drawing on his own SFV experience and partly because he doesn’t believe in presentism, or so it seems.
Denis Villenueve‘s Dune. A captivating visual scheme and impressive production design elements do not, in and of themselves, constitute what anyone would call great cinema. Okay, perhaps on an overall aesthetic sweep basis but certainly not in terms of this or that scene.
Sian Heder‘s CODA has two appealing supporting performances (Troy Kotsur‘s randy dad, Eugenio Derbez‘s singing tutor), but no exceptional scenes per se, and certainly no great ones.
Joel Coen‘s The Tragedy gf Macbeth boasts excellent performances (Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Kathryn Hunter) and of course an impressionistic sound-stage environment blended with the classic Shakespeare text. At the same time I can’t honestly think of any particularly great scenes in the Hawks sense of the term. It’s an honorable film at the end of the day, certainly, but there’s no ducking the fact that it’s far less of an undertaking than Roman Polanski‘s 1971 version.
Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s The Lost Daughter falls more under the heading of “highly respectable, especially coming from a first-time director” than “a film which contains three great scenes and no bad ones.” Honestly? The scene in which Ed Harris visits Olivia Colman in her condo but doesn’t say boo about the doll lying on the patio table, except to note that it has water inside it. The missing doll is a huge thing on the island (reward money, posters stapled to trees) so Harris’s curious indifference to Colman being a doll thief is an odd call — I think it’s fair to argue that its a “bad” scene.
In sum, the only Hawks finalists are King Richard and West Side Story.