What is the value of the Academy Awards? Nobody can quantify the value of art, especially not a bunch of Hollywood elites. Many great auteurs (Hitchock, Kubrick, Kurosawa) never won Best Director, and only last year did a non-English-language film (Parasite) finally win the top prize. This year, the movie about the making of Citizen Kane received more nominations than Citizen Kane did! Indeed, I can’t blame you for dismissing the Oscars out of hand.
However, I would argue that the ceremony is redeemed by those rare moments when the Academy gets it right, when the hard work and genius of artists is given proper recognition on a global stage. Besides, predicting the winners is fun! It’s like an election where no one gets executed afterwards (although I have to imagine some accountant ‘went missing’ after putting La La Land in the Moonlight envelope).
After watching all the nominated films, I’m here to share my thoughts on who should win, and who will win, the major awards.
Gary Oldman (Mank), Steven Yeun (Minari), Anthony Hopkins (The Father), Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
The Academy has selected an assortment of terrific leading men, with the lone exception of Gary Oldman. In Mank, Oldman lives up to his name: he’s miscast as a character almost half his age. Moreover, his performance amounts to little more than pithy one-liners and drunk mumbling.
Steven Yeun’s nod is a deserving breakthrough for the actor, with a naturalist performance of stubbornness, insecurity and bravado. Meanwhile, there are shades of King Lear in Hopkins’ performance, and the slow unravelling of his ego makes for devastating viewing.
Playing a restless soul adjusting to hearing loss, Riz Ahmed’s turn in Sound of Metal might just be the best performance of the year. His character is unable to sit still, a man in hiding from himself. His transformation over the film is nuanced, unforced and finely observed.
However, this award belongs to the late, great Chadwick Boseman. He has won every precursor, including the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild awards. All coiled rage and desperation, his character’s feverish hunt for dignity is a marvel to behold. That he gave the performance while battling cancer only highlights the immense talent we lost.
Will win: Chadwick Boseman
Should win: Riz Ahmed
Deserved a nod: Adarsh Gourav (The White Tiger)
Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), Frances McDormand (Nomadland), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
In what is a highly competitive race, the various precursor awards have been scattered among these five actresses. There’s Andra Day, who captures the grace and grit of Billie Holiday while perfectly mimicking her voice. McDormand delivers a subtle and soulful performance in Nomadland, while Vanessa Kirby brings staggering intensity as a newly grieving mother. Promising Young Woman rests on Carey Mulligan’s shoulders, and she expertly navigates the film’s tonal shifts, at turns charming, vulnerable and terrifying.
To be honest, I have no idea who will win, but I would personally give the award to Viola Davis. She is mesmerising as Ma Rainey, and her mix of tenderness and rage is very moving. ‘They’re gonna treat me how I wanna be treated,’ she thunders, ‘no matter how much it hurts them’. You’re goddamn right, Viola: they’re gonna give you Best Actress… maybe…
Will win: Viola Davis?
Should win: Viola Davis
Deserved a nod: Julia Garner (The Assistant)
Collective, Crip Camp, The Mole Agent, My Octopus Teacher, Time
Despite the many stunning achievements of documentarians over the years, no documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture. If anything deserved it, it would be Collective, a gripping tale of corruption in Romania doubling as an astounding display of investigative journalism. However, My Octopus Teacher, the story of a South African man overcoming depression by befriending an octopus, has a larger public profile and has swept the precursor awards. The filmmakers will likely write their way into history… with octopus ink.
Will win: My Octopus Teacher
Should win: Collective
Deserved a nod: Boys State
Best International Feature
Another Round (Denmark), Better Days (Hong Kong), Collective (Romania), The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia), Quo Vadis Aida? (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Here, I am reminded of Alfonso Cuaron’s winning speech for the Spanish-language masterpiece Roma. ‘I grew up watching foreign language films,’ he started, ‘films like Citizen Kane, Jaws and The Godfather’. The idea of cordoning off non-English-language films seems completely unnecessary, especially in light of Parasite’s recent victory. Nevertheless, this category shines a spotlight on essential cinema which might otherwise fall through the cracks.
In any case, Thomas Vinterberg’s nomination for Best Director virtually guarantees a win for Another Round. However, Bosnian genocide drama Quo Vadis, Aida? might be the most powerful film of the year, foreign-language or otherwise. Jasmila Zbanic’s film not only illuminates the causes of the Srebrenica massacre with haunting resonance, but explores how collective trauma can tear at the fabric of a society.
Will win: Another Round
Should win: Quo Vadis, Aida?
Deserved a nod: Martin Eden
Best Animated Film
Soul, Wolfwalkers, Over the Moon, Onward, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
There’s no way Pixar loses this award, but Soul left me cold. The machinery of the plot grew increasingly convoluted, the bright-blue-blobs aesthetic lacked character, and the humour was too simplistic for adults yet too mature for children. Wolfwalkers is the more artful and wondrous film.
Will win: Soul
Should win: Wolfwalkers
Deserved a nod: The Croods 2
Best Original Screenplay
Promising Young Woman, Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, Sound of Metal
Here, we have a run-off between Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman and Aaron Sorkin for Trial of the Chicago 7.
Setting aside my confusion as to why Trial is not deemed an adaptation — the court transcript is widely read, and Sorkin even wrote the latest print’s foreword — the film is also a bizarre exercise in historical revisionism. Here, anarchist and socialist figures are depicted as liberals who believe ‘good institutions’ have been taken over by a few ‘very bad people’. Sorkin seems to say that decency will win out on both sides if we just get rid of the crooked judge. Take for instance the absurd sequence where, following the forced gagging of Bobby Seale in open court, the prosecutor (prosecutor!) immediately demands his release. In reality, the prosecutor was openly hostile towards the defendants, and Seale was left gagged for days. By failing to depict the realities of structural racism (something the superior Judas and the Black Messiah achieves), Sorkin only further whitewashes history. Worse yet is his American exceptionalism; the film climaxes with both sides rallying behind the troops in a patriotic display, when in reality, the Chicago 7 declared the names of fallen American and Viet Cong soldiers.
To avoid any doubt, I want Emerald Fennell to win. While I disliked the ending, her script is an unflinching takedown of rape culture and male entitlement. She is slightly favoured to win after receiving the Writers Guild Award, but Chicago 7 is popular among the Academy’s acting branch, and could pull off a very upsetting upset.
Elsewhere, Minari deserves plenty of acclaim for its rich characterisation, but I would personally give the award to Sound of Metal. Darius and Abraham Marder’s script is filled with wordless moments of human connection, my favourite being when Ruben ‘plays the drums’ with a troubled schoolboy by exchanging vibrations on a metallic playground slide. Stunning.
Will win: Promising Young Woman
Should win: Sound of Metal
Deserved a nod: First Cow
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nomadland, The Father, One Night in Miami, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, The White Tiger
Meanwhile, Adapted Screenplay is a wrestle between Nomadland — adapted by Chloe Zhao from a non-fiction book — and The Father, adapted by Florian Zeller from his own play. The way Zeller simulates the experience of Alzheimer’s is genius, with recycled sets and repeated dialogue involving the viewer in Hopkins’ alienation. However, I would give the edge to Nomadland. It’s hard to know how much dialogue was scripted due to the film’s pseudo-documentary stylings; nevertheless, Chloe Zhao carefully connects her lead protagonist’s odyssey to themes of dislocation, grief and independence. The monologue by ‘Swankie’ about the hatching of birds in Alaska highlights the transcendental power of Zhao’s screenplay.
Will win: Nomadland
Should win: Nomadland
Deserved a nod: The Invisible Man
Chloe Zhao (Nomadland), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), David Fincher (Mank), Lee Isaac Chung (Minari), Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round)
Fun fact: 2021 is the first year more than one woman has competed for Best Director. OK, more of a depressing fact. The good news is that, in a win for both history and art, Zhao will likely be the first woman of colour to win the prize. This is for good reason: her ability to gain naturalistic performances from a cast of mostly non-actors is astounding, and her Terence Malick-inspired vistas look stunning on the big screen. While David Fincher deserves credit for recreating Old Hollywood in meticulous detail, Zhao’s compassion for her subjects is palpable in every frame.
Will win: Chloe Zhao (Nomadland)
Should win: Chloe Zhao (Nomadland)
Deserved a nod: Darius Marder (Sound of Metal)
Mank, Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, The Father, Promising Young Woman, Nomadland, Sound of Metal
I would only cut two films: Mank and Trial of the Chicago 7. Even then, as much as Chicago 7 irked me, at least it told a story. Mank’s pastiche of 1940s Hollywood is nothing more than a meandering plod through mansions and studio lots.
That leaves us with six films worthy of the top prize. Judas and the Black Messiah is exhilarating, its white-knuckle guerrilla combat echoing Italian classic The Battle of Algiers. To quote Roger Ebert, The Father is a ‘machine that generates empathy’, and its innovative filmmaking heightens the message of treating Alzheimer’s victims with dignity. From there, Minari is an exquisite depiction of familial love, while Sound of Metal is a riveting display of grief and community.
At times, Promising Young Woman feels like a feminist reworking of Tarantino; instead of Jews exacting revenge on Nazis, we see a victim unleash against the Brock Turners and Brock Turner-enablers of the world. However, the film is about far more than stylish revenge, and Emerald Fennell’s film boldly captures the ordeal of seeking justice in a world determined to disbelieve women.
Then there’s Nomadland, a film of generous grace and humanity. I have run out of superlatives by this point — I should just make a word cloud of ‘breathtaking’, ‘transcendent’ and ‘majestic’. I will add, however, that this is a film about listening. Chloe Zhao does not speak on behalf of her subjects; she lets the camera sit and asks them to tell their own stories. In doing so, her film becomes a tableau of humanity, and a moving exploration of grief, aging, economic insecurity, and our connection to nature. Even among a brilliant line-up of nominees, Nomadland stands out.
Will win: Nomadland
Should win: Nomadland
Deserved a nod: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Quo Vadas Aida?
Enough about what I think — when the ceremony takes place on 26 April, who do you think will win? What’s your favourite of the nominees? Was Sonic the Hedgehog unforgivably snubbed? Let us know in the comment section below.
Image by Jake Hills via Unsplash