Here’s who will win the Oscars — and who should — after the strangest year in film
Judging by the question I’m asked most often lately, the biggest mystery about Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony is that it’s happening at all: “Were there enough movies this past year worth giving Oscars to?”
There sure were, and then some.
Despite the turbulence of a raging pandemic, with theatres shuttered, film production drastically curtailed and Hollywood glitz and gatherings muted, fans of the flickering image still had reason to rejoice in the dark — even if it was the dark of their basement rather than a multiplex.
There were films that moved the heart, mind and soul. There were movies that shocked and delighted. There was cinema that enraptured and enraged. Just like always, in other words.
These Oscars aren’t like other years, though. The pandemic forced a change to eligibility rules that let films from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon skip a theatrical run and go straight to small screens, a possible portent of an online future the Academy has long resisted.
The recent swelling of Academy ranks to 9,300 voters includes many more women and people of colour, which led to the most diverse slate of nominees ever — and a possible win of all four acting categories by people of colour, which would be an historic first for the Oscars.
And ring the bells for some welcome category clarity. There’s now just a single Best Sound category, instead of the confusing Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories of decades past.
If we still had office Oscar pools — here’s hoping for next year — this would make winning them a little bit easier. There’s still a lot to ponder, though, especially in three of the four acting categories where the outcomes are far from certain.
Here are my annual picks of what will, what should and what could win in the 23 categories at the 93rd Academy Awards:
Frances McDormand in a scene from the film "Nomadland." Chloé Zhao’s affecting tale of recession-weary seniors taking to RVs and the road to rediscover America and themselves has a fairly clear path to glory, writes Peter Howell.
Could: “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Why: Chloé Zhao’s affecting tale of recession-weary seniors taking to RVs and the road to rediscover America and themselves has a fairly clear path to glory. It took Best Picture at many precursor awards, most notably the Producers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America, which usually points to an Oscar triumph. You may see writer/director/editor Zhao on the Academy stage early in the evening, if she takes the Best Editing prize, another of the film’s six Oscar nominations.
It’s favoured to win despite the leading 10 nominations for David Fincher’s “Mank,” a story about the writing of “Citizen Kane” that won raves for its technical prowess but received mostly shrugs on the awards circuit.
“Nomadland” faces its biggest potential roadblock from Aaron Sorkin’s Sixties-set courtroom drama, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which won the ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the prize “Parasite” took last year prior to its Oscar win. And writer/director Sorkin is a popular guy in Hollywood. But he didn’t get a Best Director nomination, an omission that is usually fatal to Best Picture prospects.
Lee Isaac Chung’s much-loved immigrant farmer drama, “Minari,” also has a shot at Best Picture, if the preferential ballot of this category (and only this category) gives it enough second- and third-place picks to power it past “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Emerald Fennell’s rape-revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman” could likewise eke out a Best Picture win, although it seems to have lost a lot of heat in recent weeks.
And no one could complain if remaining Best Picture challengers “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Father” took the evening’s top prize. They’re all worthy films. But they would be genuinely surprising winners.
Will: Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”
Could: Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”
Should: Chloé Zhao
Why: Beijing-born Zhao has already made Oscar history as the first Asian woman to be nominated for Best Director. She has swept most of the precursor awards, the DGA among them, which makes her the odds-on favourite to win the Oscar and make more history. If there’s an upset, expect it from Emerald Fennell, who hit a home run in her first feature directing at-bat with Sundance sensation “Promising Young Woman.” A win by either Zhao or Fennell would represent only the second time a woman has taken this male-dominated category, following Kathryn Bigelow’s triumph with “The Hurt Locker.” The men this year — Fincher (“Mank”), Chung (“Minari”) and Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”) — are also-rans.
Will: Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Could: Frances McDormand, “Nomadland” or Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”
Should: Frances McDormand
Why: This is a real cliffhanger category. Frances McDormand may seem the obvious choice for her empathetic turn as the grieving wanderer of “Nomadland,” but she already has two Oscars — and she has declined to campaign for a third. So I suspect the Academy will vote to give Viola Davis her second Oscar, this time for the title role of brassy blues legend Ma Rainey, a character she almost disappears into.
Carey Mulligan can’t be counted out for her spellbinding work in “Promising Young Woman” and ditto for Andra Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” The only nominee in this category who can be counted out, regretfully, is Vanessa Kirby in “Pieces of a Woman.” She delivers an outstanding performance as a grieving mother in a movie seen by few.
Will: Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Could: Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal” or Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”
Should: Chadwick Boseman
Why: The best bet at the Oscars this year. Chadwick Boseman died last August, a few months before the premiere of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and he’s not going to get another Oscar nomination. A win here for his incandescent portrayal of tempestuous trumpeter Levee is not only deserved but predestined. Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) or Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) have the best chances of a miracle upset. Also nominated: Steven Yeun (“Minari”) and Gary Oldman (“Mank”).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will: Youn Yuh-jung, “Minari”
Could: Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” or Olivia Colman, “The Father”
Should: Youn Yuh-jung
Why: Late-breaking industry adulation for Yuh-Jung Youn, who plays the spunky mother-in-law in “Minari,” looks to have sealed the deal for this amiable South Korean actress, and rightly so. She has serious competition from Maria Bakalova, the scene-stealer from “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and Olivia Colman, the long-suffering daughter of “The Father.” Some Oscar watchers think Glenn Close might finally win an Oscar, in her eighth attempt, for her redneck grandma in the risible red state drama “Hillbilly Elegy.” But the same performance is also nominated for a mocking Razzie, which Close is likely to win. Poor Amanda Seyfried, meanwhile, will be more collateral damage for the general shunning of “Mank.”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will: Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”
Could: Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” or Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal”
Should: Daniel Kaluuya
Why: How can two lead roles suddenly become supporting ones? That’s a question that apparently didn’t bother the Academy, but it’s about the only thing that could stop Daniel Kaluuya from turning months of industry hosannahs into Oscar gold, for playing a charismatic Black Panther leader, the “Messiah” of the title. Also nominated in this category is co-star LaKeith Stanfield, the “Judas” of the film as an FBI snitch. Stanfield could siphon off enough votes from Kaluuya to give the prize to Sacha Baron Cohen for his entertaining Abbie Hoffman of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” or to Paul Raci for his quietly magnificent portrayal of a deaf mentor in “Sound of Metal.” With all this going on, Leslie Odom, Jr., doesn’t stand a chance, despite his terrific portrayal of late soul singer Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami.”
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Could: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” or “The Father”
Why: Jessica Bruder’s excellent reportage made her story of 21st-century nomads seem like classic American fiction, which Zhao capitalized on for “Nomadland.” It’s by far the best choice here, but fans of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” or “The Father” might choose this category to show their love. Also nominated: “One Night in Miami” and “The White Tiger.”
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Will: “Promising Young Woman”
Could: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” or “Minari”
Should: “Promising Young Woman”
Why: This is the category Oscars voters often use to recognize films that they liked but which they aren’t choosing for Best Picture. Hence a likely win for “Promising Young Woman,” which would also give writer/director Fennell a moment in the Oscar spotlight she’s not likely to get for Best Picture or Best Director. The Academy might also choose to recognize Sorkin’s screenplay for “The Trial of the Chicago 7” or writer/director Chung’s screenplay for “Minari,” two other movies likely to be sidelined by the “Nomadland” express. Also nominated: “Sound of Metal” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
AND THE REST …
— Besides Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, “Nomadland” also seems likely to go the distance for Best Cinematography (although “Mank” is a viable challenger), for a total of four wins out of six nominations. Best Actress may be out of reach and so might Best Film Editing, where “The Trial of the Chicago 7” seems to have the razor’s edge.
— The night’s numerical big winner might well be “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” even though it was overlooked for Best Picture consideration. The film has a solid chance to take both Best Actor and Best Actress, the first time since 1997 these categories went to a single film. And it has a good chance of taking the Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Costume Design prizes. It might even take Best Production Design if things go really badly for category favourite “Mank,” which would give “Ma Rainey’s” a total of five Oscars. Not bad for a “snubbed” film.
— Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) will likely go to Denmark’s “Another Round,” a dramedy of male mid-life imbibing that earned Thomas Vinterberg a surprise Best Director nomination. But I’d love to see the prize go to Jasmila Zbanic’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, a Bosnian war drama steeped in empathy for victims of conflict and bitter reality about the cost of violence.
— Count on Disney/Pixar’s popular “Soul” to win Best Animated Film, another historical milestone since it features Pixar’s first Black lead character, voiced by Jamie Foxx. I’d also give the film the nod for Best Original Score, honouring the combined talents of Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But for Best Animated Short, I see Pixar’s overly cute “Burrow” coming up short behind “If Anything Happens I Love You,” which capture’s a parent’s worst nightmare with an impact that belies the film’s brevity.
— Best Original Song is anybody’s guess, as usual, but it would be nice if the soulful “Speak Now,” sung by Leslie Odom Jr. and co-written by him with Sam Ashworth, gave Oscar recognition to Regina King’s powerful Black history testament “One Night in Miami.”
— Any of the five Best Documentary Feature nominees would be fine by me, but I suspect most Academy members will go for “My Octopus Teacher” by James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich, an amazing tale of interspecies bonding that features some of the best underwater cinematography I’ve ever seen. As for Best Documentary Short Subject, the social urgency and bravura style of Sophia Nahli Allison’s racially charged “A Love Song for Latasha” make it hard to resist. For similar reasons, “Two Distant Strangers” by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe seems destined to win Best Live Action Short. It’s constructed as a “Groundhog Day” version of the all-too-common occurrence of Black suffering at the hands of white police.
— Best Visual Effects might bring Christopher Nolan’s under-achieving and time-bending spy story, “Tenet,” its only Oscar. It has serious competition from George Clooney’s visually awesome yet emotionally vacant sci-fi thriller, “The Midnight Sky.”
— Hear, hear for “Sound of Metal” for the newly consolidated Best Sound category, which seems like a no-brainer for a movie that made the complexity of hearing loss a cinematic reality. But maybe the voters prefer the ship and submarine noises of the Tom Hanks-starring “Greyhound”?
(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)