Staff Picks: Oscar nominees to help you escape from responsibilities

By The Pitt News Staff

Finals week is fast approaching, but so are the 2021 Academy Awards — which do you really want to spend your time preparing for? If your motivation is in the toilet and you’d rather pull a tooth out than study for your biology exam, we’d recommend you distract yourself with these Oscar-nominated films before picking up the pliers.

“My Octopus Teacher” // Diana Velasquez, Senior Staff Writer

This film might not get the same amount of attention as the “Best Picture” nominees at the Oscars, but in all honesty it’s probably one of the best films there. I present to you the story of a man looking for some serenity, and how he finds it in a kelp forest off the cape of South Africa, in the form of a female common octopus.

My Octopus Teacher” is a Netflix-produced documentary in the running for “Best Documentary” this year. It’s about filmmaker Craig Foster, who develops a year-long friendship with an octopus. Foster experienced a sort of work burnout and started free diving in the kelp forest outside his house to cope. It was there that he encountered an octopus den and its female denizen. After weeks of observing her, Foster found that the octopus became less afraid of him and more curious, eventually to the point where she’d reach out to touch him and play. The documentary follows the year Foster spent with her, during which he literally swam to see her everyday. It shows how, by studying and following her lifestyle, he learned more about the ecosystem of the forest. It’s strange to see someone so attached to an animal that’s not cute and fuzzy, but octopi are extremely intelligent, and the bond they form is very touching and illuminating. I’ll forewarn you to bring tissues to this viewing, because you’ll soon be very attached to the octopus star.

“Minari” // Sinead McDevitt, Senior Staff Writer

Minari” is a story about the Yis, a family of South Korean immigrants who move to a large plot of land in Arkansas, where patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen) hopes to start a farm and grow Korean produce. But his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is apprehensive about moving away from the city. It’s a gorgeous film, with a plot based on writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood. The film is a moving story about a family trying to make a better life for themselves, and the trials and tribulations of being an immigrant in the United States.

One of the subplots of the film involves Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) coming to live with them and helping watch the children, David and Anne. Youn is a delight in this film. It’s fun watching her try and connect with her grandkids, and she has a lot of cool old lady energy. She’s my favorite part of the film, although most of the focus is on Jacob and Monica’s fraught relationship and conflicting goals in life. Yuen and Han play off each other really well and their conflict is super compelling. Overall, “Minari” is a heartwarming film and a great watch.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” // Charlie Taylor, Culture Editor

Based on the play by native Pittsburgher August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an intense and cerebral reflection on the intersections of art and civil rights. The titular Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is a celebrated blues singer, whose talent and fame help her get her way in disputes with a record company dominated by white men. The film follows the singer and her band as they produce a new record, and as Ma clashes heads with her young trumpet player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Levee has a new vision for Ma’s tried-and-true, deep-South blues style, and as the pair become entrenched in a back-and-forth with their producers, Levee develops an eye for Ma’s young lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), leading to even greater tension among the group.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” received Oscar nominations in five categories, including “Best Actress in a Leading Role” and “Best Actor in a Leading Role” for Davis and the late Boseman, respectively. Those nominations are well deserved, as are the other nominations, all in design categories. The film’s aesthetic immerses the viewer in 1920s Chicago, not as an escapist fantasy, but as a comment on both the influence of Black artists and their exploitation for the entertainment of white audiences.