Every year, I pick my winners among categories where I've seen the majority of nominees. In a decidedly off year for the movies, I've made picks in only fifteen categories because some categories were scatted among too many diverse options than I had the time nor desire to watch. 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 17 categories.
It's stating the obvious to say that this year was strange. The slate of films to review was comparatively weak due to a whole slew of issues revolving around the pandemic. This resulted in me skipping my usual companion piece in which I rank the Best Picture nominees because quite frankly I didn't have a lot to say about many of the nominees. But that's not to say there aren't gems among the artistry on display by the nominees. Let's get to it.
If I had posted my rank ordered Best Picture list, you'd have seen that I only considered three films to be real candidates for the top prize: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, and Nomadland. Of the others, Sound of Metal is extremely overrated, The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes the most of an Aaron Sorkin script and a couple of very good performances, Mank has its moments but is mostly pedestrian Hollywood self-love, The Father surrounds an incredible Anthony Hopkins performance with an interesting concept that's executed in a flawed way, and Promising Young Woman would be a strong candidate for Best Picture if it had taken itself slightly more seriously. (Now you see why my Best Picture ranking post would have been rather short.)
Judas and the Black Messiah features a pair of really powerful performances in a film that tells an important story and tells it well. I'll talk more about the leading (supporting?) performances below. The issue is with the rest of the cast's performances, which fall flat next to their charismatic and intense co-stars. If the surrounding performances had been similarly elevated, this would have been my pick for Best Picture.
Minari is an excellent film, and the "foreign language film set in America" flavor feels experimental, even if it's been done in a few prior movies. Given its focus on a Korean family dealing with poverty and the difficulty of attaining their dreams, with much of the dialogue in Korean with obligatory English subtitles, it's natural to link this with Parasite, which is unfortunate given it's nowhere close to being as great a film. But it does tell a simpler, quieter story very well. I'd actually compare it to The Florida Project more. The performances are superb, and if the movie had expanded more beyond telling the personal family story to the societal implications that surround it (especially in this COVID year), it would have made an even stronger case for Best Picture.
Nomadland is the most complete film of the crop, marrying a good script and direction with great cinematography and performances. While its use of real life nomads in its cast isn't the most amazing experimentation in recent Best Picture nominees, it does give the film a slight boost when regarding its craft. The story it tells is a highly accessible one about life for especially older people in the wake of the Great Recession, as traditional unskilled jobs continue to dwindle in number and stature. While Judas and the Black Messiah and Minari have both taken their turns atop my mental Best Picture list, Nomadland is the one that lives there the most, and I think it should be this year's Best Picture Oscar winner.
I haven't seen Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round, so I'm really just deciding among four candidates.
Of those, I would eliminate David Fincher and Emerald Fennell from contention first. Fincher does his usual fine job with a coherent stylistic point of view. It's just that Mank doesn't come off as anything special, at least to someone outside Hollywood circles. Fennell does a fantastic job in what is her feature film debut as a director, but while it's quite good, Promising Young Woman misses several opportunities for delivering even more gut punches. But it's promising debut, and I would expect Fennell to appear among the nominees many more times in coming years.
I'd easily back a Lee Isaac Chung win here for his deft handling and ability to pull strong performances from a cast diverse in age and culture. The film is well-constructed and a great example of the craft that needs to go into a film to successfully elevate it at the theater. But I think that ultimately the high points of the film are muted enough that it pulls Chung back a bit compared to the job that Chloé Zhao put in.
Zhao's accomplishment with Nomadland was quite pronounced. She ably blended the look and feel of scripted and documentary films into one wonderful hybrid. You can expect great performances out of gifted, seasoned professionals like Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, but she also pulled great performances out of amateurs who are real-life nomads. The feel I get watching those performances is similar to the sensation I had watching the first third of Moonlight, where Barry Jenkins elicited strong performances from kids making their feature debuts. It's an incredible job, and Zhao deserves all the accolades she's won to date and will continue to win for this work of art.
Of the candidates, I have not yet seen The United States vs. Billie Holiday, so I can't consider Andra Day.
Of the other candidates, Viola Davis is Viola Davis. I don't think she's capable of a less than stellar performance, and this is coming from someone who did subject himself to Suicide Squad. But her Ma Rainey, despite the title of her film, feels more like a supporting role (which is ironic since she previously won Best Supporting Actress for the same role she won a Tony for Best Actress).
Carey Mulligan does a wonderful job in Promising Young Woman, but it's not a role featuring the most range. I actually think some of her previous performances were stronger.
Vanessa Kirby makes you believe every bit of her being a mother struggling with the loss of her newborn baby, but fails to make you believe she would ever have gotten married to Shia LaBeouf.
Frances McDormand, however, is Frances McDormand, and she Frances McDormands the heck out of her role as a widow struggling to figure out who she is and find her way in an America whose economy has passed her by. Eventually we may get tired of honoring the "Frances McDormand-type character", that woman from the middle of America who must take control of her world in the face of potentially overwhelming challenge, but for now, I'm not sick of it at all.
I fully expect this award to go to the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who was taken from us by cancer this past year. His work in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is outstanding, especially when you know that he's dying while putting so much energy into making his Levee Green a memorable force of nature. But while I'll applaud that selection and probably blink back a tear or two, he's not my selection for this year's Best Actor. Anthony Hopkins is.
Hopkins plays a juicy role as an elderly man struggling to make sense of and re-establish some degree of control on his world as he falls victim to dementia. It would be cliché to hand an award to the actor who plays "the old sick dude", but his performance is so much more than that. His Anthony is at different times suave, brutal, loving, and vulnerable, and Hopkins excels in all. It's the kind of varied and textured performance that Denzel Washington should have won for Fences had he not been robbed by the highly overrated Casey Affleck. It's unfortunate that his work is up against Boseman, because he'll either lose to Boseman or he'll experience the backlash that will come toward anyone beating out Boseman for the award. But taken in a vacuum, it truly was (by a nose) the best performance this year.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
I watched neither Borat Subsequent Moviefilm nor Hillbilly Elegy, so I'm only considering three candidates here.
Of the three, I find Youn Yuh-jung by far the most compelling, not because her fellow nominees didn't do great jobs, but because she was given more to work with. As the daughter of a demented old man, Olivia Coleman had to be sad, confused, and afraid, and she does a wonderful job at each. As Marion Davies, Amanda Seyfried had to be glamorous, quietly competent, and hurt, and she does a wonderful job at each.
But Youn's grandmother was a force of nature in Minari, being at different times impish, matronly, out of control, vulnerable, and childlike. And she does an amazing job at everything, often having to segue from one extreme to another mid-scene. She does so deftly and smoothly. Without her performance (as well as that of the severely underrated Alan Kim), I don't think Minari is as effective a film.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
I often grumble about what the industry calls "category fraud" when it comes to the supporting categories, and here we see it again. Somehow, the actors playing the two roles that get by far the most screen time and, with one minor exception, are the viewpoint characters for Judas and the Black Messiah, are both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, for a movie with apparently no leads whatsoever.
At least Daniel Kaluuya can make the better claim of the two as the supporting actor, playing the Black Messiah to Lekeith Stanfield's Judas. Kaluuya's Fred Hampton is suave, driven, intelligent, and surprisingly vulnerable. Kaluuya plays him with a restrained intensity that pops off the screen. His performance was so good that I would pay to see him reprise the role in a biopic centered on the rise of Fred Hampton in the Black Power movement.
Lakeith Stanfield is no slouch either, as the FBI informant who eventually sets Hampton up to be assassinated at the hands of the authorities, and together the two men stand out completely from the rest of the pack. Sacha Baron Cohen does the best acting job of his life as Abbie Hoffman, but can't seem to keep Hoffman's Worcester accent consistent. Paul Raci does a fine job is a role that's far from dynamic in the overrated Sound of Metal. And Leslie Odom Jr. gives a yeoman's effort in a film that literally put me to sleep.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Honestly, I could see almost any of these films taking the prize, and while my runner up is Judas and the Black Messiah, I'm giving it to its 60s sibling, The Trial of the Chicago 7. It's Aaron Sorkin doing Aaron Sorkin-y things, which in a relatively weak year, is good enough to be the best of the group. Sorkin's script does suffer a bit from self-righteousness, but it is funny, often poignant, and moves extremely well. It fleshes out real characters for much of its sizeable cast (though it does suffer from leaving most of its villains as cardboard cutouts). While flawed, there's a beauty to Sorkin's prose, and it's on display here.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
This is even a weaker category than Original Screenplay this year. I need someone to explain to me how a film that was largely improvised could get nominated for best script and feature no less than nine co-writers. It's a joke. Of the others, both The Father and Nomadland are memorable for things other than their scripts. And let me repeat once more that One Night in Miami... put me to sleep, and that happens about once every decade or so.
That leaves The White Tiger, and I will be quite pleased if it wins. It has a strong point of view, and its use of language is at times poetic. Its perspective on the brainwashing of groups into subservience is important to hear and more universal than the casual observer might suspect. I can imagine it being overlooked by a Hollywood that sometimes thinks that only two races exist or matter, but it has a message that needs to be heard.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
While the slate of live action films suffered with the pandemic, this was one of animated features' best years, with three very strong works and two more that don't feel like list fillers (as opposed to any year featuring a Croods or How to Train a Dragon entry on the nominee list).
There's one runaway favorite, but let me talk about the others first. Onward is probably the weakest of the five entries because it has that feeling of just another modern CGI animated feature, but it does have quite a bit of heart and builds an interesting world for itself. The latest Shaun the Sheep film is not as good as its progenitor, but is endearing and poignant at times.
Wolfwalkers really surprised me by spinning a wonderful legend of werewolves prowling the woods of Ireland and making its more traditional 2d animation stylish and strong.
Over the Moon is a wonderful film exploring a part of Chinese legend with modern sensibilities. Its first ten minutes isn't quite as powerful as the first ten minutes of Up, but it really tries to be. If not for the quality of the winner, Over the Moon would easily be my pick. It's too bad it didn't come out a year earlier, because I could see it beating out Toy Story 4.
I watched Soul without knowing anything about it beforehand, and my opinion was that it was the best Pixar movie since Inside Out. Then I realized it was by the great Pete Docter, who's given us not only Inside Out but also the incredible Up and Monsters, Inc, as well as the screenplays for Toy Story and WALL-E. Soul has a wonderful story, textured performances featuring both comedy and poignancy, and a great message. It is one of the best animated films of the past decade (though it would have to beat out both Inside Out and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to be the best).
BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
This was a runaway category for me. Burrow and Yes-People are both well-done trifles. Opera is extremely interesting, but aside from that intellectual curiosity, doesn't really present a powerful viewing experience. Genius Loci is pretentious and underwhelming as only the French can make cinema.
No, by far the most powerful experience is watching If Anything Happens I Love You. Even without its topicality, it would win in my book for both its wonderful artistic style as well as its portrayal of two parents dealing with loss. But then you couple it with a slow burn up to the reveal that the title keys into the modern danger of a school shooting spree and as a viewer you become torn asunder, needing to be put back together like the grieving couple must be. If Anything Happens I Love You is one of those short films that I immediately start pointing all my friends to after watching it for the first time. It's a strong work and stands out easily from its competitors.
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
Two Distant Strangers stands out from a relatively strong batch of contenders. It's a Groundhog Day for the George Floyd era, as a young black man trying to every day escape his death at the hands of a quick-to-kill police officer. It would almost be perfect if on one turn through the loop we didn't learn that the cop in question was a psychopath. To me its more powerful when the cop is a slave to his own poorly-aimed training and personal prejudices and not just a stone cold killer. But the hope that the character brings -- that no matter what, he's going to find a way to get home safely to his dog is one that's needed.
The others are quite well done as well. Feeling Through and The Letter Room are both relatively feel-good movies in their own way, showing people who care about others even when they don't have to. And The Present and White Eye both show, from different perspectives, what assholes the Israeli authorities are. Together they make an unusually strong slate of short films. But Two Distant Strangers will be the short film we talk about in years to come.
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
As always, it was absolutely brutal getting through this year's slate of nominated short subject documentaries. Only one of the five, the highly entertaining A Concerto is a Conversation, doesn't make you walk away feeling angry or sad, and for that it's worth viewing, especially to hear the stories of how composer Kris Bowers's grandfather moved to LA and created a good life for himself through a great deal of cunning.
Two other documentaries seem incredibly exploitative. Colette takes a former member of the French Resistance to the concentration camp where her brother died. Hunger Ward gives you the "opportunity" to watch young children in Yemen die of malnutrition on screen. In particular, one scene in which a grieving grandmother has just killed her granddaughter by feeding her milk through her breathing tube and right into her lungs while the medical staff did nothing but say she shouldn't do that makes one want to throw everyone involved in prison.
Another short subject, A Love Song for Latasha, tells the tragic story of an African American girl who was shot and killed by a store owner while attempting to pay for a drink. This film suffers two issues, one craft-related being the use of actors to play the parts of the subjects (which takes it somewhat out of the documentary category and toward the live action short film category) and one message-related being the lengths it takes to say that the incident "caused" the LA riots that took place a year later the day the Rodney King trial verdict was announced. Latasha's murder was no doubt part of the context that made LA so incendiary at the time, but it's a real stretch to say it "caused" the riots given, you know, the fact that they happened directly after the King trial verdict was handed down.
That leaves Do Not Split, which is a powerful portrayal of the early days of the Hong Kong protests leading up to the COVID pandemic. It's an important story for everyone to see what's been happening in Hong Kong, and it's done in a way that's extremely accessible. Millennials will see in it echoes of the BLM protests that occurred last year. Boomers will hear echoes of the kinds of protests and authoritarian reaction that resulted in Kent State and the events dramatized in The Trial of the Chicago 7. It's a story that bears illumination, especially given how distracted we've been in America this past year.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
I thought this would be a runaway for Soul given how effectively it mixes modern electronic scoring with classic jazz and a taste of hip-hop. But then I listened to the score for Minari and was blown away by it, too. I really won't mind if it wins, but I still put my selection with Reznor, Ross, and Batiste because I noticed Soul's score during the film and only came to appreciate Minari's during a separate listen. They're both fantastic works that should be enjoyed.
This is a strong category, as all five nominated films look great. News of the World in particular stands out as establishing a clear look-and-feel to its world. However, my selection goes to Nomadland. Joshua James Richards creates a visual landscape that is simultaneously gritty and hauntingly beautiful. That's difficult to pull off. Yet in almost every scene, you are treated with shots that somehow underscore both the struggles of the people involved as well as the grandeur of the country they're choosing to see instead of the four walls many of us are treated/subjected to. I would be fascinated by a behind-the-scenes look at the decision making for slot selection and other elements.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
I feel underqualified to comment on these nominees this year, but since I've seen all of them, I'll venture an opinion. To me, it's a three-way race between Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, and News of the World. Mank is helped out somewhat by the choice to film in black and white. New of the World is helped out somewhat by the natural surroundings most scenes are shot in. So I would go with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which generates a wholly believable, yet somewhat stylized, historical setting for its cast to do their work within. The setting supports its characters ably, while almost being a character unto itself as well. That puts it ahead of its fellow nominees in my book.
That wraps up my 2021 picks. Here's hoping that 2022 brings with it a more traditional process and slate, indicating that we have been given the opportunity to return to something resembling normal.