E: Most years I start this post talking about the glitz and glamor of it all, my anticipation of the speeches and the dresses and the skits and all the trimmings.
This year, I can’t do that. All the award shows up to this point have been Zoom affairs. Though the nominees will be live for the first time, they won’t be sitting together in a packed theater listening to a host attempt to spin jokes at their expense – they’ll be distanced in Union Station, with the performances off site at the Dolby Theater. The producers are hoping to have as much show as possible – but still, this isn’t the year for hobnobbing and schmoozing and a top-of-the-stairs Cinderella moment. This year isn’t about that.
This year (the longest Oscar year ever, with 16 months from the start of 2020 and 14 from the last ceremony) I’ve seen exactly one movie in the theaters, and as luck would have it that was Animated Feature nominee Onward back in February of 2020. Yep, I haven’t been to a movie theater in 14 months, and coming as I do from a family of cinephiles it is surely the first time that’s happened since I graduated from pre-school. Of course this is a small, sad thing to miss among the many things that the COVID 19 pandemic stole from us, but it’s been a big change.
This year, however, has done something else for people like me who love the movies, and that’s been a strange and wonderful gift. This year, I was able to do something I’ve never in all my (many, many) years of tracking Oscar and trying to see all the movies, and wow, I can’t even believe I’m saying it.
This year, I actually saw all the movies.
Yes, I really, really did. Because all we can do is stay home and watch TV, and because people made movies that nobody could go to theaters to watch, almost everything ended up on streaming services. Documentaries. International films. International documentaries. International films that got nominated for songs that played over the end credits. International movies that were nominated for makeup. These are the kind of movies that normally don’t get a run in theaters outside the obligatory eligibility runs in New York and L.A.. In a normal year I do pretty well, and make a priority of the top six categories, but this year I (like a criminal) had the time and the opportunity, and I took advantage of both. I have seen every single one of the 41 full length movies (20 of which only had a single nomination), and also 13 of the 15 shorts. (And hope springs eternal about those two missing animated shorts!)
That’s more exciting for me than you, but where it does affect you is that I have even more opinions than usual. Fair warning!
The 2021 Oscars will be set apart for a few reasons, and after the awkwardness of a hybrid show, and the inability to get butts in theaters, there are a few other issues. First, the lack of butts in theaters is more than just a curiosity: it means that box office is unusually insignificant to this year’s race. Size doesn’t matter. Now, obviously box office and Oscar success are not the same thing, but usually if a movie that’s expected to do well flops in theaters and not just with critics, it makes a difference. But now we’re mostly relying on critics to tell us what’s good or not, or word of mouth/online reviews. Far from the giddy days when a Marvel movie or Lord of the Rings or Star Wars would open with more than 100 million dollars in a weekend, proclaiming our love for those (not usually Oscar-winning) films all over the heavens, only two movies made more than that in the entirety of 2020. Indeed, plenty of films, from likely blockbusters to prestige dramas, have been shelved in hopes of happier returns ahead, which means that Oscar 2021 will see the triumph of “small” films. Historically the Oscars exist to drive box office – but if you have no box office, if there are no stats on who watches what on Hulu or Prime or HBO Max, how do you even know what films found real audiences or flopped? If you’re watching them all on Netflix or buying them on demand, then how big is the difference, really, between Nomadland and Tenet?
And that brings us to the other big issue. Awards seasons are usually characterized by groupthink. Hollywood loves to back a winner, so once the critics awards have brought us the general contenders, the industry awards give us a pretty clear view of what everyone has decided on. This year has been very steady in some cases, but unusually confusing in others. Most years actors work the circuit, with in-person charm campaigns and private screenings with Academy members, interviews and magazine covers and TV interviews. This year? It’s a lot harder to network. Meanwhile, there’s the continuing effects of our reckoning with gender and racial bias. Most awards groups made an effort to enlarge their membership or change up the rules to provide for more representative nominees, to give more scope than the same old same old. Perhaps in part because of that, all the groups that give the so called “pre-cursor” awards had wildly different nomination slates, and in some categories many different winners.
Which is bringing us to a bunch of interesting possible winners. Word to the wise: representation matters (in the absence of money). Hollywood can claim to really care about the underrepresented, to respond to #MeToo, #StopAsianHate, and #OscarsSoWhite. It remains to be seen how lasting a change this is, but when there’s less to lose, it’s easier for them to swing for the fences. To the predictions, then!
Best Supporting Actor:
Your Winner: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
How Sure Am I? 98%
He Coulda Been a Contender: Paul Raci, The Sound of Metal
It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated:
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Worst Snub: Trevante Rhodes, The United States versus Billie Holiday
I wasn’t really expecting it to be Kaluuya back in December – partly because I’d consider he and Stanfield to be coleads – but the Golden Globes chose him, and there he’s stayed through the Screen Actors awards and even the BAFTAs, which have a history of ignoring movies about the Black American experience. He’s an excellent actor and I’m happy for him. His role as Chairman Fred Hampton, murdered leader of the Black Panthers, is certainly a timely and significant role, requiring him to display romantic tenderness, deep friendship, and a powerful charisma and great oratory. Raci’s deaf house manager and Cohen’s charming, outrageous Abbie Hoffman had seemed to have the edge in the critics awards, but Kaluuya has won at every single awards “show.” He’s the surest of the sure things.
There was other great work in this category, though. As Judas to Kaluuya’s Messiah, Lakeith Stanfield is the audience’s entry way into what for many will be a surprisingly complex world of the Panthers; the violence, yes, but also the community programs that fed and educated and helped house and support so many. Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal is tentative, unsure of his role as an FBI informant, and the events of the film leave him and by extension us grappling with what his information wrought.
Leslie Odom Jr. is smooth as silk as Sam Cook in Regina King’s One Night in Miami. I enjoyed that play-to-screen translation very much, and relish the perfect casting of one magical crooner as another; the moments where he doubts his legacy, and hungers to write a protest song as perfect and meaning one penned by Bob Dylan? So impactful as it leads to the beautiful – and beautifully performed – “Change is Gonna Come.”
Some folks thought that Sasha Baron Cohen was going to be this year’s winner for what’s apparently a brilliant impersonation of acerbic grand-standing activist and protest artist Abbie Hoffman, but that’s not this year’s story. (I was a bigger fan of Jeremy Davis’ Jerry Rubin myself.) Genuinely, that movie virtually exploded with great supporting performances.
Paul Raci, too, won a bunch of early critics’ prizes for his portrayal of the leader of a Deaf community that welcomes Riz Ahmed. As the hearing son of Deaf parents, Raci brings at least the authenticity of long familiarity to his performance, supported by grounded, realistic acting; he too serves as a gateway to his community for his co-star and the audience.
Supporting Actor is a category that overflows with great performances; we’re always spoiled for choice. Along with the fantastic Rhodes, who shines as Holiday’s undercover FBI agent/lover as in everything he does, I would have found it hard to exclude Chadwick Boseman and Clarke Peters in Da 5 Bloods, a film I didn’t love filled with acting I did. The same is true of Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, and Aldis Hodge in One Night in Miami, a film I did enjoy very much despite its staginess, and as I mentioned, the bravura cast of Chicago 7. It rained fantastic supporting performances this year, no question.
Your Winner: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
How Sure Am I? 90%
If Not Him, Then Who?: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
So Gosh Darn Brilliant it Hurts: Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Rounding Out the Crew:
Gary Oldman, Mank
Steven Yeun, Minari
My Vote: tie between Ahmed and Hopkins
Biggest Snub: Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods and Mads Mikkelson, Another Round
Sigh. Okay. It breaks my heart that this is our last chance to honor the inimitable Chadwick Boseman, brutally taken from us so soon. He’s received the Best Actor trophy from the Golden Globes, SAG and Critics Choice. Anthony Hopkins beat him out for the BAFTA, but that’s unlikely to be more than a pothole in his posthumous road to Oscar. I probably should ignore the possibility of a Hopkins win because the only forerunner came from BAFTA, but Hopkins’s performance, now that I’ve seen it, takes my certainty down a few notches.
I am very happy that Boseman’s almost certainly getting this honor, and I think this rare posthumous Oscar is justified, in the sense that every award here is subjective and most of this year’s nominees are worthy of the win. I hate that I’m having trouble getting behind his performance, but I want to affirm that it’s not about him. It’s August Wilson. I wrote back when Viola Davis and Denzel Washington were nominated for Fences: I find Wilson’s work stagey for the screen, and though I know his words ring true to the Black American experience, I do not believe that anyone would actually say them. That’s disbelief I can suspend watching a play, with the obvious artifice of a stage, but it’s much harder in the more naturalistic medium of the movies. To watch Nomadland or Minari is to feel like you’re eavesdropping on real people; but I didn’t believe for a second that the four musicians sitting around together on a hot day in Chicago would have a conversation this personal, this deep, or this explosive, and no amount of impassioned speechifying is going to get me there. My guess is that’s why Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which comes alive so fiercely when it shows Ma and her band perform) hasn’t made the Best Picture slate despite being nominated for Best Ensemble by SAG. It’s unusual for a man to be nominated for Best Actor when his movie is not a Best Picture contender, and much more so for him to win, but the popularity of a performer can override that. Jeff Daniels was the last such instance, a prime example of the rule.
At any rate, Boseman wrings every bit of emotion possible out of this role, gave every piece of himself to it, and is brilliant in it; that’s clear no matter how you feel about the source material.
Meanwhile, Hopkins delivers a knock out, heartbreaking and dead realistic performance as an elderly man suffering from dementia, at turns charming and cruel, pitiful and brutal, aggressive and forlorn, in all moments mercurial and capricious as he copes with the vagaries of a disease that presents him with a constantly shifting, illusory reality rife with hallucinations. The movie is a puzzle box; you don’t know what the truth is, or what is real, but you cannot turn away from him for a second. As his BAFTA win shows, if anyone can beat Boseman, it’s Hopkins.
Similarly riveting is Riz Ahmed, who receives his first nomination for playing a heavy metal drummer who struggles to redefine himself either as a person with profound hearing loss, or one who has become Deaf. Can he hold on to his old life, or can he imagine his life anew? (If you haven’t seen this movie, seriously, what are you waiting for? Get thee to Amazon Prime!) Early critics awards showed Ahmed as a contender, but now the field has winnowed down so he’s unlikely even as a spoiler.
Gary Oldman is a great actor, but he’s at best twenty years too old to play Herman Mankiewicz. (If this helps show you the absurdity of his casting, the real Mank and former movie star Marion Davies are the same age. Davies is played by Amanda Seyfried, who’s about the right age to play Marion at the earliest point in the movie, which takes place over a decade. When the real Mank died he was ten years younger than Oldman is now. Are you buying Gary Oldman as a 30 year old? Nope, me neither.) Hollywood just loves his sort of story – the smartest guy in the room, ruined by alcoholism, sure, and a terrible husband and brother and boss and friend, sure, but he had good intentions! And wrote one really impressive movie as revenge against a man whose power and wealth (and girlfriend) he envied. Not that he couldn’t have had power and money, if he’d cared about those things. And stopped drinking long enough to do something.
Anyway, Oldman is a good actor, often a great one, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief or fall for the tired trope of his movie.
What’s most shocking to me about Steven Yeun’s quiet performance as a chicken sorter turned farmer (weirdly not the only instance of chicken sorting as a short hand for career-despair in this year’s Oscar nominated movies) is that he’s the first Asian American man to be nominated for lead actor. What’s up, America? Not cool! It’s not at all a showy role, but in this year of small, realistic movies, it deserves the recognition it has received.
Best Supporting Actress
Your Winner: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari
How Sure Am I?: 70%
If Not Her, Then Who?: Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Dark Horse: Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Why Couldn’t She Have Won For This Role?: Olivia Colman, The Father
Congrats on Your First Invitation to the Dance: Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Included on the Most Shortlists Before Being Snubbed: Helena Zengel, News of the World
Why No Love For Her?: Yeri Han, Minari
Conspicuously Absent: Jodi Foster, The Mauritanian
My Vote: Colman (but Han if she were nominated)
Many people thought, early in the year, that it could finally be Glenn Close’s turn. That poor woman has been on Oscar’s shortlist since the 80s, but somehow, it’s never her turn. Is this memoir the vehicle that would be bring her (as a supportive grandmother but abusive mom) the win so cruelly taken away for her transcendent, career-best turn in The Wife? But no. She was defeated by her fellow nominee, Olivia Colman, in a turn of events that still makes me angry, and I can’t be the only one! Sometimes Hollywood just decides it’s finally your time, and sometimes that happens because they acknowledge they were wrong in denying you so many times before. See Al Pacino and Julianne Moore just to name a few. (That upset was foretold by BAFTA, which makes me nervous about them; it’s so hard to tell when their abrupt turns mean something and when they don’t.) But there’s no evidence, now, that this is that golden moment for Close. At least Glenn continues to wrack up nominations: her costar Amy Adams, another perpetual Oscar bridesmaid, didn’t get that far.
When the Critics Choice awards picked Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s daughter through a radical transformation and extreme humiliations, it seemed like the bad reviews for Hillbilly Elegy had actually sunk that movie and given us a new favorite. Who knew if Close would even be nominated? And who could believe that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm could actually produce an acting winner? But then Bakalova was (justly) put in the lead category at the Golden Globes, and lost to Rosamund Pike. The Globes picked Jodi Foster, who wasn’t even nominated at SAG. The momentum is not with her.
Coming late to the party, Yuh-Jung Youn has charmed audiences as the wacky grandmother in Minari. Mother to Yeri Han’s Monica, she comes to America to take care of the preposterously adorable Alan Kim and Noel Cho so that her daughter’s husband can fulfill his dream to farm the land. The movie sees her through extremes of physical distress and disability, but also showcases her supremely quirky personality as she tries to bond with her grandchildren. She’s picked up both the SAG award and the BAFTA. It’s no guarantee, but it is momentum, which in a normal Oscar season is everything.
As a starlet who’s smarter than she looks, and kinder than she gets credit for, Amanda Seyfriend makes a fairly thankless role all look too easy, so I’m happy for her that she was taken seriously, even if I hated her movie and am annoyed by the casting. But if I were in charge of re-writing history, I’d take away that awful Oscar travesty, award Close back in 2019, and give Colman an award this year for her starring turn in the deeply affecting story of man sliding into dementia. Colman plays many subtly different iterations of the same patient daughter trying to coax her father through his days; we see her through his eyes, and his world is unmoored, and thus so is she. Did she really make a roast chicken? Who is she married to? Is she really moving to Paris? We may never know.
Now, take into account that this slate of actresses has never come up against each other before during this whole award season. The BAFTAs, for example, only boasted two of them. It’s not a landslide, but the momentum clearly favors Youn.
Frontrunner: No One
The Globes Picked: Andra Day, The United States versus Billie Holiday
SAG Picked: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
BAFTA Winner/Why Couldn’t She Have Won For This Role?: Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Critics Choice Winner: Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Rounding Out the Crew: Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Snubbed Again: Amy Adams, Hillbilly Elegy and Rosamund Pike, I Care A Lot
She Was Robbed, I Tell You: Jasna Djuricic, Quo Vadis, Aida?
My Vote: McDormand
Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the wild, wild west. We have a knock down, drag out battle royale for Best Actress this year. Anyone who says they know who it’s going to be? It’s only luck if they’re right. We can make a case for four of these five women sneaking in, and no one will know till they read that envelope who it’s going to be.
First, let’s cover Vanessa Kirby, best known for her work as Princess Margaret on The Crown. She plays Martha, a woman who tragically loses her first child during childbirth – an ordeal which makes up the first segment of the film – and then retreats into a hard shell of self-protection, claiming to be fine, as her husband struggles to express his own grief and share in hers. She’s very good, but chilly, and you ache for her and her loss as her whole world falls apart around her.
This year, two Black actresses are nominated for Best Actress for the second time ever. It’s nearly fifty years since Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross were the first pair in 1972. Ironically, Diana Ross was nominated for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. She is, after all, a significant historical figure with a life made for an Oscar movie – stardom, glamor, addictions, abuse, tempestuous love affairs with men and women: you name it, she’s pretty much got it. It’s been twenty years since the one and only Black actress won this category, however: Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. I cannot help thinking that representation matters more than ever this year, and this is the only acting category without a frontrunner of color. I think the Academy would like to break that lengthiest winless streak – but the problem is, for which actress?
In my mind, Globe winner Day is hamstrung by her movie: it’s too on the nose, too cartoony. Holiday clings to bad men and bad decisions, and the movie doesn’t help us understand why as much as I’d like it to. I wanted to love it, and couldn’t, though I respect the performances; my issue is largely with the screenplay. Now, women have won this award for terrible movies (Jessica Lange comes to mind for Blue Sky, but she’s not alone) so it’s not a fatal disadvantage, but it does hurt her. Why did the Globes pick her over Mulligan, who had started the season as the favorite?
SAG winner Davis plays another real-life singer, the indomitable Ma Rainey who knows her worth and demands that tribute be paid. It’s not really what I’d consider a leading role, which could work against her, and AMPAS clearly had issues with the movie or it would have been nominated for Best Picture. And for both the lead actor and actress to come from a movie that’s not nominated for Best Picture? That would be unique. Both winners have come from a movie that lost Best Picture (As Good As It Gets for one) but one not nominated at all? Tricky. Two Black lead winners? Also unique. If it has issues with the movie, however, AMPAS clearly loves Davis: this is her fourth nomination, the most of any Black actress, and would be her second win (another potential record breaking act). She’s almost unique among Black actresses because she’s been nominated again after winning; only Octavia Spencer can say the same. The biggest wing of the Academy is the actor’s wing, but I don’t think you can reason out what the influence of 1,324 people will be when taken out of a group of 160,000. Who knows how those particular 1300 people voted?
If there’s no clear preference between Day and Davis, then we have to admit that one of the other actresses could sneak in through vote splitting. Before the Golden Globes, I’d have guessed it to be Carey Mulligan. Though this is only her second nomination, Mulligan has been the darling of the costume drama set for some time. She’s one of those people that you just expect is going to win an Oscar sometime, and it seemed like maybe this was her year. Feminist revenge drama Promising Young Woman is edgy and dark, and med student turned barista turned sort-of vigilante was a really unexpected role for Mulligan, which Oscar usually responds to. Plus of course she’s still young and beautiful, which AMPAS quite enjoys. But after the Critics Choice, her momentum stalled. Maybe because the movie has to be profoundly uncomfortable viewing for a lot of self-proclaimed “nice guys,” maybe because the Academy would really rather reward a woman of color – I just don’t know. I can’t help feeling that we’d know if it was going to be Mulligan – unless, of course, she sneaks in because of indecision in the category as a whole.
The most similar group to the Academy is BAFTA in this slate, and they baffled expectations once again by picking Frances McDormand. To me, hers is the performance. of the year – her nomadic wanderer Fern is so subtle, so real, just a person you could meet in a parking lot in her camper and chat with – but it’s also unlikely that AMPAS will reward her after just honoring her two years ago for the miserable overbown tripe that was Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. I love McDormand like I love Olivia Coleman, but man I wish both of them could win for their movies this year and not their previous efforts. If McDormand wins here, she’ll beat Meryl Streep with three lead actress wins. Nobody gets three wins. Lots of folks have two, but boy does the train stop there. In living memory it’s only Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl who’ve reached there (the latter with one supporting win in her total). Are they really ready to do that? Not on purpose.
To sum up, there’s no groupthink. There’s no frontrunner. There are just some exceptional actresses with great performances and no one knows which one of them will win.
It feels to me like the case is strongest for Davis. She ticks the most boxes. But that’s not to say I think she’s going to be the one who wins, because the precursor groups have all signed onto different cases, and AMPAS clearly has issues with her movie. I genuinely think it’s too close to call. I’ve been surprised by wins before, but I’ve never seen an acting category so wide open, and wow, what a freaking delight.
I can’t finish this category without putting in a pitch to watch Quo Vadis, Aida?, a Bosnian film about the devastation following the siege of Srebrenica. It’s a clear-eyed look at the consequences of violence, and if this doesn’t wake us up to the foolishness of our national divide, of neighbor turning against neighbor, nothing will. Djuricic embodies that anguish and the horror of being caught in situations far beyond your control, as well as the resilience to live and do good again.
Your Winner: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
How Sure Am I? 98%
Losing For the Third Time: David Fincher, Mank
Losing For the First Time (But Breaking Records While They Do It): Isaac Lee Chung, Minari, Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman, Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
My Vote: Chloe Zhao
Biggest Snubs: Aaron Sorkin, Trial of the Chicago 7 and Regina King, One Night in Miami
I Wish They Had Considered: Jasmila Zbanic, Quo Vadis, Aida?
2021 marks the first time that two women have been nominated in this category. Zhao is the first Asian American woman, and Emerald Fennell the first British woman, and together they bring the total to a whopping 7 women out of at least 465 nominations over 93 years. Chung and Vinterberg also made a little history of their own as the first Asian American male directing nominee, and the first Danish directing nominee. It’s enjoyable to see the director’s branch finally shake things up, although it’s hard to swallow the absence of Aaron Sorkin and Regina King for their much-celebrated work; Black women are still on the outside of Oscar’s most influential circle.
Zhao has swept every awards show, and is well on her way to being the second woman ever, and first woman of color, to win Best Director. Like Kathryn Bigelow before her, she’ll win for a small but supremely beautiful movie, a complex and wistful reflection on life in America, American migrants, and their place in the American Dream. Deserts and coast lines, plains and forests, packing plants and National Parks abound in Zhao’s story of a woman’s almost monastic wandering life. This lovely, lyrical film is largely her personal accomplishment – she wrote it, directed it, produced it and edited it, giving her the most nominations of any woman in a single year.
Vinterberg – now the toast of Denmark – has indeed made a beautiful film, hazy and golden, gentle in its observation of four teachers who commit their lives to scientific experimentation. Will being a little bit drunk all the time make their middle-aged rut go away? Gimmicky and annoying as this concept is, the execution is masterful. Would I have included him over Sorkin or King? Certainly not. On the other hand, I far prefer his effort to David Fincher’s, despite normally enjoy Fincher’s work and loving black and white films and Old Hollywood stories; it took me five tries to get through Mank without falling asleep. It’s meant to show the moment where a man stands up to the forces that would crush his soul, the oligarchs and Masters of the Universe who make puppets of us all. Does it? Meh.
Chung coaxed lovely performances out of his actors, and like Zhao created a beautiful ode to the landscape of America, here the farmland of Oklahoma standing in for Arkansas. The word most associated with this autobiographical film is gentle, though the questions beneath its surface are far from easy or serene. Can the center of this family hold? Can a marriage survive competing views of our most basic aims? What’s more important, security or fulfillment? Emerald Fennell’s provocative film, the stylish and stylized Promising Young Woman, asks a similar question: how far would you go to right a wrong? What is that worth? What’s the promise of a life? Who do we really care about? How do we define promise, and what do we excuse in its name? And whose lives are worth more?
Your Winner: Nomadland
How Sure Am I? 98%
The Year’s Most Universally Enjoyed Movie (Maybe?): The Trial of the Chicago 7
Worthy Nominees (Almost) All:
Judas and the Black Messiah
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
My Vote: The Trial of the Chicago 7
What I Wish Made the List: Collective; Quo Vadis, Aida?
Most Surprising Snubs: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami
How did a smug, self-satisfied Hollywood insider story end up with the most nominations this year? Well, I guess I just answered my own question. Often times the movie with the most nominations wins, but I’m very happy to report that Mank (yet another love letter to that awful Hollywood type, the self-destructive man who behaves badly but gets away with it because he’s just so smart) will not be winning this year’s Best Picture. In fact, the black and white melodrama happily hasn’t ever truly been in contention. Instead, the hyper-realistic Nomadland will take Hollywood’s biggest prize for telling the story of a woman who decides to live outside the conventions of the American Dream.
When the factory that supports her town closes, her husband dies and her home value bottoms out, Frances McDormand’s Fern chooses to go it on her on, following the dictates of a new movement that values independence and closeness to the land. She eschews material possessions, living in a converted van, working seasonal jobs, and meeting up with like-minded folks around the country – many of them played by non-actors living out this dream today. They’ve chosen to opt out of the race. It’s thought-provoking and deeply felt, and asks us deep questions about who we are and what we value. It’s high on the list of my own favorite movies of this year, and I will be celebrating its win hard. It should noted that it will be only the fourth film with a female main character to win Best Picture this century.
The movie my family enjoyed the most this year was definitely The Trial of the Chicago 7; its clever structure, witty dialogue and impactful message mesmerized my tweens and teens. The story of the men prosecuted for inducing riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago speaks to who we are as a society today, how individuals can come together to address the government’s wrongs, and how a government should respond to protest.
A happy note from this year: the tough, brilliant Judas marks the first time an all-Black producing team has been nominated in this category. (I’m choosing to view this as a glass-half-full situation and a precedent, the first of many to come, but obviously it’s also problematic that this hasn’t happened before.) If you have HBO Max, you should check it out – it’s history most people have never heard, and pretty balanced with beautiful performances from all, including BAFTA nominee Dominique Fishback, star of Netflix’s Power Project, an exciting young actress who really broke through this year.
Sound of Metal brings both the viewer and Riz Ahmed’s newly deaf character into the embrace of the Deaf community. It’s a painful and beautiful exploration of identity and what it means to start over, at once particular and universal, as all the best stories are. The Father truly brings the audience into a world where nothing holds, where what we think we know cannot be depended on. It’s at once a grounded, harrowing look into the human experience and an intricate mystery filled with layers of meaning and illusion. What is truth?
Over and over in these nominees we hear the same questions: What does it mean to be human? How can we live in the world? How do we do good? Minari brings us a young family struggling; the father has left a job that earns him good wages but brings no satisfaction; he wants to do something with his life that he can be proud of. He wants to build something. He wants to use his hands not to sort baby chicks for death, but to grow plants to sustain life, and also bring some of his Korean heritage to his new home. Finding their footing in a new way of life – learning to thrive and not just survive – is the strength of the herb minari, as well as the film that bears its name.
A Promising Young Woman follows a med school drop out who can’t let go of her past, and repeatedly places herself in harm’s way to confront would-be rapists in the memory of her best friend. The film is a shocking, devastating takedown of toxic masculinity, but also closely interrogates our need to make meaning out of the tragedies in our lives. At what price justice? What IS justice, and how do we best serve the dead?
And that’s what I love about following the Oscars: the best of our movies ask us these questions about what it means to be alive, to be American, to be a dissident, to be Black, to be female. What defines us? Is it our affiliations, our possessions, our relationships, our jobs? Nomadland is a fitting winner in a year that saw so many of us searching for a larger meaning as our worlds grew more confined.
I expect Soul to take the Animated Feature category, though I would rank it fourth among the five nominees: the Puritans taking on Celtic myths in Wolfwalkers would have my vote, followed by Disney’s modernized quest movie Onward and the always charming Aardman characters in A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon. Why do both Disney movies centered on Black Americans – Soul and The Princess and the Frog – transform their protagonists for the bulk of the film? A frog, a blue ghost – what’s wrong with showing Black people on screen? It’s not my only biggest issue with the movie, but I find that so weird. Honestly the afterlife sequences don’t really come together for me, and the philosophical underpinning, while interesting, didn’t work the way the equally ambitious Inside/Out did. Soul also seems poised to take score, which I guess is fine: this year didn’t produce a lot of super memorable movie music. News of the World has my favorite score, but not overwhelmingly so. I’ll be hoping to see the brilliant and moving Sound of Metal rewarded for some of its extraordinary sound work; it doesn’t seem likely to take any big awards, so I’m really hoping that it gets something.
I can highly recommend the five documentaries, which rank higher among my personal favorites this year than almost all of the feature films. Collective, particularly, is something you really need to see if you can: it details the way an investigation into a nightclub fire in Romania led to nation-shaking consequences, and the exposure of corruption on an unimaginable scale. The Mole Agent is utterly charming, Crip Camp inspiring (though not at all in a patronizing way), and My Octopus Teacher totally engrossing. I’ve heard that the impressionistic Time, loosely following the struggle of a wife trying to get her husband out of jail, may be the favorite: it’s very moving, but doesn’t provide enough actual facts for me for to put it above the others.
I’d love to see The Father triumph in Production Design: the film is written through the lens of the main character’s dementia, and the various settings echo both the depths of his confusion and the fluidity of his perception. It’s often subtle, but also as intrinsic to the film as any city in Middle Earth or historical time period might be in a more obvious case. I’d like to see Visual Effects go to Tenet; this was one of the stranger categories for me this year, since it’s normally composed of blockbusters, which didn’t exist this year. It did introduce me to one of the most enjoyable films of the year, Love and Monsters, which combined effects deliberately evocative of classic B movies with action and humor.
I’ve also seen that this might finally be Diane Warren’s turn to win Best Song, after decades as the Susan Lucci of the Oscars, for her pretty but forgettable “Io Si” which (as so many other nominees do) plays over the end credits of The Life Ahead. 2021 definitely doesn’t have a “Shallow” in contention; songs that popular come out of movies only once a decade or so. The most catchy of the five is Eurovision’s “Husivik,” but I’d be most excited to see “Speak Now” give supporting actor nominee Leslie Odom Jr. a leg up on EGOT. (“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7 is also beautiful and timely.) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom seems to be the guild favorite when it comes to both Makeup (despite the historical inaccuracy of the main character’s look) and Costumes. I’d probably pick Pinocchio for the former, despite my dislike for the film.
Screenplay is a tricky category for me as a fan: favored to win are Promising Young Woman (original) and Nomadland (adapted). If they win, it would be one of the few times a woman has won both categories, and certainly the first time two female multi-hyphenates (directors, producers, writers and in Zhao’s case editors) take those prizes. I will definitely not be sorry to see that happen, but I preferred The Trial of the Chicago 7 in original, and can see the appeal of both The Father (writer-director Florian Zeller’s ode to his own father’s struggle with dementia) and White Tiger (which has the feel of Dickens’ Great Expectations crossed with Crime and Punishment but set in modern India) in adapted. That’s what makes this stuff hard – so many of the choices are good, and it can be sad to see great movies not get rewarded at all. In editing, all five candidates are so fantastic that I’m glad not to be making a choice; there isn’t a wasted space among them. Often Editing goes with Best Picture, but this year it seems like a fight between Sound of Metal (with its spectacular portrayal of deafness and hearing) and possible perpetual bridesmaid Chicago 7. I’m not at all conflicted about hoping Nomadland beats out Mank for cinematography, though; Nomadland was spectacular in its sense of place and I’d love to see it triumph. If it had to lose to anything, I’d much prefer News of the World to the odious Mank. In fact, I’d have preferred to see Another Round nominated in its place.
The Academy clearly liked Another Round, or they wouldn’t have nominated Thomas Vinterberg for director as well. It’s a beautifully made film, but also a boringly obvious morality play with a pretentious concept (an obscure philosopher says day drinking is good for you, what could go wrong?) with a quasi-ambiguous ending tagged on (day drinking destroys your life, but gee, it can also reveal the real you before it kills you). It’ll be my biggest disappointment of the year if it wins International Film as it’s supposed to. I would highly recommend its competitors, especially the aforementioned documentary Collective, and the devastating portrayal of ethnic cleansing and life in its wake, Quo Vadis, Aida? Better Days and The Man Who Sold His Skin were both intense, thinky thrillers for anyone looking for good content in that genre.
Finally, the shorts. I’m a fan of all the documentary shorts and recommend watching them – most of them are available online for free. I’d have a horrible time picking one if I were lucky enough to have a vote. I don’t think there’s a consensus about who will win: the old Oscar standard would be Colette, because until recently any Holocaust doc would automatically win, but if they’re going BLM it could be A Love Song For Latasha. For live action shorts, I found The Present (in which a Palestinian father brings his daughter into Israel to find an anniversary gift for his wife) totally gripping and full of dread, while time loop drama Two Distant Strangers topped my personal list by being clever, moving, and timely. I’d like to see that win, and I think it’s quite possible. Feeling Through is more cheerful alternative, which could appeal to voters as feel-good representation of a deafblind man making friends with a homeless teen, or (less likely) turn them off as inspiration porn. Both The Letter Room, which follows a prison mail censor, and White Eye, a single shot film that sets in conflict a migrant worker, a bicycle owner, and the Israeli police, bring us the complexity in a situation where the main character initially thinks he knows the weight of his moral choices, and both are worth watching. Of the animated shorts, If Anything Happens I Love You (the story of a family coping through and after an unimaginable loss) seems to have the edge; of the three I’ve seen, it has my vote.
And there it is, the 2021 Oscars at an admittedly lengthy glance. There’s so much worth talking about this year; I’m looking forward to how it all turns out (Best Actress!). Will it make me freak out to see the nominees in a room together? I guess I’ll let you know tomorrow!