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2021 Oscars Predictions: Who Will Win Versus Who Should

The best thing about this year’s batch of Oscar nominees is that there’s no worst thing about it. Since April Reign launched the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, in 2015, the Academy has been making efforts to open membership to more people of color and to more women. After a particularly vigorous push for new members in 2020, the effect of those changes is apparent. It isn’t so much that this year’s nominated films are better than those of the past but, rather, that there aren’t any monstrosities among their ranks—no “Green Book,” “Joker,” or “Jojo Rabbit” to suggest that the Academy is not merely out of touch but cavalierly regressive. Instead, there are eight respectable movies nominated for Best Picture, none exciting or boldly original—though that’s less a reflection on the taste of voters than on the circumstances of the past year, when many notable movies were withheld from release because of the coronavirus pandemic and others fell under the radar.

These circumstances may have a salutary effect on my predictions: I’m generally pretty bad at picking the winners, because I tend to fall under the sway of my own attachments to certain movies and performances. But this year there are only a few categories in which I’ve got strong preferences, and I’ve noted them along the way. I’m never surprised when great but stylistically unusual movies, such as “Kajillionaire,” land outside the Academy’s purview. But I was shocked that Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” which is powerful and distinctive but in no way oblique, didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. I wonder whether Lee’s decision to make the movie’s most vivid character—the one played by Delroy Lindo, who should have earned a Best Actor nomination for his MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporter, had anything to do with the snub. This year, perhaps in response to the autocratic outrage of Trump-world’s coup attempt, the Academy was in no mood to comprehend and preferred to judge, nominating films with clear-cut moral lines, often at the expense of psychological complexity. I was equally surprised to see that none of the films in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” cycle got any attention at all; then I learned that they’re not eligible, because Amazon has submitted them instead for the Emmys (or, as I call them, the Enemies).

The Academy has always predicated award eligibility on whether a film had a theatrical release. This year, it has temporarily relaxed the rules a bit, admitting movies that had been scheduled for release in theatres but were moved to streaming-only because of the pandemic. But more permanent change is in order. Streaming isn’t going anywhere: the preëminence of home viewing is here to stay, and more artistically ambitious productions are being undertaken by streaming services each year. If the Academy doesn’t adapt its rules to evolve with the times, it will risk cutting itself off from some of the best cinema of subsequent years—and from the future of the art.

Best Picture

In Preston Sturges’s comedy “Sullivan’s Travels,” released in 1941, a successful Hollywood director of comedies wants to make a socially significant movie about poor people. Reminded that he knows nothing of poverty, he takes to the road as a hobo—with the studio’s team following him in a well-equipped bus. “Nomadland”—in which Frances McDormand, with a full battery of production support behind her, plays a nomad while having encounters with real-life ones—does something similar. Its effort to blend documentary and fiction is admirable, but its sentimentalizing gaze upon the movie’s non-actors is what makes it Oscar bait. I think that it will win. If there were a runner-up, I think that it would be “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Its robust, unquestioning historical re-creations—a near-parody of the genre, but without humor—should remind many voters of the Hollywood that they remember and crave. (It would already have seemed old-fashioned in 1969, the year in which it’s set.) Had “Mank” been released more recently (it dropped on Netflix in November), or had the Oscars been held, as usual, in February, the David Fincher film would have filled the role as the nostalgic bulwark of the old industry and may have had a chance at a win, but its grandiosity deflated quickly. I think that “Promising Young Woman” would have run close on the strength of its just outrage and the symbolic power of its beginning and its furious ending, if its protagonist had had more psychological definition to enrich the drama.

Best Director

I think that Thomas Vinterberg got nominated for directing the superficial, cynical, and bombastic “Another Round” only because Academy members were voting during the pandemic: the film’s rowdy social life and bumptious exuberance, especially in Mads Mikkelsen’s final dance before a milling crowd, is exactly the sort of thing that many people currently miss. Fincher’s direction of “Mank” is too noodgy, Emerald Fennell’s direction of “Promising Young Woman” too illustrative, and Lee Isaac Chung’s direction of “Minari” too restrained to win. (That’s not a comment on artistry but on the Academy’s inclinations.) Chloé Zhao’s work in “Nomadland” is both conspicuous (with its sentimental pictorialism) and difficult (with its blend of professionals and nonprofessionals); she’ll win.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”Photograph by David Lee/ Courtesy Netflix

The late Chadwick Boseman gave one of the year’s best performances—in a supporting role in “Da 5 Bloods.” In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” he’s directed by George C. Wolfe—a great theatre director—to deliver a performance that would be at home on the stage but doesn’t channel any atmosphere, ambience, sense of place, or possibility of repose. It’s all will and talent, and his are formidable and grievously missed, but this performance isn’t near the height of his legacy. He’ll win.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Tough one, because Carey Mulligan’s admirably hectic pitch in “Promising Young Woman” ramps up the urgency while masking the film’s gaps, and Viola Davis’s grandly theatrical performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” sticks close to the core of the character (and, though one of the prime actors of our time, she hasn’t yet won a Best Actress Oscar). But I suspect enough people know of McDormand’s primordial commitment to “Nomadland” (she brought Zhao into the project, not vice versa) that she’ll win—in addition to the other Oscar she’ll take, in her role as a co-producer, when the movie gets Best Picture.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Maria Bakalova’s character in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” reminded me of a sugar-pumped version of the character played by Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire,” and Bakalova’s blithe virtuosity as an actress in the company of nonprofessionals (and Rudy Giuliani) is the obverse of McDormand’s rambles in “Nomadland.” However, the flinty strength and warmhearted ribaldry of Yuh-jung Youn, in “Minari” (similar to that of Glenn Close in “Hillbilly Elegy,” but minus the stereotypes and the vague politics) will win—for many Academy members, this may be the first time they’re seeing Youn, and the blend of a veteran’s experience with viewers’ joy of discovery is as irresistible as the film’s sentiment.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

This year’s nominations highlight category problems that the Academy hasn’t figured out. If Lindo wasn’t nominated for Best Actor for his performance in “Da 5 Bloods,” it may be because the film is very much an ensemble piece. He’s one of the five title characters, yet his performance is the central one. “Judas and the Black Messiah” poses a similar problem: it has two title roles, but both of them earned their performers Best Supporting Actor nominations. When the film was released, Warner Bros. launched a campaign for LaKeith Stanfield, playing the betrayer, as lead actor, and Daniel Kaluuya, playing the sold-out hero, as supporting. The Academy isn’t obligated to play along—the voters themselves determine the category—but I think that the category error reflects one of the film’s artistic failings: it doesn’t develop these characters substantially enough for either of them to seem like a protagonist. In any case, I think that Paul Raci will win, for reasons akin to those for Supporting Actress: he’s both a movie veteran and a seeming newcomer, and he delivers an experience-rich, life-hardened performance that’s far better than “Sound of Metal,” the movie in which he appears.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”Photograph courtesy Amazon Studios

Another tough one, because an award for “Nomadland” in this category would be less for screenwriting than for the real-life people whose stories the movie gathers, and who play versions of themselves in the film—it would be a virtual collective award for supporting actors, and the emotional tug of rewarding them will be strong. “The Father” will have some traction on the ground of superficial cleverness. The script for “One Night in Miami” should win: it offers complex and varied rhetorical wrangles, which nonetheless leave the actors space (unlike “The Father,” another script adapted from the stage). But “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” will win, for its channelling of righteous outrage into principled chutzpah.

Best Original Screenplay

This is a tight contest, too.The retrograde sensibility of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” gives it a fighting chance. “Judas and the Black Messiah” has one, too, for its large scope and moments of great power (especially the ones showing the informant under pressure). But “Minari” will come closer, because of its nuance and heart, and “Promising Young Woman” will win, for its fierce cleverness and righteous intensity.

Best Documentary Feature

A still from “My Octopus Teacher.”Photograph courtesy Netflix

The nomination of “Time” is cause for celebration. Its subject—the ongoing persecution of Black Americans through incarceration—is urgent, and its distinctive form, anchored in decades of personal videos, embodies its passion. Yet I suspect that a more traditional investigative film, “Collective,” would win—if it were in English. But it’s a Romanian film, which may count against it among more impatient Academy members. “Crip Camp,” which traces the American movement advocating civil rights for the disabled to an innovative and compassionate summer camp from the late nineteen-sixties, is fascinating and stirring, but I suspect that the three political films will split votes and let the dully amiable animal film “My Octopus Teacher” squeak through.

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