This year’s Oscar race was defined by a pandemic, lockdown, movies streaming on small screens, a more diversified Academy membership, and a slate without big-budget nominees. Some titles had a festival launch and received critical attention, but no one can claim box-office success, word of mouth, or consensus. Online viewings and Q&As made popularity difficult to define. Perhaps for this year only, all nominees have one thing in common: No one knows how they played in a room.
With a record 36 Oscar nominations, Netflix morphed from feared Hollywood disruptor to welcome savior as it kept industry workers employed and picked up studio movies such as Paramount’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” as theaters shut down. Streamers Netflix, Apple (“Wolfwalkers”), and Amazon (‘Sound of Metal,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”) laid out more Oscar campaign cash than the studios, which did back loss-leader movies like “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.) and “News of the World” (Universal). These might have built bigger followings in cinemas, but had to make do online.
More from IndieWire
Academy voting blocks like the dominant actors branch support showcases like SAG Ensemble winner “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” while craft voters go for tech achievements like David Fincher’s “Mank” (Netflix), which leads the field with 10 nominations. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” enjoys support from multiple branches, even without a Best Picture slot; if both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman win, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has a shot at more Oscars than “Nomadland.” If that happens, all four acting awards could go to people of color for the first time in Oscar history. Do Academy voters think in these historic terms? They do.
An American road movie from Chinese writer-director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” (Searchlight) leads the Oscar field by combining an innovative approach to naturalistic storytelling, extraordinary performances by pros (Frances McDormand and David Strathairn) acting opposite real people, and that crucial asset for an Oscar winner: hitting the zeitgeist (in this case, during a pandemic) and sending a message (about seeing the invisible, marginalized poor) to the world.
In the decade since it adopted the preferential ballot, the Academy leaned into message movies like “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight,” and “Green Book” — despite their modest box office — 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.” Of course, last year’s winner, Bong Joon Ho’s class-divide thriller “Parasite,” the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, managed to deliver on all fronts.
Tallying guild wins still offers insight, but since 2016 the Academy has altered its membership far more than any of the guilds. That said: It’s still dominated by older white men based in Los Angeles, many of whom voted last year for “1917” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Women and people of color are slowly increasing their numbers, but the biggest Academy shift is toward a global membership that is about 22 percent international.
With most of movies of scale pushed back, Academy steak eaters don’t have much to choose from beyond Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and multitasker Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” After “Tenet” finally opened and failed to save moviegoing as we know it, Christopher Nolan backed off from Oscar promoting his $200-million spy thriller and only let Warners add it to the Academy portal after the nominations to support its two nods for production design and VFX.
Smaller films are in serious contention for craft wins this year, from Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” (six nods) and Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Father” (six) to VFX dark horse “Love and Monsters” (Netflix) and David Fincher’s black-and-white Hollywood opus “Mank.” (Impeccably crafted, the movie’s best shot is in Production Design.)
Two other Best Picture contenders could draw the mainstream vote, both nominated for writing and directing: WGA and BAFTA-winner Emerald Fennell could win Original Screenplay for “Promising Young Woman” (Focus), while Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (A24) could win Supporting Actress for SAG and BAFTA-winner Youn Yuh-jung.
First-time Oscar producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Glenn Collins welcomed the opportunity to reinvent the hoary kudocast by mounting a pre-taped pre-show at the Academy Museum rooftop with five Best Song performers, an intimate Union Station live ceremony for nominees plus one guest and presenters (among them, last year’s acting winners Brad Pitt, Renee Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix, and Laura Dern), no Zooms allowed, and a dozen or so international hubs with satellite feeds. ABC will inevitably suffer low viewership. It’s blockbusters like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Titanic” and a real contest that draw audiences to root for their faves. Soderbergh is building a high-quality celebration of cinema, but if nobody recognizes the movies, they won’t come.
May you win your Oscar pool! My final list of picks in 23 categories:
Best Picture: “Nomadland”
Spoiler: “The Trial of the Chicago 7″
Bottom Line: The much-debated preferential ballot — each voter ranks the eight nominees in order of preference — all comes down to the movies 9,362 Academy voters actually saw and loved the most, and which film aligns with the zeitgeist to deliver the (socially relevant) message that voters want to send. These factors favor Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, PGA, DGA, and BAFTA-winner “Nomadland.” Yes, “Trial” won the oft-predictive SAG Ensemble, where “Nomadland” wasn’t nominated due to its non-pro ensemble. But Zhao’s film will likely join Guillermo del Toro’s Best Picture-winner “The Shape of Water” as an exception to the rule.
Best Director: Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)
Spoiler: Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
Bottom Line: In recent years, the directing Oscar has gone to the most extraordinary technical achievement, from Ang Lee’s VFX-winner “Life of Pi” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and “Roma” to A.G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” But last year, Bong’s impeccably mounted breakout “Parasite” upset DGA-winner Mendes’ continuous-take drama “1917.” Zhao swept all the precursor director awards because she wrote, directed, and edited “Nomadland,” a complex undertaking that demanded laser-sharp focus with constantly changing locations and non-pro actors. For the first time, two women directors compete in the category; if Zhao wins, she’ll be the second woman after Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) to win Best Director.
Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Spoiler: Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”)
Bottom Line: This tight race is between two actors who give the performances of their careers. SAG-winner Boseman recently lost a battle to cancer and his wife has given a series of poignant acceptance speeches. With solid Brit support, Hopkins at 83 is full of piss and charm on the promo trail, and has late-inning momentum after his BAFTA win.
Best Actress: Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Spoilers: Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) and Andra Day (“United States vs. Billie Holiday”)
Bottom Line: In a rare four-way race, anything can happen. Both SAG-winner Davis (who enjoys TV support) and her CCA-winning rival Mulligan were left out of the BAFTA race that Frances McDormand won, but with two Oscars at home and a likely Best Picture producer win in the offing, McDormand may not need this one. (If she wins, she joins Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Meryl Streep in the three-time-Oscar-winner club; Katharine Hepburn is the only one with four.)
With four nominations and one win (“Fences”), Davis has already earned more nominations than any other Black actress and would break another record if she became the second Black woman to win Best Actress after Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”). Of course Golden Globe-winner Andra Day (“United States vs. Billie Holiday”) could also break that record, and her feat as a singer and first-time actress nailing the iconic jazz vocalist is also in the running. Mulligan has the European advantage (even if the BAFTA juries robbed her of a slot), while many overseas voters may have not seen Day’s film. If it’s a race between powerful and emotive Davis and colder, technically superb Mulligan: Both are respected, but Davis is beloved.
Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Spoiler: Paul Raci (“Sound of Metal”)
Bottom Line: Nobody will catch up with Kaluuya’s channeling of incendiary Black Panther Fred Hampton, who was shot down by the FBI in 1968 at age 21 — not even his chum and costar LaKeith Stanfield, who somehow landed in the supporting category. The unlikely upset could come from journeyman actor Raci, the child of deaf parents, who learned English as his second language. That’s a great narrative.
Best Supporting Actress: Yuh-jung Youn (“Minari”)
Spoiler: Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
Bottom Line: The Korean movie star, who brings charm and comedy chops to the role of the fish-out-of-water grandmother in “Minari,” won both SAG and BAFTA, and should win the Oscar too. CCA-winner and Bulgarian discovery Bakalova is a possibility, but Youn has charmed at awards shows, commands late momentum, and could mark the solo win for “Minari.”
Best Original Screenplay: Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”)
Spoiler: Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Bottom Line: The rivals delivered entertaining movies with serious messages. Sorkin’s complex rethreading of historic events is a triumph of the craft. He already has a screenplay Oscar in his drawer (“The Social Network”), and fresh discovery Fennell won the Los Angeles Film Critics, CCA, WGA, and the BAFTA, and took an Oscar directing slot that Sorkin did not land. It’s close, though: both films could be competing for their only win here.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (“The Father”)
Spoiler: Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)
Bottom Line: This is a case of spreading the wealth. Zhao won the CCAs and the often predictive USC Scripter awards, but like British production “The Father,” was not eligible for the WGA award, which was won by “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Many voters consider both the “Borat” sequel and “Nomadland” to be more improvised than written (even if they presented extraordinary degrees of difficulty for their writers). Well-respected, with huge European support, Hampton’s intricately woven adaptation of Zeller’s play “The Father” could repeat its BAFTA win. For better or worse, when in doubt the overall Academy tends to take the high road.
Best Animated Feature: “Soul″ (Disney/Pixar)
Spoiler: “Wolfwalkers” (Cartoon Saloon/Apple)
Bottom Line: It seems like a done deal that Pete Docter’s “Soul” will win for Pixar’s latest Oscar entry, the first to feature a Black narrative. And despite powerful competition from Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s enchanting Irish folk tale “Wolfwalkers,” Pixar should prevail. Pixar could celebrate its 11th win in this category, a remarkable record.
Best Animated Short: “If Anything Happens I Love You”
Bottom Line: The advantage goes to the most-accessible and/or moving entry, which this year is the black-and-white hand-drawn “If Anything Happens I Love You,” which poignantly tells the story of two parents grieving their lost child. On the other hand, Academy voters often go with Pixar, and Madeline Sharafian’s 2D “Burrow” (SparkShorts) is a delightful plea for community over isolation, which plays well during a pandemic. The short that stands out for groundbreaking innovative achievement is “Opera,” but it lacks that human touch.
Best Cinematography: Joshua James Richards (“Nomadland”)
Spoiler: Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”)
Bottom Line: BAFTA-winner Richards deserves huge credit for his collaboration with Zhao on this challenging technological and artistic feat. In any other year, ASC-winner Messerschmidt would walk home with the win for helping Fincher pull off the stunning black-and-white evocation of Golden Age Hollywood, “Mank.”
Best Costume Design: Ann Roth (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Spoiler: Trish Summerville (“Mank”)
Bottom Line: Veteran Roth took the Costume Designer’s Guild award for her sumptuous gowns and dapper suits in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” while Summerville’s lavish custom designs for Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies were superb in “Mank.” The Regency romance “Emma” is also highly regarded, but clearly many awards voters have not see the film.
Best Documentary Feature: “My Octopus Teacher”
Spoiler: “Crip Camp”
Bottom Line: When South African free-diver Craig Foster’s narrative about bonding with a plucky orthopod landed a nomination (without much Netflix campaigning), the Oscar was assured. Especially during the pandemic,James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich’s gorgeous underwater man-animal love story stirred viewer emotions. In a competitive field, the likeliest film to challenge the win is IDA-winner “Crip Camp,” which chronicles the trajectory from a hippie summer camp to political activism for a group of disabled teens. Also admired is dual nominee, Romanian health exposé “Collective.”
Best Documentary Short: “Colette”
Spoiler: “Do Not Split”
Bottom Line: Voters respond to the heart-tugging pathos of a contained older woman who breaks down her reserve when she visits the concentration camp where her brother died during the holocaust. But Hong Kong cinéma vérité “Do Not Split” is urgent agitprop filmmaking at its finest.
Best Editing: “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Spoiler: “Sound of Metal”
Bottom Line: With Zhao, who edited “Nomadland” herself, likely to nab at least two other awards on Oscar night, this will likely go to ACE editing award winner “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which could become the film’s only Oscar. In the absence of the usual orchestrated action suspense of something like “Ford v Ferrari,” Sorkin’s meticulous courtroom drama should score, although there is support for the finely crafted American indie “Sound of Metal,” which tied “Trial” at the CCAs, and won the BAFTA.
Best International Feature Film: “Another Round”
Spoiler: “Quo Vadis, Aida?”
Bottom Line: Truth is, more voters are likely to have seen the joyous but sad Danish entry “Another Round,” starring Mads Mikkelsen and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who also landed a nomination for Best Director. The film swept the European film awards and won the BAFTA for a film not in the English language. Many of those who have seen all five nominees are voting for Jasmila Žbanić’s devastating Bosnian war drama “Quo Vadis, Aida?” which takes the point of view of a U.N. female translator (Jasna Djuricic) as she tries to save her family from Serbian genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995.
Best Live-Action Short: “Two Distant Strangers”
Spoiler: “The Letter Room”
Bottom Line: Any of these five could win in a close race, but two shorts have garnered more press attention than the others. Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe’s “Two Distant Strangers” has a catchy “Groundhog Day” concept, as a Black cartoonist (Joey Bada$$) keeps popping back to life after getting killed by a white cop. Oscar Isaac stars in Elvira Lind’s “The Letter Room,” about a prison guard who gets caught up in the correspondence between a death-row inmate and his ex.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Bottom Line: The Best Actress contender Viola Davis gets the win with horsehair wigs, greasepaint, and all. Nothing is really competing with the Makeup and Hairstyling Guild winner, but many folks, if they’ve seen it, admire Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio.”
Best Production Design: Donald Graham Burt and Jan Pascale (“Mank”)
Spoiler: Cathy Featherstone and Peter Francis (“The Father”)
Bottom Line: This one goes to “Mank” for its recreation of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which won the CCA, BAFTA and Art Directors Guild. “The Father” is also admired for its constantly shifting apartment designed to throw off viewers’ sense of reality.
Best Original Score: Jon Batiste, Atticus Ross, Trent Reznor (“Soul”)
Spoiler: Emile Mosseri (“Minari”)
Bottom Line: Dual nominees Ross and Reznor were nominated for both “Soul” and Bernard Hermann homage “Mank,” but will win their second Oscar for the former, along with jazzman Jon Batiste, having swept all the precursors. They’re competing against Emile Mosseri’s BAFTA and CCA-nominated score for Lee Isaac Chung’s ’80s rural Korean-American family drama “Minari.”
Best Original Song: “Speak Now” (“One Night in Miami”)
Spoiler: “Io Si (Seen)” (“The Life Ahead”)
Bottom Line: “Hamilton” Tony and Grammy winner and rookie Oscar contender Leslie Odom Jr. follows Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”), Lady Gaga (“A Star is Born”), and Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”) as a dual Oscar nominee for songwriting and acting, for the Sam Cooke-inspired “Speak Now” from Regina King’s “One Night in Miami.” Odom collected a win at the Critics Choice Awards; Best Song could be the film’s only Oscar.
Scoring a Golden Globe win and Critics Choice nomination was Oscar bridesmaid Diane Warren‘s “Io Si (Seen)” from Edoardo Ponti’s Italian heart-tugger “The Life Ahead” (Netflix), starring his mother Sophia Loren. Last year’s “I’m Standing with You,” sung by Chrissy Metz in the film “Breakthrough,” marked Warren’s 11th nomination. She has never won.
Best Sound: “Sound of Metal”
Bottom Line: While the Oscars merged the Sound Mixing and Editing awards into one, their respective guilds (the MPSE Golden Reel and Cinema Audio Society) went with the same two rivals in the Editing race, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Sound of Metal.” Most Oscar-watchers give the edge to the innovative dynamic sound design for Darius Marder’s evocation of a drummer (Riz Ahmed) losing his hearing. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” isn’t nominated for Best Sound, so “Soul” is the likeliest upset in this category. Truth is, Sound and Editing often match up. So take your pick.
Best Visual Effects: “Tenet”
Spoiler: “Love and Monsters”
Bottom Line: “Tenet” was the last big-budget movie standing last year, and its time-twisting infinity loop pyrotechnics should handily take this year’s Oscar. But this is a category that few Academy members sampled in its entirety, and for those who did genre exercise “Love and Monsters” is getting a lot of love.
Check out our in-depth breakdowns of the races in each category.
Launch Gallery: The 20 Best Movies Eligible for the 2021 Oscars Right Now
Best of IndieWire