This year’s nine Oscar shortlists are voted on by five branches of the Academy — Music, Documentary, Animation and Shorts, VFX, and Makeup and Hairstyling — as well as the intrepid members from all over the world who were willing and able to watch online a minimum of a dozen qualifying international features. Reading the tea leaves of these shortlists reveals some strengths and weaknesses heading into the final round of voting for the final five nominations to be announced on March 15.
To state the obvious, voters made their selection from a wide range of smaller-scale movies, given that many of the studio blockbusters, from Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” to Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” were pushed back due to the pandemic. Clearly, while stuck at home, many Academy voters were watching Netflix. That’s a huge advantage for “step one” on the road to an Oscar nomination: getting your movie seen.
The full shortlists are here.
1. Never underestimate Netflix
The streamer’s tireless awards team pursued every possible category, landing 26 shortlist slots across 19 different movies. They grabbed three shortlist spots for David E. Talbert’s musical fantasy “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” (Metascore: 69), which was not front and center on most Oscar prediction lists: Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score (“The Passion of the Christ” Oscar nominee John Debney), and Song (John Legend’s “Make It Work”).
Netflix also got shortlisted two arguably promotional vehicles for their other movies: Legend’s shortlisted song “Never Break” for the documentary “Giving Voice,” which follows auditions for an August Wilson play — “a must-watch before ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,'” wrote Decider — and documentary short “What Would Sophia Loren Do?,” a charming piece of fandom in support of Loren vehicle “The Life Ahead,” which also landed in Best Score for Oscar-winner Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”) and Song for “Io Si (Seen).”
Netflix landed 2 out of 15 International slots (Mexico’s “I’m No Longer Here” and Taiwan’s “A Sun”), 4 out of 10 Makeup slots, 6 out of 15 Score slots, 5 out of 15 Song slots, 3 out of 15 documentary slots, 3 out of 10 documentary short and 1 out of 10 animated short slots.
Two films that landed more than one listing are likely contenders in major categories: Globe, SAG, and Critics Choice nominees “Mank” (3) and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2), while “The Life Ahead” (2) is a long shot for Loren as Best Actress, and “Midnight Sky” may have to settle for nominations in its two shortlisted categories: VFX and Score.
2. Never overestimate the Music branch
Notorious for strange out-of-the-box choices, this year’s voters not only voted for “Jingle Jangle,” but nominated long-overdue songwriter (and tireless self-promoter) Diane Warren for not one but two songs, “Io Si (Seen)” from “The Life Ahead,” and “Free” from the popular Disney live action/CG hybrid film “The One and Only Ivan.”
Animated films always pull a few songs, including “Loyal Brave True” from “Mulan,” which also landed in Best Score, but Justin Timberlake did not make the cut for “Trolls: World Tour,” nor did Brandi Carlile’s song from “Onward.”
Other notable omissions include Andra Day’s Globe and Critics Choice nominee “Tigress & Tweed” from Hulu’s “United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which may not have been widely seen. On the other hand, “Fight for You” from Warner Bros.’ late-breaking “Judas and the Black Messiah” did make the cut.
To their credit, the music branch also included songs from documentaries, including eight-time Grammy nominee Janelle Monáe’s “Turntables,” from “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” which also appears on the non-fiction shortlist; “See What You’ve Done,” from PBS documentary “The Belly of the Beast”; and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Show Me Your Soul” from Melissa Haizlip’s PBS film “Mr. Soul!”
Two comedy songs landed spots: “Husavik” from “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Netflix) and “Wuhan Flu” from “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (Amazon).
It’s a sign of strength that two indies landed Song slots, “Green” from “Sound of Metal” (Amazon) and “Rain Song” from “Minari” (A24), which also made it into Best Score. Expect Leslie Odom Jr.’s song “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami” (Amazon) to lead the final nominations field.
As for Original Score, the rather eclectic selection included Latvian Oscar entry “Blizzard of Souls,” which the New York Times critic Glenn Kenny singled out for its “treacly music score”; the lovely score by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann for period lesbian love story “Ammonite” (Neon); and one of two possible Terence Blanchard scores, for Spike Lee’s Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods.”
Meanwhile, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross were nominated twice, for both their New Age score for “Soul” (with Jon Batiste helping out on the jazz side) and their Bernard Herrmann-homage for “Mank.” If they get nominated for both, they could cancel each other out. Our money is on “Soul” making the final five.
While Oscar perennial Alexandre Desplat will likely make the cut for “The Midnight Sky,” he’s won twice. So expect two veteran Oscar nominees, James Newton Howard (“News of the World”) and Thomas Newman (“The Little Things”) to fight for their long overdue wins after eight and 15 nominations, respectively.
3. Don’t expect ‘My Octopus Teacher’ to make the final five Documentary Feature nominees
Following the precedent of last year’s Macedonian documentary “Honeyland,” two films landed on both the documentary and international lists this year: Romania’s health-care exposé “Collective” (Magnolia) and Chile’s “The Mole Agent” (Dogwoof), a charming look at an elderly spy undercover at a nursing home. They are strong contenders in both categories.
While both the disabled-rights history “Crip Camp” and imaginative “Dick Johnson Is Dead” were expected to make the cut, the big surprise on the documentary list of 15 was the inclusion of Netflix’s hugely popular “My Octopus Teacher,” a well-made but manipulatively narrated story about a free diver communing underwater with an octopus. It remains an unlikely selection for the final five.
Nabbing respect from branch voters were three films from Neon: well-reviewed Sundance pickup “The Painter and the Thief,” a fascinating tale about an artist’s intense relationship with an addict, which had not been turning up with awards groups; Victor Kossakovsky’s black-and-white “Gunda” (Neon), a moving portrait of a sow and her litter; and Gianfranco Rosi’s gorgeously lensed look at the war-torn Middle East, “Notturno.”
Among the award circuit favorites are “Time” (Amazon), Garrett Bradley’s poetic black-and-white look at a family torn by an imprisoned father’s unjust sentence; Sony Pictures Classics’ sweetly nostalgic glimpse of a vanishing world, “The Truffle Hunters”; IFC’s archive dive “MLK/FBI,” an elegiac portrait; and “76 Days” (MTV Documentary Films), a harrowing immersion into Wuhan’s hospitals during the pandemic.
Among the missing were high-profile true stories “On the Record” (HBO Max), Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s portrait of a sexually-harassed record executive, and “The Fight” (Magnolia) a valentine to the ACLU. Also overlooked were “Assassins,” about two women charged with killing the brother of Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which major companies were unwilling to acquire, along with “Icarus” Oscar-winner Bryan Fogel’s “The Dissident,” which may have been hurt by not being backed by a major streamer. (The documentary branch often does not return to recent Oscar winners.)
4. International Oscar voters love auteurs
As expected, films from established auteurs made the cut, including Thomas Vinterberg’s frontrunner “Another Round,” starring the incomparable Mads Mikkelsen; “Charlatan,” Oscar perennial Agnieszka Holland’s look back at an infamous Czech healer; and Andrei Konchalovsky’s surprisingly feminist black-and-white critique of ’60s Russia, “Dear Comrades!”
Having a charming movie star like Stellan Skarsgard may have boosted “Hope,” a true family drama about a woman fighting cancer, while Barbara Sukova gives a stellar performance in French entry “Two of Us,” about aging lesbian lovers. Guatemala took a chance submitting “La Llorona,” even though it’s a horror film available on Shudder, which paid off.
Among the missing are Greek New Wave title “Apples,” one of a series of films that may have played better for critics than Oscar voters, and might have benefitted from the usual executive committee “saves,” which were eliminated this year, as voters could see the films online, including “Beginning,” “Never Gonna Snow,” “Notturno,” and “Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time.”
Despite the protestations that Netflix abandoned Taiwan entry “A Sun,” it made the shortlist along with popular Mexican entry “I’m No Longer Here.” Again, it’s about getting seen.
5. Always Expect Surprises from the VFX Branch
Thanks to the pandemic and the absence of big budget, VFX-intensive studio films, this is the wildest, most idiosyncratic VFX shortlist in Academy history. How else do you explain the inclusion of such outliers as HBO’s “Welcome to Chechnya” (the first documentary entry in the category), “Bloodshot” (Sony), the low-budget Vin Diesel comic book actioner, and “Love and Monsters” (Paramount), the even lower-budgeted post-apocalyptic monster comedy? The VFX branch included them alongside the sci-fi trappings of George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky,” David Fincher’s black-and-white “Mank” (both from Netflix), and Christopher Nolan’s time-inversion thrill ride, “Tenet” (Warner Bros.).
Whatever the reason for singling out smaller films at the expense of commercial fare as a result of online viewing and streaming, the surprising exposure for “Welcome to Chechnya” is fascinating. It proves that the executive committee is willing to be more daring during this new normal. Director David France knew he would need to protect the identity of the LGBTQ Chechens who risked their lives to participate in his film, but he was determined to find a way to do it that was both safe and engaging. After six months of research and consultation, he landed on using “deep fake” technology – replacing his subjects’ faces with 22 people (mostly New York City-based queer activists) who lent their likenesses to the project.
“Soul” also made history for Pixar, with its ethereal and semi-transparent world of The Great Before. It represents the studio’s first CG-animated feature to be shortlisted by the branch (“Incredibles 2” and “Ratatouille” previously advanced to preliminary lists). Since the all-CG “Lion King” was classified as live action, this is a greater recognition of CG animation’s contribution to VFX.
Additionally, the inclusion of “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” over “Wonder Woman 1984” (both from Warner Bros.) can be viewed as a validation for more offbeat mainstream work. Yet the branch still found room for proficient live-action family fare from Disney with both “The One and Only Ivan” and “Mulan.” The first touted MPC’s virtual production workflow for the CG zoo and animals, and the second touted Weta Digital’s effective CG Imperial City (populated by digital extras).
A few others missing in action, though, were “Greyhound,” the World War II North Atlantic actioner, starring Tom Hanks, with DNEG providing photoreal CG ocean and assorted augmentation, along with such animation-heavy studio films as “Dolittle,” “The Call of the Wild,” and “Sonic: The Hedgehog.”
While there is no clear frontrunner, the likely favorites will be “Midnight Sky” and “Mank.” The former offers cutting edge facial capture by Framestore, especially during the stunning ballet of blood death scene, as well as a pop-up version of Industrial Light & Magic’s innovative LED wall tech (from “The Mandalorian”) for on set exterior backgrounds. The latter delivers a monochromatic recreation of ’30s-era LA (including Artemple’s matte paintings, Territory’s LED screens for rear projection, and ILM’s CG animals and Victorian zoo cage).
6. Makeup and Hairstyling’s frontrunners are clear
While Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is competitive in a number of above-the-line categories, today’s shortlist is just one step closer toward securing what is likely its safest Oscar: Best Makeup and Hairstyling. The history of the MUAH category points toward the Academy heavily favoring transformation, and the disappearance of Viola Davis into pioneering blues singer Rainey is without a doubt the one likeliest to grab voters’ attention.
The Oscar-winning actress became the sexy, subversive Rainey with the help of gold teeth, charcoal-like makeup, and a wig made of horsehair. And Davis was boldly uncompromising in demanding such verisimilitude. She tapped her personal makeup stylist, Sergio Lopez Rivera, who collaborated with hair department head Mia Neal. The duo did as much research as possible, but there was little photographic reference, so they had to be inventive on a limited budget and little time to prep.
Not surprisingly, the other big contender is Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” in which Glenn Close is transformed into the fiery, scene-stealing Appalachian grandmother, Mawmaw. Despite negative reviews for Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s best-selling yet divisive novel, there is no denying the effective craft on display. Close tapped her long-time prosthetics artist, Matthew Mungle (“Albert Nobbs”), who collaborated with makeup head Eryn Krueger Mekash (“The Prom,” which was overlooked). They provided Close with a bulky nose, long ears, and tattered complexion to pull off the elderly matriarch.
Fincher’s black-and-white “Mank” (also from Netflix), however, underplayed the makeup for titular Hollywood screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Oscar winner Gary Oldman), while focusing on actress/San Simeon hostess, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Makeup department head Gigi Williams paid close attention to the monochromatic tone in applying makeup that split the difference between Davies on and off screen.
While “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” and “Emma” were anticipated to be shortlisted, there were a couple of nice surprises: “Pinocchio,” director Matteo Garrone’s Gothic re-imagining of the classic fairy tale, starring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, contains very creative makeup (Dalia Colli/Mark Coulier) and hair (Francesco Pegoretti) for the titular wooden puppet; and Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle” a Black-led fantasy set in Victorian England, in which hair and makeup designer Sharon Martin got the unique opportunity to present a rich tapestry of Black styles, particularly among the women who appear on-screen.
Chris O’Falt contributed to this article.