Who cares about the Oscars? That is the overriding question as the Academy struggles to lure viewers under pressure from broadcaster ABC. Many Academy members seem disengaged from the viewing and voting process; will global movie fans flock to the March 27 broadcast hosted by Amy Schumer, Regina Hall, and Wanda Sykes, with performances from Billie Eilish and Beyoncé? First-time Oscars producer Will Packer promises an accessibly entertaining show with an out-of-the-box presenters’ lineup that includes Tony Hawk and Shaun White — and after Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic 2021 Oscar show, there is nowhere to go but up.
Below, I make my final Oscar predictions for winners in all 23 award categories. The Oscar race comes down to what 9,487 eligible Academy voters actually saw in this strange roller-coaster year: One minute theaters were open again, the next a winter surge forced the mostly senior Oscar voters back into their lairs. Although a record number (given the Academy’s recently expanded ranks) voted for the nominations from 82 countries, and some voters attended live showings and Q&As, most watched contenders via the Academy Screening Room portal. Films that played best at home (“CODA,” “King Richard,” “Belfast,” “Don’t Look Up”) as opposed to theaters (“West Side Story,” “Nightmare Alley,” “Dune,” “Drive My Car,” even Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog”) are factors in the final outcome.
Another key change in the dynamics: For the first time since 2010, the final Academy ballot offered 10 ranked choices for Best Picture. The preferential ballot makes it possible for a small movie like “King Richard” or “CODA” to move up through the rankings to overtake an early leader like “The Power of the Dog.”
In the decade since the Academy adopted the preferential ballot, message movies with modest box office like “Nomadland,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight,” and “Green Book” dominate Best Picture over feel-good entertainments such as “La La Land” and “A Star Is Born,” or visual epics like “The Revenant,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Dunkirk,” and “Gravity.” There are exceptions: Bong Joon Ho’s class-divide thriller “Parasite,” the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, delivered on all fronts.
The February 27 live SAG Awards marked the moment when the world reemerged into stacked weekends of postponed awards shows. As the “CODA” cast celebrated wins for Best Ensemble and Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur that night, finally, consensus started to grow. Suddenly, a quiet family tearjerker that played on AppleTV+ (which scooped up the Sundance prizewinner for $25 million) became the little movie that could — albeit, with a parent company that has a market cap of nearly $3 trillion.
While Netflix (market cap: $166 billion) successfully positioned Jane Campion’s impeccably mounted, artful noir Western “The Power of the Dog” as an early frontrunner out of fall festivals like Venice (where Campion won Best Director), many Oscar watchers were waiting to see which mainstream heart-tugger (Sian Heder’s “CODA,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard,” or Kenneth Branagh’s 1969 memoir “Belfast”) would challenge the hard-boiled ’20s western, which landed 12 Oscar nominations but is more admired than beloved. Being the frontrunner is a vulnerable place.
“The Power of the Dog” is strong with the crafts, actors, writers, and directors, as well as the international voters who make up almost a third of the Academy, but proved more divisive among the Academy’s more mainstream factions. The one category it is most likely to win: Best Director for Campion, who was the second woman nominated back in 1994 for “The Piano” (she took home Best Original Screenplay) and would be the third woman director to win, following Kathryn Bigelow and last year’s Chloé Zhao. Although “The Power of the Dog” handily won the usually predictive precursors (DGA, BAFTAs, Critics Choice Awards), “CODA” took home the late-breaking Producers and Writers Guild Awards and fueled its fire.
The Oscars telecast always tells a story. The film industry wants to show the world what best represents them and that movie usually reflects the zeitgeist. As the world copes with a pandemic and global unrest, why not reward a film about a resilient family under duress? “CODA” also gave audiences something they had not seen before. Although the film is a straightforward coming-of-age narrative, it opened a door for Academy voters to embrace a naturalistic and universal drama about a working-class deaf family.
“CODA” also benefits from recency bias, as voters caught up late with the must-see film that should score at least two wins out of three nominations (Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor). If it wins the third, Best Picture, it will have flouted the stats, as did Korea’s “Parasite.” This movie has a similar feel as the film community roots for a likable, familial cast (including Oscar-winning “Children of a Lesser God” star Marlee Matlin) and for Oscar records to be shattered. “CODA” would become the first Sundance movie, and the first film with a largely deaf cast, to win Best Picture.
Another milestone for 2022: A Best Picture win for “CODA” or “The Power of the Dog” would mark a first for a streamer. Netflix has dominated nominations for several years but has yet to land the top prize. The behemoth streamer is resented by certain Academy sectors (mainly theatrical distributors) for its deep pockets and competitive clout. Most Oscar voters, however, are eager to work for Netflix, nor do they carry deep-seated negative feelings against AppleTV+. For now, it’s not considered an existential threat.
AppleTV+ could land as many as three wins out of six nominations (“CODA,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth”) on Oscar night; a similar tally could hold for Netflix, even with 27 nominations (“The Power of the Dog,” “Don’t Look Up,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Tick Tick Boom,” “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” “The Hand of God”). Meanwhile, Amazon Studios could go home with nothing off three acting nominations for “Being the Ricardos” (Javier Bardem, Nicole Kidman, and J. K. Simmons) and a makeup and hairstyling nod for “Coming 2 America.”
On the studio front, Disney should pick up an animated win for “Encanto” out of nine nominations, Supporting Actress Ariana DeBose for Twentieth Century’s “West Side Story,” and Searchlight wins for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Summer of Soul.” Warner Bros./Legendary’s “Dune,” even as a day-and-date release, grossed more than $400 million worldwide and will draw the steakeater vote; it’s positioned to win six of its 10 nominations (composer Hans Zimmer, who is on tour and will not attend, could win his second Oscar). Like other sci-fi/fantasy entries such as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the space epic didn’t score with actors and could fare better at the Oscars when the finale arrives in theaters.
May you win your Oscar pool! My final list of picks in 23 categories:
Best Picture: “CODA”
Spoiler: “The Power of the Dog″
Bottom Line: The much-debated preferential ballot — voters rank the nominees in order of preference — comes down to which film aligns with the (socially relevant) message that voters want to send. These factors favor SAG, PGA, and WGA winner “CODA.” Yes, “The Power of the Dog” won the oft-predictive BAFTAs, Critics Choice, and DGA. But Heder’s crowdpleaser provided a warm and fuzzy alternative to Campion’s colder artistic achievement, peaking just as final Oscar voting commenced. Stats watchers note: it’s extremely rare for a movie to win without an Editing nod.
Best Director: Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)
Spoiler: Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”)
Bottom Line: In recent years, the directing Oscar has gone to the most extraordinary technical achievement, including Ang Lee’s VFX-winner “Life of Pi,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and “Roma,” and A.G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” Like last year, when Zhao swept the precursor director awards because she wrote, directed, and edited “Nomadland,” Campion is credited with mounting a complex and challenging drama on multiple locations. If Campion wins, she’ll be the third woman after Zhao and Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) to win Best Director.
2021 ph: Chiabella James /© Warner Bros. /Courtesy Everett Collection
Best Actor: Will Smith (“King Richard”)
Spoiler: Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”)
Bottom Line: This race is between two actors who give the performances of their careers. Smith swept the precursors as a driven father ambitious for his daughters in “King Richard.” If anyone was going to challenge him, Cumberbatch as the toxic cattleman in “The Power of the Dog” would have had to beat him at the BAFTAs. He did not.
Best Actress: Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”)
Spoiler: Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”)
Bottom Line: Best Actress started out with no obvious frontrunner: None of the contenders boasted the Best Picture advantage. But given that Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”), Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”), and Penelope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”) had already won the Oscar, when SAG anointed three-time nominee Jessica Chastain, she went on to win the Critics Choice Award for her transformative performance, which will likely come with the Makeup and Hairstyling award attached, much like “Darkest Hour.” If “Spencer” were better liked, Stewart could have prevailed, but the actress took full advantage of the awards circuit to build more fans and followers for next time.
Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur (“CODA”)
Spoiler: Kodi-Smit McPhee (“The Power of the Dog”)
Bottom Line: Smit-McPhee started out as the frontrunner, but he will not be able to catch up with the profane, hilarious, and poignant Kotsur, the Theater of the Deaf actor who once lived out of his car and improbably turned into the awards circuit king. That’s a great narrative.
Best Supporting Actress: Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”)
Spoiler: Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”)
Bottom Line: The one likely win for Steven Spielberg’s dazzling musical underachiever “West Side Story” (20th Century/Disney, $75.1 million worldwide) is breakout Broadway star DeBose, who would mark the first openly queer actress and first Afro-Latina to win the Oscar, and the second actress to win for playing spitfire Anita, the role originated by Rita Moreno. Dunst finally landed her first nomination after years of stellar work; she’ll have another shot.
Melinda Sue Gordon
Best Original Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”)
Spoiler: Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”)
Bottom Line: Two rearview looks at their childhoods from master directors are running neck and neck. The rivals delivered entertaining movies: Branagh’s heartfelt Critics Choice winner “Belfast” ($42.4 million worldwide) details the impact of The Troubles in 1969 on his family, while Anderson’s charming BAFTA-winner “Licorice Pizza” (MGM/UA, $28 million worldwide) strings together a series of humorous San Fernando Valley ’70s vignettes. This category represents each auteur’s best shot at their first Oscar win. After 11 nominations, Anderson is overdue and is most likely to score this win out of his three nominations, but faces another overdue auteur with Branagh (eight nominations to date). If Branagh loses, “Belfast” could whiff on its seven nominations. (The WGA went with Adam McKay’s end-of-the-world political satire “Don’t Look Up” over “Licorice Pizza;” Branagh was ineligible.)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Sian Heder (“CODA”)
Spoilers: Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”) and Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)
Bottom Line: In another close race, Heder won the BAFTA and the WGA for writing a script based on “La Famille Belier,” while Gyllenhaal won the often-predictive USC Scripter Awards for her Elena Ferrante adaptation, and Campion took the Critics Choice awards for adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel. (Campion and Gyllenhaal weren’t eligible for the WGA award.) While Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” isn’t a Best Picture nominee, Colman’s nomination shows support for the film and the charismatic actress-turned-director swept the Spirits and took Best First Director at the DGAs. Well respected, with international support, Campion could still win this.
Best Animated Feature: “Encanto”
Spoiler: “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”
Bottom Line: It seems like a done deal that magical Latin musical “Encanto” (with popular songs by the prolific Lin-Manuel Miranda) will mark another win for Disney, despite powerful competition from producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s delightfully dysfunctional family adventure “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”
Best Animated Short: “Robin Robin”
Bottom Line: The advantage goes to the most-accessible and/or moving entry, which this year is UK animation stalwart Aardman’s delightfully voiced stop-motion tale about a bird raised by a family of mice. They’ve won three Oscars for shorts. On the other hand, Academy voters often go with a heartstring plucker like “Boxballet,” which limns the improbable romance between a tiny ballet dancer being manhandled by her choreographer, and her neighbor, a battered hulk of a boxer.
Best Cinematography: Greig Fraser (“Dune”)
Spoiler: Ari Wegner (“The Power of the Dog”)
Bottom Line: Camerimage, ASC, and BAFTA winner Fraser deserves huge credit for his collaboration with Villeneuve on this challenging technological and artistic feat, including IMAX desert photography. But Critics Choice winner Wegner is running close behind for her stunning work with Campion, for which she devoted a year of prep. She’d be the first woman to win in that category.
Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan (“Cruella”)
Spoiler: Jacqueline West (“Dune”)
Bottom Line: Two-time winner Beavan (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) took the Costume Designers Guild award for her extravagant ’80s London red-and-black punk aesthetic in “Cruella,” while four-time Oscar nominee West dealt with another magnitude of scale with “Dune,” which did not look like any other space epic.
Best Documentary Feature: “Summer of Soul”
Bottom Line: Rookie musician-turned-director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s 1969 concert film in Harlem showcased a joyous event that had been buried in a basement for 50 years. The film has been winning the precursors and should win here. If there was a stealth surprise, it could be veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s “Attica,” which also unearths long-forgotten archives, revealing shocking footage of how prisoners were abused after the prison uprising.
Best Documentary Short: “Lead Me Home”
Spoiler: “The Queen of Basketball”
Bottom Line: Voters respond to Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk’s urgent agitprop portrait of the homeless in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, including one pregnant homeless mother who breaks down as she describes how she’s trying to hold her family together. “The Queen of Basketball” also unveils a remarkable, resilient human being who, in another world, could have risen to the top of the NBA.
Best Editing: Joe Walker (“Dune”)
Spoiler: Pamela Martin (“King Richard”)
Bottom Line: This will likely go to Denis Villeneuve’s right-hand-man Joe Walker (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”), a four-time Oscar nominee who helped turn this ambitious space odyssey into an accessible and intimate epic. ACE editing award winner, Oscar nominee Pamela Martin (“The Fighter”), could mark the second win for “King Richard.” “Dune” took the BAFTA.
2021. © Janus Films / courtesy Everett Collection
Best International Feature Film: “Drive My Car”
Spoiler: “The Worst Person in the World”
Bottom Line: Even at three hours, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” is a strong contender because it also scored nominations for Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. Denmark’s Jonas Rasmussen (“Flee”) may have to settle for the record three nominations for Animated feature, Documentary, and International Film. The other popular entry, which also played Cannes, is “The Worst Person in the World,” also nominated for Original Screenplay.
Best Live-Action Short: “On My Mind”
Spoiler: “Ala Kaachu”
Bottom Line: “On My Mind” pulls at the tear ducts as a husband tries to craft a farewell song for his dying wife, while “Ala Kaachu” is a devastating portrait of a young woman trying to escape the strictures of rural life that threaten to tie her down for good.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
Bottom Line: Actress contender Chastain contributes to the win for transforming into the infamous televangelist with over-the-top eye makeup and flashy wigs. Nothing is really competing with the likely Makeup and Hairstyling Guild winner, but many folks admire the artistry of Stellan Skarsgard’s obesely powerful “Dune” villain.
Best Production Design: “Dune”
Spoiler: “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
Bottom Line: This one goes to “Dune” for its creation of three distinct planet worlds dominated by huge-scale Brutalist architecture, while Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” offers a moody but spare geometric black and white Expressionist aesthetic.
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer (“Dune”)
Spoiler: Jonny Greenwood (“The Power of the Dog”)
Bottom Line: No question Greenwood is overdue and supplied tense atmospherics for Campion’s Western, but Zimmer outdid himself on “Dune,” inventing instruments and sounds to create an otherworldly vibe.
Best Original Song: “No Time to Die” (“No Time to Die”)
Spoiler: “Dos Oruguitas” (“Encanto”)
Bottom Line: There’s an honorable James Bond song tradition at the Oscars, from Adele to Sam Smith, and given the popularity of Billie Eilish’s entry in the Bond Best Song pantheon, it should follow suit. But Miranda is looking for an EGOT and his songs for “Encanto” are huge hits on the Billboard charts, even if “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” didn’t make the Oscar cut.
Best Sound: “Dune”
Spoiler: “No Time to Die”
Bottom Line: Most Oscar-watchers give the edge to the innovative dynamic sound design for the multiple planets in “Dune,” but the technical aspects of the latest James Bond joint are strong. Truth is, Sound and Editing often match up. So take your pick.
Best Visual Effects: “Dune”
Spoiler: “Free Guy”
Bottom Line: “Dune” is the big-budget behemoth, and its stunning desert scapes and gigantic worms should handily take this year’s Oscar. But this is a category that few Academy members sampled in its entirety; for those who did, twisty gamescape “Free Guy” is getting a lot of love.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.