Oscars 2021: Who should win, and who will win

A completely different Academy Awards year? Don’t bet on it. The ceremony will be much-changed, but zoom in on the nominees and things become much more certain

There is, this season, no escaping the phrase “an Oscar year like no other”. The 2021 show will certainly look very different. Coproduced by the unlikely figure of Steven Soderbergh – not exactly a song’n’dance guy – the proceedings will be split between the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and Union Station in Los Angeles’s oldest quarter.

The granddaddy of awards ceremonies is making some effort to break away from the Zoom-dominated formats that worked reasonably well for the Emmys and less brilliantly for the Golden Globes.

It was initially suggested that no Zooming would be allowed, but, following objections from nominees stranded in less-vaccinated countries, a plan was announced to gather overseas contenders at broadcast “hubs” in various territories. At time of writing, those plans were still in flux, but, yes, the 93rd ceremony will not look much like any previous event.

How ironic that the only two titles nominated for best picture to have played commercially in Irish cinemas were produced by Netflix, the supposed scourge of theatrical exhibition

Our exposure (or lack of it) to the competing films also points up this year’s weirdness. How ironic that the only two titles nominated for best picture to have played commercially in Irish cinemas, Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7, were produced by Netflix, the supposed scourge of theatrical exhibition.

Another two of those eight nominees, The Father and Nomadland, have yet to play here in any form. The rest are available to stream on various platforms. If Nomadland, a strong favourite, takes best picture then it will be the first film to do so without yet opening in the UK and Ireland since Platoon in 1987 (though, to be fair, it arrives on Disney+ just five days after the Oscars).

All this despite the ceremony taking place 2½ months later than the date of the 2020 event – and later than any show since 1932.

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank. Netflix
Gary Oldman in Mank

There have been suggestions that a different sort of film has ended up dominating the competition: smaller, less flashy, more miserable, and less populist. This argument does not entirely hold up. We will never know for certain which delayed features might have figured among the nominees. Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story would certainly have been promoted as a contender. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune might have figured in technical fields. Could Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch have equalled the director’s nine nominations for Grand Budapest Hotel?

The 2022 awards will tell add a little flesh to those speculations. We can say that Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are the sort of films – worthy historical yarns – that Oscar has always enjoyed.

Over the last decade, as the electorate has become younger, more diverse and more international, the academy has also embraced independent and independently-minded cinema. A best-picture win for Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s tale of a sexagenarian widow touring a wounded United States, would be no great surprise from a body that recently honoured Parasite, Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave.

Nobody is beating Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao for best director. The Chinese-American film-maker will, barring hurricanes, become the second woman and the first woman of colour to take that prize

So the nominees probably don’t differ so much from those in an alternative reality where Covid didn’t happen. At least two films have, however, surely profited from the churns and the staggered hiatus. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, originally scheduled for release in the awards graveyard of spring 2020, and Sound of Metal, which premiered to strong reviews, but little Oscar buzz, at Toronto in 2019, have steadily built up followers in press and industry to accumulate six nominations each.

The surrounding chatter in the Awards Industrial Complex has been as fervent as ever. Industry gongs such as the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) have chugged on in virtual form. The Golden Globes and Bafta have offered their own clues and we have, as ever in the age of information overload, ended up with a number of near-certainties among the key categories.

Nobody is beating Nomadland’s Zhao for best director. Winner at Bafta, the DGA, the Golden Globes, the LA Film Critics Circle, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Chinese-American film-maker will, barring hurricanes, become the second woman and the first woman of colour to take that prize. Also up for editing, writing and producing, she has an outside chance of equalling Walt Disney’s record for most wins in a single ceremony. Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Black Panther Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, is almost equally secure in the race for best supporting actor.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Studios
Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Anthony Hopkins’s best actor win at Bafta for Florian Zeller’s The Father rattled some pundits’ certainty that the late Chadwick Boseman’s had the Oscar in the bag, but, recognised for his brilliant performance as a man struggling with dementia, the Welshman was playing on home turf at the British academy. Boseman, nominated as a troubled jazz musician in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, will still probably become the first person to win best actor posthumously since Peter Finch in 1977.

Best supporting actress seemed, a month ago, as if it was open to any of the five nominees, but, since then, Yuh-Jung Youn, a veteran Korean actor, has put some daylight between herself and the following pack. Her hilarious winning speech at the Baftas – where she, with apparent affection, called the British people “snobby” – will have done her no harm whatsoever.

Much excitement still remains in the best actress category. With no disrespect to Vanessa Kirby, who is excellent in Pieces of a Woman, she is the only one of the five who seems out of the running. That leaves Andra Day, Globe winner for The United States vs Billie Holiday; Viola Davis, SAG winner for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Carey Mulligan, Critics Choice winner for Promising Young Woman, and Frances McDormand, who triumphed recently at Bafta. There is an asterisk in there. Mulligan may well have won at Bafta had the select committee, appointed partly to widen diversity, not left her out of the nominations. Were she to take the Oscar she would be the first British person to win best actress at those awards without being nominated by her home body.

There are reasons to stay up to watch. Not least among them is the opportunity to cheer along Wolfwalkers. The team from the Marble City are very much in a two-horse race

If McDormand wins she will become only the second woman – still behind four-time champ Katharine Hepburn – to take at least three best actress Oscars. Might the academy make McDormand settle for the Oscar she is likely to grab as co-producer of the best film?

Then again, Nomadland is not home and dry. In recent years, best picture has, thanks to a preferential voting system, been among the hardest of the big prizes to predict. Spotlight, Moonlight and Parasite were all different classes of upset. So don’t rule out Trial of the Chicago 7, Promising Young Woman or Minari.

There are, in short, reasons to stay up. Not least among them is the opportunity to cheer along Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s excellent Wolfwalkers. The team from Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon, on their fourth nomination, have their best chance yet to secure a win in best animated feature. Pixar’s Soul is probably still favourite, but the team from the Marble City are very much in the two-horse race. You never know. This is, after all, “an Oscar year like no other”.

Oscars 2021: Who should win, and who will win

BEST PICTURE
The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Should win: Sound of Metal
Will win: Nomadland

Nomadland has had the wind behind it since winning at the Venice and Toronto film festivals six months ago.

BEST DIRECTOR
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
2Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
David Fincher, Mank
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Should win: Chloé Zhao
Will win: Chloé Zhao

Zhao has a director’s voice that is all her own. Has won everywhere to this point.

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Netflix
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Andra Day, The United States vs Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Should win: Andra Day
Will win: Viola Davis

Day deserves it for a stunning performance in a weak film, but who really knows here? Davis by the width of a cigarette paper?

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Gary Oldman, Mank
Steven Yeun, Minari

Should win: Anthony Hopkins
Will win: Chadwick Boseman

Hopkins owns the film. Boseman’s role is more of a supporting turn, but the affection for him is unstoppable.

The Trial of the Chicago 7. Netflix
The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom jnr, One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Should win: Daniel Kaluuya
Will win: Daniel Kaluuya

The Londoner has won everywhere, and deservingly so for what is essentially a colead shared with Stanfield.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Should win: Maria Bakalova
Will win: Yuh-Jung Youn

Bakalova’s task is probably a little too unconventional. YJ (as she allows herself to be called) is gaining momentum.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
The Father
Nomadland
One Night in Miami
The White Tiger

Should win: The Father
Will win: Nomadland

With Nomadland, Zhao did a wonderful job of fitting Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book to her own sensibility.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Focus Features via AP
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Should win: Minari
Will win: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Minari is a subtle gem. Chicago 7 is showboating hogwash, but it’s by Aaron Sorkin. So, you know…

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Da 5 Bloods
Mank
Minari
News of the World
Soul

Should win: News of the World
Will win: Soul

Lovely sweeping chords in News of the World. But Soul has the flash of Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Probably can’t lose.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Onward
Over the Moon
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Soul
Wolfwalkers

Will win: Soul
Should win: Wolfwalkers.

C’mon Oirland! Wolfwalkers triumphed with critics’ circles, but the Pixar film has bossed most of the flashier awards.

BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM
Another Round
Better Days
Collective
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Quo Vadis, Aida?

Should win: Collective
Will win: Another Round

Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, a tale of drunken teachers, scored a best directing nod. So it’s in. Collective likely to lose here and in best documentary.

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Collective
Crip Camp
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
Time

Should win: Collective
Will win: My Octopus Teacher

A hugely strong category will, alas, probably see the weakest film win. The Octopus flick is “heart-warming” (and easily accessible on Netflix).

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Amazon
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal

BEST FILM EDITING
The Father
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Should win: Sound of Metal
Will win: Sound of Metal

The old “best editing means most editing” rule at the Oscars favours Sound of Metal. It also happens to deserve it.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Emma
Mank
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mulan
Pinocchio

Should win: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Will win: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Everyone in Ma Rainey is dressed like heaven – from suave one-and-twos to sharp titfer.

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
News of the World
Nomadland
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Should win: Nomadland
Will win: Mank

Nomadland’s wide-landscape visuals are vital to its appeal, but this could be one of few opportunities to acknowledge Mank, the most-nominated film.

BEST SOUND
Greyhound
Mank
News of the World
Sound of Metal
Soul

Should win: Sound of Metal
Will win: Sound of Metal

The first sound award after the mixing and editing gongs were amalgamated will go to a film that makes a character of the protagonist’s hearing loss.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
The Father
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
News of the World
Tenet

Should win: Mank
Will win: Mank

There was much scope in this monochrome period piece, and the design professionals grabbed the opportunity.

BEST MAKE-UP AND HAIRSTYLING
Emma
Hillbilly Elegy
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
Pinocchio

Should win: Pinocchio
Will win: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

They will give in to Viola Davis’s fabulous transformation.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Love and Monsters
The Midnight Sky
Mulan
The One and Only Ivan
Tenet

Should win: Tenet
Will win: Tenet

Let’s be honest, you didn’t come out whistling the plot to Tenet. A rare win for theatrical distribution in 2021.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Husavik, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Fight For You, Judas and the Black Messiah
Io Sì (Seen), The Life Ahead
Speak Now, One Night in Miami
Hear My Voice, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Should win: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Will win: One Night in Miami

Who really knows or cares? None of these songs has registered outside its film (or within it in most cases).

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Colette
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
A Love Song for Latasha

Should win: A Love Song for Latasha
Will win: A Love Song for Latasha

Moving memory piece should score Netflix a win.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
Burrow
Genius Loci
If Anything Happens I Love You
Opera
Yes-People

Should win: If Anything Happens I Love You
Will win: If Anything Happens I Love You

Hugely effective study of parental bereavement feels like a sure winner. Netflix yet again.

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM
Feeling Through
The Letter Room
The Present
Two Distant Strangers
White Eye

Should win: Feeling Through
Will win: Two Distant Strangers

There is some controversy around Two Distant Strangers, but that is not necessarily unhelpful.