This year’s contenders are a crew of motley, scrappy, more-indie-than-usual films, led by frontrunners “Nomadland” (Searchlight) and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Paramount/Netflix). Which factors will determine those that cross the nomination finish line?
Here’s what I have gleaned about what’s likely in the two-months delayed voting period (March 5-10), when 9,362 Oscar voters (up 893 from 2020) from 17 branches may pick the final contenders in 23 categories. Nominations come March 15, ahead of the latest-ever Oscars on April 25.
1. Besides actors, international Academy voters carry the most sway.
This year, 49 percent of invited new Academy members came from overseas, including such Europeans as the music branch’s Bernie Taupin (“Rocket Man”), director Ladj Ly (“Les Miserables”), and actors Florence Pugh (“Little Women”) and Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”).
Look at overseas awards for clues of which films have support. It helps to know that Denmark’s “Another Round,” starring popular Mads Mikkelsen, swept the European Film Awards, that “The Mole Agent” won San Sebastian, or that immigrant drama “I’m No Longer Here” won 10 Ariels in Mexico.
Also, for the first time, any Oscar voter may pick five foreign-language nominees as long as they see all 15 shortlisted films. Stuck at home, many are doing just that. We can see the impact of an expanded voting bloc on the well-chosen shortlist, which was less Eurocentric and included more disparate countries from Taiwan to Tunisia.
Never underestimate the biggest foreign voting bloc: the UK, which boasts several hundred AMPAS voters who overlap with BAFTA. (That group announces its nominees March 9, followed by the winners April 11.) Moving up in the BAFTA race is multiple London Film Critics and British Independent Film Award-winner Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal,” “Mogul Mowgli”) as well as “The Father” (BIFA’s Screenplay, Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton, and Actor, Anthony Hopkins). Whenever an American film gains recognition on the other side of the pond, as “Nomadland” did at both the London Film Critics and BIFA, that’s a sign of strength.
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The BAFTAs could also give a boost to writer-director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” — whose star Carey Mulligan could win — as well as Kate Winslet in “Ammonite” and London’s own Daniel Kaluuya in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a late release that is surging.
The documentary branch is 25 percent international, which is why last year’s nominations skewed toward films from foreign filmmakers including Macedonia’s “Honeyland” (also nominated for Best International Feature), “The Cave,” “For Sama,” and “The Edge of Democracy.” One could argue that eventual winner “American Factory” was as much about China as Michigan.
Despite the stateside prizes racked up by such films as “Crip Camp,” “Time,” and “Dick Johnson is Dead,” Romania’s European Film Award and London Critics Award winner “Collective” could have an edge in the documentary race, along with Chile’s “Mole Agent,” U.S.-China co-production “76 Days,” Victor Kossakovsky’s “Gunda,” and Norway’s “The Painter and the Thief.”
2. Guilds and Critics Choice Awards have more impact than Globes.
The Golden Globes on February 28 is a global TV show with media reach, but this year it’s deprived of its red-carpet glitter, inside-the-room shenanigans, and bubbly Beverly Hilton after-parties. It will do its best; Amy Poehler and Tina Fey will host from the Hilton and the Rainbow Room, respectively, along with a raft of starry presenters. The news of the night could be the speeches (amid ongoing controversy about ways the very white group is susceptible to swag-handing publicists); Meryl Streep landed an Oscar nod for “Florence Foster Jenkins” after her incendiary 2017 Cecil B. DeMille Award anti-Trump diatribe.
Gaining influence are the March 7 Critics Choice Awards, which are voted on by some 400 entertainment press around the country. With six to seven slots in many categories, the winners will practice their speeches in preparation for Oscar night. Last year included eventual Oscar winners Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt, Laura Dern, and “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho (shared with “1917” filmmaker Sam Mendes); Best Picture went to Screenplay winner Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Which brings us back to the international side of the equation. The Critics Choice voters, while they often reflect the more mainstream side of the Academy, are mainly American. The Hollywood guilds are also less international and less diverse than the evolving Academy membership, but they help show which films are trending and are far more predictive than any other voting bodies.
The PGA nominations, a list of 10 films, arrive March 8, with the Eddie editing awards nominations March 11. These will make the picture much clearer.
3. Expect a surprise in the Best Actress race.
Three actresses are locked: Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) all landed Globe, SAG, Indie Spirit, and CCA nominations, while Venice Best Actress-winner Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) missed the Spirit mention. It would be a shock if all four did not score Oscar slots.
For the fifth spot, it’s open season. Anything could happen. Which narrative will dominate? Both the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and CCA went with Grammy nominee Andra Day, who nails her first film performance in the title role in Lee Daniels’ late-breaking “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Paramount/Hulu). “French Exit” (Sony Pictures Classics) star Michelle Pfeiffer’s Globe nod for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy seems less predictive. SAG went with long-overdue awards perennial Amy Adams as a drug addict in Ron Howard’s controversial “Hillbilly Elegy” (Netflix), while the CCA included Indie Spirit contender and New York Film Critics winner Sidney Flanigan, a newcomer who breaks your heart in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Focus Features), and gave Emmy-winning “Euphoria” star Zendaya her first film awards attention for “Malcolm & Marie” (Netflix).
If any group were to come through for Sophia Loren in Italian film “The Life Ahead” (Netflix), which was nominated for foreign-language film by the Globes, it would be the Academy. It gave her the honorary Oscar in 1991 and she won in 1962 for Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women.” She’s 86.
4. Don’t expect animated features to break into Best Picture contention.
Before the Academy created the Best Animated Feature category in 2002, back when there were five slots, only “Beauty and the Beast” had ever been nominated for Best Picture. After the Academy allowed up to 10 slots for Best Picture, two Pixar movies racked up enough support to make it to a BP nomination: Pete Docter’s “Up” (2009) and Lee Unkrich’s’s “Toy Story 3” (2010). Both films landed writing, music, and sound category nominations as well.
This year’s primary animated contenders are Docter’s latest lauded existential fantasy, “Soul” (Pixar) and GKids’ festival hit “Wolfwalkers” (AppleTV+). Still, a BP nod is a rare feat, which “Soul” is more likely this year to pull off. The Shorts and Animation branch is small (many animators wind up in Visual Effects) and no animated film will ever garner the all-important actor support. Recognizing voice actors goes against their belief systems.
5. Think big.
Scope is one reason why Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix) should collect key nominations including Best Picture, Director, and Score (Terence Blanchard). It’s both period and contemporary, and flashes back to full-on Vietnam warscapes shot on location in Thailand. It’s a complex, multi-generational saga dominated by the towering, Shakespearean performance of veteran Delroy Lindo, who Academy voters could rally behind after his unaccountable Globe and SAG snubs — after winning Best Actor from both the New York and National Film Critics.
Similarly, rural post-Civil War western “News of the World,” and urban “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” bring plenty of crafts into play as the films recreate their respective violent periods. George Clooney’s dystopian space opera “The Midnight Sky” and David Fincher’s impeccably mounted showbiz saga “Mank” offer a rich panoply of choices for crafts voters.
While “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “The Father,” “One Night in Miami,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Pieces of a Woman,” “Sound of Metal,” and “Promising Young Woman” are all strong Oscar contenders, especially with actor support, they lack the craft bells and whistles that go with big-budget largesse.