This year’s Oscar season was always going to be unconventional, with nominations taking place almost two months later than usual ahead of April’s delayed ceremony, but one aspect of the awards cycle remains unchanged: There were plenty of snubs and surprises, with the Academy delivering a diverse set of nominations that challenge many of the assumptions about the way things would play out.
First, the shockers. “One Night in Miami” (Amazon) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix) did not make the final eight for Best Picture. It was no surprise that “Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix) wasn’t going to make it — Spike Lee’s Vietnam epic earned just one Oscar slot, for Best Original Score, as critics prize-winner Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman were both overlooked for acting nods. And the late Boseman landed just one, not two, nominations: Best Actor for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” along with his larger-than-life costar, Viola Davis, the most nominated Black Actress in history. Boseman should take the win in a category that makes him the seventh performer to earn a posthumous nomination.
Timing is everything with this year’s Oscars, since the show will air on ABC and worldwide on April 25 in two large venues, the usual Dolby Theatre and the unusual Union Station.
Despite the formidable campaigns by streaming entities — and the usual healthy outcome for Netflix — three movies that have been coming on strong ever since their late February openings, with six nominations apiece, were from theatrical distributors: “Nomadland” (Searchlight/Hulu), starring Frances McDormand; Florian Zeller’s play-to-film “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics), starring back-to-back Best Actor nominee Anthony Hopkins and Supporting Actress contender Olivia Colman; and Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros./HBO Max), starring not only Supporting Actor frontrunner Daniel Kaluuya, but his close friend and costar-turned-rival, LaKeith Stanfield, who had campaigned for Best Actor, the first time two Black actors from the same film have been nominated. (In truth, they are both leading men.) That is a sign of strength for the surging “Judas,” which marks the first Best Picture contender with an all-Black producing team, and also scored nominations for Original Screenplay, Cinematography and Song.
In the director’s race, as usual, it was four out of five with the DGA nominees. As often happens, the internationally-tipped directors branch looked overseas for Thomas Vinterberg, the Danish director of International Feature Film nominee “Another Round,” who took the Aaron Sorkin slot for “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Sorkin will likely settle for his second Screenplay Oscar — and while he could pull a Ben Affleck and rally for a Best Picture win, that’s rare for a movie without a director slot. Hollywood reveres Sorkin as one of the top writers of his generation; during the campaign, Sorkin shined a light on his key collaborators Phedon Papamichael and Alan Baumgarten, who landed nods for Cinematography and Editing, respectively.
The four movies that match up with Best Picture are the ones to beat: David Fincher’s slice of old Hollywood “Mank” (Netflix), which lead the field with 10 nominations, followed by two critical favorites with six each — Chloé Zhao’s road odyssey “Nomadland,” and Lee Isaac Chung’s rural family saga “Minari” — as well as Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” with five. That one may strike some people as a surprise, but with the Academy, it helps to be a writer-director, which gave Fennell the advantage over the actress-turned-director of “One Night in Miami,” Oscar-winner Regina King. The film will compete in just three categories: Best Adapted Screenplay (Kemp Powers) and Supporting Actor and Song. Nominee Leslie Odom Jr. is the third performer to earn acting and songwriting nominations for the same film after Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”), Lady Gaga (“A Star is Born”), and Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”).
Only “Nomadland” and “Promising Young Woman” boast the three major nominations that often presage a Best Picture win: Director, Editor, and Screenplay, and both also boast a strong Best Actress contender, McDormand and Carey Mulligan, respectively. Zhao is the first woman of color to earn a Directing nod; she’s also the first woman to score four nominations in a single year. She and Fennell are the sixth and seventh women to be nominated for Best Director. Fennell is the third woman with three nods in one year (after Sofia Coppola and Fran Walsh in 2003). It’s the first time two women have been nominated for Best Director. (Three would have been a miracle.)
Zhao has been sweeping the major awards groups and is expected to win; she would be the second after Kathryn Bigelow. “Nomadland,” the Venice Golden Lion, TIFF People’s Choice, and Golden Globe and Critics Choice drama winner (not to mention IndieWire’s Critics Poll), remains the frontrunner to win Best Picture, even without a SAG Ensemble slot. (The film is an anomaly, as it boasts a non-pro cast opposite two-time Oscar-winner McDormand, who also produced the movie and brought the Jessica Bruder book to Zhao to adapt.)
“Nomadland” is beloved because Zhao and her production team delivered an ambitious cinematic feat that hits the pandemic zeitgeist. The movie ticks several key Oscar boxes: It addresses economic and environmental issues as well as aging, grieving, loneliness, spirituality, self-sufficiency, and identity.
Netflix landed an astonishing 35 nominations, 11 more than last year’s 24, but only two of their awards slate made it to Best Picture: “Mank” with 10 nominations and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” with six. Again, it will be a question of what these movies win. “Mank” could follow in the footsteps of last year’s “The Irishman,” which scored 10 nods and won none. The best shots for “Mank” are Production Design and Supporting Actress Amanda Seyfried, who has yet to win anything, but is competing in a wide open race that includes the return of Glenn Close (Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy”) vs. Olivia Colman (“The Father”), who took home the Oscar last time around for “The Favourite.”
Josh Ethan Johnson
The likeliest Supporting Actress winner is wily Korean movie star Youn Juh-jung, who played the grandmother in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (A24), which also landed a Best Actor spot for Steven Yeun, the first Asian-American to place in that category. (Bulgarian “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” breakout Maria Bakalova is the critics favorite who could still surprise.) Both Youn and Carey Mulligan, earning her second nomination for her mercurial performance in “Promising Young Woman,” could represent their movies in the winner’s circle.
Amazon Studios scored a formidable 12 nominations. The company campaigned hard for Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” with a robust six nominations (and will likely win Best Sound), as well as “One Night in Miami,” with a disappointing three (though it will likely win Best Song). AppleTV+, which mounted Oscar pushes for “Boys State,” “On the Rocks,” and “Cherry,” had to settle for two nominations, for Sound for “Greyhound” and animated film “Wolfwalkers,” which is up against Disney/Pixar’s “Soul,” which also landed nods for Original Score and Sound, but missed a deserved recognition for Original Screenplay. Pixar Creative Director Pete Docter has now notched a record four animated feature nominations.
Many of the choices across the Academy’s 17 branches and 23 categories (the two Sound categories merged into one) can be explained by the burgeoning ranks of foreign members over the last few years. Over half of the 819 artists and executives from 68 countries who were invited to join the Academy in 2020 were international, swelling the ranks to 9,300 voting members. On the other hand, a record nine people of color were nominated this year, and “Judas” marks the first time that an all-Black team of producers have been nominated for Best Picture (that’s director Shaka King along with Ryan Coogler and MACRO agent Charles King).
Another surprise was Matteo Garrone’s Italian import “Pinocchio” (Roadside Attractions), which nabbed two nominations, for Hair & Makeup and Costumes, while Italian “Life Ahead” (Netflix) landed a Song slot for Diane Warren’s “Io So (Seen).” And for the second time in Academy history, Romania’s health-system exposé “Collective” landed nominations, the first in the country’s history, for both Best Documentary and International Feature. (Last year’s “Honeyland” was the first non-fiction film to crack both categories. Meanwhile, this year’s international submission from Chile, “The Mole Agent,” made it into Best Documentary.) Popular South African/UK production “My Octopus Teacher” (Netflix) took a slot away from such worthy American entries as “Boys State” and “Dick Johnson is Dead.”
Rather than a European-centric list of foreign-language nominees, the outcome cast a wider net that includes Hong Kong (“Better Days”) and a first-ever nomination for Tunisia (“The Man Who Sold His Skin”), which beat out strong entries from usual contenders in France (“Two of Us”) and Russia (“Dear Comrades!”). Other snubs included Netflix entries “A Sun” (Taiwan) and “I’m No Longer Here” (Mexico).
Now comes the next stage of the campaign, as canny streamers try to hold their own with late-breaking theatrical marketers, in what looks to be the most competitive Best Picture field in years.
You can see the full list of nominations right here.