The strangely elongated 2021 Oscar race will come down to what Academy voters actually saw — and this year, that’s something we have no way of knowing. Usually, the most popular box-office hits (“Joker,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Dunkirk”) are Best Picture contenders, along with upscale quality films that make voters feel good about themselves (“The Shape of Water,” “Roma,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight”). Best Picture winners “Green Book” and “Parasite” were both. How do we know what’s popular now?
Box-office metrics are irrelevant; streamers sparingly share data. Academy members were a distracted lot, and some confess they were watching more politics and escapist TV than movies. “I’m not sure they sampled as wide a selection as the press,” said one veteran publicist who is in touch with members.
When they did watch movies at home, they didn’t always stay glued start to finish. For filmmakers fussing over suspenseful editing patterns, Dolby sound levels, and color corrections, this is not good. Can anyone wholly experience “Tenet” in a drive-in or at home?
Among the possible Best Picture nominees, Paul Greengrass’s Tom Hanks western “News of the World” (December 25, Universal) boasts the highest domestic theatrical gross ($12.2 million), followed by feminist crowd-pleaser “Promising Young Woman” (December 25, Focus Features) with $5.4 million, and late-breaking Black Panther drama “Judas and the Back Messiah” (HBO Max/Warner Bros., February 12) with $4.5 million.
“Nomadland” has barely cracked $1 million, but that’s not the point: Was it seen? Yes, via the Academy screening portal, mailed DVDs, virtual screenings, or its February 19 Searchlight/Hulu release. The Venice Golden Lion, TIFF People’s Choice, and Golden Globe and Critics Choice drama winner is the frontrunner even without a SAG Ensemble nomination. The film is an anomaly, with a non-pro cast opposite two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand.
This narrative is hard to beat: Oscar-winning actress brings non-fiction bestseller to indie director to adapt, and they deliver an innovative, engaging, visually stunning masterwork about marginalized drifters on the road across America. The pandemic only served to increase the film’s emotional impact.
“Nomadland” is universally hailed within the Academy because Zhao and her team, playing with magic hour and tracking shots and manipulating reality to fit their fictional needs, mounted an ambitious piece of cinema. Movie folks get the degree of difficulty this project demanded, wedded to a strong story that rings true. “Nomadland” ticks a few Oscar boxes. It addresses economic and environmental social issues as well as aging, grieving, loneliness, the need to tune into nature, spirituality, self-sufficiency, and identity. Nothing else comes close.
The other narrative that no one can deny? Thanks to the Academy’s inclusive membership drives, the days of all-white-male categories are (almost) over. “Nomadland” auteur Zhao, who has swept the director awards thus far, will be the sixth woman and first woman nominee of color. When she wins (which she will) she will be the second woman to grab the directing Oscar after Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”).
Niko Tavernise/Netflix© 2020
Other films deepened their impact during this plague year as Black Lives Matter and an intensely divided country went through a fraught presidential election. Peaceful protesters clashing with police in riot gear were front and center in Aaron Sorkin’s 1968/9 “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Paramount/Netflix) as well as that other slice of ’60s-activist history featuring Fred Hampton, Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which had the virtue of opening February 12. While Daniel Kaluuya is a lock to win Best Supporting Actor as fiery orator Hampton, Best Picture and Cinematography nominations are also possible for this late-surging movie.
Also coming on strong is Lee Isaac Chung’s rural immigrant family drama “Minari,” which collected Sundance jury and audience awards in January 2020; during the pandemic, A24 pivoted from a summer release to a virtual debut December 11 in New York to qualify for film critics’ groups, followed by a limited theatrical release and on the A24 Screening Room platform February 12, followed by a VOD release February 26. SAG Ensemble, Steven Yeun, and Youn Yuh-jung nominations revealed the movie’s mainstream support as other guilds have followed, including the Eddies, DGA, and PGA (the film was not WGA eligible).
Timing matters. Back in June, Spike Lee’s critics’ fave “Da 5 Bloods” looked good to go but now falters, even though the sprawling Vietnam odyssey landed the coveted SAG Ensemble nod. That was back at the start of February. The Oscars are April 25. What happens between Oscars nominations March 15 and then is what counts.
Finally, Oscar campaigners know that in order to win your category, you need two things: a winner’s momentum as the Guild votes come in, and a strong narrative. No will resist this one: “Chadwick Boseman gives the performance of his life in ‘Ma Rainey’s Last Bottom,’ his last film.” And the the Academy might also recognize the late actor for Supporting Actor for his penultimate performance in “Da 5 Bloods.” Two posthumous nominations has never happened before.
For Best Actress, there is no obvious frontrunner. Critics Choice-winner Carey Mulligan could be the big win for “Promising Young Woman,” as Rami Malek was for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” another popular hit that surprised as much as it entertained. Mulligan lost the Golden Globe to singer-turned-actress Andra Day in the demanding title role in Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” That’s also a strong narrative, comparable to comeback queen Renée Zellweger sweeping the awards for a minor movie, “Judy.” Mulligan, a respected stage thespian, could win at SAG, where Day is not nominated. Due to new inclusion juries in the acting and directing categories, Mulligan did not land a boost from a BAFTA nomination on her home turf. Those juries also knocked out lauded veterans Gary Oldman and Olivia Colman, who could still pop up Oscar nominations morning.
Viola Davis for the larger-than-life “Ma Rainey” and Vanessa Kirby as a woman grieving for her lost infant in “Pieces of a Woman” should also be in the Actress mix, along with McDormand, who might have won again if she didn’t already have two Oscars at home.
Supporting Actress is another crapshoot, as one-time “Mank” frontrunner Amanda Seyfried was overlooked at SAG and BAFTA and lost the Globe and Critics Choice awards to Jodie Foster (“The Mauritanian”) and Maria Bakalova (“Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm”), respectively. Her stellar turn as Hearst Castle hostess movie star Marion Davies could be one of the few possible wins for “Mank.” Voters will also want “Minari” to be in the fray, so expect Korean movie star Youn Yuh-jung as the grandmother to be a competitor in this race. The fifth slot is up for grabs: Oscar perennial Glenn Close is long overdue, but is her SAG-nominated grandmother in “Hillbilly Elegy” the one she wins for? SAG, the Globes, and the Critics Choice Awards nominated “News of the World” child actress Helena Zengel. BAFTA highlighted “The Deuce” star Dominique Fishback, as Hampton’s pregnant partner in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” As that movie takes off, she could break in.
All Oscar contenders are deprived of their abilities to charm the room. Of course, there’s Zoom, and everyone knows how to engage and smile, react silently, and sign. (Thumbs up!) That’s where movie stars shine. Still, director-star George Clooney’s best charm offensive won’t get Netflix’s “The Midnight Sky” any major Oscar bids beyond a few crafts. Regina King is also a charismatic Oscar winner (“If Beale Street Could Talk”); will that give the director of “One Night in Miami” (Amazon), who landed a first-time director nod from the DGA, an advantage with the Academy directors’ branch?
If nominated, King would be the first Black woman director in the category. Her fellow actress-turned-director Emerald Fennell, however, placed with the big boys at the DGA. Fennell and Zhao also wrote their scripts, and auteurs often have the advantage at the Academy. Two women would be a record with the picky directors branch, which is less mainstream than the DGA; three would be a miracle.
Beyond the top five contenders for Best Picture, the field could contain up to 10 nominees, depending on how passionate voters are this year. (If it’s only eight, the last two on our BP list below won’t make it.) PGA nominee “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” may not make the final cut, while “News of the World,” with four likely craft slots, could slip in. Inclusion is a strong factor with an increasingly diverse voting body, but there are still about three men to every woman; the steak-eaters who loved “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Joker” still reign supreme. If “Nomadland” or low-budget “One Night in Miami” doesn’t float their boat, they could go for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which is firing on all cylinders in the home stretch, landing SAG Ensemble, DGA, WGA, PGA, Eddies, and more.
Racking up as many as 11 nominations will be David Fincher’s “Mank,” a movie about a gifted hack screenwriter that many in the Academy embrace and understand: It’s about them. Last year, Quentin Tarantino’s elegiac ’60s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” scored 10 nominations and two wins, including Brad Pitt. Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic “The Irishman” notched 10 nominations, no wins.
While multiple nominations show support from the Academy’s 17 branches voting in 23 categories (two sound categories have been consolidated into one), they do not necessarily a winner make. The crafts revere these master filmmakers, but many Academy members do not embrace PGA and DGA nominee “Mank.” Some found the black-and-white film hard to watch on the small screen; it did not land a SAG Ensemble slot, and was not eligible for the WGA. “Fincher is a shooter,” said one studio Oscar campaigner, “not a storyteller.”
The theaters vs. streamers divide still exists at the Academy, but everyone watches Netflix along with some menu of Amazon, HBO Max, Disney+, Hulu, and Apple TV+. These streamers hire Hollywood to make movies and show them as theaters are closed. Hollywood’s creatives are grateful that Netflix picks up films like “News of the World” (overseas) and Paramount’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which was set to release before the election. Is this studio movie going to be punished for being a pandemic Netflix release? Unlikely.
While nobody mounts a better Oscar campaign than Searchlight (“Nomadland”), the Netflix team covers a wide swath of films with unrelenting creativity. It swiftly figured out the digital promotion transition and didn’t lay on the swag too thick. Attention to detail got Mexican director Fernando Frias a DGA first-timer nod for shortlisted International feature “I’m No Longer Here,” and Diane Warren’s song for “The Life Ahead” a Globe win, as well as the advantage of knowing that your movies are being seen. Netflix even landed an International shortlist spot for Taiwan’s critics’ fave “A Sun.”
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
This year, Amazon made great strides with its campaigns for low-budget indies “One Night in Miami” and “Sound of Metal,” which have been widely seen. They will likely land six and seven nods each, respectively, including Best Picture nominations and craft categories. Out of the quartet of actors in “One Night in Miami,” Leslie Odom Jr. should gain a Supporting Actor slot; the category where he’s likely to win, as he did at the Globes and Critics Choice Awards, is Best Song for “Speak Now.”
“Sound of Metal” is playing out much like “Whiplash” and could win Best Sound. It takes people into a world they didn’t know, in a way they have never seen before. BAFTA-nominated journeyman actor Paul Raci, the hearing child of deaf parents who learned American Sign Language before English, could slip into Supporting Actor contention.
Apple pushed documentary “Boys State,” as well as the animated “Wolfwalkers” as a challenger to the beloved “Soul,” which was made available on Disney+ at Christmas. While Pixar has landed Best Picture nominations for Pete Docter’s “Up” and Lee Unkrich’s “Toy Story 3” (when ten slots were mandated), along with various writing and music nods, the actor-dominated Academy tends to favor live action over animation for Best Picture.
With almost a third of the Academy now international, expect a few surprises with the most intensely competitive documentary and international feature races ever, as well as the craft categories. If the ASC gives one of its cinematography slots to Newton Thomas Sigel for the Russo Bros.’ AppleTV+ acquisition “Cherry,” and not “Da 5 Bloods,” you know anything can happen.
In the foreign film race, frontrunners include Neon’s “Quo Vadis, Adia?” (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Goldwyn’s “Another Round” (Denmark) which swept the European Film Awards. The other three likely nominees are Andrei Konchalovsky’s return to form with black-and-white “Dear Comrades!”, Frias’ riveting immigrant drama “I’m No Longer Here,” and magic-infused prison drama “Night of the Kings.” But another possibility is “The Mole Agent,” a charming Chilean heart-tugger also shortlisted for documentary, along with Romanian “Collective,” which is more likely to factor in the documentary race.
This year, voters across the Academy may vote as long as they saw all 15 shortlisted films. International voters will have an impact on all categories, especially the documentary branch, which could favor “Collective” or “Gunda” over “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” “Boys State,” or “Crip Camp.” Marine love story “My Octopus Teacher” is a huge hit on Netflix and is scoring support across the guilds — which does not necessarily mean that the discerning documentary voters will approve of it (see “Jane,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” “My Little Farm”). Netflix’s other lauded non-fiction title, Kirsten Johnson’s “Dick Johnson is Dead,” is loved by many, but its inventive whimsy is a turn-off for some.
We don’t know what the live/virtual Oscar show will be, except that it will be beamed in from multiple locations around the world, presumably with several hosts. The likelihood is with so many studio movies pushed back, the show will be — like the anemic Golden Globes — one of the least watched ever. We’ll see what producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Jesse Collins will bring. It could be an opportunity to shake things up.
Here are my final Oscar predictions, in order of likelihood to win. We learn the results at the crack of dawn March 15.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7″ (Paramount/Netflix)
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix)
“Sound of Metal” (Amazon)
“One Night in Miami” (Amazon)
“Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features)
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros./HBO Max)
Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”)
Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
David Fincher (“Mank”)
Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
Regina King (“One Night in Miami”)
Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”)
Gary Oldman (“Mank”)
Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”)
Steven Yeun (“Minari”)
Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”)
Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”)
Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”)
Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”)
Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”)
Sacha Baron Cohen (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Chadwick Boseman (“Da 5 Bloods”)
Paul Raci (“Sound of Metal”)
Best Supporting Actress
Youn Yuh-jung (“Minari”)
Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”)
Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”)
Olivia Colman (“The Father”)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”)
Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”)
Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (“The Father”)
Sacha Baron Cohen and cowriters (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
Ramin Bahrani (“The White Tiger”)
Best Original Screenplay
Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers (“Soul”)
Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”)
Jack Fincher (“Mank”)
Best Animated Feature
“Over the Moon”
“Croods: The New Age”
Best Animated Short
“If Anything Happens I Love You”
“The Snail and the Whale”
Best Live Action Short
“The Human Voice”
“Two Distant Strangers”
“The Letter Room”
Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”)
Joshua James Richards (“Nomadland”)
Phedon Papamichael (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Sean Bobbitt (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Dariusz Wolski (“News of the World”)
Alexandra Byrne (“Emma”)
Ann Roth (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Trish Summerville (“Mank”)
Bina Daigeler (“Mulan”)
Francine Jamison-Tanchuck (“One Night in Miami”)
Best Documentary Feature
“Welcome to Chechnya”
“The Truffle Hunters”
Best Documentary Short Subject
“A Concerto Is a Conversation”
“A Love Song for Latasha”
“Call Center Blues”
“The Speed Cubers”
Alan Baumgarten (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)
Kirk Baxter (“Mank”)
Mikkel E.G. Nielsen (“Sound of Metal”)
Harry Yoon (“Minari”)
Best Foreign Language Film
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
“Another Round” (Denmark)
“I’m No Longer Here” (Mexico)
“Dear Comrades!” (Russia)
“Night of the Kings” (Ivory Coast)
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Best Production Design
Donald Graham Burt (“Mank”)
Nathan Crowley (“Tenet”)
Jim Bissell (“The Midnight Sky”)
Grant Major (“Mulan”)
David Crank (“News of the World”)
Best Original Score
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste (“Soul”)
Alexandre Desplat (“The Midnight Sky”)
James Newton Howard (“News of the World”)
Emile Mosseri (“Minari”)
Thomas Newman (“The Little Things”)
Best Original Song
“Speak Now,” written by Leslie Odom, Jr. and Sam Ashworth (“One Night in Miami,” Amazon Studios)
“Turntables,” written by Janelle Monáe, Nathaniel Irvin III, George “George 2.0.” A. Peters II (“All In: The Fight for Democracy,” Amazon Studios)
“Wuhan Flu,” written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Erran Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Amazon Studios)
“Húsavík,” written by Savan Kotecha, Rickard Goransson, Fat Max Gsus (“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” Netflix)
“Io Si (Seen),” written by Diane Warren (“The Life Ahead,” Netflix)
“Sound of Metal”
“News of the World”
“The Midnight Sky”
Best Visual Effects
“The Midnight Sky”
“Welcome to Chechnya”