As the awards calendar hurtles toward the delayed Oscars on April 25, we have a clear frontrunner for Best Picture. Last year, Bong Joon Ho’s dark drama “Parasite” rode the Palme d’Or from May through to a Best Picture win. But it was, finally, a global blockbuster that appealed to the mainstream.
That wasn’t an option this pandemic award season. Even if the list of 2021 Oscar contenders is smaller-scale and more independent than usual, the film that boasts wide appeal across the Academy’s 23 branches will finally take home the Best Picture Oscar. With six nominations including Best Picture, Actress, Director, Editor, Adapted Screenplay, and Cinematography, Chloé Zhao’s hybrid cinéma vérité “Nomadland” (Searchlight/Hulu) is the film that hits the lonely pandemic zeitgeist in this weird year — even if the film didn’t score the SAG Ensemble nomination that “Parasite” did in 2020. “Nomadland” did win the Venice Golden Lion and predictive Toronto People’s Choice prizes, as well as the Globe and Critics Choice top awards, including Best Director, the PGA, the DGA, and the four top BAFTA awards.
After the Chinese multi-hyphenate broke out in 2017 with low-budget docudrama “The Rider,” she landed a Marvel tentpole (“Eternals,” 2021) and then returned to America’s wide-open spaces with “Nomadland,” a road movie based on Jessica Bruder’s book about a 60-ish woman, played by two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) who hits the road in a van after the 2008 recession. Producer McDormand developed the project with Zhao, and seamlessly interacted with a cast of non-pros. There’s never been a movie like this one that looks directly into the eyes of America’s marginalized poor.
As usual, January’s Sundance Film Festival yielded a few lauded awards contenders: writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s autofiction “Minari” (A24), which won both the jury and the audience prize, which garnered six nominations, including Best Actor (Steven Yeun) and Supporting Actress SAG and BAFTA winner (Youn Yuh-jung), as did Florian Zeller’s play-to-film “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics), starring Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, as well as writer-director Emerald Fennell’s revenge fantasy “Promising Young Woman,” with five nods including Actress frontrunner Carey Mulligan.
With six nominations, TIFF 2019 debut “Sound of Metal” (Amazon Studios) could collect some BAFTAs as well as the Oscar for Best Sound. Director Darius Marder and his brother Abraham collaborated on the WGA-nominated script, which details the journey of a heavy metal drummer (nominee Riz Ahmed) who loses his hearing and moves through denial to acceptance in a new community with help from a deaf counselor (nominee Paul Raci).
Netflix has the advantage of getting its movies seen, such as sprawling period biopic “Mank,” which led the field with 10 nominations. After forays into Netflix series “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter,” David Fincher is back in movie mode with for the first time since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Written by Fincher’s late father Jack, “Mank” stars Oscar-winning shapeshifter Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) as Hollywood’s go-to script doctor Herman J. Mankiewicz during the tempestuous development of Orson Welles’ landmark 1941 “Citizen Kane.” Among the ensemble of colorful Hollywood characters, Amanda Seyfried landed a Supporting Actress nomination as movie star Marion Davies (the model for the opera singer wife of publishing mogul Charles Foster Kane), as did multiple craft contenders including Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) for their Bernard Herrmann-inspired score. The question is what Oscars “Mank” will win — it could take home one or two.
Even more popular is Netflix’s SAG-Ensemble nominee “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the sophomore directing effort of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”), who out of six nominations landed the expected Original Screenplay but not Director. He took 10 years to write and direct this timely history lesson that tracks how a peaceful protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention morphed into a deadly clash with police and National Guard forces. The film also follows the ongoing conspiracy trial, dominated by bigger-than-life protest leaders Abbie Hoffman (Oscar-nominated Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) along with their star lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). Sorkin wanted to get the movie out before the election, hence Paramount’s sale of the film to Netflix, which booked the film in theaters three weeks before its October 16 streaming date.
Late-entry 1968 biopic “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.) also features Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). The movie picked up five nominations including Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and a surprise second Supporting Actor nomination for LaKeith Stanfield. The film is notching guild nominations, including the PGA and the script by Will Berson and director Shaka King from a story by Keith and Kenny Lucas. “Judas” has momentum, and like February release “The Father,” hasn’t been overexposed.
Contenders are listed in order of their likelihood to win.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
“Promising Young Woman”
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
“Sound of Metal”