It’s been a hectic year, has it not? Between quarantines, elections, schooling young children from home, and the lingering anxieties and fears of a potential job lay-off, it’s been a challenge for me to get back to doing something that, at times, can feel as insignificant as Oscar prediction updates. Hell, we even lost our hero and icon, Alex Trebek in November. But at last we have come to the final month of this wretched year, and it’s time to get back up on the horse. Because as inconsequential as this little game may seem in the grander scheme of things, it is still something that brings us joy and excitement; something that builds conversation and community; something that fills the void of the existential dread that has left many feeling so hopeless. I’m sure you’d agree that we could all use a little more feel-good moments this year.
Since my last assessment of the Oscar race, I’ve been fortunate to have taken in a sizable number of screeners. Let’s start with the one the majority are predicting as the front-runner: Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.” The film is an accomplished and beautiful portrait of the post-recession American West. It is a wholly authentic experience and one that is deserving of any advanced praise you are hearing. Is it the one to beat though? Most Oscarologists will say yes. I think it goes without saying this will be the critics’ darling of the year. Will the momentum they provide it be enough to push it through to Oscar? It’s quite possible.
While I have “Nomandland” among my top-tier contenders for the big prize, I still have it seated behind Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Call me stubborn, but I can’t seem to move off this gutsy courtroom drama – one filled with political angst – as the one to beat. Not only does the movie have plenty of elements that make for a feel-good winner – consistent comedy, urgent subject-matter, poignant performances, and a rousing ending – but it also has the very important factor of timeliness behind it. Will this be the film that captures the zeitgeist of the moment?
Kornél Mundruczó’s “Pieces of a Woman” remains one of the movies that has stuck with me the most this year. The film is much more than just the headlining performances of Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn, who, make no mistake, are both Oscar-worthy. Aside from being an exceptionally gripping film, I feel people are not talking enough about Shia LaBeouf, who gives one of the best performances this year.
George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the stage play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” seems to have been widely accepted, but almost singularly for the invigorating performances of Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. Many have both winning Oscars. While I’m somewhat bullish on Davis (I have Kirby in front), Boseman feels like the lock-of-all-locks to win a posthumous Oscar. Were he to win, Boseman would join Peter Finch (“Network,” 1976) and Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight,” 2008) as the only thespians to win after their untimely deaths.
Make way for the biggest surprise this year: Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan in the titular role. While it isn’t your prototypical Oscar player, it doesn’t mean it isn’t the best film this year, which it might indeed be. To further help its chances, “Promising Young Woman” has a rabid fan base (something that typically leads to success on a preferential ballot).
Pixar’s “Soul” is a wistful and tender addition to their impressive library, but is it a contender for the big prize? I think it has an uphill battle in its own category, Animated Feature.
Then. Comes. “Mank.” What to make of “Mank?” I still haven’t been able to fully appreciate Netflix’s collaboration with director David Fincher. Upon first viewing it is obviously a handsomely made and remarkably performed film. I am hoping a second viewing will allow me to appreciate it as much as many of my peers have. While many of my cinephile friends adore the film, I wonder what the average Oscar voter experience will be like. If they missed the film’s magnificence, will they be willing to give it a second viewing to peel through the layers? With so many films to screen, it might be hard to get back to. The extended window of voting probably benefits “Mank” more than any other film this year.
Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” faces the opposite challenges thrown at “Mank.” Many Twitter highbrows and critics may have trashed the film for its sloppy storytelling, but beware, audiences seem to love it. Anyone that I speak to who is detached from the Oscar race seems to have really embraced the film. Think of this one potentially being 2020’s version of “The Blind Side” or “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Typical of Ryan Murphy, his Broadway adaptation of “The Prom” is a star-studded affair that focuses more on “zazz” and camp than it does on the talents of its large cast. Destined to become a cult classic, will “The Prom” show up anywhere besides the technical achievement it offers? Song, Sound, Costumes, Production Design, and Makeup/Hairstyling are all in play, but Actress/Supporting Actress might be a bit difficult to crack for the real stars of the film: newcomers Ariana Debose and Jo Ellen Pellman. Instead, we may get another cookie-cutter nomination for Meryl Streep, who gives a far better turn in Steven Soderbergh’s “Let Them All Talk” (for which I would love to see a strong campaign given for Dianne Wiest).
While I still need to catch up on Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” the reviews have been strong, especially surrounding the performances from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. I will hold off further analysis until I am able to see the film.
Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World” is a tenacious study of the Old West, finely tuned and beautifully photographed. The film will likely receive a slew of nominations, but I’m not sure it’s winning much. The same might be said about “The Midnight Sky,” George Clooney’s post-apocalyptic adaption of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book, ‘Good Morning, Midnight.’
Director Lee Isaac Chung’s deeply personal tale, “Minari,” might be this year’s ‘Little Engine That Could.’ While small in stature, the film seems universally beloved. It has one of the great cast ensembles of the year, highlighted by the performances of Steven Yeun and Yuh-jung Youn, who steals the show as the precocious and benevolent grandmother. Emile Mosseri’s score is magical, while Lachlan Milne’s cinematography is warm and lush. “Minari” is rich, intuitive and intimate and remains the best film I have seen this year. Will Academy members fall in love likewise?
To paraphrase Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan,” figuring out the eventual Best Picture winner this year is ‘like finding a needle in a stack of needles.’ We don’t have box office receipts to help guide us, nor do we have many audience scores to reflect back on. A film like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” seems to have come and gone in the blink of an eye, but has it? Or is that just the lack of an echo in the silo of our Twittersphere?
I still can’t shake the feeling that I am yet to see the eventual Best Picture winner. So, what is still to be seen that could shake things up?
On the surface, Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” looks like it has all the right ingredients. No trailer has wowed me more this year, and the film remains the one I anticipate seeing the most. Daniel Kaluuya looks absolutely remarkable as Black Panther icon Fred Hampton, and given the strengths of his past performances, I’m fine going with him as the front-runner for Supporting Actor, sight unseen.
The other two films worth mentioning as potential spoilers are Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs Billie Holiday” and Kevin Macdonald’s “The Mauritanian.”
There you have it, and that’s how I see it. The critics will now weigh in, with NY, LA, and a few other groups announcing their winners within a matter of days.
Here are my current predictions for the Best Picture race:
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
- Nomadland (Searchlight; TIFF, Venice)
- Minari (A24)
- Mank (Netflix)
- Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros.)
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
- One Night in Miami… (Amazon)
- The Father (Sony Pictures Classics)
- News of the World (Universal)
- Promising Young Woman (Focus Features)
On the Radar:
11. The Midnight Sky (Netflix)
12. The Prom (Netflix)
13. Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)
14. Soul (Pixar)
15. The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Paramount Pictures)
16. Pieces of a Woman (Netflix)
17. Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix)