The world of film is undergoing a massive change. More women and people of color are getting the opportunities to tell stories than ever before. This progress has been slow, at times frustratingly so, but the direction is a good one. As film diversifies so has The Academy, again, often slower than we would like, but the change is evident. After the debacle that was #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, The Academy began its deliberate effort to diversify membership. Record numbers of women, people of color, young people and non-Americans have joined the ranks of Academy voters and the fruits of that diversification have finally begun to bear. Add to that continued change the advent of the Academy’s new digital screening portal, making it easier than ever for members to see eligible films. Not every voter makes time for every film, but with easier access, more may have done so this year
This year’s Oscar nominations are a blend of old school, stodgy thinking that has long synonymous with the top prize in film and bold, unexpected recognition of independent and international film representative of this new generation. The Power of the Dog led all films with 12 nominations, making it the first film directed by a woman to outright lead in nominations (Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker shared that honor with James Cameron’s Avatar.) Drive My Car surprised with four nominations, including the rare Best Picture nomination for a film not in English. Wonderful surprises like these were abound but so too were some expected disappointments. Overdone biopics still plague the acting categories, yielding recognition for performances that struggle to go beyond imitation.
This bifurcation in opinions makes prognostication difficult. Each year the balance of voters shifts more toward the younger, more diverse bloc, but in any given year it can be tough to know where that balance stands. Some categories this year feel like anyone’s game, but that wont stop us from making some picks. As with every year, we’ll be breaking down the nominees in the big 6 categories: Picture, Director, Actors and Actresses both lead and supporting, providing a favorite, dark horse, surprise and snub for each.
Actress in a Supporting Role
Jessie Buckley - The Lost Daughter
Ariana DeBose - West Side Story
Judi Dench - Belfast
Kirsten Dunst - The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis - King Richard
The Favorite: Ariana DeBose
Outside of Supporting Actor, this year’s acting categories seem wide open. Supporting Actress especially was full of surprising nominees and omissions without a clear cut front runner having been established. With that said, a great role is a great role and Anita in West Side Story is a great role. Rita Moreno dazzled as Anita in 1961 and it earned her a Supporting Actress Oscar then. I’m looking to Ariana DeBose to repeat the feat this year as she is equally a standout in a West Side adaptation that is filled with much better performances than it’s early sixties counterpart.
DeBose is commanding and self assured throughout Spielberg’s West Side, but her helming of a vastly improved rendition of ‘America’ is one of the very best things put to screen last year. It’s still a flawed movie based on a flawed play, but Ariana DeBose’s performance transcends that. She would be a hugely deserving winner this year.
The Dark Horse: Kirsten Dunst
For a lot of these categories the favorite and dark horse feel relatively interchangeable. Dunst could easily find herself winning on her very first (seriously??) nomination. Her boozy, fragile Rose is essential to every twist of the knife that takes place in The Power of the Dog. If we don’t believe her genuine suffering under the tyranny of her new brother in law, the whole film quickly falls apart. With all the love given to her film throughout the categories, don’t overlook Dunst’s chances, or any of her cast mates for that matter.
The Surprise: Jessie Buckley
So much of the time I have to, and will in a bit, fill the surprise section with some bummer performance that got in over something brilliant, but lets go with the other surprise here. Jessie Buckley is brilliant in The Lost Daughter, as she has been in pretty much everything her entire burgeoning career. In my book she should have been nominated for I’m Thinking of Ending Things last year and Wild Rose the year prior at least. She so seamlessly sinks into this role as an overwhelmed mother that you’d be forgiven for thinking she actually was just a de-aged Olivia Colman. To see her name up there was the most pleasant surprise of the nomination morning.
The Snub: Ruth Negga - Passing
There are plenty of worthy supporting actresses this year that deserved nominations over Judi Dench (love her generally, but she wasn’t even the best supporting actress in her own film!!) I could make cases for Toko Miura (Drive My Car), Ann Dowd or Martha Plimpton (Mass) and any number of others, but the clear name missing here is Ruth Negga.
The lack of any Oscars love for Passing is disappointing. Its a beautifully shot, simmering film that would normally seem right up the Academy’s alley. At the center of that are a handful of really good performances, none better than Negga’s beguiling turn in support. Nominated or not, the film is right there on Netflix and definitely worth your time
Actor In a Supporting Role
Ciarán Hinds - Belfast
Troy Kotsur - CODA
Jesse Plemons - The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons - Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee - The Power of the Dog
The Favorite: Kodi Smit-McPhee
This may be the only clubhouse leader that I feel confident about but that probably means he’ll most definitely lose. The Power of the Dog is, at least by nominations, the favorite film across the various branches of the Academy and Smit-McPhee is the piece that holds it all together. His performance tacks closely to the film’s progression, he’s a chameleon without ever revealing to his fellow characters or the audience that he’s changing colors.
If any hesitation exists it may be in some vote splitting with his cast mate Plemons or perhaps a new vs old Academy battle with Belfast and the hokey charm of Ciarán Hinds. Here’s hoping we get the more interesting choice.
The Dark Horse: Troy Kotsur
Kotsur could have been the surprise pick as well but I think we were, and maybe still are, all discounting just how much voters liked CODA. It’s the type of old school, at times saccharine, family dramedy that traditionally has appealed to the Oscars but with a progressive flair that might appeal to newer members. Kotsur is the most memorable, charming performance of a film everyone seems to like. I might not put money on it, but stranger things have happened.
The Surprise: J.K. Simmons
What are we doing here? Did the Academy watch this movie? I like J.K. Simmons too, but he’s a mostly forgettable part of an entirely forgettable film. I guess the actors branch really loved Being the Ricardos. This really doesn’t make sense.
The Snub: Colman Domingo - Zola
If I’m being honest the close call here was probably Bradley Cooper’s unhinged turn as Jon Peters in Licorice Pizza. A brilliant performance that would have been very fun as the last nominated in. We’ll talk about the lack of love for Licorice Pizza’s performances later so lets go with the best nominee that wasn’t ever really in the conversation: Colman Domingo in Zola
Domingo has been on a bit of a tear lately. He’s a household name from Euphoria, but between Zola, Beale Street and Ma Rainey, he’s been consistently delivering on the silver screen too. In Zola Domingo plays a seedy, volatile pimp that poses as one of the central threats of the film. He switches between a cool demeanor and a heavily accented fury, seemingly at random, adding to the immediacy and threat of his character. In a film I was lukewarm on, Domingo is a genuine thrill.
Actor in a leading Role
Javier Bardem - Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch - The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield - Tick… Tick… Boom!
Will Smith - King Richard
Denzel Washington - The Tragedy of MacBeth
The Favorite: Will Smith
It sort of feels like Will Smith is due. Oscar buzz for the Fresh Prince actor had been building since King Richard was first announced. Smith is well liked and has come close to winning a couple times before so the momentum is there. I haven’t mentioned the actual performance as Richard Williams, which is good, if not transcendent in the way that you would hope for out of a front runner. Although not my favorite performance, his big, theatrical take on Williams is one of those ‘most acting’ in a biopic type nominations that the Academy just loves.
The Dark Horse: Denzel Washington
Only one actor — Laurence Olivier in 1948 — has ever won an Oscar for playing Shakespeare and Denzel Washington is actually the first nominee since Kenneth Branagh in 1990. That said, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of MacBeth is the kind of stripped down, star vehicle that highlights its central performance. Washington is very good as the tortured King of Scotland, delivering both physically and verbally on a challenging old English script. It’s hard to say where this category actually stands, but Washington is well liked and the performance is stellar.
The Surprise: Javier Bardem
Obviously the actors branch had a lot of love for Being the Ricardos that simply did not extend to the rest of the Academy. To be honest even that was more than Sorkin’s baffling Lucille Ball biopic deserved. The Kidman nomination is bad but understandable, the Simmons nomination is pretty shocking but none was so indefensible as Bardem’s. He’s barely a lead in Being the Ricardos and his performance is so forgettable that it may be tough to notice when his Desi Arnez vanishes for long sequences of the film. This one was not even on my radar.
The Snub: Simon Rex - Red Rocket
If not for Bardem, the likely next up may have been Leo DiCaprio for Don’t Look Up, so… yikes. The truly stellar performance that deserved recognition this week was Simon Rex in Red Rocket. Its dynamic turn from the Scary Movie veteran bringing life and empathy to a fairly despicable character. Unfortunately, the Academy has an aversion to comedies and original characters and thusly Rex stood very little chance.
Actress in A Leading Role
Jessica Chastain - The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman - The Lost Daughter
Penélope Cruz - Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman - Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart - Spencer
The Favorite: Olivia Colman
Honestly the Best Actress category this year is total jump ball. I could see any one of these five winning it and there are major reasons for hesitation for each. For now lets take a lesson from the McDormand win last year and remember that the Academy loves to reward generational performers multiple times when given the opportunity. One such transcendent performer the Academy loves: Olivia Colman. This is now Colman’s third nomination in four years for three wildly different types of performance. In The Lost Daughter, Colman doesn’t get nearly the same opportunity for bombast as something like The Favourite, but she still finds a way to make her character unmissable.
The Lost Daughter hinges on Colman being able to externalize really internal tumult and she absolutely nails it. While I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone else walk away with the gold statuette, Colman’s recent body of work is truly some of the most impressive of this era. Win or lose shes cemented herself among her generation’s most shining talents
The Dark Horse: Penélope Cruz
I debated Cruz for the surprise, as her nomination did catch me off guard. Its certainly deserved and seeing the love for Parallel Mothers in a couple categories was one of the more thrilling parts of nomination morning. Hopefully a nomination for her dynamic turn in Almodovar’s latest opens people up to more of Cruz’s foreign language work.
Why the dark horse? The love for every other actor’s film is fairly limited. For an international film, one not even submitted by its country, to receive a nomination in Actress and Score indicates a lot of support. If the younger, more diverse wave of voters has their way, we just might see a win for Cruz.
The Surprise: Jessica Chastain
If I was debating where to place Cruz, Chastain was the other half of that coin. On one hand, the heavy makeup, transformational type performance in a biopic is exactly what has traditionally been irresistible to Oscar voters, on the other hand, me and six other people total saw The Eyes of Tammy Faye. It’s a fine movie and Jessica Chastain is the second best part of it (hello Andrew Garfield) but is that really worthy of this sort of honor? Chastain had been discussed, so it may not be shocking to see her show up, but aren’t we getting past the need for this type of performance being nominated?
The Snubs: Alana Haim - Licorice Pizza
The victim of a nomination like Chastain’s — or the perhaps the more egregious Kidman nod — is who doesn’t get in. People might be shocked to see Lady Gaga miss out but, honestly, that was a hammy performance in an equally hammy film. You wont hear any complaints here about that snub. Another name, certainly more deserving but less discussed, would have been The Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve. She always seemed like more of a long shot though even as her film did land two nominations elsewhere.
Really though, the biggest snub in my mind was Alana Haim. She is the heart and soul of a a very acting dependent film in Licorice Pizza. If Haim can’t relay a precise image of twenty-something malaise and immaturity, the entire film falls apart. To make her omission all the more surprising, Paul Thomas Anderson has a fairly strong history of generating acting nominations from his films. This year he hit just about everywhere else, but the Haim snub is glaring.
Kenneth Branagh - Belfast
Ryusuke Hamaguchi - Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson - Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion - The Power of the Dog
Steven Spielberg - West Side Story
The Favorite: Jane Campion
It might be boring to keep going with The Power of the Dog nominees in every category, but the film is such a revelation that seeing it win repeatedly would not get old. For all the brilliant elements of Jane Campion’s film, her direction is arguably the most illustrious. Every scene, every shot folds neatly back into the narrative before unfurling into that explosive ending. Not a moment is wasted nor is a single thread left hanging. Something as striking as The Power of the Dog isn not possible without masterful direction.
The Dark Horse: Kenneth Branagh
Looking over all the Belfast adoration and you might forget that the last movie Kenneth Branagh directed prior was Artemis Fowl. The veteran Disney director is certainly in better form with Belfast, but it’s still a film far outclassed by each of its fellow nominees here. There’s a certain amount of catnip in Belfast for the Academy. What’s old is new again and voters have nominated 4 black and white films for direction in the last 4 years, with Alfonso Cuarón winning for Roma. Also like the 2019 winner, Belfast is somewhat of an autofiction, a genre that has seen some love in the category in recent years with PTA’s Licorice Pizza, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, Todd Phillips’ Joker and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird all receiving nominations. There’s a lot of ways to talk yourself into a Branagh win, even if Campion seems locked in here.
The Surprise: Nobody
This is about as chalk as the directing category could go. I suppose the consensus prediction had Villenueve in over Hamaguchi, but the trend lately has been one directing spot for the best foreign language film (in the eyes of the Academy) each year. It has happened the last 5 years and this time Hamaguchi was, very deservedly, honored. It’s great that international film gets some recognition here, maybe one of these days we can get more than just one film per year.
The Snub: Denis Villenueve
I alluded to it in the surprise section, but Villenueve was almost universally expected to get recognized. Dune wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the auteur has been nominated before and the film is clearly beloved, especially by more of the below the line branches. It takes a lot to wrangle together all the elements of a movie that big and it doesn’t always get done so elegantly *cough* Spider-Man *cough*. Nearly everyone in this category made masterful films and the other was an inevitability, hard to be too mad with that.
Belfast (Focus Features)
CODA (Apple TV+)
Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
Drive My Car (Janus)
Dune (Warner Bros.)
King Richard (Warner Bros.)
Licorice Pizza (United Artists)
Nightmare Alley (Searchlight)
The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
West Side Story (20th Century)
The Favorite: The Power of the Dog
It’s tough to even pick one film to be a true front runner this year. It could easily go to Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, nominated in every key category and undoubtedly catnip for the older crowd looking to honor autofiction about the power of art to save. Maybe the Academy wants to honor the return of big screen spectacle with Dune or Hollywood history with West Side Story.
Nothing would surprise me this year, but to pick just one lets go with the film that led the field in nominations. In all of Oscars history, a film that did that won the top prize 58 out of 93 tries. The Power of the Dog would be a truly deserving winner with top notch performances, best of the year direction and an absolutely engrossing use of sound and scenery. The only hesitation here might be a continued reluctance to honor films distributed by Netflix.
The Dark Horse: Don’t Look Up
Readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that Don’t Look Up is among my least favorite films of the year, but that alone may be indicative of its Best Picture odds. Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for the smallest achievement so why wouldn’t they celebrate Adam McKay single-handedly solving climate change? In all seriousness, the film industry still has unceasing belief in a single film’s ability to affect change (see: Green Book) and they love McKay’s clunky brand of pop-activism.
Never doubt the power of public messaging and the Don’t Look Up team is heavily pushing a narrative that hating their film is the equivalent to denying climate change. Obviously that’s ridiculous but, never let yourself be surprised by Hollywood’s desire to show performative support for something really important without actually doing anything. That’s basically this film.
The Surprise: Drive My Car
A lot of this year’s slate is surprising. CODA got over the line after a long year of praise but little buzz. Nightmare Alley seemed like a film on the outside looking in for most of the last month despite the fact that anyone discounting del Toro’s standing with the Academy should do so at their own risk. But in the end, the biggest surprise this year was Drive My Car.
I hate to always pick the international film or non-English performance as the surprise in their categories, but until the Academy consistently nominates them, thats what they are. Drive My Car is only the twelfth international film nominated for Best Picture, looking to be only the second winner. Hamaguchi’s epic is not Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s layered crowd pleaser, it’s something far more meditative and remorseful. To see it break through here is a surprise but it does show that the film had a lot of support from some corners of the electorate. With additional nominations in adapted screenplay and directing, don’t be shocked if Drive My Car consolidates some support from more of the international wing of the Academy.
The Snub: Tick… Tick… Boom!
With dozens of movies getting nominations somewhere, dozens more just missing out and only ten spots available in Best Picture, picking just one snub is difficult. Films with little chance — like The French Dispatch or Titane — are worthy of mention but never really felt like more than long shots. Instead, the name left off that most surprised me was Tick… Tick… Boom! A very good biopic (sort of) from a buzzy first time director with a brilliant, nominated performance at it’s center. Seems like the kind of thing made for the Oscars and would have made for a better choice than Don’t Look Up or Belfast.