The Oscars are shaping up to be blowouts, but don’t count out these contenders.
Your viewing guide to the 2021 Academy Awards
I always lose the Oscar pool. I put in the time, I do the research, but at the end of the day, I’m just a guy who likes movies and who has no real idea what’s going to happen.
Especially this time around. It was just two short years ago when dismissive attitudes toward Netflix among the Academy upper-crust contributed to the much-superior Roma losing to the much-inferior Green Book. Flash forward to the midst of a generational pandemic and the majority of the Best Picture slate premiered same-day on a streaming platform.
The times, they are a-changin’.
The consensus opinion out in movieworld is that most of this year’s winners-to-be are as good as known in advance — and in particular, Nomadland, for Best Picture and Best Director.
But it wouldn’t be any fun to just accept the consensus. And the reason I always lose the Oscar pool is the same reason I lose at craps—try as I might to bet with my head, I can’t help but bet with my heart.
Mank (10 Oscar nominations total)
The Father (6)
Judas and the Black Messiah (6)
Nomadland (6 — Won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, and Producer’s Guild awards)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (6 — Screen Actors Guild Best Cast winner)
Sound of Metal (6)
Promising Young Woman (5)
Consensus Pick: Nomadland
Don’t count out: Minari
In some years, one need only look at the most-nominated film to predict the Best Picture winner. Movies like Ben-Hur, Titanic, and Return of the King entered ceremony night as a formality, with the question of the night being, “How many will they win?” instead of, “Will they win?”
But recent years have trended away from consolidated victories, and 2021 scoreboard-leader Mank is largely expected to yield to Nomadland,Chloe Zhao’s minimalist and meditative road tripper about folks living off the grid, which also prominently features non-actors among its cast.
Nomadland has already nabbed the top prizes of the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and Producer’s Guild awards. And the film strikes a particular emotional cord at a time of combined economic and social crises. With theaters closed by the pandemic, the film was helped by a visible rollout on Hulu that no doubt helped place the film in front of voters’ and viewers’ eyes—winning does rely, after all, on people watching your film.
The state of the theater industry likely impedes Minari, which is building fourth-quarter momentum on strong word of mouth despite a narrow streaming and theatrical release that is just now reaching mainstream audiences.
It shares a connective spiritual tissue with its opponent Nomadland in the way both films recontextualize “American Dream” idealism, giving both stories that je ne sais quoi that feels inexplicably right for the 2021 winner. The untethered wanderers of Nomadland and the immigrant/first generation Korean-American family of Minari are reminders of the countless iterations of America’s pioneer ethic at a time when the notion of U.S. patriotism is facing an overdue reckoning.
Or you could flip a coin on The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s this year’s winner of SAG’s Best Cast award, the acting guild’s top category in lieu of Best Picture. Best Cast has been awarded for around two-decades with a near-precisely 50-50 track record of predicting the Best Picture Oscar winner.
Thomas Vinterberg - Another Round
David Fincher - Mank
Lee Isaac Chung - Minari
Chloe Zhao - Nomadland (won the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Director’s Guild and Critics Choice awards)
Emerald Fennell - Promising Young Woman
Consensus pick: Chloe Zhao
Don’t Count out: David Fincher or Emerald Fennell
It’s hard to imagine anyone beside Chloe Zhao winning this category. Nomadland is an unquestionably well-directed film, with the beauty and humanity of a top-shelf Terrence Mallick project but without the pomp and circumstance.
But for the sake of argument, Best Director is traditionally the penultimate award of the evening and an out-of-nowhere Best Picture upset could be forewarned here. In that event, I guess my second bet would be on David Fincher, who is now looking at three nominations without a win and whose Mank appeals directly to the old school Hollywood boomers clinging to power within the Academy’s ranks (as they are in politics...but I digress).
And while it may be cliche, sincere its-an-honor-to-just-be-nominated kudos to the Academy for recognizing the work of Another Round’s Thomas Vinterberg, whose film is the frontrunner for Best International Film, and Emerald Fennell, whose gutsy Promising Young Woman landed with a bang earlier this year. Fennell is likely best known for playing Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s The Crown series and Promising Young Woman (a 2020 Sundance Film Festival selection, btw) is her first time in the director’s chair of a feature. Killer work.
Viola Davis - Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1 previous Oscar win, won the SAG award)
Andra Day - The United States vs. Billie Holiday (won the Golden Globe)
Vanessa Kirby - Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand - (2 previous Oscar wins, won the BAFTA)
Carey Mulligan - (1 previous Oscar nomination, won the Critics Choice award)
Consensus Pick: Viola Davis?
Don’t count out: Carey Mulligan or Vanessa Kirby
It’s unclear what the consensus pick is for this category as it’s shaping up to be one of the most competitive categories of the night. Instead of one or two nominees collecting all the below-the-line awards that forecast Oscar success, this year has scattered the accolades among the field of contenders.
Because this is an acting category, the SAG award is ostensibly the most prestigious statuette claimed to date, and that went to Viola Davis for her full-barrel performance as the titular Ma Rainey. But the level of competition could see some voters looking to reward an actress who has not yet notched the O on their EGOT scorecard.
Carey Mulligan has one previous nomination for 2010’s An Education, and her turn in Promising Young Woman sees her charging headfirst into an unapologetically nihilistic role with the gusto and relish of a mediocre white man (I’ll tag an /s to that sentence in case that’s an unfamiliar reference).
But I’d also love to see the statue go to Vanessa Kirby, who fully deserves to be a household name after delivering consistent, Grade-A work in everything from The Crown to the Mission Impossible franchise. Her performance in Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman is gut-wrenching and visceral and holds the weight of a very heavy film on its shoulders.
Riz Ahmed - Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman - Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG awards)
Anthony Hopkins - The Father (1 previous Oscar)
Gary Oldman - Mank (1 previous Oscar)
Steven Yeun - Minari
Consensus Pick: Chadwick Boseman
Don’t Count Out: Anthony Hopkins or Steven Yeun
Chadwick Boseman’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is so good that it’s terrible. Watching his turn as a gifted trumpet player with big plans, big dreams, and big obstacles in his way is so steeped in meaning and tragedy that it’s impossible to separate it from the larger creative loss after the actor’s death last fall. It should have been his first of many Oscar nominations, it will almost certainly be his win.
That is in no way a critique of the other nominees, since this category is absolutely stacked. If for some reason Boseman is not the winner, I’d say it’s a tossup between Anthony Hopkins (who hasn’t won an Oscar since 1992’s Silence of the Lambs) for his impeccable work in The Father as a man experiencing significant cognitive decline, and Steven Yeun, who shines in the dual-language role of Minari’s fledgling farmer.
Maria Bakalova - Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Critics Choice winner)
Glenn Close - Hillbilly Elegy (7 previous Oscar nominations)
Olivia Colman - The Father (1 previous Oscar win)
Amanda Seyfried - Mank
Yuh-Jung Youn - Minari (SAG winner)
*Not nominated: Jodie Foster - The Mauritanian (Golden Globes winner)
Consensus Pick: Yuh-Jung Youn
Don’t Count Out: Maria Bakalova
Minari got a boost after the SAG ceremony on April 4, fueled by Yuh-Jung Youn winning the supporting actress category.
That momentum is predicted to push Yuh-Jung Youn over the top in this category, which includes tough competition from heavyweights like Olivia Colman, who won Best Actress in 2019 for The Favourite, and Glenn Close, who has previously been nominated a shocking 7 times without ever winning. That said, Hillbilly Elegy should not be the movie that gets Glen Close an Oscar.
And don’t underestimate the support for Borat 2-breakout Maria Bakalova.The singularly irreverent film managed to capture lightning in a bottle, and could not have done so without Bakalova’s fearless performance. And it is simply a fact that no scene performed by the other nominees in their films will be as broadly remembered as Bakalova’s astounding bamboozle of Rudolph Guiliani.
Sacha Baron Cohen - The Trial of the Chicago 7 (1 previous Oscar nomination)
Daniel Kaluuya - Judas and the Black Messiah (1 previous Oscar nomination, won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG awards)
Leslie Odom, Jr. - One Night in Miami
Paul Raci - Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield - Judas and the Black Messiah
Consensus Choice: Daniel Kaluuya
Don’t Count Out: Lakeith Stanfield or Leslie Odom, Jr.
There’s been a bit of grumbling about this category by those who question the inclusion of both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield under the “supporting” adjective for their work in Judas and the Black Messiah. (See: ScreenJunkies’ Honest Trailer for this year’s Oscar slate).
But vocabulary aside, the string of wins by Kaluuya for his portrayal of government-assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton has cemented his status as category frontrunner. And in the event that the statue slips past him it won’t go very far, likely to be picked up by his castmate Stanfield, who continues to build an impressive multi platform resume off stellar work in Atlanta, Get Out, Knives Out and many, many other examples.
The category’s potential disruptor is Leslie Odom, Jr. who is simultaneously competing in the Best Song category off his two-hander performance in Amazon’s One Night in Miami. And it doesn’t hurt his political capital to know that everyone and their grandmother has been listening to the Hamilton star singing “Dear Theodosia” on nonstop repeat over the last year. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Odds and Ends to watch
Borat 2 is nominated in two categories, Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, and it has a fighting chance of taking home at least one statuette. The Writers Guild picked it for their adapted screenplay prize, but hard-to-explain guild rules meant that it was not competing against either Nomadland or The Father, which was impressively adapted by the writer of the stage play it’s based on. While Nomadland likely will end up the winner, I like the idea of a Borat/The Father matchup, pitting very different films rooted in live performance against each other.
The award for Best International Film seems destined to go to Another Round, a delightful film about a group of friends testing the effects of perpetual inebriation (For Science!). Thomas Vinterberg’s surprise inclusion in the top-shelf Best Director category was a forceful endorsement by the Academy’s directing branch for the drinking dramedy from Denmark, which translates to more eyeballs in a comparatively obscure category.
With Promising Young Woman as the underdog of the major races, we could see a win for Emerald Fenell in the Best Original Screenplay category. Fennel picked up a forecast-friendly win at the Writers Guild awards and fans of the film could rally to reward Fennel for her two-hander work as both writer and director.
Make sure you listen when they announce the award for Best Cinematography. If Nomadland *doesn’t* win, that will be the first red flag that the ceremony is headed for a shock ending, much like two years ago when Green Book’s upset victory in the best original screenplay race hinted at the still-flabbergasting win to come.
New this year, the Sound Design and Sound Editing categories have been condensed into a single Best Sound award. There’s historical precedent for this, and the Academy has faced mounting pressure to find ways to shorten its at-times tedious telecast but regardless, I find it fitting and serendipitous that the first Best Sound award in a long time will and should go to a film with “Sound” in the title.
My last tip, watch My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. It’s probably going to win Best Documentary, but that’s great but more so it’s just something you should watch.