Director Kelly Reichardt returned to the screen in 2020 with First Cow, one of the best films in her incredible career. On Sunday though, you will not hear the film discussed once. It picked up plenty of love from critics groups around the country, yet was sadly completely shut out of the Oscars. It was one of the biggest snubs of the season. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ignored this elegant American masterpiece. Its only crime was coming out too early in 2020.
First Cow is set in 1820 Oregon, where Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) meets a Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee). They quickly become friends and hatch a plan to get rich quickly by stealing the milk from a cow owned by the richest man (Toby Jones) at the settlement so Cookie can cook up biscuits to sell. Like most of Reichardt's previous films, this is really a way to set up an exploration of bonds between two characters who seem wildly different but connect through their outsider status. It came through in her 2016 movie Certain Women, where Kristen Stewart's Beth connected with Lily Gladstone's Jamie, and her breakthrough work, Old Joy (2006).
Although almost every film Reichardt has made is great (her one misfire might be the 2013 Jessie Eisenberg-starring Night Moves), she isn't a showy filmmaker. Her movies may seem slow to the impatient, but she is always more fascinated in character over plot. This gives her actors the room to deliver fantastic performances, as is the case with First Cow. Magaro — whose credits include Orange Is The New Black, The Umbrella Academy, and Carol — delivers a quiet, exacting performance that is contrasted by Orion Lee's more dynamic turn.
First Cow also features stunning cinematography from Reichardt's frequent cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who shot the film in the 4:3 aspect ratio to give the film a unique look. That Blauvelt was not nominated for an Oscar shows how some at the Academy do not understand what skill it takes to compose amazing images.
First Cow made the National Board of Review's Top 10 films list and won the 2020 New York Film Critics Circle Award. It also scored a nomination for Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. Despite all that critical acclaim, it just did not break through with the movie guilds and the Golden Globes, setting it up to be completely ignored by the Academy. Reichardt is a fiercely independent filmmaker whose work is just not going to click with Academy voters, especially in a year where Chloe Zhao's Nomadland was picked as the slow-paced awards darling of the year.
Thankfully, while Reichardt might not attract Oscars, she attracts incredibly talented people like Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Gladstone, and Blauvelt to work around her and make sure her visions reach the screen. Her films are wonderful pieces of art that deserve to be seen, and First Cow is a great introduction to what she can do. There were plenty of shocking decisions this year, from Da 5 Bloods' Delroy Lindo not getting a Best Actor nomination to LaKieth Stanfield being considered a supporting actor for Judas and the Black Messiah, but First Cow's complete snub hurts. At least we'll always have the film to watch.