It seems there are customs that even a pandemic can’t disrupt. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s extraordinary dedication to producing a mixed-bag set of Oscar nominees year in, year out — don’t they get tired? — is one such ritual. Sure, the actual ceremony is delayed, and the eligibility rules — which have more or less rendered every debate about the legitimacy of streaming platforms moot — have been adapted to accommodate the strange circumstances of the last year. And, and, and: the annual nominee luncheoning, the Q&As, the handshaking and face-to-face campaigning — the overwhelming meshugas of trying to get a damn trophy — have been basically all gone virtual. And the telecast is, by brunt of circumstance, more or less guaranteed to be more awkward than usual.
The thing is, the nominees themselves show few such signs of disruption. For many, this year’s roster is just as overstuffed with obscure films that most of the public hasn’t heard of as it usually is. Even for people in the know, the nominees are still more of the same: a few sparkling indies, a long-gestating labor of love by a name-brand auteur, a few unabashed vehicles for powerhouse actors that probably won’t be remembered by anyone but those actors, documentaries on Important Subjects (as distinct from important documentaries), Pixar Pixaring, and on and on. Make your peace with that and you’ll see that what we have this year is a slate of nominees that’s — fine! What’s notable is that it’s admirably diverse. Many of the more interesting nominees are promising new faces getting the nod for the first time. There’s no #OscarsSoWhite or related furor to drum up this year, and, interestingly, this particular triumph is not limited to the actor categories, which are the de facto battleground of this issue for many people. For example, there remain far fewer women nominees in technical categories than there could be. But that isn’t the kind of exclusion that goes viral.
This year, multiple women are nominated for best director (and one is likely to win); multiple non-white directors are nominated in the same category (and one — the aforementioned woman director — is again likely to win). A South Korean star who’s been a known quantity in her own country since the ’60s — so, a legend — is pitched to win the supporting actress trophy, in a year where it’s possible to imagine that all four acting trophies will go to actors who aren’t white. Pretty wild. A Black director is nearly guaranteed to win in the animated feature category, too (though, in this particular case, it wouldn’t be the first time). And if I squint just so and temporarily renounce my atheism, a Black woman winning the documentary trophy — for the best film to be nominated in any category this year, no less — seems not-totally-farfetched. But nor is her win as as likely as I’d prefer it to be.
This is, broadly speaking, good news. It’s only meaningful to a point. What it certainly doesn’t mean is that the Academy’s baseline taste has gotten more interesting. What characterizes the lineup this year, for me, is a lot of “Sure!” — as when a flight attendant offers me more peanuts. I keep wondering how Mank — a movie I really like, to the embarrassment of my friends — got the most nominations, despite seeming so little-loved; less mysterious is the near-guarantee that it will not win many (if any) trophies on the big night. I also keep wondering whether the voting members of the Academy see most categories as compilations of one or two instant No’s, with the handful of remaining choices best left to the hands of the tic-tac-toe gods, because, in a number of cases, nothing stands out as the must-win choice on its own merits. That feels true most years. It feels more true than usual this year. You would think that the first Oscars of the pandemic would, given the utter disruption of the industry over the past year, feel a little more unpredictable, like it could be anyone’s game. That would be exciting. But that’s not the game.
Below are some “predictions” — in quotes because, admittedly, much of what follows is just shade. In at least one case, I’m sitting out the “Shoulds” and sticking with the “Wills,” because, well… Look, the Academy has to nail down a single winner for each category. That’s democracy, or whatever. But the rest of us are, thankfully, just fucking around — the only healthy approach to a ridiculous contest. The art matters; the artists matter. The rest — with the exception of truly exceptional winners — is trivia. You may as well have fun with it.
— The Father
— Judas and the Black Messiah
— Promising Young Woman
— Sound of Metal
— Trial of the Chicago 7
Most of the nominees would make for a winner that the Academy won’t have to feel embarrassed about a year from now, especially given (most?) previous winners. The Father, Judas, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal — all have their merits. Judas has a flawed script but succeeds thanks to a propulsive energy that I haven’t been able to shake. The Father has no business being anywhere as interesting as it is, even as it doesn’t totally work. Minari and Sound of Metal moved me — and so did Mank, actually. All three of those films are more memorable because of their imperfections, not despite them. Nomadland is the frontrunner. The questions being raised by its controversies in “the discourse” are worthwhile. The discourse itself… Well. Limiting the movie’s scope to the Amazon of it all feels a little incomplete, as counterarguments go. But the critique has teeth, even if they won’t penetrate the Academy’s armor. Promising Young Woman has generated heated and necessary discussion, too — especially in my text messages over the last week. Thanks for that. I like the movie anyway; mostly, I think it’s fun that it’s nominated.
Ultimately… without Eliza Hittman’s exceptional drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always in the mix — and I’m not convinced that it couldn’t have been here — I’m more or less deprived of a preference. Of the movies thought to have an actual shot, whatever wins will be better than such-and-such previous winner and the rest of the unmentionables. So, God bless. It’s not Thanksgiving, but even the turkey of this bunch gets a pardon.
Should Win: Abstain
Will Win: Nomadland
— Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
— Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
— Anthony Hopkins, The Father
— Gary Oldman, Mank
— Steven Yeun, Minari
Handsome crew. No complaints. Actually, just one: It’s embarrassing that Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods) wasn’t nominated — and even more so that he has been underrecognized by almost all but critics groups this awards season. But I like who’s here. Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun: I’m an eternal fan of each. Personally, I would love to see Ahmed nominated in the future for a performance that isn’t obviously actorly and big; he’s obviously good in that mode, but critics and awards bodies don’t seem to notice how good he is when it plays it subtle, and that’s our loss. Yeun kills in Minari; he is one of a few key ingredients that make that movie as powerful as it is. Where was all this love for his even better performance in Burning? Sour grapes, yadda yadda — but c’mon. Hopkins, as the titular Father of The Father, who is a man struggling with dementia, could have phoned it in — he’s naturally compelling — but didn’t, and the movie is better for it. Gary Oldman’s performance has its detractors, but he brought a difficult, slippery role alive in precisely the way that the movie needed, and found the pathos in all that soggy misanthropy. Chadwick Boseman was better, however.
Should Win: Chadwick Boseman
Will Win: Chadwick Boseman
Firstly: Where the fuck is Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always)? Secondly: This line-up feels rigged to surprise us, almost in a good way, if you trust the idea of Oscar surprises. The two veteran winners — Frances McDormand and Viola Davis — both offered strong performances in their respective films, and both have won major trophies leading up to the Oscars. (Andra Day claimed the third.) Sometimes it feels like previous winners have the hurdle of their past wins to get over; subsequent wins have to feel somehow different enough, like a strong enough display of some new bit of range, to merit a second (or third!) desk ornament, er, Oscar. Maybe that’ll knock Mcdormand out of the running. Davis seems like a surer bet. It may be her second Oscar for playing an August Wilson character, but Fences this ain’t. Look at that makeup! I only wish she’d had more screen time performing Ma Rainey’s songs — a highlight of that performance for me, and part of what makes it stand out from her career to date. That’s not really the movie’s angle, however, and to her credit, Davis makes as good of a case for Ma Rainey’s personality offstage as she does for the larger-than-life singer’s persona when she’s singing.
Meanwhile: Vanessa Kirby. I’m not crazy about Pieces of a Woman as a film; I don’t think it’s up to the task of its subject matter. But Kirby throws her full body into the that 24-minute-long home birth scene, and it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the effort, even as the movie undermines her by pivoting too obviously around Big Moments and stretching the rest of her personality so thin she’s practically rendered into a psychological Elastigirl. I would — sincerely — love to see Kirby get a future Oscar nod for a role akin to her turn in Mission Impossible: Fallout; few of his co-stars have knocked Tom Cruise down to size so handily, and Dramatic Acting is not the only valid form of acting. Cruise-crunching counts, too. (Actors know this. The actors branch determines the acting nominees. Nothing prevents this from happening but their taste. But oh, their taste.) Awards prognosticators tell me that, as of this writing, Carey Mulligan is leading the pack — which was news to me. Not because she isn’t good, but because both the film and the role feel too genre for the Academy to support with clear consensus. It would be a cool win. I don’t really believe it’ll happen. And it wouldn’t make up for Mulligan not being nominated for Wildlife a couple years back — astonishing performance; underrated movie — but it’d be cool. My heart is nevertheless elsewhere.
Should Win: Andra Day (for peaking behind the curtain to make an icon as big as Billie Holiday soulful, human and surprisingly modern — despite a movie eager to traffic in the same old)
Will Win: Viola Davis
Best Supporting Actor
— Sacha Baron Cohen, Trial of the Chicago 7
— Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
— Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami
— Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
— LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Messiah, in the same category, in this economy? Five strong choices, marred by a category error, but so it goes. Both Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield made powerful impressions. I favor Stanfield’s performance of the two, even as Judas’ direction lets him telegraph his character’s anxiety a little too early in the plot for me to believe that the other characters wouldn’t have grown way more suspicious of the guy, way earlier in the movie. Leslie Odom Jr. is a pleasant surprise here; I love the performance, but wasn’t sure the Academy would do right by it. Paul Raci’s turn in Sound of Metal is seared into my brain. Sacha Baron Cohen is a fantastic actor when the project gives him the room to stretch his legs. I would rather have seen him nominated for Borat — and would rather it have been for the second time.
Should Win: Paul Raci
Will Win: Daniel Kaluuya
Best Supporting Actress
— Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
— Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
— Olivia Colman, The Father
— Amanda Seyfried, Mank
— Yuh-jung Youn, Minari
Hillbilly Elegy has its issues, but look, Glenn Close memaw’ed the shit out of that role. She somehow avoids totally lapsing into the higher-end caricatures that the movie basically invites. Olivia Colman is the thread that holds The Father together, but I can’t quite escape how much more exciting she is, for me, in comical roles, which catapult her from Really Good to untouchable. Yuh-jung Youn, of Minari, not only seems to have the momentum to take this, but would make for a deserving winner; more than just the thread, she’s the needle. My preference for the other nominees is purely personal. Amanda Seyfried and Maria Bakalova were among the highlights of this year in moviegoing — rather, moviestreaming — for me: Two sensational charm-factories burning up the screen and giving their respective films dimensions I simply didn’t see coming.
Should Win: Amanda Seyfried or Maria Bakalova
Will Win: Yuh-jung Youn (unless someone fucks this up)
Best Original Screenplay
— Judas and the Black Messiah
— Promising Young Woman
— Sound of Metal
— Trial of the Chicago 7
The absences of Radha Blank’s 40-Year-Old Version and Hittman’s Never Rarely are enough to make me want to say “Eat shit” and move on, but not because there isn’t merit here. I lost interest in The Trial of Chicago 7 pretty much as soon as the Black radical Bobby Seale emerged onscreen sounding like a Gilmore Girls walk (and talk)-on, Sorkinese caveats or no. But, yes, it’s a complicated, lively script. (Justice for Sorkin’s superior Molly’s Game, but what can you do.) I’m not sure Judas or Sound of Metal’s scripts, in themselves, are among their very finest qualities. I do admire the originality of what Judas, in particular, is trying to pull off. I’m also not sure that Promising Young Woman’s script is as flawed or as ingenious as its detractors and defenders, respectively, would have it. But Promising Young Woman is also exactly the kind of concept-forward, compelling writing by a fresh talent that the Academy has been known to award in the writing category, like an unofficial third place reserved strictly for newcomers, a way of not having to give it one of the night’s top two trophies. (See also: Lady Bird, Get Out, et. al.). Ultimately, I’m still pulling for someone else.
Should Win: Minari
Will Win: Promising Young Woman
Best Adapted Screenplay
— Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
— The Father
— One Night in Miami
— The White Tiger
A walk for Nomadland. Giving it to The White Tiger would be more a little more exciting; its vitality is unmatched in this category. I dig seeing it here. A win for Borat would crack me up. One Night in Miami and The Father make a strong showing, too, even if they still bear the mark of their stage origins in ways that don’t always help either movie.
Should Win: The White Tiger
Will Win: Nomadland
I wonder if the Academy just hasn’t heard of Kelly Reichardt. Maybe they just hate cows. Ah, well.
I’d probably feel the same no matter who won this category: Nice. So: Chloé Zhao. Nice. Her last movie, The Rider, has higher highs and lower lows than Nomadland, but feels more impressively directed overall. The Academy bypassed that movie, however, which is fine, because this trophy has often felt cumulative, an acknowledgement of work past and present. Zhao’s mix of professional and non-professional actors will be hard for the Academy to resist. If not for Nomadland being such a reliable champion all season, I could see this being one of those years where affection (Best Picture) and admiration (most impressive picture) get split, resulting in best picture for Zhao’s movie, best direction for David Fincher. I think David Fincher is being a tricksier hobbit in Mank than the naysayers will allow, and the movie — with its black-and-white style, and mono sound, and zippy writing, and Hollywood Historying — hits more than a few of the Academy’s beloved marks. If he won, which he won’t — Zhao won the Director’s Guild honor, and the DGA-to-Oscar pipeline has yet to burst — it’d probably be out of admiration for the film’s technical prowess. That feels odd to say about a movie detailing the writing of Citizen Kane, given that we usually say it about movies like Gravity. But it feels true.
Either way, I wish Lee Isaac Chung’s soft but sturdy hand with tone and dramatic texture, and Emerald Fennell’s sharp-elbowed nudges to the ribcage, felt like they had a stronger chance. I also almost wish this were one of those years where rigged for Fincher to win, as an apology for the Social Network shutout, less because it lost than because of what beat it. He happens to be my favored pick of the bunch, regardless, but not for the technical artistry. I think Mank‘s a special movie.
Should Win: David Fincher
Will Win: Chloé Zhao
— Crip Camp
— The Mole Agent
— My Octopus Teacher
Phew. First, the wisdom: Netflix is becoming to this category what the 11-time champion Pixar is to the animation category. So I’d not bet against them for the foreseeable future, even if the best of their films to be nominated in this category over the years (Yance Ford’s Strong Island) did not win. Still, to bet against them for a second: The Mole Agent’s octogenarian star, Sergio Chamy, is irresistible, even if the movie, a clever mix of concept and stylish reality, undercuts itself at times with a little too much cuteness. Crip Camp (the best Netflix project in this year’s lineup) is also worthwhile: Its story of young people with disabilities who, thanks to an innovative “crip camp,” were long-ago moved to become political on their own behalf, is a compelling mix of historical home-video footage and present-day interviews. Like Sergio, the activist Judith Heumann is someone I could watch all day. What a presence. Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s Collective is thrilling and damning. And I’m already on the record as an evangelist for Garrett Bradley’s Time, a film that sails far ahead of the others, not because of what it’s about (most of these films tackle worthy subjects), but because of how it’s about it. It’s the best movie nominated in any category this year. It’ll endure, Oscar or no.
As for Octopussy… Suffice it to say that, despite my addiction to animal videos on YouTube and Instagram, despite my belief that BBC nature specials are holy texts for stoners, I’m just not buying this one. The Octopus Teacher isn’t so different from any other movie about a guy’s relentless pursuit of a woman who’s not that interested — except in this version, she gets an arm chomped off by a shark. I’m not even gonna get into the Inspirational African third rail, nor pick at the scab of the There Will Be Blood-worthy “I’ve abandoned my boy!” subplot. The movie’s underwater footage is definitely gorgeous. Great pictures. Pretty pictures. Then again, for a film made by veterans of BBC’s Blue Planet II, I’d expect no different. Literally no different: the footage looks exactly the same.
Should Win: Time
Will Win: My Octopus Teacher (Eat, Swim, Love: Oscar. I hope I’m wrong.)
Best International Feature
— Another Round (Denmark)
— Better Days (Hong Kong)
— Collective (Romania)
— Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)
— Quo Vadis Aida? (Bosnia And Herzegovina)
I don’t have much love for Man Who Sold His Skin. Otherwise: Collective is strong. Better Days gets lost in its sentiment, but it gets lost with style, and its stars are used to magnetic effect, and it made me root for the young people at its center in a way that felt refreshing. Quo Vadis Aida? should be walking away with this. But Another Round has the director nomination, making it a sure bet.
Should Win: Quo Vadis Aida?
Will Win: Another Round
Best Animated Feature
— Over The Moon
— Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
I’d honestly forgotten about Onward, but that’s most likely because I saw it in the Before Times — like, in a movie theater. Farmageddon is fun; this is my inner child’s pick by a mile. Over the Moon is solid. Wolfwalkers isn’t the best of Tomm Moore’s “Irish folklore trilogy,” but it’d be nice for that trilogy to win something, I mean damn. As for Soul… If a middle-life crisis revamp of Inside Out is what the Academy wants to award this year, so be it. I like the movie fine. Its inevitable best original score trophy will be a nice feather in its cap. But this is just one of those wins that feels uninspired — like the hero of the movie, in a way, so I guess it makes sense.