Oscar 2020-21 – predicting the winners

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is reinventing the wheel this year when it comes to their annual Academy Awards ceremony. For one thing, being 14 months into a global pandemic has changed the presenting space. I am told that the Dolby Theater will still be used, but that downtown L.A.’s Union Station will be another location as well, with nominees and a single guest apiece in attendance, but no seat-fillers or anyone else.

For another thing, the “Oscars so white” outcry that popped after the crop of nominees from 2019 produced just a single major-category nominee of color (Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet”), eligible best picture nominees (as few as five films and as many as ten) must meet at least two of the following criteria: have a major character be handicapped, LGBTQ, or a racial minority (or have over 30% of the cast be female), and have a storyline revolving around one or more of the aforementioned subjects; have at least two of the top production staff members involved in the film’s production fit the above ethnic/physical/gender criteria; offer internships and apprenticeships to the above-mentioned persons, as well as job opportunities for them in below-the-line roles; and have a marketing and distribution staff that includes representatives from the above group. (Specifics can be found here).

Finally – and for the third year in a row – the event will be sans host. I have little doubt that the show will still near the four-hour mark, even with the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories being merged int one. Having multiple venues (including locations abroad for overseas nominees to appear as well) will surely carry with it some technical challenges…and there are always surprises, from the streaker of 1974 who appeared behind a game David Niven; to the occasional tie (in 1968, Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn shared Best Actress honors, for “Funny Girl” and “The Lion in Winter,” respectively); to Faye Dunaway announcing “La La Land” as the Best Picture winner in 2017, only for it to be retracted in favor of “Moonlight.” What a night that was!

This year, “Mank” leads the pack with 10 nominations, followed by “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “Sound of Metal,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” with six nods apiece? Which films will win? Read on!

Best Picture

Nominees:
The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Who Will Win: Nomadland
Who Should Win: Nomadland
Watch Out For: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Should Have Been Nominated: One Night in Miami

Comments:

Many years, common themes emerge among the nominees, such as in 1998, when three of the Best Picture nominees were set during World War II (“Life is Beautiful,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “The Thin Red Line”) while the remaining two took place in Elizabethan England (“Elizabeth” and that year’s winner “Shakespeare in Love”). The eight nominated films from 2020 comprise something of a more eclectic roster. Three are based on true stories (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” while one revolves around the immigrant experience (“Minari”), one deals with dementia and aging parents (“The Father”), one is about deafness (“Sound of Metal”), one focuses on the RV lifestyle (“Nomadland”), and one, staunchly pro-female, tackles the tough subject of rape and accountability for one’s actions (“Promising Young Woman”).

If there is any unifying thread, it’s that none of these films received major theatrical runs – just enough screenings to qualify for Oscar consideration. Let’s take a closer look at each film:

In “The Father,” a London businesswoman (Olivia Colman) is about to move to Paris and must find a new nurse for her aging father (Anthony Hopkins) who is slipping into dementia and, lately, has as many bad days as good ones. We suspect that the woman secretly hates herself, especially when we learn – through clever subterfuge and production design trickery – that her father’s basic grasp on reality is not what it once was. In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” we journey back to 1960’s Chicago as life in the city was for members of the Black Panther Party, including local head Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Is the charismatic Hampton, whose party crossed a fatal line during a shootout with local police, ever going to be truly safe? And will the FBI mole (Lakeith Stanfield, in a tricky role) inside Hampton’s inner circle experience a change of heart?

“Mank,” director David Fincher’s labor of love (adapting a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher) about “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman Mankiewicz, tells of a stubborn, alcoholic writer (Gary Oldman, excellent as always) who is called upon by a seldom-seen Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to do his bidding, and who crafts his memories of trips to the Hearst Castle into a politically-charged screenplay that won him and Welles an Oscar (though in this telling, we learn that Welles wrote nary a word). “Minari,” an autobiographical film by Korean director Lee Isaac Chung, follows the mid-1980’s journey of Jacob (Steven Yeun), a young Korean husband and father of two who drags his family, including prideful wife Monica (Yeri Han), from an impoverished but social lifestyle in California to rural Arkansas, where Jacob hopes to thrive as a farmer. The film is Chung’s “Roma,” you could say, and is perhaps more intimate than any other nominated motion picture this year.

“Nomadland,” the current frontrunner, tells of the mournful journey to eventual contentment for Fern (a wonderful Frances McDormand) who converts a utility van into an RV of sorts and takes to the open road, doing seasonal work for Amazon and the National Park Service but otherwise living off the grid, forming temporary friendships with other wanderers like herself, most played by non-actors. (One, known simply as “Swanky,” will break your heart.) “Promising Young Woman,” the come-from-nowhere phenom (a strong contender in the Best Actress and Original Screenplay categories), garnered a fair amount of controversy for its subject matter, which tackles rape, revenge, depression, and male-female dynamics in general. I really don’t want to say much more than that, as the film works better if you know little about it going in. And I mean that as a good thing – it’s phenomenal, as is its lead, Carey Mulligan.

In “Sound of Metal,” we first meet Ruben, a drummer for a heavy metal band (an awful heavy metal band, I should say), and as he appears to suffer from an out-of-the-blue case of tinnitus, we know that things will only get worse. Poor Ruben (Riz Ahmed) loses his hearing rapidly, and his girlfriend/band mate Lou (Olivia Cooke) knows that he needs time away from her to work through this. The film is cruel but honest, and will fare well in the technical categories thanks to its clever sound mixing – we hear what Ruben hears. Finally, in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” we get lots of Aaron Sorkin-penned speechifying a la “A Few Good Men,” in a courtroom drama about the unfair incarceration of anti-Vietnam protesters Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and others on the eve of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A strong cast including Sacha Baron Cohen (as Hoffman), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (as Seale), Frank Langella, and the always-reliable Mark Rylance breathe life into Sorkin’s script.

Most years, the frontrunner status changes several times. Last year, for example, we didn’t know until the last minute whether “1917” or “Parasite” was going to win. That makes filling out those office Oscar ballots trickier, but it also makes the broadcast more exciting to watch (not that most people consider a four-hour awards show “exciting”). This year, however, the frontrunner is – and has always been – Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.” The film has taken most pre-Oscars awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Drama, and it would take a freight train to change the picture’s destiny. That it is directed by an Asian woman and released at a time when the disastrous Trump presidency revealed how far America still has to come in matters of gender and race, is the icing on the cake but, for me at least, not the reason it deserves to win. It deserves to win because it is, simply, the best motion picture of the year – a moving portrait of our nation’s fringes, and an ethereal road movie as well, the best film of its genre since “Into the Wild” was released in 2007.

My thoughts on the other nominated films? Emotionally, I was most moved by “Minari,” another beautiful portrait of life in America’s heartland, and a real triumph of the human spirit, if you’ll pardon the cliché. In terms of production values, I though that “The Father” and “Sound of Metal” were both aces; though the films have few location changes, careful attention to detail, set design, and editing help disorient viewers in a fashion similar to those of their protagonists. As someone who is trying to become more woke, I appreciated the civil rights history lessons from “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” I liked the strong ensemble acting in both films as well, although script problems hampered them from truly being among the best pictures of the year (though “Trial” has a slight chance” at besting “Nomadland” on Sunday, as it most closely resembles the traditional Oscar fare that so often wins). “Mank” is made with love, but I find it a triumph of directing more than anything else. It is somewhat slow-moving, and its lack of a writing nomination all but kills its chances in the major categories. “Pieces of a Woman” is a film that I can’t get out of my head. Like “Fargo” and “Get Out” and “Her,” it is a bit too daring, I think, to win the top prize, but it will surely take home Best Original Screenplay honors as a consolation prize. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.

Best Director

Nominees:
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
David Fincher, Mank
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Who Will Win:
Chloé Zhao
Who Should Win: Chloé Zhao
Watch Out For: Emerald Fennell
Should Have Been Nominated: Regina King, One Night in Miami

Comments: Holy diversity, Batman! The long-running #oscarssowhite social media campaign reaped dividends this year, with only two of the Best Director nominees (David Fincher and Thomas Vinterberg) being of the traditional white male variety. The third male nominee, Lee Isaac Chung, is just the second filmmaker of Korean descent (after last year’s winner, “Parasite’s” Bong Joon-ho) to receive a Directing nomination. The last two slots belong to women – first-time nominees Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), who is this year’s frontrunner. 2021 marks the first year that two women were nominated in this category, and the first time that an Asian female (Zhao) was nominated for Directing as well. Had Regina King, whose dynamic conversation piece “One Night in Miami” was my second-favorite film of the year, been nominated as well, the slate would have been 60% female, and King would have been history’s first black female Directing nominee. As it stands, Fennell and Zhao are just the sixth and seventh women to have ever been nominated in this category – a shameful oversight.

It seems fortuitous, then, that Zhao is almost certain to win. Even more, I think, than this year’s Best Actor category, Best Director appears to be a one-person race. Vegas statisticians have her as the odds-on winner, so you’d have to be willing to foolishly part with your cash to bet against her. She recently won the top prize by the Director’s Guild of America, and was the first Asian female to have done so. Her inevitable anointing on Sunday will make her just the second woman of any ethnicity to win the Academy Award for Best Director – another unfortunate oversight.

Does Zhao deserve it? I think so. She gets great performances from leads Frances McDormand and David Strathairn – no surprise there – but she also coaxes sublime work from a supporting cast that is comprised almost entirely of non-actors, most of them nomads in real life. Additionally, she treats the subject of the displaced wanderer with dignity and non-judgment, and crafts a film that is beautiful to look at and listen to. Recently tapped by Disney to helm Marvel’s “The Immortals,” Zhao has a great career ahead of her.

Were there to be an upset, it would likely be by the other female nominee, Fennell. Her brave film, which deftly juggles drama and black comedy without the jarring tonal shifts that often mar films that straddle genres, feels like an intensely personal statement, and I applaud her vision. That she made the film while seven months pregnant, working 20 hours/day, is even more impressive. When rave reviews came up after “Mank” was first previewed, I thought, for a while, that Fincher, who has been making movies since 1992 yet remains a respected (and Oscar-less) auteur, would finally win Best Director. His film, like Fennell’s, is a personal labor of love, and it looks great, filmed in glorious black-and-white. Still and all, despite leading the Oscar pack with 10 nominations, it will likely go home with an Oscar for Best Production Design…maybe Best Cinematography…and that’s it. One day, sir. We love you.

Best Actor

Nominees:
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Gary Oldman, Mank
Steven Yeun, Minari

Who Will Win: Chadwick Boseman
Who Should Win: Anthony Hopkins
Watch Out For: Riz Ahmed
Should Have Been Nominated: Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods

Comments: As usual, this is a crowded category, with five deserving nominees and at least two equally-deserving also-rans (I’m think of Delroy Lindo for Spike Lee’s damning Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” and Mads Mikkelsen for the life-affirming Danish import “Another Round.”) There were a couple of sorta-surprises on Oscar nomination morning, namely the nominations of Riz Ahmed – the first Muslim Best Actor nominee – and of “The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun – the first Asian Best Actor nominee. That Ahmed in particular is a strong underdog nominee makes the category especially interesting this year.

Ahmed plays Ruben Stone a heavy metal drummer whose rapid hearing loss transforms his life and destroys his relationship in “Sound of Metal.” The late Chadwick Boseman, whose nomination this year was a foregone conclusion, tears up the screen as volatile blues trumpeter Levee Green, all libido and rage, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in “The Father,” a learned man whose descent into dementia robs him of his sense of time and place. Gary Oldman earns his third nomination (he won three years ago for “Darkest Hour”) as “Mank” title character Herman Mankiewicz, a high-functioning drunk and Hollywood hanger-on who just happens to pen one of the greatest screenplays ever written. Finally, Yuen plays the eternal optimist Jacob Yi, a Korean-born farmer who uproots his family to rural Arkansas, with all the toil and spousal disapproval that such a move entails.

They are all terrific, of course, but four of them did not pass away of cancer in their early forties after having played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Marvel’s Black Panther. The one that did, Boseman, was dubbed the presumptive winner before his final film, based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, was even screened for critics. I didn’t entirely buy into the dramatic beats penned for his character, but I bought into his towering performance wholeheartedly. Boseman’s Levee is any actor’s dream role. And considering how respected Boseman was in the industry – dependable, easy to work with, treated his female costars with respect, destined to one day win an Oscar had he beaten his cancer diagnosis, yet gone before his time – the film’s failure to ultimately snag a Best Picture nomination doesn’t even affect his chances.

If anyone stands a chance at an upset, it’s Hopkins. The five-time nominee and one-time winner (for “The Silence of the Lambs”) gives his best performance in two decades as an aging – but still dashing – man who can no longer trust his own reality. His tearful breakdown in the film’s last scene, when he cries out for his mommy, will surely play on the highlight reel, but I was most floored by an earlier scene, when, in the presence of his daughter, he meets his new caretaker and tells both women, enunciating the last letter of each word, that they can fuck the hell off. The scene is a treat to watch; I replayed it three times in a row, my jaw dropped. Ahmed has a chance as well – his small film has a lot of admirers – but he and Hopkins will likely be fake-clapping when Boseman’s name is inevitably read on Oscar night.  

Best Actress

Nominees:
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan
Who Should Win: Frances McDormand
Watch Out For: Viola Davis
Should Have Been Nominated: Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Comments: A strong category this year, and the toughest one to predict, Best Actress for 2021 is anyone’s game. Each of the five nominees have won important pre-Oscar awards, with the momentum having shifted in each of their favors for a time. Were I to predict the nominees before they were announced, I would have guessed that they would be Viola Davis, Andra Day, Vanessa Kirby, Frances McDormand, and Carey Mulligan. As with Best Actor, I wish there was room for two more; my heart breaks for Jessie Buckley and Julie Garner, so good in the Netflix release “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and the early 2020 indie “The Assistant,” respectively. At least Buckley has an Irish Film & Television Award for the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” and Garner a pair of Emmys’ for Netflix’s “Ozark.”

Davis, one of the most respected actresses working in film today, has the least amount of screen time of this year’s Best Actress nominees, but she made the role – that of boozy, flamboyant, you-mess-with-the-bull-and-you-get-the-horns Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – her own. Day, very good in the not-very-good “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” is her film’s sole nominee. As the hard-living, silky-voiced singer whose anti-slavery song “Strange Fruit” made her a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, she was even better than Diana Ross in the same role several decades previous (in “Lady Sings the Blues”). Kirby, of TV’s “The Crown,” breaks your heart in “Pieces of a Woman,” playing Martha, a grieving mother who loses her daughter during childbirth. Interestingly enough, she, like Day, is her film’s only nominee as well. McDormand, who has six lifetime Oscar nominations and two previous wins (for “Fargo” and “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”), is simply luminous in “Nomadland” as Fern, a widower who leaves her impoverished factory town to roam the open road in her repurposed utility van.

And then there is Carey Mulligan. The London-born star of the #metoo-approved “Promising Young Woman” was nominated once before (for 2009’s “An Education”) and should have been nominated in 2013 (for Steve McQueen’s “Shame”). At last, it would seem that her ship has come in. She plays 30-year-old Cassie Thomas, a med school dropout who lives with her parents, works in a coffee shop, and…gets revenge, we’ll say, against sexually aggressive young males that prey against women who’ve had too much to drink. It is a challenging role in a challenging film, and she nails it. Watching the film, I wanted to fall in love with her Cassie, all bubble gum, pink hair, and flirty smiles, but I knew that I didn’t dare. What a performance! I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn that Mulligan was named Best Actress by the National Board of Review – one of the early pre-Oscar night endorsements.  

Still and all, Mulligan isn’t a lock. Despite the strong showing of black nominees since the millennia began, there still remains just one non-white Best Actress Oscar winner (Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball”). With two strong nominees in Davis and Day, 2021 could change that. Davis won Best Actress at the SAG Awards, and Day won Best Actress-Drama at the Golden Globes. Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, but her momentum faded when co-star Ellen Burstyn, once a shoo-in, failed to receive a nomination in the Supporting Actress category. For a time, McDormand was a lock, and she won the BAFTA prize for Best Actress. She is my personal choice; her performance in “Nomadland” is so naturalistic that it doesn’t even feel like acting, and, as hard as this is to imagine, is even better than in her memorable turns in “Fargo” and “Three Billboards.” Alas, though, her two previous wins in the same category may count against her.      

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Who Will Win: Daniel Kaluuya
Who Should Win: Daniel Kaluuya
Watch Out For: Paul Raci
Should Have Been Nominated: Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night in Miami

Comments: Though traditionally a very crowded category, the Best Supporting Actor category is a bit lackluster this year. That isn’t to say that it isn’t filled with good performances; rather, that most years produce 10 or 15 worthy nominees but this year produced just half a dozen.

The nominees: “Borat” funny man Sacha Baron Cohen, playing things more seriously (but still being funny) as anti-war protester Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” He is perhaps the only character from the film to really feel fleshed out (a casualty of the script perhaps, not of the actors), and one of the best things about it. Next up is rising star Daniel Kaluuya, nominated three years ago for “Get Out” before taking a supporting role in “Black Panther.” In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Kaluuya is at his most charismatic as Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, just 25 years old when he died. His costar from the same film, Lakeith Stanfield, joins him as the other half of the coin – FBI informant William O’Neal, who became Hampton’s head of security and forged a friendship under false pretenses. (Rather strangely, Stanfield’s role is a lead, not supporting, role, despite his appearance in this particular category….) Leslie Odom, Jr., the Tony-winning co-lead of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” earns his first Oscar nomination for “One Night in Miami,” playing Sam Cooke, leveling the racial playing field by pandering to white audiences in order to earn money for his black-owned record label. Finally, another first-time nominee, “Sound of Metal’s” Paul Raci, squeaked in as Joe, who runs a halfway house of sorts for hearing-impaired individuals with nowhere else to go.

The sentimental vote may go to the 72-year-old Raci, who has had bit parts in films and TV shows over the years (including TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) and who has been a long-time advocate for having greater representation of deaf characters in entertainment. He plays a key role in the film’s most heartrending scene, and is this year’s underdog to the presumed winner, Kaluuya. As Hampton, Kaluuya shows you not only how his character can ignite a movement and inspire a crowd, but also how such a natural leader can nonetheless have butterflies in his stomach when on a first date. The only actor really snubbed here this year, I think, is Kingsley Ben-Adir, who played Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami.” I read that Amazon Studios touted him for Best Actor; perhaps they should have taken the approach that Warner Bros. took for “Judas and the Black Messiah” by pitching Stanfield in the supporting category instead. Odom was good in Miami; Ben-Adir was even better.

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Amanda Seyfried, The Father
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

Who Will Win: Youn Yuh-jung
Who Should Win: Youn Yuh-jung
Watch Out For: Maria Bakalova
Should Have Been Nominated: Ellen Burstyn, Pieces of a Woman

Comments: It appears that we have a two-person race for Best Supporting Actress this year. The early favorite – and still a major contender – was newcomer and first-time nominee Maria Bakalova, who stole “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” from her loquacious costar, Sacha Baron Cohen. Her rival, who currently has the edge according to the Vegas oddsmakers, is Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung, also a first-time nominee, up for her role as Soonja, the cantankerous grandmother in “Minari.” Like Bakalova, she steals the film from her costars.

The performances by the other category nominees this year are nothing to sneeze at, either. Glenn Close, who earned her eighth nomination for “Hillbilly Elegy,” plays the chain-smoking, Coke bottle glasses-wearing, bad-postured Mamaw. Can you believe that Close has never won an Oscar? She is joined by 2019 Best Actress (for “The Favourite”) winner Olivia Colman (who bested Close that year; Close was the expected winner for “The Wife”). In “The Father,” Colman plays a career-minded London woman who cares for an aging parent, and she earns your sympathy as both a doting daughter and an independent woman with her own hopes and dreams. The fifth nominee is another Oscar first-timer, Amanda Seyfried, a breath of fresh air as Marion Davies, silver screen starlet and live-in lover to William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) in “Mank.”

Good performances all. Seyfried and Bakalova are luminous, their scenes with costars Gary Oldman and Sacha Baron Cohen being the best sequences in each respective movie. Seyfried has been making movies for 15 years now, and “Mank” represents her highest-profile role since “Les Misérables” eight years prior (sorry, but “Mamma Mia” doesn’t count). She is a distant third in this year’s race – a shame because I suspect that she may never get as good of a role again. In “Borat,” the Bulgarian-born Bakalova – a real find – earned laughs as she humiliated Rudy Giuliani and garnered smiles as she won her father’s love. This is the kind of ingenue role that often wins the trophy in this category, and would this year…were it not for the wonderful Yuh-jung, who, in “Minari,” wins her grandson’s love by literally willing his heart condition into her own body. This Sunday, she is sure to make history as the first Korean female to win an acting Oscar, which means that Bakalova, Seyfried, Colman, and longtime also-ran Close will have to take solace in saying “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
The Father
Nomadland
One Night in Miami
The White Tiger

Who Will Win: Nomadland
Who Should Win: One Night in Miami
Watch Out For: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Should Have Been Nominated: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Comments: A diverse slate of nominated scripts, with some overlapping themes but, overall, five distinct voices. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” which gives cowriter Sacha Baron Cohen his second of two nominations this year, lacks the freshness of his 2006 original, yet tackles Trump politics and the coronavirus with a terrific last 30 minutes. “The Father,” which gives Anthony Hopkins a meaty bit of dialogue in the mid-film sequence where he verbally annihilates his daughter (Olivia Colman) and the new caregiver that she has brought into their home, has some clever bits of time and location trickery that would make Christopher Nolan envious were he to pen a straightforward drama. “Nomadland” observes its RV-driving characters with a sort of distanced respect, as if to acknowledge the fact that many of the film’s souls are too fractured to let you into their inner circles. My favorite screenplay from 2020, “One Night in Miami,” posits the conversation that may have taken place during an actual meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Lastly, “The White Tiger,” set in India and focusing on a driver (Adarsh Gourav) who wishes to rise above his station, could be marketed as a “Slumdog Millionaire”-esque tale of triumph over adversity – except that this Netflix-distributed film is much darker in tone, and with a protagonist who isn’t always the good guy.

When I watched “One Night in Miami” two months ago on Prime Video, I declared it the film to beat. The perfect movie for a newly-woke America, it takes larger than life characters from black history and makes you feel as if you know them. One of those movies where there is so much going on despite lacking much of a traditional plot, I couldn’t stop watching. This Kemp Powers-penned screenplay is about as close to perfect as a stage-to-screen script can get. Too bad, though, that the film’s momentum has faded – especially here, in its most-deserving category. I don’t think that anything can stop the train that is “Nomadland,” although I think that film’s merits are in its writing, directing, lensing, scoring, and sound mixing. I respect the fact that, when watching “Nomadland,” it’s none of our business why the film’s characters choose to live the way they do…but I can’t help but wish I knew a bit more as to why, as the itinerant lifestyle can’t be an easy one.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees:
Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Who Will Win: Promising Young Woman
Who Should Win: Promising Young Woman
Watch Out For: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Should Have Been Nominated: Another Round

Comments: I have issues with this year’s crop of Original Screenplay nominees. Namely, some of these scripts seem unfinished. In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” we learn of how FBI informant William O’Neal befriended, then betrayed, the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party…but we don’t know how much of Panther Fred Hampton’s message O’Neal believed in. Would a traditional biopic about Hampton’s life been the better way to go? And shouldn’t Hampton have been the main character? In “Sound of Metal,” we watch as heavy metal drummer Ruben faces his radical hearing loss – opting for cochlear implant surgery that makes him a pariah to others in the close-knit deaf community he has grown to love. But the film doesn’t establish the passage of time very well, it seems as if Ruben loses his hearing overnight, and recovers from his surgery just as quickly. One or two additional lines of dialogue could have fixed this! In “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” we simply have too many characters to ever really get to know any of them. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is relatively flushed out, but what about the other activists on trial? And what kind of personal bias made the judge (Frank Langella) such a hardass? (In defense of writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s script, I am told that its depiction of the trial is spot-on accurate. This gives it a chance as a possible upset come Oscar night…but I think a longer running time would have flushed out the proceedings and players a bit more. As it stands, Sorkin’s screenplays for “The Social Network” and “A Few Good Men,” both of which also dealt all or in part with legal proceedings, are superior pieces of writing.)

I have fewer issues with the last two nominees, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical “Minari,” and Emerald Fennell’s intoxicating “Promising Young Woman.” In “Minari,” we get to known and fall in love with the Yi family and all of their imperfections – a stubborn father, a prideful mother, a bed-wetting son, a doting daughter, and a non-traditional grandmother. Even the supporting characters, namely the farmhand (the great Will Patton) who speaks in tongues, seem like real, quirky, wonderful human beings. In “Promising Young Woman,” which is poised to win, we learn of how the rape and eventual suicide of her med school best friend turned Cassie (Carey Mulligan) into someone who can be both a trauma victim, afraid to live on her own, and an avenging angel. This is a fascinating film, its main character one of Hollywood’s most interesting creations in some time. It deserves to win here, and I am sure it will.

Other categories

It has taken nine decades, but “below the line” categories such as Cinematography, Sound, and Animated Short are finally getting more recognition at the Oscars. The availability of options via streaming services certainly helps; I haven’t stepped inside a movie theater in over a year, and saw every film this year, including several of the Documentary and Animated entries, via Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, or Disney Plus.

Here are my predictions of the remaining category winners:

   Best Foreign Film: “Another Round” from Denmark
   Best Animated Feature: Pixar’s “Soul” over Pixar’s “Onward”
   Best Documentary Feature: “My Octopus Teacher” edges out “Time” and the more-deserving “Collective”
   Best Documentary Short: “A Love Song for Latasha”
   Best Live Action Short Subject: “Two Distant Strangers”
   Best Animated Short: “If Anything Happens I Love You”
   Best Cinematography: “Nomadland” over “Mank” in one of the tightest races of the evening
   Best Film Editing: “Sound of Metal” over “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
   Best Original Score: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste for “Soul” over…Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for “Mank”
   Best Original Song: “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami” – performed by Leslie Odom, Jr.
   Best Sound: “Sound of Metal”
   Best Production Design: “Mank” over the more-deserving “The Father”
   Best Costume Design: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
   Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
   Best Visual Effects: “Tenet”

By my count, that’s “Nomadland” with four Oscars, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with three, and “Sound of Metal” and “Soul” with two each. A decent spreading of the trophy wealth, and an interesting capstone to one of the weirdest Oscar years ever.

The 2021 Oscars air live this Sunday, April 25th at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m PT on ABC. Read up on the nominees at oscar.go.com…and enjoy the show! Who do you think will win?