For a while, the 2021 Oscars sounded like a mythical event. The original February date was pushed back two months, a move fuelled more by hope than caution. By summer, of course, the fleeting spark of a curtailed 2020 season is bound to dim a little. The immortal image of Bong Joon-ho charming the world on the Dolby Theatre stage already feels like a distant memory. The visual dissonance of the Golden Globes did nothing to pacify fears that the awards season this year might be more of a desperate formality than a genuine celebration.
However, on the back of a spirited Grammys, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and husband Nick Jonas took the stage to announce the Academy Award nominations via global live stream. Indians – and foreigners – across the planet tuned in. For some reason, the ceremony will be physically held on April 25 at the usual venue. The optimism is unfounded. But hey, at least we have a wider field. Small mercies.
As per tradition, some of the nominees made little sense, some snubs defied logic, diversity threatened to transcend merit (I could swear I saw #OscarsNotSoWhite trending), while others deserved their long-awaited moment in the sun. For now, let’s take a closer look at the main categories:
Notable snubs include initial pace-setters like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Assistant, First Cow, Da 5 Bloods, The Nest and Small Axe. Promising Young Woman is certainly one of the funkiest feminist cocktails in recent memory, but I’m not sure the film is entirely worthy of the adoring hype bestowed upon it by several MeToo-guilted award juries. That said, it’s nice to see the Academy undo the Golden Globes damage and treat Korean-American immigrant drama Minari as a local entry.
Should Win: Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance-premiering Minari shelters a cinematic language so distinct that it’s hard not to fall in love with the simplicity and tragedy of its tone. It’s a near-perfect little ode to the cost of the American Dream, featuring one of the most unassuming ensemble casts of 2020.
Will Win: Nomadland is the odds-on favourite, given that it has swept pretty much all the Best Picture awards so far. No complaints though. The universe has finally woken up to the genius of Chloe Zhao, even if it isn’t for her finest film yet. It’s the thought that counts.
This could have very well been, on pure merit, an all-woman category. It’s almost inconceivable to not see Eliza Hittman, Kelly Reichardt and Kitty Green in the reckoning. David Fincher for the wildly gimmicky Mank feels like a bit of a trade-off for the sinking of Mindhunter, and the exclusion of Spike Lee is an ironic mystery. But Danish master Thomas Vinterberg being nominated for the profoundly risky Another Round is a pleasant surprise.
Should Win: Chloe Zhao has that whispery Terrence Malick touch about her work, with more coherence, and it’s most visible in her nomadic tale of human nature attempting to align with nature. It’s only fitting that she should win in a year defined by the artistic integrity of the female gaze.
Will Win: It’s the first time in Oscar history two women are competing for Best Director, though there is little doubt that Chloe Zhao will follow in the footsteps of Kathryn Bigelow. Irrespective of the records and labels, in the end, the best filmmaker of the year will win for one of the best movies of the year. That is rare and fair.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
The biggest snub of the year belongs here: the searing madness of Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods was lost on the Academy. Perhaps the “multi-starring” format of the film worked against him, but there’s no real excuse. Steven Yeun for Minari is sweet, but also a belated reward for his role in Burning.
Should Win: We all want Riz Ahmed to break the glass ceiling – and he just may – and we all hope for Chadwick Boseman to be posthumously honoured for his larger-than-movies legacy. But look past the sentimental trappings, and you and I know that there is none above Anthony Hopkins’ stunning performance as a father battling with dementia in Florian Zeller’s unsettling chamber drama. Hopkins is a regular contender, but I fear he is so great and so clearly towering above the rest that it feels almost unfair to award him with…a trophy. He makes acting look so easy that it’s impossible to notice just how masterful some of his turns are. His playing field exists in another dimension.
Will Win: Chadwick Boseman gave it his all in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and consequently all signs point towards his heartbreaking victory in a race that Riz Ahmed was leading till the end of 2020. Cancer may have taken him, but cinema has immortalized him.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Probably the most competitive category this year, there is still no clear favourite. However, the Academy did go with the more “high-profile” names. The snubs included young actresses Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) and Julia Garner (The Assistant), as well as the criminally underestimated Carrie Coon (The Nest).
Should Win: Just for that single-take child-birth scene alone in Pieces of a Woman, Vanessa Kirby should be handed a knighthood and an Oscar to boot. But yet another toxic Shia LaBeouf controversy seems to have taken some shine off the film’s campaign.
Will Win: Andra Day pulled off an upset at the Globes for The United States v. Billie Holiday, Carey Mulligan looked like she was having too much fun, and Frances McDormand’s previous wins could perversely work against her. So expect the immense and perpetual Viola Davis to pull off a lead-acting sweep for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Strange to not see Eli Goree’s spellbinding Cassius Clay interpretation from One Night In Miami here, but it’s clearly a two-horse race between Sacha Baron Cohen and Daniel Kaluuya.
Should Win: Paul Raci’s beautifully understated role as Riz Ahmed’s deaf mentor defines the conflict of Sound of Metal. The authenticity of casting Raci – who is fluent in American Sign Language himself, as a hearing son of deaf parents – to evoke a differently-abled and marginalised culture has not gone unnoticed.
Will Win: Both Judas and the Black Messiah have been nominated in the same category, but expect Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya to land his first trophy for the restrained primality of his role as betrayed Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton. Safe to say nobody will refute this.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
All said and done, Glenn Close being nominated for the controversial Hillbilly Elegy says everything you need to know about the Academy. It’s no fault of hers, but this is a choice visibly made on reputation rather than stone-cold merit.
Should Win: Amanda Seyfried was an early favourite for Mank, but it’s weirdly satisfying to see Maria Bakalova lead the Critics’ race for a genre role that is traditionally frowned upon. She is so left-of-field in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm that the others shouldn’t win by virtue of being in ‘serious’ movies. To be fair, nobody has ever been sure about the genre of the Borat films: mockumentary, satire, parody, life, horror, gore, or are they even movies?
Will Win: Maria Bakalova should, will, must win, though absolutely nobody will mind the charming South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung taking it for her crowd-pleasing role as the immigrant family’s good-humoured and chatty grandma in Minari.
Best Original Screenplay
What is an Original Screenplay category without an Aaron Sorkin nomination?
Should Win: Keeping with the trend of originality, upsets and clutter-breaking contenders in this section, Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman deserves it for her sheer audacity to script a triumphant feminist tragedy about a vengeful sociopath.
Will Win: The only person who can beat Aaron Sorkin here is Aaron Sorkin. His directing skills are questionable and excitable, almost snatching away a potential Screenplay win. But he is at the forefront, because the acting nods for The Trial of the Chicago 7 are also credited to his writing prowess.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Most of us saw at least one major Oscar nomination for The White Tiger coming the moment (actor-producer) Priyanka Chopra Jonas was declared as an announcer. Maybe Adarsh Gourav for Lead Actor? Maybe Chopra herself for Supporting Actress? Yet, the inevitable arrived in the form of Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s famous novel – perhaps the least expected of them all. The jury is still out on the film, which earned lukewarm reviews locally but favourable critique abroad, not unlike a certain Slumdog Millionaire. This shock pick aside, there is only one winner in this category.
Should Win: Nomadland is a Best Picture frontrunner. For good reason.
Will Win: Nomadland is a Best Picture frontrunner. Do the math.
Best Documentary Feature
Always a personal favourite, this category rarely fails to impress. Some of the best films of the year – across mediums, languages, genres – often appear here. But a startling omission is Kirsten Johnson’s cripplingly personal Dick Johnson Is Dead. Maybe the older members of the Academy just didn’t like staring death in the face.
Should Win: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s My Octopus Teacher – about a filmmaker nursing an unusual relationship with a wild octopus over a year – is all sorts of moving, profound, disarming and daring. No documentary has captured the culture of healing with such unerring conviction. Not inconceivable is a dead heat with Time, a multi-generational and bareboned epic that follows a woman fighting the system for the release of her husband serving a 60-year prison sentence.
Will Win: The popular Sundance Audience award winner, Crip Camp, executively produced by the Obamas, follows a bunch of free-spirited campers-turned-disability-rights-activists with a tone that’s too revolutionary, radical, straight-shooting and significant for the Academy to ignore.