In the past, Oscar voters had the holidays to gather around the hearth with their family, watch movies and celebrate while on vacation from the daily grind. Now, it’s this weekend in March with ballots due in just four days. Some will do it quickly to get it over with. Some will do it carefully, new members usually, and watch everything to make sure they have made all of the right choices. And some will procrastinate until the last minute and then jot them down as quickly as possible.
A lot of the films that populate the Oscar race in a given year, at least lately, have tended to be depressing downers. Given the year we just lived through, the trauma of lockdown life, and the hopelessness many feel may make the darker, sadder movies a tougher sell. I’ve spoken to a few people who are dreading watching any of them. “I just can’t do it,” they say.
In general, we know that voters (and most everyone else) tend to be drawn to movies with big stars in them. They will watch movies with strong word of mouth, and probably they’ll watch anything that has already won a major award. Puritans who are offended by hard truths should stop reading here: but in general, yes, Virginia, humans overall and men especially, will always leap for the hot and sexy movies if they are offered – which nowadays, are few and far between. Put a naked actress in a movie and male voters will watch it. Put a naked actress having sex in a movie and male voters will watch it. So let’s get to it.
Nomadland, a film written, directed and EDITED by Chloe Zhao. If she pulls this off, Zhao would become the first woman of color to win Best Director and Best Picture. She moved to the US from China in 2000, attended NYU film school, and was a critics darling with her last film, The Rider. Produced by and starring Frances McDormand, it is most definitely a film that populists on the left might claim as their own, in Bernieland, but it could just as easily be claimed by the populists on the right as Trumpland. The film itself is not decidedly apolitical. It is dreamy and poetic, subtle and sad. It is really about its fictitious protagonist Fern, and her own reasons to be on the road. It is a character study more so that a plot-driven film. Wins: Golden Globe for Best Picture and Best Director.
Going for it: Most seem to like it or love it. History will be made with the win.
Going against it: It only features two actor actors. Its plot is less structured than most.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – It’s funny that the film that was once the frontrunner has become the underdog but here we are. It’s the underdog because it did not win the Golden Globe as some expected. It might win the Critics Choice on Sunday and it might win the SAG ensemble award, but it won’t win the DGA, which would mean another Best Picture/Best Director split would be coming up. This is the one movie most voters are likely to have watched already because it looks and feels like a big studio movie, with big stars and big set pieces. It also goes right to the heart of the boomer aesthetic, and thus to the heart of the majority of Oscar voters. It is about the radicals in the 1960s who protested the Vietnam war but were torn about the best method to push for political change: violent or peaceful protests. Big wins: Golden Globe Screenplay
Going for it: More people seem to like it than just about any other movie in the race.
Going against it: It was made by a white man and has a mostly white cast.
Minari is a stealthy, fly-under-the-radar film that could pick up some last minute steam on word of mouth alone. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, drawing from his own life as the young son in a Korean immigrant family who relocated in Arkansas in the 1980s to raise crops on a farm. It is surprisingly non-partisan, given that it absolutely could play that card – in Arkansas of all places – but it doesn’t. It presents an altogether kinder gentler remembrance of the way America was 3 decades ago, when an enclave of rural Americans opened the hearts and arms open to a family that was strikingly different from native farmers. The movie is about their struggles to make the farm work, make their family work, and secure for themselves a new home. It is less about good America vs. bad America and what a relief that is. If more people out there in the country knew that, they’d be more likely to watch this movie. But half the country is so used to be scolded and lectured and hated by Hollywood they will assume this film is your typical Hollywood Oscar movie but it really isn’t. That makes it a threat as it truly has zero baggage heading into the race. Big wins: Golden Globe for Foreign Language film.
Going for it: Stealthy film with passion that no one hates can do very well on a preferential ballot, also it has a coveted SAG ensemble nomination. If it wins there it really does threaten to overtake the top prize.
Going against it: Not much that I can think of.
Promising Young Woman – Visually and narratively daring, this is a part revenge fantasy and part suicide mission but it is deeply moving and unforgettable. It is a film that expresses much of what the Me Too movement was about but it does so without being overly preachy and never sacrificing entertainment value in order to foist a message upon its viewers. It had a strong showing at the Golden Globes, nominated in all of the major categories. Writer/Director Emerald Fennell is a force to be reckoned with.
Going for it: Lots of people love it.
Going against it: The frontrunner is already going to make history.
Mank – A reimagining of the set of circumstances that eventually led to the writing of Citizen Kane. Here, the takedown of William Randolph Hearst is combined with the story of MGM getting involved in the governor’s race in California where the studios used propaganda to put one politician in power. Mank attempts to stop the propaganda train from fixing the election against the socialist but is unable to. He sees the truth in Hearst’s hypocrisy of who he once was and what he became. The film Citizen Kane is about a betrayal of ethics and, of course, about how money can buy everything except love. Mank was the nomination leader at the Golden Globes and remains the guild leader at the moment.
Going for it: It’s the best film of the year.
Going against it: Not everyone gets it or even understands it.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Driven by a bravura performance by Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is gracefully adapted from a play written by August Wilson to express a cultural collision among a cross-section of tumultuous lives of Black Americans in the 1920s. Says George C. Wolfe about the script, “In the South, Black people could create, and nurture, and support themselves and their own communities. When they came North, if they wanted to achieve anything, they had to come into contact with the White power structure. And by virtue of coming into contact with the White power structure, their power was in essence nullified.” Produced by Denzel Washington, and also starring Viola Davis, Ma Rainey has a SAG ensemble nomination and has won the Globe for Best Actor.
Going for it: Lots of actors, along with a Best Actor frontrunner. If it wins SAG ensemble it becomes a real threat to upset in Best Picture.
Going against it: Whether it can win any major awards heading in.
News of the World – The only big studio movie in the race (Universal) and one that was perhaps hurt most by COVID as it needed to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated. But it is among only a handful of films that are uplifting because here, a lonely man finds his place as an unlikely father figure. It is about remaking a family after so many families were torn apart by the Civil War. Above all, it’s about how important it is to get stories right and to tell them responsibly. But it’s also about the Wild, Wild West and director Paul Greengrass’ expert hand at bringing a modern story to life with traditional western tropes. With a standout turn by Helena Zengel, News of the World has the ear of the actors, which always matters for Best Picture.
Going for it: Accessible film almost anyone can understand and be moved by.
Going against it: It’s a tough sell this year.
One Night in Miami – With a Best Director nomination from the Globes, a WGA nomination, and a SAG ensemble nomination, Miami is coming on strong with enthusiastic word of mouth. An ensemble work written by Kemp Powers about a meeting of the minds during a pivotal moment in American history when four icons of the black community discuss their roles in a white driven country. Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. A strong supporting turn by Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr in Hamilton).
Going for it: Timely film directed by a woman of color.
Going against it: Nothing
Judas and the Black Messiah – Directed with breathtaking brio by Shaka King, with a great co-lead performance by Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panthers. The film revolves around Bill O’Neal, the real-life “Judas” who betrayed him. It is a slow burn of a movie made taut by the tensions at the heart of the Civil Rights movement right about the same time as the Chicago 7. It is not surprising that the film is resonating this year. Daniel Kaluuya won the Globe for Supporting Actor.
Going for it: Timely film with a potential acting win.
Going against it: It’s competing with Chicago 7.
The Father – Florian Zeller’s play-to-film as a coming of old age story wherein the protagonist (Anthony Hopkins) is navigating the rapid onset of crippling dementia – with so many different faces coming in and out of his life, he loses touch of time and place. We see it all through his point of view. The Father is a brilliantly acted ensemble, with Olivia Colman in a strong supporting turn.
Going for it: It’s the kind of movie that veteran Oscar voters will be able to relate to.
Going against it: A tough sell this year.
Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee’s film about a group of Vietnam soldiers who reunite decades after the war determined to return to scene where one of their brothers was killed. Their dual mission is to search for the remains of their lost squadron leader and (not incidentally) to retrieve a fortune in gold that was left behind. In the process, the story untangles the knots of complex relationships among the veterans, tracing that paths that led each of them in unexpected directions before their lives are braided back together again. Blending the comradery of Saving Private Ryan with the betrayals of Treasure of the Sierra Madre into a tale of adventure laced with elegiac ruminations of self-discovery might seem like an unlikely clash of themes, but rest assured that a master of tonal shifts like Spike Lee knows how to make it work.
Going for it – Spike is a legend.
Going against it – It has a great last hour but the first hour is rough.
Sound of Metal – Darius Marder’s film about a heavy-metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing. It’s a powerful character study of a man who thinks his life is already set in a specific pattern and then must come to grips as everything he valued devolves into something else. It is a film broadly liked and is has strong word of mouth. Riz Ahmed is a contender for the Best Actor prize, and Paul Raci is a dynamic dark horse for Supporting.
Going for it: Serious film with a strong central performance
Going against it: Overall, a tough sell this year
Obviously, there are other films that are potentially in this year’s race, like The Mauritanian, Another Round, Soul, and Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always. In the end it’s going to come down to roughly 300 or so people picking one of these films as their number one for it to find a place in the Oscar lineup.