2021 Oscar Nominees
Remember the Oscars? Believe it or not, more than 13 months have passed since Bong Joon-ho and his masterwork cleaned up at the Academy Awards. To some Parasite winning Best Picture is still the last good thing to happen in a since ravaged world. The film year that took place in those intervening months saw theaters closed and many would be awards contenders pushed back. Despite the migration of prestige films to 2021 and beyond, plenty of great films find themselves in contention this year. With nearly every title accessible at home in some form, the 93rd Oscars may be the toughest to prognosticate yet.
While winners may be tough to parse, the nominees that came in this year were mostly as expected, especially in the acting categories. Best Picture surprised with the films that didn’t make the cut, while there were pleasant surprises throughout the other categories. Mank leads the way with ten nominations — which is objectively too much Mank — while Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari and Nomadland all look quite strong with six nominations each.
This is also one of the most diverse sets of nominees ever. Nine of the twenty actors nominated are people of color, including three of Asian descent. For the first time in Oscars history two women have been nominated for Best Director in the same year. Of course there will be quibbles with some of the snubs, but the Academy mostly made good choices this year. Even the worst nominees this year are better than things like Joker or Bohemian Rhapsody that have found their way into the mix previously.
As we do every year, let’s break down the nominees in each of the big six categories, singling out the odds on favorite, the dark horse nominee, the most surprising pick, and the one most unjustly left out. Unless certain snubs are egregious, we’ll try to highlight a variety of snubbed films through the categories:
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
The Favorite: Maria Bakalova
As much as this slate of nominations ended up matching conventional wisdom, it is genuinely challenging to identify who is leading the way among this group. Absolutely nobody in this group would surprise me so why not start with some wishful thinking. Maria Bakalova came into Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm as a relative unknown to audiences and turned in the best comedic performance of the year, outshining even her well established co-star. A Bakalova win would be a delightful Cinderella story.
The Dark Horse: Glenn Close
Look, Hillbilly Elegy is a bad movie. Glenn Close is the best part of that film, but even a pretty good performance from her can’t buoy that sinking ship. This is Close’s record eighth acting nomination without a win and every year adds to the growing sentiment that she is due. There’s almost something perverse about the idea of her finally winning her Oscar for a film in which she has to spin metaphors about “good terminators, bad terminators and neutral terminators.”
The Surprise: Youn Yuh-jung
Another of the many pleasant surprises this year, Youn Yuh-jung getting a nomination is an absolute delight. Playing a cagey but loving grandmother in Minari, her performance is very funny and transforms into something deeper. The work Youn does is incredibly impressive and critical to making the emotion of Minari work. In a just world she will be collecting her first Oscar in April.
The Snub: Nobody?
Would I have preferred to see someone like Helena Zengel (News of the World) or Dominique Fishback (Judas and the Black Messiah) here instead of Glenn Close? Of course, but to be a true snub there has to be some sort of momentum behind the candidate and these five are really the only names that had legitimate buzz. If I had to pick somebody, I’d swap Close with Fishback, whose performance is integral in bringing in a grounded side of Kaluuya’s often ethereal Fred Hampton.
Actor in a Supporting Role
The Favorite: Daniel Kaluuya
Judas and the Black Messiah was among the most pleasant surprises of nomination morning. Going in Daniel Kaluuya looked like the only lock for a nomination and now the film is sitting on six total nominations. That indicates a lot of enthusiasm for the film and Kaluuya should be the beneficiary, even if Lakeith Stanfield’s surprise nomination portends some vote splitting. Kaluuya is certainly very deserving and is electric as Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Hopefully a win here would be just the beginning of broader recognition for one of the very best actors working today.
The Dark Horse: Sacha Baron Cohen
It’s hard to overstate how popular Sacha Baron Cohen is amongst his peers. Even as Trial of the Chicago 7 saw its prospects falling on nomination morning, Baron Cohen was the one actor from the film who broke through. A couple of nominations for his Borat sequel further prove the point. Baron Cohen is pretty good as activist Abbie Hoffman in a film that stifles most of his attempts to find depth in his character. It may not be the biggest performance of the bunch but if the two Judas and the Black Messiah actors split votes, a path for Baron Cohen opens up.
The Surprise: Paul Raci
Paul Raci might be the best performance of the nominated bunch but that doesn’t make his nomination any less surprising. Raci is the calm center of Sound of Metal and a brilliant foil to Riz Ahmed’s more tumultuous lead. The rising tide of sentiment around Sound of Metal brought Raci from questionable to be nominated to a serious contender. What a delightful performance, the kind that the Academy often overlooks.
The Snub: Bill Murray (On the Rocks)
It has been apparent for a while now that On the Rocks was not going to be a film that got many Oscar nominations. The expected exception to this was Bill Murray who is brilliantly bombastic as the estranged father to Rashida Jones lead character. Murray brought a lot of touching remorse and a whole heap of humor to his latest reunion with Sofia Coppola. Given that the potential Murray spot went to Raci or Stanfield, it’s tough to be too mad about this snub.
Actress in a Leading Role
The Favorite: Carey Mulligan
Best actress appears to be shaping up as a three woman sprint between Mulligan, Frances McDormand and Vanessa Kirby. Given the lukewarm reception to Pieces of a Woman as a film and McDormand’s recent win, Carey Mulligan looks to be leading the way as of now. Promising Young Woman is a good and very well liked film — just look at its five nominations in key categories — and an awful lot of that has to do with Mulligan’s powerhouse central performance. She has to pull together a lot of layers to make her character feel deeper than the pop aesthetic painted over her and does so masterfully. Carey Mulligan forever.
The Dark Horse: Frances McDormand
The Academy loves to reward its favorite actors and McDormand certainly fits the bill there. All that is holding me back is their recent trend of stopping at two wins for any given actor. McDormand should be the front runner, her performance in Nomadland is so tender and subtle that she blends in perfectly with the real people she is imitating. She doesn’t get the big blow up speeches or monologues that typically define winners in this category, but she does give the type of performance that genuinely feels unique to her skill set. Don’t be surprised if the Oscars roll around and McDormand is up there claiming her third acting win.
The Surprise: Andra Day
It’s tough to call any nomination a surprise in a category that went just about how everyone expected it to go. We’ll put Andra Day here because the other four names have been locks for seemingly months. Day’s performance as Billie Holiday very good and reminiscent of the Judy Garland role that netted Renee Zellweger an Oscar last year. The United States vs Billie Holiday is not quite Judy in terms of quality, which likely hurts Day’s candidacy to actually win. That said, the Academy loves a singing performance and Day certainly provides plenty in that department.
The Snub: Carrie Coon (The Nest)
Despite a handful of nominations from critics groups, Carrie Coon’s Oscar campaign never really even got off the ground. Perhaps it’s because The Nest itself never broke through to audiences nor resonated with critics to the same degree as some of the other films in this category. Whatever the reason, it’s a real shame because Coon pulls off some capital-A Acting in Sean Durkin’s new film. I’m ambivalent on the film myself, but not on Coon’s performance. She does it all, from intense shouting matches to paranoia to a scene at a restaurant that is easily the best single scene of performance I’ve seen all year. I’d have taken her over Andra Day, but this category mostly got things right.
Actor in a Leading Role
The Favorite: Chadwick Boseman
Awarding a posthumous Oscar feels like something very on brand for the Academy, but in reality it’s only been done twice (out of 8 nominations) in the acting category and sixteen times (out of 79 nominations) overall. Chadwick Boseman figures to add his name to that list of winners in April. A widely loved performer in his life, Boseman’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a career best. As Levee, he delivers the sort of impassioned monologues and floats on screen with the type of frenetic energy that will light up a Oscar reel. This one seems fairly locked up, but the lack of enthusiasm Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom overall may hold him back.
The Dark Horse: Anthony Hopkins
Anthony Hopkins is another broadly admired and adored performer in the industry. Look no further than his nomination for The Two Popes — a good film that almost nobody watched -- last year as proof. Similarly, The Father is an under seen gem and this time Hopkins central performance is bold and breathtaking. Playing a proud man in the throws of dementia, Hopkins pulls viewers into the experience of mental decay in a very powerful way.
The Surprise: Riz Ahmed
Best Actor is one category that went just about exactly as the consensus predicted so finding a surprise is tough. We’ll give that honor to Riz Ahmed here. Sound of Metal is a film that has slowly worked its way up the public consciousness and become a major contender in the process. Ahmed is fantastic in the lead as a drummer and recovering addict who suddenly loses his hearing. It’s a wonderfully internal performance defined by impulse and frustration. Don’t let this surprise distinction fool you, Ahmed is very much in contention.
The Snub: Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods)
Da 5 Bloods had a dismal morning as the nominations rolled out. One of the best films of the year, Spike Lee’s new joint found itself with one measly nomination for best score. While it certainly should have been competing across the board, especially Best Picture and Director, the biggest casualty is Delroy Lindo and his lead performance as Paul. Lindo is manic and unpredictable, anchoring a tragic, chaotic energy to the center of Da 5 Bloods. Perhaps the relatively early release date and pushed back Oscars provided too much distance from the performance. Swap Lindo into Oldman’s spot and you’ve got a better lineup.
The Favorite: Chloe Zhao
Nomadland has been racking up best picture awards on just about every stop of this awards season. Right there with her film, Chloe Zhao has received a large proportion of directing wins. One of the key things to look for in directing is a consistent vision throughout the film and Zhao imbues so much thematic resonance in the tiniest moments of her elliptical film. That the shattering of a plate can bring such emotional response is just evidence of the level of craft at play here. Even the incredible performances wrought from non-professionals and real life nomads is impressively indicative of Zhao’s singular talents. This category may be as heavy a favorite as any.
The Dark Horse: Lee Isaac Chung
While I am a huge fan of what Emerald Fennell does to balance Promising Young Woman, her chances do feel a bit slight. To be quite truthful, the case for anyone but Chloe Zhao seem slimmer the more I think about it. That said there is a long storied tradition of Picture and Director splitting so the Academy can honor two films they love and with six nominations they really seem to love Minari. Like Nomadland, STR has been high on this one for a while and the choices Chung makes as well as his stewardship of a couple brilliant kid performances all culminates in a fantastic film.
The Surprise: Thomas Vinterberg
Easily the most shocking nominee of the morning, Vinterberg was not even on most people’s radar for this category. That’s unfortunate because Another Round is a very good film shaped by it’s director’s own experience. What could have been a pretty silly comedy about teachers getting drunk at school becomes a touching meditation about excess and loss. Vinterberg’s filmmaking lends a weight to the story but also a welcome pace and energy. The final sequence alone deserves an Oscar.
The Snub: Regina King (One Night in Miami...)
For the past two years my snub in directing has simply been “women.” The history of the Acdemy and gender parity has been a fraught one in this category and beyond. This year they actually nominated two women for direction, the most ever in a single year. And yet the genuinely surprising Vinterberg nomination comes at the expense of Regina King. While this is a strong group of nominees, and I’m pleased that I don’t have to write about Aaron Sorkin taking up a spot she deserved, King’s exclusion still stings.
One Night in Miami... is a fantastic film. One made infinitely better by the confident choices in framing and staging made by Regina King. To have it be excluded from every major category aside from one supporting actor nomination is isn’t just baffling, it’s frustrating. Had she gotten in here rather than Fincher, this category would be all the stronger. What can you do, Mank is gonna Mank.
The Favorite: Nomadland
Is it really possible that the Oscars could bookend a year of suffering with great Best Picture decisions? Although it’s never wise to get your hopes too high with the Academy, all signs right now are pointing to Nomadland leading the race. Chloe Zhao and her film have racked up nominations and wins at nearly every precursor ceremony and the raft of nominations, especially in every key category, here just reaffirm the enthusiasm this film has garnered. Here at STR we’ve had nothing but praise for Nomadland and a win would be incredible, even if just to put more eyes on one of the year’s loveliest films.
The Dark Horse: Mank
Prevailing sentiment in the last few weeks seemed to be that Mank was starting to fall out of favor among voters. Well, ten nominations to lead the field may just have put that to rest. Clearly the Academy fell in love with the production and technical aspects of a very finely tuned film. All in all nomination day was a good one for David Fincher and his film, although the lack of a nomination in editing or screenwriting is a concern for Mank going forward. Ten nominations are a lot but Mank winning a raft of Oscars seems as likely as it going home empty handed.
The Surprise: The Father
What actually made it into Best Picture is pretty chalky. Really the biggest surprises are the snubs that we’ll get to in a moment. That said, let’s talk about the one film that made the list that I had on the outside: The Father. A wonderful film with a phenomenal set of performances, this is a movie wholly deserving of it’s spot. (It may actually be my favorite film nominated.) With The Father still only playing in theaters in the US, it hasn’t been able to generate the same sort of grassroots momentum. Not an issue for Academy voters who have been able to see, and clearly enjoy, this film via screener.
The Snub: I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)
Every year there are hundreds of films that fall outside the select few that find themselves nominated for the big prize at the Oscars. There are so many worthy films that stand very little chance due to their genre (Palm Springs), their medium (Soul or Boys State) or their scope (First Cow or Shithouse.) There also are the truly shocking snubs. How Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or One Night in Miami... were left out of this field after months of praise and heavy campaigning is beyond me. Any one of the aforementioned would make a very worthy winner, let alone nominee, but I would be remiss for failing to lament the exclusion of my favorite film of 2020.
If we’re being honest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things never stood a chance at the Oscars. It’s too weird, too dark, too quintessentially Kaufman, but that singular vision packed a bigger punch than any of the actual nominees. It’s the type of risky film that we rarely get from studios anymore and a nomination might have encouraged non-Netflix studios to take a few more chances with more bizarre or existential fare. Beyond this category, Kaufman’s direction and Jessie Buckley’s performance are Oscar worthy as well. I could have chosen I’m Thinking of Ending Things for any one of the snubs on this list (it got no nominations!!!) but I chose instead to highlight some of the other wonderful efforts in film in 2020.
That’s it. There will be plenty more talk about the Oscars this week and in the coming months on Spinning the Reel the podcast, including a look at the below the line categories. If you agree or disagree with any of my picks here, or just have any Oscars related thoughts, let me know in the comments.