Every year, I pick my winners among categories where I've seen the majority of nominees. These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win (though I may talk a little bit about predictions as well). In the past my picks sometimes coincided with the Academy's selections, but they can easily diverge. Last year, my picks matched the Academy's in 10 of 15 categories.
Last year was strange and this past year still didn't see the film industry recover. How else do you explain a Best Picture slate that didn't feature a single Best Actress nominated performance? I did at least do my Best Picture rankings, as opposed to last year when the slate was a little too weak to warrant commenting on every film. However, due to a number of factors, this list will be a bit odd this year, which I'll explain along the way. Let's get to it.
If you read my Best Picture rankings, you know that I went with The Power of the Dog. Of the nominees, it was the least flawed, with strong performances, good direction, and beautiful cinematography. It would not win against most prior Best Picture winners, but this is not an ordinary year.
This is a tough one, because all of the directors did wonderful jobs. Kenneth Branagh showed his mastery of craft in Belfast. Ryusuke Hamaguchi made three hours of driving and talking compelling. Paul Thomas Anderson made a technically wonderful movie of a very problematic script. And Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberged all over West Side Story. But my choice here is Jane Campion for adapting The Power of the Dog. Her choices were spot on, and she made a fantastic film with few blemishes.
I think it's easy to exclude Javier Bardem and Denzel Washington because neither performance was their career best. I've heard rumblings for Will Smith, and while he was fantastic, it was a bit of a layup given Richard Williams was written as the Will Smithiest of Will Smith roles. Benedict Cumberbatch was excellent as Phil Burbank, part bully, part manly cowboy, part scared/scarred child. But my statue would go to Andrew Garfield, who did it all in Tick, Tick... Boom! He sang, he made us laugh, he made us cry, he showed us wonder. It was truly a great performance and not just handing an award to an actor for singing (<cough>, Emma Stone, <cough>).
I'm a bit stuck, because I did not see four of the five nominated performances, and don't plan to anytime soon. I'd rather miss a great performance than watch anything to do with Tammy Faye Bakker, for example. I'd normally skip a category I haven't seen most of the nominees for, but this is Best Actress, and Nicole Kidman really did a wonderful job inhabiting Lucille Ball, so I'm going to give her my award a bit by default and a bit by merit.
Best Supporting Actor
All of these performances were quite good, but Troy Kotsur stands out. Not only did he have the role that did the most heavy lifting for his film, playing the deaf father balancing between worrying about losing his daughter and proud of the adult she's turning into, but he also had to connect with audiences despite not using a language most viewers know. There was not a time that we didn't know and connect with what his Frank Rossi was thinking and feeling, even if we didn't know ASL and didn't read the subtitles.
Best Supporting Actress
I didn't see The Lost Daughter so can't comment on Jessie Buckley's performance. Even so, I don't know how I could hand this to anyone but Ariana DeBose. Anita is a role made for stars, and she managed to elevate it further. I can see a world in which Aunjanue Ellis wins for King Richard, but DeBose's performance across the board was lights out.
Best Original Screenplay
This is a very weak category this year. I've not seen The Worst Person in the World. Adam McKay's script for Don't Look Up is hamhanded. King Richard is quite good, but fails to deviate from its hero worship of its subject. Licorice Pizza is, well, problematic. So I think Belfast wins here for me by default. If it doesn't win, I'll hope that the Academy picked King Richard, since it's less noxious than the other nominated films I watched.
Best Adapted Screenplay
I did not see The Lost Daughter. Of the others, The Power of the Dog, CODA, and Drive My Car are all very strong contenders, and I can think of reasons to give the award to each of them. However, I think I'll go with The Power of the Dog since the final result was so stellar. But I won't be upset if the Academy opts for either CODA or Drive My Car.
Best Animated Feature Film
This year was odd in that the floor was very high (no How to Train a Dragon film franchise nominations) but there were no knockout films (no Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse) either. I could make reasonable cases for Encanto (best example of a classic CGI animated film with a brilliant soundtrack), Flee (an incredible documentary that was drawn in order to protect the anonymity of its subjects), and The Mitchells vs. the Machines (highly imaginative and stylistic). I think I'll be old school and select Encanto, because the story is good and the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are absolutely stunning.
A Quick Note About Categories I Didn't Pick
I normally don't pick the Best Documentary Feature or the Best International Feature categories, but I have seen two nominees in each. For Best Documentary, I saw Flee and Summer of Soul, and both of them were amazing. I can't imagine having to pick between those two, even without knowledge of the other nominees. For Best International Feature, I saw Flee and Drive My Car. Drive My Car seems the no-brainer here, but I've also heard amazing things about The Worst Person in the World and of course Flee was amazing. I'll look forward to seeing what the Academy does.
Also, I normally pick among the nominated short film categories. However, this year they did not release the collected short films prior to the Oscars like they have in other years, and I've been slow to return to the movie theater during this late stage of the pandemic. So I've not seen any of the Live Action or Documentary short films. C'mon Hollywood, get these films out to the largest audience possible next year!
Best Animated Short Film
Of these nominees, I haven't seen Boxballet, but really the previews I've seen doesn't think it would change my mind. This year was very odd, because so many of the films were extremely dark. I honestly never want to see Bestia again. Of those, only Affairs of the Art had any charm. The Windshield Wiper told some interesting tails of love or almost love, but the whole of it didn't hold together well. My pick is Robin Robin, an absolutely charming and technically proficient film from Aardman.
Best Original Score
Surprisingly, I liked the Don't Look Up score. Encanto's instrumental score is very good, but I have a hard time separating it from Lin-Manuel Miranda's song writing. I thought I was going to go with Jonny Greenwood's The Power of the Dog score, which was moody and yet surprisingly easy to listen to multiple times over, but there are a few too many dissonant moments for me to go with it. I think I'll ultimately give my award to Germaine Franco for Encanto.
Best Original Song
I'm rooting for Lin-Manuel Miranda to complete his EGOT with a win for "Dos Oroguitas", but I'm confused as to why this was the selection from Encanto to get nominated instead of "We Don't Talk About Bruno". "Dos Oroguitas" is a fine song, but it's very traditional and straightforward, compared to the complex structure of "We Don't Talk About Bruno", which also happened to sit at number one on the charts for several weeks. So I'm rooting for Miranda to win, but that's not actually the song I'd pick. I get a little annoyed at the overly abundant love that the entertainment world gives Beyoncé such that even her less than stellar work gets extreme praise, but her "Be Alive" really captures the spirit of King Richard so well. I don't know that it's an upset to give her the award, but it is well deserved.
Best Production Design
This is a really strong category, and I can see any of the five nominees taking home the statue. I've in fact changed my mind five times while typing this. But I'm going to go with West Side Story in the end. Unless I change my mind again.
I hate the fact that Greig Fraser is even nominated for the dark mess that is half of Dune. I think I'll go with Ari Wegner for The Power of the Dog, though really I could see most of the nominees winning.
Best Visual Effects
Here's where Dune really deserves its nominations. The visual effects team did an outstanding job bringing the world of Arrakis to life. Too bad the script, direction, cinematography, and acting didn't live up to it.