What an incredible year for film 2021 was. When I put together my list of the top 20 films of the year, I ended up cutting ten to fifteen movies that would have made my list in other years. The depth is certainly there, and with films like Belfast, The Power of the Dog, and Dune (among others), there are plenty of films we will be talking about on our best of the decade list in about eight years. Aside from the great films the year bestowed on us, 2021 delivered my sixth venture to Telluride and my first visit to the Middleburg Film Festival. I became a member of the Hollywood Critics Association and attended the Critics’ Choice Awards. To say I am fond of the 2021 film year is a bit of an understatement.
As the 94th Academy Awards ceremony puts a bow on the season, I am grateful for all the hard work that goes into this little world of ours. From the talent that puts movies on the big screen, to festival showrunners, to PR teams that allow early access to films, to the staff at Awards Daily, and, most importantly, for all of you who take the time to read what we write or listen to our podcasts: thank you.
With that, let’s get down to my final predictions in each of the 23 categories. I am going to break these into tiers, starting with the awards I feel are easiest to predict, leading up to the hardest races to call. This is a method often used by fantasy baseball analysts to help gauge position scarcity. While you don’t need to know much about that for Oscar purposes, I thought it might be fun to break down the race in three chapters. With each prediction, I will tell you what I think will win (final prediction), what could win (upset alert!), and what should win (the film/person I feel was the best in their category, regardless if nominated or not). I will also throw in a stat or a fun fact with each prediction.
Hand Them the Oscar Now (Easy tier – aka: don’t overthink it)
Best Visual Effects
Will Win: Dune
Could Win: Spider-Man: No Way Home
Should Win: Dune
Stats/Analysis: Best Picture nominees rarely lose to non-Picture nominees in this field. Since 1970, the only non-Picture nominee to win Effects over a Best Picture nominee is Ex Machina (2015). Dune is the only Effects nominee with a corresponding nod in Picture. The Visual Effects category has my personal favorite Oscar stat: 18 out of the last 21 Effects winners were also nominated for Art Direction/Production Design. The three exceptions were Spider-Man 2 (2004), Ex Machina (2015), and The Jungle Book (2016). Dune is the only Effects nominee to show up in Production Design. And in case you are still unsure: 13 of the last 16 BAFTA winners have matched Oscar. You guessed it, Dune won BAFTA. Effects should be the easiest call of the night.
Will Win: Dune
Could Win: West Side Story
Should Win: Dune
Stats/Analysis: Before Sound Editing and Sound Mixing merged into an inclusive Sound category, the winner of BAFTA Sound went on to win Sound Editing 62% of the time and Sound Mixing 85% of the time. That’s a combined 73% accuracy rate. Dune won BAFTA Sound this year. The Motion Picture Sound Editors’ top honor is Best Sound Effects and Foley in a feature film. Winners in that category have gone on to win the Oscar 10 times in the last 18 years. Dune won that prize this year. The CAS winner has gone on to win the Oscar 15 times in the last 28 years, including nine of the last 15. Dune won that honor this year. Since 2000, when a music-based film goes up against a non-musical in Sound, the non-musical film wins just over half of the time (six for eleven). West Side Story feels like a potential spoiler, but all signs point to Dune, whose dynamic soundscape remarkably blends music, dialogue, and big action sequences cohesively.
Will Win: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
Could Win: Kenneth Branagh (Belfast)
Should Win: Denis Villeneuve (Dune, not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: Jane Campion has dominated her field in all the important precursors. Campion won Best Director prizes at Critics’ Choice (CCA), BAFTA, Globes, and most importantly, the Directors Guild (DGA). I’m honestly not sure there is any evidence of who the second most likely to win is. I think it would have been Villeneuve, had he been nominated. But that just goes to show how much of a runaway this category is. DGA is the most accurate precursor, and has only differed from the eventual Oscar winner 9 times in 74 years (88% efficient). After becoming the first female to be nominated for Director twice, Campion will become the third female to win. If Campion were to lose here, there is a good chance The Power of the Dog makes Oscar history… and not in a good way. No film with 12+ Oscar nominations has ever walked away with zero wins. The record for most nominations without winning a single Oscar is 11 (The Color Purple and The Turning Point).
Best Costume Design
Will Win: Cruella
Could Win: Dune
Should Win: Cruella
Stats/Analysis: In the past seven years the Oscar for Costume Design has gone to a Best Picture nominee five times. That might mean that Dune, Nightmare Alley, or West Side Story could steal this category from Jenny Beaven’s incredible work on Cruella. Beaven’s costumes, however, have earned top honors from the Costume Designer’s Guild, CCA, BAFTA, and a variety of critics groups. Since the CCA began handing out prizes in this category in 2009, their winner has lined up with Oscar ten out of twelve times. BAFTA’s winner has done even better in that same period, going eleven for twelve.
Best Actor in a Lead Role
Will Win: Will Smith (King Richard)
Could Win: Andrew Garfield (tick, tick… Boom!)
Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix (C’mon C’mon, not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: Actors who high-five bearded film critics upon winning the CCA have never lost the Oscar in this category. Ok, ok… I don’t know if that’s true, but the time is now for Will Smith. Having had the pleasure of sitting at his table at the CCA, it is impossible not to root for the guy to win. Smith was swarmed by fans all night and was graciously taking in the moment, pausing to take pictures and be silly with anyone who approached him. It felt like genuine appreciation to me. That authenticity pours through in his performance as Richard Williams, father to tennis legends Venus and Serena. Smith has swept the awards season, picking up the Lead Actor award at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), BAFTA, CCA, and Globes. Twenty out of 27 SAG winners for Lead Actor have won again at Oscar, including 14 of the last 16 (Denzel Washington lost in 2016 to Casey Affleck; Chadwick Boseman lost to Anthony Hopkins in 2020). Ten of the last 11 BAFTA winners for Lead Actor went on to win the same category at Oscar (Chiwetel Ejiofor lost to Matthew McConaughey in 2013). Oscar is next.
Best International Feature
Will Win: Drive My Car (Japan)
Could Win: The Worst Person in the World (Norway)
Should Win: The Worst Person in the World (Norway)
Stats/Analysis: I have an unpopular belief that if you are the only Animated, International, or Documentary film nominated for Best Picture, then you should either be removed from the smaller category or automatically given the award without voting. My logic: you are already deemed the best of your genre if you are the only of your genre to make the top ten films of the year list. How much sense would it make to say Drive My Car is better than Worst Person because it made the top ten films of the year, but is NOT the better International Film? You get what I’m saying? Just give it the Oscar and call it a day. Drive My Car’s Best Picture nomination broke the longest consecutive streak for a non-English language film to be nominated for Best Picture (2018-current – Roma, Parasite, Minari, and Drive My Car). It also became the first Japanese film to crack the Best Picture lineup.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Will Win: Troy Kotsur (CODA)
Could Win: Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Should Win: Ciaran Hinds (Belfast)
Stats/Analysis: Kotsur took all the major precursors outside of Globe, where he yielded to what is perhaps his biggest competition, Smit-McPhee. Interestingly enough, SAG and Globe have been the biggest harbingers of things to come in this category in recent years. Out of the last 14 SAG winners for Supporting Actor, 12 went on to win the Oscar (86%). Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) and Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) were the two Globe winners that lost Oscar, with Elba not even nominated. The same amount of Globe winners in that span repeated at Oscar. Sylvester Stallone (Creed) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals) lost the Oscar after winning Globe. While that might make things feel like we are in a dead heat, Kotsur is the heart and soul of the film taking the awards circuit by storm. I would not bet against him.
This could go either way (Challenging tier: clear front-runner present, but sneaky underdog exists)
Best Production Design
Will Win: Dune
Could Win: Nightmare Alley
Should Win: The French Dispatch (not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: Dune won BAFTA, the Set Decorators Guild (SDSA), and CCA before splitting the Art Directors Guild with Nightmare Alley, it’s fiercest competition. The stats are not pretty for BAFTA, matching with Oscar only seven times in 15 years. SDSA only provides one year of data so far. The CCA is, not surprisingly, the most accurate precursor for this category in recent years, having matched winners for eight consecutive years. What gives me pause is the track record Guillermo del Toro films have in this category. Both Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water won the Oscar for Production Design. Might Nightmare Alley pull off the same feat? Good opportunity for the Academy to spread the love in what will likely be Nightmare’s only chance to walk away with a statue.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Will Win: Ariana DeBose (West Side Story)
Could Win: Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)
Should Win: Caitriona Balfe (Belfast, not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: Oscar has matched up with SAG 11 of the last 12 years (Regina King was not nominated – 2018). Ariana DeBose won the four biggest precursors, so why does it feel like she’s not a lock? Aunjanue Ellis, that’s why. Ellis is terrific in King Richard, playing the mother of Venus and Serena Williams with fierce determination. At the Academy Awards luncheon, Ellis received the most rapturous applause. And to spend just a few minutes with her at the CCA I can understand why. She’s full of heart and energy. Impossible not to love and extremely hard to root against. An upset here feels possible, even if not likely.
Best Documentary Feature
Will Win: Summer of Soul
Could Win: Flee
Should Win: The Rescue (not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: The biggest test for Summer of Soul – a very American film – was with BAFTA, where it went up against Flee – a very international film. I wanted to keep the record-breaking Flee in the lead spot until after the Brits weighed in because, frankly, I didn’t think Flee would lose there. When BAFTA went with Summer of Soul, I followed suit. While Summer of Soul is the clear front-runner – it won PGA, ACE, BAFTA, CCA, NBR, and the majority of critics’ prizes – it seems odd to think Flee will go home empty-handed after setting a record with nominations in Documentary, Animated, and International Feature categories. There are arguments to be made that Animated is its best chance to win, but up against Disney’s Encanto and Netflix’s Mitchells vs the Machines, I think Flee makes its best stand here instead.
Best Animated Feature
Will Win: Encanto
Could Win: Mitchells vs the Machines
Should Win: Raya and the Last Dragon
Stats/Analysis: No film has won the Animated Feature Oscar without a BAFTA nomination. That would only eliminate my favorite of the group, Raya and the Last Dragon. Disney/Pixar has won this category 13 times in 20 years. While that might make Encanto a slight favorite, there is an ACE Eddies stat that might seem more powerful. Since the ACE Eddies begun awarding Animated Feature films (2009), their winner has matched with Oscar’s Animated Feature winner 11 out of 12 times (The Lego Movie won ACE when the Oscar went to Big Hero Six). This race feels like a coin toss, and when that’s the case, bet on Disney.
Will Win: Greig Fraser (Dune)
Could Win: Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog)
Should Win: Haris Zambarloukos (Belfast, not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: Films winning the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award have gone on to win the Oscar 16 times in their 32-year history, including 10 times in the last 18 years. Not a lot to gain from that, but it doesn’t hurt Greig Fraser’s chances of winning, does it? Neither does his BAFTA win, where eight of the last nine BAFTA winners matched with Oscar (Nomadland lost to Mank in 2020). Another odd stat that is worth connecting: seven of the last 12 Visual Effects winners also won Cinematography, and as you can see from above, Dune winning Visual Effects feels like the lockiest lock of the night. The spoiler here would be Ari Wegner’s incredible work on The Power of the Dog. Wegner is the second woman in history to receive an Oscar nomination for Cinematography – Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) was the first to be nominated in 2017.
Oscar Pool Winners (Expert tier: this is where you will separate yourself from your rival Oscar predictors. Many of these categories have more than two possible outcomes)
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will Win: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Could Win: Dune or Cruella
Should Win: Dune
Stats/Analysis: This category has only been in existence since the 54th Academy Awards (presented for the year 1981), when Rick Baker’s amazing craftsmanship on An American Werewolf in London beat out Stan Winston’s work on Heartbeeps to claim the first statuette for Makeup (another interesting fact to note is that AMPAS pulled the category off the table two years later in 1983, only to reinstate it the following year). Out of the 39 times this award has been handed out, there are 19 years that the Makeup field included a Best Picture nominee. Out of those 19 contests, a non-Best Picture nominee prevailed over a Best Picture nominee eight times. For Tammy Faye to win, it would be the ninth film to do so (Dune is the Picture nom). The Makeup and Hairstyling (MUAH) Guild Award for Best Period and/or Character Make-Up in a Feature-Length Motion Picture has gone on to win the Oscar seven of the last eight years (Bombshell won the Oscar after Joker won the MUAH.) Cruella won MUAH in that category this year. There’s an argument for both Dune and Cruella, but what is the argument for Tammy Faye? Seven of the last 10 BAFTA winners went on to repeat at Oscar, while five of the last six CCA winners matched with Oscar. Tammy Faye won both BAFTA and CCA this year. As you can see, the case can be made for any of the three to win.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: Sian Heder (CODA)
Could Win: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) or Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter)
Should Win: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
Stats/Analysis: In the last 16 years, the Best Picture winning film also won Screenplay 13 times (81%). It would be a good idea to match up one of Original or Adapted Screenplay with what you predict to win Best Picture. Screenplay prizes have been spread out pretty well on the precursor trail – CODA won WGA and BAFTA, The Power of the Dog won CCA, and The Lost Daughter won the USC Scripter. Those four prizes are the biggest bellwethers for what will win at Oscar. Nine of the last 13 (69%) USC Scripter winners have gone on to win the Academy Award. The WGA has a reliable track record of predicting the Oscar winners, despite the abundant amount of exclusions. WGA Adapted Screenplay winners matched with Oscar in 19 of the last 27 years (70%). CCA has the lowest crossover in the past ten years, lining up with Oscar only three times in the past decade. BAFTA is only slightly better in that time, matching five times in ten years.
Best Live Action Short Film
Will Win: The Long Goodbye
Could Win: It’s the shorts – any of the other four
Should Win: Censor of Dreams (not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: Here’s what you need to know: I went 6-for-15 (40%) calling the short category nominations. I was a field-leading 78% outside of the shorts. So: damn these categories! You are better off throwing a dart most of the time, but if there is one short category this year that feels slightly easy to call, it’s this one. Riz Ahmed wrote and starred in The Long Goodbye, the most timely and powerful of the bunch. The last several moments are especially moving. It’s the one everyone talks about, and I expect Academy members to have a similar reaction.
Best Original Score
Will Win: Hans Zimmer (Dune)
Could Win: Germaine Franco (Encanto) or Jonny Greenwood (The Power of the Dog)
Should Win: Jonny Greenwood (The Power of the Dog)
Stats/Analysis: It might surprise you, but 18 of the last 21 winners for Original Score also had nominations for Best Picture (Frida, 2002; The Hateful Eight, 2015; and Soul, 2020, were the exceptions). That bodes well for Dune, The Power of the Dog, and Don’t Look Up. But… (continued under Original Song)
Best Original Song
Will Win: Lin-Manuel Miranda “Dos Oruguitas” (Encanto)
Could Win: Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell “No Time to Die” (No Time to Die) or Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Dixson “Be Alive” (King Richard)
Should Win: Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell “No Time to Die” (No Time to Die)
Stats/Analysis: (continued from Original Score) …Encanto is the tenth animated film since 1989 to have been nominated for BOTH Original Song and Original Score. Of the previous nine, seven walked away with at least one of the two Oscars, and five of those seven won both categories. It makes sense, then, to pick Encanto to win at least one of the two awards. This is the category that could make Lin-Manuel Miranda an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). What gives me pause? The last few years have been dominated by pop stars and rock legends, including H.E.R., Elton John, Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, Common and John Legend, and Adele, two of which won for Bond songs. Will No Time to Die make it three? It’s one of the toughest calls of the night, and Beyonce isn’t making it any easier.
Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: Kenneth Branagh (Belfast)
Could Win: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)
Should Win: Kenneth Branagh (Belfast)
Stats/Analysis: Another race too close to call. Belfast won CCA and Globes; Licorice Pizza won BAFTA; and Don’t Look Up won WGA. Considering Belfast was ineligible, the WGA going to Don’t Look Up really only hurts Licorice Pizza. Had Belfast been eligible, might it have walked away with WGA, making this a much easier race to predict? We will never know. Here’s why I landed on my favorite movie of the year winning Screenplay: Belfast and The Power of the Dog were the two films that had the best showing on the precursor trail (in terms of nominations). Belfast’s only big miss was Director at BAFTA. The Power of the Dog just missed SAG Ensemble. I cannot see a movie as loved across the board as Belfast going home empty-handed. Or maybe I just don’t want to see it. This is the best shot the Academy has to recognize Kenneth Branagh’s incredible story. I also don’t believe Belfast is out of the Best Picture race. See the stat mentioned in Adapted Screenplay about the correlation Best Picture winners have with writing Oscars.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Will Win: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye)
Could Win: Any of the other four
Should Win: Kristen Stewart (Spencer) or Chastain
Stats/Analysis: What a conundrum this category has been! Kristen Stewart gives the performance of the year, and can’t get a nomination from SAG or BAFTA, nor can she win at the CCA despite winning more acting awards from critics groups than any other actress this year. On the flip side, Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers) comes into the race without a single major precursor nod (CCA, Globes, SAG, and BAFTA) and yet seems to be a major threat to win if you ask those who are covering the race by speaking to Academy members. Until Frances McDormand (Nomadland) last year, the last actress to win the Oscar without winning either Globe or SAG was Geraldine Page, who won the Lead Actress Oscar in 1985 for The Trip to Bountiful. SAG wasn’t around yet, and the Globe went to Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple) for Drama and Kathleen Turner (Prizzi’s Honor) for Comedy. Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos) won the Globe this year (along with Rachel Zegler, not nominated) while Chastain took SAG. Cruz, Kidman, and Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) have already won acting Oscars, while Chastain and Stewart have not. Stewart represents Spencer’s only nomination, while The Eyes of Tammy Faye has a good shot of winning in another category on Oscar night (Hair and Makeup). In a super tight race, I am going with Chastain, who seems the most overdue of the group.
Best Animated Short Film
Will Win: Bestia
Could Win: It’s the shorts – any of the other four
Should Win: Robin Robin
Stats/Analysis: Bestia is the darkest and most disturbing of the short films. If you didn’t see it, let’s just say the main character is very close to her dog. Like its Live Action Short counterpart, Bestia is the one everyone talks about. Whether the reasoning is good or not, it is certainly the most memorable of the group.
Best Documentary Short Subject Film
Will Win: The Queen of Basketball
Could Win: It’s the shorts – any of the other four
Should Win: Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis (not nominated)
Stats/Analysis: Boy did the Academy miss out by snubbing Netflix’s Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis. I hope a producer somewhere sees what I see in the powerful story. A feature film version is needed. Shaquille O’Neal and Steph Curry – two NBA legends – have teamed up to executive produce The Queen of Basketball. It’s an intriguing story with a lovable central figure – Lusia Harris – the first (and only) woman to be officially drafted in the NBA. Harris recently passed away on January 18th, which adds a layer of sentimentality for those who follow along or learn more about her.
Best Film Editing
Will Win: Joe Walker (Dune)
Could Win: Pamela Martin (King Richard) or Myron Kerstein, Andrew Weisblum (tick, tick… Boom!)
Should Win: Myron Kerstein, Andrew Weisblum (tick, tick… Boom!)
Stats/Analysis: King Richard and tick, tick… Boom! recently won the biggest prize from ACE (Editors Guild). One of the two ACE winners has gone on to win the Oscar 22 times in the last 30 years, so those two films are, naturally, the frontrunners here. The BAFTA winner usually has a decent track record of repeating at Oscar, but this year’s winner (No Time to Die) somehow missed being nominated for the Oscar (as did the CCA winner, West Side Story). Sports movies do pretty well in the Film Editing category. Previous winners include The Pride of the Yankees (1942), National Velvet (1945), Body and Soul (1947), Champion (1949), Grand Prix (1966), Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Ford v Ferrari (2019). However, one of the more interesting Oscar stats since the inception of the preferential ballot is the connection between Sound and Film Editing. In that time (since 2009), the Film Editing winner has been nominated in Sound all twelve years. Over that stretch, the Editing winner also won at least one Sound category nine times. Of those nine times, it won both Sound categories five times (last year was the only time in that span that Sound was one category). You have to go back to The Departed (2006) to find the last Editing winner to not be nominated in either Sound category. This year, only The Power of the Dog and Dune overlap.
Will Win: CODA
Could Win: The Power of the Dog or Belfast
Should Win: Belfast
Stats/Analysis: I’m pretty sure I’ve never been this uncertain about what will win Best Picture. Usually by this time, we have it figured out, or at the very least we have it down to two films. Let’s breakdown the three frontrunners.
CODA’s surge began with it winning SAG. It really was a great choice for Ensemble, even if it wouldn’t have been my own. Winning Screenplay at BAFTA, however, was a little more surprising – especially over the presumed frontrunner, and eventual BAFTA Best Picture winner, The Power of the Dog. By then we were pretty certain it was winning WGA, where it’s three biggest competitors, The Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter, and Drive My Car, were all ineligible. Many of us had our sights on the Producers Guild (PGA). The PGA has matched the Oscar for Best Picture in 22 of its 32 years, and 11 out of the last 14. The PGA uses a preferential balloting system that’s similar to that used by AMPAS. In the preferential ballot era, no precursor has had more influence on the Best Picture race than the PGA, where its winners have gone on to win the Oscar nine out of twelve years. When CODA won PGA, it became the clear frontrunner to win Picture at Oscar. Only two films have won the top prize from both PGA and SAG and not gone on to win Best Picture – Apollo 13 (1995) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006). CODA will be the third if it loses. Belfast and The Power of the Dog received Screenplay nominations from the Golden Globes, while CODA did not. An interesting stat on that: in 45 of the past 51 years of Globes and Oscar history the eventual Best Picture winner received a Globe nomination for Screenplay. The last Best Picture winner without a Globe Screenplay nom was Million Dollar Baby (2004). Eleven of the last thirteen Picture winners stopped at Telluride. While Belfast and The Power of the Dog did, CODA did not. It would join The Hurt Locker and Green Book if it were to win.
The Power of the Dog won DGA, the next most reliable precursor after PGA. The DGA winner’s movie has won Best Picture 56 times in 74 years (76%). If The Power of the Dog were to win, it would be the fifth to do so without a SAG Ensemble nom, joining Braveheart (1995), The Shape of Water (2017), Green Book (2018), and Nomadland (2020). While that used to be unheard of, it would be the fourth time it has occurred in the last five years. What is even more odd about it missing SAG is The Power of the Dog is the first film to earn four acting nominations at the Oscars without the Ensemble nomination. SAG merged with AFTRA in 2012, and since then, the Ensemble stat seems to matter less and less.
With Belfast’s Picture and Original Screenplay nominations, Kenneth Branagh has now been nominated in seven different categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, and Live Action Short. For Belfast to win, it would need to be the third film in 25 years to do so without winning at least one of PGA, DGA, or SAG, joining Braveheart and Moonlight (2016). Until Birdman (2014), Ordinary People (1980) was the last film to win Best Picture without an Editing nom. Belfast would be just the 11th film to win Picture without an Editing nom.
So there it is. The 13th annual Oscar predictions manifesto is completed (and in just under 5000 words!) Thank you all for engaging with me on here and on social media, and for reading my work this year.
What are your thoughts on the race? Which of my predictions do you agree/disagree with?